Engine Noises – Where Are They Coming From ? – How Bad Are They ?

Exploring Engine Noises And Vibrations - Always, diagnose, before you fix.
Exploring Engine Noises And Vibrations - Always, diagnose, before you fix.

With a little practice, you can gain the experience and knowledge to interpret, what engine noises mean.

So, always take the extra time, to make a proper noise analysis, before doing any engine repair work.

Having a heads up on engine noises, can reduce repair costs by addressing the problem, before irreversible damage occurs.

When diagnosing engine noises, don’t forget the basic techniques. Firstly, consider running it with the drive belts removed; dropping the transmission into drive and checking for broken accessory mounts.

Most techs are familiar with using a long screwdriver; socket extension or even a piece of hose as a stethoscope. But, a mechanic’s stethoscope, will provide much clearer and accurate results.

So, we’ve put together this quick guide to diagnosing common engine noises, to help you avoid potential damage.

Valvetrain Engine Noises

Valve and tappet noise usually begins as a clicking sound, or chatter, at half engine speed. And, may then disappear at high speeds. Consequently, the cause is often excessive valve clearance or a defective hydraulic valve lifter.

Valvetrain Engine Noises
Valvetrain Engine Noises

Worn or sticking hydraulic lifters can cause this noise:

  • Varnish build up, on the lifter surfaces
  • Low oil pressure, could be another cause

To check your clearances, you can insert a thickness gauge; between the valve stem and the rocker arm or lifter. If this reduces the noise, the cause is excessive clearance. So, you’ll need to make the proper adjustments. Other things to look for include; lifters that are moving loosely in their bores and weak valve springs.

Detonation, Pre-Ignition (Pinging) Engine Noises

Detonation can cause serious damage to an engine. You usually hear this noise, when accelerating the vehicle. Most people call this a pinging or rattling sound. As a result, of ignition happening, before the piston reaches the top of its stroke. Sometimes called pre-ignition or pre-detonation. Consequently, damaging the pistons, valves and connecting rods. The fuel igniting too early produces pressure waves from the fuel’s explosion in the cylinder. And that’s also why you hear the pinging and rattling noises.

Some of the causes of this condition are:

  • Improper fuel octane
  • Engine overheating
  • Improper ignition timing
  • (EGR) valve not functioning properly
  • Problems with the computer
  • Knock sensor issues

This creates multiple flame fronts in the cylinder; fighting each other and causing the pinging and rattling noise. Check your owner’s manual to make sure you’re using, the right grade of fuel. Or you can switch to a higher grade for a period and see if the noise goes away. If it doesn’t, you’ll want to look at these other possible causes.

Timing Chain Engine Noises

Many of the newer engines have overhead camshafts with longer timing chains. Consequently, A timing chain connects the crankshaft to the camshaft to insure the valves open at the proper time.

Timing Chain Engine Noises
Timing Chain Engine Noises

Hydraulic tensioners usually keep the slack tight on the chains. The chains ride against a nylon guide (a chain guide) which, in time, begins to wear. When worn beyond the ability of the hydraulic tensioner to take up the slack; the timing chain begins to rattle.

As a result, of the timing chains becoming so loose that they whip back and forth. Usually against the guides and possibly the timing cover.

If the oil pressure is correct, replacement of the hydraulic tensioners and chain guides would be required. A mechanic’s stethoscope is a great tool to pinpoint this noise. If the noise is loudest when touching the timing cover with the stethoscope, disassembly would be required.

Connecting Rod Noises

Connecting rod noise is caused by excessive clearance between; the crankshaft and the connecting rod bearing surface. This happens when you have low oil pressure, causing the bearing to run dry of lubrication. Which in turn will damage the bearing and crankshaft surfaces. This can also be caused by poor maintenance. As a result, the oil gets dirty and grit can wear the surface of the bearings.

The noise is usually heard when, you hold the throttle at a steady (RPM). If it sounds like a single knock, you can isolate the cylinder. Usually, by disabling the spark or the fuel injector for each cylinder, one at a time.

When the noise goes away or gets much quieter, you have found the problem. Problems like this require immediate attention. Because, continued running of the engine in this condition, will damage the crankshaft.

Piston Pin Noises

Although similar to valve train noise, piston pin noise often has a unique, metallic-sounding double knock. And, is sometimes most noticeable, during idle with the spark advanced. This noise is usually caused by the lack of oil and excessive clearance, between the piston pin and the piston. A piston pin attaches the connecting rod to the piston. It is lubricated by oil which is sprayed onto the pin; through a hole in the opposing cylinders connecting rod.

Piston Pin Noises
Piston Pin Noises

Problems like this are usually a result of, worn connecting rod and crankshaft bearings, which reduces oil pressure. As with connecting rod noise, you can find the offending components, by performing the same test outlined above.

Piston Ring Noises

Piston ring noise is also similar to the valve and tappet noise above; however, it is most noticeable during acceleration.

Usually caused by:

  • Low ring tension
  • Broken or worn piston rings
  • Worn cylinder walls

To troubleshoot each cylinder, remove the spark plugs and add; a tablespoon of engine oil to each cylinder.  Then, crank the engine for several revolutions to work the oil down past the rings.

You can then install the spark plugs and start the engine. After that, if the noise is reduced, the rings are most likely the problem.

Piston Slap Noises

A hollow, muffled, almost bell-like sound is usually piston slap. Caused by a piston rocking back and forth in its cylinder.

Continuous piston slap means the engine needs service. However, if you only notice this sound when the engine is cold, it is likely not serious.

A continuous piston slap sound is usually caused by:

  • Worn pistons
  • Excessive piston-to-wall clearance
  • Misaligned connecting rods
  • Worn cylinder walls
  • Inadequate oil

Bearing Noises ( Rod Knock )

A heavy, yet dull metallic knock is typically, bearing knock.

Damaged Bearings And Connecting Rod Caps
Bearing Noises ( Rod Knock )

Under load or acceleration the noise is louder:

  • A regular, rumble-like knock, is often from worn main bearings.
  • More distinct knock is often worn rod bearings.
  • A sharp, irregular knock can be from worn thrust bearings.

Noise may also come from other bearings. As a result, there are several items under the hood that can make this kind of sound:

  • Water pump
  • Air conditioner clutch bearing
  • Fan belt idler pulleys or belt tensioner
  • Alternator and the power steering pump

So, these are all possible sources for sounds, indicating future bearing failure.


When diagnosing engine noises, don’t forget basic techniques like:

  • Running it with the drive belts removed.
  • Dropping the transmission into drive.
  • Checking for broken accessory mounts.

Finally, it’s always a better idea to spend more time diagnosing and less time fixing.

Thank You !