You have probably heard this before: The best way to get the most miles out of a car is with regular oil changes. It’s true. Motor oil breaks down over time and accumulates carbon, acid, water vapor, microscopic metal shavings and other contaminants just from normal running conditions.
But with busy lives and schedules, you might wonder, “How long does an oil change take?” Read on to find out.
How long does an oil change take?
For a car or truck with an easy-to-access oil pan, drain plug and filter, you should be done in about 45 minutes if the work is done by a professional shop. If it’s more of a challenge to get to the oil filter and drain plug—and if you’re getting the job done at someplace other than an oil change shop—you might be there for a couple of hours.
What determines how long an oil change takes?
There are quite a few factors when you look at how long an oil change should take. We’re going to quickly touch on a few of them.
Type of shop
Actual oil change shops have the advantage. They’re structured and set up to almost exclusively do oil changes, with an emphasis on workflow and getting customers out and on their way. They also usually do a quick check of tire pressure, air filter, cabin filter, headlights, taillights and fluids and make any necessary recommendations.
Going to a dealership or repair shop, on the other hand, can take longer, depending on the shop. If there are a bunch of cars lined up in front of yours, you can easily end up spending a good part of the afternoon there.
Usually, the drain plug and oil pan are pretty easy to get to. The oil filter, on the other hand, might have a frame crossmember, a fluid or cooling line or other obstructions that make the part more difficult to access, especially if the tech has to use a filter wrench to get the filter off. Some exotic cars and high-end sports cars and SUVs have a reputation for these design quirks.
A four-cylinder or V6 engine typically holds five quarts of oil, as do many V8s. Engines like the Cummins diesel or Ford Power Stroke diesel have bigger crankcases that hold more oil—sometimes as much as 12 to 15 quarts—so it just stands to reason that the oil is going to take longer to drain and refill. Needless to say, that oil change is going to be pricier as well.
Sometimes a shop might find a maintenance issue or unaddressed damage on your vehicle, both of which can result in a longer oil change. This doesn’t happen very frequently, though—and chances are it’ll be something you already were aware of, anyway. This is an instance where taking the vehicle to a shop might be better than a quick-lube place, because a qualified mechanic can spot rust, worn parts, leaks, damage and other issues that might get past an oil change technician.
Back in the 5,000-mile oil change days, it was also pretty common to perform a tire rotation along with the oil change job, because 5,000 miles is the typical interval for rotations and the vehicle is already off the ground on a lift rack. If you’re still doing a 5,000-mile oil change, that’s something to keep in mind. Otherwise, you’ll want to make a separate appointment for rotations at that mileage.
What happens in an oil change?
Oil changes are one of the few maintenance tasks that hasn’t changed with increased vehicular computerization. Just about every oil change is going to follow the same steps:
- Remove the drain plug at the rear of the oil pan and let all the dirty oil drain out. It’s best if the oil is at least warm, so any contaminants will be circulated through the oil and not just sitting at the bottom of the pan. Draining the very last of the oil can take as long as 10 minutes.
- Remove the oil filter and let the oil around its filter mounting socket drain.
- Pour fresh oil into the new filter so it’ll be primed with oil when the engine starts again.
- Replace the oil pan drain plug and crush washer, if so equipped.
- Using your finger, put a thin layer of fresh oil on the oil filter’s rubber gasket.
- Spin the new oil filter onto its mounting socket. Tighten the filter as tight as possible by hand, then back it off about one-quarter to a half-turn. This is important because a too-tight filter will deform the soft, thick rubber gasket and allow oil to leak out.
- Refill the remaining oil through the oil filler cap on the top of the engine. Part of it—usually about a halfquart—has already been added into the filter.
- Start the engine, let it idle and check for leaks.
How often should I change my oil?
For years, drivers were told to do an oil change at 3,000-mile intervals. That has not been necessary for some time. Even before the advent of synthetic oil, motor oils were enhanced with packages of detergents, friction modifiers and other additives that could extend oil life to about 7,000 miles.
Synthetic oil has changed recommendations yet again. It is designed for longer service life without breaking down, and some automakers are calling for a 10,000-mile interval for oil changes with synthetic. Really, though, your oil changes should be done on the manufacturer’s recommendations, so check your owner’s manual first. This is especially true if your vehicle is still under warranty.
Some vehicles might qualify for “severe usage” and more frequent oil changes. Severe usages can include:
- Frequent trips of 10 miles or less, where the engine never has a chance to totally warm up
- Lots of idling
- Lots of stop-and-start city traffic (think Uber drivers)
- Towing or hauling heavy loads
If you think your driving needs might qualify as severe usage, consult your mechanic for the right oil change interval.
There’s probably not any real harm in changing motor oil more often than necessary, other than spending extra money and subjecting the engine to a dry start more often than necessary.
When enough sludgy junk builds up, the oil loses its lubricity and can no longer do a good job of cooling and lubricating moving parts. If left too long, sludge and carbon can start building up on valves, piston crowns and rotating assemblies, which will shorten the engine’s life. Some engines are notorious for having small internal passages that can clog with sludge and cause oil starvation, seizing the engine. Short answer: Don’t neglect your oil changes.
What kind of oil do I need?
Go by the manufacturer’s recommendations and the owner’s manual. Newer vehicles are designed with much closer tolerances for internal engine parts, and engineers try to cut friction and boost efficiency whenever possible. Lots of newer engines require lighter-viscosity oil, and pretty much all of them require (or at least strongly recommend) synthetic oil over conventional.
What’s the difference between synthetic and conventional?
Conventional motor oil is a classic fossil fuel—it’s the stuff sucked up from deep underground, refined and tweaked with detergents, friction modifiers and other additives to make it function better as a high-temp lubricant. Synthetic motor oil was actually first developed during World War II, when raw materials and resources were at a premium.
Synthetic oils are composed of chemical compounds developed and blended in laboratories. Even the most heavily refined conventional oils will have traces of paraffins and other impurities, none of which are found in synthetic oil. Synthetic oil is also more eco-friendly by not depleting existing oil supplies or leaving behind a nasty disposal problem at the end of its service life.
Synthetic oil has its advantages:
- Longer service life
- Better protection
- Better stability at the molecular level
- More stable at high or low temperatures—it won’t thin out when very hot and won’t thicken in extreme cold, so it can get to upper engine assemblies quicker at startup
Best of all, synthetic oil has considerably come down in price and is now only a bit more expensive than conventional oil. Many mechanics swear by synthetic oil, even in an old, clapped-out, high-mileage engine.
Can I save time by changing my own oil?
Some people still like to do their own automotive maintenance, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re one of them, you can certainly get your vehicle up on ramps or jack stands in your garage and change your own oil and filter. Just remember, you might not save yourself much time by doing that and then you’re stuck with five quarts of nasty, dirty, smelly, used motor oil that will have to be disposed of safely.
And of course, those five quarts can soon turn into 10 quarts with the next oil change. At that point, it’s really a judgment call as to whether you want to DIY or pay to have a shop do the job.