The New Oil Change
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The New Oil Change

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The basics of an oil change are still the same even after 80 years. The service typically involves draining the oil, replacing the filter and pouring in fresh oil. But in the past 20 years, the oil change has evolved, and to do it right requires extra steps and more information.

The main changes to the oil change are the oil and modern engine technology. Regulators are demanding more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles. In addition, customers are demanding more performance. So, engines are getting smaller to meet these demands, and technologies such as direct injection and turbocharging have become more common. But, this puts increased demands on the oil.

To address these environmental mandates and consumer demands, the number of oil certifications and specifications has proliferated. This has made choosing the correct oil more challenging and has added new layers to the selection.

Other technologies such as oil-life monitors and oil-level sensors have added additional steps to the oil change. So, while the basics are the same, you need to pay attention to the following items.


There are three levels of oil-selection criteria. First is selecting the correct viscosity. The second is making sure the fresh oil meets the API, ILSAC or ACEA certifications. The third is making sure the oil meets the manufacturer or OE specifications. If you adhere to these three levels, you are going to select the correct oil for the engine.

The first criteria in selecting the correct oil is viscosity. Oil viscosity refers to how easily oil pours at a specified temperature, and is usually found on the oil-filler cap. The viscosity rating of a motor oil is determined in a laboratory by the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) test procedure. The oil’s viscosity is measured and given a number, which some people also refer to as the “weight” (thickness) of the oil.

The lower the viscosity rating or weight, the thinner the oil. The higher the viscosity rating, the thicker the oil. Viscosity ratings for commonly used motor oils typically range from 0 to 50. With multi-viscosity oils, a “W” after the number stands for “winter”-grade oil. The first number (for example, the “5” in 5W-20) designates cold temperature viscosity of the oil.

It’s not recommended to use an alternative oil viscosity for modern engines. The engine’s bearings, valvetrain and emissions systems are designed around a specific viscosity of the oil. So, unless specified by the OE manufacturer, going from a 0W-20 to a 5W-20 could have implications for the engine’s performance and durability.

Once you have determined the correct viscosity grade, you can now look at the industry-association specifications for API, ILSAC and ACEA.

An API-certification donut mark will indicate if the oil is for gasoline or diesel engines, the viscosity and the service grade. The latest service category for gasoline engines is SP. These oils are compatible with vehicles that specify the older SN and SN-PLUS oils. SP oils are formulated to prevent low-speed pre-ignition for direct-injected and turbocharged engines and further reduce wear

The International Lubricants Standardization and Approval Committee (ILSAC) is the group behind GF-oil specifications. ILSAC GF-1,-2,-3,-4 and -5 are specifications for multi-grade oils first rolled out in 1992. GF-6-certified oils are compatible with the previous GF-1 to GF-4 oils of comparable grades.

The ILSAC GF-6 specification improves the GF-5 specifications and addresses new engine technology like gasoline direct injection and turbocharging. Also, GF-6 introduces new lighter viscosities for automakers to help improve fuel efficiency.

When you look at a bottle of GF-6 oil, you might notice an “A” or “B” listed after the GF-6. GF-6A lubricants are backward-compatible, meaning that GF-6A engine oils that are “legacy” viscosity grades are covered under GF-5. GF-6A oils can be used in older vehicles that call for GF-1 to GF-5. This means GF-6A covers most vehicles made after 1992.

The new GF-6B specifications are for new, lighter-weight, multi-viscosity oils used by more modern vehicles. These oils are not backward-compatible because of the new viscosity grades. GF-6B engine oils should only be used when recommended by the OEM (follow the owner’s manual) like 0W-16. 0W-8 is another planned viscosity that will be in the GF-6B category.

If your shop services European vehicles, you may see the acronym ACEA in the owner’s manual or service information. ACEA stands for the European Automobile Manufacturers Association. These standards are based on testing developed by the European Engine Lubricants Quality Management System (EELQMS).

“A” and “B” (1 through 5) rated oils are stable, stay-in-grade oils intended for use at extended drain intervals in gasoline and diesel engines (car and light van). These are specifically designed to be capable of using low-friction, low-viscosity oils with a high-temperature/high-shear (HTHS) rate viscosity. The “C”-rating designation is for catalytic-converter-compatible oils. They are oils with a low sulfated-ash, phosphorous and sulfur content.

Now that you have your oil selection narrowed down to the correct viscosity and industry certification, you need to look at the OEM specification. OEMs update oil specifications as engine technologies and emission requirements change. As a result, most manufacturers will have five or more specifications for diesel and gasoline engines. Also, if the vehicle has an oil-life monitor, it is critical to use the correct manufacturer-specified oil. If you do not use the right oil that meets the specification, the oil-change interval may not be determined correctly.


Maintenance reminders for oil changes have been around since the early 1980s. Early systems from German and Japanese manufacturers looked at mileage and maybe engine speed. Today, it’s difficult to find a vehicle without a light, warning messages or percent-of-oil-life indicator to get the driver to change the oil.

Mileage-based systems estimate the life of the oil based on a preset mileage recommendation that typically range from 5,000 to 10,000 miles. It can be an effective reminder for some owners, but it does not consider severe-duty operations or a customer who only makes short trips.
Calculation-based or intelligent oil-life monitors use multiple inputs to determine the health of the oil. GM’s first oil-life monitor that used more than just mileage to determine the interval appeared in 2007. Chrysler wasn’t far behind in 2008. Ford had an intelligent system on most vehicles starting in 2011. European and some Asian nameplates had this technology back in the 1980s.

Reset procedures can involve button presses and critical cycles. Some have three steps, while others have up to eight that have to be performed with exact timing. No matter the reset procedure, information is vital when resetting oil-life monitors. Chances are the information is in the owner’s manual of the vehicle.

Service-information databases are getting better about putting the reset procedure front and center with an icon on the page after selecting the year, make and model. The procedure can change depending on the model year or engine, or even the infotainment option.

The best option for some vehicles is to use a scan tool that can reset the oil-life monitor. Many scan tools can reset the oil-life percentage without challenging steps. The functions might already be on your current scan tool, but there are handheld scan tools that are focused on resets for the oil monitor and other maintenance items, like batteries.


Can’t find the dipstick? It’s not because it’s missing. It’s because the oil level is checked with a sensor. Oil-level sensors have been used on import and domestic cars for more than a decade. Some of the first applications only monitored if the oil level was low, using a switch attached to a float. The sensor would trigger a message or light in the instrument cluster and only measured oil levels when the engine wasn’t running.

Modern oil-level sensors can measure the level with the engine running. Some sensors use an electrical resistance method that works the same way as a mass-airflow sensor. As less of the sensor is covered by oil, the resistive value of the sensor changes. Newer ultrasonic sensors have a piezoelectric transducer that sends ultrasonic pulses into the oil and receives echoes from the oil’s surface inside the sensor’s body.

After the new oil is poured into the engine, it might be necessary to set the final level using information from the oil-level sensor. Most vehicles will have a way to check the level using the instrument cluster or infotainment screen. Check the service information for the procedure.
The basics might still be the same, but paying attention to the grade of oil and reset of the oil-life monitor is just as important as using the correct wrench to install the filter. Your first step should be to look up the service information about that vehicle’s specific oil-change procedures for some oil changes.

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