Change the Oil and Filter

Auto parts stores and other large retail stores have a variety of oil brands. Select a brand suggested by your car's manufacturer or mechanic.

Auto parts stores and other large retail stores have a variety of oil brands. Select a brand suggested by your car’s manufacturer or mechanic.

Oil is the life-blood of your car’s engine—and the engine is a pretty important part of your car. So making sure that the oil is doing its job is a vital part of maintenance. Here’s where you can save some time, money, and potential repairs with an investment of less than 30 bucks about four times a year. This Fix-It Guide offers step-by-step instructions for the most popular do-it-yourself car care job: change the oil and filter. It includes info on what parts and tools you’ll need to do the job in less than an hour. Once you get some experience you can cut that time in half. And you’ll know the job is done by someone who cares about your car, rather than by a minimum-wage daydreamer who may forget to put on the new filter.

Oil Basics

The crankshaft makes 1,000 to 6,000 revolutions per minute (rpm). That’s a lot of metal-on-metal friction. What keeps the engine from burning up is a petroleum product called “oil,” a lubricant. In addition, additives such as cleaners help the oil remove and suspend carbon (from the fuel burning process) and fine metal particles (from wear). Oil is a great lubricant and won’t wear out (quit lubricating) for a long time.

As the oil circulates through the engine it passes through an oil filter that traps the suspended carbon and metal particles—until the filter becomes saturated. Then the bad stuff circulates with the oil, potentially causing damage to the engine’s moving parts. If nothing else, the saturated oil begins clogging the engine’s “arteries” or oil passages until the engine finally has a “heart attack” or failure.

In addition, acids build up in oil. As the engine reaches running temperature, some acids are removed by the positive-crankcase ventilation (p.v.c.) valve. Short road trips don’t allow the engine to reach optimum temperature, so acids stay in the oil and the oil needs to be changed more often.

Car Words

Oil is a petroleum product that lubricates metal parts to reduce wear due to friction. Synthetic oil offers the same or better properties, but is more expensive. Blended oil combines petroleum and synthetic oils for some benefits at a lower cost.

Oil Change Intervals

So, when should you change the oil and filter in your car? Obviously, before the oil becomes a problem rather than a solution. When is that? Modern car manufacturers recommend changing oil every 5,000 to 7,500 miles under normal conditions.

However, the many cars are driven under what are called “severe conditions.” That is, they are driven in cold climates (where oil has to work harder), dusty locations (where sand or dirt particles from the outside air can enter the combustion chamber), or on lots of short or stop-and-go trips (when the engine doesn’t warm up or oil doesn’t circulate well). Under these conditions, most car manufacturers suggest that you change the oil twice as often. That means every 2,500 to 3,750 miles—or every three months, whichever comes first. The additives in oil can lose their functionality if they just sit inside the engine for months without being circulated, so a time limit is suggested.

Okay, here’s my recommendation, based on owning and maintaining numerous gas and diesel cars, trucks, and RVs over more than 40 years and asking dozens of experts for their advice. Change the oil and filter in your car every 5,000 miles or every four months, whichever occurs first. You really don’t have to pull over to the side of the road and change the oil at 5,125 miles! You can guestimate about when it will be needed again and schedule it to fall on a day off or when it’s most convenient. Just keep this fact in mind: An oil change costs less than $30—less than 1 percent of the cost of a new engine.

Okay, I’ll stop talking and show you how to change your car’s oil and filter in a matter of minutes.

Fix-It Tip

If your car is still under new-car warranty, make sure you change the oil at least as frequently as is recommended by the manufacturer. Also, keep a record of oil/filter changes in your Car Journal and hold on to receipts to show when and how often you changed the oil and filter.

Oil Change Parts and Tools

Gather the parts and tools you need to change your car's oil and filter efficiently.

Gather the parts and tools you need to change your car’s oil and filter efficiently.

The first step to change the oil and filter is gathering the needed parts and tools in a safe work environment. Here are the parts and tools for a typical car’s oil change (pickup trucks and SUVs may use two or three times as much oil; see the Owner’s Manual):

  • 4-5 quarts of oil
  • Oil filter
  • 5+ quart oil collection container
  • Oil funnel
  • Drain plug wrench
  • Oil filter wrench
  • Jack and stands for supporting the car
  • An old blanket or a mechanics creeper for going under the car
  • Protective gloves or hand cleaner

Selecting Oil

Your car’s owner’s manual will tell you not only how much oil is required to fill it, but also what grade or weight of oil. The weight measure is the viscosity or thickness of the oil. Ten-weight oil is thinner than 30-weight oil. A 10W-30 oil acts like it’s 10-weight when it’s cold (less drag when starting the engine) and 30-weight when it warms up. The W in 10W is the “winter weight.” Cars that are always in warmer climates all year may not require 10W. As a car’s engine begins to wear, heavier weight oil can keep it from “burning” (actually losing oil around the pistons) oil. One more thing: buy oil that’s rated for gasoline engines—unless your car’s engine is diesel. If in doubt, ask your favorite auto parts clerk.

That’s about it. In fact, you can buy a year’s worth of oil and filters and store them so you don’t have to run out to buy everything at the last minute. Oil in a can or bottle can be stored two years or more depending on what additives are in the oil.

You’re a good environmental citizen so you’re going to properly dispose of the oil once it’s drained. Fortunately, many auto parts retailers have facilities for recycling used oil so ask them as you buy your oil how to best dispose of it. Alternately, there are environmentally-friendly oil collection containers that absorb the old oil so it can be trashed. Your auto parts store can tell you what’s available—and what’s allowed.

Selecting an Oil Filter

This cutaway of a car oil filter shows construction.

This cutaway of a car oil filter shows construction.

Early cars didn’t have oil filters. You simply ran your car for a month or 1,000 miles, then drained the oil in to a bucket or on to the ground somewhere, replaced the plug and refilled the oil. Today’s cars use an oil filter and better oils with additives to put thousands of miles between more environmentally-friendly oil changes. The right oil filter for your car is one that meets or exceeds the manufacturer’s recommendations. Each brand of oil filter may have a different part number, but all are cross-referenced in a parts book at most auto parts stores. Which brand of filter should you buy? Ask your parts supplier for a recommendation.

Fix-It Tip

Oil filter cartridges are made up of filter paper, the heavier the filter the better quality it probably is. Sometimes, just comparing filters side-by-side indicates which seems like it’s made with better quality materials. Buy the heavier oil filter.

Change the Oil and Filter

Auto parts stores have a variety of oil filter wrenches to help remove the filter from the engine.

Auto parts stores have a variety of oil filter wrenches to help remove the filter from the engine.

To change the oil and filter in your car, you’re going to drain all of the oil from the engine into a container and remove the old filter, then replace the filter and oil with new stuff. Here are the steps:

1. Run the engine until it reaches normal operating temperature (so the oil flows easily), then turn the engine OFF. (Of course, make sure your work space has sufficient ventilation.)

2. Remove the oil filler cap located on the top of the engine’s valve cover, typically marked OIL. (If it says 710 the cap is upside down! ;-))

3. Raise and safely support the front (or back) of the vehicle, depending on where the engine is, with a jack and stands.

4. Slide the drain pan under the oil pan’s drain plug, a bolt head located at the lowest point on the engine. Be careful to not touch the warm engine.

5. Loosen the drain plug using a correctly-sized socket or box wrench (not an adjustable wrench) so the plug isn’t damaged.

6. Carefully remove the drain plug so the hot oil that begins flowing falls into the drain pan and not on to your hands. Allow all the oil to drain out of the pan before proceeding. While you’re waiting, inspect the drain plug and washer for damage, replacing as needed.

7. Carefully move the drain pan under the filter to catch oil as the filter is removed.

8. Slip the oil filter wrench over the end of the filter until it is near the engine. Then move the filter handle until it cinches down on the filter and begins turning it counter-clockwise or off. Unscrew the filter cartridge by hand, then carefully tip it so hot oil in the filter flows into the drain pan. Once drained, wipe excess oil from the filter connection.

9. Make sure that all oil has drained from the pan and the filter connection, then clean and replace the drain plug and tighten with a wrench.

Replace the filter, carefully twisting it clockwise on the center shaft, tightening it by hand only.

Replace the filter, carefully twisting it clockwise on the center shaft, tightening it by hand only.

10. Replace the filter, carefully twisting it clockwise on the center shaft, tightening it by hand only. Don’t use the filter wrench. (The filter container is relatively thin and can be crushed or punctured. Oops!)

11. Once you’re positive that the drain plug and filter have been properly replaced, jack up the car slightly and carefully remove the stands. Slowly lower the jack and remove it from under the car.

12. Remove the oil filler cap (if not already off) and insert the oil funnel in the opening, making sure that it will not leak when oil is poured.

13. Make sure you know exactly how much oil is required to fill the engine with filter. Then remove the cap or use an opener to open the first can of oil and carefully pour it into the oil funnel. Allow all of the oil to drain from the container before removing.

14. Continue pouring oil into the funnel until the recommended oil capacity is reached. If a partial quart of oil is required, estimate conservatively as you pour in the last amount. (Marks on the side of the oil container will help you estimate.) It’s easier to add oil than to remove.

15. Reinstall the oil filler cap and wait a few minutes until all oil has drained to the bottom of the engine. You can spend the time cleaning up.

16. Use the oil dipstick to check the oil level as described in Check Under the Hood. If within the FULL range, replace the dipstick and start the engine to warm up the oil.

17. Let the engine cool for a few minutes while the engine oil drains to the oil pan. Then recheck the oil level and, if needed, add oil to the FULL line.

18. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done!

Rub the cooled oil with your finger to check for metal particles and grit that could indicate excessive engine wear.

Rub the cooled oil with your finger to check for metal particles and grit that could indicate excessive engine wear.

To see how gooky oil can become, dip your finger (au natural or gloved) into the old oil collection pan and take a look. Comparing its color, texture, and smell to new oil can tell you about your engine’s condition.