Knowing how to check and top up engine oil is an essential car maintenance task for every motorist. It’s also simple to do – you can take care of it yourself at home in a matter of minutes.
If you’ve recently bought a second-hand car privately, you might not know when the oil was last changed. In that case, we’d suggest you err on the side of caution and ask your regular garage to do an oil and filter change. This is also something that should be carried out as part of your vehicle’s annual service.
Otherwise, it’s a good idea to check your oil every few weeks – set a reminder on your phone or write it on your calendar so you don’t forget.
What happens if your car runs out of oil?
It’s important you don’t let the oil level in your engine get too low. It means there’s less lubrication for the bearings and various other moving parts. If you let it drop to the point where metal rubs on metal, it will quickly cause serious – and expensive – damage.
The oil pressure warning light should come on if levels drop too far, but you really shouldn’t wait until that happens to check the oil.
How to check your oil level
Some makes and model of car have electronic oil monitors and display the current oil level on your dashboard. Most of us, though, will need to get under the bonnet and check oil levels manually.
You’ll need the following before you start:
- Some kitchen paper or old cloth to clean the dipstick and wipe up drips
- A funnel, so you can top up without spills
- The right engine oil for your car – check your owner manual to find out which specification and grade you need, or you can look online using your vehicle’s make, model, year of manufacture, engine and fuel information
- A pair of gloves to keep your hands clean
Once you’re ready, follow these simple steps:
- Park your car somewhere level and turn off the engine. The engine should be cool, so if you’ve just finished a journey, you’ll need to wait ten minutes or so. This will also prevent you burning yourself on any hot engine parts.
- Find and clean the dipstick. Your owner manual should tell you where the dipstick is located, but it will usually have a brightly colored plastic handle. Pull it straight out and wipe it clean with kitchen paper or an old rag. Try to avoid dripping oil on the engine or ground around you.
- Check the level. You should see two marks on the dipstick, indicating maximum and minimum oil levels. Replace the cleaned dipstick and push it all the way in, before pulling it out again. Check the oil line in relation to the two indicators – if it’s between them, your oil level is fine. If the level is below halfway, it’s a good idea to top it up a little and if it’s close to ‘minimum’ then you should definitely add some oil.
How to top up your engine oil
First, identify the oil filler cap under the bonnet – it may be marked with an image of an oil can or have ‘oil’ imprinted on it. Check your owner manual if you need to.
- Remove the oil filler cap and place the funnel over the top.
- Pour in some oil; generally, the difference between the minimum and maximum indicators on the dipstick is about a liter, so if your level is low that’s roughly what you’ll need. If you’re unsure how much to add, do it a little at a time.
- Wait a couple of minutes to allow the oil to run into the engine, and then follow the steps above to re-check the dipstick.
- Repeat as necessary to achieve the required level. Never overfill your engine with oil – this can also cause problems.
Take note of the color of your engine oil when checking levels. New oil is a golden amber in color, clear and viscous, but turns dark brown/black during use. This is perfectly normal, so don’t worry. Topping up old oil with new will also cause a color change.
However, if the oil is black and sludgy, it needs to be replaced. If there’s a milky or foamy appearance, it means water or coolant is leaking into the oil and you should get your car checked by a professional mechanic.
If you find your engine oil needs to be topped up frequently, you may have a leak and should get it checked out. You might also notice drips of oil on the ground where you park. If you’re concerned about a leak, you could leave a piece cardboard on the floor under the engine overnight. If there is oil on it the next morning, it will give you some idea of the severity of the problem.