What Is an Oil Change? What to Know

Updated: Jul. 14, 2023

Think it might be time to give your vehicle an oil change, but aren't sure where to start? Learn all about changing engine oil and why it's important.

Although there are various oils and fluids in modern vehicles, most people who talk about an oil change are referring specifically to engine oil. Designed to lubricate and cool fast-moving engine parts such as pistons, bearings, valves and cylinder walls, engine oil is vital to a vehicle’s ability to run.

If a car ever springs a serious oil leak while driving and all the oil is lost, the entire engine would be ruined in a few minutes. Like most fluids in a vehicle, engine oil needs to be changed periodically to keep the vehicle running optimally. Engine oil loses its lubricating properties because it gets dirty and starts to break down chemically after time and exposure to heat. Learn all about oil changes, what they cost and when to do them.

What Is an Oil Change?

An oil change is the process of draining old, used engine oil from a vehicle into a pan, and then replacing it with fresh, clean oil and a fresh oil filter.

Like most lubricating and cooling fluids that help vehicles run, engine oil eventually needs to be changed. Particles of metal and debris from engine parts gradually darken and thicken the oil, decreasing its effectiveness. Small, replaceable parts called oil filters are designed to remove this debris, but they have a limited lifespan. When you’re changing your oil, it’s best to change the filter, too. Do electric cars need oil changes?

How Often to Do an Oil Change

Oil and vehicle manufactures vary in their advice on oil- and filter-change frequency, but changing both every six months or every 5,000 to 7,000 miles of driving (whichever comes first) is a good rule of thumb. This frequency strikes a good balance between maximizing oil life and minimizing engine wear from driving with dirty oil.

Oil Change Options and Costs

Change Your Own Oil

Even if you’re only minimally handy, changing your own oil is probably well within your abilities. Plan to spend $25 to $75 for five quarts of engine oil of the right grade, depending on climate and manufacturer specifications (synthetic oil typically costs more), and around $10 for a new oil filter of the right type for your vehicle. Refer to your owner’s manual to determine the right model of filter.

Buying two one-gallon jugs of oil is probably more than you need, especially if you drive a smaller vehicle. But it’s good to have on hand for future oil changes or in case you need to top off your engine oil between changes. To change your oil, you’ll also need a funnel, drain pan, and a socket wrench of the right size to loosen the drain plug bolt in your oil drain pan. Another option is opting for an oil extractor pump.

If you do change your own oil, be sure to dispose of the oil safely and responsibly. There will likely be several places to recycle old oil, depending on where you live. Letting it leak into your driveway or garage or dumping it in the trash bin can lead to serious environmental damage.

Oil Change Service

Most mechanics don’t charge a whole lot more to change your oil and filter than you’d pay yourself for the supplies. You can expect to pay anywhere from $40 to $70 for the new oil, filter and the mechanic’s time. Costs vary based on your vehicle’s size, because a bigger engine means more oil.

The cost of having someone change your oil isn’t the biggest reason to do the job yourself. Time saved traveling to and from the auto shop¬†and inconvenience avoided are the reasons I never go to the shop for something as fast and simple as an oil change.

Does Costco Do Oil Changes?

While most of Costco’s locations offer tires and other vehicle repair and maintenance services, the big box warehouse club no longer does oil changes. ¬†However, there are a fair number of other retail centers that do offer the service, where you can get some shopping done while you wait for an oil change.

What Happens if You Don’t Change Your Oil?

If you go long enough without changing the oil in your vehicle, it could eventually lead to complete engine failure. Over time the engine oil gets too dirty to be effective, while getting thicker and more abrasive. That can cause engine parts like the pistons and gaskets to wear out. In the short term, it can cause your car to overheat as the old oil isn’t able to effectively lubricate the engine.

It’s not something you want to take for granted, not if you want to keep your car running for as long as possible.