I still remember the advice my dad gave me when I got my first car in high school. “Make sure you change your oil every 3,000 miles,” he said as he showed me how to pull the dipstick out from the engine and wipe any oil off from its end. I’ve followed that advice for more years than I care to admit, but did dear old dad steer me wrong? Like me, are you changing your oil too often?

How often should you change your oil?

As with most great questions in life, the answer to how often you should change your oil is, it depends.

According to AAA, changing your oil every 3,000 miles was indeed the standard recommendation at one time, and the advice may still hold true for older cars. However, lubricants and engine technology have come a long way in the last couple decades. For that reason, newer model cars may be driven 5,000, 7,500, 10,000 or even 15,000 miles before needing an oil change.

If you really want to know how often you should change your car’s oil, check the owners manual, or us the Check Your Number tool on the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) website.

When I ran my car’s year, make and model through Check Your Number, I discovered my car can go up to 10,000 miles before an oil change in normal driving conditions.

What are normal driving conditions?

Your car’s owner’s manual may give a recommended interval for oil changes based on normal driving conditions. But what exactly are normal driving conditions?

According to the Filter Manufacturers Council (FMC), “what the owner’s manual calls ‘normal’ operating conditions are really ideal conditions, mostly long highway trips rather than around town driving.” In fact, the FMC says only about 20 percent of vehicles are regularly driven under “normal conditions.”

Severe driving conditions include:

  • Weather below 10° Fahrenheit
  • Weather above 90° Fahrenheit
  • Extreme humidity
  • Driving in dusty conditions, such as on dirt or gravel roads
  • Driving on steep hills or mountains on a regular basis
  • Towing a trailer or hauling heavy materials
  • Primarily short trips of five miles or less
  • Extensive idling or in stop-and-go traffic

The FMC explains severe conditions necessitate more frequent oil changes because on trips of less than four miles, and especially in cold weather, “the engine does not warm up completely, causing moisture to accumulate in the crankcase. Every time the engine is started, the oil is contaminated with blow-by soot, raw gasoline and condensed moisture. Unless the engine gets regular extended highway travel, these contaminants remain in the oil.”

If you drive in one or more of these conditions in a typical week, you may need to change your oil more often.

How often is more often?

Your owner’s manual may offer a recommendation for more frequent oil changes if you drive in severe conditions, but many newer model vehicles have oil-life monitoring systems that will alert you when an oil change is needed. These systems track the number of miles driven, as well as how hard the car is being driven. Pay attention to the indicator lights and be sure to change your oil soon after receiving such an alert.

Keep in mind, though, that mileage and driving conditions are not the only factors that go into your oil’s life. If you don’t put many miles on your car, you may need an oil change before the 3,000-mile marker, even if the indicator light isn’t on.

As engine oil ages, it breaks down and becomes less effective at doing its job. Most manufacturers recommend getting the oil changed at least once per year, no matter how few miles you’ve spent on the road.

Why you should go longer between oil changes

If you’re a dedicated 3,000-miler like my dad, you may wonder what’s the harm in getting your oil changed more often. There are two good reasons you may want to wait longer between oil changes.

First, it’s better for your budget. Say you get your oil changed every 3,000 miles, and each change costs $40. If you’re replacing your oil every 3,000 miles, putting 30,000 on your car over two years will cost you $400 in oil changes. Upping the mileage between oil changes will reduce your cost to $160, a savings of $240.

Second, it’s better for the environment. According to the EPA, the oil from a single oil change can contaminate one million gallons of drinking water with toxic substances, included benzene, lead, zinc, and cadmium. Used motor oil can and should be recycled. But going longer between oil changes can help reduce the amount of perfectly good oil that is wasted and potentially spilled or illegally dumped on the ground or in storm drains.

The bottom line

If you’re worried about extending the life of your oil, consider switching to synthetic oil. It costs more, but lasts longer and performs better than traditional petroleum-based motor oils. And no matter how long you go in between oil changes, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your car’s oil levels. Consumer Reports recommends checking your oil levels at least once per month and getting repairs right away if you see signs of a leak.

Dad’s 3,000-mile lecture may not have stood the test of time, but his dipstick demonstration still comes in useful.