Checking your engine oil is a necessary part of regular car maintenance. Your engine oil is the lifeblood of your vehicle and without it your engine simply cannot function. If you let it go too low or get too dirty it can cause serious damage to your engine. That can lead to incredibly high repair bills for damage like bent pistons and valves, blown head gaskets and busted engine blocks. You could end up spending thousands of dollars to get this kind of damage repaired. For that reason, it’s a good idea to routinely check your engine oil to make sure you have the right quantity and quality in your vehicle.
Do You Check the Oil When the Engine is Hot or Cold?
It's always safest to make sure that you're checking the fluid levels in your vehicle when your engine is cold rather than hot. Burning yourself on your engine would of course be dangerous and you should do your best to maintain your own personal safety whenever possible. That said, some manufacturers will recommend that you check your motor oil when it's had a chance to warm up and circulate through the engine. That doesn't necessarily mean a hot engine, but one that you got up to working temperature and then allowed to cool down again. For the most part however, recommendations are to check the oil when it's still cold. That reduces any potential risk to you and will still allow you to see how much oil you have in your car.
Your best bet is, of course, to check with your owner's manual to determine its recommendations and, no matter what, always make sure the engine is off before you check your fluid levels. If your car has been running recently, you should give it at least 5 or 10 minutes to sit before you check the fluid levels.
Checking Your Engine Oil the Right Way
The process of checking your engine oil is not very difficult and should only take a few steps. The first thing you want to do is make sure you're parked on level ground, however. That way you'll get an accurate idea of the level of oil in your car. Even slightly uneven ground can throw off the reading you're going to get on your dipstick.
All you need to accurately check your oil is a lint-free rag or some paper towel that you can wipe the dipstick off on. It takes one or two minutes so it's not a very involved process at all.
Step 1: Remember to have let your car sit for at least 5 or 10 minutes after it's been running before you do this, just to avoid any potential burns. Raise the hood of your car and find the dipstick. It's usually pretty noticeable and features a hooked or ring handle that is brightly coloured to make it noticeable. Pull the dipstick out of the reservoir.
Step 2: Once you pull the dipstick all the way out you can wipe it clean on the rag or paper towel and then put it right back in again. Get it to click in place and then remove it again to take a look at where the oil level is registering on the dipstick. You can also use this opportunity to check how the oil looks on the towel or rag. If it's very dark black or there's visible grit and contamination you're going to need an oil change. If it's still golden to light brown in color, it should be fine.
Step 3: Take a look at where the oil level registers on the dipstick. It should be between the minimum and maximum fill lines. If it's below the minimum fill line then you know you need to add some more oil.
How Much Oil Should Be on the Dipstick?
When you check your oil, you're going to pull the dipstick out of the oil reservoir and wipe it clean on a lint-free cloth. Then you can reinsert it, pull it again and it will indicate, based on where the oil is still sticking to the dipstick, your oil level. Every dipstick should have an indicator on it to show you how much oil you should have in your vehicle. It will be typically marked with two separate lines. Usually these will be denoted by the words Max and Min on the dipstick. These of course indicate the maximum amount of oil you should have and the minimum amount of oil you should have.
Not every dipstick uses the same demarcation to alert you to the maximum and minimum fill levels. For some dipsticks it will be a pair of pinholes that indicate the maximum and minimum range, and others will use a cross hatch pattern. Anywhere within the crosshatch will be considered a normal volume of oil. Anything below is too little or anything above is of course too much. Sometimes you will simply have the letters H and L to indicate the high and low levels of your motor oil as well.
How Often Should You Check the Oil in Your Car?
There's an old rule of thumb that says you need to change your motor oil every 3,000 miles which of course isn't actually accurate. However, what's talked about less often is how often you should check your motor oil.
Depending on the kind of car you drive this can be a pretty simple job. Newer vehicles have oil sensors in them that can actually let you know the level and quantity of the oil that you have. However, back in the day, many drivers were accustomed to checking the level of oil in their vehicle every time they stopped to gas up. If you still have an older car, especially a classic car that you want to keep in good condition, it's not a bad idea to check your oil this often. It only takes a minute to do, so once you get into the habit it shouldn't be too inconvenient for you. However, if you have a newer car, it's not really necessary to be quite this adamant about such a rigid schedule.
A good rule of thumb these days is to pop your hood and take a look at your oil levels every couple of weeks to as much as a month. You should especially check your oil levels before you plan on taking any long road trips anywhere, just to be on the safe side. Even though there is a standard schedule for how often you should be changing your oil, the fact is sometimes things can happen unpredictably and it's better to be safe than sorry. Giving yourself a minute to take a look at how your oil is doing is much better than finding out too late that there's been a problem.
How Do You Remove Overfilled Oil?
When you're filling the oil in your car obviously you want to get into that range on the dipstick that's between maximum and minimum. However, it's not impossible to accidentally put in too much and go beyond the maximum fill line. You might think it's no big deal to have a little bit too much oil in your vehicle but, for optimal performance, you want to make sure you are at max fill or just below.
Too much oil can potentially cause damage to your vehicle. At high levels the oil will begin to get frothy because of the movement of the crankshaft. That makes it difficult to circulate through the rest of your engine and it will in turn actually reduce the amount of oil in your engine, at least in the critical parts. In order to avoid that you're going to want to remove the excess of oil and there are a couple of ways to go about doing that yourself. The most obvious method is the same way you remove oil when you need an oil change and that's by accessing the oil plug beneath your car. You'll need a drain pan and socket wrenches to get the plug off.
This is definitely a dirty way to get the job done, and you'll need to crawl under your car, get the drain pan under the oil plug and loosen the plug with your socket wrench. Unlike normal oil changes you don't want to completely remove the plug here, you just want to loosen it enough so that some oil comes out. So slow and steady wins the race in this case. Once a bit of oil starts trickling out you can tighten it again and check your dipstick to see where the oil level is at. Repeat this process until you're at the level you need it to be at.
If you're not interested in getting down and dirty with your car there is another way that you can get the oil out of your vehicle as well. You can remove the dipstick from your oil tank and insert a suction pipe to draw out the extra oil. This is a fairly easy, but potentially time-consuming method. In a real pinch you can even use something like a turkey baster to pull out the excess oil but depending on how much you have it could definitely take a while
How Often Should You Change Your Oil?
As we said it was once a standard practice to change your motor oil every 3,000 miles. That sort of rule has mostly fallen by the wayside, however. Or, rather, this idea has evolved as technology has improved. The lifespan of the oil in your car depends on a number of factors, so you can't give one single answer that can apply across the board. The best answer anyone could give you about your specific vehicle is to check the owner's manual because it's going to give you the most accurate information about your specific car.
In a lot of motor vehicles 3,000 miles is no longer applicable because it would qualify as a bit of overkill. Most vehicles can handle 5,000 miles to 7,500 miles without an oil change. That's for standard oil. However, if you're using synthetic oils then the lifespan of that oil can increase dramatically. You may be able to get as far as 15,000 miles before you need an oil change depending on what kind of synthetic oil your car is using. But again, that depends on your specific automobile.
A number of mechanics would happily suggest getting your oil changed between 7,500 miles and 10,000 miles. Some of this depends on the way you drive your car however and if you really push it or not. Again, the clearest and easiest answers are going to be found in your owner's manual. This is because every manufacturer has set their own standards for how far you can drive before you need to get an oil change done.
In terms of how you drive your car, that really does have an effect on when you need to change your oil as well. One thing that you should keep in mind is that if you push your car super hard you may need to change your oil more often than is the standard, but by the same token it's possible you'll need to change it more often if you don't push your car very hard. That seems very counterintuitive but it's also something that can happen if you only drive your car limited distances. If you never get your car up to speed, you're only driving around town for a few miles at a time you may end up having to change your oil as frequently as every 1000 miles or so. This is because the oil doesn't get up to temperature and is not able to boil off condensation in the lines. That moisture can end up causing your oil to break down faster which will cause engine damage sooner than if you were driving your car far more often.
The Bottom Line
Keeping up to date on your oil levels is one of the easiest ways to ensure that your car is running smoothly all the time. If your oil levels get too low, the potential damage that it could cause will cost you both time and money to deal with. Your best bet is to keep an eye on things, so you're never surprised by running low on oil.