Oil Changes & Car Maintenance

The importance of oil changes

Regular oil changes are a critical maintenance item in ensuring your car’s engine runs properly and will have a long life. If oil changes aren't done in a timely manner, your car's performance and fuel economy can suffer, and long-term damage can occur.

Engine oil is lubrication

Even the least mechanical of car owner knows that a vehicle’s engine has hundreds of moving parts. And all of these parts rely on engine oil to provide the lubrication necessary for them to work properly. Some of these parts have clearances of less than a thousandth of an inch, so oil is critical to keeping the parts moving without touching each other.

When conventional motor oil starts to lose its lubricating ability, it often burns off and becomes thicker. This sludge compromises the oil’s ability to lubricate finely machined engine parts, which cause these parts to come in contact and produce engine wear through friction. Eventually, if the oil isn’t changed in a timely matter, oil can stop lubricating moving parts altogether, leading the engine to seize or lock up.

Beyond preventing the possibility of making an engine useless, regular oil changes ensure proper lubrication that helps the engine run at optimum efficiency, minimizing fuel consumption and ensuring longevity.

Oil filter changes

Any oil change should include replacing the oil filter. As engine oil travels throughout the engine, it collects dirt, debris and other particles such as metal shavings from engine wear. During normal engine operation, the oil is pumped throughout the engine and eventually cycles through the oil filter, which collects these particles which could otherwise damage the engine.

Other benefits

The most important part of an oil change is not necessarily the actual changing of the oil, nor the new oil itself, but the inspection that qualified mechanics always include as part of their under-the-hood routine.

When you have a mechanic or automotive service technician completing oil changes as recommend by the manufacturer, they’ll have to opportunity to inspect other elements of the vehicle, including components underneath the hood and on the vehicle undercarriage. A regular oil change schedule can also act as a benchmark for other routine services such as tire rotation, fluid level checks and tune-ups.

Oil filler cap

Oil is the lifeblood of your vehicle. Change it per the manufacturer's recommendations to avoid major damage. (Photo by Fred Patton)

How often do you change your oil?

Car owners should always follow their vehicle manufacturer’s recommendations for oil change intervals, which can be found in the owner’s manual, manufacturer or dealership websites, and other websites such as checkyournumber.org.

Despite many people and businesses’ insistence, the “change your oil every 3,000 miles” rule is now more an exception than the standard. Despite many vehicle owner manual’s recommendations that engine oil be changed every 5,000, 7,500 or 10,000 miles, many drivers hold on to the outdated 3,000 mile belief. While auto manufacturers, auto service centers and quick-lube providers reinforced the 3,000 mile mantra for decades, modern automotive and oil technology now negate this “standard” for most modern vehicles.

Late-model modern vehicles can now go 5,000 to 7,500 miles between oil changes under ideal driving and environmental conditions, if not further. However, if you drive or park your vehicle in extremely cold, hot or humid climates, tow or haul heavy loads, take frequent short trips, or spend a lot of time in stop-and-go traffic, you're probably better off getting more frequent oil changes under your manufacturer's service recommendations for severe driving conditions.

If you drive under normal conditions and you or your mechanic insist on changing your vehicle’s oil every 3,000 miles, here are some reasons to reconsider:

1. New vehicle and lubricant technology

Today's vehicles are built with more efficient engines. They employ advanced technology such as oil monitoring systems and on-board computer diagnostics that help oil maintain its viscosity and possibly alert the driver when an oil change, while at the same time regulating the engine components that lead to oil breakdown. In addition, today's synthetic oil and lubricant technology can simply endure the pounding delivered by car engines better than engine oil of decades past.

2. Cost savings

Your car won’t be harmed by more-frequent-than-necessary oil changes, but you could be doing unnecessary harm to your pocketbook.

Even though the cost of oil changes now cost about the same or less than filling a car’s gas tank, the expense of changing your oil too frequently – especially if unnecessary – can add up. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the average American driver racks up more than 13,000 miles on their odometer each year. If you follow the 3,000-mile oil change advice, you’d get your oil changed at least 4 times each year.

Conservatively estimating an oil change costs $30 for the purpose of this example, that’s $120 spent on oil change services each year. If you vehicle only needs its oil changed every 5,000 miles according to the manufacturer, you would only need your oil changed twice in an average mileage year, resulting in at least $60 saved on oil changes.

There are also some potential cost savings to changing your own oil, although you want to make sure you know the steps before you start.

3. Reduced cost to the environment

Even though the majority of both conventional and synthetic motor oil is recycled after use, it still carries an environmental cost. A typical oil change produces five quarts of used motor oil. A person who has his oil changed every two months sends 30 quarts of oil to the recycling barrel every year. By extending the life of your oil to its recommended change intervals, you can reduce your oil usage by half, perhaps even two-thirds.

Video: How to change your oil

Synthetic or conventional oil?

One reason for many late-model vehicles’ gains in mileage between oil change intervals is the increased use of synthetic motor oils. Synthetic oil is exactly what it sounds like: an engine lubricant created artificially from chemical compounds. Some classes of synthetic oil start with conventional oil as a base that's then chemically altered to produce synthetic oil, while others may be artificially created from other raw materials. In contrast, conventional motor oil (also referred to as standard oil or mineral-based oil), is refined from naturally occurring crude oil.

In a nutshell, synthetic oil is thinner, resists temperature extremes better and generally lasts longer. You likely won’t notice any difference in how your car performs, but the durability characteristic is the most important from a car owner’s perspective, as it translates to less frequent oil changes compared to conventional motor oil.

Whether or not synthetic oil is right - or required - for your vehicle first depends on what type of vehicle you drive. New and late-model vehicles from European makers such as BMW, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and Audi typically require the use of full synthetic oil. Certain new vehicles from Subaru, some hybrids, and some high performance cars also require synthetic oil.

If you typically have used conventional motor oil in your vehicle, switching to a synthetic oil could allow you to go longer between oil changes, but be careful about going extended periods of time or mileage without routine service. One of the biggest advantages of synthetic oil – extended mileage between changes – can also be a drawback. If you’re like most consumers, you’ll likely never open the hood between oil changes. If there were a problem with something like an oil leak, you may drive for several months or thousands of miles without noticing your oil level was too low.

Changing engine oil

Regularly changing your car's engine oil will ensure your engine's components are properly lubricated. (Photo by Eldon Lindsay)

Tips for oil changes

While you can save some money by changing your vehicle’s oil yourself, getting the work performed by a professional auto service technician carries multiple advantages. You avoid getting dirty and the hassle of properly disposing of environmentally damaging fluids, most dealerships, shops and quick-lube outfits provide a vehicle inspection as a courtesy that can tip you off to other needed services or repairs.

Use the following tips to help you get the most mileage for your car and oil-change dollar:

1. Get in a long-term relationship

One of the biggest advantages to regular oil changes beyond keeping your engine running correctly is having your car regularly in the care of an experienced professional. Checking under the hood and underneath the vehicle during an oil change can help you catch needed repairs or services early before major work is necessary. Whether it’s a dealership, an independent shop or a quick-change location, most auto service providers will keep detailed service records that will help you keep up-to-date on recommended services.

2. Look for coupons

In the long run, you won’t save much money by jumping from shop to shop every time there’s a big discount, but if you’re in the market for a new auto service provider or just need a quick oil change only, check service provider websites, circulars and the mail for coupons.

3. Know what you need

If you don’t know offhand, it’s a good idea to check your owner’s manual for the recommended oil weight and type for your vehicle prior to getting an oil change at a new provider. You can also find the recommended oil type for your vehicle under the hood on the oil filler cap. That way you can ensure that the correct oil will be going back into your vehicle once the old oil has been drained.

4. Check the manufacturer’s recommendations

Don’t forget to brush up on your car’s recommended services based on the mileage on your odometer, too. Many consumers’ biggest complaints when dealing with oil changes are companies trying to upsell other services that may be unnecessary. You can quickly verify if you need that pricey air filter or transmission flush by checking your owner’s manual recommendations.

5. Inspect the work

Prior to agreeing to a “full service” oil change, ask what’s included in the price. If the company promises to vacuum your car interior, wash your windows and top off fluids like the wiper fluids, check these items before paying the invoice.

After the work is complete, keep a close eye on driveway or garage floor where you normally park at night. Under-tightened or over-tightened oil drain plugs or oil filters are a common source of oil leaks following an oil change – and something you’ll want to follow up on with the service provider who completed the work.

6. Keep your receipt

If something does go wrong, how can you prove it was the shop’s fault and not yours? By proving the shop did the work. Keep your receipt from the oil change in the glove box or another handy location. Not only could it help you prove mistakes were made, diligently recording and documenting maintenance and service work can help you sell your car faster and for more money down the road.

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