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How to Read an Oil Dipstick

Close-up of a hand removing an engine oil dipstick against a blurred background

It’s important to know how to read an oil dipstick in order to properly care for your car. Running out of oil can cause severe damage to your engine, and checking your oil takes only a few minutes. It’s worth taking the time to learn how to read an oil dipstick. Here’s what to do:

1. Park on Level Ground

When you cook, you always put liquid measuring cups on a level surface. Otherwise, the liquid inside sloshes sideways and gives a false reading. Think of the oil in your car the same way. If your car isn’t on level ground, then you’re not going to get an accurate measurement. Make sure you’re parked on a level surface for an accurate reading.

2. Locate the DipstickReading an engine oil dipstick

Turn off the engine and then pop the hood to access the oil dipstick. Check your owners manual if you need help finding the dipstick in your engine compartment. The usual recommendation is to check the oil only when the engine is cold, but it isn’t necessary on some newer cars. Once again, check your owners manual and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.

3. Remove the Dipstick

The engine oil dipstick is a long squiggly piece of metal with a loop on the top for you to grab. Pull the dipstick all the way out and have a rag or paper towel at the ready.

4. Wipe It Clean

You won’t get an accurate reading when you first pull out the dipstick because oil splashes around when you’re driving. Instead, use that rag or paper towel to wipe the dipstick clean from the handle to the tip. Now put it back, being sure to reinsert it all the way.

5. Take Your Oil Reading

Pull the dipstick out for the second time and take a close look. Down near the tip there are measurement lines that indicate the oil level from full to low. Sometimes there’s an F and an L; other times you may just see two small holes or a series of lines that mark these spots. They all indicate whether your oil is low or full.

Do You Need Oil?

It’s important not to overfill the oil in your car, so as long as the oil level is between the F and L indicators, you’re all set. If it’s very close to the L or below it, you’ll need to add oil to your car or risk running out.

Do You Need an Oil Change?

You’ll notice that fresh oil is a golden color and that it pours easily. As it moves through your engine, it gradually gets darker and thicker. It’s okay for the oil to look different than when it was new, but if it’s dark black, gritty or very sticky, then it’s time for an oil change.

Checking your car’s oil level is even easier than changing the oil. Save yourself from potential engine damage by making it a part of your regular maintenance checklist.

Check out all the engine oil products available on NAPA online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on engine oil, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.


Nicole Wakelin View All

Nicole Wakelin covers the automotive industry as a freelance journalist for a variety of outlets. Her work includes news pieces, podcasts, radio, written reviews, and video reviews. She can be found in The Boston Globe, CarGurus, BestRide, US News and World Report, and AAA along with lifestyle blogs like Be Car Chic, The Other PTA, and She Buys Cars. She is active on social media with a large following on both Twitter and Instagram and currently serves as Vice President of the New England Motor Press Association.

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