Checking the oil levels in your engine is the kind of thing that every driver needs to know how to do. Engine oil is the lifeblood of your vehicle along with gasoline, a routine maintenance of your oil is required to ensure your vehicle works properly. If you run low on oil, your car is not going to be functioning properly and you run the risk of some extensive and expensive damages as a result. If there are any signs and symptoms you noticed that you're running low on oil, or just a routine check of your oil has shown that your levels are low, you need to get it topped up quickly to keep things working properly.
A basic check of your oil is a simple and straightforward task that will only take a few moments. Doing so on a regular basis will ensure you never get taken by surprise by low oil levels. Checking your oil level at least once a week will ensure that you always know how much is in the tank and can prevent a lot of problems associated with overheating and poor lubrication that are common to having low oil in your vehicle.
Checking your Oil Level Step by Step
Before you get started make sure your car is parked on level ground. You'd be surprised how much even just a slight incline can affect the perceived levels of any of the fluids in your vehicle. A flat surface will give you an accurate reading.
The process of checking your oil is a simple one and, like we said, it'll only take a moment of your day once a week to do this. You should have a lint-free rag or a paper towel handy as well to help you do this job. And, if necessary, a quart or two of the correct kind of motor oil to fill your tank.
Step 1: Raise the hood of your car and find your oil dipstick. This should be very noticeable and will have a handle or finger loop of some kind on the end to make it easier to pull out of the oil reservoir.
Step 2: Pull the dipstick all the way out and wipe it clean with the rag or paper towel. You can push the dipstick back into the tube now all the way until it clicks in place. Take a look at the oil you wipe on the rag or paper towel to check for the quality of it. Your motor oil should be translucent and a golden or yellow colour.
Step 3: Pull the dipstick back out of the reservoir again and take a look at both sides to check the level. Every dipstick has markings on it to indicate the maximum and minimum fill requirements. These aren't always identical from one vehicle dipstick to another, however.
The most common indicators on a dipstick are the words Max and Min, or the letters L and H which indicate low and high. Some dipsticks will also just have two pin holes separated by a small distance with the top hole indicating the maximum and the lowest hole indicating the minimum. Finally, there are some dipsticks which may just have a small section of metal with a pattern on it like a crosshatch. This entire cross-hatched section indicates an acceptable level so when the oil lines are within this pattern that means you have an acceptable oil level. If it's below the crosshatch then you have too little. Whatever the markings are, if your oil level is indicating that it's below the lowest mark then you're going to need to top up your oil.
Do You Check Oil When the Engine is Hot or Cold?
For your own safety and well-being, it is recommended that you only check your oil when your engine is cold. You don't want to burn yourself on any hot parts of your engine. That said, some manufacturers recommend that you check the engine oil in a warm car. That means you've allowed your car to run for a few minutes so that the oil can circulate and can get to operating temperature without actually getting hot enough to cause any harm. It's best to refer to your owner's manual to find out for sure.
If you are going to check it warm, you definitely want to have the engine off, however. You don't want your engine running while you're doing this.
How Long Should My Car Sit Before I Check the Oil?
In order to give the oil in your car a chance to settle it's a good idea to wait about 5 or 10 minutes after you shut down your engine to check your oil level. Alternately, you can check it before starting your vehicle if it hasn't been running for a while. This will give you the most accurate reading of your oil levels.
Can I Just Add Oil to My Car Instead of Getting an Oil Change?
Choosing to add oil instead of getting an oil change is a possibility depending on your circumstances. If you have low oil but the oil quality is good, then topping it up with new oil is a good solution to this problem and shouldn't cause any issues for you. However, there are reasons to get an oil change beyond just having low oil that can't be fixed by adding new oil to the reservoir.
If your oil has become badly contaminated and is now dark brown or black looking, cloudy, or full of contaminants then adding new oil to this will do very little to fix any problems for you. In fact, adding new oil may exacerbate any existing problems by allowing contaminants to flow more freely through the oil and throughout the rest of your engine.
So, in basic terms if you have good quality oil but something has caused the levels to go low, you may be able to simply add the oil to make up the difference. If your oil is dirty and contaminated however you want to do a full oil change to preserve the life of your engine.
How Long Does Engine Oil Last?
There's no hard-and-fast rule to answer this question. The lifespan of the oil in your car depends a lot on the kind of oil you use, the kind of car you drive, and how you drive it. Your owner's manual will give you a good general idea of how long you should wait before changing your oil.
An old-school rule of thumb used to be changing your oil every 3,000 miles but that's not necessarily the case any longer. There are just too many variables to make such a claim. In many modern vehicles your oil will last at least 5,000 miles to 7,500 miles. When you are using some synthetic oils the lifespan can get up to over 15,000 miles before you need a change. Many mechanics will suggest between 7,500 miles and 10,000 miles is good these days as well, but again that really does depend on the kind of oil you use and the car you're driving. The best thing you can do is check your owner's manual and also make sure you're referring to the specific kind of oil you use in your vehicle.
Another thing you should take into consideration, which many drivers don't, is the way that you drive your vehicle. Your driving habits determine how oil works in your vehicle and, even though it may not seem like it, there are circumstances when not pushing your car very hard is actually worse for your oil than the opposite.
For instance, if you drive less than 10 miles every day and rarely get your car up to speed, then some mechanics recommend you change your oil every 1,000 miles. The reason for that is because, by not pushing your car very hard you're not getting the engine up to temperature which in turn means you're not able to boil off condensation that has accumulated in your oil. As a result, your oil may have moisture in it which will cause it to break down faster than normal, which can cause additional wear and tear to your engine.
A good solution for this is to take your car out for a longer drive at least once a week for you to get it up to highway speeds. This will extend the lifespan of your engine, your motor oil, and parts like your catalytic converter as well.
How to Add Oil to Your Engine
If your oil levels are low enough and require some additional oil added, but it still seems clean enough that you don't need a full oil change, then it's easy enough to buy a quart or two of replacement motor oil and add it yourself. Make sure you use the correct kind of oil, however. As you've no doubt noticed when you've gone to buy motor oil there are dozens and dozens of different kinds.
Engine oil is listed by viscosity grades. When you see a bottle on the shelf it will be labelled something like 5W-30 or 15W-40. The number before the W in the weight of motor oil refers to cold-weather viscosity. The lower the number, the less viscous it will be at low temperatures which means, in our example, a 5w is going to flow better during the winter months than a 15w. The number after the W is a reference to warm weather viscosity. This tells you how it flows at higher temperatures. You need to make sure you have the right grade oil for your vehicle. If you use the wrong oil in your engine, it could cause some serious problems.
Once you check with your owner's manual and make sure you have the right kind of oil, adding new stuff is not very difficult.
Step 1: With your engine off and your car parked on level ground, open the hood again and fine the oil fill location. This should be around the top of your engine somewhere and the cap will likely have an oil icon on top to let you know you're in the right place. Remove the cap.
Step 2: Not everyone uses a funnel for this job, but it will ensure that you don't have any spills so it's up to you if you want to. If you're using a funnel, insert it into the reservoir. If not, then carefully pour in about a half a quart of your new motor oil. Allow it to flow and circulate through the tank for about a minute or so and then check your dipstick again.
Step 3: If the dipstick indicator shows that you are still not at the correct level, you can add in the rest of the quart of oil. Hopefully this should now get you to the right level between the maximum and minimum fill lines on your dipstick. It's possible that if you were low enough then one quart won't get the job done for you. If that's the case, you very likely have a leak in your system somewhere that you may need to address soon. Regardless, if you do need to add more oil go ahead and do so slowly with a second quart, checking the dipstick regularly until you're where you need to be.
Step 4: Once you have filled the tank to the point where the oil is between the minimum and maximum fill line, you've got the job done. You can secure the oil filler cap back in place and use a clean rag to wipe off any potential spills that may have occurred.
The Bottom Line
As you can see this is a pretty simple job that any driver can do. The benefits of ensuring that your oil levels are where they need to be on a regular basis can't really be overstated. If your engine were to run out of oil and overheat, you could end up with serious problems like a blown head gasket or even a cracked engine block. Repairs like that can often stretch as high as $4,000 or more depending on the extent of the damage. A new bottle of motor oil is only going to cost you a few dollars which is a very good investment combined with the few minutes it takes to check oil levels to prevent that kind of damage.