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How to Change Your Car's Motor Oil

Updated on May 26, 2015

Advances in car engine technology have extended motor oil service intervals up to 10,000 miles or more on most modern vehicles. Although these extended schedules have been welcomed, it's also been detrimental to car engine maintenance.

With longer service intervals, car owners tend to forget to make regular oil level and condition checks between changes. In addition, drivers wait until the suggested oil change schedule to service the engine when they shouldn't, since operating conditions for motor oil haven't changed much.

As in the past, the new suggested service schedule applies to oil used under ideal conditions: Driving your vehicle for 20 minutes or more--almost everyday--at highway speeds, just to bring the oil up to operating temperature so that it can do its job.

This ideal driving pattern allows the oil to eliminate moisture, rust, dirt, carbon, acids and other harmful particles from the system, and provides the necessary protection to engine internal components. Except that few drivers allow the engine oil to reach operating temperature because of their driving patterns, letting harmful deposits to accumulate.

Have you ever seen inside a grossly neglected engine? Take a look at the next video and you'll see what I mean.


When to Change Your Engine Oil

Unfortunately, few vehicles on the road fall within the ideal driving pattern. A typical day behind the wheel for many drivers evolves around frequent stops and short trips under 5000 miles. A bad driving pattern for engine oil and vehicle engines, only outmatched by towing heavy loads and driving on dirt roads. Without proper maintenance, any of these patterns can drastically reduce your engine service life.

For vehicles equipped with it, a service-interval warning light does a good job in alerting a driver when an oil change is required. But even then, you can trust the system only when using the motor oil and filter recommended by the car manufacturer.

Basically, if your driving pattern falls outside the ideal one, you should change your oil before the suggested interval. You may want to check your oil condition regularly and make a decision about when to replace it. The more watery the oil feels between your fingertips, the less effective the oil has become. Alternatively--unless you are using a quality synthetic oil--you can follow a safer 3-month service interval.

Preparing for an Oil Change

Here, you'll find tips and important recommendations to use while replacing the oil and filter on your vehicle, coupled with a general service procedure that will work for most gasoline and diesel engine models.

I suggest you use your vehicle repair manual to work out the details that apply to your particular model, such as torque specifications for the oil-pan drain plug, drain-plug gasket replacement, and the recommended oil, amount, and filter for your specific model. You can buy an aftermarket vehicle repair manual for your specific model in most auto parts stores or online.

To start, collect all the tools and items you'll need for the job to reduce maintenance time and mistakes.

Tools and Items You Will Need:
Oil filter wrench
Large drain pan
Box-end wrench or ratchet and 6-pt. socket set
Small funnel
Safety glasses
Old rags
Wire brush
Old newspaper
Jack and jack stands
Two wooden blocks
New motor oil
New oil filter
Torque wrench

How to Change Oil

Once you've gathered all the tools and items you’ll need, warm up the engine. You can do this by idling the engine for about 20 minutes or, better yet, going for a long ride while running some errands. Warming up the engine will help the oil pick up loose particles and other contaminants from the bottom of the oil pan and flush them out.

* Park your car on a level surface and raise the front wheels using the jack. Support the car with the jack stands.

* Apply the emergency brakes and block the rear wheels using the wooden blocks to keep the vehicle from rolling.

* Remove the oil dipstick to speed up oil drain.

* Put on your safety glasses and place some old newspaper on the floor under the engine.

* Position the large drain pan under the engine below the drain plug.

* Unscrew the drain plug using a wrench or socket of the right size. This will prevent you from rounding off and ruining the bolt.

* Clean the oil pan's threaded hole and the drain plug using a rag and a wire brush to avoid stripping or damaging the threads when installing back the bolt. This will also help you to true torque the bolt.

* Install a new drain-plug gasket, if necessary.

* Replace the drain plug and tighten it to the torque listed in your vehicle service manual using the torque wrench.


Replacing the Oil Filter

Some car owners tend to neglect the oil filter during an oil change, usually because they installed a quality filter the last time, so they replace it every 2 or 3 oil changes. But remember that even a high quality oil filter has a limited service life. The filter traps harmful particles before they cause engine damage. As a result, abrasive particles eventually clog the filter's media, allowing unfiltered oil to reach the engine by going through the bypass valve.

If the old, clogged filter is left in place, contaminated oil will eventually clog the oil pump pickup screen and oil galleries, speed up parts wear and corrosion, while covering internal components with sludge, drastically reducing engine service life.

* Move the drain pan under the oil filter and unscrew the filter using the filter wrench.

* Check that the old filter came out with its O-ring. If not, remove the O-ring from the filter's mounting base on the engine.

* Compare the old filter O-ring diameter with the new one to make sure you have the correct replacement. Always install the filter suggested by your car manufacturer, or another one of better quality, to accommodate flow rate and filtering capacity for your engine.

* Remove oil and grease from the index finger on your right hand, and use it to apply a light coat of new oil to the O-ring of the new filter.

* Install and tighten the new oil filter snugly by hand. Don't use the filter wrench. Follow the instructions on the new filter's package.

* Replace the oil dipstick.


Adding New Oil

For good lubrication and system pressure, choose the motor oil recommended by your car manufacturer. On low quality oils, viscosity breaks down in a short period, accelerating sludge and varnish buildup. Other quality oils may not have the additives necessary for your engine.

Use a high-quality oil with the right viscosity and an API (American Petroleum Institute) standard that meets or exceeds the manufacturer specs for your vehicle.

If you own an import, you may need to follow a different standard. Asian vehicle models go with the ILSAC (International Lubricant Specification Advisory Committee) standard; European models follow the ACEA standard.

Consult your car owner's manual or vehicle repair handbook for the recommended oil for your specific engine.

* Remove the oil filler cap from the engine.

* Add the correct oil and the correct amount using a small funnel.

* Replace the oil filler cap.

* Start the engine and check for oil leaks around the oil drain plug and filter.

Motor oil service is perhaps the most important maintenance task you can do to extend the service life of your car's engine, and do it with a few simple tools. Still, you need to follow the right mechanical procedure, and know how to choose the right oil and filter replacements to avoid expensive mistakes that may come back to hunt you later on.

How much do you know about engine lubrication systems?

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