How To Change Your Car’s Engine Oil
Every car is slightly (or significantly) different in the engine compartment, but most cars follow general rules regarding how to change their oil. In this article, I’ll describe my own methods for changing oil, which I’ve done for the last 5 years.
Why Do I Change the Oil Myself?
Prior to changing my own oil, I was (almost) perfectly content with taking my car to Jiffy Lube for a quick, cheap oil change. With my Acura, I regularly spent the $50+ every 7,500 miles for the synthetic oil change at the dealer or Jiffy Lube. But a combination of factors forced me to take matters into my own hands.
First, the big one, Jiffy Lube stole parts off our old Pontiac. They ended up paying for the parts, but that was it for me. From then on, I vowed I wouldn’t take any of our cars to a discount shop. But I still had the Acura that I took to the dealer for oil changes.
Second, at the time, I was working for a major oil company. I found out I could get considerable discounts on cases of oil, especially synthetic, once per year. I also got their premium oil filters for half the price. At first, I bought cases of the oil and took it to the dealer so all I paid for was labor. But that still cost about $20. Eventually, I realized that since I worked for an oil company, I should probably know how to change my own oil (the car’s, that is).
So the combination of fear and pride formed to be the catalyst for changing my own oil, and continues on to this day. Now, I actually enjoy changing the oil because it gives me quiet time, as well as lets me see what’s going on underneath the car. I’ve noticed missing transmission cover bolts and leaks that the dealer has missed!
At the end of this article, I’ll calculate my average cost per oil change, and let you use that to decide if it’s worth it for you to change your vehicle’s oil too.
What Do You Need to Buy to Change Oil?
You’ll be surprised at how little you actually need to change your vehicle’s oil. I’ll split it into two categories:
- Oil. Duh. But not all oils are the same. I need a separate article to talk about oil, but for now, I’ll refer you to call your dealer’s service technicians to ask the proper grade (e.g. 5W30, 10W20, etc.), or you can also use the MobilOil.com “What’s the right oil for my car?” selector. It only outputs Mobil oil brands, but it will give you more descriptions and definitions about each oil grade than your dealer probably has time to give you. Also, you can buy oil by the case or the quart. I highly recommend buying by the case. I get a good deal on Mobil 1 at Sam’s Club, compared to the local auto stores. Lastly, cars take anywhere from 3-8 or more quarts of oil. It depends on the size of the engine, the filter and the oil pan. Call the dealer or read your owner’s manual to find out the proper amount.
- Oil Filter. Many people aren’t even aware their vehicle uses an oil filter. The oil goes through it and it filters out impurities. It’s essential that you change this with each oil change! I don’t recommend buying it from the dealer because they tack on an insane markup. Go to NAPA or Autozone or other auto parts store and have them look up your options. Generally, I go for the middle-of-the-pack. I avoid the cheap ones (like $2 each) and the pricey ones (over $8 each).
- Oil Collection Container/Drain. I currently use this open-top plastic container, but I think I might switch to a closed container like this one or this one. Why? Because when I take the oil to the recycling center, I wouldn’t need to worry about it spilling out. My preference would be a larger drain area because the warmed oil squirts out pretty far when you first unplug the oil pan. That means I would highly recommend this one. Call it my own lesson-learned.
- Socket Set. You’ll probably just need one or two sizes of sockets, but you should get the whole set anyway. You don’t need anything pricey, but you want something with a variety of sizes and lengths, such as this one. FYI, you use the socket to unscrew the oil drain plug, but they come in handy for many other car repairs too.
- Oil Filter Wrench. These come in numerous designs and sizes. If you’re doing more than one vehicle, most likely the filters will be different sizes. In that case, I suggest getting an adjustable wrench/pliers like this one or this one. Otherwise, if it’s just one vehicle, or if you just want to get the exact size socket, find out the diameter of the filter (usually in millimeters) and get the appropriate end cap (it fits on your socket wrench). They look like this one. I recommend just going to an auto parts store and fitting the filter to ones they have there to be sure you’re buying one that works for you.
- A funnel. You really don’t need anything fancy here. Just a funnel to pour the new oil down into the engine.
- Safety glasses. You don’t want the oil splashing into your eyes. Not because it’s hot, but because it’s oil.
- Ramps. I put this at the end of must-haves because for some higher vehicles (like my truck), I don’t need a ramp to get under it. But for cars and vans, or just for convenience, you’ll need ramps. This will probably be your most expensive one-time purchase. I got the Rhino Ramp 8000 at Advance Auto Parts for about $35 after tax, but if you want to order from Amazon, they have them for $46.
One thing to note with the ramp is that it’s heavy duty plastic, not metal, which I like (it doesn’t rust and it’s lighter to carry). However, even though it’s rated at 8,000lbs, and my truck is about 4,400lbs, I did notice some bulging on the sides when changing the oil last time. I think I’ll need to upgrade to the 12000 Extreme model. You don’t want the truck falling on you!
The following is a list of items that I found useful for making the process easier:
- Paper towels or rags. You’ll inevitably get oil somewhere when you unplug the oil pan or unscrew the filter, so keep these handy.
- Garbage bags to throw out your waste. I just use old grocery store bags. Keep in mind, though, that you don’t toss out the old oil or the oil filter. You’re supposed to recycle each. Also, the oil containers are considered hazardous waste because they held oil. See what your municipality wants you to do with these items.
- Plastic/newspaper/cardboard to place under the vehicle and prevent oil from staining your driveway.
- Plastic/vinyl/rubbers gloves to keep the oil off your hands. Be careful with your choice, though, because if you touch a hot part of the engine with some gloves, they’ll melt onto your skin.
- A magnet. Sometimes you’ll drop the oil pan plug into the oil and it’s easier to fish it out with a magnet than with your fingers. Ok, maybe I’m just clumsy.
Anything else you guys and gals find useful when changing oil? That’s exactly the items that I use when changing oil, as you’ll see below.
How I Change My Vehicles’ Oil
Since starting to change oil about 5 years ago, I’ve changed oil in a range of vehicles: a Pontiac Grand Am, Volkswagen Passat, Acura TL-S, Honda Ridgeline, Mitsubishi Galant, Chevrolet Malibu and soon to be a MINI Cooper (I’m not driving 60 miles round-trip for an oil change!). Even among those mostly passenger cars, I’ve seen some big differences.
For example, the VW Passat’s oil filter was HUGE. I had to go buy another filter wrench for it. And the Chevy Malibu didn’t have a cannister filter. Instead, I had to unscrew a container at the front of the car and drop in the new filter. And each vehicle’s filter seems to be placed wherever the engineers could find room at the last minute. In the Ridgeline, it’s placed above a spot that makes it impossible to drain cleanly. I always have to use a wad of paper towels to clean it up. And just last week, in a conversation at the auto parts store, I found out the BMW 3-series takes 8 quarts of oil! No wonder their oil changes are so pricey.
So rather than write an article that covers every type of vehicle (and model year), I’ll just state the general steps for changing oil:
1. Drive your vehicle for 10-15 minutes to warm up the oil. You might need to drive longer in the winter. You need the oil to be viscous (liquid) enough that it pours out easily and carries the contaminates with it.
2. Set up the ramps on a level, solid surface. I’ll either change the oil on the grassy area in front of our driveway (to hide oil spills) or on the driveway itself. I get my wife to line up the ramps with each wheel and make sure I’m driving up onto them straight. You don’t want overhang on the sides or front of either because your vehicle could be imbalanced and tip or slide more easily.
3. Set your vehicle’s parking brake! You don’t want that thing shifting at all and putting more pressure on the ramps. Also, turn off your vehicle. You don’t want it to be running while you’re draining the oil or you’ll break it…very badly.
4. Set up your ground covering. Even if you’re changing on the grass, you don’t want to spill oil into the environment and not be able to clean it up easily. Also, it’ll protect your driveway or landscaping from unsightly stains.
5. Locate your oil pan plug. In most vehicles, it’s facing to the rear of the vehicle since manufacturers know you have it inclined on a ramp and it eases drainage. There’s really only one plug down there, but it’s easy to confuse it with a transmission bolt if you’re not familiar with cars. The oil pan will be under the engine, usually in the center when you’re looking up at the engine from below.
6. Place the oil drain bucket under the oil pan. One BIG tip here is that the oil will shoot out a good 1-2 feet in the first few seconds (assuming it’s warmed up sufficiently), simply from the pressure inside. Place the oil pan further back to catch the oil, but make sure there’s still enough of the pan under the plug area itself. You’ll see what I mean when you do it. Just make sure there’s enough plastic or newspaper on the ground to catch the spill, because only the luckiest don’t spill any oil on their first try.
7. Unscrew the oil pan plug: Prior to doing this, make sure you have the right size socket on the wrench, your hands are covered appropriately, and you have your safety glasses on. That plug can get pretty hot to the touch (it probably shouldn’t burn you though), so be careful. My method is to loosen the plug with the socket until I can spin it with my fingers. That only takes about 1 turn of the wrench. Then I use my fingers (covered with a folded paper towel) to unscrew the bolt. Pay attention here because as the bolt is loosened, oil will start dripping out and when it’s almost off, the pressure behind it could push the bolt away unexpectedly. That’s usually when I lose the bolt in the oil pan and have to fish it out (hence the magnet).
8. Let the oil drain. I don’t have a timeframe for draining the oil, but I generally go do something else for about 10 minutes. If it’s windy out, keep an eye on it since the stream of oil gets thinner, it can be blown around more easily and splatter.
9. Plug the oil pan. Since the oil filter in my vehicles isn’t close enough to the oil pan plug, I need to plug up the pan, then move the drain bucket. But your vehicle may vary. When I plug up the pan, I use the same bolt as before. I wipe off any oil, screw it in , and tighten it about one turn with the socket wrench. You don’t want to tighten too much and make it hard to get off the next time. As a note, some vehicles use a washer on the bolt that needs replaced with each oil change. My Acura did, but I got a handful for free from the dealer’s service dept.
10. Drain the oil filter. This is the part I usually dread because it can be messy, depending on the location of the filter. Use your oil filter wrench to loosen the filter, but be careful not to push too hard or risk denting the filter and making it hard to get off. Once loosened, continue to unscrew it slowly by hand while letting the oil from inside the engine and filter drain out. Be prepared for about 1-2 cups of oil to pour out when it’s completely unscrewed.
11. Install the new filter. Wipe off all the oil that leaked on the car parts and around the opening for the filter. Before screwing on the new filter, I recommend rubbing some oil (new or used) on the rubber gasket and inside the threads to make removal easier the next time, and to make for a better seal. Also, you’re supposed to add a bit of new oil into the filter before putting it back on, but I usually don’t because I worry it will leak out when I put it on. Tighten it by hand first. And when you can’t tighten it anymore, use your wrench (carefully) to tighten it just one-half turn more.
Ok, at this point you’ve drained out all the oil, put the plug back in and installed the new oil filter. It’s time to check your work by filling it up with new oil.
12. Pop open the hood and locate the dipstick. Pull out the dipstick (make sure it’s for the oil, not the transmission fluid), wipe it off, put it back in the whole way and pull it out again. Make sure there’s no oil on the stick. If there’s oil, you may have missed a step or not drained for long enough. Put the dipstick back in before the next step.
13. Locate where to pour the oil into your engine. Most engines have a roughly 2″ cap on the engine that shows an oil can symbol, but check with your owner’s manual or dealer first. One of our vehicles actually had me pour the oil in through the dipstick tube (which was a bit difficult).
14. Pour in the oil. Again, I’ll defer to the owner’s manual or dealer on how much and what type of oil to use, but when I’m ready, I just set the funnel in the hole and pour the oil in bottle by bottle. Pour in slowly so the oil has time to go into the engine and not overflow out of the engine or the funnel.
15. Close it up and let it settle for a couple minutes. Before you start up your engine, give the oil a chance to make its way from the engine down to the oil pan. I generally just wait a couple minutes for this.
16. Check for leaks Before starting up, look under the car for new oil leaks to make sure you tightened the oil plug and filter properly.
17. Start ‘er up! Start up the engine, but do not rev the engine! The oil isn’t distributed through the engine yet, so revving the engine could damage it. Just let it run for about 5 minutes.
18. After letting the oil distribute evenly through the engine, move your equipment from under the car and drive the car off the ramp. Move the car to a level spot (not facing downhill or uphill), shut it off and let it sit for about 15 minutes.
19. Check the oil level. After the car sits, the oil will settle down into the oil pan and then you can check the oil level. Pop the hood and pull the dipstick. Wipe it off (you never use the initial reading), put it back in, pull it out and verify the oil reaches the designated marker on the stick (your stick will vary). If you need more oil, then add it at this time, or check back in a few days and try then.
20. Clean up. As I mentioned, you need to recycle the oil. DO NOT POUR THE OIL DOWN THE DRAIN! Dispose of the oil containers and filter as required and supported by your local municipality. Pat yourself on the back for a good job, and hope your car doesn’t blow up in the next few days.
Costs of Changing Your Own Oil
Using the price of items I listed as required equipment above, the cost of one oil change would be:
– Oil. I get Mobil 1 Synthetic from Sam’s Club for $30. Five years ago when I first started changing my oil, a case was only about $20, so for historical comparison, I’ll use an average of $25 per 6-pack, or about $4.20 per quart. The oil will be your most variable cost over the years, but places like Jiffy Lube factor in the price as well. Don’t think they’re keeping their prices the same or using the same quality oil as costs rise. I use 4.5 quarts per oil change, which costs $19.
– Oil Filter. I spend about $4 per filter on average for the Purolator oil filters at Advance Auto Parts.
– Oil Container/Drain. I paid $14 for my container.
– Oil Filter Wrench. I paid $5 for the adjustable wrench on clearance, but I’ve bought other sockets or wrenches until I found one I liked and worked for all my vehicles.
– Ramps. I paid $35 for mine.
– Socket Set. I got my set for free a decade ago, but so you can compare, I’ll say $10 (you can find pretty cheap ones on sale).
– Funnel. $1
– Safety Glasses. I just wear my regular glasses.
TOTAL COST FOR ONE OIL CHANGE: $88 (using synthetic oil). If you used regular oil, it would cost about $78-80 (about half the price for the oil). Recall that the oil and filter accounts for $23, while the equipment is $65. That equipment is a one-time purchase.
For just one vehicle, for one oil change, it seems to just make sense to take the car to a discount shop or even the dealer. But who does all this work for just one oil change?
For two oil changes, the cost comes down to $65 + $8 (2 filters) + $38 (9 quarts of oil) divided by 2, or $55. That’s now the same price as taking it to the dealer. Three oil changes comes down to $45.
After doing at least 15 oil changes myself in the last 5 years, the price comes down to $27 per oil change at the premium price. But a third or more of those oil changes were with regular oil, so now I’ve gotten the price of the oil change down to the discount shop price for regular oil. If you’re using regular oil for your vehicle, you can expect a payback period in less than 12 oil changes, or about 3 years.
Granted, the numbers will vary by your vehicle needs such as amount of oil, the oil grade, regional prices and of course the number of vehicles you’re doing (I was doing 3 at a time for a few years). And you’re not just changing the oil to save money here. You’re doing it because you want to learn more about your car, have a direct hand in the maintenance, and make sure you know how it was maintained.
One big disclaimer here is that you must make sure that you aren’t voiding your vehicle’s warranty by maintaining it yourself. Warranty departments like to have records to prove problems aren’t attributable to poor maintenance. Also, when you sell the vehicle, you usually don’t have anything other than receipts to show as maintenance records.
It’s your personal choice to risk the wrath of the dealer’s warranty department. I’ve chosen to risk it myself, but then again, I’m a rebel.
Basically, you need to change your vehicle’s oil about a dozen times to pay back the cost of the materials compared to what Jiffy Lube charges, but you can also save money by getting your equipment used (like the ramps, etc.) or on clearance. I personally don’t care about the cost anymore because I simply don’t trust the mechanics taking the same care as I would with my car.
For those of you who do already change your own oil, let me hear about your experiences, thoughts and costs!