One of the first automotive maintenance tasks my father taught me was how to change the oil in his ’67 Ford Galaxy. Even though it was a messy job, I felt a sense of satisfaction in knowing I had done the work myself. But over the years, as my life became busier and vehicles became more complex — and more intimidating to work on — I shied away from the chore and allowed quick-change oil shops to take over.
With oil prices on the rise, the cost of vehicle maintenance creeping up and the worry of some ill-trained shop worker messing up the job (a fear based on my own experience), I decided to reclaim the task of regular oil changes — and regain the self-satisfaction I used to feel. When you consider that you can save about $25 each time (and know that the job’s been done right), you too might want to reacquaint yourself with the process. It’s a great excuse to play in the garage for a half-hour and enjoy a sense of accomplishment afterward.
Modern tools rule
Although many of the traditional oil change tools (such as funnels, drain pans, ratchets and jacks) have remained the same, improvements in filter-removal wrenches have made the job easier than it used to be. An old-fashioned strap wrench still is a garage staple, but newer models feature automatic ratcheting action and quick-adjust straps that eliminate many of the frustrations associated with this tool (see photo above). In addition, three-arm “spider” wrenches that automatically adjust to fit most oil filters are a great alternative to traditional cup wrenches. (Because it fits multiple sizes of filters, a spider wrench is indispensable if you plan to change the oil in more than one vehicle.)
And who says that changing oil has to be a messy job? If you can reach your vehicle’s oil filter from the top of the engine bay, you can use a fluid evacuator (photo, below) to drain used motor oil rather than crawling underneath the vehicle to access the drain plug. A fluid evacuator uses a hand-operated pump to suck the oil out through the dipstick tube and into a storage reservoir. And the device isn’t just for motor oil — you can also use it to drain transmissions, differentials, radiators and the master cylinders of brakes in motorcycles, utility vehicles, lawn mowers and garden tractors.
Getting down and dirty
Whether you’re just returning to performing maintenance work or you’ve been doing it for years, safety is an essential consideration. Park the car on a level surface, set the parking brake and chock the rear wheels. Jack up the vehicle and place jack stands under the frame for support — never rely on the jack alone while you’re working under the vehicle. Although many people use ramps rather than jack stands to elevate the vehicle, I’m not a big fan of these devices: They can slide out of position as you attempt to drive onto them, and it’s possible to overshoot the ramps, drive off the ends and drop to the floor (crunching the bottoms of the front quarter panels in the process).
Remove the oil filler cap on top of the engine; then grab a drain pan and ratchet and slide under the vehicle. Look for the lone bolt head on the bottom of the oil pan — that’s the oil-drain plug. Place the drain pan under the plug and unscrew the plug counterclockwise. To reduce the chance of rounding off the plug head, use a six-point socket rather than a 12point socket or an adjustable wrench. (Replacement drain plugs and threadrepair kits are available from auto parts stores if you do have a mishap.) And if you happen to drop the drain plug into the drain pan as the oil pours from the engine, don’t fret — you can easily retrieve the plug from the pan once the oil has finished draining.
Some experts claim it’s best to change the oil while it’s hot; others say temperature makes no difference. Hot oil will flow from the drain hole faster, but if you’re not careful, it can burn your hands. Changing the oil when it’s cold may take a bit longer because the oil will drain more slowly, but you’ll get a bit more of the old oil out of the engine, as most of it will have drained down into the oil pan while the vehicle was sitting. Whether you opt for the hot-or cold-change method, follow any recommendations specific to your vehicle. And because oil is a suspected carcinogen, avoid unnecessary skin contact.
When all of the oil has drained into the pan, reinstall the drain plug. Don’t over-tighten the plug, as you’re likely to damage the oil pan or the plug itself. In general, you need to apply only about 15 to 18 ft.lbs. of torque for aluminum oil pans and 20 to 30 ft.lbs. for steel pans. Not sure which type you have? Use a magnet (it won’t stick to aluminum), check your owner’s manual, call your dealer’s service department or purchase a shop manual that specifies exact drain-plug torque ratings.
To replace the oil filter (which you should do every time you change the oil), first position the drain pan beneath it. Depending on the filter’s location, you may need to slide out from under the vehicle to reach it, as some filters can be accessed only from the top of the engine bay. Place a filter wrench around the end of the filter and give it a counterclockwise tug — it may be a little tough to crack loose, but once it’s free, the filter should easily spin off. Wipe the surface of the filter mount to make sure the old filter gasket did not stick to it and that it is clean.
When installing the new filter, first apply a thin coat of fresh, clean oil to the filter gasket. Install the new filter onto the filter mount, making sure to not crossthread it during the process. Tighten the filter by hand no more than a quarter-turn after it feels tight. (This is a general guideline; check the filter’s packaging for specific recommendations for your vehicle.) Don’t crank down on the filter to get a tighter seal between it and the engine — all you’ll do is distort either the filter or the gasket and cause an oil leak.
Remove the drain pan from beneath the vehicle, fill the engine with the amount and type of motor oil recommended by the manufacturer and replace the oil-fill cap. Run the engine at idle for a minimum of 30 seconds; then carefully inspect under the vehicle for leaks around the drain plug and filter — if you find any, shut off the vehicle and tighten where necessary. Lower the vehicle to the ground, allow about a minute for the oil to settle and check one last time for leaks. Finally, check the dipstick for the proper oil level and add more if necessary; then close the hood, fire up the engine and cruise around your neighborhood, knowing that you are not only saving money but also ensuring a long life for your vehicle.