Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fight an Epidemic of Ignorance: Teach a Friend How to Check Their Oil

Recently, my little sister completely ruined her car and had to buy a new one.

Why? Because she didn't check her oil.

Every car-savvy member of my family felt guilty for not teaching her how to check her oil, and why it was important. Frankly, it never occurred to any of us that she didn't know how.

This gap in people's knowledge is actually becoming more and more common. With cheap, ten-minute oil change shops everywhere you look, many young people have gotten into the habit of simply getting their oil changed every three months or 3,000 miles, and don't worry about their vehicle's oil in the meantime.

This is what happened to my sister. She developed an oil leak between changes. Because she didn't know how to check her oil (or even why it was important), she had no idea there was a problem until the car parts in her engine locked up for good. To prevent her fate from happening to you, this article will tell you how to check your car's oil, (and other vehicles) how to read the dipstick, why oil is important in car engines and other vehicles, and the consequences of ignoring oil levels.

Why Oil Is Important in Vehicles

Internal combustion engines contain a lot of heat and moving metal car parts. This is an inherently bad combination. To keep temperatures down to safe levels, moving car parts are lubricated with oil to keep them moving quickly, easily, and with little friction.

The Consequences of Ignoring Oil Levels

If a car's oil is too low or runs out, car parts in the engine lose lubrication. Instead, they create friction as they move. Friction generates heat, and this pushes temperatures past the safe point in vehicles

Under high heat, metal expands. Expanding metal in moving car parts can quickly break housings, get stuck, fused together, or damage vehicle engines in dozens of other ways. In a worst-case scenario, the whole engine block "locks up." The moving car parts have become stuck and won't move.

Fixing a locked-up engine in cars or other vehicles is time and labor intensive, it is more cost efficient to just buy a new engine. Given the high cost of installing new engine blocks in vehicles, it may be cheaper just to buy a new vehicle.

How to Check the Oil in Vehicles

In a car, the oil dipstick is under the hood of your car, often with a yellow handle. For other vehicles (everything from speedboats to lawn mowers), you may need to check your owner's manual to figure out where the dipstick is.

As you drive a vehicle, the oil can slosh around in the oil pan or splash up, coating your dipstick with oil higher up than where the oil actually rests in your oil pan. As a result, the dipstick may appear to tell you that you have more oil in your vehicle than you actually do. To prevent this, pull out your dipstick, wipe it off, put it back in, draw it out again, and then check the oil level.

How to Read the Dipstick

Dipstick markings vary, but they almost always have at least two things: a "Full" line and a large area labeled "Add." If the oil level is below the "Add" area, you may have already done damage to some car parts in the engine. Add oil right away. If you oil level is still in the "Add' area, your engine may be undamaged, but it's still best to add more oil to be safe. Make sure it is the right kind of oil for your vehicle (you may need to check the owner's manual for this).

Most passenger cars or small trucks hold between four and six liters of oil, with the average being about four and a half liters. If your dipstick is in the "add" level, you probably have about one liter of oil left. Add up to three liters of oil, one liter at a time, checking the oil level in between liters.

Do NOT let your oil go over the "Full" line. Having too much oil is almost as bad as not having enough. The crankshaft of the vehicle's engine sits above the oil pan. If the oil level is too high, the spinning crankshaft whips the oil into foam, the same way eggbeaters whip eggs into meringue. Air gets mixed in with the oil, and this prevents oil from being properly pumped throughout the engine. Car parts, without sufficient lubrication, get overheated and become damaged.

The Moral of the Story

Check your oil ...Frequently.

The easiest way to remember is to check your oil whenever you're at a gas station waiting for your tank to fill up. If oil levels are low, you can usually purchase a liter of oil at the gas station. Better yet, keep a litter or two of spare oil in your trunk, just in case. With a few seconds of regular attention and a few dollars worth of oil, you can avoid a catastrophic and expensive engine failure.