How To Check Your Oil Levels: A Quick Guide
Most drivers know very little about how their car’s engine works. We turn the key and expect our vehicles to turn on. If something goes wrong, we head straight for the mechanic because, let’s face it, popping the hood can be daunting.
But there is one vehicle maintenance task that most drivers should be able to do themselves – checking the oil levels. Your engine needs oil like your lungs need air. Lubrication keeps all the engine’s parts working together smoothly and prevents overheating among other critical duties. To ignore your engine’s oil needs is to risk calamitous consequences to your car’s health.
Checking your oil levels is such an important to-do, and you shouldn’t be intimidated to roll up your sleeves and get the job done yourself in a couple of minutes!
Remember: This article is a general explainer on how to check oil levels. Always check your owner’s manual for specific guidance about your make and model.
How often should you check your oil?
Once upon a time, motorists would get their oil checked at a full-service gas station where an attendant would do it while your gas tank was filling. Fortunately, with today’s modern cars, you don’t need to get your oil checked as often. And while modern cars will even tell you when the oil tank needs attention, you shouldn’t wait for that light to come up on your dashboard.
Checking your oil levels once a month is a good rule of thumb, but the frequency of oil checks will depend on your car’s age (older cars burn more oil), whether you drive in extremely cold temperatures (welcome to Canada), or if you engage in a lot of stop-and-go city driving.
How to check your oil levels
1. Before you pop the hood
Make sure your engine is turned off and let your engine sit for a few minutes while oil levels settle. Only check your oil when the car is on a flat, level surface to get an accurate reading. Have a paper towel handy to wipe off the oil from the end to get a clear reading.
2. Locate the dipstick
Check your owner’s manual to locate the oil dipstick under the hood. The dipstick is an instrumental rod used to dip in and out of your engine’s oil tank to gauge fluid levels. It’s usually easy to find with a coloured handle – typically orange or yellow – and is located near the centre of the engine (known as the crankcase); sheathed like a sword.
If you can’t find it, that might be because it has been replaced by an electronic oil monitor (in some newer cars).
3. Read your levels
To check oil levels with a dipstick, remove the dipstick from the oil tank sheath, wiping it clean as you unsheath it. Re-dip it until the dipstick is fully submerged and wait three seconds. Pull it back out and see where your oil line falls on the level indicators. Always keep the end of the dipstick pointed towards the ground. Don’t raise it up or oil will run up the dipstick and provide an inaccurate reading.
Does your oil need a top-up?
Your oil levels should always land in the space between the upper and lower indentations. Oil that looks very dark AND has a gritty, sludge-like texture should be changed.
Reading a dipstick will inform you whether your oil needs a top-up. Most dipsticks are designed the same and include two markers or indentations at the end of the stick. The lower indentation indicates low levels of oil, and you need to top up. The upper indentation indicates the opposite – your tank is full. The space between these two indentations or markers is the safe zone where levels should always be.
Some dipsticks include markers like ADD at the lower indentation and FULL at the upper indentation to make it more clear to the driver what needs to be done.
If the dipstick suggests that your levels are low and you need a top-up, check your owner’s manual to determine what kind of lube your engine requires. For example, synthetic versus conventional oil or motor oil grade designations like 5W-30 or 10W-30.
Add the full quart by pouring oil in the spout (use a funnel if you can), then wait several minutes while it evenly distributes in the tank. Re-check the dipstick afterwards to ensure the level is raised sufficiently. If oil levels are still low, you may need to add half a quart more.
There is such a thing as overfilling your tank, which can bring its own set of problems. If you go slightly above the upper indentation, you should be fine, but if you overfill your tank you might need to remove the excess which may require professional help.
Does your oil need to be changed?
The dipstick not only helps you gauge the oil quantity but also its quality. Oil gets contaminated over time, building up debris, tiny metal shavings from the engine, and other by-products. Your oil filter will do its best to keep these out, but eventually, the oil will get “dirty.” The most common indication of oil-gone-bad is an off-colour appearance and gritty texture.
In the beginning, oil should be a clear and transparent amber colour but it will grow darker over time. Oil can start looking very dark quickly, but that doesn't necessarily mean it needs to be changed. However, the dark colour combined with a sludge-like texture is a sign you should schedule an oil change soon. Furthermore, if your oil smells of gasoline or other non-oil fluids—or has a milky appearance—there could be a mechanical issue that needs immediate attention.
Do you need to make a record of every oil check?
For the sake of keeping your warranty intact, you don’t need to make a note of every check but you should follow the carmaker’s recommended service schedule (see your owner’s manual). If you top up your levels, it might be wise to keep receipts or make a note of the fluid you used. Always make sure you use oil that is suitable for your engine. Again, your owner’s manual will confirm what type to use.
On the other hand, if you change your oil or ask a professional to change your oil, that activity should be recorded in your maintenance log.
Anyone can check their own oil but changing your oil is a different job altogether. Changing your engine oil takes plenty of preparation, tools, and knowledge of process, so may be better left to the pros. However, if you’re determined to try it yourself, we have a 10-step guide to help you.