I’ve been doing my best to keep my car as quiet as possible — which has brought a previously-unheard ticking noise to my attention. After a consultation with my mechanic buddy, I realized that the most likely culprits were my hydraulic lifters. So I set out to find ways to quiet noisy lifters.
Aside from being generally annoying, hearing irregular sounds around while you’re driving can also be pretty dangerous. With that in mind, it’s important to investigate every source of sound coming from your car.
So let’s see what lifters are and why they tend to make this type of noise. And later in the article, I’ll explain a few of the most effective ways of fixing this problem.
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What Are Lifters?
Valve lifters are cylindrical parts inside of your engine, about the size of a finger. They often have a tiny hole inside of them which allows oil to lubricate the inside of the cylinder. The lifter then raises the pushrod, or rocket arm — which is about a quarter inch thick metal bar — up to meet the top of the valve.
Lifters should operate quietly and keep the whole engine as silent as it can be. So, obviously, when the lifters themselves are noisy, something isn’t right.
Now, there are several types of lifters, some of which make less noise than others:
- Solid and mechanical roller lifters: They tend to be less noisy. Solid lifters require manual rocker arm adjustments, though they’re an excellent choice for strength and speed. And roller lifters fix the problems of solid lifters, but they’re pretty pricey.
- Hydraulic valve lifter: This is the type of lifter you’re most likely to find in your engine. These do tend to compromise on speed somewhat, but they’re self-adjusting, so you won’t need to manually adjust the pushrods.
All three of these types of lifters need regular maintenance checks — like any other part of the engine. Of course, hydraulic valves are the ones that are most likely to produce ticking noises.
Are Noisy Lifters Dangerous?
A driver would need to be pretty in tune with their vehicle in order to hear the distinctive ticking or tapping noises a faulty lifter would make. So, firstly, you’d need to make sure that there are no loose sheet metal parts rattling around your engine. The same goes for other parts of the car — and you can check my automotive soundproofing articles for more information on removing sheet metal vibration noises.
If you can still hear ticking noises even after you’ve gotten your car to be as quiet as it can be, your problem could be either in the rods or the lifters. While I was doing my research on engine noises, a YouTube video (linked below) was very helpful in explaining the difference between the two. Actually, it was so helpful that I’ll definitely refer to it again during this article, so I recommend watching the whole thing.
Basically, if you let the noise persist, your car’s performance will suffer — and you will eventually feel the financial consequences. It’s always best to let a mechanic look into the source of the noise like I did, to avoid having to spend more money down the line. In any case, if the problem really is caused by the lifters, there are easy ways to fix it.
What Causes Lifter Ticking Noise?
Well, there are several possible causes:
- You’re using oil that’s too thick or too thin for your engine and its lifters.
- There’s dirt in the lifters or along the valve train, caused by infrequent maintenance and lack of oil changes.
- The lifters themselves are showing signs of wear, which is more likely to be the case on older cars.
If your lifters start acting up, the ticking noise might not even be noticeable at first. Instead, you may notice other noises, caused by the lack of proper oil lubrication. Since the lifters are one of the main parts of the oil circulatory system, you may see some discrepancies when you’re checking the oil level. Your dashboard may even warn you about low pressure.
Finally, the engine may heat up faster, since oil usually acts as a coolant as well. If you’ve noticed any of these signs, it may be time for a check-up. You can go straight to a mechanic, or deal with some of the issues yourself.
How to Fix Lifter Tick
As with any engine trouble, you should probably perform some regular checks first. For example, if you haven’t driven your car in a while, the lifters may start clicking simply because the oil has drained out. In that case, you simply need to let your engine run for a while, about 20-30 minutes until the oil starts circulating again. So the noise should stop on its own.
However, if the ticking persists, you should start by checking the valve train for faulty components.
1. Adjust the Valves
Since I’ve already said that hydraulic valve lifters are self-adjusting, you may be wondering what I mean when I say that you should adjust the valves. Well, there are two things that may be wrong with your valve train that may not be directly connected to the lifters, but that may be causing some noise.
As you know, valve lifters nudge pushrods up towards the valves, where the rocker arms press the valves open. Usually, there’s a tiny space between the rocker arms and the valves, which is called the valve lash. You can use a feeler gauge to check if the valve lash is of the appropriate size. Of course, you should cross-reference with the engine manual to see how wide the valve lash should be.
If the opening isn’t optimal, you can use a flathead screwdriver to turn the adjusting screw on top of the rocker arm clockwise to decrease the space. And, if it’s too tight, turn the screw counterclockwise to increase the valve lash.
The next video will show you how to tighten the valve lash on hydraulic lifters. And, if you’d like to know how you should measure the valve lash, the first video I linked is a great guide.
2. Swap Out Damaged Pushrods
If the ticking noise is still audible, the second part of the valve train that may be faulty is the pushrods. Check if all of the pushrods are straight — if one of them is bent, it could be tapping other parts of the engine every time the lifter pushes it.
Typically, a bent rod would indicate that you’ve been a bit too heavy-handed (heavy-footed?) with the gas pedal. If you notice a faulty pushrod you should just switch it out with a new one. The ones I’ve seen are about $20 online, so this shouldn’t pose too much of a hassle.
Just unscrew the rocker arms, and take out the pushrods. Then, you can check if any of them are bent by rolling them across a flat surface. You can see how you can replace the pushrods with new ones in this video.
Better yet, you can get a mechanic to do it. If the pushrod is left to clang against the engine, it could really do some damage, so it’s best to replace it as soon as possible.
3. Flush out the Old Oil
Most of the things that can make your lifters loud are caused by improper engine maintenance. As you know, oil should be drained and replaced about once or twice a year.
Choosing the right oil for your engine is crucial to this process. If you look at the YouTube video I linked above, you’ll see that some engine noises can be fixed by adding an oil thickener, or simply using heavier oil in the first place. However, that’s not the proper solution for a noisy valve lifter.
As I have mentioned before, lifters have a single tiny hole to let the oil in. Thick oil won’t be able to infiltrate the inside of the lifter, which will cause it to jam and build up debris. Using oil that’s too thin has its own drawbacks, though. Thin oil won’t be able to adequately lubricate the engine or provide proper padding for the moving parts, either.
So it’s best to go by the manufacturer’s instructions when you’re changing your oil.
- Start by draining the old oil. Unscrew the cap under the car and catch the leaking oil in a bucket or a shallow dish.
- Once the leaking oil slows to a drip, you can insert an engine flushing agent, like the Liqui Moly Engine Flush, to help clear out the last of the clogged oil.
- Replace the drained oil with new oil, according to the engine specifications.
If you need a more visual guide to changing your car’s oil, check out this helpful YouTube video.
4. Clean the Lifters with Oil Additives
Even though there is actually more than one kind of oil additive, I’m talking about a specific type of product here. Technically, anything you add to your oil tank that’s not oil is an oil additive — that includes thickening or thinning agents, and even flushing agents, like the one I have mentioned above.
- Improves the lubrication properties of the...
- Cleans valve bores
- Suitable for use in vehicles with...
- Prevents engine noises caused by hydraulic...
Oil stabilizers are special because they break down debris without the need for a total tank drain. After pouring the stabilizer in, you’d need to drive for a few miles before the oil additive could properly mix into the circulating oil and stop the ticking noises. But, once the noise stops, the engine will operate at optimum capacity. And the additive won’t even change the density of the oil already inside the tank.
Some of the best oil additives for cleaning lifters are:
The specific instructions are written on the product packaging. Most of them are pretty basic, though, as you just need to pour them into the tank and leave them. Best of all, oil stabilizers are pretty inexpensive. They’ll protect the inside of your engine until the next oil change, so they’re a very worthy investment.
Once again, if you need visual aid, I believe the first video I have linked explains it best.
5. Buy New Lifters
Finally, the last thing you could do is just get new lifters. Depending on your engine, they’ll cost you anywhere between a couple of dollars to $20. But you should expect to find them in packs, since many people need to replace more than one lifter. Replacing all of the lifters at once might bring your total up to $200–$400.
If you wanted to take out the lifters yourself, there are tools that can extract the lifter without removing the whole engine. You could get this one from Performance Tools, or a more affordable one from OEM TOOLS.
- COLLET: Expands to tightly grasp hydraulic...
- SLIDE HAMMER: Specially designed to easily...
- KNURLED HANDLE: Offers secure grip when in...
- DURABLE MATERIALS: High quality steel...
Going to a mechanic might bump up the overall cost of lifter replacement to over $1,000. Now you see why you should just perform regular maintenance checks.
Fix Your Noisy Lifters Before They Cause Damage
There you go — those are all the things that can go wrong with your hydraulic valve lifters that can contribute to the overall noisiness of your car.
Remember, in order to be able to hear when something is wrong with your engine, you need to quiet all of the other sources of noise. Fortunately, there are plenty of effective sound deadening mats out there.
Once you’ve made sure that you’re not hearing the vibrations of loose metal, a quick check of the valve train will tell you if there’s something physically wrong with one of the parts. If not — it’s likely that a flushing agent and an oil additive added to the fresh oil will do the trick and silence your lifters.
Finally, you’ll be able to go on a road trip without expecting your engine to explode! So leave your worries behind and just drive.
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