The synchronized movement of an internal combustion engine is a romantic tale in engineering. As the engine performs an initial task thousands of times per minute for hours, the mechanical ballet depends on a protective fluid -- engine oil -- to add lubrication to part movements. Depriving a vehicle of regular oil changes will result in a slow death to the inner engine components.

For aspiring shade-tree mechanics, changing your vehicle's engine oil is a golden opportunity for getting your hands dirty, and a great chance to get to know your car.

When to Change Your Oil

Contrary to commonly held beliefs, a motor oil's appearance is not a reliable method for determining when oil changes should take place. A set engine oil service time of three months or every 3,000 miles maintains validity, even with current vehicles. While auto makers like Ford and Toyota now specify you can wait longer (5,000 miles or 6 months) between oil changes for newer vehicles, routine changes serve as an inexpensive measure to assure long-lasting engine health.

As technology in automobiles increases, many high-end models today are equipped with onboard computers that indicate on the dash when an oil-change is needed. Not the standard oh-God-my-oil-light-is-on-I-need-a-garage-NOW light, but a light that is attached to a sophisticated internal computer that has calculated your mileage and engine performance and is simply letting you know the time has come for a scheduled change.

Buying Motor Oil

Purchasing the right motor oil for your vehicle goes beyond picking your favorite brand name. Categorized using viscosity ranges, oil weight relates to a behavior for motor oil flowing through an engine. A low viscosity oil (preferred during cold-weather driving) has a thinner consistency compared to higher viscosity ratings. As an example for high-viscosity oil, a Koenigsegg CCX engine demands thick 60 weight oil to resist heat and the stresses of its 806 bhp engine. Depending on the engine, and sometimes geography, typical vehicles will run on 5W30 or 10W30 grade motor oils. Known as multigrade oil, 5W30-type expressions refer to multigrade oils chemically configured to perform at different viscosities.

Second, consider the type of motor oil you will need. Inexpensive and widely available, conventional motor oil is distilled from a refinery by-product of crude oil. Conventional oil continues to be a popular choice for many engines. On the other hand, synthetic motor oil is chemically produced for superior performance. In spite of several performance myths, the only minor downside of synthetic oil is the doubled cost compared to conventional blends. However, the additional cost does little to distract synthetic usage in new high-performance vehicles like the Chevrolet Corvette.

Tools Needed

Besides purchasing the approved motor oil and filter for your vehicle (some models need specific filters that will only fit in that car specifically, so check with a garage that knows your car well enough to help you out), inexpensive specialized tools such as an oil-filter wrench along with a large oil-drain pan are required equipment. Add a funnel, a pair of latex gloves, some shop rags, and a socket to fit on the oil-drain plug to complete your oil-changing tool arsenal.

Changing Your Oil: The 12-Step Program

1. Turn on the engine to allow oil to heat up. Simply turning the car on and letting it run for 5-10 minutes is not enough. You need to drive the car and bring it up to full temperature. Take it around the block a few times, do a little highway driving if possible. Once you've sufficiently heated the car, the oil will have moved freely through your engine and warm oil will drain more quickly than cool oil.

2. Make sure you park your car on a flat, level and paved area. Let the car sit for 5-10 minutes so the oil you just used to lubricate your engine has time to drip back down to the pan (where you are going to change it). Use either a jack with jack stands or a pair of ramps to lift the car's front end to access the engine's oil pan. For safety, engage the emergency brake and place a set of bricks behind the rear wheels. When using a jack and jack stands, do not move under the car until the jack stands are securely in place. Once the car is in place, pop the hood and disconnect the battery cables for added safety -- please make sure you don't touch the positive and negative points at the same time; no one wants to see you roasting on your car.

3. Locate the oil-drain plug, commonly situated at the bottom rear end of the engine's oil pan. In rare instances, a plastic under-shield has to be removed to access the oil-drain plug.

4. Venturing under the car with the drain pan, remove the drain plug with a counterclockwise turning of the socket wrench. Removing the oil-drain plug, and align the drain pan to catch the flowing oil -- make sure you have the drain pan at the ready as it tends to drip quickly in some instances. A reminder at this point: The engine oil is still very hot, so be careful. Two minutes should be enough time to allow the old oil to empty completely.

5. Inspect the drain plug for any possible damage before rethreading it securely. Avoid cross-threading the drain plug when reinstalling. Now is the time to don your doctor-like latex gloves for the next few steps.

6. The oil filter, a cylindrical part located along the lower side of the engine, must be replaced during each oil change. Grab your oil-filter wrench or filter adapter, and proceed to remove the old oil filter; watch out, hot oil is still likely present inside the filter. Don't be afraid to break the old oil filter, just be cautious not to hit or damage other engine parts.

7. With the new oil filter in your hand, use a gloved finger to gently prime the filter seal using new motor oil -- in other words, lubricate the seal with a small amount of the new oil. After wiping the metal circle where the oil filter mounts, thread the new oil filter by hand to about half or three-quarters of a turn, according to the filters instructions.

8. Now it's time to add new oil to the engine. Undo the oil-filler cap with a clean rag and pour the oil through a funnel into the filler. Typical engines require approximately four to six quarts (refer to your owner's manual) to reach the correct oil level needed to run. Make sure you reattach the oil-filler cap properly and tightly.

9. Before lowering the car from the jack stands or ramp, make sure there are no oil leaks underneath the car. Let the car stay as it is for a few minutes so the oil has time to move down -- you added cold oil, after all. When you are certain the car is free of any leaks, slowly lower the vehicle and disengage the parking brake.

10. Check the oil level using the engine's dipstick. Please note that the ideal level is directly between the two indicated markings on the dipstick. Keep in mind that the best possible reading you can pull from your oil pan at any time is after the car has run for a little while. Taking your car for a short drive, then letting it sit for 5-10 minutes on a flat surface before checking the levels will give you the most accurate reading. Next, reconnect the cables for the battery and close the hood.

11. Start your engine, keeping an eye on the instrument panel lights that will signal any oil system problems. Newer vehicles equipped with oil change monitoring systems will require a system reset. This process varies between vehicles so consult your owner's manual.

12. Finally, dispose of the old motor oil properly. Use empty motor oil containers or a sealed jug to transport the used oil to a nearby disposal site. For help finding a depot, the website Earth911.org lets you locate one of their many recycling facilities nearest to you.

Running Smoothly

If every step was performed smoothly, you'll float effortlessly through your oil change in less than an hour. In only a short amount of time, you have rewarded your engine's mechanical ballet. As for your own reward, you no longer need to toil over changing your motor oil, a few more and you'll be an oil-changing guru.

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