8 Things I Wish I Knew Before Changing My Own Oil

Check out these tips and learn from past mistakes before you pop the hood to change your engine oil.

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My late father taught me how to change oil in my car as soon as I got my driver’s license. We spent many a hot Texas morning in the driveway making sure my clunkers were in proper shape. He taught me well, but there are definitely things we both learned along the way. Some of these tips may seem obvious, but all will make your DIY oil changes a lot smoother.

It’s All in the Prep Work

Reading the car manual before doing any kind of maintenance is a no-brainer, but it’s also helpful to pop the hood and study the car itself the day before you intend to change the oil. Are there any other parts blocking access to your oil filter? And if so, what tools will you need to safely move them out of the way and reinstall them?

Newer cars have the oil filter up toward the top, but older models aren’t always made with convenience in mind. My first two cars, both Fords from the mid-1990s, had the oil filter buried way down under several hoses. Accessing those oil filters took a lot of trial and error and ended up taking more time than the actual draining and replacing of the oil itself.

Don’t Jack Up the Car on Soft Metal or Plastic

Most cars have notches or a jacking plate where you can safely contact the car with your jack. If your car has a jacking plate underneath the engine, be sure to grab a flashlight and triple-check — no, quadruple-check — that your car jack isn’t contacting anything else under the hood.

The car I’m driving now is my first car to have a jacking plate instead of notches. When attempting to jack it up for the first time, I made contact with my windshield wiper fluid reservoir, which of course cracked and leaked wiper fluid everywhere. D’oh!

Brace the Rear Wheel Opposite the Jack Stands

You can use a brick or piece of wood to brace the rear wheel opposite the jack stands to make sure your car doesn’t roll away. Of course, your parking brake should be engaged, too.

Both Steel and Aluminum Jacks Are Fine

Aluminum has a bad reputation for being less strong and less safe than steel, but aluminum jack stands will hold up just fine. Steel jacks are less expensive than aluminum, if you’re looking for a budget-friendly option. Bottom line: Either material is fine.

Apply Oil to the Filter Seal

You can do this with a dab of oil on your fingertip. This step is actually crucial because it helps the seal stay in place when you start up the engine. I got a very stern lecture from my dad the first time I demonstrated an oil change solo and attempted to skip this step.

Place a Metal Drip Pan Underneath the Oil Collection Container

Protect the garage floor or driveway with a large metal drip pan. It’s lightweight, easy to clean and even makes moving the oil collection container easier because you can (slowly) slide the sheet around without being under the car.

Use an Oil Collection Container That Also Transports

Be sure to use a collection container that’s basically a portable jug. No pouring used oil from a collection pan into a wobbly funnel, which is bound to be a mess.

Don’t Chuck the Used Oil Filter in the Trash

My dad put used oil filters straight into the trash, but now oil filters can be recycled once you get the oil out of them. Drain the oil from the used filter by puncturing the top dome with a screwdriver. Then let the oil drain into your collection container. Earth911 also has a directory for where you can recycle used oil and oil filters called iRecycleOil.com.

Veronica Graham
Veronica Graham is a freelance writer in Arlington, Mass. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and SheKnows. She's covered health, politics, high school football and everything in between. Graham enjoys learning about the world through a variety of lenses as a reporter.