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- Engine oil can seem complicated, with all the different brands an grades, but it’s actually pretty straightforward.
- You do need some basic knowledge, however.
- You also need to know your vehicle and stay on top of its oil-change schedule.
- For the most part, auto manufacturers have made all your oil-related decision for you – it’s usually best to follow their lead.
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Motor oil performs three critical functions for your car.
It lubricates the internal-combustion engine, which generations a lot of friction. It also cools down an internal combustion engine, which creates a lot of heat. And it cleans engine parts, which can get dirty.
Obviously, then, you want to make sure that you engine oil is in top condition.
But oil can be daunting, from oil-change schedules to choosing between brands and deciding whether its worth it to pay extra for synthetic oil.
Here’s a short guide that seeks to answer the basic questions:
1. How often should you change your oil?
- Getty Images/Duane Prokop
The 3,000-mile rule doesn’t apply – modern motor oils can last much longer. And if you do stick by the old recommendation, you’re obviously going to produce more environmentally damaging waste oil.
But you don’t want to expect too much of your oil, especially if you live in a very hot or very cold region, or put a lot of hard miles on your vehicle. Over time, the ability of oil to lubricate, clean, and cool your engine degrades.
If you’re a typical driver, putting 10-15,000 miles annually on the odometer of a car that isn’t terribly old, I recommend a seasonal change twice a year. I like spring and fall: in spring you’re coming off the demands of winter; and in fall you coming off the demands of summer.
But if you drive more than 15-20,000 miles per year, I suggest throwing in a third oil change.
2. Should you do it yourself or take your car to a mechanic to change the oil?
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Your choice. And oil change is easy, but you do need to buy: oil, a new oil filter, and filter wrench, and something to drain the old oil into.
You also need to properly dispose of the used oil.
A mechanic or oil-change operation can handle all this for you, so you don’t get your hands dirty. I personally don’t think you learn all that much about working on your car from an oil change, and it is a hassle to get rid of the old oil, so I tend to bring my car to a mechanic.
3. If you change the oil yourself, how do you dispose of the waste oil?
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You have to take it a place that’s approved to dispose of oil or recycle it.
Earth911.com can assist in a search.
Also, the same auto-supply shops where you buy oil-change stuff often provide disposal services.
All you have to do is put the used oil in tightly sealed containers ‘ such as the plastic containers the new oil came in!
4. What grade of motor oil is recommended for your car?
There are quite a few grades of oil, formulated to run in different conditions and different temperatures.
But the kicker is that while you can explore “W” ratings and viscosity specs, the correct grade of oil for your car is the one that the manufacturer recommends. Just go with that and you’ll be fine.
5. Dinosaur oil — or synthetic? Or a combination?
I favor synthetics, but they’re expensive. They also last longer and have better performance characteristics than nonsynthetics.
You can split the difference by using a hybrid of petroleum-based oil and synthetic and save some money.
However, for many new vehicles, a cheaper old-school oil is fine.
6. How often do you need to check your oil?
- Matthew DeBord/BI
I was taught to check my oil levels every time I filled my car up with gas – about once a week. I’d open the hood, pull the dipstick, wipe if off, reinsert it into the engine, pull it out and make sure the oil level was good and also evaluate the color of the oil.
But those were the good old days – or bad old days, if you ever pulled the dipstick out and discovered you were low, which could indicate a leak or some oil being burned off by your car.
These days, engines are much more efficient and car makers, in some cases, have done away with the dipstick, sealing off the engine from owners and using sensors to monitor oil levels and oil life.
The new systems are accurate and trustworthy, but I still like to check my oil every few months. You’ll definitely want to do this if you drive and older vehicle, or if you notice any telltale oil leaks, or if your car starts to burn a bit of oil.
7. What are some bad signals that motor oil could send you about your car?
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An oil leak – look for brown or black stains on your driveway to garage floor. It isn’t a death sentence, but it is something you should have a mechanic check out.
Gray smoke coming from the tailpipe is an indication that your car is burning oil. That’s something a mechanic should investigate right away.
8. Where are the best places to stock up on oil?
- Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
You can keep an eye out for deals at auto parts stores, but the cheapest, buy-in-bulk options are Walmart and Costco.
Auto parts stores, however, are best for advice and for specialty oils, if your car requires them.
9. Which cars are the worst on oil?
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Old cars are the worst, but modern, small-displacement engines with turbochargers can also stress their lubricants.
If you use your vehicle to tow a trailer to haul loads, you might also want to consider using a premium synthetic oil to alleviate engine stress.
10. What if you don’t want to deal with oil ever again?
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The answer is to go electric.
Electric cars don’t have engines, they have motors, and those motors don’t require oil for lubrication (other parts of the EV do, however, have to be lubricated, such as door hinges).
So if you never want to deal with an oil change again, buy a Tesla, a Chevy Bolt, or a Nissan Leaf.