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What Does an Oil Change Do?

An oil dipstick in the engine bay of a car.

What does an oil change do, and why is it important to get one as a part of routine maintenance? Something as simple as an oil change might not seem critical to keeping your car running, but neglecting your oil can cause big problems. Here’s why you need to make sure you get an oil change at the manufacturer’s recommended intervals.

What Does an Oil Change Do?Oil Cap

There’s a difference between adding oil and changing oil. If you check the dipstick and the oil level is low (most cars will start to burn a little oil as they age), then adding oil is a quick way to fix the problem and get back on the road.

Changing the oil, on the other hand, requires draining the engine of all the existing oil and replacing it entirely with fresh oil. You also get a new oil filter, which helps to keep the fresh oil clean by collecting dirt and debris that the oil captures on its way through your car’s engine. Oil needs to be changed when it gets too dirty to accomplish its mission of keeping the engine components moving smoothly.

Oil is Key to Lubrication

The primary function of engine oil is keeping the metal parts of your engine lubricated to prevent any metal-on-metal contact, which can cause engine damage that isn’t cheap to fix. A thin layer of oil on key components keeps them sliding smoothly and reduces friction that would otherwise harm the engine over time. Reducing friction also reduces heat buildup, which can also be a problem for your engine.

Oil Keeps it Clean

If you look at the contents of a fresh bottle of oil, you’ll notice that it’s more of a golden amber color compared to the brown or black oil on your dipstick. That’s because it’s clean. As oil moves through your engine, it carries away dirt and grime that gradually turns the oil dark. Dark, dirty oil will not do a good job of lubricating or cleaning your engine.

What Happens if You Don’t Change Your Oil

You should change your oil at the manufacturer’s recommended intervals to ensure that your engine remains clean and running smoothly. People who drive in particularly dirty or dusty environments should change their oil (not to mention their air filters) more frequently.

If you see the oil change light illuminate on your dashboard, is it really a big deal? If all of your warning systems are working correctly, your car likely isn’t in immediate danger of being damaged, but the light coming on is definitely not something to ignore. If it’s on, your oil needs attention. It may just be low and need to be topped off, but if it’s time for an oil change, be sure to make an appointment at a local service station within the next few days.

Remember, fresh oil is great at keeping your engine clean and lubricated. The dirtier it gets, the less effective it becomes, and the chance of damaging or wearing your engine increases as well. Make time for an oil change now so you’re not faced with expensive and time-consuming repairs later.

Check out all the oils, chemicals and fluids available on NAPA Online, or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information about how oil changes, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photo courtesy 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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