The line at the quick-lube goes around the building and nearly to the street. But the auto parts store parking lot is empty--now's your chance to show the wife that it really is cheaper and easier to change your own oil. Especially after watching the grease-stained quick-lube mechanic through the bay doors for a couple of oil changes. Air wrenches on the oil-drain plug? Even though you realize that cars have changed since you got out of the habit of changing your own, they haven't changed that much.
Jack It Up
Jacking up the front of the car and putting it on safety stands is still the first step, and placing the drain pan under the oil-drain plug is the second. Okay, you're ready to loosen the plug, but it's really tight. That mechanic with his air wrench apparently was the last one to tighten it. Drain plugs typically have a soft metal washer or a sealing washer with a rubber insert. Use a properly fitting box wrench or a 6-point socket wrench to remove the plug. Be careful not to rock the socket to the side as this could damage the flats on the bolt.
If putting the car up on stands doesn't leave you enough underbody space to get adequate leverage, you can use a 4-way lug wrench provided it has the proper end. This will allow you to twist the bolt without adding any side thrust, and you'll be able to use both hands and all of your upper-body strength. Remain calm, have patience and you'll get it loose.
But of course, life isn't easy. The threads in the pan and on the plug are damaged, perhaps from partial cross-threading. What to do now? Forget the drain plug and get a repair kit. A typical kit has a replacement fitting that cuts deeper threads, and when tightened, it seals against a washer and remains in place. Some kits cut fresh, deeper threads for a new plug. A hexhead brass cap with an O-ring seal threads onto the end. When it's time to change the oil, you unthread the cap. Others (for odd-size, severely damaged holes) are fat, cone-shaped synthetic rubber plugs larger than the drain-plug hole. You force a special rod into an opening in the cone, which temporarily stretches it and reduces its diameter, allowing it to fit in the hole. Withdraw the rod, and the cone relaxes and seals the hole--the cone won't come out until you force in that rod to stretch it.
If the drain plug looks marginal, consider installing a Fram oil-drain valve kit. These are available for the most common types of drain-plug holes. Thread a spring-loaded valve assembly with a copper washer into the hole and tighten. The valve is the primary oil seal, and a knurled cap threads on fingertight against an O-ring--this keeps out dirt.
When it's time to drain oil, unthread the cap and thread on a fitting with a drain hose, which you can aim right into the pan (no splatter and no hot oil running down your arm). The hose fitting has an internal tip that pushes open the spring-loaded valve, and the oil drains out. When the pan is drained, unthread the hose fitting (the valve springs shut), reinstall the fingertight cap and you're good to go (after changing the filter and putting fresh oil in the engine, of course). If the drain plug is okay and you want to reuse it, replace the washer and then tighten the plug to specifications--20 ft.-lb. to perhaps 35 ft.-lb.--depending on the size of the plug.
Empty the drained oil into a suitable container. (In my area, the county gives away flat jugs with a giant built-in funnel.) When the jug is full, take the oil to the store where you bought the new oil to be emptied into an oil-recycling tank. Many states require service stations to take small quantities of old oil. Dumping oil in that low spot behind the shed or into the sink is not acceptable--and probably is illegal where you live.
A simple band wrench may be all that's necessary to remove a canister filter. Make sure you have enough room to swing the wrench.
A spider-style wrench may be more suitable for filters that are not easily accessible.
Remove The Filter
When removing an oil filter, what you need more than anything is the appropriate wrench. There are many sizes, and perhaps the most common answer is the cap wrench, which fits on the end of the filter. Only problem: The wrench fits against a fluted pattern and there are countless fluted patterns. So not only do you need the right size, but the right internal shape to fit the flutes. The one that fits the filter on your car now, we should warn you, may not fit the replacement filter you buy.
Sometimes the end of a filter has a hexnut in the center, so you could use a conventional wrench. If you can't find the right size and shape cap wrench, try one of the following:
• Nylon band wrench. This universal tool wraps a band around the filter tightly.
• Coil-spring wrench. It fits over the end of the conventional spin-on filter, and the band coil extends to near the filter's base. Turn the end with a wrench and the coils tighten around the entire filter. This prevents damage and separation from the base.
• Spring-band wrench. This wrench fits over the end of the filter and extends just past the flutes, so it grips the full circle of the filter body.
• A "spider" has three fluted legs that clamp against the spin-on cartridge and "dig in," preventing slippage. It has an end plate for a ratchet, and because the spider legs extend 2-1/2 in., they grip well past the outer end of the filter. This design provides well-distributed gripping power.
It is possible to loosen a badly stuck filter with a good filter wrench. How about driving a big screwdriver through the spin-on cartridge and using that to loosen a stuck filter? You're more likely to destroy the cartridge and still not loosen the filter.
Have the drain pan in place, sitting on a spread of newspapers or an oil-absorbent pad--just in case. Once the filter is loosened, oil may start flowing to the ground.
Unthread the filter and carefully empty it into the drain pan.
Refill the Oil
Apply a film of clean engine oil to the gasket of the new filter, then thread the filter on by hand. Some filters have a rubberized surface to make it easy to turn. Every reputable oil filter is designed to seal for tens of thousands of miles with no more than a good hand-tightening. You don't need a wrench unless you have one of those deeply recessed filters with no space around it for your hands. (If that's the case, the only choice is a cap wrench.) Turn the filter until you feel the filter base just make with its mounting plate. Then use the wrench to tighten a half-turn more.
If you haven't bought engine oil in a while, you may be confused by the choices. For a little friendly advice, see "What's That Starburst?" below.
This filter has a rubberized area to provide for tightening by hand.
This simple rubber plug can rescue a stripped-out oil-drain-plug hole. Insert the rod to install and remove it.
What's That Starburst?
You should see two labels on a container of oil. One is a "starburst" with the words American Petroleum Institute Certified printed on it. This means that the oil has passed tests for the recommended service in which it's to be used--that includes a test by ISLAC (International Lubricant Standardization and Approval Committee). Passing the ISLAC oil test enables carmakers to add to their fuel economy numbers. Oils such as 0W (a synthetic grade) and 5W (thin) pass this test, and so do some 10W-30 oils. Heavier oils, including those formulated for older cars, do not.
On the second label you'll see the words "Energy Conserving." Real world: Oils labeled this way won't make a noticeable difference in your car's gas mileage. This label also lists the service category. On late models you want an oil designated For Service SL. You may also see some SL/SJ-rated oil on shelves. Read your owner's manual.