Checking your engine oil level is a quick, easy task that is an important part of car maintenance. Putting the right amount of oil in your engine will increase its lifespan regardless of age, number of cylinders or horsepower. To do this, all you need is a clean rag and a few minutes.
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How often you need to test your car’s engine oil depends on what you drive and how you drive it. For most drivers, we recommend checking the oil once a month or before a long trip. However, if your car is older, more miles, or both, you may need to test it more often – an engine’s internal wear causes oil to burn with age, so one can drive a 1989 Toyota Corolla with 205,000 miles. A 2019 Corolla with 20,500 miles would require more fuel than the passenger. Other factors also work here: If your car has an oil leak, you may want to check the level regularly (and fix the underlying problem sooner rather than later).
In some newer cars, checking the oil level is as easy as tapping a button on the steering wheel a few times. An electronic gauge tells you if you need engine oil. In all other respects, you have to grab a rag, pop the hood and do it in the old fashioned way.
First make sure your car is parked on flat ground. It is not a good idea to check the oil level with a car parked in a corner as it is more likely to get a wrong reading. Think of your engine oil sump (which sits at the bottom of your engine and holds most of its oil) as an aquarium: if it is tilted, you will have more water at the bottom than at the top. Second, if you have just returned from a drive, wait at least 10 minutes before checking the oil to make sure that all parts of it have been sampled again. Even if you check the level right after you turn off the engine, incorrect readings may occur.
Read more: What kind of engine oil should be kept in your car?
Next, pop the hood (the lever is almost always in the driver’s footwell), dip your head into the engine bay and look for the dipstick. Don’t forget that if your car is driven recently, some bits and pieces under the hood will get hot. Many new cars have a dipstick handle made of yellow or orange plastic so that it is easily accessible. In older cars it can be made of black, red or just metal. Take the rags that we mentioned earlier, but don’t use the old pieces of cloth that are around you. Dust, pollen, and other debris that stays on your rack can end up in the dipstick and as a result can swim in your engine. Use a clean rag or, if necessary, a paper towel.
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Carefully pull the dipstick, clean it with a rag, re-insert it (push it all the way in), pull it again and hold it horizontally. You will see two marks on the dipstick: one at the top edge and one at the bottom. The level is perfect when it is at the top mark (or very close), if it is between them it is OK and if it is below the bottom mark it is dangerously low. If you don’t get a proper reading, don’t worry – it happens. Sometimes a drip level makes it difficult or impossible to read. Clean the dipstick and start again.
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Adding oil is easy but it can be messy; We recommend using a funnel. One thing to keep in mind is that overfilling an engine with oil can be as bad (and sometimes worse) as underfilling. That said, if you have low oil in your engine, you need to check first:
- How many quarts does it take?
- That kind of oil should be used.
You will usually find this information in your owner’s manual. If you don’t have it, Google is your friend.
Next, locate the oil cap; It is on the top of the engine and labeled “OIL” – or “710” if you look at it backwards. Alternatively it may contain the oil symbol. Open it, set it, pop the funnel into the hole of the oil filler and add the required amount of oil. If you do not know exactly how much oil you want to add, do it slowly: Pour a quarter of a quart, wait a few minutes for the oil to drain in the samp, check the layer with dipstick and see how much it has increased. Repeat this until the level reaches the top mark.