How to Change the Oil in Your Car
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.
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:
- A ratchet wrench and socket set. At a minimum, you'll need the ratchet wrench, a socket extension, and a socket that will fit the oil drain plug on your car. Unfortunately, there's no "standard" size for drain plug heads, so you'll have to check your car's owner's manual or service manual to determine the correct size.
- A torque wrench to properly reinstall the drain plug after you change the oil. Most drain plugs use a crush gasket that needs a certain amount of torque for it to properly deform and seal the drain. If you use too little torque it may leak, and if you use too much you may excessively deform the washer or strip the threads in the oil pan.
- Chemical-resistant work gloves. Used oil contains heavy metals and other contaminants that can be harmful if absorbed through the skin. The gloves help prevent exposure to these chemicals when you remove the drain plug and the filter.
- Eye protection. In addition to oil splashes, you have to protect your eyes from rust and dirt while working under the car.
- A new crush washer or gasket if your car's oil plug uses one. Make sure to buy the proper one for your car.
- An oil filter wrench. Depending on your car, you may need a cup-type that fits on the end of a socket extension, a strap type, or a pliers-type oil filter wrench.
- An oil drain pan to catch the used oil, and a used oil container to hold the oil for recycling. Some oil drain pans can also be used to transport used oil for recycling.
- Usually, a jack to lift the car. I prefer a hydraulic floor jack.
- Jack stands of sufficient capacity to support the car while you're working under it. NEVER work under a car supported only by a jack.
- Wheel chocks to keep the car from rolling while you're working under it. I prefer the double chocks used for aircraft.
- An oil change funnel. I prefer one with markings to measure the amount of oil you're putting in the engine.
- Shop rags or an old tee-shirt.
- A new oil filter suitable for your car. The one made by your vehicle's manufacturer is always a good choice; but when that's not possible, I always use WIX oil filters.
- And, of course, a sufficient quantity of motor oil meeting your vehicle's manufacturer's specifications.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Loosen the oil filler cap. This will allow air into the crankcase so the oil drains more quickly.
- 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.
- Remove any access panels or covers needed to access the drain plug and filter.
- Locate the drain plug and position the oil drain pan so it will catch the oil.
- 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.
- 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.
- Wipe the area where the oil filter meets the engine with a rag to remove any used oil or debris.
- 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.
- 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.
- Replace any covers or access panels you removed to access the drain plug or filter, remove the jack stands, and lower the car.
- 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.
- 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.