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Kate on Cars February 2013 - How to Check Your Vehicle's Oil Properly

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Kate on Cars February 2013
How to Check Your Vehicle's Oil Properly

by Kate Jonasse

This article is dedicated to Angelina F. – thank you for your article suggestions!

Although checking your vehicle’s oil is a commonly performed function, you’d be surprised how often it gets done incorrectly, even by so-called professional technicians. Although these instructions will work for most vehicles, always check your owner’s manual for the proper procedures. Checking your own oil is absolutely doable.

To properly check your engine’s oil, assuming it has a dipstick (some high-line cars like Mercedes don’t – they will show you the engine oil level in the instrument cluster), perform the following procedure:

1. Park your vehicle on flat, level ground.

2. Start the engine and run it for at least 2 minutes to let the oil circulate through the engine. 

3. Turn the engine off and wait about 2 minutes to let the oil settle. To get the most accurate reading, don’t wait more than about 15 minutes or else too much oil will drain into the bottom of the engine and make the level look higher than it really is.

4. Locate the engine oil dipstick (often it has a yellow or orange round handle – don’t confuse it with the automatic transmission fluid dipstick), pull it out and wipe it off with a clean rag.

5. Put the dipstick all the way back in the tube, and make sure it seats properly. The dipstick tube is curved, and the dipstick itself tends to retain this curve, so if the dipstick gets stuck then try pulling it out and flipping it around.

6. Pull it out and look at it, keeping the tip pointing downward towards the ground. There should be at least 2 marks towards the bottom of the dipstick (see photo). The lowest mark (labeled “C”) will be the minimum acceptable level on a cold engine. The highest mark (labeled “A”) will be the maximum acceptable level on a hot engine. The normal operating range is between these two marks (labeled “B”). 

7. Add oil if needed. Don’t try to add oil through the dipstick tube - look for a cap at the top of the engine, screw it off, and add oil there. Check your owner’s manual or contact your repair shop to find out what type of oil to add. I’ll address this in a future article as well.

If you are checking first thing in the morning on a cold engine, or after the vehicle has been turned off for at least 4 hours, then you should see and oil level at or slightly above the lowest mark on the dipstick. If the oil level is below this mark, oil needs to be added.

If you are checking on a warm engine, the level should be somewhere between the lowest and highest mark.

If you are checking on a hot engine (an engine that has been driving at freeway speeds for about 20 minutes will be hot), then the level should be at the maximum or highest mark. I like to check oil both cold and hot so that I get a good understanding of normal operating levels on specific engines.

Always check your owner’s manual to ensure you are checking your fluids properly and adding the right type of fluid as needed – manufacturers are designing their vehicle’s differently all the time, and like I always say.... better safe than sorry. Email me or swing by my shop if you would like further assistance with how to check your oil properly.

checking oil properly - dipstick - Kate on Cars - Sonoma County