Every once in a while we get asked whether oil leaks must be repaired immediately or whether it is ok to wait for a while before fixing them. Sometimes this question is driven by the high cost of the repair when weighed against the size of a leak, such as when a leak is coming from a leaky oil pan gasket. Other times, a leak may not seem like a big enough nuisance to fix immediately.
Regardless of the reason, the answer to whether you can wait to repair an oil leak is that it simply depends. While there are a number of factors that come into play, the most important considerations are what component is leaking, how large the leak is, and how willing you are to monitor the leak (and clean up any associated mess in your garage).
When it comes to what component is leaking, this is an extremely important consideration. If the source of a leak is a critical component such as your head gasket, failure to fix this promptly can potentially lead to catastrophic engine damage resulting from overheating depending on the nature of the leak. Conversely, if something like your valve cover gasket is leaking, there is lower likelihood of any catastrophic failure and this is more likely to just be a nuisance. Understanding which component the leak originates from can help determine whether an immediate fix is required depending on whether waiting could threaten other components in your vehicle. It’s always cheaper to replace only one faulty part rather than many faulty parts resulting from a failure cascade due to a neglected repair.
The next consideration is how large the leak is. If the leak is relatively small, meaning just a few drops here or there, the urgency is usually relatively low if the leak is not causing other problems. This is because it won’t likely impact your oil level significantly in the short term, although you would still be wise to check periodically. On the other hand, if you have a large leak, this can quickly deplete your oil level. An engine with an oil level that is too low is likely to sustain damage to internal components, which can significantly increase the cost of the repair. A good rule of thumb is that the bigger the leak, the more urgent it is to fix.
The final consideration is how willing you are to monitor the leak. A larger leak will require more diligence than a smaller leak, however even a small leak can deplete your oil level if left unaddressed for long enough without adding any oil to replace oil that has been lost. Synthetic oil tends to find leaks faster than conventional oil, so this is doubly important if your vehicle uses synthetic oil. If you are diligent about checking your oil level frequently in the presence of a known leak, you can likely go a little longer before you need to fix it so long as you keep your oil level topped off. If you know yourself to be less attentive or think you may possibly forget, it makes more sense to repair the leak sooner to limit your risk.
In the end, when to repair an oil leak is often a matter of personal preference based on the data at hand. For low risk components, smaller leaks, and attentive vehicle owners, there is usually less urgency to repair an oil leak immediately. On the contrary, for high risk components, larger leaks, or inattentive vehicle owners, we recommend getting your oil leaks fixed immediately as they occur.