Aside from changing a flat tire and checking the oil, there's no more basic automotive skill than changing your oil. Sure, it's easier — and sometimes almost as cheap — to swing by Jiffy Lube to have your car's black gold freshened up, but that's not the point.
Changing your own oil makes you think about what's going on when you use your car. Is it losing oil between changes? Does it change color or have shiny little metal flakes in it? Does it have green antifreeze coming out with it? Even if none of those things are happening, it's just good to be in tune with your vehicle.
This is a general guide and your specific needs may vary by vehicle, so always consult a manual.
To start, you're going to need a few supplies, and I might as well preface this by saying that if you own one of those goofy Mercedes SUVs or whatever that don't have an oil drain plug and you have to pump it out through the fill hole, stop reading here and get your butt to the dealer service department. Why did you buy that car to begin with?
Now then, supplies.
- Oil: The number of quarts depends upon what car you have. They usually take four or five quarts, but sometimes less. You don't want to put in too much oil, which can blow out your oil seals and ruin your life. The car's owners manual usually tells you its capacity and if it doesn't or you lost it, go for one of those Haynes repair manuals. They contain all the information you need for pretty much anything.
- An oil filter: Get the right one. The parts store will have a little book that will tell you which one to get.
- A funnel: Unless you're just really good at pouring oil without spilling it, like me.
- Rags/paper towels: paper towels work fine, but be a chum to the environment and grab some reusable rags if you can.
- A box-end wrench: The size depends on the car. I use adjustable pliers, but that's only because I know exactly how tight the drain plug was put on last time (because I was the one who put it on). You don't want to go rounding off the edges of your drain plug. If you have a particularly decrepit beater, you may want to bring along a pair of locking pliers (vise grips) and a new drain plug, juuuuussst in case that one's on tight enough to make a mess out of.
- Some sort of filter wrench: if you have huge hands, this may not be an issue. I don't. I have sissy office worker hands and need a weird looking gripper thingie to get my filter off nice and easy.
- A drain pan: The best kind are those ones that close so you can just take the used oil to a parts store that recycles used oil later on.
- Some place to do the job: Anywhere will do as long as you can commit to not spilling oil all over the place. I did mine in Malibu, on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway, just so I would have front row seat if Lindsay Lohan decided to plow into the back of my car.
- Cold beer: Well, not such a good idea on the side of the PCH, but if you're in your own space, you can use the beers like the turns of an hourglass. Chugging/sipping are cheating, and you're more likely to leave a wrench on top of your battery if you drink too much. Don't be an idiot.
Once you have all of that stuff compiled, it's time to get started. Click through the gallery for a list of steps.
Photo credit: Photofun/Shutterstock
Step 1: Now that you have all of your tools and supplies assembled, and you've picked a spot to do the deed, it's time to get started. Make sure the engine is warm (that makes the oil less viscous, so it falls out more quickly). Now turn it off, make sure you're on a flat surface, and apply the parking brake. If you have a really low vehicle, you might have to jack it up a little to fit the drain pan. If you don't know how to jack up your vehicle, I can't help you.
Step 2: Find the oil filler cap and take it off. You don't want to go draining your oil if your filler cap is stuck on for some reason. Then you won't be able to drive to help.
Step 3: Position the drain pan under the drain plug, taking not of the plug's angle. When you take the drain plug out, the oil will pour with some force, and you don't want it to miss the edge of the pan and spill all over the ground. It makes a huge mess and it sucks, and makes you look like a jackass for changing oil in a parking lot.
Step 4: Using your box-end wrench, loosen the drain plug. Rightey-tightey, lefty-loosey and all that. If it's on really tight, you can use another similarly sized wrench to extend the one you have for more leverage. Once the plug is loose, you should be able to turn it with your fingers. Press in toward the engine when you do this, that way when it's ready to come all the way off, hot oil won't pour all over your hand, causing you to drop it into the drain pan. If you do that, no biggie, you'll just have to fish it out later.
Step 5: Once the oil has all drained out, let it drizzle for a moment, then put the drain plug back in, and tighten it. Do it now, don't wait until later. If you forget, you will pour your new oil in the drain pan with the dirty old oil or on the ground.
Step 6: Find the oil filter, and use either your hand or a filter wrench to take it off. It will most likely spill oil, too, although in a somewhat more messy manner than your drain plug, so make sure the drain pan is under wherever the oil is likely to spill.
Step 7: Take out your new filter, dip a finger into one of the new oil containers, and smear fresh oil onto the rubber seal on its business end (see illustration). This will help ensure a good seal when you put it on. Before you screw it onto where the old one was, make sure the old filter's gasket didn't stick. If there are two gaskets, your car will probably leak a ton of oil at some point in the near future.
Step 8: Screw on the new filter. It should turn easily, and you can tighten it as hard as possible with your hand, unless you're the incredible hulk. DON'T USE TOOLS TO TIGHTEN THE FILTER!
Step 9: Using the knowledge you've gleaned about how much oil your car needs to use, pour in the appropriate amount. Pull out the dipstick, wipe it, reinsert it, and pull it out again to check that the level is right (the level should be between the two marks at the bottom of the dipstick). If it's too low, add more oil, half a quart at a time. If you've overshot, you'll have to drain out the oil and start over. Overfilling will cost you a lot of money in repairs.
Step 10: Replace the oil cap, check to make sure there are no tools sitting around that could get caught in the fan belt or arc the battery terminals, and start the car. The oil pressure light/gauge should read normal after a few seconds.
Step 11: Clean up. The bags that your supplies came in make great trash bags, and help you keep track of everything. Many parts stores and service stations will take your used oil, FOR FREE, and recycle it. Please don't pour it in the storm drain or dump it on the ground. That tends to wreak havoc on local animal populations and water supplies, even if you lived in an urban area.
You're done! If you aren't driving anywhere, have a beer. If you're next to the PCH, hop into the ocean for a swim (I did). At any rate, if you took advantage of those sales they're always having at parts stores, you probably saved yourself about $20 — money for more beer!