Checking the oil in your car is something every driver needs to know how to do as part of some routine maintenance and upkeep of their vehicle. Knowing your oil levels and oil quality is a simple and easy way to avoid problems that can result in costly repair bills down the road. It only takes a few moments out of your day to get done as well, so there's really no reason not to do it. If you've never checked your oil before you should know that some mechanics and manufacturers recommend you actually check your level once a week just to know where it's at. Nothing else needs to be done, just a quick look at the oil dipstick to make sure your oil levels are okay. If you've never done this job before, we can let you know what you need to do, what you're looking for, and what happens if your oil levels are too low or your oil has become contaminated.
Should You Check Oil When the Car is Running?
Any time you're checking your motor oil you’re going to want to make sure that the engine in your vehicle is off. You don't want to injure yourself in any way by doing this with a hot engine. The best thing you could do is check your vehicle owner's manual however as some actually do recommend that you have your engine warmed up first. That doesn't mean it should be running scorching hot, but they will recommend that you let it run for a bit in order to warm it up a little and get it circulating properly. Again, check with your owner's manual to be sure. A good rule of thumb for most vehicles though is that you have the engine off and fairly cool to do this. That's just a safety concern so you don't burn yourself on a hot engine.
How to Read the Oil Dipstick
There are a few simple steps that you can take when you are going to check the engine oil yourself.
Step 1: Make sure your car is parked on level ground before you start. As we said, your engine is best cold here and at most just slightly warmed up. You don't want to reach around in an engine that's been running hot for an extended amount of time.
Step 2: Pop the hood of your car and locate the engine oil dipstick. This is usually pretty noticeable and will have a round loop at the end that you can hook your finger into.
Step 3: Pull the dipstick all the way out of the engine and wipe off any oil with a clean rag or paper towel. Put the dipstick right back into the tube and push it all the way back in.
Step 4: You're going to pull the dipstick back out of your engine again and look at both sides to see where the oil level is at. The dipstick will have some kind of indicator marks on it to let you know the maximum and minimum levels of oil that should be inside the reservoir.
This can change from one vehicle to another but in general you're going to see either the words Min and Max on your dipstick to indicate the minimum and maximum levels, the letters L and H to indicate low and high levels, or there may just be two small pin holes. Some may just have a sort of crosshatch pattern on them to indicate the range where the oil should be located. Whatever the case, your oil level should be between those two marks or in the crosshatch pattern. If the oil is where it's supposed to be then everything is fine in terms of your oil levels and you've got nothing more to worry about.
If your oil levels are below the lowest mark, then you're going to need to top up your motor oil.
How to Add Oil to Your Car
If the oil level is below the lowest mark, then you are going to need to add more oil to your vehicle. You need to make sure you’ve got the right oil for your car at this point because not every motor oil is right for every vehicle. Your owner's manual will tell you what kind of oil you should be adding to your vehicle. It will probably be something like OW-20 or 5W-30. Most gas stations and even Walmart carry a wide variety of motor oils and should have what you need readily available and it likely won't be very expensive either. You should be able to get a gallon of motor oil for about $15 or so. If you're just topping up levels, you probably only need to buy a quart.
Step 1: Remove the oil filler cap which is usually located around the top of your engine. Using a funnel is a good idea here so you can avoid spills that could end up scorching and smoking later if they overheat in your engine. It's very easy to accidentally overfill your engine with oil so only pour a small amount at a time and check the level.
Step 2: After adding about a half a quart of oil, wait for a minute and then use the dipstick to check the levels again. If it's still below where it needs to be, add the rest of the quart.
Step 3: Check the dipstick again. At this point you should be in the zone that you want it to be. If it's still too low, then it's likely you have a leak somewhere because missing an entire quart of motor oil is pretty unusual. It's not impossible though so if you need to add more, crack open a second quart and repeat the process adding it slowly until you reach the correct level.
Step 4: Once the levels are where they need to be, secure the oil filler cap back in place and wipe any spills as well as you can with a lint-free rag.
What to Do if the Oil Looks Discolored
Clean, good quality motor oil should be a golden or amber colour usually. If the motor oil in your car is dark brown or black then you need to get your motor oil changed rather than just top it off with new fluid. Also, if you noticed that the consistency of it is unusual, if it's becoming thick and muddy or cloudy and milky then you have a more serious contamination issue. Adding new oil to this won't fix the problem, you're going to need to get to a mechanic so that you can have your oil drained and new oil added once it's been cleaned out. You would likely also take this opportunity to replace your oil filter because if the oil you're seeing is heavily contaminated, it's likely your filter is no longer doing its job either.
How Often Should I Change My Motor Oil?
If you were to ask a dozen people you might get a dozen different answers about how often you should be changing your motor oil. Back in the day it was pretty standard to change motor oil every 3,000 miles. However, these days an oil change can typically last you 5,000 to 7,500 miles. Also if you're using fully synthetic motor oil you might be able to get 10,000 miles to 15,000 miles before you need another oil change. Right there that's five different potential answers to the same question.
Believe it or not some experts actually recommend you change your oil more often than 3,000 miles. Based on your driving habits, some will recommend that if you typically drive less than 10 miles every time you head out, you may want to change your oil every 1,000 miles or so. The reason for this is that if you aren't making long trips at steady speeds then your engine won't get hot enough to boil off condensation that could accumulate in your oil and cause it to break down faster. Also, since most of the wear and tear on your engine occurs when you start it up then you're actually being harder on your engine by just doing numerous short trips compared to people who take longer drives on a regular basis.
The best thing that you can do if you're not sure about when to get your oil changed is to check with your owner's manual. It's going to have the most accurate information for your make, model, and year vehicle when it comes to getting your oil changed. The other factor to consider is the kind of oil that you're using. Like we said, fully synthetic oils have a much longer lifespan than other motor oils so there are a few factors you need to take into consideration. That said, if it's been about 10,000 miles and you haven't had your oil checked at all, then no matter what kind of oil you are using you definitely want to at the very least take a look because there's a good chance you need to not just add some oil to the tank, but you probably need to have your oil changed and replaced with new, clean stuff.
Signs That You Need to Check Your Oil Levels
Obviously, following the recommended guidelines for routine maintenance in terms of oil changes is a good idea. There are occasions when something can alert you to the fact that you need to get your oil changed sooner or perhaps you've just overlooked your oil change for too long and now your car is giving you some signs that your oil is bad and needs to be swapped out. If you notice any of these signs and symptoms, check your oil levels and proceed as necessary with either topping them up or getting your oil change at a mechanic.
Check Oil Light
A clear sign that you have a problem with your oil is when the check oil or check engine light will come on your dashboard to alert you to a problem. The oil light usually looks like a small, old timey oil can, which is sometimes mistaken by younger people for a Genie's lamp. This should let you know that your oil levels are running low but if the situation gets bad enough then the check engine light might come on as well.
If you're smelling oil in the cabin of your vehicle then that's a good indication that you have a fairly substantial oil leak somewhere in your engine.
Another obvious sign of an oil leak in your vehicle is if, when you check your parking spot on the driveway after you've moved your vehicle, you see visible spotting or even puddles of oil below your car. You may have to get close enough to touch it and inspect the fluid to make sure it's oil as there are a number of different substances that could potentially be leaking from your vehicle at any given time. Remember that coolant is typically green or orange, transmission fluid is usually red, and your motor oil is often a golden or amber colour, but it can darken if it's old and contaminated.
Smoke in the Exhaust
If you have an oil leak and it is burning somewhere in your engine you may notice smoke coming out of the back of your vehicle. Your exhaust should typically be invisible or, if it's a cold enough day, just white water vapour. If you're getting serious smoke, especially if it's blue in colour, then that's a good sign you're burning oil because of a leak.
Because your motor oil lubricates your engine to allow it to run smoothly, if your oil levels are running low you are going to start experiencing a lot of friction in your engine as the valves and pistons try to do their job without proper lubrication. That means you are going to be potentially hearing knocking and thumping noises from the engine as it operates. This is a serious situation and could lead to expensive damages very quickly.
The Bottom Line
Checking your oil levels is not very difficult at all, it's something that you should get used to so you can do it on a routine basis. It only takes a moment to have a look at your oil and make sure the levels are where they need to be. When you're more informed about where your oil levels are, you won't get caught by surprise if you have a leak and levels are getting dangerously low on you.