When to get an oil change? You know you need to change your car’s oil at some point, but how often? The answer can be confusing, because it varies based on driving conditions and your driving habits. Let us simplify it for you.
Conservative estimates for oil-change intervals used to be as low as 3000 miles, before significant improvements in fuel-delivery systems, engine materials, manufacturing methods, and oil chemistry. Today, modern engines driven normally stretch intervals to 7500 or even more than 10,000 miles. So what’s the right answer?
When Your Vehicle Is in Warranty
When a vehicle is new, the answer is simple: If you don’t want to void your powertrain warranty, follow the oil type, mileage, and time recommendations in the owner’s manual. (Lost your owner’s manual? It’s likely available online.) In most cases, you’ll be taking your vehicle to the dealer for required inspections and maintenance, and oil changes will be included in that regime.
Some newer vehicles have a built-in oil-life monitor. This gadget uses an algorithm, sensors, and software that keep track of drive temperatures, cold starts, driving hours, idling hours, and engine revs.
It uses that data to calculate the oil’s condition and warranty-preserving change intervals. Keep in mind that the oil monitor is calibrated for the oil type recommended in the owner’s manual. Service alerts are displayed in the instrument cluster. In some systems, one of the instrument-cluster information screens will read out remaining oil life as a percentage.
This is much different from the red oil-pressure warning light that glows when you start the engine. If that’s on while you’re driving or idling, it means you’re out of oil or have a very serious engine issue. Time to park and key off.
When Your Vehicle Is Out of Warranty
Once you’re outside the maker’s warranty, determining change intervals requires some common sense and an educated guess—unless your vehicle has an aforementioned oil-life monitor.
There are often different recommendations for normal and severe driving. Intervals vary widely depending on whom you ask, whether you tow (and how often), the time of year, and even where you drive.
Severe conditions include:
- If you make many short trips of five miles or less (in normal temperatures)
- If you make many short trips of 10 miles or less (in freezing temperatures)
- Extreme hot-weather stop-and-go driving
- Driving at low speeds for long distances
- Lots of miles on dusty, muddy, salty, sandy, or gravel roads
- Long-distance trailer towing
- Track driving
When To Get an Oil Change?
In the past, cars typically needed an oil change every 3,000 miles, but modern lubricants now allow for a much longer interval between services — from 5,000 to 7,500 miles and even up to 15,000 miles if your car uses full-synthetic motor oil. Let’s take a look at oil change intervals for older and newer cars.
Older cars typically have two maintenance schedules: one for normal use and another for “severe service” operating conditions, such as short trips (5 miles or less), extreme temperatures, stop-and-go driving, and carrying heavy loads or towing a trailer.
If your car falls under this category, use the more rigorous schedule shown in the owners manual. Otherwise, you should adhere to normal oil change frequency.
On the other hand, if you drive a newer car, it may be equipped with an oil-life monitoring system that adjusts the oil change interval based on your vehicle’s operating conditions. The system will alert you when an oil change is needed, and a service technician should be able to reset the system after doing so.
Regardless of how often you get your oil changed, you should check the oil level monthly and top it up as needed. If you don’t drive much, most automakers recommend changing the oil annually, even if the maintenance reminder hasn’t appeared yet.
How Often to Check the Oil Level
Our mechanics recommend checking your oil level at least once a month, or ideally every other gas fill-up. Don’t assume that a new car is exempt from this maintenance chore. Consumer Reports reliability survey results have shown that even newer cars can need the oil to be topped off between changes.
Check the owner’s manual and follow the automaker’s recommendations. Some newer cars have electronic oil monitors and don’t have traditional dipsticks for manual inspection.
If you do have a dipstick, and you’re checking it yourself, make sure the car is parked on level ground. If the engine has been running, be aware of potential hot spots under the hood. Most automakers recommend checking the oil level when the engine is cool.
With the engine off, open the car’s hood and find the dipstick. Pull the dipstick out from the engine and wipe off any oil from its end with a dust-free cloth or towel. Then insert the dipstick back into its tube and push it all the way back in.
Pull it back out, and this time quickly look at both sides of the dipstick to see where the oil is on the end. Every dipstick has some way of indicating the proper oil level, whether it be two pinholes, the letters L and H (low and high), the words MIN and MAX, or simply an area of crosshatching. If the top of the oil “streak” is between the two marks or within the crosshatched area, the level is fine.
If the oil is below the minimum mark, you need to add oil. (Use the oil type recommended in the owner’s manual, adding just no more than half a quart at a time. Let the car sit, then check again.)
Pay close attention to the old oil’s color. It should appear brown or black. But if it has a light, milky appearance, this could mean coolant is leaking into the engine. Look closely for any metal particles, too, because this could mean there is internal engine damage. If you see either of these conditions, get the car to a mechanic for further diagnosis.
If everything is okay, wipe off the dipstick again and insert it back into its tube, making sure it’s fully seated. Close the hood and you’re done.
If the oil is consistently low when checked, the engine is either burning the oil or leaking it. Either way, discuss this recurring issue with your mechanic.
6 Signs Your Car’s Oil Needs Changing
Changing the oil in your car is usually a quick and painless procedure when performed at a modern automotive service center. Lubricating oil in your vehicle is something that is vitally important to its well-being. Good, clean oil improves the performance of your car and extends the life of the engine, so why do many people delay in replacing their oil until there’s a visible problem?
Check Engine or Oil Change Light
The most obvious alert that there’s an issue with your oil will come from the car itself. The oil change light in your vehicle will illuminate when there’s not enough oil in the system, so check the dipstick to see what’s happening.
In worse cases, the check engine light will illuminate. This is your car warning you that things have gotten so bad that the engine is at risk of damage due to problem parts or lack of lubrication.
Engine Noise and Knocking
Oil provides a protective layer between engine parts, avoiding metal-to-metal brushing and keeping the engine quiet. If your oil isn’t doing its job properly, the engine noise will increase. In severe cases, you may even hear knocking or rumbling sounds that signify your engine is tearing itself apart bit by bit through lack of lubrication.
Dark, Dirty Oil
Clean oil is amber in color and slightly translucent. As it is used, it becomes filled with particles collected from the engine and turns darker. It will not be obvious when this begins to happen, so you must be vigilant and check your engine oil at least once a month.
To do this, remove the dipstick and wipe it off before returning it to the oil tank. Now take it out a second time. If you cannot see the dipstick through the oil, it is time for an oil change.
Oil Smell Inside the Car
If you smell oil inside the car, it can often signify an oil leak. If you also smell gas or exhaust fumes, the vehicle may be overheating. Either way, you will want to schedule maintenance immediately.
Some translucent vapor will always come out of your car’s tailpipe, but if this changes to smoke, it’s time for an engine check-up. You may have faulty engine parts or an oil leak.
If you’ve traveled a lot of miles in the last month, consider whether you need an oil change sooner than your normal schedule. Every car is different, but most should have their oil changed every 3,000 miles or three months.
New vehicles usually require a change of oil every 6,000 miles or six months. Check your owner’s handbook for specific guidelines. Consider a high-mileage oil for older vehicles.
Choosing the Right Oil for Your Car
Again, take a look at your owner’s manual. “Don’t be upsold into synthetic oil if there is no need,” Ibbotson says.
In many newer models, the weight of your car’s motor oil is printed on the cap where you add oil, and it is definitely listed in the maintenance section at the back of the owner’s manual. “Make sure you know what’s recommended or required by your automaker before you visit your mechanic so that you can control the cost of the oil they’re putting in,” he says.
If you have a much older car, do you need special motor oil?
“Not if it’s running well,” Ibbotson says. “If you’re not sure what oil you should be using because you don’t have an owner’s manual, check with your local dealer or an online enthusiast group for your particular model,” he says.
Don’t get creative with your engine oil choice. The automaker spent many millions of dollars to develop the engine, and it chose the recommended oil for a reason.
When changing the oil, be sure to use an original equipment or premium-grade oil filter, rather than a budget filter.
Are Frequent Oil Changes Better?
Not surprisingly, service providers (oil-change shops and dealerships) tend to recommend shorter change intervals (3000 to 5000 miles). That can never hurt your engine, but it also means they’ll see you and your credit card more often.
When your car’s on the lift for an oil change, other wear items such as brake pads, coolant, tires, and shocks can also be assessed and possibly replaced. So it’s also obviously good for their business. (With older vehicles, which may burn oil, you’ll want to check the oil level using the dipstick at least once a month.)
But if you’re not driving your car in severe conditions—and few of us are—you can stick to the manufacturer’s recommended oil-change intervals (which often include an oil-filter change at the same time). And, of course, if your car has an oil-life monitor, heed that.
What about using premium extended-life and pricey synthetic oils for projected 10,000- and even 12,000-mile changes? About synthetics: Almost all newer vehicles use synthetic oil, so if the manufacturer specifies that, you must use it. Many older vehicles weren’t filled with synthetics when new and still use conventional petroleum-based oil. In that case, you have a choice.
Some oil refiners produce sophisticated carmaker-approved extended-life oils that do help stretch the time between changes. These oils have special chemistry or additives that support their ability to go longer distances.
They resist high-temperature breakdown better and keep dirt and particulates in suspension longer so that the oil filter can catch them. They also cost more than standard oils; you’ll need to do the math to see if it’s worth the extra cost.
A Few Words of Caution
If you operate on dirt roads or in dusty or road-salted environments and do lots of cold starts and short runs, the factory oil filter has only so much scrubbing capacity. (That’s why most makers recommend replacing the filter at each oil change.)
Further, the longer-range oils can become contaminated by the sheer volume of combustion gases that blow past the worn piston rings of older cars. At some point, the oil is no longer protecting the sliding surfaces within the engine as well as it should.
Engine wear accelerates after the oil breaks down or is highly contaminated. And finally, almost no automaker recommends that oil should be left in the crankcase for more than one year—no matter the mileage.
If you’re changing your own oil, be sure to recycle properly. Most auto-parts stores (check before you buy) and oil-change businesses will take back used oil at no charge. Whether you do it yourself or have it done for you, changing your oil at the proper intervals will make your engine last longer and run better.
How often should you change your oil in months?
It depends on the manufacturer. The old-school way was every three months, but with improvements to oil quality and engine materials, that interval can be pushed to anywhere between six and 12 months. Your owner’s manual will detail the interval.
What happens if you go too long without an oil change?
As your oil quality wears down, so do the components it’s supposed to protect. If you go excessively long between oil changes, you’ll reach the point of no return, and your vehicle’s engine will become a massive repair bill, or even total failure.
Can I change oil every two years?
No. Almost no automaker recommends that oil should be left in the crankcase for more than one year—no matter the mileage.
How do I know when my oil needs changing?
Typically, follow the mileage and time intervals listed by your vehicle’s manufacturer. But this can vary, depending on the severity of your driving. As detailed above, shorter trips, track time, and dusty roads can cause your oil to break down faster and need to be changed earlier.
Some vehicles have instrument-cluster information screens that will read out remaining oil life as a percentage. If you don’t have this feature, follow along with the sticker from the oil-change place or keep track of mileage on your own. Don’t forget to check your oil via the dipstick at least once a month.
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