Easy Oil Check

Simple steps for checking your engine's oil

Of all the fluids in your vehicle, one is absolutely crucial to the survival of your engine-oil. A thin layer of oil molecules rides between every surface inside your engine. These molecules lubricate surfaces and prevent heat-producing friction from destroying your engine in short order. Keeping an eye on your engine oil level is not only important-it's easy!

The Big Why

Understanding why to check your oil begins with an understanding of the engine oiling system. Bolted to the underside of your engine is an oil pan. The oil collects in the pan after circulating through the engine and oil filter. At the very bottom of the pan there is a pickup for the oil pump.

The oil pump circulates oil through your engine. The pump picks up oil from the bottom of the engine oil pan, and constantly sends it back up to the top of the engine to maintain lubrication. Without a constant and steady supply of oil, the pump will lose pressure and engine damage will occur. This is why the correct level of oil is crucial.

While most vehicles are equipped with a low oil pressure warning light, by the time the light comes on the damage is already done. For this reason these lights have earned the unfortunate moniker of "idiot lights." Other vehicles have oil pressure gauges that constantly monitor engine oil pressure by means of a sensor peering into the engine itself.

The Simple How

To check the oil, every vehicle has a dipstick that lives up to its name and dips into the oil pan itself. On the bottom of the dipstick are two marks. The upper mark indicates full. The lower mark indicates add. Since the dipstick only reads how much oil is in the pan itself, there are a few rules to follow when checking your oil.

The first and foremost rule is that you check the oil while the vehicle is on level ground. Since the dipstick extends into the engine oil pan, it cannot give a correct reading if the oil is collected at the back, front, or sides of the oil pan. The second rule is to wait long enough for oil to drain back into the pan before checking. This can be as short as five minutes, or as long as overnight.

Hot and Cold

There is an ongoing argument as to whether or not it is better to check your oil when the engine is hot, or when the engine is cold. The cold crowd will argue that when the engine is cold and at rest, all the oil is in the pan, and therefore the dipstick will give the most accurate reading. The hot crowd will argue that oil expands when hot, so the best time to check the oil is when the engine is warm.

Both crowds are right to a certain extent, and as long as the first two rules are adhered to everything should be fine. If your driveway at home is nice and flat, then check your oil in the morning when you grab the paper. If you live on a steep slope, then check your oil at the gas station when the engine is warm. Every other fill-up is a good schedule for oil checks.

Lastly there is the reading of the dipstick itself. Consult your owners or service manual for quantities, but as a general rule, add one quart of oil only if the oil is below the add mark. Never add oil if the level is between the two marks. Be careful to only pour oil into your engine where it belongs. Engine oil filler caps are usually clearly labeled with the word OIL and often include a pictogram of what looks like Aladdin's lamp-just like magic.

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