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How often should you get an oil change?

Tara Baukus MelloIt's a common question to Driving for Dollars: "How often do I really need to change the oil in my car -- 3,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 miles?" No wonder people are confused. The more miles you travel between oil changes means you'll lower your maintenance costs over the lifetime of your car, but some people challenge that a less frequent oil change leads to other car problems that will result in expensive repairs. Here's the lowdown on determining the frequency of your oil changes.

Start by checking the manufacturer's recommendations for your car. The automaker that has manufactured your car has done extensive testing on your car's engine in the lab as well as in extreme real-world driving to determine its performance in many aspects. Through that testing, it has developed a set of guidelines for regular maintenance, which includes the frequency of oil changes.

Open your owner's manual (or go online if you've lost it) to find out what the manufacturer recommends. Start with the manufacturer's recommended mileage interval or time interval and recommendations for weight, also called viscosity.

If you've read the manufacturer's recommendations thoroughly, you've probably seen a note that indicates you should change your oil more frequently if you run your car in severe driving situations, and there may even be notes about using a different weight of oil depending on your climate.

Many mechanics, dealers and quick-change lube shops suggest 3,000-mile oil change intervals for many cars, arguing that most of today's American drivers operate their cars under what is considered severe driving situations. So-called severe-use driving situations include frequent driving in stop-and-go traffic, excessive idling, regular trips of less than five miles, frequent towing, frequent driving in extremely humid climates, and frequent driving in temperatures less than 10 degrees or more than 90 degrees.

While it is true many drivers experience at least one of these conditions regularly, it does not mean those drivers should automatically default to a 3,000-mile oil-change schedule, especially since the manufacturers' recommendations for today's cars range from 5,000 miles to 20,000 miles. Instead, follow the manufacturer's recommendations for severe use or, if your car has an oil-life monitor, simply change the oil when the system tells you to.

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Oil changes are the most basic of routine maintenance for most automobiles, but is an oil change every 3,000 miles even necessary?

For decades, mechanics, dealerships and quick-lube shops have recommended oil changes every 3,000 miles. While that was at one time a good rule of thumb, modern vehicles and advances in oil have more than doubled or tripled the distance you can drive between oil changes.

The first thing every driver should look at is the user's manual. Here you'll find the manufacturer's recommendation for distance between oil changes. You'll also find what type of oil you should be using.

The type of driving you do also impacts how long your oil will stay clean. City driving and short trips or running the car in cold weather prevent the oil from getting hot enough to burn out impurities. So change or at least check your oil more often if you drive in these conditions.

Another alternative is to spend about $25 to get your oil tested by an independent lab, which will provide an analysis of how much "life" is left in your oil as well as identify other engine problems. Use that analysis as a future guideline for the frequency of oil changes.

While changing your oil more frequently won't harm your car, it will put a dent in your wallet. Following the 3,000-mile rule, the average American would change his car's oil five times a year, yet the average manufacturer's recommendation could be anywhere from one to three times a year. That's a savings of at least two oil changes.

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If you have a car question, email it to us at Driving for Dollars. Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories. Follow her on Facebook here or on Twitter @SheDrives.

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