Oil is the lifeblood of your vehicle. Not only does it provide the lubrication that allows the mechanical bits inside your car's engine to move freely, but it also helps with heat dissipation and cleaning. With so many responsibilities, it's no surprise oil changes are the most common vehicle maintenance procedures. 

Despite being so common, there’s a lot of mystery surrounding the oil change, including how often you should get one, the different types of oil, and more. Below, we'll clear up some of these confusing topics and help you better understand engine oil and oil changes. 

How Often Should You Get an Oil Change?

The recommended oil change interval is a hot topic in the auto industry, as the answer varies greatly depending on who you ask. 

If you talk to an auto service shop or quick lube joint, they'll likely tell you every three months or every 5,000 km, whichever comes first. And they'll tell you this regardless of the vehicle you own. 

Not only is this an old-school way of thinking, but it’s usually a scheme to get you into the shop more frequently. While most shops make almost no profit on an oil change — some even lose money changing oil — they want to upsell you on other profitable maintenance items like wiper blades, coolant exchanges, transmission fluid changes, tire rotations, air filters, and others. 

What determines your oil change intervals is your vehicle itself. Every vehicle has different specifications and tolerances that impact how often it will need an oil change. Some cars require fresh motor oil and a filter change every three months or 5,000 km. Meanwhile, others, like Jaguar, Toyota, and Honda, may stretch to six months or 10,000 km or longer in the right driving conditions. 

You can determine your car's recommended oil change interval by looking in the owner’s manual in the scheduled maintenance section. Here, you may find a few recommendations — one for "normal driving" and another for "severe driving." 

Normal Driving vs. Severe Driving

There’s a lot of confusion regarding the definition of normal driving and severe driving. You might think severe driving implies you're racing the engine and aggressively driving the vehicle, but that's not correct. 

While every vehicle manufacturer's definition of severe driving varies, it generally means you encounter at least one of the following scenarios

  • Driving in freezing temperatures
  • Driving in high heat (32 degrees Celsius or higher)
  • Driving in stop-and-go traffic
  • Frequent short trips (under 16 km)
  • Towing a trailer or hauling a roof rack
  • Driving on mountainous roads
  • Driving on roads where salt or other de-icers were used

Is there anywhere in Canada where you never encounter one of these situations? Nope. Chances are your driving falls into the "severe" category, and you want to follow that maintenance schedule. 

Different types of oil

Different Types of Oil

When cars were simpler, you could walk into any parts store and say "Gimme a case of 30 weight," and go change your oil. That's not the case today. Here’s what you need to know about the different types of oil.

Oil Weight

Today’s more advanced cars use a multi-weight oil, which has two viscosity ratings for changing temperatures. A common example of multi-weight oil is 10W-30. When the engine is cold, the oil has the lower viscosity of a 10-weight oil. The lower viscosity allows the oil to flow more easily at startup, ensuring all the engine's moving bits get the lubrication they need quickly. As the engine warms up, the viscosity increases to a 30 weight, enhancing its ability to lubricate effectively and dissipate heat. 

Synthetic Oil vs Conventional Oil

Synthetic Oil vs. Conventional Oil

Another fiery debate in the automotive world is synthetic versus conventional oil. First, let's address the pink elephant in the room: Synthetic oil isn't 100% manmade. 

Synthetic oil, like conventional oil, starts with distilled crude oil. Where it differs is its base oil quality and processing. Synthetic oils generally start with higher-quality base oils and include petrochemicals that slow its breakdown process to retain its lubricating and heat-dissipating properties longer. On the other hand, conventional oil lacks the petrochemicals and may start with lower-quality base oils. 

There are also synthetic blend oils that often blend high- and low-quality base oils and have a lower petrochemical mix. The problem with synthetic blends is you never know what the blend ratio is. 

Here are the answers to a few common questions about synthetic oils. 

Is synthetic oil better for an oil change?

In theory, yes. Synthetic oil lubricates better, lasts longer, and reduces gunk buildup. As such, it's technically a better option for nearly any vehicle.

Can you mix synthetic and conventional oil?

Yes! Contrary to old mechanics' tales, synthetic and conventional oil mix just fine without causing any issues. It's counterproductive to mix them, as you’ll lose most of the synthetic oil benefits, but it's otherwise safe. 

Can you go longer between oil changes with synthetic oil?

No. While synthetic oil breaks down more slowly than conventional oil, your vehicle's engine determines the oil’s longevity, not the other way around. This is especially important if your car is covered by the manufacturer's warranty. If you change your oil too infrequently because you use synthetic oil, the manufacturer may void the warranty. 

This is another old-mechanics' tale. No, switching to synthetic oil won't cause any leaks that weren't already there. 

When to use synthetic oil?

While synthetic oil is technically better than conventional oil, the benefits won’t significantly improve a car’s lifespan. Add to this the fact that synthetic oil can cost up to four times as much as conventional oil, and it further solidifies the rationale for sticking with conventional oil when possible. The only time you should use synthetic oil is if your vehicle requires it, which we'll get to in a moment. 

Understanding Your Vehicle's Oil Needs

Cars have very specific oil needs, including certain weights and types of oil. Using the right oil not only maximizes the longevity of your vehicle, but it also allows the car to meet its fuel economy ratings since a higher weight oil can cause excessive friction and reduce fuel efficiency. You can find what oil your vehicle requires in two ways: on the oil cap or in the owner’s manual. 

On the Oil Cap

When you open your vehicle's hood, you'll usually find the oil cap somewhere near the top of the engine. In some vehicles, the oil cap is atop a long tube that leads to the bottom of the engine. Either way, it's a large, black cap, so it's pretty hard to miss. 

Stamped on this cap will be writing that tells you what weight of oil it uses. Some examples of oil weights include 5W-30, 0W-30, 10W-40, or SAE 30. If you walk into an auto parts store and tell the workers you need 5W-30, they'll know exactly what you need. 

If your vehicle also requires a specific type of oil, like a synthetic blend or full synthetic, it'll also mention this on the oil cap. If there is no type mentioned, it means conventional oil is fine. 

In the Owner's Manual

There will be a section titled "Fluids" or something similar in the owner’s manual. Here, you'll find all your vehicle's fluid requirements, including the motor oil type, weight, and capacity. 

Checking Your Oil

It's good practice to check your oil periodically. In a new car, once a month is plenty. If you have an older used car that may burn or leak a little engine oil, you may want to check weekly or even more frequently. 

Checking your oil level is simple and requires no mechanical expertise. In most cases, all you need is a clean rag, your hands, and a good set of eyes. However, some new vehicles have no dipstick, so you check the oil electronically.

Checking the Oil on a Vehicle With a Dipstick

Most vehicles have a dipstick, which is a plastic or metal stick that goes from the top of the engine to the oil pan. This is what you use to check the motor oil. Follow these steps to check the oil using your vehicle’s dipstick. 

  • Park your vehicle on a flat surface and let it sit with the engine off for five minutes if you recently drove it. Doing so will allow the oil to settle back into the oil pan. 
  • Find your dipstick — it'll be near the top of the engine and will have a bright-colored handle that's T-shaped or a loop.
  • Pull the dipstick upward to remove it. 
  • Wipe the oil from the base of the dipstick with a clean rag. 
  • Reinsert the dipstick fully and pull it back out.
  • Check the oil level at the bottom of the dipstick. It should be in the crosshatched area between the "E" and "F" marks. On some dipsticks, there are no "E" and "F" marks, only two notches indicating empty and full. 
  • Wipe the dipstick again and reinsert it. 

Checking the Oil on a Vehicle Without a Dipstick

Some newer vehicles lack a dipstick and use an electronic oil-level-checking function built into the infotainment system or the vehicle information system. Because every vehicle's system is different, the process of digitally checking your oil level will vary greatly. Check your vehicle owner's manual for instructions on checking the engine oil level. Alternatively, you can contact the dealership service department and ask them how to check the oil level of your car. 

Common Oil Related Warning Lights

There are many warning lights in your vehicle's instrument cluster, including the "Check Engine" light, "Brake" light, and more. There are also a few that are specifically related to your vehicle's engine oil. 

Oil Light

On many cars, there’s one catchall "Oil Light." This is a red light in the shape of an old-fashioned oil can, which resembles a genie's lamp. This light tells you there’s an issue with the oil pressure but gives no specifics. 

If your oil light is on, it could mean your oil pump is failing, the oil level is low, or the oil has become contaminated and no longer holds the correct pressure.

The oil light is a sign of a potentially severe issue. If your vehicle’s oil light is on, you should immediately take it to a repair shop for an inspection.

"Low Oil" Light

Newer cars with oil level sensors have a red light or message that reads "Low Oil" or "Low Oil Level." This indicates the oil level is at or below the minimum recommended level. You should immediately stop, check the oil, and add more as needed. 

"Oil Change Due" Light

Another common oil-centric warning light is the "Oil Change" light. This is generally an orange light or message that reads "Oil Change Due," "Change Oil," or something similar. This light lets you know that, according to your driving habits, it's time to get an oil and oil filter change.

After completing the oil change, you may need to reset this light. Every vehicle has a different reset procedure. You can find your reset procedure in your owner's manual or via an internet search.

If you have an auto shop handle your oil change, they should reset this light as part of the service.

Who Can You Trust to Do Your Oil Change?

An oil change is something many owners can do themselves, but you can also take it to a car care center or a service shop to have it done for you. 

Doing it yourself can save you money, as it generally costs less than $50 to purchase the required amount of oil and a new oil filter, but having a professional handle the work helps prevent mistakes and can save you a lot of time. Here are some common places that perform oil changes and the pros and cons of each.

Quick Lube oil change storefront

Quick Lube Centres

Quick lube centres specialize in vehicle maintenance. They'll do oil changes, transmission flushes, air filter changes, wiper blade replacements, and more, but they perform no auto repairs. Some familiar places may include Mr. Lube and Great Canadian Oil Change. 

These centres are generally very quick. You drive over a large pit, and the oil change technician immediately starts draining your oil from the underside while another technician checks the topside of the engine and refills the oil after the old oil drains.

Since these shops perform no other repairs, they generally charge more for their oil changes ($50-$100, depending on the oil type and labor requirements) and do a lot of upselling of air filters, transmission flushes, and other maintenance services. 

Generally, these shops are honest, but some bad apples might attempt to sell you services you don't need. If they offer you an upsell service, always check your service schedule in your owner's manual to verify it's due. If they attempt to upsell you a new air filter or belt, insist on seeing the current part to confirm it needs changing. 

Pros:

  • Quick service
  • Oil changes are their main service
  • They can alert you of other maintenance needs

Cons:

  • Will likely upsell more services
  • No ASE-certified mechanics supervising the work
  • Expensive
Car service shop

Service Centres

Auto service centres not only fix cars but they service them too. These centres will often offer excellent deals ($30-$75, depending on the oil type and labor requirements) on oil and filter changes to attract new business, saving you lots of money. 

Like the quick lube centres, these shops inspect your vehicle and find other items or services it may need. Unlike an oil change centre, though, they often have an ASE-certified mechanic checking the more technical parts of your vehicle, like the brakes, suspension, and steering. This can give you a more in-depth look at any mechanical issues your car has, but it can also lead to even pricier scams if you run into a dishonest shop. 

If you choose to complete any recommended repairs, the shop can often complete them while you wait, saving you the hassle of having to come back later. The downside is that the oil change specials tend to draw crowds, which can cause significant delays. In some cases, the wait can be an hour or longer for them to get to your oil change, especially on weekends.

Pros:

  • Generally offer discounted oil change specials
  • ASE-certified mechanics will inspect your vehicle
  • ASE-certified mechanics available to supervise the oil change technicians
  • Can complete more technical repairs on the same day

Cons:

  • Long waits
  • Potential for even more expensive ripoffs
Used Car Dealership storefront

Dealership

Car dealership service departments perform oil changes on nearly all vehicle makes and models. Like repair centres, they frequently offer $30-$75 oil change specials to help spur business, but they're slightly more expensive than a repair centre. 

As with a repair centre, ASE-certified technicians will inspect your vehicle and recommend any additional repairs or maintenance. If your vehicle is the same make that the dealership sells, you have the added benefit of technicians who are specially trained on your vehicle's needs and a parts department that stocks the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts for your vehicle. 

Because car dealerships are under intense scrutiny from the manufacturers they represent, they rarely risk scamming anyone for quick money. However, dealerships tend to be significantly more expensive when they offer upsells as they use OEM parts and have higher labor rates. 

Dealerships also tend to get very busy with other tasks, including preparing new cars for sale and performing recalls, so you may have a long wait to get your oil change.

Pros:

  • Special training on the makes they sell
  • ASE-certified technicians on staff to inspect your vehicle
  • ASE-certified technicians to supervise oil change technicians
  • OEM parts
  • One-stop-shop for maintenance and repairs

Cons:

  • Extremely long waits
  • Upsells can be significantly more expensive
  • Oil change pricing is often higher than a service centre

Get Your Oil Change With Confidence

With the myths of oil changes dispelled and the veil of mystery surrounding them lifted, you can now make your choice with confidence. Whether you decide to do it yourself or leave it to the professionals, you now know the basics of oil, what oil your vehicle needs, and what to watch out for. So, crack open that owner's manual, find out when your next oil change is due, and get the wheels of proper vehicle maintenance rolling.

When you purchase a used vehicle from Clutch, you can take a short break from changing oil. As a part of our reconditioning process, every Clutch vehicle gets an oil and filter change and other required maintenance to ensure it’s in top shape for you. On average, we put $1,000 in maintenance into every vehicle we sell so you can feel confident with your purchase.