Your car's oil is essentially the lifeblood of the vehicle. While you can consider gasoline food that gives it energy to run, without oil it doesn't matter what you put in the gas tank because the engine simply can't move and do what it's supposed to do unless it's properly lubricated.
Motor oil has a dual function in the engine of your vehicle. First is lubrication because there are many moving parts in your engine that have to keep moving smoothly and cleanly at a very fast pace, for a very long time. The second function is cooling. All of these moving parts generate a lot of friction which creates extreme heat. If they're not well lubricated by oil, it can cause serious damage as your engine overheats. A poorly lubricated engine can lead to the warping of cylinders, pistons, valves and more. Eventually, you can suffer a complete engine breakdown if it overheats on you and the cost of repairing or replacing an engine can be many thousands of dollars. For that reason, you want to maintain your engine oil as best as you can. And that means checking it on a regular basis to ensure that it is both clean and at the correct level in the tank.
How Do You Know When Your Oil is Low?
Obviously, the best way to know if your oil levels have gone low is to have regular inspections by checking the dipstick. However, sometimes we forget to keep on top of that routine maintenance and then sometimes there are problems which will cause your oil levels to drop unexpectedly. Whatever the case, there are some signs you can be on the lookout for to let you know if your oil levels have dropped low and that you'll need to top them up.
Oil Pressure Warning Light: The oil pressure warning light exists just to let you know that you have a problem with your oil pressure, so this is the clearest sign you'll have that there's a problem with your oil. There's a sensor that monitors the fluid levels and will be tripped when the levels get too low. When you see the light come on your dashboard, and it looks like an old timey oil can, you're going to want to take a look under the hood and either take your car to get serviced or add some more oil if necessary.
Noises: Because oil is responsible for lubricating your engine, when it gets low the various moving parts of your engine are going to start grinding and clunking together. If you hear knocking, thumping, grinding sounds while you're driving that's a very good sign that you have low oil and you're going to need to get it taken care of quickly. These sounds mean that you're already starting the process of damaging your engine, so if you ignore them for too long it could lead to total engine failure.
Burning Smell: Your oil could be leaking from somewhere in your system and if it is, it may drip on to the hotter parts of your engine which will cause it to start to burn. If you're noticing the distinct smell of burning oil, and especially if you see smoke, you definitely want to pull over as soon as you can. You need to let your engine cool down and then get it checked out by a mechanic as soon as possible.
Overheating Engine: You're going to want to pay attention to the temperature of your engine when you're driving. If you notice that your temperatures are routinely heading into the hot range, and the needle is pointing to red very often then that means your engine is overheating and the most likely cause of this is low or contaminated oil. If your engine isn't properly lubricated by engine oil, it will heat up very quickly and cause some serious damage. This will lower the performance of your vehicle overall and could lead to some extremely costly repair bills down the road.
Poor Performance: If your engine isn't properly lubricated by the correct amount of oil, it's going to struggle harder to get the job done. As a result, the harder it works, the worse it actually performs. This is because it's simply struggling to do the job that it's supposed to be doing. So, you're going to get worse fuel economy overall, and you'll be spending more money to gas up.
How Much Oil Should Be on the Dipstick?
You should be changing the oil in your car every 5,000 miles to 7,500 miles. If you use synthetic oil you can actually go for 10,000 to 15,000 miles. These are the rules of thumb for changing oil however, but very rarely do we hear about how often you should be just checking the level of oil in your car. Again, this depends on the kind of car you have. New cars actually have oil sensors that let you know that your oil is gone low so you don't need to be as adamant about lifting the hood and looking inside all the time. However, older cars will still require you to do a visual inspection by pulling out the dipstick and taking a look.
For the most part, you should be doing this every couple of weeks. Back in the day it was actually not unheard-of to literally check your oil every time you stopped to get gas. If you have a nice vintage car you might still want to be doing this. If your car is a little more recent than all that then it could be overkill to check your oil this often, but it doesn't hurt to make sure you're checking it at least once a month to see how it's looking.
When you pull the dipstick out of your oil tank, you're going to want to have a clean, lint free rag handy to wipe it clean with. Every automobile dipstick is going to have marks on it that let you know where the maximum and minimum fill lines are for the oil in your tank. The only thing you need to worry about is what those marks are because they actually aren't the same on every single car.
Although all the marks indicate the same thing, they do tend to come in a variety of looks. For instance, many dipsticks will use the pinhole indicators to show maximum and minimum range. That means you'll have two pin holes a certain distance apart. The top pinhole is going to be the maximum fill and the lower one will be the minimum fill point. Anything in between those two is considered good. If it's above the top or below the bottom, then you have a problem with your oil levels.
Other dipsticks use the much more concise max and min indicators. That means that the words MAX and MIN will be literally inscribed into the metal with a line under them so you can see exactly how much oil you should have in your vehicle. Similarly, some use an H and an L. H is the high mark and the L will be the low mark to let you know the range in which your oil should be sitting. Finally, some dipsticks will use a hatch pattern across a small space. If the oil falls within the hatch pattern it is in their correct range. It's above that obviously you're too high, and if it's below then you are too low.
Remember when you check your oil that you want to pull the dipstick out, wipe it clean, reinsert it, and then pull it out again to check the levels. That will give you the most accurate reading of how much oil is in your tank.
Should You Check Your Engine Oil When the Engine is Hot or Cold?
The standard rule of thumb for this practice is to make sure that you have your car parked on a flat, even patch of ground. If you're parked on a slight incline that's going to skew the oil reservoir in your car so that when you check the oil, you're going to get an incorrect measurement.
Once you are parked on flat ground, let your engine cool down before you actually check the oil. This is just good advice for any work that you're doing under the hood because a hot engine is just that, hot. You don't want to burn yourself by touching something unintentionally when you lean over, and the underside of your arm hits it. That said, there are some makes and models of car that will recommend you check your oil when your engine is at least warm. That doesn't mean hot, it means you let it run for a little while, and then cool down again, but it's not stone cold. The reason for this is that it allows the oil to flow a little more evenly and smoothly when it is warmed up to operating temperature. But again, that's really specific to certain vehicles which you will find in the owner's manual and for the most part checking it when it's cold is going to be good enough for any car. If you have to choose between the two, go for cold.
Can I Just Add Oil to My Car Instead of Getting an Oil Change?
This is a yes or no kind of a question. You can add oil to your car if your oil level is low and it's still in good condition based on a quick visual inspection. However, if your oil has gotten very dark or cloudy, and especially if it has grit floating in it that you can feel when you rub it between your fingers then your oil has been badly degraded. In that case, you don't want to add oil to it because it won't really fix the problem. You'll still be circulating bad oil throughout your engine which could cause unnecessary wear and overheating. If you have badly contaminated oil your best course of action is to get it changed completely and then add new oil to the tank.
What Happens if the Oil Level is Too High?
You always hear about your engine oil being too low, but you rarely hear what happens when you add too much by accident. And you really can add too much. The dangers of having too little oil are clear but there is also some danger in overfilling your oil tank as well.
If you have too much oil in your car then the oil pan level will overfill. That means it's going to get splashed around inside of your engine and cover things like the crankshaft lobes and so on. As these moving parts keep hitting the oil that is too full in the pan they are doing so at a very high rate of speed. If you ever tried to whip up oil in your kitchen to make mayonnaise or a salad dressing, you may know what's going to happen next. As you rapidly whip oil it creates an emulsification. That means your oil is going to get frothy and it will slow down its ability to flow properly through your engine and lubricate all the moving parts. So effectively by adding too much oil you're creating a situation where your engine does not get enough oil to properly lubricate all of these parts and keep the temperature down.
If you see on your dipstick that the oil level is well above the maximum fill line, you're going to want to remove some of that oil. That just means loosening the drain plug the same way that you would prepare for an oil change and just let a little bit flow out into a container before putting the plug back in and checking the levels again to make sure they're where you want them to be.
The Bottom Line
Next to gassing up your vehicle, checking your oil should be the thing you do most often with your car. It only takes a couple of minutes and making sure that your oil looks good and it's at the right level can save a lot of frustration and a lot of money in the long run. If you're finding your levels are too low, you can top it up yourself when it's still clean, or get an oil change done by a professional we should probably only cost you between $20 and $50 to get done