Changing the oil, protecting the environment

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

At the Ninth Annual Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair in Oregon, Ill., Aug. 7-8, I picked up a copy of a four-page publication produced by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) titled “How Do I Manage My Used Oil and Used Oil Filters?” I’ll describe a few of its requirements and recommendations below, and go a bit into the process of a money-saving, do-it-yourself oil change.

First, the publication defines used oil as: “Used oil is any petroleum-based or synthetic oil that has been contaminated with dirt, metals, water or other chemicals such as solvents during use in a process. Used oil is not the same as waste oil. Waste oil includes oils which have not been used, such as virgin oil tank bottoms or cleanup residues for a product spill. In addition, used oil must be recycled or burned for energy recovery. Used oils commonly generated by small businesses include materials such as used motor oil, transmission fluid, refrigeration oil, compressor oil, hydraulic fluid, metal working fluid and other lubricants.” Then, follows a list of materials regulated as used oil. Among these are oil-soaked rags and absorbent materials.

I recently changed the oil in my Miata, so I’ll go through the process here for those who have never done a do-it-yourself oil change. First, it is always messy, so have some cardboard to put under the engine to absorb splashes and spills, and a roll of paper towels or rags for your hands and other messes. Next, you’ll need a way to get under the vehicle. Some trucks and SUVs are high enough you can slide right under them on a creeper or cardboard, most of us need to elevate the front of the vehicle, and that means either a jack or ramp. Jacks and safety stands may be easier to get up, but the jack usually must be removed to get near the drain plug and filter. The other way to get under there is to use a set of inexpensive steel ramps. While simple, ramps can be tricky to drive up onto and will slide on pavement. I use ramps that are on plywood that have a non-skid material below them. Driving up the ramp and stopping in the right spot is delicate, but not difficult. Set the parking brake, and you’re ready to begin.

Having a warm, but not hot, engine helps the draining process. If the engine was cold, run it a few minutes first. If it was driven recently, wait an hour before draining, otherwise the oil may be scalding hot when you pull the drain plug. Dirty engine oil has some seriously bad things in it. Use rubber gloves to protect yourself from getting it on your skin—or wipe off immediately after it gets on your skin. Dirty oil will ruin any clothing it gets on—it will not wash out.

It is helpful to remove the oil filter on most vehicles before draining the oil. This gives you a mess-free access to the oil filter and a chance to drop the filter into the drain pan before it is full of oil. A filter wrench may be needed to loosen it if someone put it on too tight. Be sure the seal did not stick to the engine, or a really bad leak will happen when you start the engine later. The IEPA guide tells you techniques to drain all the oil from the filter—then you can recycle the filter as scrap metal. They say “After draining, a filter can contain 2 to 8 ounces of residual used oil. Over 400 million oil filters are used in the United States every year. Therefore, landfilling of 6.25 to 25 million gallons of used oil in the filters could occur annually.”

Next, remove the drain plug and drain the oil into a container that is large enough to catch the oil stream. Most auto parts stores have nice ones that make catching and emptying easy (about $9). They also sell jugs that hold up to 12 quarts of oil ($6-$9). So, after you’ve drained the oil, put it in a used oil barrel or in a sturdy jug, bucket or can. Plastic milk jugs leak and make a big mess, so avoid using them. You can take your used oil to the auto parts store, where they typically will accept 5 gallons of used oil and other fluids per month. Oil change shops will accept your oil, and you can take your oil to municipal hazardous waste collection sites. Never, ever drain it on the ground or pour it down a sewer drain—you’re causing serious groundwater, river and ocean pollution if you do. IEPA says you may transport up to 55 gallons in your own vehicle to a collection point without needing to comply with used oil transportation rules.

Another thing that can be done with used oil is to recycle it on site—which involves filtering out all the contaminants. I don’t know anyone who does this, though some oil is recycled in this fashion and reused by transportation and other industries. You can also burn the waste oil in a special (and not terribly expensive) space heater that is somewhat similar to a wood-burning stove. I’ve seen a number of shops heated by waste oil, but the heaters do require a fair amount of cleaning to stay efficient. The IEPA brochure says this burning is only permissible if “the heater burns only used oil generated on site or from a household do-it-yourselfer.”

The guide also warns against mixing other hazardous liquids in with your used oil. In particular, anti-freeze and brake fluid should not be mixed in as they are not compatible with oil at all—recycle these separately.

To finish up the job, put a little oil on the filter seal, spin on and hand tighten. Put a new gasket on the drain plug (I buy them in bulk, so I have them on hand) and tighten just enough—over-tightening will strip the plug hole. Fill the engine with the quantity and grade of oil recommended by the vehicle manufacturer found in the owner’s manual. The auto parts store can look this up if you don’t have an owner’s or shop manual. A recent check found oil was priced at $4-$7 per quart (up substantially in the last few years). Oil filters are $3.50 on up. I stock up on filters and oil, particularly when there is a sale, as I don’t like to run to the store for anything once the vehicle comes due for the oil change. Now, start the engine and check for leaks. Now is a good time to look for other fluids in need of attention, and generally check for leaks and other potential problems under the hood. Once level again, check the dipstick to be sure you put the oil in to the proper level. You DID put oil in, didn’t you?

Empty oil bottles can be recycled as they are No. 2 plastic. If you used only part of a bottle, save it to top off the oil as needed, or for the next change. If you have small quantities remaining after each change, pour it into one bottle until you have a full one again. Oil in a sealed container has an indefinite shelf life. The IEPA guide recommends using synthetic oils and extending the change interval to cut down on the amount of waste oil we generate, recycle the oil by reconditioning and using reusable oil filters. There are also new “green” oils, but I’ll have to write about that in a future column.

In the end, getting your oil changed by a shop is not all that expensive for the trouble it takes to do it yourself, just be skeptical of the extra stuff they find wrong—at least you know that the oil is properly disposed of (if not the filters). When you do it yourself, there is the satisfaction you’ve done something for yourself on your own time to your (it is hoped) better standards.

More information can be found at: Filter Manufacturers’ Council Regulatory Hotline at 800-99FILTER; Illinois EPA Office of Small Business at 888-372-1996; the IEPA website at, where there are many helpful guides; or, directly from the publication referred to at

From the Aug. 25-31, 2010 issue

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