How To: Change Your Oil, Part 2
How to actually change the oil
Keep in mind that this is only a guideline for the actual procedure. This is where you should check a service manual to be sure you’re not screwing anything up. (Honestly, my Land Rover is the only vehicle I’ve had that is very specific about the operations procedure, but you never know) Failure to follow the factory instructions can result in the oil pump losing its prime and, thus, its capacity to pump oil. Remember: oil serves as a much better lubricant than air does. The same principle applies if you forget to purchase all your oil and filter prior to getting started. It is tough to drive to the store with no oil in the engine*so be sure you have ENOUGH OIL and the PROPER FILTER and the PROPER TOOLS before you proceed. Got it? Good!
Step 1: Get the oil flowing
The purpose of changing the oil is to get all the worn out oil and dirt out of the engine and replace it with clean, fresh lubricant. Draining cold oil isn’t recommended, as you will be leaving all kinds of dirt inside the engine. By driving your car a few miles before draining the oil, you’re stirring up all the sediment into suspension so it will flow out of the sump with the old oil. Plus, as an added benefit, hot oil running down your arm will warm your extremities if you are forced to service your car in sub-freezing temps.
Step 2: Get your car into a comfortable working position
Ideally, this means flipping the car over so you can just lean over the bottom of the engine to reach the sump drain plug. In practical application, most people will find a set of service ramps will be nearly as effective as rolling your car onto its roof, and won’t require all the associated bodywork needed later. So get yourself some quality ramps (buy, beg, or borrow them) or jackstands worthy of the weight of your vehicle. Cardboard boxes or magazines neatly stacked aren’t going to get the job done. I will not go into details of how to use the ramps (they’re ramps, which tend to be self-explanatory: drive up, drive down), but I will caution you to BE CAREFUL. It is a whole lot easier to drive a car off the ramps than you’d think. Be slow, be cautious, be gentle. Double-check if you’re unsure, and employing the help of a spotter never hurts. (Coordinating hand signals prior to undertaking the actual task IS recommended.)
Once the car is up on the ramps or jackstands, put it in gear (or “Park”, if an automatic transmission–but why on Earth would you ever own one of those?), set the parking brake, and CHOCK THE REAR WHEELS with a block of wood or actual wheel chock. The only thing worse than having your car fall off the ramps when driving up them is to have it fall on top of you while you’re underneath (although there tends to be less cursing involved with the latter outcome, due largely to terminal injuries).
Everything look safe? Does the car move at all if you push against it? If you’re willing to bet your life on the safety of the setup, then proceed. If not, DON’T go any further until you get it absolutely secure.
Step 3: Drain the oil
Take that wrench from Part 1 that you’d set in a special place just for this moment, and put it onto the drain plug. (Before you do that, you’ll likely need to remember just where that special place was. This usually takes longer for me than the actual oil change procedure) DON’T LOOSEN IT YET!! Secondly, make certain that your catch basin (of the proper size!) is situated underneath the drain plug in a way that it can (if not will) catch the oil as it comes out. This sounds simple–and it is–but just remember that oil will not drip out of the unplugged hole, but will come rushing out with all of the drama, majesty, and trajectory of Bridalveil Falls during the Spring thaw. So you’ll want to scooch the basin so about ¾ of the basin is away from the drain to catch all (some) of the dirty oil and the remaining ¼ is behind the plug to catch (splash) the slower drips when all the excitement ends. Got it in place? NOW you can back out the drain plug, slowly. (Remember–turn counterclockwise to loosen a standard fastener!)
I will often try to loosen the plug with a wrench for the first couple of turns but will then switch over to using my fingers for the remainder of the threads because they are faster and easier to clean up than what a wrench would be. Oil will begin to drip from the plug threads before the plug is completely out. This is good, because you know you’re doing something right, but bad, since the plug (and your fingers) will now be coated with oil. Keep turning it with your fingertips until the plug is free and the hot, dirty oil gushes out of the engine sump and down your arm, whereupon you will drop the drain plug and washer into the half-full catch basin at the shock of just how hot & fast the oil is pouring down your arm. The plug will splash oil over everything within a 3-foot radius. Now is a good time to commence cursing at moderate volume.
Allow the oil sump to drain completely until just a drop forms every 10 seconds or so. This will take several minutes. In the meantime, stand up and stretch. Crawl inside the car to turn on the radio so you have some tunes to work to. Upon exiting the vehicle, note the two dozen oil stains you have now dotted the interior surfaces with. Now is an excellent time to curse at a louder, faster pace while running around in a circle looking for a suitably clean rag to clean the smudges with. Since inevitably none is close at hand, you will be forced to go back inside the house to collect the rags, leaving three dozen smudges throughout the house. Since you’re in there, you might as well grab a proper beverage. (Warning! Alcohol and mechanic’s projects rarely go well together, so choose wisely!)
Once your forearms are clean and you’re ready to re-install the drain plug, you will have to fish it out of the murky pool of oil in and around the now-full catch basin. While you are elbow-deep in the hot black mess, you should probably find the washer that fell off of the drain plug when you dropped it in such haste. Now clean your forearms again before proceeding.
After the plug has been rescued and thoroughly cleaned, install a new crush washer and gently thread it back into the engine, starting with your fingers first. DO NOT CROSS-THREAD IT, as this will get ugly and costly to repair. (if you’re unsure how to install an object without cross-threading and forcing it, I suggest you practice on lightbulbs. If successful, you will be rewarded with a warm glow. If unsuccessful, you will be rewarded with a warm trickle of red running down your forearm and will need to keep practicing.) When your fingers are too tired from turning it, switch over to the wrench again and get the plug snugged up into the oil pan. What I mean by snug is about as tightly as you close the lid to a jar of peanut butter. You don’t need to force anything here, just make sure it doesn’t leak out any oil or allow mice to get inside (though that’s probably more of an issue with the peanut butter).
Step 4: Refill with new oil
Once the plug is in place, go back up to the top of the engine and open the oil filler cap. It should be on top of the engine, on a valve cover. It will be round(ish) and marked “Oil.” It should NOT be marked “Washer Fluid” or “DOT 4 Brake Fluid,” or this could turn out tragically. Place an appropriate-sized funnel into the filler neck ** and fill the engine with fresh oil until the dipstick reads just below the top mark of the indication range. If you don’t have a funnel handy because I forgot to mention it in Part 1, then you can do as I often do and CAREFULLY pour the fresh oil into the filler neck, then quickly grab a handful of paper towels to soak up the oil that missed the hole.***
Step 5: Changing the Filter
Now that you have the oil sump drained, re-plugged, and re-filled you can slide the catch basin underneath the oil filter. Next, grab your favorite new filter wrench from Part 1 and slide it over the filter. Give it a firm tug (counterclockwise!) to loosen its rubber base from the metal of the engine. Remove the wrench from the filter and switch over to the fingertip technique again. After that initial ¼ turn or so, the filter should spin remarkably easily, which is good, since both you and it will now be covered and dripping with oil. You can remedy this mess with a fair amount of success by sliding an old bread bag over your forearm and catching some of the oil–and eventually the filter–by turning the bag inside-out as you free the filter from the its threads. If you decide against using this method, just tip the filter upside-down after loosening it to allow the oil to drain into the catch basin. This also gives the added potential for drama when the oily filter slips from your grasp and drops into the basin, splashing oil onto everything within a 3 foot radius. Now would be an excellent time to curse at a moderate volume.
Once the old filter is off, you can install the new filter, but before you do, crack open a bottle of the new oil and partially fill the filter (about half-way should do it). This will require less time for the engine’s oil pump to fill the new filter with oil, while cutting back on the time the engine is starved of lubrication. Granted, it’s only a couple of seconds’ difference, but even that can result in significantly less engine wear.
At the top of the filter is a circular rubber seal. Take a dab of oil that you had spilled while filling the filter and smear it around the ring. (I was always taught to use new oil, but I see no reason why the old oil running down your forearm won’t work for this part.) This will lubricate the ring and prevent it from binding up and leaking when you tighten it against the engine.**** Spin the filter until it just makes contact with the engine. Mark the filter with a marker (or dab of oil) and grasp it with two hands to give it a final ½ to ¾ turn to snug it against the engine block. Using much more force can make future removal a real bear, so go easy.
Lastly, take a paint pen or magic marker and write down the odometer mileage on the new filter (or a piece of tape under the hood) so you will know when you last changed it. While you’re at it, mark it in the maintenance log that you keep in the glovebox. (You DO have a maintenance logbook, right?)
Step 6: Starting the engine
Get back into the car and crank the engine until it starts. Confirm that the oil light goes off. Since you are pumping fresh oil into all the lines again it will take longer than normal, but if the light stays on for much more than 5 seconds, I would shut the engine off and investigate. Five seconds is a long time to stare at a glowing red OIL light and you could start feeling symptoms of nausea and discomfort (akin to those experienced in a similar time span on a bad date). Wipe down the new smudges from the interior.
Once the oil light is off, you should take a look underneath the car again at all the areas your grubby little paws touched. Is the oil drain plug in place? Is it leaking? If yes, shut the engine off and snug it up just a hair more. If not, keep the engine running and move your eyes to the filter to check for leaks there and re-tighten if needed. (Out of the dozens and dozens of oil changes I’ve done, I’ve only had to re-tighten one filter.) Finally, go to the top of the engine, and make sure the filler cap is fitted properly. No leaks? Good! After removing the wheel chock, climb back into the car and lower it off the ramps onto level ground. Note the gallon of spilled oil all over your driveway from the catch basin that was caught by the front spoiler, since you neglected to remove it before moving the car. Now is an excellent time to curse prolifically at a bellowing volume since you are still inside the car and the neighbors can’t hear you.
Step 7: Top-Off & Cleanup
When the car is on level ground, shut it off, wait a minute for the oil to flow from the nether regions of the engine back down to the sump, and then refill the oil until it reaches to the top of the Fill line on the dipstick. Your car is now ready to drive again! (after you wipe down the remaining smudges on the hood, door handle, steering wheel, radio knob, gearshift lever and passenger seat)
The final step is to clean up your work area and properly dispose of the used oil. Most retail stores that sell motor oil are required to offer a disposal service for the old oil. There are also other means as some garages and shops are now heated with waste oil, so keep a lookout for little signs that say “Waste Oil Needed.” How you get the oil there is entirely up to you, but I suggest using spill-proof containers and someone else’s car for this portion of the project. If needed, you can use the excuse of “I just changed the oil in my car and the new oil needs to break-in gently.” (Of course there is absolutely no truth to this horrible lie, but who is going to question you? After all, you just changed your own oil and they didn’t.)
Once the tools are wiped down and put back into place, grab the aforementioned beverage and admire your care. Yes, you just did your first oil change. Surely the car will appreciate it. In fact, it probably has a gleam to it that wasn’t there before you started. Only you know that it’s from the oil residue left by your grubby paws, but no one else will. Enjoy this moment. You have earned it.
* Note of clarification: it is difficult to drive the entire trip to the store with no oil in the engine. There is a very good chance that you can get part way before the engine seizes and requires replacement.
**You will see in the gallery that I am using what is best described as a “clown-sized” funnel. This is what you are left with when someone borrows (steals) your beloved yellow funnel and you only noticed this fact after you have drained the oil from the sump and cannot drive to the store to find a suitable replacement. (See footnote above)
***It does not have to be paper towels; any absorbent cloth will do. A linen tablecloth will work just as well for this purpose.
****Do not skip this step! I had a cousin that neglected to do this on a Honda Accord Hatchback (remember those?), and it ended with quarts of oil blowing past the unsealed ring in just a few seconds. Oil under pressure finds its way into everything in a hurry. Thankfully, she was aware and shut the engine down without damage, but not everyone is as intelligent as she is. Consider yourself warned.