Changing a car’s oil is something everyone should know how to do. Fresh oil is essential for keeping your engine healthy, and swapping it out at manufacturer-suggested intervals is easy enough that anyone can learn how to do it.
Road & Track spoke with Kevin Hines, senior technician at McLaren Philadelphia, to learn the correct way to change your oil safely and efficiently. Hines is North America’s only factory-certified McLaren F1 technician, which means his day job revolves around working on $20-million exotics. If anyone understands how to swap out engine oil, it’s him.
Before reading any further, we suggest consulting your car’s owner’s manual for exact instructions on how to change your oil. The manufacturer’s suggestions may differ from the instructions below.
The Tools You’ll Need
You don’t need any expensive machinery to perform an oil change, but there are still a few basic tools you’ll want to get the job done right. A floor jack and a couple of jack stands will be useful for getting the front of your car up into the air. This way you can reach your drain plug at the bottom of your engine without issue. A ratchet with the right-sized socket will make loosening that drain plug easy. And make sure you have an oil filter removal tool on hand in case you run into a stubborn filter. A funnel will make refilling your engine a breeze, while a proper drain pan will make disposal of the old oil simple.
“Always make sure you have a drain pan that is suitable for the quantity of oil that you will be expecting to take out,” Hines tells us. You don’t want to be caught out by an overflowing pan and end up covering your garage floor in oil. Not sure how much oil is in your engine? Refer to your owner’s manual. It’ll have the answer.
Also make sure to have a pair of gloves. Oil contains harmful contaminants so you shouldn’t let it come in contact with your skin. And no one likes dirty fingernails.
When Should I Change My Oil?
Refer to your owner’s manual to find out how often you should change your car’s engine oil. Every car has a set oil-change interval that goes by mileage or time.
“You never really want to change your oil when your engine is stone-cold because the oil is very thick and it will take forever to drain out,” Hines says. “You also don’t want to change your oil after you’ve just stopped driving. The oil can be up to 200 degrees and that can really hurt you.”
Another reason not to change your oil right after you’ve turned your car off? You could burn it to the ground. “Oil does have a flashpoint,” Hines tells us. “If you spill some on the exhaust manifold the oil can explode into flames, and that’s not cool.”
Which Type of Oil Is Right for My Car?
There are endless types of engine oil out there, so it’s vital you choose the correct type to use on your engine. Refer to your owner’s manual to confirm which type of oil is right for your car, and how much you should pour in with each change. As for a replacement filter, we recommend going with one sold by the vehicle’s manufacturer. That’ll ensure it fits up nicely to the engine, and works as intended with the oil to filter out any harmful particulates.
How to Change the Engine Oil and Filter
First thing’s first: You’re going to want to get the car up in the air. If you don’t have access to a hydraulic lift—most people don’t—use a floor jack and jack stands. Make sure to follow proper safety protocols, supporting your car only on approved lift points and placing backup supports under the wheels in case the stands fail. For a more detailed guide on lifting your car onto jackstands, head on over here.
Once your car is in the air, pop the hood and crack the oil fill cap. Removing the cap opens up an air passage into the motor, allowing the oil to exit the drainhole more smoothly, getting rid of any potential glugging (and the mess that comes along with it). Worried you might forget to put the cap back on after you’ve removed it? “Way back when I started out as an apprentice, I would, every now and then, forget to put the oil cap back on once done with changing the oil,” Hines tells us. “I solved this by putting the oil cap on the hood latch as soon as I removed it, so I couldn’t close the hood unless the cap was reinstalled.”
Now you can get under the car and crack the drain plug. You’ll want to be careful here. Some drain plugs are delicate, and snapping a head off could mean disastrous consequences. When you’re unscrewing the plug, be mindful of what direction you predict the oil will come out. Some drain plugs point to the left or right, rather than straight down. Position your drain pan accordingly so as not to make a mess.
“If you have a seal on the drain plug it’s always a good idea to replace it,” Hines says. “If you’re in a situation where you can’t get that, sometimes it’s ok to reuse it.”
If you do decide to reuse the drain plug seal, Hines says to inspect it for damage before reinstalling. If it’s a copper crush washer, Hines says to flip it around and recrush it so it makes a proper seal. He also recommends you replace the drain plug itself after every oil change. If it’s continually reused, it could eventually round out, leaving you with a larger issue.
“Any time you take something off the car, you’re going to inspect it and look for any questionable situations,” Hines says. “So if you see damaged thread on your drain plug, obviously it’s a good idea to replace it.”
Be extra-cautious when installing the drain plug back into the oil pan. “Never over-tighten the drain plug,” Hines tells us. “Just put a little bit of torque on it. It’s not holding back pressure, it’s just holding back liquid.” If you have a torque wrench, great! Refer to your owner’s manual or consult an expert to find the torque spec on your vehicle’s specific drain plug.
After the oil is drained and the plug is reinstalled, you can move on to the oil filter. Provided it was installed correctly by whoever replaced it previously, it should come off by hand with a bit of force. If it’s sealed onto the block tightly, grab an oil filter removal tool to get things moving. And just because you drained the oil doesn’t mean the filter will be empty. Expect some oil to come out when you remove it, and prepare by having the drain pan underneath when you do.
“When you remove the oil filter, always make sure that the gasket came with it,” Hines says. If you leave the old gasket in there and install the new filter with a new gasket, it won’t seal correctly, and you’ll make a big mess when you go to start the car again. When installing the new filter, make sure to fill it with oil first, and lubricate the new seal. Do not use an oil filter removal tool to tighten the filter on to the block. The filter should be hand-tight, otherwise it’ll be next-to-impossible to get off when you go to change it again.
Now it’s time to pour in the new oil. You can do this without a funnel, but you’ll likely make a mess unless you have a bunch of experience. Even a pro like Hines uses one whenever he does an oil change. “A good funnel is worth its weight in gold,” he tells us. Add the amount of oil your owner’s manual suggests, then check the level, either with a dipstick or the car’s onboard level sensor if your car doesn’t have a traditional dipstick (refer to your owner’s manual to figure out exactly how to do this). Keep adding oil until the dipstick or sensor reads full, then replace the oil filler cap. Start the car and take a peek underneath to see if there are any leaks. If not, then you’re done!
Make sure to note the mileage and date you performed the oil change so you know when you’ll have to do it again.
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