How to Check Your Oil

The following is a guest post from YourMechanic, which delivers mobile car repair by certified mechanics in over 700 U.S. cities. Their top-rated technicians can perform over 600 services at your home or office for up to 30% less than shops and dealers.

Oil is necessary in keeping an engine running smoothly and efficiently. It keeps the many moving components in an engine lubricated, reduces wear and tear and helps dissipate the heat created during combustion. Without oil, with too little of it or with oil that hasn’t been changed in a long time, an engine can be severely damaged. This guide covers the basics of engine oil, as well as how to check it to ensure it’s in good shape to keep your engine running.


Engine Oil Basics

There are several types of oil on the market. Oil is available in different “weights,” or viscosities, which is indicated on the oil container. There are also conventional and synthetic oils, which differ based on a particular engine’s use and performance. Generally speaking, for normal around-town and commuting driving, conventional oil is best, while for more demanding driving, such as hauling loads or high-performance driving, a synthetic blend is required. Check your owner’s manual to determine what type of oil your engine needs.

Oil circulates through your engine through a closed-loop system. It’s stored in the oil pan, which holds between four and six quarts depending on the car. When the engine is started, the oil pump sucks oil from the pan through the pickup tube, then through the oil filter, which cleans it on its way to the engine. It then flows through channels in the engine block, lubricating the necessary components before heading back to the oil pan to begin the cycle again.

It’s a good idea to make a habit of regularly checking your engine oil to make sure it’s topped off and that it isn’t contaminated. We suggest checking your oil level every time you fill up the gas tank, but don’t check it less than once a month.

Checking Your Oil

Checking and adding oil is a simple process that can be done quickly and without tools.

Step 1: Make sure the engine is cool. Never check the oil while the engine is hot. It’s best to check the oil after the engine hasn’t run in a few hours, as this allows the oil to settle back to the oil pan. If this isn’t an option, let the car cool down for at least 10 minutes. Check the oil when the car is parked on a flat surface so the oil is evenly distributed in the pan.

Step 2: Open the hood and prop it up so you can easily access the engine.

Step 3: Locate the oil dipstick. On most cars the dipstick has a yellow handle. It may be located at the front or near the center of the engine.

Step 4: Pull out the dipstick and wipe it off with a clean towel.

Step 6: Re-insert the dipstick, then pull it out once again.

Step 7: Examine the oil level. There should be two marks on the dipstick indicating “add” and “full” levels. The oil you see should fall between these marks. If the oil is close to or lower than the “add” mark, the engine needs more oil.

Step 8: Examine the color of the oil. Rub the oil on the dipstick between your fingers and look at the color. It should appear black or brown. If it’s a lighter or milky color, this could indicate a coolant leak which should be repaired. If you feel any grittiness in the oil, it could indicate engine damage, in which case a mechanic should inspect the engine as soon as possible.

Adding Oil to the Engine

If the dipstick indicates a low oil level, you will need to add more oil to the engine.

Step 1: Buy the correct grade of oil, making sure to use the grade recommended in your owner’s manual.

Step 2: Remove the oil filler cap, which is usually a screw cap on the top of the engine.

Step 3: Using a funnel or carefully pouring directly into the fill hole, pour in a half-quart of oil.

Step 4: Check the oil level using the dipstick. If it still reads at the “add” mark, pour in another half-quart. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until the dipstick reads “full.”

Step 5: Use a towel to wipe off any oil that may have spilled on the engine.

Step 6: Replace the oil filler cap.

Step 7: Close the hood.

Your engine is now properly filled with oil and ready to drive.

Checking your oil is a straightforward process essential to maintaining your engine. Remember to check your oil on a regular basis, and contact us if you experience any issues such as gritty oil, discolored oil, or consistently low oil levels, or if you’re simply due for an oil change.