Probably the most common and routine piece of maintenance that any driver can do for their car is checking the oil. Aside from maybe putting gas in your car, this is likely to be the most common thing that any of us think of doing for a vehicle. That said, many drivers will leave this for far too long because if we've never done it before it's not common practice and we don't think of it. Sometimes you can intend on doing it, but it just slips your mind and then it can end up becoming a big problem down the road because it's not getting done when it needs to be done.
Although it may not seem like a big deal, keeping your oil clean and changing it regularly is one of the easiest and best things you can do to ensure a long life for any vehicle. Clean oil in your engine will keep it running smoother and longer and can help you avoid some extremely expensive repair bills down the road when something goes wrong.
Knowing that routine oil change can help keep your car running for a long time is one thing, but the fact remains that you need to know exactly when you should be changing your oil before you can go about doing it. No one wants to be changing their oil every 1,000 miles, but you don't want to be waiting 50,000 miles to get it done either. So just how long can a car go before it needs to have an oil change? Let's find out.
What Affects Oil Change Intervals?
Not every driver is going to drive their car the same way and that will have an effect on how often you need to change your oil. While it used to be a standard rule of thumb that you change your oil every 3,000 miles that really doesn't apply to every driver in every vehicle.
In general there are two different kinds of maintenance schedules that affect oil changes. You can have a normal maintenance schedule or a severe service maintenance schedule. You may be surprised to learn what exactly severe service is because it affects more drivers than you might think.
Severe Service Maintenance Schedule: When you hear these terms you probably think of a long-haul truck or a race car. Something that's pushing the engine or doing a lot of hard work all the time. And while that may be true, according to most vehicle owner’s manuals there is a much broader definition of what qualifies as severe service for a vehicle. If you drive your car in the following conditions, you might qualify as a severe service maintenance schedule user:
- Driving in extreme weather conditions including high heat, freezing cold, or dusty climates
- Frequent stopping and starting such as a delivery vehicle or a cab. If you drive for Lyft or Uber, that might qualify as well.
- Carrying heavy loads or trailers such as again delivery drivers or long-haul truckers
- Short Trip Drivers. Many people don't think of this when they think of severe service maintenance but if you primarily take short trips of five miles or less, you're actually putting more stress on your vehicle than you think and may require more frequent oil changes.
If your vehicle falls under any of those conditions you may need a more intense maintenance schedule. However, if you wouldn't say that you fall under any of those conditions then you would not necessarily need an oil change as often as some might recommend. The best thing you can do is check the owner’s manual for your vehicle and it will tell you what the recommended oil change time is for normal maintenance and severe service so that you can see the difference and decide for yourself where you fit in.
Newer Cars: On older vehicles it really was a matter of following the recommendations in your owner's manual or giving it your best guess to determine when an oil change is needed. Most new cars have oil monitoring systems that will tell you when you need to change your oil by having a light that pops up on your instrument panel. These rely on sensors in your car that are able to monitor the condition of your vehicle and the performance and determine how degraded your oil is so that you can change it when necessary. It's fairly sophisticated and also fairly reliable. However, not every vehicle has this and therefore it's still good to know your basic rules of thumb for other vehicles.
One thing to remember about how this oil monitoring system works in new cars is that it lets you know when you need to have your oil changed. That doesn't mean you can stop monitoring your oil because you may need to add new oil frequently if you're going through a lot of it. Some vehicles can burn through a quart of oil in as little as 600 miles. For that reason, it's still important to keep an eye on your oil levels and add new oil as necessary.
How Often Should You Change Your Oil: A Basic Guide
While it's all well and good to say that you should just check your owner's manual, there are some general guidelines that you can follow to give you a ballpark idea so that you don't constantly have to refer to the glove box of your car to figure out everything. Let's take a look at some of the most common numbers that you're going to see tossed around and see how they apply to different vehicles and different drivers
1,000 Miles: Believe it or not there are some recommendations that oil should be changed as frequently as every 1,000 miles in a vehicle. As we said before the old rule of thumb was every 3,000 miles but that's kind of gone by the wayside. So how is it possible that some people may recommend even more frequent oil changes? In fact, this relates to that severe maintenance schedule we mentioned earlier. Although this is by no means set in stone, there are some mechanics who will recommend a 1,000-mile oil change if you are an infrequent driver that only takes extremely short trips.
If you're driving less than 10 miles every day and you're staying within the city, that means you're never getting up to highway speeds, your vehicle could be in more trouble than you realize. By not pushing your engine on a regular basis it can't get up to optimal operating temperatures. That means the oil in your engine isn't heating up fully and if there's any moisture developing in it, particularly condensation which is hard to avoid, it may not be able to boil off properly. That means that you'll have moisture circulating through your engine regularly which can cause corrosion and more extensive damage then you could realize. Essentially you are increasing wear and tear by not pushing your vehicle as hard as you can.
Fortunately, you can help avoid this by taking the time once a week or so to really push your engine. Head out on the highway for a short drive of 10 or 15 minutes where you get it up to a good speed so your engine can heat up and you can really boil off any of that water that's in there that could damage your engine over the long-term.
3,000 Miles: You'll definitely hear 3,000 miles quoted as the average time you should get oil change but that really is kind of an antique notion these days. Modern motor oil is a lot more technologically advanced that it was back in the day when the 3,000-mile rule was in play. These days modern lubricants last longer and work far more efficiently such that three thousand miles really is a bit of overkill. In fact, you may end up causing more harm than good if you replace the engine oil this often and it certainly going to cost you more time and money than you need. Again, always check your owner's manual, but the odds are you will not need to get your oil changed quite this often.
5,000 to 7,500 Miles: For most cars these days the 5,000 mile to 7,500-mile range is about average for changing your oil. This accommodates most normal drivers and most vehicles as well that aren't any sort of high-performance cars or those things that fall under the severe maintenance schedule we mentioned earlier.
15,000 Miles: 15,000 miles may seem pretty extreme but it's possible that your car can actually go this long without an oil change and do so safely. If you're using full synthetic motor oil then 10,000 miles to 15,000 miles is not unreasonable at all. Synthetic motor oil isn’t the best idea for every vehicle however, so again this is one of those case by case things that you should check with your owner's manual to be sure about.
How to Tell You Need an Oil Change
Aside from following the regularly scheduled maintenance for when you need an oil change in your vehicle there are some signs and symptoms that you want to be aware of that will let you know there's a problem with your oil and it should be changed sooner rather than later.
Noises from the Engine
Because oil helps lubricate all the moving parts in your engine as well as cooling it down, if you don't have enough oil in your engine or if the quality is no longer good then it's not going to be able to do its job properly. That's going to increase noise from your engine in the form of knocking and rumbling sounds. Those are definitely not the kind of noises you want to hear and if they're allowed to continue it means your engine is basically breaking itself apart. Check your oil as soon as you can and get it changed if you need to.
It's not always easy to tell the quality of oil from a glance. Brand new, clean oil is golden to amber in color and also slightly translucent. The older and more contaminated it gets the darker it's going to get, and it may also fill with particles and debris. That's why you check your oil with the dipstick and wipe it off to take a look at the colour and the quality of it. Checking your oil at least once a month is a good way to keep an eye on how things are doing so you can tell if you need it changed or not. A little bit of darkness is going to be natural the longer you use your oil but if it's burnt black looking and muddy then you definitely need an oil change.
Smoke from Your Exhaust
Your car should not be producing smoke out of the back end under any circumstances. A little bit of moisture vapour is normal, but if you have grey or blue smoke coming out of the back of your vehicle then that's definitely a problem and indicates that you're burning oil somewhere inside your vehicle.
The Smell of Oil
You shouldn't be able to smell much of anything related to your car when you're sitting inside behind the wheel. If you're noticing an oil smell, then you probably have an oil leak somewhere. If you can also smell exhaust or gas, then your car is likely overheating.
If you've been pushing your car a lot harder than usual over the last month or so, especially if you've done some serious driving across country or you've found that you're doing a lot more driving for work, such as doing deliveries or driving an Uber or something like that, and there's every reason to believe that your oil is going to need to be changed much sooner than you're used to. If you're pushing your car a lot harder than normal, check your oil more frequently than you're used to so you can stay on top of oil changes when they need to happen.
The Bottom Line
Engine oil is the lifeblood of your vehicle and keeps your car running smoothly and at the correct temperature. If you don't keep up on oil changes, your engine is going to suffer as a result. Not only will you have poor performance, but the engine will overheat and wear out eventually causing serious damage. The cost of replacing parts of your engine like pistons, a cracked cylinder head, and so on can end up costing you many thousands of dollars in repair bills. Best to spend just a few dollars on an oil change so you can avoid that.