How and When To Check Your Oil

Your car's engine is filled with moving parts, and moving parts require adequate lubrication if they're to work properly. Motor oil provides that lubrication, meaning one of the most important things you can do to take care of your car is check your oil levels often. Seeing to it that your oil levels stay at ideal levels will not only help your car run better, but it will extend the life of your engine as well, saving you a small fortune in repair costs over time. Making sure your engine has enough clean oil is the best way to prevent harmful build-up that can affect performance as well. Here's a closer look at what you need to know to properly stay on top of things.

How Do I Check My Oil?

Even if you’ve never done it before, checking your oil is rather easy. Your car’s engine will be equipped with a dipstick that accurately measures the amount of oil in the oil pan.

How to Check Your Oil Level

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1. Park Your Car

Always park your car on level ground before checking your oil to ensure an accurate, easy read. Make sure you give your car about 1-2 minutes for the oil to settle back into the pan. While the engine is operating, a portion of the oil inside the oil pan is being circulated throughout the engine. This gives the oil time to settle and drain back into the pan.

2. Check at the Right Temperature

For the most part, it’s recommended that you also check your oil when your engine is cool to avoid dealing with a hot engine. However, some manufacturers recommend checking certain vehicles when the oil and engine are warm instead. Consult your owner’s manual to find out for sure which is best for your vehicle.

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3. Make Sure Your Car is Not On

Whether you do a warm or cool check, make sure your engine is off.

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4. Pull the Dipstick and Clean It

Locate your engine’s dipstick and pull it out. Gently and thoroughly wipe off any oil with a clean, soft cloth or paper towel.

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5. Reinsert the Dipstick

Put the dipstick back into its compartment and push it all the way down. Some dipsticks need to go back in the exact way they came out, so be sure to check this.

6. Remove the Dipstick Again

Pull it out again and make a note of how much of the stick is coated with oil. Although not all dipsticks are identical, every single one will have some clear way of indicating where your oil level currently is versus where it should be (e.g. low and high, L and H, or MIN and MAX).

If your oil levels are within recommended limits, then you’re good to go for now. Just make sure to keep checking back in the future. If your dipstick indicates that your levels are low, you’ll need to add more oil.

If things don’t look right (ie, nothing on the stick or way too much oil) when inspecting the dipstick, double check by re-inserting and removing again. Make sure the dipstick is completely seated in the tube and is put back in the proper way. If your second reading reveals the same thing, you will then need to react by adding oil or removing if over-full.

When you check your oil levels, it’s also important to check the condition of your oil, as it can tell you a lot about how your engine’s been running. Normal, healthy used motor oil is typically either black or brown and free of any visible pieces of debris. If you do see bits of debris in the oil, especially if they look like they might be made of metal, there’s a chance your engine has internal damage, or your oil filter has gone into complete bypass. Alternatively, your oil may appear cloudy, milky, or murky, which can mean you’re dealing with a coolant leak, like a blown head gasket.

In either case, it’s time to get your car to your favorite mechanic shop for further evaluation, or it’s time to dig in for some DIY diagnosing. However, if you do suspect a coolant leak, it’s important not to drive your car. You should have your car towed instead, as it’s better to be safe than sorry.

How Do I Add Oil to My Engine?

If you check your engine and levels indicate that you need oil, it’s easy enough to add some. If you don’t know for sure which grade of oil your vehicle requires, consult your owner’s manual to make sure. Most engine oil caps will designate the oil weight the engine requires. You can pick up any weight or type you need at an AutoZone near you. Then top off your oil according to the following directions:

  • Remove the cap to your oil tank. (In most cases, it will be located somewhere at the top of your engine.)
  • Carefully start adding your oil, preferably using a funnel to keep spills and drips to a minimum. It’s also important not to overfill your tank, as this can cause issues with your engine. Add oil in half quart increments at a time to prevent this.
  • After each half quart, give the oil a moment to settle into the tank. Then use your dipstick to retest the levels. Repeat this process until your oil levels are within recommended limits.
  • When finished, screw the oil tank cap back into place.

In most cases, a quart is going to be the most you’ll need to add in order to get your oil levels back to where they should be. Every so often though, especially if it’s been awhile since your last check, a second quart could be needed. If you find you need to add extra oil to your engine on a regular basis, you may want to have your vehicle checked to make sure it isn’t either leaking oil or burning it up.

It is vitally important that you do not overfill your engine with oil. An over-filled oil pan will result in the crankshaft striking and sloshing in the oil, which will cause cavitation and air bubbles in the oil. This is equally as bad as an engine running low on oil, so resist the temptation to over-fill an engine that is consistently using or leaking oil.

How Often Should I Check My Oil Levels?

Knowing when to check oil is just as important as knowing how, as consistency is the key to good automotive maintenance. Back in the day, full-service gas stations always checked oil during gas fill up. Today, it’s a great habit to check your oil every 3-4 fill-ups or every 1000 miles. Or, another benchmark would be to get into the habit of checking your vehicle’s oil levels once a month or so. (Checking once every couple of weeks is even better.) If your car is older or has a history of using oil between changes, it’s not a bad idea to check your oil even more often than that. You should also routinely check before taking long drives or going on long road trips of any type just to make sure your oil levels are where they need to be. The last thing you want is to wind up stranded in the middle of nowhere with low oil pressure or engine problems.

Keeping a close eye on the state of your engine is one of the smartest habits you can form when it comes to taking care of your vehicle. Learning to stay in the know with your oil levels is a great place to start. Get started today! If the job is too big for you, seek out one of our Preferred Shops to help you do the job.

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