Engine Oil Dipstick: What Is It and What Does It Do?
Updated on December 07 2023
If you have a car, you need to be familiar with the engine oil dipstick and what it does. Admittedly, not everyone has the time, inclination, and knowledge to perform a DIY oil change, but every car owner should know what an engine oil dipstick is, what it does, and where you can find it in the engine bay.
What is an engine oil dipstick?
Internal combustion engines all have engine oil dipsticks, and this includes diesel engines as well. The dipstick is a long and flat metal rod with a plastic ring handle. Its primary purpose is to indicate the oil level inside the engine, but it does more than that.
The dipstick can tell you about the condition of the oil. Also, it can give you an idea of the internal health of the engine.
Where can I find the oil dipstick?
Park your vehicle and open the hood. Depending on the type of vehicle (or engine), the dipstick has an orange, yellow, or white circular handle to make it instantly visible from under the hood.
You can find the oil dipstick on the top or either side of the engine.
How do I use the engine oil dipstick?
Using the dipstick to check the oil level is easy as pie. Here are the five easy steps:
Step 1: Turn off the engine, engage the parking brake, and pop open the hood.
Step 2: Pull out the dipstick slowly by grabbing the ring handle with your fingers.
Step 3: Grab a clean cloth or paper towel and wipe the end of the dipstick clean.
Step 4: Reinsert the dipstick fully in the hole.
Step 5: Pull it out again to check the oil level.
Tip: It would be best to pull out the dipstick twice to get a more accurate reading. Always use a clean cloth or paper towel in wiping the dipstick to avoid oil contamination.
How will I know the proper oil level?
The dipstick has markings in the end. Some dipsticks have C (Cold) and H (Hot) markings, while others may have MAX (Maximum) or MIN (Minimum) markings. Other vehicles will only have two separate dots in the dipstick.
No matter which type of dipstick marking your engine has, the oil level should be in the middle of the C and H or MAX and MIN markings.
If the oil level is below the C or MIN marking, it means the engine lacks oil. On the other hand, if the oil level is above the H or MAX marking, it means the engine has too much oil.
Is it bad if my engine has too much oil?
Yes. If the engine has too much oil, the oil pan will overflow, and that’s terrible news. If the oil pan is overflowing, the crankshaft is literally swimming in oil. Since the crankshaft is constantly turning when the engine is running, the effect is like beating an egg with a kitchen whisk. The result is foamy, frothy oil that won’t protect the various moving parts, possibly resulting in premature engine damage.
Also, too much oil creates more pressure inside the engine. If the pressure gets too high, the oil will find a way to escape via the gaskets and seals, which leads to bothersome and costly oil leaks.
What if my engine is running low on oil?
If you pulled out the dipstick to find out your engine lacks oil, don’t panic. Even if the oil level is within or below the C or MIN marking, it does not mean your engine is running empty.
At this point, the best thing to do is to either drain and change the oil or add more oil. After pulling out the dipstick, touch the oil with your fingers. Also, consider the color of the oil. If the engine oil is dark brown or black and feels the oil is gritty, change the oil. If not, simply add more oil to restore the correct oil level.
How do I add more oil?
You can add more oil by following these easy steps:
Step 1: Locate the engine oil filler cap on top of the engine.
Step 2: Open the cap, grab a fresh oil container, and pour half a liter to prevent overfilling.
Step 3: Reinsert the dipstick fully, pull it out again, and check the oil level.
Step 4: If the oil level is between the markings, you are good to go. If the oil level is still low, add more oil.
How will I know if the oil needs to be changed?
There are two ways: Read the owner’s manual, or check the dipstick. Cars with engines running on mineral oil need an oil change every 3,000 km or 5,000 km. On the other hand, engines running on synthetic oil need an oil change every 8,000 km to 10,000 km or once a year, whichever comes first.
Also, if you find the oil is gritty or feels rough to the touch after inspecting the dipstick, it may be time to change the oil.
Fresh and clean engine oil will have a translucent, amber color. However, the oil will darken as it cycles throughout the engine as it absorbs dirt, sludge, and contaminants, and this is perfectly normal. So, do not be alarmed if you see dark brown or blackish oil on the dipstick.
What you need to look out for is the oil viscosity (or thickness of the oil). Fresh engine oil should have the consistency of molasses or olive oil. If the oil is excessively black and thick, you need to change the oil immediately.
I found grayish, whitish, or reddish oil on the dipstick. What does this mean?
If you found out the oil is white, gray, or reddish after checking the dipstick, it could mean one or two things:
- White, gray, or oil with a foamy consistency could mean a head gasket leak. The unusual color implies the oil is mixing with water/coolant inside the engine due to a leaking head gasket.
- Reddish oil means the ATF or Automatic Transmission Fluid is mixing with the engine oil.
No matter the case, have your vehicle inspected by a professional mechanic if you find white, gray, or reddish oil on the dipstick.