The Dirty Truth: What You Need to Know About Your Car’s Oil

Oil Change
Audra Fordin, owner of Women Auto Know, checking the oil

Do You Know When Your Car Needs An Oil Change?

Oil Change

In need of an oil change: a very dirty filter

Before my father let my brother behind the wheel of a car, he had to learn how to change a tire, check the oil AND change the oil. If you ask many drivers today, they can’t perform these simple tasks and may not realize how important it is to make sure it’s done, even if they don’t do it themselves.

But changing your oil according to your engine’s needs, and getting the right kind of oil for your car, is a critical step in car maintenance.

I spoke with Abe Schlott, senior vice president of Piston King, an on-line oil retailer owned by Warren Distribution, which produces private label oil for retailers around the country.

Abe told me that when the economy was down, many people pushed their oil changes out, trying to save money in the short term, but causing damage to their engines in the long run (and spending more money in the process). Not having enough oil, or the right oil, in your engine can cause damage, especially under challenging driving conditions.

Your best guide for when to change your oil is your owner’s manual, he said, but he noted that the manual offers a schedule for driving under “normal’ conditions: mostly highway driving, long trips, sustained speed. You need to change your oil more frequently if you drive frequently in stop and go traffic, in dusty or hot conditions, or you use your car for towing.

While all cars, except fully electric ones, like Teslas, use oil, some cars naturally use more oil. Abe noted that a hybrid like the Prius is more demanding on the oil. The stop and start technology employed by a Prius, turning the engine off when you stop at a light, uses more oil than a regular car.

On the other hand, diesel cars generally can go longer between oil changes.

Synthetic or Conventional Oil?

Recently, Scotty Reiss went to her local quick change oil place and was stunned at the menu options: Conventional oil change: $30; Synthetic Oil: $70. Wow. Why would synthetic be so much more expensive? And, is it an option?

The type of oil your car needs is decided by the manufacturer, and often they choose synthetic. So here’s the rub: Synthetic lasts longer between changes, up to 15,000 miles (though you should consult your owners manual or manufacturer’s site for complete oil recommendations). So a $30 oil change every 5,000 miles is actually more expensive—and more time consuming—than a synthetic oil change.

Synthetic oil lasts longer because, being produced in a lab rather than pumped from the ground, its molecules are more uniform and don’t break down as easily, explained Audra Fordin. And, it’s more environmentally sensitive, since it’s a renewable resource.

If your car rolled out of the factory with conventional oil, do you have to stick with conventional? No, according to Mobil Oil. Since the oil is completely drained from the system and the filter is replaced when an oil change is performed, you can opt for synthetic (or switch to conventional from synthetic). However the next two oil changes should come a little early to ensure that all the old oil is completely worked out of the engine.

How To Change Your Oil

Abe cautions against oil change shops that charge little, but use inferior oil. The oil delivered by Piston King is licensed by the American Petroleum Institute and it it chosen to meet the exacting specifications. Piston King allows customers to buy its oil on line and have it shipped; if you are a DIYer, it’s great to have a case of oil on hand for your next oil change.

Oil Change

Audra Fordin showing how to change your oil

Changing your own oil is messy —Abe said you can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty —but it can be a lot cheaper than retail oil changes, and compared with technological advances in cars, it’s still a fairly simple process.  You get under your car, drain oil the old oil, replace the filter and pour in the new.

If DIY is not your thing, make sure that the oil change shop you choose uses good quality oil and you can even bring your own oil to ensure you get a quality product in your car.

Check Your Oil

And don’t forget to check your oil periodically to ensure there is enough in the system to do its job. Audra Fordin, owner of Women Auto Know, broke down this simple process:

1. When the engine is cool, find the dipstick; it may have a marking that says ‘oil level’ and a loop or hook to grab.

2 Take it out & wipe it clean.

3. Put it back in

4. Take it out and look at level marking. Add a quart of oil if the level is near or below the “min” mark on the stick.


Be Sure The Right Oil Is Used

You can buy a quart of oil (even at the grocery store!), have an attendant at a gas station add it or go to an auto parts store and ask them to do it; usually they’ll sell you the oil and then, walk outside and add it for you without an extra charge. But be sure you are adding the right type of oil (it comes in different weights and types). Piston King has a nifty oil guide to find the right type for your car, which you can find here.

Or, check with your auto dealer. Some dealerships will add a quart of oil for free, others will charge for the service, so be sure to ask first; a $70 bill for adding quart of oil can come as a rude surprise.


Judy Antell, who is's Free in 50 States editor, lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her husband and... More about Judy Antell