Monday, April 20, 2009

Changing Your Car's Oil

Changing the oil in your vehicle is one of the best ways to keep it in good shape, in fact, when most people think of mechanics and car maintenance, I am willing to bet the first thing that pops into mind is an oil change. A whole industry has emerged promising quick, convenient, and cheap oil changes - the quick lube shops.

DIY oil changes are a great way to save money, make sure the job is done correctly, and get more familiar with your vehicle. It is not very hard and requires a minimal investment in tools.

The location of the oil filter is the only significant difference between car models when changing the oil, so these instructions should be helpful no matter what type of car you have.Today's oil change will feature the family sedan, a Ford Five Hundred.

Parts and Materials
From Left to Right
Top: Catch Pan, Rag, Jack (with Handle), Jack Stand
Bottom: Ratchet, Oil Filter Wrench, Socket Extension, Socket, Funnel, Oil Filter, Oil

The Jack and Jack Stand are optional. You may be able to use car ramps to gain clearance. If your vehicle sits high enough you will not need anything, just crawl under it. If you do use a jack, you will usually only need to jack one side up enough to gain a little clearance. Remember to always place a jack stand under a lifted vehicle for extra support. Never rely on the jack alone!

There are also several types of oil filter wrenches. I prefer the cup style wrench that fits onto your ratchet (pictured). There are also strap style wrenches and large pliers oil filter wrenches.Pictured above are a cup-style wrench (actually two stuck together) and a strap-style oil filter wrench. What I like about the orange cup wrench is that it will fit multiple sizes of oil filters.

To remove the drain plug, you will need a socket with ratchet or a box-end wrench. I do not recommend using an adjustable crescent wrench because there is a good chance you will round the edges of the bolt off. Every vehicle I have changed oil in so far requires either a 13mm, 14mm, or 15mm socket/wrench to remove the drain plug.

Make sure to purchase the correct oil filter. Any auto parts store will be able to get the correct filter for you. The brand of filter you get is entirely up to you. For what it is worth, I prefer Motorcraft and Wix and I avoid Fram.

When choosing oil, make sure you get the correct viscosity. The oil viscosity, represented by a number with a W, a dash, and a second number (i.e. 5W-30), is the thickness of the oil. The number with the W represents the oil's thickness when it is cold out (think Winter). The higher the number, the thicker the oil. The second number is the oil's thickness at normal or operating temperature.
So, if a car is going to be driven in the cold winter of a northern state, which oil should you use, a 10W-30 or a 5W-30? If you said 5W-30 you are correct. The oil will be thinner when it is cold so that when you start the car, the oil will flow more freely throughout the engine providing lubrication faster than a thicker oil.

You will also have to choose between three basic types of oil: conventional, synthetic blend, and synthetic. To make matters even more confusing is that there are many different selections within the basic type of oil, for example you can get conventional oil for high mileage vehicles, anti-sludge oil, oil specially formulated for trucks and SUVs, and so on.
Basically, the synthetic oils will last longer before you will need to change your oil again.
There is a lot of information, misinformation, and opinions on motor oils. If you would like to really get into it, I would suggest visiting this site.

To find what type of oil your car uses you can consult your owner's manual, the oil cap, research it online or ask the person working at an auto parts store.

It's Time For An Oil Change
Some people recommend changing the oil when the engine is still hot. I prefer an engine that has been driven a few hours ago, that way the oil or exhaust system which you may brush against while under the car are not hot enough to burn you, yet the oil is still warm and will flow freely when we drain it. So, without further adieu, here are the oil change instructions:

Step 1 - Blocking the Wheels and Setting the Parking Brake
Since I will be using a jack to lift one corner of the car, I need to first block the wheel caddy-corner to the corner I will be lifting. I will jack the front passenger side up, so I will block the rear driver's side wheel and apply the parking brake.
Step 2 - Jacking the Front End Up
Find the jacking location nearest the corner you want to lift. On most cars, the jacking location is a notch in the subframe behind the front wheel or in front of the rear wheel. Raise the vehicle high enough to get a jack stand underneath.
Step 3 - Loosening the Oil Fill Cap
Open the hood of the car and loosen the oil cap.
Step 4 - Locating the Drain Plug and Oil Filter
Search underneath the vehicle for the drain plug and oil filter. The drain plug will be on the oil pan. The oil pan will be a ribbed metal pan and is attached to the bottom of the engine. the drain plug may be on the bottom or one of the sides of the pan. Note: your car may also have a transmission drain plug. Look at where the engine is from above, in a front wheel drive vehicle (almost all cars sold today), the engine will be offset to one side or another. Use this as a guide to distinguishing between the oil pan and the transmission pan.You will also need to find the oil filter. The oil filter will be very close to the oil pan, but may be farther up (when laying on your back looking up) the engine. On my wife's old 2001 Chevrolet Malibu, the filter was located in front of the oil pan but a plastic splash shield had to first be removed from the vehicle in order to reach it. On my brother's 1999 Nissan Altima, the filter was located on the back side of the oil pan and was tucked away, partially blocked by other engine components. On my 1996 Ford Ranger, the oil filter hangs down right beside the oil pan. On the Five Hundred, the oil filter is in plain site and is easily accessible (it is the blue canister in the photo below).
Step 5 - Draining the Oil
Now that you know where the drain plug and filter are, you can proceed to drain the oil. Position the catch pan under the car within convenient reach. It does not have to be below the drain plug just yet. With your ratchet and socket or box-end wrench, loosen the drain plug.If the plug is too stubborn to get loose with just a wrench there are a couple of tricks you can try. First, you can slip a length of pipe over the handle of your wrench to increase the amount of leverage you have. The length of the pipe will be dictated on how much clearance you have to turn it under the car.
Another neat trick to use if there is enough room around the drain plug, is to clamp a large pair of vice grips on the other end of your wrench. With two handles you can apply more torque with the wrench to get the drain plug loose.
With the drain plug loose, put your wrench out of the way, get your rag by your side and slide the catch pan under the plug. Continue loosening the plug with your hand.You will know when it is almost ready to come out because a small trickle of oil will start falling into the catch pan. I try to push the plug against the hole while loosening it so that the drain plug does not fall into the catch pan and become lost in a sea of used motor oil. Pull the plug away from the drain when the last threads of the drain plug are free and watch the oil pour out. Use your rag to clean your hand (no matter how quickly you pull the plug away from the drain you will get some oil on you) and clean the plug. If the plug or plug gasket are damaged, get a new one from the auto parts store (I've never had to do this so I don't think it is very common).When all the oil has drained (a drip every few seconds), clean the drain surface with your rag and reinsert the drain plug. Tighten the plug with your hand as tight as you can get it, then use the wrench to tighten it a little more. It does not have to be extremely tight, just a good snug fit with a wrench will be sufficient.

Step 6 - Removing the Oil Filter
This step can potentially be the hardest depending on who installed the oil filter the last time. If it was installed correctly, the filter should not be too hard, but I have run into cases where the previous person over tightened the oil filter making it nearly impossible to remove it.

The first thing you will need to consider is how to get at the filter. In some cases it may be simple, in other cases you may have to remove parts that are in your way. Once you can get at the filter try to loosen it by twisting it counter clockwise. Try using an oil filter wrench if you cannot twist it with your hand (see the oil filter wrench section under Parts and Materials).
With the filter loose, position the catch pan underneath and make sure your head and body are as far away from the oil filter as possible in case it falls down and splashes oil everywhere. Use care when removing the oil filter because there may still be a lot of oil in the filter and it is often messy when the filter comes all the way off.
Place the old filter face down on the catch pan so the oil drains and take a rag to clean where the oil filter mates to the engine.
At this point you can remove the catch pan from underneath the car and place it out of the way.

Step 7 - Installing the New Oil Filter
Take your new oil filter out of its box and pour a dab of new motor oil on it. Use your finger to rub that little bit of oil onto the entire rubber gasket.
Next, screw the new filter on. It does not need to be on very tightly. Do not use an oil filter wrench to tighten it or you will never get it off the next time you change the oil. Tighten it by hand. The rubber gasket that you rubbed the oil on will expand once the car is driven so there should be no worry of it becoming loose.

Step 8 - Filling the Engine With New Oil
Before you pour the new oil in, double check to make sure the drain plug and oil filter are installed correctly. When you are sure both are on, remove the engine oil cap and slowly pour the new motor oil in. Using a funnel will help a lot. When the correct amount of oil has been poured into the engine, replace the oil cap.
Step 9 - Clean Up
I like to use the same funnel and place its neck into the now empty bottle(s) of motor oil. Drain the used motor oil from the catch pan back into the empty bottle(s).
Most auto part stores will take used motor oil; other places that may recycle oil could be local recycling centers, automotive shops, and some gas stations. Check to see if they take old oil filters as well. If you cannot find a place that will take used oil filters, leave the filter upside down on the catch pan (like in the first photo of this article - see the blue filter?) for a couple of days. It takes a while for the oil to fully drain out. After that time and can dispose of the old filter.

End Thoughts
There you have it, a fresh fill of clean oil! Your car will thank you as will your wallet. Getting a "cheap" oil change around here costs about $20-$25 and most places use bulk oil and cheap filters. Some places also do synthetic oil changes but charge $40-$55. Using conventional oil, your oil change should be about $15. Using synthetic oil will raise the price to about $25-$30. I use mostly synthetic or synthetic blend oil and good oil filters and pay anywhere from $15-$28. The $15 oil changes are using fully synthetic oil I got on sale; you can sometimes find great deals out there!

And to close, how often should you change your oil? Trust me, there is a LOT of debate about that, so I will offer my opinion as just that, another opinion.

If you use conventional oil, I would go about 3,000 to 4,000 miles between oil changes. With each oil change, check the old oil that is draining out. If you stick your finger or the end of your wrench into the stream of draining oil you can make it fan out into a thin sheet. This will allow you to see through the oil and better judge its state. Do not judge used oil by its color alone. Just because it is a deep black does not mean it is bad and needs to be changed (though it often does).

You really want to watch out for a milkshake consistency, chunkiness, or small metal shavings in the oil. These all point to potentially severe problems. A milkshake look means you have coolant or water leaking into the engine which means a blown gasket. Chunkiness indicates you have a sludge problem, and small metal debris can indicate a wide number of possible engine problems.

So checking the condition of the oil will help you decide how long you want to go between oil changes. This is especially true when it comes to synthetics. A conservative time table for synthetic oil change intervals would be 5,000 - 6,000 miles. It is possible to go twice that distance if the oil and filter are still in good shape, but the only way to truly know that is by getting it analyzed at an oil laboratory. If you are interested in finding more about oil analysis you can visit this site.
As for me? I do 5,000 mile oil change intervals on the Five Hundred using a synthetic blend oil and every 6 months on my Ranger using full synthetic oil.

So I leave you with that. Congratulations on your oil change!

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