Blog Car Care Advice How to Read Oil Level on Dipstick (+ Other Oil Checks)
Car Care Advice

How to Read Oil Level on Dipstick (+ Other Oil Checks)

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Whether you’re a car enthusiast or just looking to keep your ride running smoothly, learning to read what your dipstick says is an invaluable skill. 

It gives you a window into the well-being of your engine and ensures your vehicle stays in top condition. 

But how do you read the oil level on a dipstick?

We’ll walk you through the steps for reading an engine oil dipstick and what you can do if the oil level isn’t optimum. You’ll also learn how often you should check your car’s engine oil level, how to extend your oil’s life, and more.

This Article Contains:

Let’s get going.

How to Read Oil Level on Dipstick: A Step-by-Step Guide

A dipstick is a long, thin metal component housed inside a tube in the engine block. The dipstick tube runs through the crankcase into the oil pan or oil reservoir and holds the dipstick partly submerged in engine oil. This allows the motor oil to cover a part of the dipstick’s surface according to current oil levels

Here are the steps to perform an oil check using the dipstick:

  1. Park the vehicle on a level surface. Being on level ground will allow a more accurate dipstick reading.
  1. Wait at least 5 minutes for the oil to settle and the engine to cool if you’ve been driving around.
    Note: You can look up the owner’s manual to see if the manufacturer recommends checking the oil level on a warm or cold engine.
  1. Open the hood of your car.
  1. Locate the oil dipstick in the engine bay. Some vehicles have it in the front of the engine bay, while others have it near the valve cover. You can consult the owner’s manual for it.
  1. Pull out the dipstick from its tube and wipe it using a clean rag or a thick paper towel.
  1. Slowly insert the dipstick back completely into its tube and pull it out once again.
  1. Note the hash mark or hole near the lower end of the dipstick. Some may have “add” and “safe,” “L,” and “H,” or “max” and “min” oil symbols on them in addition to the markings.

Here’s what these markings mean: 

Tip: If you find the engine oil dipstick hard to read, try rubbing it with fine-grit sandpaper. This can help the dipstick pick up oil more easily. Remember to wipe the dipstick with a clean rag before inserting it back into the dipstick tube.

Now that you’ve read the oil level, let’s get it in the right range.

How to Maintain the Right Engine Oil Quality and Level

The motor oil level indicated by your dipstick should be in the optimum range, as both low and high oil levels point to a problem with the engine.

In addition to the oil level, consider checking its color and viscosity

Here’s what you can do to maintain your motor oil:

A. Oil Quality

Fresh oil is golden and translucent but will darken over time as it circulates through the engine. Oil degradation and contamination cause it to get thicker. 

If the oil has a thick consistency and a black or dark brown color, you’ll need an oil change soon.

Thicker oil is harder to pump, leading to increased friction and poor fuel economy. Oil with very low or high viscosity also causes low oil pressure, triggering the oil pressure warning light (the dashboard oil symbol). 

B. Low Oil Level

If your oil level is close to the lower mark, your first step should be to top it up to a safe level before heading to a mechanic for an oil change. Driving a car with a low oil level may cause engine damage.

Note: Topping up aged engine oil will contaminate the new oil and shouldn’t be taken as a substitute for an oil change. 

Low motor oil level can result from worn piston rings and leaks in your vehicle’s engine (e.g. an oil leak from the drain plug.) There’s also some inherent oil consumption by engines, but it shouldn’t be more than a quart for every 2000 miles (for a car that has done less than 50,000 miles.) A 4-cylinder engine generally holds about 5 quarts of oil. 

However, aged engines tend to burn motor oil faster, accelerating oil consumption.

Does being a quart low on oil impact your car’s performance?
If you’re in typical driving conditions, being a quart low may not affect your car’s performance much. However, oil plays a critical role in keeping your engine running smoothly. 

For example, it helps cool vital engine components like the bearings and protects parts like the crankcase from sludge, dirt, and other contaminants. So maintaining the correct oil level is essential for your car’s health and optimal performance.   

Here’s how to add oil to get it above the lower mark:

Ultimately, the amount of oil you need to add depends on your car’s age, engine type, total mileage, and driving conditions. If you think you’re losing oil faster than you should or spot an oil leak, get an auto repair shop to diagnose and fix the cause.

C. High Oil Level

If the level indicated by the oil dipstick goes beyond the upper mark, there could be multiple factors at play.

Motor oil levels can rise due to water condensation inside the crankcase. This usually happens when the vehicle is driven only for short distances daily, and the engine remains relatively cooler. 

One way to check this is to put a drop of oil from the dipstick on the exhaust manifold —  if it crackles, you’ll likely have water in your oil. However, you need to be careful as the drop of oil could also catch fire. 

Engine oil levels can also increase due to fuel or coolant leakages. Here are some signs you should look for: 

Any sign of moisture and a suspected fuel or coolant leak in your car’s engine oil calls for a mechanic ASAP, as contamination of the motor oil can negatively impact its lubricating quality.

And if you mistakenly overfilled your car’s oil, you can drain the excess oil through the oil pan drain plug to achieve the correct level.

Let’s also discuss how often to perform an oil level check on your car.

How Often Should You Check the Engine Oil Level?

You should check your car’s oil level every 1000 miles or after every few weeks. Always perform an oil check before going on a long trip.

Some modern cars can tell you when your oil tank needs attention, but you shouldn’t wait for that oil symbol to appear on the dashboard. You should also stick to the manufacturer-specified engine oil change interval — which can range from every 1,000 miles to 10,000 miles.

That said, there are certain steps you can take at your end to maximize your motor oil’s life. 

How to Prolong the Life of Your Engine Oil?

Here are some tips to ensure your motor oil remains effective for a long period:

As automobiles have gotten more advanced with time, so have motor oils.
Let’s explore the available options.

What Are the Different Types of Motor Oils?

There are four categories of engine oils

1. Conventional oils: These are produced from refined petroleum and are generally more cost-effective than synthetic oil.

2. Synthetic oils: These are produced from artificial chemical compounds derived from petroleum products. Synthetic oil performs better in:

It produces lower amounts of engine sludge, is more resistant to oxidation, better protects the engine from corrosion, and lasts longer than conventional oils.

3. Synthetic-blend oils: These are prepared using conventional and synthetic base oils. Synthetic blend oils offer similar properties to fully synthetic oils at a relatively economical price.

4. High-mileage oil: High-mileage oils are recommended for vehicles clocking over 75,000 miles. These contain additives that help reduce leaks from seals, gaskets, and o-rings in older engines. They also contain detergents that help remove engine sludge.

Motor oils are further categorized into grades depending on their viscosity at a cold start and at the engine’s operating temperature, e.g., 5W-30, 10W-40, etc.

Simplify Oil Changes with AutoNation Mobile Service

Periodically checking the engine oil level using the dipstick can help you avoid engine damage. It’s best to include this in your arsenal of DIY car maintenance activities.

And, if the test points to bad oil quality or a problematic oil level, get professional assistance from AutoNation Mobile Service
We’re a mobile auto repair service company that you can reach out to for an oil change, engine inspection, and other automotive repairs right in your driveway.