CARS.COM — We'll pull no punches in saying it: Engine oil is a crucial thing to keep tabs on from a maintenance perspective. That means you should check your vehicle's engine oil at least once a month and preferably more often. If your engine is burning oil or losing it through a slow leak, you'll want to know this ASAP so you can inspect the issue and address the issue promptly.
It only takes a few minutes to check your car's oil level, though an accurate reading of the dipstick requires that the engine be turned off at least five minutes to give the oil that was being pumped around the engine time to drain back into the oil pan under the engine. You should also make sure your car is sitting on level ground, and that you only check the oil level on the dipstick after you wipe it clean with a rag and dip it a second time into the oil pan. A good approach is to check your oil on a regular schedule that includes checking the air pressure in your tires and other fluid levels.
You should be more concerned about the oil level on the dipstick than the appearance of the oil. An engine that burns a lot of oil may have worn valves, piston rings or other parts that need replacing. Even if you haven't noticed puddles of oil under your vehicle, you could have an oil leak. In either case, a low oil level could ultimately mean there isn't enough to lubricate all engine parts that need it, increasing wear and tear. In addition, oil circulating around the engine helps cool moving parts, so not having enough can make an engine run hotter.
It is much better to detect a low oil level sooner than later because the longer the condition exists, the greater the chances expensive car repairs will be needed. Let the oil level get low enough and moving engine parts can get so hot they fuse together.
Oil is amber-colored when it's fresh and quickly gets darker and eventually turns black. Though that can be an indication that it's time for an oil change for your vehicle, you should use time and distance as your main guidelines for maintenance. Follow the car manufacturer's recommended intervals, located in your owner's manual, for changing the oil and oil filter, but do it at least once a year no matter how many miles you drive.
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