I want to do some posts about basic vehicle maintenance, because I’m still meeting people who are clueless about this stuff. Word around the campfire is that this level of ineptitude regarding even the most basic of knowledge and skill sets is actually getting worse. I can’t just sit by and watch the decline of society, particularly masculinity. No, Sir. You shouldn’t, either. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” and all.
A vehicle is typically going to be the second largest personal investment that you make behind purchasing a home. You should have at least some fundamental knowledge regarding the basic operation and upkeep of each. At a minimum, the stuff that keeps these things alive. We’ll stick to vehicles for now.
Most modern vehicles are relatively reliable, and even more so when you take some simple steps to keep it that way. Neglect is a sure way to turn a perfectly serviceable car “a hunk of junk”. Vehicles in motion are a carefully orchestrated symphony of moving parts, and moving parts require maintenance and periodic replacement. Some items on cars are known as “wear items” because after a while they…wear. Sometimes they wear totally out. Wear items and their attention requirements are just part of the price of admission to successful vehicle ownership. Ignore these things, and you’ll be left on the side of the road. It should be noted that being left on the side of the road never happens at an opportune time. Usually there’s some place you need to be and some time you need to be there. Neglected mechanical parts don’t care about these things. When they’re tired. They lay right down and die. Often with little warning.
There are really only a few things that we can do, as shade-tree DIY’ers, to keep our vehicles up to snuff. Some of the more complicated systems are just going require the attention of a professional mechanic. Not much getting around this without making significant investments into specialty tools and education. Like Dirty Harry said “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Ironically, he said this right after a car blew up. I’m sure this was subliminal messaging. Hollywood never gets these things wrong.
So, let’s get into one of the things that most of us are able to do. An oil change. It’s going to be intimidating at first, but once you’re done, you’ll see just how easy this really is. There are really only a few things that would prevent a person from being able to knock this out. Living in an apartment complex that doesn’t allow on-site vehicle maintenance (I lived in one and did it anyway.), physical limitations (I’m not going to type this caveat out in every post. At some point, I’m going to rely on you folks to apply some common sense.), lack of tools, and a lack of knowledge. I’m going to help you out with those last two.
It should be noted that, if your car is under warranty, changing the oil yourself could possibly void that warranty. If something breaks and it can even maybe be tied back to someone who isn’t a professional mechanic changing your oil, your claim will be swiftly denied. I wouldn’t roll those dice, personally.
This post is going to be a general How-To. The process for your specific vehicle may be a little different, but the basic process is has been the same on any vehicle I’ve changed the oil in. This range includes heavy equipment, 1 ton pickup trucks, Honda Civics, all the way down to lawn mowers. They’re all basically the same process.
Why do you need to change the oil, anyway? The Reader’s Digest version – Oil breaks down over time from hundreds of cycles of heating and cooling and getting smeared around in your engine while doing it’s job of keeping things slippery. Just know that it’s a thing that must be done from time to time.
So, Scott. How do I change the oil in my car? Read on, reader.
First things first. Decide if you need an oil change.
You may or may not have a car that has a “maintenance minder” as part of the cars on board diagnostics system. If you’re not sure if you have one, you probably have a yellow light on in your instrument cluster. Dig your owner’s manual out of the bottom of the glove box and find the section covering what lights on the dash mean. Every car is different, so I’m not going to try to describe each different manufacturer’s jargon. It’s in there. You’ll need the manual in a bit anyway, so might as well leave it out. Don’t lose it. Replacements can be expensive. If you don’t have a light, you should have had your oil changed at some type of service center, and they likely did you a solid and put a sticker in the upper left hand corner of your windshield to let you know when it’s time to get another oil change. If you don’t have a light, and you don’t have a sticker, we’re going to just assume that it’s time and this should move up in your list of priorities. Know what costs more than an oil change? A new engine. Neglect the oil, and that’s where you’re headed. In my vehicles without a “help me” light, I change my oil every 10,000 miles. You read that right. 10k. Advances in motor oil technology have made it totally unnecessary to change your oil at the old-school 3,000-5,000 miles, as long as you use a quality motor oil and filter. Tons of Used Motor Oil Analysis reports from labs have proven this time and time again. If you’re concerned about your oil change intervals (which you’re probably not, being as you don’t even know how to change it), you can collect a sample of your oil as it drains with a kit that you can have mailed to you from Blackstone Labs. It costs around $20, and gives you all sorts of information about your engine’s health. One of their questions is the age and mileage of the oil, so if you don’t have that info, save it for the next oil change.
So, let’s pretend that we’ve determined that it’s time for an oil change.
Note – I don’t care what shade of brown on black your oil is. Color is in no way an indicator of lubricity. You might as well see if it tastes like it’s still in good shape (Don’t).
We’ve got some shopping to do, but what to buy?
One is a filter, and the other it oil. Pretty simple. If you don’t have a set of wrenches or sockets, you’ll have to either buy those or ask one of your man-friends if you can borrow theirs. The parts store folk can help you find the filter that you need and may be able to help you with how much oil you need to buy. The engine’s oil capacity and recommended viscosity (eg; 5w-30) can be found in the owner’s manual, also. The brands that have served me well over the years have been Wix for filters (Wix makes NAPA’s Gold filters) and Mobil-1 Full Synthetic for oil. I haven’t owned many vehicles that didn’t have at least 150k miles on the odometer (most well over 200K), and I’ve never had any form of oil related engine issues. Obviously, I can’t guarantee that you won’t. No one can. I’m just sharing what’s kept my nearly dozen high mileage vehicles running soundly.
Oil purchasing tip – Buy oil in bulk containers. Usually these are either 4 or 5 quart bottles (example pictured above). Check to make sure how much you are buying when comparing prices. One store may have the 5qt bottle for $30, but you see that the next store has is for $25, only to get home and find out that the cheaper bottle was a 4qt and not the 5qt. Tricksy hobbitses those parts people are.
As mentioned, you’re going to need some wrenches and/or a socket set. They are for removing the oil drain plug, which we’ll get into later. There’s a pretty high likelihood that your drain plug is a metric size, but a set of wrenches that includes both SAE (fractional sizes) and metric (labeled in MM) can be had for pretty cheap. You don’t need top of the line tools for this. I actually prefer wrenches to sockets for this job, as there’s less of a chance for the tool to slip off of the drain plug, rounding off the plug’s hex-shaped head and getting you a trip to the mechanic to have it removed. Keep it simple here, and definitely no power tools. Using power tools on this job is asking for trouble. However, your drain plug may be in such a location that a wrench can’t access it. The space being too cramped is usually the problem. In this case, a socket set and ratchet will take care of the job. Optional upgrade – A flex-head ratcheting wrench. The are nice. These can be bought individually to save some money.
Something else you’ll need if you don’t have it, is a pan to catch the oil in as it drains. I like the ones that are containers, and not just a “pan”. This allows me to wipe them off, seal them up, and take the oil to be recycled with to further transferring. Use a pan, and you’re gambling with a spill. Spilled oil is very messy and a huge pain to clean up. Depending on the size of your spill and where you are, folks with EPA on their name tag might show up. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not talk to those people.
The next items on our shopping list have some flexibility. You “can” pull it off with just the items listed above, but the things I’ll talk about next will help you not hate the job.
Some way to lift the vehicle – You’ll need to get under the vehilce to drain the oil, and change most oil filters. Some filters, especially cartidge type filters are located on top of the engine. You don’t need a jack if you can just slide under your vehicle like a taller truck or SUV. You “can” use the jack that came with the car for changing flats and some jack stands, but I wouldn’t. You can also use car ramps, but they have to be tall enough for you to fit under the car. Some ramps only lift the car 8-10”. You might be thicker than that. Ramps can also be a pain to keep in position. When you’re driving up onto them, after carefully lining them up they can slide. Unless you have a spotter, you could end up driving up onto the ramps with half of the tire hanging off the side. I don’t want to lay under that, and you shouldn’t either. I recommend what’s commonly referred to as a floor jack. This is a hydraulic jack with four points of contact with the ground that rolls as it lifts the car, all while you’re not under or close to it. You’ll also need jack stands and wheel chocks to go with your jack. These support the weight of the car, and stop it from rolling, once you’ve lifted it high enough to fit underneath. A jack is for lifting and lowering. Not for supporting. Hoping that a jack won’t fail while you’re under a vehicle is not a solid plan. The human body is a poor choice of support for the weight of a car. Each vehicle has “jack points” designed into the frame or unibody of the car that are the only areas strong enough to support the weight of the car. This is where you’ll place the jack and jack stands. This information is also found in the owner’s manual. Getting the car into the air and supported by jack stands is the most critical part of this process to your safety. If you’re not confident how to do this, ask for help from someone who is. It’s not particularly difficult, but you do have to get it right. This could be a life or death thing. Don’t take it lightly. Optional upgrade – Low profile “racing” jack. Some car’s jack points are too low for most off the shelf floor jacks, so you have to drive the front tires of the car up onto a couple pieces of wood to get the jack under them. A low profile jack cuts this out on all but the lowest of cars. Also, if your jack won’t lift your vehicle high enough, it’s easy to add a small block of wood to the jack plate, but it’s tough to make a jack shorter. Something to keep in mind while shopping for the items is whether or not they’re rated to lift and support the weight of your vehicle. They are typically clearly labeled. If you’re not sure how much your vehicle weighs, there should be a sticker on your driver’s side door jamb. You’re looking for the GVWR. Match that with the jack and stands.
Pictured above are the jacks and jack stands that I use. The blue jack on the left is from NAPA, and is pretty expensive. The one on the right came from Harbor Freight well over a decade ago and it still works pretty well. I’ve dragged that jack all over the country to racing events, used in dirt, and generally have not treated it very well. It costs about half what the NAPA jack cost.
Filter removal tool – If you’ve never changed the oil in your vehicle, there’s a pretty decent chance that Harambe tightened your filter during its last service. Oil filters really only need to tightened to hand tight. I realize that that’s a relative term, so some folks have a habit of over-doing it. That’s not a huge deal, but you’ll probably need some type of filter wrench to get the filter off. There are several kinds, but I like the plier type the best. The others just seem to be more awkward and prone to slipping or crushing the filter to me. If you don’t have some type of tool, and can’t get the filter off by hand, get ready for a mess. The last ditch method is to stab a screwdriver through the side of the filter as a means of adding a handle to the cylinder. Oil will go everywhere, and it’ll probably take several stabbings. I’ve done it, but I don’t recommend it. I haven’t grabbed a filter and not got it off with the pliers yet. (The pliers are pictured above.)
Funnel – The oil fill hole on most engines is usually pretty easy to find and reach, but sometimes getting the bottle of oil close enough to the fill hole to make sure you don’t have oil running down the side of your engine can be a trick. Funnels are cheap, and come in several different types and sizes. Buy a couple and see which one works best for your vehicle. I’m not a fan of the flexible corrugated funnels, as they tend to trap oil in them and make a mess that you’ll find later. I store my funnels in some type of bag, like a plastic grocery bag or gallon zip-top bag. The funnel that you use to fill your engine with oil should be kept very clean, so that you don’t pour dirt into your engine. That’s counter productive, to say the least.
Gloves – Gloves can keep you from having to explain why your hands are stained dark brown to your coworkers for the next few days. I like nitrile gloves that are sold at the parts store where you get the oil from. They also protect your hands from getting small cuts and abrasions from all of the sharp edges found under cars. It’s not that I mind the small injuries so much, as I’d rather not get motor oil and engine grime in them. You know all of the “stuff” that you see on the road? Some of that ends up under your car. I don’t want that getting smeared into open wounds. Gloves also make it where I can strip them off if I need clean hands for something.
Lighting – A cheap headlamp saves the day here. A standard flashlight will work, but we need our hands free for working. You don’t need 1000 lumens for this job. Everything is pretty close under the car, so anything between 150-300 lumens is more than enough light. You can use other types of lighting, but none of them will be as cheap or convenient as the headlamp.
Padding – If you’re working on solid ground, and you definitely should be, some type of pad to kneel and lay on is really nice to have. I’ve used the kneeling pads from the garden section for several years. Buy several and you can position them wherever they’re needed.
Safety glasses – I prefer clear ones, being as we’re under the car where we need lighting anyway, so I don’t want make it harder to see. You know the stuff I talked about earlier that I didn’t want getting into open wounds? I don’t want it in my eyes, either.’
Shop towels – The blue roll of heavy duty paper towels are nice for this job.
Tunes – Only psychos work in silence.
So now that we’ve got our tools and supplies together, let’s get into the process of the oil change itself.
Pre-flight tip – Make sure you can get the oil fill cap loosened. It’s usually pretty easy to find. It might have a picture of an oil can, or be labeled either OIL or 710, depending on your perspective. If you can’t get it loose, might as well stop right here. Hitting it with a hammer or grabbing it with pliers could break the plastic cap. Either call a mechanically inclined friend or take it to a shop. They won’t charge you much at all just to get the cap loose.
You’ll need level, solid ground for jacking the car up. If all you’ve got is dirt, either go somewhere else, ask a friend if you can borrow their driveway, or just take the car to a service center. As mentioned earlier, laying under a car is literally gambling with your life. Once you’ve got your solid, level ground, find the jack points under the car. Place the jack plate under the point and start pumping. If you can find a central point under the front of the car, that’s is preferred. You can lift the car from the sides, but getting the jack stands in the right place can be tricky. Take your time when lifting the car. Watch for the jack slipping, or the weight of the car shifting. The car falling off of the jack could damage something under the car. Bent radiator supports, holes in radiators, pinched fuel or brake lines are all possibilities here, so take your time. This isn’t about speed. It’s about getting it right. No part of your body should be under the car if it’s being lifted or lowered.
Once the car is up and supported, gather your supplies. Organization here will cut down on some headache later. Forgetting where you put a part when it’s time to use that part is a massive pain.
Put on your headlamp and climb under the car. You’re looking for the oil drain plug. Sometimes it’s labeled and sometimes it’s not. A picture of the location of the plug is also often found in the owner’s manual. If you find more than one drain, the oil drain is going to be the one closest to the front of the engine (where the drive belt is, not the radiator). Get your used oil drain pan ready, positioned either under or really close to the drain plug. Be ready to have to move the pan around some to catch the oil, particularly if the drain plug is positioned horizontally in the pan. With that arrangement, the oil stream will kind of “rainbow” out of the pan, so make adjustments for that. Use your wrench or socket to loosen the drain plug just until you can get the plug out the rest of the way with your fingers. Remember, righty tighty, lefty loosey. Many modern cars have aluminum oil pans and steel drain plug bolts. Aluminum is pretty soft compared to steel, and you don’t want to strip the pan. Once you’ve got your fingers doing the work, pressing the bolt into the hole as you unscrew it will help to control the oil coming out until you’re ready. If you’ve recently driven the car any distance, the oil will be very hot. The gloves will help with this some, but be ready to strip them. Again, be ready to reposition the drain pan a few times as the oil drains. Let the oil drain until it hits a slow drip. It’ll drip like this for an hour and the few tablespoons that get left in the engine won’t really make a difference in how your fresh oil does it’s job. Wipe off the drain plug and drain plug bung on the oil pan with your shop towel to check for dirt or other crud that would cause the plug to not seal properly. Leaky drain plugs have stained many a driveway. If the bung hole is clean (Giggity.), put the drain plug back in until it is finger tight. Wipe off any dribbles of oil and SNUG the drain plug with your wrench. Do not over-tighten the drain plug. Finger tight, plus a quarter turn with the wrench is probably more than enough. If you take a drain plug out, and you see red fluid, put that plug back. That was for the transmission.
Note – Some drain plugs have a copper gasket that the manufacturer recommends that you change. It certainly won’t hurt to change it, but I never have, and have never had a leaky plug because I didn’t change that gasket. I’ve also talked to service people at dealerships and they say that they never change them, either. Up to you.
On to the filter. Most filters can be accessed from under the car. Some either can’t or it’s just easier to get to them from the top. Some cars require you to remove a wheel to reach the filter. They’re all different. One more time, this information can usually be found in the owner’s manual. Once you’ve located the filter, try first to loosen it by hand. If that doesn’t work, get those filter pliers we talked about. Grip the filter with the pliers tight enough that the teeth on the jaws of the filter bite into the filter housing, and once again, lefty loosey. Just like with the drain plug, get ready to catch some more oil. This part is usually a little more messy than the drain plug, which is why I don’t drain both at the same time. Have lots of shop towels on standby. Once you’ve loosened the filter with the pliers, spin the filter the rest of the way off by hand. Pour the oil that’s in the filter into the drain pan. Make sure that the o-ring that’s on the face of the filter is still with the filter. They have been known to stick to the filter mating surface on the block/oil cooler. If this happens, and you don’t get the old gasket off and then put the new filter and gasket on, you’ll have an oil geyser under your car when you start the engine. Another potential source for a huge mess. If your pan has a place for it, turn the filter upside down on the pan and let it drain some more. Be sure to prop the filter up on something while it drains to let air in and oil out. Get your new filter out and smear a little oil on the rubber o-ring. What this does is lets the o-ring slide as it spins on the mating surface as you tighten it as well as prevent the new one from sticking to the mating surface for the next time you change your oil. Don’t take the o-ring out of it’s channel, just rub a little oil on the surface. At this step, some folks recommend that you fill the filter with oil prior to replacing it. The reasoning behind this is that it’s supposed to cut down on air pockets in the oiling system. Depending on the orientation of your filter, what it can lead to is another mess. The internals of your engine have a coating of oil on them, and whatever air pocket that exists in the air filter will be burped out pretty quickly. It’s not an air-tight system where pockets of air will lead to problems. Oil gets sprayed all throughout the engine and the drains back into the pain via channels in the block. I wouldn’t (and never have) worry with topping off the filter. It’s not going to hurt if you do, I just don’t want to clean up any more spilled oil than is absolutely necessary. Screw the filter back onto the block/oil cooler hand tight. Do not tighten the filter with the pliers. Just get it as tight as you can with one hand.
Once the oil has been drained and the filter replaced, it’s time to fill ‘er up.
Pick the funnel that fits your arrangement best. Sometimes there is no best, and you have to hold the filter with one hand and pour the fresh oil with the other. Once you’ve got that part figured out, slowly pour the fresh oil through the filter and into the the fill spout. Slowly. This part will take a few minutes as the oil is thick and can only get into the orifices that it needs to get into so fast. Patience will save you from…cleaning up a mess. Also, if you spill oil onto your exhaust manifold, it will smoke and smell bad until the oil is burnt off. Usually it only takes a few minutes, but I’d rather not worry with it at all. Pour only the amount listed in the owner’s manual under the oil capacity. At this step it’s better to under-fill the engine than to overfill it. Put too much oil in, and you’ll have to drain some back out. Put too little in, and all you have to do is pour a little more. Over-filling your engine with oil can cost you a new engine. My mom did this once. It’s real. Once you’ve poured the prescribed amount of oil, check the oil level via the engine oil dipstick. It’s usually yellow or orange. There are marks on the end of the dipstick that indicate the oil level. Anywhere between the uppermost (closest to the part of the dipstick you grabbed to take it out) marks on the dipstick are fine. You can try to get it perfectly at the “full” mark, but it’s not that big a deal. The manufacturer has left some play room on either side of the full mark, so we don’t kill our cars. Once the oil level is in the full range on the dipstick, put the fill cap back on.
Start your engine.
Your car should still be on the stands. What leaving the car on the stands/ramps does is allows us to check for leaks or hunt down weird noises, should they pop up. I, personally, wouldn’t get under the car while it’s running. Let it idle for a minute or so, but if you’re going to have any serious leaking, it’ll probably start within the first few seconds.
All done, but the clean-up.
Lower your car off the jack and stands or back it off of the ramps. Check the oil level again, just to be sure. Wipe down your tools and store them appropriately.
Now we have to figure out what to do with the used motor oil. Most auto parts stores will gladly take that used oil off of your hands, because they sell it back to oil companies for recycling. If you bought one of the drain pans that can be sealed up, put it into a trash bag and take it to the parts store. If you bought a standard pan, you’ll have to use your funnel to put the used oil back into the bottle(s) that the new oil came in, then haul it down to the store. The old oil filter just goes into the trash, as I’m not aware of a way to recycle those.
Option – I have a 55gal plastic drum that my used oil goes into. Once it’s full, I’ll be selling my own oil to the recycler…depending on current oil prices. They do charge a fee to collect it, unless you take it to them, so if the price of the oil doesn’t equal the fee, it might cost you a few bucks.
That’s it. It’s far easier than it probably sounds here. Especially on the second try. Give it a rep or two and the routine irons itself out pretty quickly.
Take care of yourself.