A little elbow grease goes a long way: How to change your car’s oil
When it comes to the integral functions of your automobile, engine oil is as important to a motor as blood is to our bodies. Without engine oil, none of the internal parts would be properly lubricated for long-term function, which is what enables most cars these days to travel hundreds of thousands of miles. Engines house a considerable amount of oil that sits at the bottom of the motor (or in a separate feeding tank in a dry-sump case). It’s then pumped throughout the motor to lubricate everything from the crankshaft to the valvetrain.
Because of the importance of engine oil as crucial fluid, it’s equally important to make sure the oil inside an engine is kept fresh, demanding replacement at intervals recommended by the manufacturer. Through constant use and time, oil degrades and gets dirty and thus, loses some of its ability to keep things slick. That’s why it’s necessary to change your engine oil when it’s time to do so.
Generally, the average interval of changing your oil typically happens every 7,500 miles or every couple of years, which ever comes first and is typically set by the factory. It also depends on whether you’re using traditional organic “dino” oil or artificial synthetic oil—synthetic tends to last longer than “dino” oil and is usually preferred in most cases.
Changing the oil on your car can be a grimy task to say the least. For that very reason, many individuals simply shell out the extra cash and let any number of mechanics handle the dirty work for them. Taking on the task yourself, however, can save you plenty of money over the lifetime of your vehicle and will add to your ever building list of life skills learned.
So here’s our quick crash course on how to change your engine oil.
First, you’ll need to buy the supplies needed to conduct this maintenance job, which means you have to buy replacement oil and some other simple tools.
You will need:
- Car jacks or floor ramps
- A basic socket wrench set
- An oil filter wrench
- A couple of rags or a roll of paper towels
- Rubber or latex gloves to make washing your hands easier
- An oil drain catch pan
- A clean funnel
Identify the oil weight required by your engine, typically found in the owners manual. Some new cars have it stamped into the oil cap. Then purchase the required quantity of oil as indicated in the manual. For instance, as indicated by the engine oil recommendation for a 2002 Jaguar XJ8, its 4.0L naturally-aspirated V8 takes 7.4 quarts of 5W-30 or 0W-40 weight oil if the car is operating in a generally mild ambient temperature range. In the second photo of the oil recommendation for a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL, the use of 10W-40 or 10W-50 weight oil is ideal for most year-round operating temperatures for its 4.5L V8. Lastly, the 2017 Cadillac ATS-V Coupe indicates its oil weight requirement on its engine oil cap for its 3.6L V6–5W-30.
You’ll then have to purchase an oil filter at your local auto parts or department store. They often have dedicated aisles for motor oil and associated filters. Typically, a buyer’s catalog is available next to the shelves with oil filters. There, you can look up your vehicle in this catalog, find its oil filter part number, and locate the item on the shelf so that you can purchase it.
Step 1 – Park your car on a flat surface with plenty of room to work
You’re most likely going to have to raise the end of your vehicle where the engine sits. So you will want plenty of space to work and most of all, your car to be on a flat surface so that when you jack it up, it does not roll.
Note: Be sure to let the engine and subsequent oil inside to sufficiently cool before starting the draining process.
Step 2 – Raise the end of your vehicle where your engine sits.
For most, it’s at the front and for some unique and exotic cars, like on a Porsche Boxster, the engine sits at the middle. See our guide on how to jack up our car, here.
Although many SUVs and trucks have enough clearance beneath their frame for you to perform an oil change, the majority of smaller vehicles have minimal clearance and must be elevated — using either a ramp, lift, or jack — before you can get started. If you use the latter method, ensure the vehicle is securely positioned on a level surface (using a wheel block or another method) before climbing beneath.
Step 3 – Locate the oil pan and drain plug
Now that you’re under the car, the next step is to locate the oil pan and drain plug. If you’re unsure of where the oil pan and drain plug is on your vehicle, refer to your owner’s manual.
Here is the location of the oil drain plug at the bottom of the motor on our 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL restoration project. It requires a 14mm hex socket bit in order to be removed.
Once correctly identified, place your oil drain pan directly under the drain plug and position it to be ready to catch the oil directly beneath and a few inches ahead of the plug. Remove the engine oil cap from the top of the motor so that the engine can drain its oil easier by displacing the flowing oil with air.
Step 4 – Open up the the oil pan’s drain plug and allow the oil to drain
Turn the plug’s screw in a counter-clockwise motion (remember, right-tighty, lefty-loosey) with the appropriate sized socket or bit.
It may take a few minutes for the engine to drain entirely, but when the steady stream of oil has become a sporadic drip, you’re now ready for the next step. Screw the oil plug back into place with a clockwise motion, along with the washer if it needs replacing.
Step 5 – Remove your old oil filter and replace with a new one
Once most of the oil is drained from the engine and the pan plug is refitted, locate your engine oil filter. It’s normally a cylindrical piece that extends out from either the side or the bottom of the motor. On some automobiles, like on certain Subarus, the oil filter is accessible from the top of the motor. However, it’s important to note that it varies greatly by car and what engine it comes with. Therefore, it’s much easier to just identify what an oil filter looks like so you can find it on any engine.
On some older vehicles, like our restoration Mercedes, the oil filter is an interchangeable element locked into a sealed container housing and all you have to do is remove the container to replace the element that sits inside. Most new cars these days utilize cartridge filters, which screw in and out of the motor very easily.
Using either a pair of wide-grip pliers or an oil filter wrench, unscrew the oil filter from where it sits (righty-tighty, lefty loosey). Be sure to position your drain pan under the oil filter’s location as oil contained in the filter will leak out and need to be drained. Once unscrewed completely, just allow it to drop into your pan so it can continue emptying.
Replace the old filter with the one you just purchased at the store, making sure you replace the gasket that usually comes with the filter. Do not over-tighten the new filter as you run the risk of stripping the threads on the filter housing, creating a much bigger problem than you ought to have. Typically tightening it as best you can with your hand is as tight as the oil filter needs to be.
Before adding the new filter, apply a little oil to the rubber ring along the filter’s edge. This will help create a better seal and should also make it easier to remove the filter when it comes time to change your car’s oil again.
Step 6 – Add the new oil
Rest easy, the hardest part is now behind you. Simply pour in the oil per your vehicle’s requirements and make sure nothing leaks from the drain plug or the oil filter housing. If this does occur, tighten the necessary components.
If your engine requires seven quarts, remember to only put seven quarts in! Too much or too little oil can mean the premature death of your motor, turning your car into one very expensive paperweight. Oil is sold in either single-quart containers or five-quart jugs. So if you need seven quarts, you can buy seven individual containers or buy two five-quart jugs, which equal 10 quarts. Buying the jugs often comes at a discount to individual quarts and there’s no harm in having a little extra left over for times you need to top off the motor in between changes.
Both types of oil containers feature scales that help you measure the oil quantity remaining in a container as you’re pouring it in.
Step 7 – Check your oil level, replace engine oil cap, start engine
Once you’re done filling the correct amount, check the oil level with the engine’s dipstick. It protrudes out the side of the motor with a hook. Wipe off the dipstick, replace it until it’s completely seated down, and remove once more. Make sure the oil level is in between the indicators on your dipstick, which tells you that there’s enough oil in the pan.
You’re now ready to start the engine. Let the motor run for a moment and then recheck the oil levels using the dipstick to ensure a proper fill. It’s also important to monitor the oil pressure gauge on the gauge cluster (if equipped) to make sure everything is copacetic. On newer cars, just make sure it doesn’t throw up any warning lights or signals on any of the displays regarding low engine oil pressure.
If everything checks out, wash your hands and give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back.
Don’t forget to recycle your oil. Most drain pans allow you to pour used oil back into spent new-oil containers for safe transport. Pour your old oil into a sealed and transferable containers and take it to your local auto parts store or mechanic shop. There, they will dispose of your used oil safely, free of charge.
With most new cars today, manufacturers simply decided to make oil changes easy, convenient, and affordable at their dealership locations. Alternatively, it’s also just as easy, convenient, and affordable to have it done any any reputable mechanic shop. Additionally, paying someone else to do it also buys a little bit of security. If the shop screws up and ends up killing your engine by accident, it’s on them to take responsibility. If you change your oil yourself, the responsibility is on you doing it correctly.
While changing out your engine oil is a very easy process and one that isn’t hard to mess up, a mess up can mean catastrophic failure. So just remember there is some risk involved, but it is unlikely as long as you follow these steps.
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