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How to change your car's engine oil

Updated on May 9, 2010

Changing oil

Changing your car's oil is something you've probably heard several people talk about doing quite casually, but it can be a bit daunting for a first-timer. Oil changes are very important to the health and longevity of your engine, and doing these oil changes yourself can guarantee it is done correctly, save you a good amount of money, and give you the satisfaction of accomplishing a task most people pay for.


1.Engine oil (proper weight and quantity for your car, listed in your owners manual)

2. Oil filter (most automotive parts shops can look this up for you)

3. Oil drain plug washer (a few cents from the dealership)

4. Ratchet with basic socket sizes (SAE for American cars and metric for anything else)

5. Container to hold drained oil in

6. Jack and jackstands (may or may not be required) 

Drain pan

Drain pan with screen and pouring nozzle
Drain pan with screen and pouring nozzle

Changing engine oil is actually a very simple task. Not much can go wrong if you follow these simple steps!

1. Warm up the car's engine. Go for a short drive and make sure the temperature gauge is reading in the range it normally does when you drive the car every day. Warm oil is thinner and more viscous, making it easier to change oil. 

2. Now park the car on a level surface. Some cars are high enough off the ground that you can get underneath them without jacking them up. If this is the case for your vehicle, let the engine cool down for a while so you don't burn yourself on hot metal components.

3. If your car is too low to get underneath comfortably, jack the car up. If you have a hydraulic jack, this is the best way to do it. If not, the scissor jack provided with most cars (the one for changing spare tires) will do ok. When jacking the car up make sure you use the jack points indicated on your owner's manual! Most modern unibody cars cannot be jacked up by just any point on the frame rails.

4. Place jackstands under the jackstand points, also listed in your owner's manual. Generally just jacking up the front end of the car and using two jackstands will suffice. Do not ever go under a car that is only held up by a floor jack, it is not safe!

5. Now lower the car onto the jackstands. Whenever I change oil or do work on my car while it is supported by jackstands, I like to give the car a few solid pushes to make sure it will not fall down before I get underneath! 

Car on jackstands with oil pan

Car on jackstands with oil pan
Car on jackstands with oil pan

6. Now for the fun part! First, open the hood and remove the oil cap on top of the engine. This helps the oil drain more easily. Then slide under the car with your ratchet and socket (if you don't know what size your plug is yet, just bring them all). It is best to have a friend nearby to help you just in case something happens while you are under the car.

7. Place your container underneath the drain plug, keeping in mind that oil will flow out under some pressure, so if the drain plug is sideways, put the pan a bit towards that side so you don't spill anything.

8. Put the appropriate socket on your ratchet and loosen the drain plug counterclockwise. Oil will come out, so try to keep out of the way! Pushing the drain plug against the engine oil pan while loosening it will keep most of the oil in until you remove the plug to avoid messy accidents.

9. Allow the oil to drain into the pan. DO NOT start the engine to try to get the oil out faster! It sounds riddiculous, I have heard of people doing this. It will mean instant death to your engine.

10. Depending on where your oil filter is located, you may be able to unscrew it while the oil is draining. If not, just wait a while before taking it off. Oil filters can usually be undone by hand and loosen counterclockwise. If it is very tight, there are a variety of oil filter wrenches available at most auto parts stores. Putting a plastic bag around the filter as you loosen it will keep oil from spilling too much. Do not turn the oil filter upside-down, it is usually full of oil!


Oil Filter

Oil Filter
Oil Filter

11. Now get your new filter and drain plug washer and go back under the car. Take some engine oil and lubricate the o-ring on the oil filter if it is not already greased, and screw it in hand-tight. Some people like to snug it down another quarter turn with a wrench, but putting it on by hand is usually enough. Then put your new washer on the drain plug (after removing the old one of course) and tighten it. You don't want to torque it down too hard and strip the threads -- hand tight plus a quarter turn with the ratchet is fine. Now you can take your tools and drain pan, you're done with the under the car part!

12. Fill the engine with your new oil through the oil cap hole on the top of the engine. Make sure the level is correct by checking the dipstick when you get near the specified amount. Most manuals will have different oil quantities listed; you want the quantity listed for a drain and oil filter change.

13. Finally, jack the car back up and remove the jackstands and let the car down carefully. Double check to make sure you've tightened everything up and replace the oil cap before starting your engine. If you have an oil pressure gauge, check to make sure it is within your manual's specs. Look underneath the car carefully for leaks -- moving the car to a new location can help if some oil spilled.

14. Go for a short drive, making sure everything is working fine.If you need to clean up oil spills, kitty litter soaks it up really well.

15. Congratulations! You just completed an oil change! Now head down to your closest automotive garage and dispose of your oil and filter appropriately. Most shops/garages will let you drain your oil container into their recycling or disposal tanks -- it is illegal to dump oil in drains or on the ground!


More tips on what type of oil change intervals, oils, filters, and wrenches to use coming soon! 


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