How To Change Your Oil

Oil change
Changing the car’s engine oil and filter are within the technical skills of most people. You’ll probably use better quality oil than the quick lube shop with a $19.95 special although they’ll get the job done faster. Getty

So. You need to change your oil. Maybe the oil service indicator light on your dashboard came on. Or you keep track of the mileage and know it’s time. Do you take it to the dealer, to a rapid-lube no-appointment drive-through, to the corner gas station or do you roll up your sleeves and do it yourself? There’s no shame in paying someone else to do it. (It is kind of messy.) Still, changing your own oil keeps you in touch with your car, allowing you to spot small problems before they become big ones. It also lets you select the oil and filter you want instead of being forced to accept the ones the shop uses. And it’s less expensive.

A band-style filter wrench being used to remove a spin-on oil filter.  Rob Siegel

What You Need to Change Your Oil

  • The correct type and amount of oil as listed in your owner’s manual. It’s usually specified in quarts. Roughly, you need one quart per cylinder (V6 engine, six quarts). You can buy quart containers, but oil is generally cheaper by the gallon, so divide the number of quarts by 4, then round up (e.g., if it calls for six quarts, buy two gallons).
  • A new oil filter. If it’s a spin-on filter, you also need an oil filter wrench to remove the old one. Search for “oil filer wrench” to see the options. However, some filters are paper inserts that sit in a canister; they require a lid to be unscrewed using a properly-sized conventional wrench or socket. 
  • A ratchet and socket to undo the oil drain plug, which is usually a hex (six-sided) nut. If you can, use a six-point, not a 12-point socket (avoids stripping the plug). Don’t use an adjustable (crescent) wrench; it may round the corners. 
  • An oil drain pan, preferably one with a spout on it. And a funnel, a roll of paper towels and disposable gloves.
  • And unless your vehicle has a lot of ground clearance, a floor jack and jack stands or a pair of ramps to get sufficient clearance for both the drain pan as well as for you to access the oil filter. Try to jack up the car so the drain plug is on the low side.
A paper filter insert whose metal canister (see the eight-spoke circular cap) is directly accessible under the hood. Rob Siegel

What you do: How to change the oil 

  • Warm up the car for 10 minutes because hot oil drains out better. 
  • Park on a level surface. If you need to jack it up or put it on ramps to access the oil filter, do so. You may first need to remove an under-engine shroud or cover to expose the filter. 
  • Put on the disposable gloves. Position the drain pan beneath the filter, make sure the filter isn’t too hot to touch, then unscrew it with an oil filter wrench. A small amount of oil may run down the engine block. Drain the filter into the drain pan, then put the filter in a plastic bag and throw it away. Wipe any old oil off the filter’s mating flange on the engine. 
  • If the car uses a spin-on oil filter, apply a film of clean oil to the rubber seal. Screw it on until you feel the rubber seal touch the engine, then tighten an additional quarter to half a turn by hand. Don’t tighten it with the wrench. If you do, you might not be able to get it off next time.
  • Slide the drain pan beneath the oil drain plug that’s located at the lowest point on the engine’s oil pan (check the owner’s manual if you can’t find it). Be aware that the stream of oil will initially shoot out about eight inches from the drain hole, then drip straight down, so position the pan accordingly. Use the ratchet wrench and socket to undo the drain plug. Let all the oil drain out. 
Loosening the oil drain plug. Where is it? As long as you’re looking at the bottom of the engine, there’s only one thing that looks like a drain plug.  Rob Siegel 
  • When it stops dripping, clean both the plug and the face of the oil pan. If the oil filter came with a new crush washer for the drain plug, use it to replace the old one. Install the drain plug. If you have a torque wrench, tighten it to the spec listed in the owner’s manual. If not, give the handle of the wrench a good tug, but not a bodybuilder’s bicep curl.
  • Remove the drain pan, reinstall the under-cover, and take the car off the stands or ramps.
  • Pull out the dipstick, wipe it off, and re-insert it. Open the oil fill cap and, using the funnel, add slightly less than the oil capacity listed in the manual. Close the filler cap. Start the engine, verify that the oil pressure light goes off, let it idle for ten seconds to fill the oil filer, then shut it off. Check the oil level on the dipstick, and add oil until it’s between the two lines on the dipstick. 
  • Drive the car around the block, and verify that the new oil filter isn’t leaking.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Different types and weights of motor oil.  Rob Siegel 

What kind of oil should I use?

You need to know the weight (thickness, or viscosity) and the type for your vehicle. Your owner’s manual should tell you both. Nearly all oil is a blend of different weights. A 40-year-old car will likely use a heavier blend such as 10W-40 or 20W-50, whereas post-1990 cars tend to use lighter blends such as 5W-30. (My wife’s Honda takes 0W-20, which is practically water.) The “type” of oil can be synthetic, conventional, or a blend of the two. If the owner’s manual calls for synthetic oil, use it. If it doesn’t, you can generally switch to synthetic and take advantage of the longer oil change interval (about 7,500 to 10,000 miles versus about 3,000 for conventional oil). Lost the manual? Search online for, say, “2017 Audi Q5 oil type.” Use the results from the automaker or a supplier of oil or filters. Best not to rely on the advice of end-users; some may be helpful experts but others may steer you far wrong. 

Should I get synthetic oil when regular is called for? 

Synthetic oil needs to be changed less frequently and has better lubricating and cold-starting properties than conventional oil, but it’s more expensive, and if your owner’s manual doesn’t call for it, you need to get a recommended oil change interval from another source such as a user’s forum. In addition, if you have a vintage car with a flat tappet camshaft (if you don’t know, you can find out online), you need to be aware of the need for higher levels of the additive called ZDDP, which is usually low in synthetic oils. 

Does synthetic make sense if then engine has 100,000-plus miles on it?

Absent the ZDDP issue above: If you have an older car running conventional oil and a newer car running synthetic, and if they both take the same weight oil, it makes sense to begin using synthetic in the older one so you don’t need to keep around as many different kinds of oil.

Is “full synthetic” the same as “100% synthetic?

No. You can go down this rabbit hole on your own and learn about the difference between API types III and IV. 

Do I need a different oil in cold weather? 

One of the big advantages of multi-weight oil is that, in general, you don’t need a different oil in cold weather. However, your owner’s manual may call for different oil weights depending on the range of temperatures where you live (for example, 15W-40 if winter temps don’t drop below 0°F, 5W-40 if they do). In simplified terms, the lower number refers to protection at low temperature; the higher number to protection at high temperature. 

How do I dispose of the old oil?

Use the funnel to pour the old oil from the drain pan into the now-empty gallon containers, and take them to a disposal site. Many municipalities have oil recycling stations. In addition, some states require that auto parts stores that sell motor oil also accept waste oil from their customers. Put a big X on the used-oil jug so, in case you forget to recycle it right away, three months from now you know which of the two oil jugs on the garage shelf is the old oil. 

Is changing your own oil really worth it?

From a purely economic standpoint, it depends. When measured against the “Oil change $19.95” signs at corner gas stations, no. When measured against the $200 fees some dealers charge, yes. Keep in mind that that $19.95 oil change likely uses the cheapest oil and filter possible. (A gallon of good non-synthetic oil costs about $20 retail, plus the filter, plus wages. So the odds are it’s not that grade of oil going in your car.) The main reasons to do it yourself are that a) You select the brand and type of oil and filter, and b) While you’re in the engine compartment and under the car, you have an opportunity to inspect the hoses, belts, and other components, see what needs attention, and made decisions on how and when to take action instead of feeling pressured by a repair shop. Even if you don’t know much about cars, you can see if any of the hoses are leaking a bit, if the washer fluid is low, if corrosion is building up on the battery terminals (Rx: paste of baking soda and water, scrub with an old toothbrush, wipe off with paper towels), or if the serpentine belt looks at all frayed. 

Are there advantages to the dealer/service shop changing the oil? 

Some dealerships rotate the tires as part of the oil service. If you schedule an oil change for late fall and another for early spring, you get the summer and winter tires swapped for you, free. Some dealers charge as much as $100 for a winter/summer tire swap. They also do a safety inspection which is good for you and, when they find something that needs repair, good for them. 

Do I need to change the oil filter?

Yes, yes, yes. Oil change means “oil and filter.” The filter removes dirt and fine metal shavings. Unless your owner’s manual explicitly says otherwise, replace the oil filter at every oil change. They’re usually not expensive.

Which is harder on my oil—driving slowly around town, or zooming on highway?

Short trips around town are the worst. Highway trips get the engine up to operating temperature. Long trips cook off any moisture that may be in the oil due to condensation. Short trips may not. The presence of moisture can turn the oil acidic, break down its lubrication properties, and cause internal engine corrosion. Thus, a car that’s used only for very short trips may be harder on oil.

Can I just add oil to my car instead of changing it?

You can, but you’re utterly fooling yourself if you think that that offers the same engine wear protection as an oil change. If your car was using a quart of oil every hundred miles, you could argue that, every 500 miles, you’re essentially changing your oil, but if you’re using that much oil, your engine is not long for this world. 

How do I shut off the oil service indicator light?

It varies by brand and model. On some, it’s accomplished by holding the trip odometer button down for a certain length of time or mashing the accelerator pedal to the floor while the ignition key is turned to “run,” reading a prompt, then doing it again. Other cars may require a make and model-specific scan tool to be plugged in the OBD-II port. Note that this is a different tool than a universal OBD code reader you’d use to determine why the car’s “check engine” light is lit.