A car's oil is its blood: It smooths the engine's ferocious frictions by providing essential lubrication. But the slippery substance breaks down over time, collecting microscopic bits of dirt and water that wreak havoc on your motor. That's why, every 3,000 miles, you have to schlep to the auto shop to get it changed.
What you may not realize is that replacing it yourself is easier than you think, assuming you don't mind getting a little grubby. And for the mechanically challenged, the benefits are many: You'll learn about your car's inner workings while slinging a wrench around with gusto -- and getting a handle on that mysterious lingo mechanics use to justify pricey repairs. The basic process is a snap: Drain the old oil, replace the filter, then fill the engine with new oil. That said, you are working on an engine that would cost $5,000 or more to replace, so be careful -- you need to complete each step absolutely correctly. Here's how to get it right:
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GO SHOPPING. A trip to your local parts store will provide all the necessary components. The first-time oil changer will need to buy a funnel (the bigger the better, about $2), a wrench to unscrew the drain plug ($3), a pan to catch the oil ($3) and an oil filter wrench ($5). Owners of smaller cars may also need a set of four metal ramps to get beneath the engine to the car's drain plug ($50 per pair). For safety's sake, says Ken Coffin, owner of the Precision Automotive repair shop in Van Ness, be certain to set the emergency brake when parking your car on these ramps.
In addition, grab a few quarts of oil (about $2 a quart) -- your car's manual will recommend the amount and type. And pick up an oil filter ($4); the store will have a book you can flip through to identify which one to purchase based on your car's year, model and engine size. Now, you're ready to get started.
LET IT OUT. Place the drain pan beneath the drain plug. If the engine is cold, let it run a minute to warm the oil (that will help it drain easier and catch more contaminants). Then unscrew the plug, which may initially require some force depending how tightly it's screwed in. If you need help remembering which way to rotate the wrench, recite the old mechanic's maxim: rightsy-tightsy, leftsy-loosey. As you unscrew, the old oil will start to drain out. When the flow slows to a trickle, replace the drain plug. (You can pour the old oil into a used milk jug or some other container and later take it to your county's oil disposal center.)
SWAP THE FILTER. Next, open the hood and look around for the oil filter. It's located in different places in different cars and varies in shape and size. But it should be easy enough to recognize because it'll look just like the one you bought at the parts store (and manufacturers usually cast the outer casing in a bright color). The filter wrench should fit snugly around the filter, which should easily twist off. Replace the old filter with the new one, threading it on and tightening it by hand.
FILL 'ER UP. With the drain plug tightened and the new filter in place, all that's left is to add the new oil. Find the oil cap on top of the engine (that manual, she is your friend). Then, remove it and pour in all but the last half-quart of oil (you can never drain all the old oil from an engine, so you won't need to use all the new stuff). Wait 15 minutes, check the dipstick and top off with more oil if needed. Start the car and check underneath to be sure no oil is leaking; if it is, tighten the seeping plug or filter. Finally, congratulate yourself: You've successfully completed your first oil change! Joab Jackson
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