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How to read an oil dipstick

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The engine oil keeps your moving parts lubricated, reduces friction, cleans deposits from inside the crankcase, prevents corrosion on metal surfaces, and helps keep everything cool. It can only serve its roles effectively if there’s sufficient clean oil in the engine, though. Your dipstick is the device used to check the condition and level to determine if the oil needs to be changed or topped up.

Understanding how to check oil using the dipstick isn’t difficult, even if you’ve never worked under the hood of a car before. It’s an excellent skill to have, and it can save you time and money by keeping your car running at its best between services. Here’s how to read an oil dipstick and how to top off the oil.

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  1. Why you need to check oil
  2. How to read dipstick oil levels
    1. 1. Park on a level surface
    2. 2. Check the engine cold
    3. 3. Pull out and clean the dipstick
    4. 4. Fully insert the dipstick
    5. 5. Remove and read the dipstick

WHY YOU NEED TO CHECK OIL 

When you rub clean, new engine oil from a container between your fingers, it feels clean and slippery. That’s the basic premise for what it does inside the engine too – a slick liquid that keeps fast-moving metal parts separated with a lubricating film. But if you rub old, dark motor oil between your fingers, it feels gritty, and that’s not healthy for an engine.  

Engine oil’s condition needs to be checked to ensure it’s fine to be used for longer, but there are other reasons to check oil too:  

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  • All engines consume oil. There’s no such thing as a perfect seal in the cylinders, and all engines will burn a little oil. Normal amounts of oil consumption are determined by the carmaker, and some tolerate up to one quart per 3,000 miles or as much as a quart per 1,000 miles.  
  • There could be an oil leak. It’s possible for a leak to develop on your engine. Over time, the oil level can drop, and finding low oil levels can spur you to check for and discover the leak.  
  • It could be contaminated. If water finds its way into the engine, the oil will change from a translucent golden color to milky brown, and that moisture will promote corrosion in the crankcase. 

Ideally, you’d check your oil level and condition every time you fill your vehicle’s fuel tank. However, it’s more realistic to check oil dip sticks and top up the oil as required at least once per month. 

HOW TO READ DIPSTICK OIL LEVELS 

Using a dipstick is how to check oil in car engines. The technique to check the oil is the same no matter the type of engine or dipstick you have, but the indicators on the dipstick can and do differ between makes and models.  

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1. PARK ON A LEVEL SURFACE

To get an accurate reading, your car needs to be parked so it’s level from front to back and side to side. Otherwise, the slanted oil level could give a deceiving measurement, leading you to over- or under-filling it.

2. CHECK THE ENGINE COLD

The engine oil level should be checked at least 5 to 15 minutes after you’ve parked your car and shut the engine off. That way, the oil has a chance to drain into the oil pan for an accurate measurement.  

3. PULL OUT AND CLEAN THE DIPSTICK

With a clean lint-free towel or paper towel in hand, pull the dipstick out of the tube. Guide it out carefully, especially toward the end, or you could fling oil droplets onto yourself or around the engine bay. Wipe the oil off the dipstick with your towel.

4. FULLY INSERT THE DIPSTICK

Put the dipstick back into the tube, ensuring that it’s inserted fully. If it isn’t put in all the way, your reading will indicate lower than it actually is, and there’s a risk of overfilling the engine oil.

5. REMOVE AND READ THE DIPSTICK

Again, carefully remove the dipstick from its tube without touching the end. Support the dipstick halfway or so to stop it from bouncing around, making it hard to read and causing drips. Locate the indicators on the dipstick to determine your reading.

Indicators can vary. Some carmakers have an F and L stamped on the dipstick, representing Full and Low. Others have a crosshatched section, Max and Min stampings, or simply a hole marking the low and high marks, and yours could be different still. In any case, it will be well defined on the bottom few inches.

  • If the oil shows at or near the Full mark, your level is fine.
  • If it’s at or below the Low mark, you need to add engine oil.
  • If the oil level is between the marks, it’s still in a normal range, although you may still want to add a little oil for peace of mind.
  • If you can’t see any oil on the dipstick, there’s a concerning issue.

The color of the oil should be somewhere between honey brown and amber with a gas engine. If it’s darker, you’re due for an oil change

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