To keep our cars running smoothly, there are many regular checks we can manage ourselves, instead of paying for a professional.
One of these is checking that the oil is at the right level. We can also then make the necessary adjustments when it’s not.
This is something that is done by your mechanic every time you bring your car for regular service. But did you know it’s a good idea to do regular checks in between?
It only takes a matter of minutes, which is time well spent for a smooth running engine.
In this article, we guide you through the relatively straightforward process of how to check your oil.
We’ll explain why doing this check is important. You’ll learn when and how to do it, including how often and the correct conditions. We’ll also guide you on what to do if the levels are too low or high.
Finally, you will learn how to identify if the product is too old or contaminated. If either of these is the case, we’ll tell you what you should be doing next.
As you will see, this is a quick and straightforward process that anyone should be able to do themselves.
Skill level: Beginner
Time to Complete: 5 minutes
- A cloth or paper towel
- Engine oil (if a top-up is required)
- Funnel (if a top-up is required)
Contents - Click to Jump to Section
Why Check Your Oil Levels
We’ve already mentioned that this check is done regularly during routine service. You might be wondering then why you need to do it yourself in between?
Every time you drive your car, heat and friction work against it to wear parts down. This can eventually destroy your engine. Oil provides much-needed lubrication, as well as resistance to wear and tear.
Every vehicle needs to have a fresh supply of clean oil because without it, the engine will experience tougher work. It may fail or seize up, which can cause the car to stall while driving. This is why we need to check the levels and quality regularly.
By doing so, we can know for sure that there’s enough oil for purpose, and that it’s clean and free from contaminants.
When to Check Your Oil Levels
It is recommended you check your levels once every two weeks, and at the very least once a month. Another common guideline is doing it every 3,000 to 7,000 miles.
It varies, so it’s best to double check the recommended frequency with your car’s manufacturer (or in your owners manual.)
If you’re planning a long journey you should do a thorough check on your vehicle before you travel. This includes checking all fluid levels.
There are a few telltale signs that you need to perform an oil check. Has your engine been making knocking sounds? If so, this is one of the first things you should be checking.
It should also be done if the exhaust is producing smoke. And of course, the most obvious time is if the warning light appears on your dashboard.
Should Oil Level Be Checked When the Engine is Hot or Cold?
The answer lies somewhere in between—it’s best done when the motor is warm. Take your vehicle for a quick drive, and then turn it off. You should then wait for approximately 10 minutes before doing the check.
Again, this may vary depending on the vehicle. The important thing is that the fluid will need to settle before the measurement can be taken. This is the way to ensure the reading is accurate.
How to Check Car Oil Level
As we’ve mentioned, this is a fast and straightforward process. The following sections spell it out step by step, so you’ll know exactly what to do.
Park Your Car on Flat Ground
In order to get an accurate reading, it’s important that your car is on level ground. This ensures that the fluid is not gravitating to one side of its container.
If the car is parked on uneven or sloping ground, it is impossible to get a correct reading.
Turn Off Engine
Never perform this check while the motor is running. Turn it off, and then wait around 10 minutes before opening the hood.
At this point, the liquid should level and the motor be cool enough so you won’t burn yourself.
Open Your Car’s Hood
If you’ve never done any of your own maintenance, you might not be sure how to do this. For most cars, the control for opening the hood is near the driver’s side door.
Pulling on the latch will pop the hood open—after that, it can be raised manually.
Depending on the vehicle, you may need to pull the latch again so that the hood can be lifted up.
Once you’ve lifted it, how does it stay up?
For some, the hood will remain open on its own after being raised. For others, a rod is needed to support the hood and hold it in an upright position. This will be built with one end attached into the front of the hood, and the other end swung down to connect to the car body.
Locate and Remove the Dipstick
The dipstick is the part that tells you how much liquid is in the oil reservoir. Most often it will have a yellow, orange or yellow cap. It also has a circular or rectangular ring that can be handled with one or two fingers.
It might be found on either side of the engine block. For vehicles with rear-wheel drive, the dipstick is found further back in the engine. In front-wheel-drive cars, it is usually found nearer the front.
Automatic transmission cars will have an additional dipstick under the hood for the transmission fluid, which will commonly be pink or red. It’s crucial not to confuse these two. Adding oil to the transmission could lead to serious damage.
Once you have located the correct dipstick, remove it. In most vehicles, it should come out pretty easily, but sometimes some force will need to be applied.
If you’ve never looked for the dipstick, don’t be intimidated. Here is an instructional video to help find it:
Check the Level of Oil
After you have removed the dipstick, wipe it clean with a cloth or paper towel. It’s a good idea to hold your cleaning implement close to the opening of the container as you do this. This way you can clean the dipstick as it’s being removed so the oil drips back in. This keeps it from being spilled outside.
Once the dipstick has been wiped clean, re-insert it. If the pipe it fits into is curved then it will be designed to bend with the curve. Now pull the dipstick out again, and look carefully at the residual product at the end of the stick.
Notice how high it reaches on the stick. Dipsticks have two markers for measuring the level. At the bottom of the stick, there is a marker for the minimum level. You’ll see another one a bit higher up that indicates the maximum.
When the level is correct, the liquid on the dipstick will be somewhere between these two markers. Otherwise, further action will need to be taken.
What to do if the Level is Too Low?
If the oil level is below the minimum marker, this means you need to add more. Before doing so, it’s very important that you choose the right one. There are different types available for specific engines, synthetic oils, and high mileage oils. They can all vary in weight and viscosity.
Each one has a different grade, such as 5W-30. The correct type for your car should be found in your owner’s manual. If you can’t locate the information, check with the manufacturer or a reputable mechanic.
If you do need to top up, you’ll now have to find the fill cap. This is usually on the top of the engine, and may be marked “oil fill.” Sometimes the grade required is also marked here for your convenience.
Remove the cap and wipe it clean. You will need a funnel for adding more oil to the engine—a spill can lead to further problems. When pouring it into the engine, work slowly and carefully to avoid any spillages.
Once you have added a sufficient amount of liquid, use the dipstick again. This is to check if you’ve added the right amount. You’ll have to repeat the 2-step process described above.
First, wipe the dipstick clean again. Then reinsert it, and remove it again to re-check the level.
If it is now somewhere between the minimum and maximum markers then you have added enough. If it’s still low, you should repeat the entire process again, until the desired level is achieved.
What to do if the Level is Too High?
This is one of those products where more is not necessarily better. In fact, having too much oil in your engine can lead to major malfunctions, which can be costly. It can become aerated and foamy, and this is not good for lubrication.
In some cases, too much will cause the oil to stop flowing, and the engine will become too dry. This is not only damaging but can cause the engine to possibly seize up.
If your level is found to be too high, this might be due to over filling. It could also be from something leaking into the engine oil, such as water or coolant. If it’s the latter, take it seriously.
This kind of leaking is a problem that will need to be addressed. You should take the car to a mechanic as soon as possible.
As we said, the excess may be due to you having overfilled it. If that’s the case, you now have to remove some. It can be drained in one of two ways.
The first and simplest method is to use a siphon or turkey baster to pull the extra liquid out. This can be done from either the filler or the dipstick tube – either location will work.
Alternatively, you can locate the drain plug, and remove all of the oil. It’s a more complicated process, and should only be done if the extra amount is substantial. The drain plug is located at the bottom of the oil pan. This is, in turn, is underneath the engine.
Tools will be needed to remove the plug, such as a ratchet, and maybe an extension for it. A catch pan will also be required for the liquid to drain into. Make sure that it’s large enough to hold the full amount that you’re draining.
The government recommends recycling used oil, as is can be re-refined for future use. Check with your local municipality to find a recycling center near you that will accept the used product.
Inspecting for Age and Contamination
When checking your oil, not only the level is important. You also want to check for old age and contamination, that can be responsible for the oil either not working to it’s fullest potential, or worse, severely damaging your car.
Detecting Aged Oil
The color and condition of the oil tell us about its age. Over time the color will change from golden to black. This is caused by particulates from the engine and internal combustion process filtering through into the liquid.
Dark brown or black means that it needs to be replaced. If it’s extremely dark, you should consider replacing the oil filter too.
Detecting Contaminated Oil
Not as easy to spot as aged oil, however there are some signs you can look for that may signify contaminated engine oil.
To check for contamination of coolant, unless it’s severe, the only thing you can do is to smell the dipstick. Engine oil is earthy, while coolant is sickly sweet. You will be able to smell this on the dipstick.
For water contamination, there will be a somewhat translucent brown, thinner deposit on the dipstick above the oil line.
Also, if the oil has not been changed frequently enough, carbon deposits may build up in the engine. You can check for this by looking into the engine through the oil fill cap.
If slimy deposits or dirt can be seen on the engine parts – commonly called sludge – then the lubricant has not been changed often enough. A more frequent routine will be needed in the future.
Sadly though, the only real way to detect for slight – and not severe – contamination, is to have an oil analysis done. You might want to take your car to a mechanic for a more thorough check if you suspect contamination. They can identify the cause of the contamination, and do a full drain and replacement if needed, as well as any repair required to prevent it from occurring again.
All in all, checking your engine oil and taking the right steps to keep it in order is a relatively simple routine. Most people will be able to do this without too much trouble.
Have you been one of those people who prefer to hand over all technical chores to the mechanic? Don’t miss out on this chance to learn something about the workings of your vehicle. Doing it yourself will save you time as well as money.
Try following these simple steps to check the oil level in your vehicle. If you’ve given it a try or have any questions, let us know in the comments below. We’ll reply to every comment.