How to Change Your Oil the Right Way

Changing your oil regularly is essential for keeping your car in shape, and it’s a great way to dive into DIY car maintenance.

under the hood change engine oil soon
Editor's Note: In this limited series, Under the Hood, we'll share do-it-yourself tips for drivers who want to wrench their own cars, no matter their skill level.

Motor oil is the lifeblood of your vehicle’s engine, and if you don’t change it regularly, things can get ugly in a hurry. Luckily, oil changes are well within the capabilities of a DIY mechanic: the job is relatively easy to tackle at home, it can save you money and it’ll help you get to know your car’s engine better too.

How Often to Change Your Oil

change your oil

To find your vehicle’s oil change interval, consult the owner’s manual. For most vehicles, the recommended interval is every 5,000 or 7,500 miles. In addition, modern cars often have maintenance minders on the instrument panel that will alert you when it’s time for an oil change. (Side note: Service shops will often recommend having your oil changed every 3,000 miles; this frequency won't hurt, certainly, but it's ok to observe the manufacturer's suggested intervals instead.)

Conventional vs. Synthetic Oil

Motor oil comes in a variety of viscosities as well as two main types. Viscosities are identified by codes, for example, 5W-30 or 15W-50. The two main types of motor oil are conventional and synthetic. Conventional oil is manufactured from crude oil. Synthetic oil uses a higher-quality base oil; it’s also chemically engineered for purity and to resist breaking down over time. There are also synthetic blends, which are a mix of the two. Full synthetic is often a good choice—it lasts longer, provides superior lubrication, and doesn’t form sludge as readily as conventional oil. There are also oils manufactured specifically for higher-mileage vehicles (usually 75,000 miles or more). These are formulated with a higher viscosity rating to provide extra protection for aging engine components. Depending on the brand, high-mileage oils may be conventional, synthetic or blends.

Changing Your Oil

To change your oil, you’ll need some supplies. (You can easily purchase the following from eBay Motors or from your retailer of choice.)

  • Motor oil (check the owner’s manual to determine what viscosity you need and how many quarts are required)
  • A new oil filter (the part number is listed in the owner’s manual, but any auto parts store or website will have this information)
  • Oil drain plug gasket (only if required – again, refer to the manual)
  • Oil drain pan
  • A floor jack and jack stands, or ramps
  • Funnel
  • Socket wrench
  • Oil filter wrench
  • Shop towels
  • Rubber gloves
  • A plastic bag and a large piece of cardboard

    Lift Your Car

    The first step is to lift your vehicle so you can work under it (obviously, high clearance trucks and SUVs may not require this step). Drive it up the ramps or lift it with your jack and jack stands. Place the jack and jack stands only at strong, dedicated lifting points—your car’s user manual will tell you where those are.

    Drain the Oil

    Once your car is lifted, pop the hood, locate the oil fill spout on the engine (reference the manual if needed), and remove the cap. Place a piece of cardboard on the ground below the engine to catch any spills or drips. Underneath the vehicle, locate the oil pan drain plug, and place the drain pan underneath it, noting that the oil will likely pour outward in a heavy, arced stream and not directly down. Put on your gloves and loosen the drain plug (counterclockwise) with your socket wrench. Carefully remove it—oil will start dripping and then rapidly pour out once it’s removed. Let the oil completely drain into the pan.

    Replace the Oil Filter and Drain Plug

    Next, locate the oil filter – it is screwed onto the engine block and is likely most accessible from above. Usually, you can loosen it by turning it counterclockwise with your hand. Keep a towel or small bucket close by—the filter will leak oil as you loosen it. If it’s really stuck, use the oil filter wrench to free it. Remove the filter, including its rubber gasket, and place it in a plastic bag.

    Check the draining oil. Once the stream of used oil from your engine has stopped, wipe off the drain plug hole, put a new gasket on the drain plug (if required), and reinstall the drain plug with your socket wrench. Make sure it’s firmly snug, but don’t over-tighten it.

    Add Oil

    change your oil

    New bottles of motor oil have a transparent slit on the side that will help you keep track of how much oil you're using. First, gently pour a small amount of fresh oil into your new oil filter (fill it up about halfway) and dab some oil along its gasket with your finger, noting how much oil you use in this step. Screw the filter back onto its mounting point. It should be hand-tight—again, don’t overdo it.

    If you’re using jacks, lower your vehicle to the ground. If you’re using ramps, do not start your engine to move your car—there’s no oil in it!

    Put a funnel in the engine’s oil fill spout and add fresh oil, pouring slowly to avoid spills. Subtract the small amount you put in the filter from the engine’s total capacity—that’s how much you need to pour into the fill spout. Once you’ve hit that number, you're done. Screw the oil fill cap back on securely.

    Check the Oil Level

    check your oil

    Let the oil settle for a few minutes. If the car is on the ground, check the dipstick (pull it out, wipe it off, put it back in, and then pull it out again to check the indicator on its tip–the line of oil should be at the "full" mark). Add more oil if necessary. If your car is on ramps, you’ll need to return it to level ground for the dipstick to be accurate–now that there is oil in the engine, start the car and carefully back off the ramps. Turn off the engine, check your dipstick, and add more oil if necessary. Then run your engine for a couple of minutes and check underneath for leaks.

    If there are no leaks, your vehicle is ready to hit the road, and you're officially a mechanic. While it might seem like a lot of work, an oil change is a pretty simple and quick process. Better yet, with regular at-home oil changes, you’ll keep your car in good shape for many miles ahead.

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