Checking the engine oil level is a quick and easy task that is an important part car maintenance. Keeping the right amount of oil in your engine will increase its longevity regardless of age, number of cylinders or horsepower. All you need is a clean cloth and a couple of minutes.
How often you need to check your car’s engine oil depends a lot on what you’re driving and how you’re driving. For most drivers, we suggest checking the oil about once a month or before a long trip. However, if your car is older, has longer miles or both, you may need to check it more often – the engine tends to burn oil as it wears out due to internal wear, so someone behind the wheel of 1989 Toyota Corolla with 205,000 miles likely to need to add oil more often than someone traveling to work in 2019 Wreath with 20,500 miles. There are also other factors: if your car is leaking oil, you will want to regularly check its level (and fix the main problem sooner rather than later).
On some new cars, checking the oil level is as simple as pressing the steering wheel button a few times. An electronic pressure gauge will tell you if the engine needs oil. In almost everything else you will need to take a rag, remove the hood and do it the old-fashioned way.
First, make sure your car is parked on a level surface. Checking the oil level in a car parked at an angle is not a good idea because there is a high chance of getting inaccurate readings. Think of your engine’s oil pan (which is at the bottom of your engine and holds most of the oil) like an aquarium: if it’s tilted, you’ll have more water on the underside than on the top. Second, if you have just returned from a ride, wait at least 10 minutes before checking the oil to make sure it all drains back into the pan. Checking the level immediately after you turn off the engine can also lead to inaccurate readings.
Next, open the hood (the lever is almost always in the driver’s legroom), stick your head in the engine compartment and find the probe. Don’t forget that if your car has been recently driven, some pieces under the hood will be hot. On many new cars the handle of the probe is made of yellow or orange plastic so it can be easily found. On older cars it can be black, red or just metal. Take the rag we mentioned earlier, but don’t use the old piece of cloth that you have lying around. Dust, pollen and other debris that lives on your rag can end up on the dipstick and thus float in your engine. Use a clean rag or, if necessary, a paper towel.
Gently pull out the probe, wipe it with a rag, slide back (remove all the way), pull out again and hold horizontally. You should see two marks on the probe: one to the top edge and one to the bottom. The level is ideal if it is at (or very close to) the top mark, normal if it is between them, and dangerously low if it is below the bottom mark. If you have not received accurate testimony, do not worry – it happens. Sometimes the dropper makes the level difficult or impossible to read. Wipe the probe and start again.
Adding oil is easy, but it can be messy; we recommend using a funnel. It’s important to remember that overfilling an engine with oil can be just as bad (and sometimes even worse) as underfilling it. With that in mind, if your engine is low on oil, you first need to check:
- How many quarts do you need
- The type of oil you should use.
You will usually find this information in the operating instructions. If you don’t have one, Google is your friend.
Next, find the oil cap; it is at the top of the engine and labeled “OIL” – or “710” when you look at it in reverse. Alternatively there may be an oil symbol on it. Unscrew it, put it, put the funnel in the filler hole and add the required amount of oil. Do this gradually if you do not know exactly how much oil you need to add: pour a quarter of a quart, wait a few minutes until the oil drains into the pan, check the level with a probe and see how much it has risen. Repeat this until the level reaches the top mark.