Your car’s engine oil is its lifeblood—and unlike you, it needs to swap it all out at regular intervals or it will suffer irreparable damage. Changing the oil, fortunately, is a simple task. Many people still choose to perform it at home, but whether you’re up for getting your hands dirty or not, there are some key things you should know about changing your oil.
First up, you should know how often to change your oil. Every car’s owner’s manual includes a maintenance schedule that includes both the recommended interval (in both time and miles) and the type of oil to be used. Older cars typically specify an interval of 3,000 miles; many newer cars can go 5,000, 7,500 miles, or more between changes. But that’s not all there is to it.
To complicate the matter, most shops will put a reminder sticker in the corner of your windshield recommending another oil change in 3,000 miles—even if the owner’s manual says you can go longer.
Regardless of the stated standard interval, there’s often also a “severe use” recommendation that encompasses not just hard use for pickup trucks like towing and hauling, but, depending on the vehicle, can include extensive stop-and-go traffic, regular use in high temperatures, and other conditions that can occur under normal use. This is especially true in hot climates and big cities, where the commute can last for an hour or more, often at low speeds.
So how often should you change your oil? If a significant (not necessarily majority) portion of your use includes “severe” driving, you’ll want to stick to the short end of the oil change interval. After all, a $50 oil change can save you thousands of dollars in repairs down the road, especially on a higher-mileage used car. On the other hand, if your driving doesn't qualify as severe, there's no sense throwing away good oil (and hard-earned money) if it's only halfway through its life.
There’s a flip side to the hard-use case, however: the infrequent-use vehicle. If you only take your car on short trips, or just don’t use it that often, it may take you six months or a year to rack up 5,000 miles—but that doesn’t mean you should change your oil once a year or less. In fact, even when it’s just sitting still, the oil in your car degrades over time due to ambient heat or cold and environmental factors like water condensation. As a result, most owner’s manuals also specify a maximum time interval between oil changes, typically around six months. Even if your car hasn’t seen the recommended miles under its tires, keep your eye on the calendar—it may already be time to change the oil.
The bottom line for all oil changes, whether for severe use or light-duty commuting, whether you do it yourself or take your car to a trusted shop, is that the manufacturer knows best. So even if your cousin Eddie or the guy at the shop tells you different, follow the recommended service interval, and your engine will be in top shape to deliver years of trouble-free service.
There’s more to an oil change than just the interval, however. Coming up in Parts 2 and 3, we’ll take a look at other aspects of the job, as well as services you may (or may not) want to get done at the same time as your oil change.
automotive freelance journalist