Lifter Tick: Annoying Noise or Cause for Concern?

Lifter tick is a common issue that many car owners experience, but what is it exactly? In simple terms, it’s an irritating ticking noise originating from the engine’s valve lifters, also known as hydraulic tappets. The noise can range from barely noticeable to quite pronounced, causing concern for many drivers.

This article will delve into the causes of lifter tick, how to identify it, and what steps you can take to address this problem. So, let’s explore this pesky issue and learn how to quiet down that ticking noise for a more enjoyable driving experience.

What is a Lifter Tick?

A lifter tick refers to the ticking noise that originates from the engine’s valve lifters or hydraulic tappets. These components play a crucial role in maintaining the correct valve clearance in your engine, allowing it to run smoothly and efficiently. When something goes wrong with the lifters, the resulting noise can be both irritating and concerning.

5 Symptoms of a Lifter Tick

1.     Ticking Noise

The most obvious symptom of a lifter tick is the ticking noise itself. This sound typically becomes more apparent as the engine warms up and is often most noticeable at idle. It may also increase in frequency with engine RPMs. The ticking noise is caused by the lifter not maintaining proper valve clearance, leading to a small gap and the resulting noise.

2.     Reduced Engine Performance

When lifters are not functioning correctly, it can result in reduced engine performance. The improper valve clearance can cause inefficient combustion, leading to a decrease in power output and a sluggish feel when driving.

3.     Poor Fuel Efficiency

In addition to reduced engine performance, a lifter tick can also lead to poor fuel efficiency. As the engine struggles to maintain proper valve clearance, it may consume more fuel to compensate for the inefficiencies in combustion.

4.     Check Engine Light

In some cases, a lifter tick may trigger the check engine light on your dashboard. This is because the engine control module (ECM) can detect irregularities in the valve operation and may set a diagnostic trouble code (DTC) related to the issue.

5.     Excessive Valve Wear

Over time, a persistent lifter tick can lead to excessive valve wear. As the gap between the lifter and the valve increases, it can cause the valve to wear unevenly or even damage the valve train components.

5 Causes of a Lifter Tick

1.     Insufficient Oil Pressure

One of the most common causes of a lifter tick is insufficient oil pressure. Hydraulic lifters rely on oil pressure to maintain the proper valve clearance. If the oil pressure is too low, the lifters may not be able to maintain the correct clearance, leading to the ticking noise.

2.     Dirty or Contaminated Oil

Dirty or contaminated oil can cause a lifter tick by preventing the hydraulic lifters from functioning correctly. Sludge, debris, or other contaminants in the oil can obstruct the oil passages, restricting oil flow and preventing the lifters from maintaining proper valve clearance.

Close-up of a mechanic checking the oil in a car.

3.     Worn or Damaged Lifters

Over time, the internal components of the lifters can wear out or become damaged. This can lead to a loss of hydraulic pressure and the inability to maintain proper valve clearance, causing the ticking noise.

4.     Incorrect Valve Lash Adjustment

If the valve lash (the clearance between the rocker arm and the valve stem) is not correctly adjusted, it can lead to a lifter tick. This can be caused by improper maintenance, wear and tear, or even incorrect assembly during engine repairs.

5.     Using the Wrong Oil Viscosity

Using the incorrect oil viscosity for your engine can also cause a lifter tick. If the oil is too thin, it may not provide enough pressure to maintain proper valve clearance. Conversely, if the oil is too thick, it may not flow efficiently through the engine, leading to insufficient lubrication and potential lifter issues.

How Do You Fix A Lifter Tick?

Fixing a lifter tick can involve a few different approaches depending on the root cause of the issue:

1.     Change the Engine Oil and Filter

If the cause of the lifter tick is dirty or contaminated oil, simply changing the engine oil and filter can resolve the issue. Make sure to use the correct oil viscosity recommended by the manufacturer and consider using a high-quality oil additive designed to help clean and lubricate the lifters.

2.     Adjust the Valve Lash

If the valve lash is incorrectly adjusted, a professional mechanic can correct the issue by adjusting the valve clearance to the proper specifications. This can eliminate the lifter tick and ensure smooth engine operation.

3.     Replace the Worn or Damaged Lifters

If the lifters themselves are worn or damaged, they may need to be replaced to resolve the issue. This is a more labor-intensive fix and should be done by a qualified mechanic to ensure proper installation and engine performance.

How Serious Is Lifter Tick?

Lifter tick is generally considered a minor issue, but it can become more serious if left untreated. In some cases, it can lead to excessive valve wear, damage to the valve train components, and even engine failure in extreme cases. Addressing the problem early on can help prevent more significant damage and extend the life of your engine.

Can You Drive With Lifter Tick?

While it is generally safe to drive with a lifter tick for a short period, it is crucial to address the issue as soon as possible. The longer you drive with a lifter tick, the greater the potential for damage to your engine. If the tick is accompanied by other symptoms such as reduced engine performance or a check engine light, it is essential to have the issue diagnosed and repaired promptly.

Is A Lifter Tick Expensive To Fix?

The cost of fixing a lifter tick depends on the cause and the required repair. If the issue can be resolved by changing the engine oil and filter or adjusting the valve lash, the repair costs should be relatively low.

However, if the lifters need to be replaced, the repair costs can be significantly higher due to the labor and parts involved. It is essential to get an accurate diagnosis from a professional mechanic to determine the best course of action and estimate the repair costs.

Can Regular Maintenance Help Prevent Lifter Tick?

Regular maintenance can indeed help prevent lifter ticks. Ensuring that you change your engine oil and filter at the recommended intervals, using the correct oil viscosity, and having periodic valve lash adjustments can all contribute to keeping your lifters in good condition and reducing the likelihood of a lifter tick developing.

Regular maintenance can also help identify potential issues early on, allowing you to address them before they become more severe.

Pouring oil in engine.

How Long Does It Take To Fix A Lifter Tick?

The time required to fix a lifter tick depends on the nature of the repair. If the issue can be resolved by changing the engine oil and filter, the repair can be completed in as little as an hour or two. Adjusting the valve lash may take a bit longer, depending on the accessibility of the valves in your engine.

Replacing worn or damaged lifters is a more time-consuming process and could take anywhere from several hours to a full day, depending on the complexity of the engine and the mechanic’s experience.

Will A Lifter Tick Eventually Go Away On Its Own?

In some cases, a lifter tick may resolve on its own, especially if the issue is related to oil viscosity or temporary oil starvation. However, it is essential not to ignore a persistent lifter tick, as it could indicate a more serious problem.

If the ticking noise does not subside after a short period or continues to worsen, it is crucial to have your vehicle inspected by a professional mechanic to identify and address the issue.


In conclusion, a lifter tick is a common issue that many car owners may encounter. While it might be annoying, it’s essential to address the problem promptly to prevent more significant engine damage.

By staying on top of regular maintenance, being attentive to changes in your engine’s performance, and seeking professional help when necessary, you can keep your engine running smoothly and enjoy a more pleasant driving experience. Don’t let that annoying ticking noise ruin your ride; take action and ensure your vehicle stays in tip-top shape.

Avatar photo
About Matthew Webb

Hi, I am Matthew! I am a dedicated car nerd! During the day, I am a journalist, at night I enjoy working on my 2 project cars. I have been a car nerd all my life, and am excited to share my knowledge with you!