Lifters, also known as lash adjusters or “tappets,” sit atop an engine’s cylinders and open and close the fuel, air, and exhaust valves for combustion. They do so by converting the sideways motion of the camshaft into a vertical motion.
Car engines have two valve lifters per cylinder, meaning a V6 has 12, a V8 has 16, etc. One lifter controls fuel and air entering the combustion chamber, and the other vents the gas through the exhaust.
Tappets are crucial for proper motor function. Thankfully, lifter problems are easy to identify due to their unique “ticking” sounds, commonly referred to as lifter tick.
What causes lifter tick?
The five most common causes for lifter tick include:
- Oil contamination
- Lack of oil
- Wrong oil type
- Lifter failure
- Bent pushrod
Lifter tick doesn’t necessarily mean your engine is about to suffer catastrophic failure, but it can cause long-term internal damage and reduce longevity.
In this guide, I’ll share more details on each of the above causes of lifter tick and provide some options for fixing the issue.
I’ll also answer some frequently asked questions about lifter tick, like:
- How long should valve lifters last?
- What happens if you ignore lifter tick?
- How long can you drive with bad lifters?
Still not sure how tappets function? Check out this short YouTube video from Gary’s Tradition Auto, which is perhaps the simplest explanation you’ll find.
Let’s get started.
Table of ContentsShow
5 Causes For Lifter Tick
1. Oil Contamination
Lifters require lubrication to properly open and close an engine’s valves. If your motor oil is old and contaminated, it may clog the engine’s ports, starving it of oil.
Metal-on-metal contact can occur if there’s not enough oil to coat the engine’s moving parts, resulting in a repeated clicking sound.
2. Lack Of Oil
Like contaminated oil, you’ll likely hear clicking sounds from your engine if it’s low on oil. The best response to clicking noises is promptly checking oil levels.
Besides accelerating lifter failure, a lack of motor oil can cause your motor to overheat. This can lead to the head gasket blowing or the block cracking.
3. Wrong Oil Type
Choosing the wrong oil viscosity can also cause ticking sounds. SAE viscosity levels refer to how thick the oil is.
Too thin, and it may not create a sufficiently protective barrier between the engine’s moving parts. Too thick, and the motor may struggle in colder climates. Find more information about SAE oil viscosity in our detailed guide.
4. Lifter Failure
A ticking sound from your engine may also stem from the lifter itself going bad. Tappets fail for many reasons, like a lack of routine maintenance or regular wear and tear.
Regardless, a bad tappet may not correctly open and close the engine’s valves. This throws off combustion and makes a ticking sound that worsens when accelerating.
5. Bent Pushrod
A pushrod engine only uses a single camshaft built into the block vs. on top of the cylinder head. A pushrod is a slim rod that “pushes” the valves (above the cylinder) open.
If one of your pushrods is bent, then the valves won’t be able to smoothly open and close, resulting in an audible ticking noise.
How To Fix Lifter Tick
Add Motor Oil
After noticing any engine ticking sounds, the first thing to do is check your motor oil levels. If low, adding more can quickly resolve the noise.
Just be sure to find the reason for your engine’s excessive oil consumption.
Perform Oil Change
When looking at your car’s dipstick, oil should be caramel or tan colored. If it’s dark brown or black, it’s dirty and needs changing.
Once changed, a protective coating will develop around the parts and quiet any ticking.
Replace Oil Filter
A clogged oil filter limits oil flow, causing the same outcome as oil starvation. Oil filters need changing every 5,000 to 10,000 miles.
The main indicators of a clogged oil filter include a drop in oil pressure or dark exhaust fumes.
If changing your oil didn’t resolve the ticking, you may need to clean the lifters. This is done by pouring an additive into the oil cap.
You can find a good lifter cleaner for under $20 at a reputable online parts store.
If ticking sounds persist even after changing your oil and swapping out the air filter, you likely have a bad lifter.
Replacement can be complicated as it requires unbolting several vital parts. For the average car owner, it’s best left to a professional.
Lifter Tick: FAQ
Adequately maintained, lifters should last 80,000 to 100,000 miles.
Maintenance includes changing the motor oil and replacing the filter every 5,000 to 10,000 miles clean. Riding your vehicle hard or not following a service schedule will reduce lifter longevity.
Ignoring lifter tick can cause long-term engine damage. Ticking sounds often indicate that internal parts aren’t receiving enough oil.
This can have severe consequences, like a blown head gasket or cracked engine block, problems costing $1,500 to $5,000 or more to repair.
You can likely drive hundreds of miles with bad lifters, but that doesn’t mean you should. If you must drive, try to limit the range to 100 miles or less.
Anything more, and you risk overheating the engine (or seizing it in a worst-case scenario).
Prevent Lifter Ticking By Maintaining Your Tappets
Following a routine service schedule is key to engine longevity. Part of this is changing the motor oil and swapping out the filter, making it the best thing you can do to protect against engine ticking.
If you just started hearing ticking noises, the first thing you should do is check the oil levels. The last thing you want is to run out of oil and starve the engine.