Automobile engine damage can be a result of sludge formation inthe engine oil. When engine damage is claimed, the analyst ischarged with determining the reason for the sludge formation sincethis affects coverage. For instance, engine damage from sludgeformation as a result of vandalism (contaminants inserted in theengine) may be covered, while sludge formation-related damage dueto poor maintenance may not.

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The cause of sludge formation that damaged an automotive enginedetermines whether coverage is extended or denied. This case studyillustrates one cause of sludge formation that damaged anautomotive engine.

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Sludge formation, a form of engine oil deterioration, occursfrom a variety of causes such as poor maintenance, vandalism orexcessive heating. The insured owner of a pickup truck claimed thatvandalism was the cause of excessive sludge formation that damagedthe engine.

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Figure 1 shows the engine with the valley pan removedand excessive sludge formation. Figure 2 shows the sludgewhich has characteristics similar to caramelized candy. The ownerhad documentation that he had changed the oil regularly with ahigh-quality oil, yet the engine oil was two quarts low in theengine sump with a capacity of five quarts. Approximately 500 milesbefore the vehicle was brought into the repair shop, the oil hadbeen changed and the oil level was checked and found to be at theproper level.

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The insured owner brought the vehicle to the repair shop afterhearing an unusual noise in the engine. On such claims, an oilanalysis helps narrow down the possible cause of the oil sludgeformation. The oil analysis found little metallic debris, butevidence of engine coolant and high readings of oil oxidation andnitration suggesting that the oil had been subjected to hightemperatures, most likely through contact with engine exhaustproducts.

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Further examination of the vehicle showed evidence of leakage inthe plenum pan gasket (Figure 3). When oil leakage of thisnature occurs, it is internal to the engine and leaves no externalsign of a problem other than the engine oil level decreases. Engineblow-by gases, vaporized oil and air from the breather system aredrawn into the intake manifold through the pan gasket leak,contaminating the engine oil that is recirculated to the oilsump.

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Combustion chamber volume decreases from carbonaceous deposits,causing spark knock. This causes rapid sludge development in theengine, leading to severe engine damage. The symptoms of thisproblem are engine knock or low oil level in the engine oilsump.

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The investigation concluded that the engine problem was not aresult of poor maintenance or vandalism, but an engine componentfailure: premature failure of the plenum pan gasket. The gasketfailure was covered by a technical service bulletin issued by themanufacturer of the vehicle, which discussed the repair procedurefor this engine defect. The manufacturer repaired the engine at nocost to the insured or the insurer.

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