How to Check Your Oil

Quick, easy, and a great way to avoid potential problems down the road.


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Keeping your engine filled with the right amount of engine oil is key to protecting it over the long term. Fortunately, checking your vehicle's oil is a relatively straightforward process. All you need to do is familiarize yourself with the layout of your engine bay and have a few basic supplies on hand to verify whether your engine oil is at a safe level or if it needs to be topped up.

How To Check Your Engine Oil

The first step in checking your engine oil is to find the location of your oil dipstick, which is used to measure its level. A vehicle's owner's manual will provide this information, and it will also tell you details such as whether the engine needs to be warmed up to operating temperature, or cold, in order to get an accurate reading.

Make sure you're parked on a flat stretch of ground, and that you have a clean rag or a paper towel in hand. Next, pop the hood (or the trunk, or the engine cover, depending on where the motor in your auto is located).

With the towel or rag positioned to catch any drips, pull the dipstick straight out of its holder, and then wipe it down so that it's completely clean of any oil. Slide it back down into the engine, and pull it straight back out again: this should be an accurate reading of your engine’s oil level.

What Is A Safe Oil Level?

You will notice that the end of the dipstick contains two level lines, with the area in between sometimes filled by hatch marks. The lines may also be labeled 'FULL/MAX/H' or 'LOW/MIN/L.' If oil is on the dipstick in between these two boundaries, there is a safe amount of lubricant in the engine. If it's below the bottom line, oil must be added to bring it back up to the manufacturer's recommended level.

Also take note of the oil's color. If it's dark black, grainy, or if it smells burnt, it could be time for an oil change. If it looks like chocolate milk that’s been shaken up, this could indicate a more serious issue like a coolant leak.

When To Check Your Oil Level?

It's a good idea to manually check your vehicle's engine oil level at least once every couple of weeks. Most modern cars, trucks, and SUVs come with an engine oil level sensor that shows a warning if the engine oil is too low via the infotainment screen or driver information display.

Not every automobile comes with this system, in which case regular manual oil level checks are a must. For one, it's the only way to catch a defective oil sensor before low levels of lubricant potentially damage your motor. It's also a great way to get ahead of a low oil situation before it drops to the point where a warning is triggered.

Note that some automobiles (particularly German luxury brands) rely exclusively on oil level sensors that display a readout on the dashboard, and offer no manual oil check capability.

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Benjamin Hunting
Benjamin Hunting is a writer and podcast host who contributes to a number of newspapers, automotive magazines, and online publications. More than a decade into his career, he enjoys keeping the shiny side up during track days and always has one too many classic vehicle projects partially disassembled in his garage at any given time. Remember, if it's not leaking, it's probably empty.