Any mechanic will tell you: regular car maintenance is the best way to avoid expensive repairs and get the longest life out of your vehicle. Changing the oil is one of the most regular—and important—aspects of good car care. It’s simple task, usually done by your local mechanic, who often makes it easy to know when your vehicle will need the next change, via those ubiquitous stickers in the top left of your windshield.
And while taking your car in for regular servicing—including but sometimes not limited to an oil change—isn’t, in our opinion, the worst chore, and nor does it usually break the bank (most places charge between $25 and $35 for a standard change, but some can cost as much as $75), some of us have always wanted to change the oil ourselves. Call it thriftiness, call it self-reliance, or even wanting to connect with our vehicles, changing the oil is still one of those things most people can do themselves (with most cars).
How Often Does the Oil Really Need to be Changed?
The idea you might have is that the oil needs to be changed—in every vehicle, in every condition—every 3,000 miles. Depending on your vehicle (and its age and condition), you’ll probably be able to go at least twice that without a change. Edmunds.com’s Senior Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed told us drivers should, “Ignore the 3,000 mile mark, and instead check your oil change interval listed in your owner’s manual before doing a thing.” Today, Reed says, most automakers, “call for oil changes at either 7,500 or 10,000 miles, and the interval can go as high as 15,000
miles in some cars.” Edmunds.com also reminds car owners that they can (and should) trust their oil life monitoring system (standard in most newer cars). Reed notes, “Driven by an outdated 3,000-mile oil change commandment, drivers are unnecessarily spending millions of dollars and spilling an ocean of contaminated waste oil.”
Mechanic Matt from Metromile adds another detail: he says the oil should be changed at the recommended interval (as above) or every 6 months—whichever comes sooner. Matt says, “Engine oil can degrade and collect moisture if the car sits for too long, and moisture inside of an engine can be detrimental.”
A word of caution from Anthony Elder, the “Car Care Defender,” who has 25 years experience as a car service writer: he says, “A car never breaks down from too many oil changes but a car can break down from lack of oil changes.”
So, check your manual, and even ask your mechanic, but no matter what your oil-changing interval, remember it must be changed regularly.
Preparing to Change the Oil
There are a few take-stock type things you’ll need to do before you start. First, you need to figure out how much oil your car needs—this can vary by as much as two quarts from vehicle to vehicle, and even the same type of car might need different amounts depending on mileage and wear and tear. Your owner’s manual is the best place to find both the type and amount of oil your vehicle needs. Also, be sure to check whether your ride requires synthetic oil, or if there are any other specifications. Another good tip for first-timers looking to transition to do-it-yourself oil changes: Elder suggests having the oil changed professionally first, and then immediately noting the oil level on the dipstick. Write the level down (or better yet, take a photo) and later, when you’re changing the oil yourself, you can be sure you’ve got the right amount. Elder cautions that not putting in enough oil can cause the engine to seize, and putting in too much can cause slugging.
From Edmunds.com, a list of supplies you’ll need:
- Wrench to remove drain plug (box end or socket)
- Oil filter wrench
- Oil drain pan
- Latex gloves
- Jack and jack stands or ramps (optional, depends on ground clearance)—don’t use the tire-changing jack that came with your car. You need something stronger.
- Oil filter
- Replacement drain plug washer (depending on application)
How to Change the Oil
This video from Edmunds.com offers a step-by-step guide for changing the oil (in under five minutes!) and is just like having your own personal oil-changing tutor. You’ll get visuals of everything—it begins with the tools you need and takes you through each step (with explanations, so you know why you’re doing everything). You’ll also learn how to change the cartridge oil filter.
Step-by-Step Guide to Oil Changing (From The Art of Manliness):
Warm up your car. The oil needs to be warm–not too hot, though–so it all drains out. “To tell if your car is warmed up enough, just turn on your heater. When your feet get nice and toasty, you’re ready to drain the oil.”
Park the car on a flat surface and engage the parking brake. “If you have ramps, place them in front of your front wheels and drive up them. For added safety, put blocks behind both rear tires.”
Pop the hood and remove the oil filler cap.
Remove the oil plug. “Locate the oil plug underneath your car. It’s pretty easy to find. It’s a fairly large bolt on the oil pan’s bottom. Take an appropriate sized socket or wrench and start unscrewing the nut. If the nut is too tight, get a piece of pipe that’s a bit longer than your socket wrench and place it over your socket wrench’s handle. This will give you some added leverage.
Don’t remove the oil plug completely with your wrench or you risk getting oil all over the place. Loosen it enough so that you can start unscrewing it with your fingers. Before you remove the plug, place your drip pan underneath the hole. When everything looks lined up, remove the plug. Make sure to hold onto the oil plug tightly or else you’ll have to fish for it in your drip pan.”
Let the oil drain. It takes about 2 minutes for most engines to drain.
Remove the oil filter. “It could be on your engine’s side, back, bottom, or top. Just look at your new oil filter and start looking underneath your car for something that looks similar. That’s your oil filter. Oftentimes you can simply unscrew the filter by hand. However, if it’s too tight, bust out your filter wrench. Before you remove the filter, make sure to have your drip pan underneath it. Make sure the rubber gasket ring comes off with it. If it stays on the car, the new filter won’t get an adequate seal on the engine.”
Install the new oil filter. “Dip your finger in some new oil and smear it on the gasket ring of your new filter. This will help the filter seat better against the engine. Thread the new filter onto the hole where the oil filter goes. It doesn’t take much to tighten your oil filter. Tighten it with your fingers until it stops turning. Then give it one more strong half turn. Some oil filters come with instructions on how many turns you need to give a filter to tighten it. When in doubt, follow the instructions.”
Replace the oil plug. “Some mechanics suggest replacing the sealing washer on your oil plug before you start tightening it. If it’s a metal one in good condition, you can get away without replacing it. Put the washer in place and thread the drain plug back into its hole. Start tightening. When it’s nice and tight get out from under your car and remove the drip pan.
Refill the engine with oil. “Place your funnel in the oil filler hole on the top of your engine and start filling your car up with new oil. Once the oil is all in, screw on the oil cap and close the hood.”
Let the car run. “When you’re all done, start the car and let it run for about 5 minutes. This does two things. First, it allows your engine to regain proper oil pressure. Second, it gives you a chance to see if you have any leaks near your oil plug and oil filter. If you see any leaks, stop the car and tighten the plug and filter as needed.”
Dispose of your old oil. “Don’t dump your motor oil in a sewer or the trash. Instead, take it to a proper disposal location. Most states have laws that require quick lubes and gas stations to accept used motor oil from consumers for free or at a nominal cost. Just place your used oil in the drip pan in a couple of old milk jugs. You’ll need to use your funnel and a helping hand to make the transfer. Screw on the lids, put the jugs in the back of your car, and drop them off at your local quick lube. You can also give them your old oil filter.”
Your first oil change will probably take you about an hour, and after that, you’ll probably spend about 30 minutes, start to finish—much faster than driving to a mechanic, waiting, and driving home—and you could save up to $75 each oil change.
Do you have any oil changing tips? Tell us in the comments.