Wednesday, January 23, 2013

It's called oil, and it gets a little slick

Changing the oil in your vehicle is one of the easiest maintenance procedures a car owner can perform, and also one of the most important.  While most people take their cars in to a shop and have a mechanic do it, this procedure is simple enough that most people can do it at home in their own driveway.  But unless you know what you are doing the prospect of changing the oil can seem a bit daunting.  There are also a few tools you need to do the job properly, and without those it might seem well-nigh incomprehensible as far as how to actually get the old oil out and the new stuff put in.  But fear not! When I changed the oil in our 1998 Corolla this past weekend I used the opportunity to take plenty of pictures with the goal of putting together a little tutorial on how exactly to do this kind of thing.

So why should you bother changing the oil in your car when you can drive to a shop and have someone do it for $30? I'm not saying that method is bad, but doing it yourself has some benefits.  First of all you can choose the kind of oil and filter you use, whereas the shop down the street might be using low-grade materials that are designed to be cheap but not necessarily the best for your vehicle.  Using higher-quality materials can help your car run better and last longer.  Doing it yourself can also be a great way to save money, as the price for a few quarts of oil and a filter is often much less than what a shop charges to change the oil. (Check the ads too. Most auto parts stores run regular sales in which you can get oil and a filter for a discount when purchased together.)  Finally, learning how to change the oil in your car is a fantastic way to educate yourself about how your vehicle works, and help demystify some of the mechanical aspects of an automobile that might seem strange and incomprehensible.  Learning to do basic auto maintenance like this doesn't take a lot of time and isn't very complicated, and can be a great gateway drug too: pretty soon you might find yourself with enough confidence to tackle changing the air filter, battery, tires, muffler...the sky's the limit!

To change the oil you'll need a couple of things before you get started:

Oil. I use Quaker State or Castrol, but anything is fine as long as it's not the cheapest possible.  All oil has to meet minimum standards of quality, but some brands have additives and detergents that help them lubricate better and last longer. The cheapest possible oil isn't necessarily bad, but it's not going to be the best either.
Filter. I like Purolator filters, but anything is fine as long as it's not a Fram. They used to be great, but have declined significantly in quality recently. If you are unsure, just go to your local auto parts store and ask the guy at the counter what he recommends.

Ratcheting Wrench for removing the drain plug and possibly the old filter. If you don't have one, I recommend buying a socket set since it will have the wrench along with any sockets you would need.
Socket the same size as the drain plug. A 14mm socket is probably what you need, but there's no telling until you are actually underneath your vehicle.

• Socket wrench extension if you need to use the filter wrench. This comes standard in just about every socket set.
End Cap Oil Filter wrench if your filter is stuck on really tight. These are a couple bucks at any auto parts store.

Tub for holding the oil.

Ramps to get your car off the ground, unless you have a pickup or SUV that is already high enough for you to get under it and work. A jack and jack stands will work too, but they are a little more cumbersome and expensive than buying ramps.
Paper towels to clean up any spills.
C'mon, it's paper towels. Do you really need a picture?  :)
The first thing to do is get your car elevated. I use a set of Rhino Ramps I've had for years, and they work great for this kind of project. It can help to have a spotter tell you when your car is at the top of the ramp, but if you're by yourself that's fine too. Just drive up smooth and steady, and hit the brake when you feel the car plateau at the top of the ramps. Avoid short bursts on the gas pedal, since your car will lurch forward and could fly off the end of the ramps if you're not careful.

The next step is to locate two key objects underneath your car: the oil filter and the oil drain plug.  The former is a cylinder that is about the size of a pop can, but maybe half as tall. The latter is probably in the middle of your car on one end of the oil pan, or basically the bottom of your engine.

These two things are critical, and if you can't find them a quick internet search should help you identify their location on your particular vehicle.

The next thing to do is remove the drain plug, but make sure your oil tub is in place or you will get oil all over your garage floor.  Use your ratcheting wrench and socket to get the plug out, and the oil will immediately start flowing into the tub. It's a bit tricky to do this without getting oil on your hands, so just be prepared with some paper towels standing by. Also, if you have recently driven your car the oil might be hot so I usually don't drain the oil until my vehicle has been sitting for an hour or two.
After the plug is off, it takes at least 10 minutes for the oil to drain but if you have spare time, it never hurts to let it go longer. My dad used to let the oil drain for a couple of hours to ensure that every last drop of the old oil was gone. This probably isn't absolutely necessary, but the moral of the story here is that the longer you can let the oil drain out the better it will be for your car.
Once the oil is draining it's time to get the filter off. It shouldn't be on all that tight, and you might be able to get it off with just your hand. If not, you will need to use the end cap filter wrench to wrest the filter from its post like so:
There will be some oil draining out from where the filter was attached, so make sure the tub is positioned such that it can catch both sources of oil: the drain plug and the filter.

After the oil is finished draining, it's time to put everything back together.  First you will need to clean the post where the filter attaches.  Use a paper towel or rag to wipe off any excess oil from the metal ring around the filter post before screwing on the new one.
You're just about ready to attach the new filter, but before you do take a bit of oil from one of the new quarts and put a thin bead around the rubber gasket on the filter. My dad taught me to do this years ago, and he claims it helps create a better seal. I'm not sure if it does or not, but on things like this I figure it doesn't hurt so why not do it? Just dip your finger in one of the quarts of oil and smear it on, and remember that you don't need very much. A very thin bead is all you need.
Now it's time to screw the filter on to the post.  Just grab it in your hand, reach up to where you removed the old filter, and screw it on. Tightening by hand is plenty sufficient to get a good seal, and you will certainly not need the end cap wrench here.  In fact, too much tightening could damage the filter so just get it on good and tight by hand and you'll be set.

After the filter is on, the next step is to put the drain plug back in.  Wipe off any excess oil and make sure the gasket around the plug is intact and free of cracks.  If there are cracks, you might want to get a replacement gasket from an auto parts store where you can find a package with several in it for a couple bucks.  Don't put the plug in too tight either, or you could damage the threads where it screws in. Just give it a good snug tightening with your ratcheting wrench and you can be on your way.

Now you've got the drain plug and filter in place, so the only thing left is to add oil.  If you have never opened up the hood of your car, don't worry. It might look scary but there's only one thing you need to look for, which is the oil fill hole where you actually put oil into your engine.

The exact spot of this hole is different on every car, but you should be able to see a cap with some information about the type of oil your vehicle requires. Our Corolla takes 5W-30, and if you are not sure check the owner's manual or call a local auto dealer.  The manual will also tell you how much oil to add, which is critical: too little or too much and you could easily cause premature wear and damage to your engine! Don't guess on this step--find out exactly what kind of oil your vehicle needs, and how much, or you're doing more harm than good.

To fill the oil, remove the cap and just start pouring.  Most oil quarts are lopsided on top with a long neck, which allows you to pour them easily without spilling.  If you do get a bit of oil on the engine, don't worry. Wipe it up if you can and then just go about your business--it won't damage anything if you get a bit of oil on your engine instead of in it.
And....that's it! You're all done changing the oil in your car.  Give yourself a pat on the back, fire up the engine, and listen to it purr knowing that you personally have given your vehicle a new lease on life.

Of course that leaves just one problem: the old motor oil sitting in the tub.  You can't use it for cooking and you can't put it back in your engine, so what do you do? Whatever happens, don't dump it out or pour it down the drain. That's bad on many, many levels.  Instead, pour it into a milk jug and take it in to an auto parts shop to be recycled.
You might need a funnel for this step, but if you are careful you can pour it by hand too.  And when you take it in, it is literally recycled and used again either as engine oil, heating oil, or who knows what else.  But it is the best and cleanest way to dispose of your old motor oil.  There might be some left in the tub after you are done, and if so just let it drain into a small container and then dump it into the jug.
This entire process can take as little as 20 minutes once you get the hang of it, and depending on how much you want to let the oil drain out of your car.  There is an old adage that you should change the oil in your car every 3,000 miles, but this is one of those old misconceptions that refuses to die. Most modern vehicles can go at least 5,000 miles between oil changes but like my dad says it doesn't hurt to do it more often than that. Check your owner's manual for a recommended mileage between changes, but it wouldn't hurt to call a local dealer and see what they recommend too.  Climate and driving conditions can impact how often the oil should be changed, and the locals might have a better recommendation for you than a generic number from the manual.

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