When does the valve cover gasket need to be replaced?

Almost any car engine has a valve cover that covers the valve train components at the top of the engine. The valve cover gasket seals the gap between the valve cover and the cylinder head. In modern cars, the valve cover gasket is made of rubber material. Over time and under higher temperatures, the gasket becomes dry and brittle and may start to leak.

Valve cover gasket Valve cover gasket.
How often should it be replaced? What are the symptoms of a bad valve cover gasket? There are no maintenance requirements for valve cover gasket replacement. It only needs to be replaced if it leaks.

Symptoms of a leaking valve cover gasket include oil drops under the engine, burnt oil smell under the hood and visible traces of oil coming down the engine. Of course, a valve cover gasket is not the only source of possible oil leaks. There are many other engine components that can also leak oil, including cam and crank seals, front engine cover seal, PCV system, oil pressure switch and other parts. To repair an engine oil leak, the source(s) of the leak must be identified first.

How is a leaking valve cover gasket diagnosed? If the valve cover gasket is suspected leaking, your mechanic may recommend cleaning the affected area and check it in a few days to see where the fresh leak is coming from.
Sometimes, oil leaks from a valve cover gasket are clearly visible. For example, see this photo. You can see that oil is seeping out from under the valve cover. In some cases, a leaking valve cover gasket or O-ring may result in oil getting into the spark plug well. This issue is often discovered during spark plug replacement.
Leaking valve cover gasket Leaking valve cover gasket
O-rings that seal spark plug wells are usually included in the valve cover gasket kit.

How expensive is the valve cover gasket replacement? In a simple in-line 4-cylinder engine, the valve cover gasket replacement may cost $16-$65 parts and $55-$110 labor. In a Subaru flat "boxer" engine with two separate valve covers, your mechanic may charge $25-$85 for parts and $120-$280 for labor. Replacing valve cover gaskets in a V6 or V8 engine may involve additional labor. For example, in the 2011 V6 Ford Escape, the intake manifold needs to be removed to get access to the rear valve cover. This adds to the cost of labor. For the mentioned V6 Ford Escape, the valve cover gasket replacement may cost $250-$330 labor plus $25-$85 part.

Should the valve cover gasket be replaced as a part of the tune-up? It's not necessary to replace the valve cover gasket if it's not leaking. If it is leaking and your spark plugs are due for replacement soon, it does make sense to combine both services, as the large portion of labor overlaps.
For example, for the 2011 V6 Ford Escape we mentioned above, replacing all 6 spark plugs together with both valve cover gaskets will only add the cost of spark plugs plus very little additional labor.

How easy is it to replace valve cover gasket DIY? If it's a simple 4-cylinder engine, with proper tools and necessary skills it's a "3" job on the difficulty scale from 1 (easy) to 10 (leave it to pros). A valve cover gasket is sold as a kit and can be ordered from a dealer, online or purchased from a local part store. You may also need a special sealant. Mechanic often use sealant to seal the tight spots and corners of the valve cover gasket.

What will happen if you continue driving with leaking valve cover gasket? It all depends how bad is the leak. If it's a noticeable leak, your engine is losing oil and breathing oil vapors (burnt oil smell) is not good for your health. We have also seen cases where oil leaking from the valve cover gasket damaged a drive belt. See this photo from the post about a drive belt.