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What Is Your Engine Oil Trying To Tell You?

December 9, 2020

What Is Your Engine Oil Trying To Tell You?

As I write, most of the leaves on the trees have fallen; so has the temperature. The sky is getting dark. In fact, it gets dark earlier and earlier every day, and that tells me something. It says that winter is coming close. The old year is reaching its end.

Could that be the case with your car’s oil? When you pull the dipstick from your engine and see the oil turning black, what does it mean? Is your oil going bad? Once the color of honey but now going dark, is it reaching its end?

Well, there is only one way to know for sure. Send a sample for an oil analysis.

Any pet owner can tell you of the frustration of knowing there is something wrong with their furry friend and their complete inability to interpret the out-of-character and non-verbal cues that Fido or Fluffy are sending. So what do they do? Head to the vet for a checkup. Maybe a lab test or two to determine what the problem might be.

There are a number of companies to which you can mail a few ounces of used motor oil, along with twenty to thirty dollars, and from which you will receive a chemical evaluation of the condition of your oil. During the oil analysis, chemists can identify a number of factors that reveal the life left in your motor oil. These factors include:

  • Oil viscosity (a measure of its ability to flow at a specific temperature)
  • The amount of acids that have accumulated
  • Presence of contaminants such as glycol (antifreeze), fuel, water, and particulates
  • Wear metals (abnormal concentrations of metal debris from certain engine components)
  • Nitration, oxidation, sulfation and other conditions
  • The condition of oil additives and the amount of life left in them

Similar to a blood test or other evaluation that a veterinarian might perform on a pet, an oil analysis can lend insight into what is going on not only with your oil, but the condition of your engine as well.

See, it is unlikely that you can glean much from simply looking at your oil. Just because it turns black does not mean it is bad. Dark-colored oil can certainly be bad, but not necessarily. Soot from the combustion process can turn oil black in short order, long before it has lost its ability to lubricate your engine. And a reasonable amount of soot, itself so fine in texture that it does not harm your engine, is normal. It just turns the oil black.

You might be able to detect the tell-tale signs of metal shavings gleaming in the light on your dipstick. That is not a good sign. It means that engine components are wearing away and leaving metal shavings in your oil. A certain amount of wear is normal, but you usually cannot see that on a dipstick. By the time you do, unless yours is a brand new engine and has not yet had its first oil change, it is probably a cause for concern.

You could try detecting the scent of antifreeze or gasoline in your oil. Neither of those conditions is a good one. Smell the dipstick. But once your nose is able to detect an odor, the problem is further along than it might have been had the oil been subjected to an analysis.

So, the color of the oil is not an indication of trouble. Engine wear is possible without you being able to see metal flakes in the oil. Even the smell of your oil is not altogether reliable. You just cannot tell if your oil is trustworthy or not by any senses you possess.

An oil analysis can give clues as to what is going on in an engine. People who get their oil analyzed do so for a few reasons. Besides engine condition, they want to know, for instance, how one oil brand might stack up against another in their engine. Or they wonder how much life is left in their oil. Some wonder how long they can really go in between oil changes.

While it is true that an oil analysis is intended for these very things, it is questionable as to whether they are worth the time and cost.

On the one hand, it may be helpful as part of the diagnosis of a problem to get a glimpse of what is going on inside your engine through the condition of the oil. But only a part. Regular inspections by a qualified technician and careful adherence to routine vehicle maintenance procedures are also important.

When it comes to comparing oil brands to one another, well, those kinds of comparisons need to be made across tightly controlled conditions such as are present in a lab. And they cannot be done once or twice. Besides, test results can change with driving conditions: the weather, amount of dust in the air, or the type of fuel you use. Trying to compare brand X to brand Y does not yield very useful results.

If you want, on the other hand, to determine how much life is left in your oil, maybe because you tend to skip an oil change once in a while or want to extend your oil changes, there are other methods that might be more useful.

As for the time between oil changes, if you think that you should be able to get more than three thousand miles between oil changes, you are probably right. Most auto manufacturers recommend somewhere between 5K and 7.5K miles for an oil and filter change. Some are even longer. Your best bet is to check your vehicle owner’s manual for the oil change interval recommended for your specific engine.

One way to extend the life of your oil is to use synthetic vs. conventional oil. Synthetic oil is made artificially in a lab and lasts longer – a lot longer. As much as 10K, 15K, or even 20K miles. Some vehicles use synthetic oil right from the factory. But those that don’t can go longer between oil changes if you switch to synthetic. You might want to check your factory warranty before you extend the time between oil change services.

Finally, if you want to make sure you are using high-quality motor oil, stick with premium oil brands, like Mobil 1 Full Synthetic motor oil.

Waiting for signs that your oil is getting old or that your engine is having trouble is probably not your best bet for maintaining your car. The only way to really determine those things is through an oil analysis. But unless you drive a race car driver, an engine builder, or are just generally curious, you really don’t need to spend the time or money. Just change your oil regularly with a quality motor oil and be confident that your engine is being protected.

Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash | Author: Mike Ales | Copyright

This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.

COLUMBIA AUTO CARE & CAR WASH
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Copyright

This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.