Imagine this: You’re trying to start your car on a chilly morning. But instead of the gentle hum of the engine, you’re greeted by a cacophony of ticking noises.
Fortunately, you’re not alone, and in most cases, it’s nothing to worry about.
Let’s discover why your car ticks when cold weather kicks in, when you should worry about it, and more.
This Article Contains:
- 4 Pressing Reasons Your Car Ticks When Cold
- How to Diagnose the Cause of a Car Ticking When it’s Cold
- How to Prevent a Car Ticking When it’s Cold
- How Much Does it Cost to Fix a Ticking Car?
Let’s get started.
4 Pressing Reasons Your Car Ticks When Cold
When you hear a ticking noise from your car on a cold start, it could be one of the following reasons:
1. Valve Train Noise
The valve train comprises numerous components like valves, hydraulic lifters, and pushrods working to control the flow of air and fuel to the cylinders. When the engine is cold, conventional oil takes longer to circulate, so the valve train may tick before the oil can properly lubricate these parts.
Generally, valve train noise sounds like a sharp clicking or tapping noise. If you notice this sound coming from the valve cover on top of the engine, coupled with blue smoke from the exhaust, it’s likely a valve train issue.
Similarly, a hydraulic lifter can create a lifter tick. Each lifter uses oil pressure to fill a chamber, which pushes the valve lifter up to fill the clearance between the camshaft and the valves. Thicker oil makes it difficult for the valve lifter to pump properly, creating the lifter tick.
Even vehicles with solid lifters (mechanical lifters) can tick during cold starts. However, solid lifters have a fixed clearance, which tends to minimize lifter noise.
Any valve train noise (including lifter noise) should disappear once the engine warms up and the oil thins out.
2. Piston Slap or Combustion Chamber Deposit Interference (CCDI)
A piston slap is described as a dull tapping coming from the engine block. It occurs when the piston has too much clearance in the cylinder bore, causing it to “slap” the sides of the cylinder. It happens more frequently when the engine is cold because conventional oil thickens in the cold and needs more time to lubricate the piston rings and each cylinder wall.
Some piston slap when the engine’s cold is alright, but if the noise continues, it can lead to severe engine damage.
Unfortunately, the only way to fix this is to disassemble the engine and inspect the cylinder wall. Otherwise, carbon buildup on the crown of a piston and cylinder head can contribute to the ticking sound. But as the engine warms up, the gap between the piston crown and the chamber roof increases, removing the contact that creates the ticking.
This is also known as combustion chamber deposit interference (CCDI). There are special fuel additives that can help remove CCDI. Alternatively, chemical cleanings can help flush out these deposits.
3. Low Oil Level or Low Viscosity
If you hear a ticking noise, check the oil level immediately.
If the engine isn’t receiving the lubrication it needs, it can cause parts to knock each other and create a ticking noise.
However, if the ticking noise only occurs during a cold startup, it’s likely a matter of degraded or thicker oil needing time to circulate. Getting a second opinion from a trained mechanic can’t hurt.
4. Cold Exhaust Manifold
If the tapping noise is more noticeable from underneath the car, it’s likely the exhaust manifold.
Cold temperatures can cause the exhaust system components to contract, which may cause small gaps or leaks. The seeping gasses can produce a ticking sound.
However, this engine noise should dissipate once the exhaust system warms up and the components expand. In this case, consider making an appointment with a qualified mechanic to see about the issue.
Note: A cold engine can also cause a high-pressure fuel pump to create a noticeable ticking sound. It’s generally a steady ticking that’s more prominent with the hood up. However, this is normal and suggests your fuel pump works as it should.
Next, let’s explore some practical methods for pinpointing the cause of the ticking noise.
How to Diagnose the Cause of a Car Ticking When it’s Cold
A loud ticking noise can be cause for concern. Here are a few things you can do to help identify the engine ticking:
- Locate the source: Try to pinpoint the source of the engine ticking, whether it’s coming from the top of the engine block (hydraulic lifter or piston slap ) or the bottom (exhaust manifold leak). Alternatively, a mechanic’s stethoscope can help pinpoint the source.
- Identify the pitch: Is the engine noise high-pitched or low-pitched? The valve train could cause a higher-pitched noise, whereas a lower-pitched noise is likely an issue with the bottom of the engine.
- Inspect the exhaust system: Engine tick can emanate from an exhaust leak or a damaged component in the exhaust system. Check for any visible signs of damage on the exhaust pipe, muffler, and catalytic converter.
- Listen to the noise as the engine warms up: If the noise disappears once the engine has warmed up, it might be the oil viscosity.
- Consult a mechanic: If you can’t find the location of the ticking noise, the best thing to do is let a professional handle it. They can identify the loud ticking with specialized equipment.
What if cold weather isn’t causing the ticking?
Let’s see how much a repair should cost.
How Much Does it Cost to Fix a Ticking Car?
The cost depends on the cause and the car’s make and model. Here are some estimates for common repairs related to a car ticking:
- Oil change: $50 – $200
- Valve train repair: $250 – $500 (though potentially more)
- Exhaust leak repair: $1,100 – $1,300
- Engine rebuild: Between $2,500 and $4,000
Once you’ve solved the ticking noise issue, there are a few things you can do to help prevent it from happening again.
How to Prevent a Car Ticking When it’s Cold
Let’s explore some effective strategies to keep your engine humming in chilly weather:
- Avoid revving the engine when it’s cold: Generally, unnecessary revving puts additional stress on the engine. This is especially true during a cold startup, as the oil hasn’t yet had a chance to grease the parts.
- Warm up the car before driving: Warming a cold engine will allow the oil to circulate throughout, better lubricating the critical engine components. You could consider purchasing a block heater to warm up the engine and fluids before cranking your car.
- Use the proper engine oil: Low-viscosity engine oil such as 5W-30 or 0W-30 offers good protection in winter and at warmer temperatures. Synthetic oil is another alternative. However, it’s important to check your owner’s manual to see if your vehicle is compatible with a different oil.
- Park undercover: Parking your car in a garage overnight will help keep the engine warmer. Additionally, a garage will shield your car from the elements, helping to reduce rust and other damage that can contribute to an engine tick.
- Have the valves adjusted: If the ticking originates from the valve train, the clearance between the valve and other components may need adjusting.
Conquer Cold Weather Ticks With AutoNation Mobile Service
If your car ticks when cold but stops once the engine warms up, it’s likely because the oil is less viscous and needs more time to circulate. There’s nothing to be concerned about, but you could perform an oil change with a different oil grade, provided it matches the recommendations in your owner’s manual.
But, if the ticking noise doesn’t stop, it suggests a serious fault. In this case, the best bet is to have the problem handled by an expert from AutoNation Mobile Service.
We’re a mobile auto repair service capable of tackling all your winter maintenance needs. Plus, we offer a 12-month | 12,000-mile warranty on all repairs.
Contact us for a quote today.