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A beginner’s guide to car engine oil

Oil is the lifeblood that keeps cars running, but unlike our bodies, which can purify blood and create all-new blood cells, a car requires its oil changing over regularly. Having insufficient oil levels in your engine or oil that has become degraded can result in damage and even destruction of vehicle engines, not to mention life-threatening accidents.

In the following sections, we’ll explore the basic of car engine oil and how to tell of it’s low or in need of a change.

What is engine oil and what does it do?

A thick fluid, engine oil lubricates and cools a car’s engine. The two main types of engine oil are synthetic and mineral oil. Synthetic oil is engineered in laboratories, while mineral oil comes from crude oil. There are also engine oils that combine both synthetic and mineral oils.

The primary role of engine oil is to lubricate an engine’s parts, while protecting them from wear. Without it, the friction would destroy the engine. The oil also helps cool parts of your engine that a vehicle’s coolant system is unable to reach. Finally, the oil helps clean the engine, cleverly removing all unwanted debris that can cause damage over time.

When should I change my oil?

With the wide variety of high-quality oil blends and high-spec oils engineered, cars can drive for far longer without an oil change, making no single interval suited to all engines. For the best results, always refer to your vehicle manufacturer’s recommendation, which you will usually find in the owner’s manual.

How can you tell if engine oil needs changing?

Fresh oil is typically dark to light gold in colour, depending on its viscosity; however, in time, it tends to darken. This is caused by heat and the debris it collects while it’s pumped through a car’s engine. Check your oil dipstick routinely and keep an eye on the oil’s colour. When the dipstick shows the oil has become dark, you’re due for a change.

Under normal circumstances, the exhaust fumes emitted from a petrol-powered car are almost invisible, but they will have a slight scent to them. If the smoke coming from your car has a blue tint, there’s an issue related to oil.

The blue smoke is a sign that oil is flowing into your engine and is being burned alongside the fuel. This may be a sign that your engine oil is low, or it could be that your car has an oil leak and is dripping onto the dedicated exhaust system.

How to know if engine oil is low

Drivers can find out if their engine oil is low by using their senses. They may hear noises, smell oil within their car or see a visual alert on their dashboard.

As the key role of the oil is to lubricate the moving parts in your car’s engine, when it gets low, you may hear these components grind together. Depending on how low your oil is, the noise will be louder or quieter. It might be a light tapping sound or a loud knocking noise. Either way, if you hear engine noise, it’s critical you check your oil and add some if necessary, ensuring your vehicle is safe to drive.

Smelling oil within a vehicle means that your car has an oil leak. Somewhere under your bonnet, the lubricant is dripping freely onto a hot area of the engine and is burning away. While minor leaks may be acceptable as long as they’re monitored by mechanics at change intervals, the smell of burning oil in your car’s interior is serious. The leak must be immediately repaired, as it can lead to engine damage or even cause a car fire, should the leaked oil ignite.

Vehicle dashboards house numerous key warning lights to alert drivers to certain issues involving their battery and engine. There is also a dedicated check light for oil. It can easily be identified as a red light that looks like a dripping oil can. When lit, it’s informing you of a need to check out your oil levels.

If you’re on the road when it illuminates, pull over when it’s safe to do so and switch off your car’s engine. The light typically means that you don’t have enough oil in your engine, but it can also be a sign of mechanical faults and units in need of replacement.

What to do if engine oil is low?

If your vehicle’s engine oil low, you’ll need to top your supply off with some fresh oil. After you’ve successfully added the oil, make sure to crank your engine and ensure the dashboard light goes out. If the light goes off, get your oil changed over as soon as possible and get a qualified mechanic to check your car for leaks that could have been the cause of the low oil issue.

If the warning light remains illuminated, it’s advised to contact some expert roadside aid, as the light indicates your engine doesn’t have sufficient oil pressure. This is typically the result of a failed or faulty oil pump. While some engine types are able to operate effectively despite exceptionally low oil pressure, the majority can’t, causing them to sustain considerable damage.

To be safe, it’s better to err on the side of caution and arrange to have your vehicle towed.

What engine oil should I use for my car?

To find the right oil for your car, you should either consult your owner’s manual or the engine cap of your car. There, you’ll find the particular weight of oil that your engine has been designed to operate most effectively. It may be listed as 5W30, 5W20 or 0W20.

Some heavier-weight oils, such as 20W50, 10W40 and 10W30, are still used in certain vehicles, but they are quite rare today.

Using the correct oil specified by your car’s manufacturer is essential for two reasons – firstly, it will offer you optimum fuel economy, and secondly, it will avoid your engine incurring damage over time.

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