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5 Signs Its Time to Change Your Oil

Updated on December 7, 2018
WrenchWench profile image

Wrench Wench has been in love with automotive mechanics for decades. She loves sharing advice with fellow DIY mechs and curious cats.

An engine in need of an oil change is a potential hazard; learn the signs it's time to change your oil and avoid more costly repairs.
An engine in need of an oil change is a potential hazard; learn the signs it's time to change your oil and avoid more costly repairs. | Source

How do I know when to change my oil?

One might think that in a world so dependent on automobiles for transportation, that we'd do a better job of ensuring that every driver has at least a basic understanding of minimal engine care and maintenance before they get behind the wheel.

Unfortunately, at no fault of modern drivers, most of our youth education is politically rather than pragmatically focused; regrettably leaving many drivers in the dark when it comes to knowing how to best care for their transportation.

If you find yourself in the camp of those drivers who weren't lucky enough to have been able to afforded a better than public education drivers education course, nor to have been gifted with a family member or friend passionate enough in mechanics to have prepared you for the world of driving at an early enough age; have no fear.

This article is here to help you understand the signs and symptoms of an engine that needs an oil change as soon as possible.

Do you know how to check and change the oil in your own vehicle?

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You've passed the "safe zone" of 3,000 miles or 3 months

The first most obvious sign that it's time to change your oil, is when you've driven your car, truck or van farther than 3,000 miles andor more than 3 months since it's last oil change.

The 3/3 rule is by far the safest and most effective way of ensuring a long life for your vehicle, with minimal internal repairs needed throughout it's lifetime; and is usually recommended directly by the owners manual and just about every ethical mechanic asked.

If you've gone past 3k miles or 3 months since your last oil change, it's time to change your oil; especially if your check engine light has come on.

What happens when you don't change your oil?

You can hear an Ominous Ticking sound on start up...

It's a normal day like any other; and you've got no reason to suspect any transportation challenges....

Though whether it be Murphy's Law or Mercury Retrograde, someone when you go out to start your car or van, the starter kicks the engine on and you immediately notice an ominous ticking sound coming from the engine compartment.

If you open the hood for a closer look, you'll notice that rhythmic ticking seems to be coming from the top side of the engine, nearest to the valve covers.

If that tick seems to fade away after your vehicle has warmed up, you're likely just a little bit low on oil at the moment; which usually only occurs when your oil has passed it's prime and needs to be changed now.

If that tick seems to stick around for 30 minutes or more, andor it's accompanied by low engine power or turns into a louder knocking sound, you're about to manifest some avoidable vehicle troubles.

That ticking sound is a bad omen, and is the manifested symptom of an engine that is near completely void of oil; it's life blood.

Fortunately, low or no oil is easily remedied by adding some oil ASAP.

Though there are no reasons that a fully functional and properly sealed engine should ever lose all it's oil; when it does, that's a sign that you need to change your oil and take your car in to be checked for oil leaks or bad piston rings.

Your oil has become Thick, Dark and Smelly...

Fresh, clean and viable engine oil is a golden brown color and is mostly transparent.

It should only have a hint of oil-ish smell to it, and shouldn't have any debris, dirt or lumps in it.

If you notice when you check your oil dipstick, that your fluid is no longer transparent, that's the best time to change your oil in order to keep your engine looking as good on the inside as it does on the outside. Changing your oil before it looses it's full transparency will extend the life of your engines internal parts too, which cuts the costs of the most common and unnecessary repairs from low mileage vehicles that consistently had oil changed a little bit late.

By the time you're able to notice the oil has lost all of it's transparency, when it starts to turn super dark brown or jet black andor when it becomes super thick and pungent, you're already way beyond the "change it now" moment.

That means you're outside of the safe zone if your vehicle is still under warranty, and well beyond 3,000 miles.

Your car is having problems starting...


Depending on the year and model of your vehicle, you might experience starting problems or no-starts when you're super low or out of oil.

I've experienced this mostly on vehicles newer than 1981, with the exception of a 1993 Jeep Wrangler that I dearly miss; which was given to me by an aunt who has no mind for mechanics or basic vehicle maintenance. At the time I didn't realize she had never checked the oil and hadn't been getting regular basic maintenance done on the Wrangler, so I didn't think there was any reason to check fluids before getting on the road.

She had simply decided she didn't like having to climb over the lip of the door, nor did she like freezing when she drove (it had an ooooold soft top). Without any complaints or reports of it running funny or needing anything, I just assumed it was good to drive 40 miles south to my husband's shop, where I could give it a once or twice over.

To my complete shock, when I began checking things out, the first thing I found was that it was BONE DRY on Oil AND Coolant.

And when I say bone dry, I mean it.

When I went to change the oil and drain any remaining old coolant, nothing came out of either.

Yet and still, that jeep never even stuttered until a few years later when the heater core went out. It gave no indication to my aunt (who hadn't gotten an oil change in years), nor to me on the day that I received it, that anything was wrong at all.

Alternatively, I had a 2002 Pontiac GT that turned out to have a defective oil cap gasket from the factory, which caused it to loose oil quickly when the gasket finally failed; at which point I first noticed it was having a tough time with starting. It took less than 24 hours before it didn't want to start at all.

I pulled out my probes and ampmeter and noticed everything was fine there.

I checked the oil and noticed it had only the tiniest speck of oil in it.

And at that point, I wasn't aware low oil could cause starting problems on it's own.

Though as I soon confirmed, in many vehicles born in the new millennium, there are oil sensors with the ability to communicate with the brain in the car or truck, cutting further internal damage off at the pass by suppressing the ignition/starting system in some form.

The disappearing oil trick...

There are many things that can cause an engine to lose or burn through it's most vital fluid; oil.

When you start noticing your car or truck is losing oil more often and on a regular basis, the culprit is most likely to be an oil leak around one of the gaskets meant to keep it inside the engine.

Secondarily, if your engine is super high mileage (say 250,000 to 300,000 miles), your piston rings could have finally worn down enough that they're now allowing small amounts of oil to pass into the combustion chamber; which then gets burnt up and spit out as blue or black smoke. A similar process can happen with old lifters.

Regardless of whether you're oil is disappearing because of a leak or because it's literally burning through oil, it's essential that you get your oil changed ASAP; and in this case, you should follow up that oil change with a UV oil leak test and have a mechanic determine whether it's worth your while to open up the block and examine the pistons and rings.

For those of you in a hurry, I've thrown together a handy table below, listing the most common signs that indicate it's time to change your oil now.

Signs it's time to Change your oil NOW

No or Low Oil on the Dipstick
Ticking or Knocking Sounds
Thick andor Smelly Oil
Pungent Oil
Grainy or Lumpy Oil
Oil is Dark Brown or Black
Oil is a Mocha Brown or Yellowish Brown color
It's been over 3,000 miles andor over 3 months since your last Oil Change
Your oil is "Disappearing"
Your Check Engine Light has come on or been on for a while
You're not getting the consistent MPG's or your MPG's have become noticably less efficient
Your vehicle has been sitting for several months or years

How do you feel about my use of "andor" instead of "and/or"?

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© 2018 Wrench Wench


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