Turbocharger Failure: Lack of Lubrication/Contaminated Oil


Your turbocharger spins at incredibly high speeds in your engine, making it all the more susceptible to damage and failure than many other components. It needs a thin layer of oil constantly to prevent premature wear and keep it spinning properly. It can spell major trouble for your diesel engine turbo if proper oil levels aren't maintained, or if contaminants find their way into your oil supply. If you're experiencing turbo problems, you might notice a drop in engine power, a high pitched noise coming from the engine, or black smoke coming from your exhaust. If you noticed any of these symptoms, check out your turbo for and signs of damage or wear.

Even though it requires a balanced environment to function properly, a turbocharger almost never fails on its own. Usually, damage in another part of your engine leads to turbo wear and failure. That's why it's important to troubleshoot the entire problem that led to turbo failure, otherwise you'll find the problem happening again on your new turbocharger, costing you even more time and money.

This post will focus on one of the most common causes of turbocharger failure—lubrication issues. This can be caused by too little oil getting to your turbocharger, or from contaminants disrupting the system. Either one can be catastrophic for your turbo.



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Lack of Lubrication

Because of how fast the wheels of the turbo spin, proper lubrication is vital. Your turbo requires a constant thin layer of oil to prevent bearing damage and to keep it from rubbing on the housing or other components. There are a few things that can affect the amount of oil that gets to your turbo:

  • Incorrect Oil: The wrong kind of oil will not properly lubricate your turbo. Pay attention to manufacturer specifications regarding oil type.
  • Poor Oil Supply: This can be caused by an obstruction in the system due to buildup, or a kink somewhere in the oil line.
  • Improper Engine Procedures During Cold Weather: As we mentioned, turbos can be damaged by the slightest imbalance in their environment. Cold weather can cause issues with your oil, which in turn can create a reduction in your oil supply. Make sure you're following good winter procedures.
  • Oil Filter Build-up: Deposits on your oil filter can prevent oil from flowing properly to your turbo. Make sure that your filter is cleaned and replaced to help keep this from happening.
  • Low Oil Levels: Too little oil in your engine can likewise keep the proper amount from reaching your turbo. Make sure that you're replacing your oil according to standard procedures, as well as keeping an eye on your oil levels.
  • Poor Oil Pressure: Read our earlier blog post to help troubleshoot why you might be experiencing poor oil pressure.

A lack of lubrication will leave some obvious signs on your turbo and its components. For example, there could be discoloration on the bearings that results from extremely high temperatures. You might also notice wear and grooving on the thrust and journal bearings, as well as the shaft.


Contaminated Oil

Contaminated oil can cause a whole host of problems in your engine, including premature turbocharger failure. Among other things, it can be one of the causes of lubrication issues, depending on the type of contamination. Some causes of contamination that can affect your turbo include:

  • Foreign objects: If a foreign object enters your oil supply and gets to your turbo, it can severely damage the turbine, and quickly.
  • Improper Maintenance Intervals: This can lead to a blocked oil filter and dirt and debris entering the oil supply, and it can also allow for oil degradation. Be sure you're getting your oil changed at the proper times.
  • Water: If you have a leak elsewhere in your engine, water could enter your oil supply. This will not lubricate the turbo as well, leading to wear.
  • Poor cleaning: Dirt or debris could have entered your oil systems as a result of poor cleaning practices during a previous repair.
  • Metallic Debris: If you have wear in other parts of your engine, metallic shavings might be able to get into your oil. This would cause wear on your turbo if they reach it.
  • Fuel or Coolant: Coolant or fuel might likewise enter your oil supply, diluting the oil. This could be caused by a faulty injector or failure somewhere else in your engine. Coolant and fuel are not effective lubricants, so this will cause problems for your turbo.

Similar to lubrication issues, contaminated oil will leave some obvious signs of wear on your turbo components. For example, the wheels can hit the housing, causing excessive wear. You might also notice some unusual scratches or grooves. Depending on the type of contamination, there might also be a complete seizure.


Other things might cause a turbo to fail, but these are among the most common problems. Feel free to give our techs a call with any questions you may have at 844-304-7688. You can also always request a quote online.

Originally Posted February 21, 2019; Edited July 29, 2019