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How to keep your engine oil running smoothly

Engine oil dipstick

According to breakdown specialist, the AA, a reported 21,000 oil-related breakdowns occur every year.

Whether you’re doing the daily school run or planning a car trip away for business or pleasure, knowing how to check your car oil properly is the most important car maintenance tasks.

With the correct advice it’s also one of the simplest to do by yourself, so the AA has released a new animated video which looks at the top tips to keep your car running smoothly.

How to check your engine oil level

  • Check that your car’s engine’s cool and that you’ve got some of the correct oil for your engine in case you need to add some.
  • Open the car’s bonnet and refer to your owner’s handbook to find the dipstick.
  • Remove the dipstick and wipe it clean with a bit of kitchen towel.
  • You’ll see two marks on the clean dipstick for maximum and minimum oil levels. A litre of oil is the approximate difference between these two marks.
  • Replace the clean dipstick and push it all the way back into its tube.
  • Pull it back out, and this time look at both sides of the dipstick to see where the oil level is.

How to read your oil dipstick

  • If the top of the oil ‘streak’ is between the two marks, the level is fine.
  • If the oil level is below halfway between the marks then we would recommend adding some.
  • If it’s close to or even below the minimum mark then you definitely need to add some oil.

Top Tip: Using the wrong oil can damage your engine, so check your car’s handbook to see the best oil to use for your car. If you don’t have a handbook, a quick Google search should help!

How to top up your engine oil

  • Find the oil filler cap in your engine bay. This should have the word ‘oil’ marked on it or an outline of an oil can.
  • Using a funnel, carefully pour your oil in.
  • It’s important to only add a little at a time, wait a bit to let it run down to into the bottom of the engine and then recheck the level on the dipstick. As a rough guide, for most cars, it should take around a litre of oil to raise the level from the minimum to the maximum mark.
  • Pour in a little at a time, and check the oil level by reinserting the dipstick.

Car maintenance

Most common questions answered

Q. Should I check my oil when the engine is hot or cold?

A. Ideally, your engine should be cool. If you have just been driving your car, wait 5-10 minutes after you’ve parked to check your oil level, or check it first thing before you use the car.

Q. What colour should my engine oil be?

A. New oil is clean and golden in colour, but quickly turns dark brown or even black when it’s in use. This darkening is quite normal. Oil with a milky or foamy appearance indicates a cooling system problem – coolant is leaking into the oil.

Q. Should my car be running when I’m adding oil?

A. No. Your engine should be off whenever you’re checking anything under the bonnet.

Q. What happens if I run out of oil?

A. With low oil pressure, the oil’s less able to lubricate the bearings and other moving parts. Metal runs on metal, quickly causing irreversible and expensive damage.

Q. How long does engine oil last?

A. It depends to some extent on the car and how it’s driven. But most cars are on fixed interval servicing with, for example, the oil changed every 9,000 miles or 12
months, whichever comes first.

More tips on how to check and top-up your engine oil 

About Gareth Herincx

Gareth is a versatile journalist, copywriter and digital editor who's worked across the media in newspapers, magazines, TV, teletext, radio and online. After long stints at the BBC, GMTV and ITV, he now specialises in motoring.

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