how to check your car’s engine oil (read the dipstick)

how to check your cars engine oil

of all the important maintenance tasks you should complete, it’s critical that you know how to check your car’s engine oil. no one is asking you to change it yourself or get into anything complicated, but checking it can be performed by anyone, even grandma.

we review each of these steps in more depth. plus, we talk about looking at the consistency of the oil and evaluate how often you should perform these steps. there’s also a small section describing what to do if your car doesn’t have a dipstick design. 

how to check your car’s engine oil

before you check the engine oil, you need to gather your supplies and prepare the vehicle. in some cases, the engine needs to be warm, while other times it should be cold. pull out the dipstick and clean it off. put it back in and pull it out to read it again. make any adjustments as indicated.

  1. prepare supplies/car

    paper towel

    before you get started, you want to get all of your supplies together. you will need a paper towel or clean rag. aside from that, checking the oil level doesn’t require special tools or extensive expertise. 

    you also want to park the car on level ground so you get an accurate reading. check the owner’s manual to see if the engine should be warm or cold, as different manufacturers recommend varying instructions. if it should be cold, wait 15 minutes after running the engine. if it should be warm, just run the engine for a few minutes. either way, you should turn the engine off to read the oil levels. 

    read more: should i check my oil when the engine is hot or cold?

  2. pull dipstick

    engine oil dipstick

    pop open the hood and find the dipstick. it should have an orange, yellow or red tab at the end. if you can’t find it, reference the owner’s manual. some modern vehicles don’t allow for physical checks because it’s all done electronically instead.

    take out the dipstick. while you will be tempted to read the oil level and examine the condition now, it’s not going to be accurate. check your owner’s manual to find the engine oil dipstick, so you don’t check the transmission fluid level, as these dipsticks can be quite similar looking.

  3. clean dipstick

    clean oil dipstick

    wipe the dipstick clean, working from the handle down to the tip. use your paper towel or clean rag to clean it off. 

    once the dipstick is cleaned off, you need to put it back in place. make sure it’s pushed all of the way back in and is secure. wait a few seconds before moving on. 

  4. read dipstick level & condition

    dipstick oil level

    pull the dipstick out once again, but this time to read the oil level. the dipstick contains indicators on the low and full end to show you how much oil is in the system. 

    not only should you take note of how full the oil is, but you should also look at the condition. we will discuss more about that in one minute. 

    read more: what color should your car oil be? (dipstick engine oil color chart)

  5. make adjustments as needed

    fill engine oil

    if there’s not enough oil in the engine, you need to add more. once you top off the oil, you need to check the level once again. if the engine is too full, you need to remove some oil through the drain plug with the help of an oil pan. 

    also, if the oil is dirty or contaminated, you need to change it. don’t add new oil to contaminated oil. it won’t give you the results you desire. 

    put the dipstick back in place and secure it in the tube. when you are all done, make sure you close the hood and check that it is latched. 

    read more: what type of oil does my car need?

what if the car has no dipstick?

back in the day, every car came with an oil dipstick, so this might be hard to imagine if you haven’t driven a newer model. however, today’s cars are changing the way things are happening. many new models have gotten rid of the dipstick to make things easier to monitor.

the toyota supra, some volkswagens and a few audis have this feature. however, mazda, chrysler, chevy, lincoln and ford are also rolling it out with select models. in some cases, it’s completely understandable why there’s no dipstick, such as with the porsche cayman. after all, the cayman’s engine top can only be reached by going through the cabin. in this case, we understand why the automaker wouldn’t want average users checking the oil levels while sitting in the high-end interior. 

however, automakers haven’t left drivers without a way to watch oil levels. instead of the dipstick, there are advanced systems that involve sensors to monitor oil levels. these sensors are needed to monitor levels with the engine computer. with this system, you can’t physically look at the oil level, but there will be an indicator when it gets too low. a warning light should come on to alert you to the problem. 

so far, the systems have been incredibly reliable. that doesn’t mean that failure is impossible. if the advanced system fails to notify users that the oil is low, engine damage could occur. hopefully, the car is under warranty if this happens. otherwise, you will have a large repair bill to contend with. still, it’s not necessary to choose your next car based on whether it has a dipstick or not. it’s just a matter of rolling with the changes and learning how to adapt. 

read more: how to change the oil in your car (5 easy steps)

what does engine oil color mean

dipstick engine oil color chart

1. amber

if you pull out the dipstick and notice this amber color, you are in good shape. this is exactly what color you want to see. 

when oil is fresh, it looks amber-colored. it should also be clear, indicating that you don’t need to change the oil. 

2. dark brown/black

when the oil is darkened, there are several issues that could be happening. if the oil is newer, it might just appear dark because of the additives you are using. you don’t want to automatically change it, assuming that it is dirty.

however, dark oil can also mean it’s contaminated or dirty. in this case, it will also be thickened. when the oil is dark brown, you might still be able to get a little more time out of it. however, there’s no more time to wait once it turns black. if you get close to the oil dipstick, it could also give off a burning smell. 

3. milky white/cream

your heart might sink when you initially see milky white or creamy-looking oil on the dipstick. it’s true that this could be a really bad sign, but let’s not jump to conclusions. for starters, it could just mean that there’s an excessive amount of condensation occurring. if the coolant level isn’t changing and there’s no white smoke coming from the exhaust, this is likely the explanation.

how often should engine oil be checked

the engine oil condition and level should be checked much more frequently than the typical change. on average, it’s recommended to pull the dipstick every month or more often. 

by doing this, you will start to get into a routine, noticing how long it takes for the oil to become contaminated. it should help you better understand the life cycle of the engine oil.

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magnus sellén
written by:

magnus, the founder and owner of 2022世界杯非洲赛程表 , is an experienced car mechanic and diagnostic technician with over a decade of experience in advanced car diagnostics and 2022年世界杯淘汰赛 . by holding certification as an automotive diagnostic technician, magnus's technical expertise is widely recognized and forms the bedrock of the trusted advice shared here. his background is further enriched by his time as a motorsport (drifting) driver for sellén drifting, which reflects a deep passion and extensive involvement in the automotive industry. magnus is committed to using his extensive knowledge and enthusiasm for cars to provide reliable, accurate and practically sound advice.

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