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How to Change the Oil in Your Car


Motor oil being drained out of the crankcase of a car engine

When I was a kid, back when buffalo roamed the streets of Olde Brooklyn, most people I knew did their own oil changes. Nowadays, not so much.

Many younger people in particular seem to have little knowledge of how to perform simple car maintenance tasks like oil changes. A lot of them think I'm some sort of car genius because I change the oil in my car myself. Imagine if they knew I've changed engines in my driveway. They'd think I was the Einstein of cars.

In reality, the real reason why many people my age started changing our own oil was because back in olden times, oil changes had to be done a lot more frequently than is typical nowadays. Three-thousand mile oil changes were the norm when I started driving. For most drivers, that meant changing the oil four or five times a year.

Because there were no 10-minute oil change shops back then, getting those oil changes done professionally also meant scheduling appointments in advance and sitting around in the shop twiddling our thumbs every time an oil change came due. Eventually, a lot of us decided that it was faster and easier to just change the oil ourselves.

Another thing that was different back then was that most boys, at least, went to shop classes in high school and had been taught how to do oil changes. In my high school, we were also taught routine automobile maintenance tasks like changing oil and adding coolant in driver education class. Nowadays, most driver-education courses just teach the students to visit their dealerships or mechanics when maintenance is due on their cars.

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Maybe my nostalgia for "the old days" is why I enjoy teaching younger drivers to do oil changes. I feel as if I'm passing on ancient wisdom and inducting them into some Secret Society of Do-it-Yourself Oil Changers and Shadetree Mechanics. So now I'm going to teach you. Since you searched for and found this page, I assume you wanted to learn; and I'm happy to be your teacher.

Before we go on, however, I have to point out that this page is necessarily general in nature because every car is different. Before attempting to change the oil and filter in your car, truck, SUV, or other vehicle, consult the owner's manual or service manual for any vehicle-specific instructions.

That being said, there are more similarities than differences when it comes to doing a proper oil change. Despite being among the easiest maintenance task on most vehicles, however, there are things that can go wrong. I hope this page helps readers to avoid the pitfalls by doing the oil change job the right way, using the proper tools, and most importantly, doing it safely.


What You Will Need to Do an Oil Change

The first step in doing an oil change is having everything you'll need before you jack up the vehicle. This is especially important if you only have one car because once you drain the oil, you can't just drive to the store if you realize you forgot something. Before you begin, make sure you have the following tools and supplies:

Typical Procedure for Changing the Oil in a Car

As mentioned earlier, every car is different; so the stops listed here are only typical and may not apply to every car. Consult your vehicle's owner's manual or service manual for more complete information. These instructions also assume that the car's engine is in the front of the car and that the engine has a spin-on oil filter. If your car uses another filter style, consult the owner's manual or service manual for instructions for changing the oil filter.

  1. Drive the car for a while to get the engine to operating temperature and park it in a level area where you will be doing the oil change.
  2. Put the transmission in Park (on an automatic transmission car) or in first gear (on a manual transmission car) and set the parking brake. Place wheel chocks both in front of and behind both rear wheels.
  3. Let the engine cool down for a while. Half an hour should do in the summer, or a bit less in the winter. You want the oil warm enough to flow freely so you get a good drain, but not so hot that you burn yourself.
  4. Loosen the oil filler cap. This will allow air into the crankcase so the oil drains more quickly.
  5. If necessary, jack up the car just enough that you can reach the oil drain plug and filter from under the car, and support the car with jack stands. Never work under a car without jack stands. Consult your vehicle's owner's manual or service manual to locate the jacking points, and use only those points to raise the car or support it on jack stands.
  6. Remove any access panels or covers needed to access the drain plug and filter.
  7. Locate the drain plug and position the oil drain pan so it will catch the oil.
  8. When the oil has finished draining, wipe the area around the drain hole, replace the oil drain plug finger-tight (along with a new crush washer or gasket, if the drain plug uses one), and then tighten the drain plug to the torque specified by the car's manufacturer using a torque wrench.
  9. Move the drain pan so it's under the oil filter, and remove the oil filter using the oil filter wrench. Allow any remaining oil to drain from the engine, and turn the filter upside-down and let it drain into the oil drain pan.
  10. Wipe the area where the oil filter meets the engine with a rag to remove any used oil or debris.
  11. Apply some fresh oil to the new oil filter's gasket and screw it by hand onto the engine, being careful not to strip the threads.
  12. If your car's service manual has a torque specification for the oil filter, torque it down as specified using your torque wrench and a cup-type oil filter wrench. Otherwise, as tight as you can possibly make it using both hands is usually sufficient.
  13. Replace any covers or access panels you removed to access the drain plug or filter, remove the jack stands, and lower the car.
  14. Fill the engine with the proper amount of oil. Be careful not to overfill by checking the oil level frequently with the dipstick. Almost invariably, some used oil remains in the engine; so usually you will not be able to install the full specified amount of oil without overfilling.
  15. Replace the filler cap and check for leaks. If there are no leaks, start the engine and check for leaks again.

And that's that. Congratulations. You've just done a successful oil change.

On some cars, there may be an additional step required, and that is to reset the oil-change reminder. Your car's owner's manual will have instructions on how to do this if it's necessary. You should also install an oil-change reminder sticker on the windshield or door frame to remind you when the next oil change is due. Most auto parts stores give these away for free, or they can be purchased online.

Motor oil being poured from a jug. Laboratory flasks representing synthetic motor oil. A drain pan being used to catch used oil being drained from a car engine. The open top of an engine coolant reservoir. Mechanic using a rooling creeper to work under a car. A hydraulic floor jack being used to raise a car. Three automobile engine oil filters. A mechanic using a wrench to work on a car engine.

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