Welcome to the newest installment of my DIY car maintenance series. This week is Part 2 of my overview on changing your car’s oil and we’ll be looking at the specific steps you need to take to do the oil change. If you want a detailed look at the tools and supplies needed for an oil change, please check out Part 1.
Just to remind everyone, I am not a mechanic. Far from it, and that’s actually the reason I started this series. I was tired of not knowing what was going on with my car and having to pay someone for every little thing it needed, so I decided to start learning some basic car maintenance. My plan is to start with some of the smaller things and work my way up, with the ultimate goal of learning how to take better car of my car at a lower cost.
An oil change is a relatively simple process that I think anyone can handle. What follows is a step-by-step explanation of the oil change process for my wife’s 2004 Scion xA, much of which will be applicable to any vehicle.
Search online for instructions
I had never done an oil change before, so I went to my favorite source for this kind of information: the internet. Since today I was working on my wife’s 2004 Scion xA, I googled “how to change oil 2004 scion xa” and filtered through the search results until I found a couple of helpful sites. I would recommend finding at least one video showing you the process for your specific car so that you have a good visual. I would also try to find some good written instructions that you can print out and keep with you while you’re doing it. For our the Scion xA, I found this video and these step-by-step written instructions to be helpful.
Tools and supplies needed for an oil change
I went over this in detail in Part 1, but here’s a quick list of the tools and supplies you’ll need to do an oil change. Keep in mind that each vehicle may have slightly different needs, so you should find directions for your specific car before proceeding.
- Car ramps
- Oil drain
- Metric wrench (I already had one as part of this tool set linked here, but you can buy just this tool alone as well)
- Oil filter wrench
- Oil (the grade and amount will vary by vehicle)
- Oil filter (the type you need will vary by vehicle)
- Oil pan bolt gasket (technically not a need, but better safe than sorry)
Step-by-step oil change instructions
Although some of the details will absolutely vary from car to car, the overall steps involved in an oil change are pretty generic. My goal here is to give you the high-level step-by-step process that should apply to most vehicles. But again, I am not a mechanic and I do not know the specifics of your car. So please, take this as a general guide to use alongside more detailed instructions tailored to your own vehicle.
Step 1: Drive your car up onto the ramps, or lift the front up onto jack stands. If you’re using ramps, make sure your tires are centered on the flat part of the ramp. Turn off the car and engage the emergency brake. Feel free to put something behind the rear tires as well if you’re worried about the brakes failing.
Step 2: Find the oil pan and the oil pan bolt. For our 2004 Scion xA, this was in the front of the car on the passenger’s side. Position your oil drain under the bolt, ready to catch the oil that will start pouring out as soon as you remove the bolt. Using your metric wrench, unscrew the oil pan bolt. This part was pretty difficult for me and took some real force to get it unscrewed. Once you’ve got it loosened, unscrew it the rest of the way by hand to make sure it doesn’t fall into your oil drain. Oil will be pouring onto your hands while you do this, so you’ll definitely want some gloves.
Step 3: Pop the hood of your car and open the oil cap. This is where you will eventually be pouring the new oil in, and you can figure out where this is using your owner’s manual. For right now, you just want to loosen the cap and leave it resting on top, open enough to let air flow in but not open enough for anything to fall in.
At this point, you need to let the oil drain for a good 30 minutes or more. You want to make sure it’s fully done draining before you seal it back up.
Step 4: Once the oil is fully drained, wipe off the oil pan with a rag and replace the oil pan bolt. This will either be with a new bolt and gasket, as I bought, or with the old bolt you’ve cleaned off along with a new gasket. Either way is fine.
**Update: Grayson reminded me that their are specifications for how tight the bolt should be. Generally you only want to tighten it an extra 1/4 to 1/2 of a turn past where you can get it with your hand. Otherwise you could end up damaging either the oil pan or the bolt.
Step 5: Locate your oil filter. Again you can use your owner’s manual for this. Mine was right in the front-center of the car. You want to move your oil drain under the filter (more oil will be pouring out soon, so put some gloves back on) and use your oil filter wrench to loosen the filter. One you get it loose, oil will start dripping out and you can unscrew it the rest of the way by hand.
Step 6: Once the oil is done draining, clean the area with a rag. Then you can take your new oil filter, apply some of your new oil to the gasket on the top, and screw it in place. Do it by hand until it’s tight, and then just another 1/2 to 3/4 of a turn with the wrench. Apparently you don’t want to it be too tight or you can damage it.
Step 7: Do another cleaning around the filter and oil pan bolt if needed. You need them to be clean so you can check for leaks later.
Step 8: Now you can add the new oil to the car. Back up under the front hood, take off the oil cap and put in your funnel. Again, find out how much oil your specific car needs, as each car will be different. Our Scion xA needs 3.9 quarts, so I put just over 3 quarts of oil in, ran the car for a few minutes, turned it off and let it sit for a few minutes, and then used the dipstick to measure the oil level. From what I read, you’d rather leave it a little below full than overfill it, so it’s best to do this slowly and cautiously. I repeated this process a couple of times until I had it filled to a proper level.
Step 9: Once you’ve got the new oil in and the oil cap screwed back in, you’ll want to back the car off the ramps and drive it around for a few miles. Pay attention to how things feel and take note of anything that doesn’t seem right. When you get back, put the car back up on the ramps and check for leaks around the oil pan bolt and the oil filter. Assuming everything’s fine, back the car off the ramps onto a level surface and let it sit for a few minutes. Then, check the oil level with your dipstick one last time, and hopefully you’re good to go!
Step 10: Especially is this is your first time, I would check for leaks one more time after you’ve driven the car around for another day or so. Better safe than sorry!
Step 11: Find somewhere where you can recycle the old motor oil. You may have a landfill nearby who will take it, or maybe your city has a recycling program in place. Many auto parts stores will also take your old oil. You can use this site to find a recycling location near you: Motor Oil Recycling.
My thoughts on the experience
The entire process took me about 2 hours from beginning to end. That included some extra time to figure out where things were for the first time, to read over instructions and to take pictures so I could share them here. It also included the 30 minutes spent just waiting for the oil to drain. My guess is that I could easily cut this down to an hour or so, with half of that available to do something else while waiting. That’s easily less time than it used to take me to take the car to my mechanic, wait for them to do the oil change, pay and get back home. So from a time perspective, I think that with practice this will be a net savings.
As I detailed in Part 1, I didn’t really save any money this first time. The cost came out to right around $42, which is just about exactly what I would have paid my mechanic or one of the quick oil change shops. My hope is that I can find some of the supplies at a lower cost next time, but even without that I think it’s something I’ll continue to do. The time savings matters to me, as does my overall goal with all of this which is getting in better touch with the health of my car. I’m very much of the belief that doing this kind of work will help me recognize and fix problems earlier and will allow me to keep my car running better for longer. If I can do that, I will absolutely save money in the long-term and pick up some valuable skills along the way.
Full disclosure: Some of the links to products within this post are affiliate links and will earn me money if you purchase the product. As always, I only include affiliate links for products I actually use and have proven helpful for me personally.