A guide to oil maintenance in your car

Oil helps to cool your engine and keep your car’s inner workings from seizing up. Find out how to check your vehicle’s oil, spot problems and get an oil change when you need one.

Oil helps to cool your engine and keep your car’s inner workings from seizing up. Find out how to check your vehicle’s oil, spot problems and get an oil change when you need one.

Daniel Hutson
Head of Motor Insurance
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Posted 14 JANUARY 2020

Why do cars need oil?

Oil keeps the engine running smoothly and, without it, everything can grind to a halt.

The moving parts inside the engine need oil to minimise friction and keep temperatures low. Otherwise, metal surfaces like the engine pistons grind against each other and generate heat. Ultimately, they’ll seize up marking the end of your motoring adventures.

It’s not just a lubricant though. Motor oil contains chemicals that keep the viscosity levels just right, reduce corrosion and help clean the car’s system.

Every vehicle has its own oil requirements, and what’s right for one might be harmful to another. So if you’re buying oil, always check your vehicle manual to find out what type is best.

Changing your oil

For most cars, it’s necessary to change the oil every 12,000 miles or 12 months, whichever comes first. This prevents dirt and grit build-up, which can cause engine damage, whether you’re driving a petrol or a diesel car. But oil change intervals can vary if you’re using long-life oil. Check with your car’s manufacturer or with your usual garage if you’re not sure when your oil change is due.

Although it’s possible to change the oil yourself, it can be pretty messy and involves getting underneath the car to drain the old oil away. You’ll also need to safely dispose of it at a recycling site. So, for many people, having an oil change as part of a regular service is the easiest solution.

Spotting oil-related problems

There are a few telltale signs of an oil problem, including:

  • The oil warning light comes on if the oil can-shaped warning light on the control panel doesn’t go out after you start the car, or it comes on when driving, switch off the engine and get help from a mechanic. If you keep driving, you could cause serious engine damage.
  • There’s oil on your drive patches of oil where your car has been standing are never normal. This indicates an oil leak somewhere and should be checked ASAP.

How to check your oil

It’s pretty easy to check your car’s oil level and make sure everything’s working smoothly. This is something you should do every week or so, and always before a big road trip. Check the oil when the engine is cold, and with the car parked on level ground.

  • Get some kitchen roll or an old cloth.
  • Open the bonnet and locate the dipstick (your manual will help if it’s not obvious).
  • Remove the dipstick and wipe it clean. You’ll see it has ‘MIN’ and ‘MAX’ markers on it, towards the tip.
  • Replace the dipstick and leave for a few seconds.
  • Remove it again and look at where the oil comes up to. If it’s between ‘MIN’ and ‘MAX’, you’re good to go.

How to top up engine oil

If the oil level is looking a bit low, you can top it up yourself by pouring more in through the oil filler cap, usually found next to the dipstick. Add a little, check the level, and then add a little more until it’s just right.

If you find you need to top up the oil regularly, it suggests there’s a leak somewhere, so it’s a good idea to get it checked by a mechanic.

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