For years, drivers across America have hummed a familiar tune, reminding themselves that every 3,000 miles they need to take their vehicle in for a check-up of sorts: a routine oil change. In my more naive days I thought this particular chain of “oil change experts” was advertising the fact that they had locations spaced 3,000 miles apart, something I didn’t find worthy of bragging about. If there’s anything the wisdom of old(er) age has shown me, it’s that my original understanding of “every 3,000 miles” is no more ludicrous than what they were actually promoting.
The truth? An oil change every 3,000 miles is as necessary as getting a new smartphone every 12 months. Sure, there may be some immediate benefits, but ultimately your wallet will thank you if you hold off for almost twice that long. Even though many manufacturers now recommend 5,000 miles or more between oil changes, Quaker State and Pennzoil are the only major motor oil producers who explicitly state to follow these recommendations. The other oil giants—Mobil and Castrol, to name a couple—still insist that every 3,000 miles someone needs to crawl under your vehicle and change the engine oil and filter. Should you trust a fast oil change garage, you will almost certainly find an oh-so-helpful reminder sticker at the top of your windshield instructing you to return in another 3,000 miles—or, even better—in three months.
Surely the people who produce and change engine oils aren’t misinformed. They are just trying to stay in business by making you change oil that still has thousands of miles of life in it.
So, why is it that drivers can go so much longer now without having to think about changing their oil? The answer lies inside both modern engines and the oils themselves. Today’s engines are better at keeping sludge-forming contaminants at bay by burning fuel more efficiently. Additionally, most oils on the shelf at auto parts stores are detergent oils, which suspend contaminant particles that are either caught in the oil filter or eventually drained at the oil change. It is not until the amount of contaminants becomes too great for the oil and filter to hold that sludge becomes a problem. The only real way to know for certain that it’s time to change your oil is to have an oil analysis test performed, but that’s a bit of an unnecessary step for anyone who drives anything other than a fleet vehicle. The best thing you can do is follow your manufacturer’s recommended service intervals. They know your vehicle better than anyone else; they did build it, after all.
Another key difference between today’s motor oil and the lubricants of yesteryear are that most—if not all—automotive engine oils are multi-grade viscosity oils. Rather than maintaining the same viscosity at all temperatures, multi-grade viscosity oils are less viscous when cold to allow the engine to start more easily, and more viscous at high temperatures to provide the necessary protection for optimum engine performance. The viscosity grade for cold temperatures is usually between 0 and 10, and is followed by a W. The W stands for ‘winter’, not ‘weight’ as many people believe. The second number in the oil grade is the hot temperature rating, and is usually between 20 and 40. Most cars will run perfectly fine with a number of different viscosities of oil, but it’s always a good idea to follow the manufacturer’s recommendation, which can be found in your owner’s manual or right on the oil filler cap.
Motor oil isn’t the only thing in a car that must be changed or replaced, so why doesn’t EBC flood the airwaves with brake pad commercials? Where is Bosch’s cute radio jingle about changing your fuel filter? Doesn’t Koni want to remind you about checking your shocks after 50,000 miles? The answer to all of these questions is that none of those components are as easy or inexpensive to change as motor oil.
For less than $20 you can trot down to your local auto parts store and purchase oil and an oil filter that are of a higher quality than those that quick lube shops charge twice as much for! As long as you have access to a jack and jack stands (or wheel ramps), a drain pan or bucket to collect the old oil (don’t forget to recycle!), an inexpensive oil filter wrench, and basic hand tools, you’re good to go. Changing your oil for the first time will probably only take about an hour, and after you’ve had some practice it won’t take any more than 30 minutes!
Once you’re armed with oil and tools, you’re ready to get your hands dirty (even though I strongly encourage you to wear gloves). The last thing you need is the number one thing we here at iFixit are known for: easy-to-follow guides. We’ve already started writing automotive DIY oil change guides for many popular cars and trucks, spanning from the 1.6 liter inline-4 engine in a first generation Mazda Miata all the way up to the Northstar V8 in a Cadillac Fleetwood.
If your car isn’t covered yet, go ahead and take a look at one of our oil change guides anyway; the procedure is very similar for most vehicles. Then, when you change your own oil, take lots of high quality photos and write your own oil change guide to share with the world on iFixit. We are all about empowering everyone to maintain and fix all of their own devices, whether they download at 50 Mbps or cruise at 50 MPH.