Yes, I am being dramatic. Anytime you are presented with an absolute statement such as this you should approach it with caution. But hear me out about why changing your oil is the most important mechanical skill for those who fashion themselves, preppers, modern homesteaders, or simply folks more interested in repatriating the skills they rely upon into their own households.
I don’t think anyone would disagree with me that we’ve become an increasingly less manually self sufficient society. I think part of that is due to folks not needing to understand how to exercise those skills. Some of that is because the things we depend upon are more reliable… there are fewer and fewer “shade tree” mechanics in part because it isn’t common to pull and engine and/or transmission to rebuild it. Engines are much more reliable and so too are the individual systems, that is good.
The other part of the equation is that by and large we’ve enjoyed some pretty favorable economic times… which has allowed us to hire out work that a generation ago would have been done at home in order to preserve domestic finance as well as to replace instead of rebuilding. Combine the improved reliability of systems which reduces the need to get our hands dirty together with the ability to hire out or replace and skill sets start to atrophy and disappear.
Still with me? So why is the lowly oil change the most important skill for those seeking to build more self sufficiency into their lives? Bear in mind that it was just last week that I was making up brake lines, and I’m the guy who thinks you should be building your own grain mills, tortilla and cider presses and smokers.
Simple. Precisely because most folks are starting from a base of limited mechanical skills actually starting the journey is the most important part of the process.
The tools are limited – a good socket set, which is really pretty essential. If you are hard up for cash a good enough socket set can be had for about $20 from harbor freight.
A good oil pan is under $10. Now there are a couple of styles. One looks like a jerry can with a bit of a depression in the the top and a removable drain plug as well as a big screw on spout at the top. The other style is an open pan, usually with a couple of handles molded in and spout to allow you to drain it with some precision. I’ve used both and I much prefer the open pan style, in part because there is so much less spillage since the oil doesn’t need to go into the container through a relatively small hole. Especially when you’ve got a bigger vehicle the rate at which oil will pour out when you remove the plug can easily exceed the intake capacity of the jerry can style containers.
You should also grab a funnel which makes pouring the oil into the filler cap so much easier. Now you’ll see that I have a comparatively massive funnel. That is overkill for a normal passenger vehicle, but I use the same kit for my F250 Super Duty with the 7.3 liter diesel which instead of getting a fill-up of oil from a jug requires part of a 5 gallon pail, now that merits a big funnel, I simply use the same kit for all of my vehicles.
You may also need a set of vehicle ramps if your vehicle has relatively low clearance. A set of ramps – which run under $40 – can raise up the vehicle and give you lots of clearance to slide under the vehicle. Now if you want to be luxurious pick up a wheeled creeper but that certainly isn’t necessary. Of all of the elements of changing your own oil I think the driving up the ramps is likely the most stressful part. Just take it easy, apply enough gas to get you up but not so much to shoot over them… but if you do grab your jack used to change the tire and lift the car up and pull the ramp out, lower the car and do it again a bit more gently.
Finally, you’ll need to pick up the correct grade and quantity of oil and a new filter for your vehicle. I favor conventional oil for the warmer months but will pay the premium for synthetic for the winter, where the lower viscosity really pays off. If you don’t have a use for the waste oil you can put it in a container and return it to most garages.
If you want some guidance on the specifics pick up a repair manual for your vehicle or look on then net.
Payback for the tools will take about two oil changes and then you’ll be saving money – but more importantly, the payback in skills and confidence will come right away. From there I know you’ll be more comfortable taking that incremental step forward to gaining more mechanical skills to empower your independence.