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Cars Explained: Why Do Cars Need Oil Changes?

The warning on your dash lights up, letting you know it’s time for an oil change. We know that we need to have our cars serviced at regular intervals so that they stay in good, running condition, but chances are you just blindly follow these instructions. Having an oil change is the most standard part of car maintenance, but why do our cars actually need oil changes?

Changing your oil

Lucky for us, most oil changes can be done at home unless you drive something like a Bugatti. If you’ve ever done an oil change yourself, you’ve seen first hand what the difference between used motor oil and brand new motor oil.

Motor oil helps to keep the internal components of your engine lubricated. When the internals are well-lubricated, the friction created is reduced significantly. This keeps the engine running in good condition. The ability of the engine oil to continue lubricating the internals degrades over time, which is why we need to change it out.

A mechanic prepares to complete an oil change on a car
A man preparing to perform an oil change | Paul Kane/Getty Images

How often do you need it?

There are a lot of recommended intervals for having an oil change. If you look up the generic recommendations, you probably find something that says you should have your car’s oil changed every 5,000 to 7,500, at least according to sources like AAA. This number is just a general average, which means your car could need service sooner or later than that.

The best way to ensure your motor’s health is to follow your specific car’s recommended service intervals. When you buy a car, you can usually find an Owner’s Manual in the glovebox. In these manuals, you can find the recommended service interval for your car. If you don’t have a manual, you can always contact the dealership for advice.

Oil Change
BOULDER, COLORADO – MARCH 23: Mike Buckley washes a side mirror as he and his crew complete an oil change while passengers stay in their cars at Grease Monkey on March 23, 2020 in Boulder, Colorado. | Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

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What happens if you don’t?

Sometimes taking our car in for servicing isn’t always convenient. If we don’t plan ahead, we can find ourselves running over our mileage for the car’s recommended service interval. The oil in your engine, however, is quite crucial. If you don’t change your oil out for a few thousand extra miles, chances are you’ll be OK. Skip an oil change for tens of thousands of miles, however, and you could do catastrophic damage to your engine.

Man with bill for engine work
Yonas Bekele held a $8500 repair estimate to fix the fire damage done to the engine of his 1993 Lexus | Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune, Getty Images

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Better safe than sorry, I guess. As long as you stay around or on your service interval, you should be fine and good to go. Knowing why you need an oil change can be just as important as getting one, and if you like your car in good running condition, oil changes are critical.