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 and smoothly. 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 a snap. If you have a newer model car, it may even come equipped with a built-in electronic monitor that automatically keeps track of your oil levels for you. If not, your car's oil tank will be equipped with a dipstick that will make it nearly as easy to check things out. If you'll be using the dipstick method, follow these simple steps.

Time for a Change?

How to Check Your Oil Level

1

Park Your Car

Always park your car on level ground before checking your oil to ensure an accurate, easy read.

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 burning yourself. 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.

3

Make Sure Your Car is Not On

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

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.

5

Reinsert the Dipstick

Put the dipstick back into its compartment and push it all the way down.

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.

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 could be damaged internally. Alternatively, your oil may appear cloudy, milky, or murky, which can mean you’re dealing with a coolant leak.

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 Tank?

If you check your tank 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. You can pick up an inexpensive supply of the kind 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.

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. Ideally speaking, it’s a good idea 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 engine trouble, it’s not a bad idea to check your oil even more often than that. You should also give your tank a check before taking long drives or going on long road trips of any type just to make sure your engine’s in good working order. The last thing you want is to wind up stranded in the middle of nowhere thanks to an engine that unexpectedly went kaput.

Keeping a close eye on the state of your engine is one of the smartest habits you can form when it come to taking care of your vehicle and learning to stay in the know with your oil levels is a great place to start. Get started today!

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