Maintenance is the key to longevity. Your mother knew what she was talking about when she nagged you to brush your teeth after every meal. And to eat your vegetables. And to change your underwear daily whether you thought it was necessary or not. She knew that if you took good care of yourself, you’d be a healthier (and cleaner) person. Then at least you wouldn’t embarrass her in public.
The same holds true for lube, oil and filter changes. Change your oil and filters regularly, and your car or truck will last longer, run better and require fewer repairs as the miles add up.
One of the most important aspects of preventive maintenance is changing lubricants, fluids and filters when they need it – not when you get around to it.
Motor oil doesn’t last forever. The crankcase is a difficult environment. Blowby gases from the cylinders dump unburned fuel, soot and acids into the oil. Operating temperatures can soar to 250 degrees F or higher transforming the oil pan into a deep fryer. And to add insult to injury, the oil is hammered and squeezed with every pass through the bearings. Sheer stresses try to rip apart the long hydrocarbon molecules that give oil its lubricity. This is called viscosity breakdown.
To help the oil withstand this kind of abuse, various additives are blended into the basestock. Up to 25 percent of a quart of oil is friction-reducing additives, anti-wear agents, corrosion inhibitors, viscosity improvers, pour-point depressants, foam inhibitors, oxidation inhibitors and dispersant/detergents. These additives allow motor oils to meet certain quality standards established by the American Petroleum Institute (API) as well as performance requirements set by the vehicle manufacturers. But in spite of all the chemistry, motor oil eventually wears out. Oxidation and contamination take their toll, and if the oil isn’t changed often enough, the engine suffers the consequences.
It’s the same story with other vital fluids too. Automatic transmission fluid can oxidize and burn if the transmission is overworked. The corrosion inhibitors in antifreeze gradually break down and eventually have to be replenished by changing the coolant. Brake fluid absorbs moisture over time, which leads to a breakdown of corrosion inhibitors that allows rust to attack the calipers, wheel cylinders and brake lines. Gear oil in manual transmissions, differentials and transfer cases becomes contaminated with wear particles and loses viscosity as the miles add up.
As important as maintenance is, many vehicles today are seriously undermaintained. According to a 2003 report from the Car Care Council, nine out of every 10 vehicles that were inspected at free car clinics during National Car Car Month were found to need some type of maintenance or repairs!
- 38% had low, overfilled or dirty motor oil.
- 22% had low, overfilled or burnt transmission fluid.
- 15% had low coolant level.
- 13% needed a coolant flush.
- 21% had bad wipers.
- 25% has low or dirty power steering fluid.
- 10% had low brake fluid.
- 19% had at least one bad belt.
- 12% had at least one bad hose.
- 6% needed a new air filter.
- 6% needed a new PCV valve.
- 19% needed new battery cables or clamps.
- 10% had low battery water.
- 54% had underinflated or overinflated tires.
- 14% had one or more dangerously worn tires.
The aftermarket has traditionally recommended changing the motor oil and oil filter every 3,000 miles or every three months (based on driving 12,000 miles a year). This recommendation has not changed in spite of improvements in both engine designs and oil quality in recent years. Why? Because driving conditions have gotten progressively worse!
Traffic is gridlocked in most large cities for much of the day, and short-trip stop-and-go city driving produces the most blowby and oil contamination. Consequently, vehicles that are driven mostly in urban traffic still need regular oil changes. The same goes for vehicles that are driven on gravel roads, are used to tow trailers, spend a lot of time idling, or are operated in extremely hot or extremely cold climates. Also included are most turbocharged engines and diesels.
Many vehicle manufacturers have gone to extended oil change intervals to reduce scheduled maintenance costs for new vehicle owners. Some say the oil only needs to be changed once a year or every 7,500 to 10,000 miles – under ideal conditions. But if you read the fine print, many still recommend 3,000 miles oil change intervals for what they call severe-duty use. Unfortunately, many motorists who think they are normal-duty drivers are actually severe-duty drivers and need the more frequent oil changes.
Some vehicles today have no recommended oil change interval. A time/mileage schedule has been replaced with an oil life reminder light that tells the motorist when an oil change is due. On many of these applications, the powertrain control module monitors hours of engine operation, temperature, vehicle speed and other factors to estimate oil life. It’s all based on mathematical modeling developed from laboratory testing. Others actually monitor the condition of the oil using a smart sensor. The sensor measures the electrical conductivity of the oil. As the protective additives in the oil breakdown with use, the electrical conductivity of the oil changes.
Both types of oil monitoring systems may allow a vehicle to go as many as 10,000 to 15,000 miles or more before they turn on the oil change reminder light. How soon the light comes on depends on how the vehicle is driven. This is probably the ultimate method of accurately scheduling oil change (short of doing a laboratory oil analysis, which is the approach used by many fleets). But since most vehicles are not yet equipped with such fancy oil monitoring systems, the best advice is to follow the printed scheduled maintenance chart in the owners manual, or play it safe and have the oil changed every 3,000 miles.
THE COMPLETE "LOF"
Now that we’ve explained the importance of changing the oil and filter on a regular basis, the next question is what else needs to be checked or changed if your customer is doing a complete lube, oil and filter (LOF) job?
If you want to know what’s usually included, just visit any quick lube shop and read their menu. The lube/oil/filter service they provide typically includes all of the following:
- Change motor oil (choice of grades/brands).
- Install new oil filter.
- Lubricate chassis (if the steering and suspension has grease fittings).
- Inspect air filter (replace as needed).
- Inspect PCV valve and breather element (if equipped).
- Check automatic transmission fluid level and condition.
- Check manual transmission oil level.
- Check power steering fluid level.
- Check brake fluid level.
- Check battery water level.
- Check differential oil level.
- Check coolant level and condition
- Inspect belts and hoses.
- Check windshield washer fluid.
- Inspect windshield wiper blades.
- Check tire pressure and condition.
- Check all exterior lights.
They may also sweeten the deal by cleaning the windows and mirrors, vacuuming the interior and tossing in a new air freshener. The basic package usually sells for around $25, which is about $10 more than what it would cost the average motorist to buy five quarts of oil and a filter and do an oil change in the driveway or garage.
Quick lube services are quick (in and out in 15 minutes or less), convenient (no appointment needed) and affordable. Plus your customers don’t have to get their hands dirty and the quick lube recycles the used motor oil. Quick lubes have taken a big bite out of the DIY oil change business as well as lubrication services performed by full service repair facilities. Consequently, many repair shops have opened up their own quick lube bays while still offering a broad range of repair and maintenance services. They know that quick lube work often brings in additional repair work, and it gives them an opportunity to inspect items (like brakes, exhaust system, steering and suspension) that many quick lube shops often overlook.
Regardless of who does the work (the motorist himself at home, a high-school kid working in a quick lube shop or an ASE-certified technician in a full-service repair facility), the point is vehicles still need to be maintained. And the person doing the work needs to make sure everything that should be inspected or changed is inspected and changed – and at the recommended time and/or mileage intervals. That includes all vital fluid levels, all the filters, all the belts and hoses, the battery and battery cables, the cooling system, safety items such as the wipers, lights, tires and brakes, convenience items like cabin air filters and other parts that may need to be changed such as spark plugs and OHC timing belt.
Anyone who performs maintenance work also needs the proper tools to do the job. For basic oil and filter changes, that includes oil filter wrenches that can accommodate different filter sizes and locations (some need an end-cap-style wrench because there’s no room for a band-style wrench), a catch pan and a funnel for refilling the engine. Repair plugs may also be needed for oil pan drain bolts that have been stripped or are leaking.
For chassis lubrication, a grease gun is needed. Most ball joints, tie rod ends and universal joints on late-model vehicles are sealed and do not have grease fittings. But many older vehicles and boat trailers still need to be greased.
Most wheel bearings on late-model vehicles are sealed and do not require any maintenance. But on older vehicles, the front wheel bearings need to be cleaned, inspected, repacked with grease and readjusted every 30,000 or so miles. The grease seals should also be replaced when this is done (old seals often leak if they are reused.)
BEYOND THE BASICS
Quick lube shops don’t make much profit on $25 oil changes, so most offer additional maintenance services that cost extra. These include:
- Automatic transmission flush and fill (two years or 30,000 miles);
- Manual transmission drain and fill (50,000 miles);
- Differential drain and fill (50,000 miles);
- 4X4 transfer case drain and fill (50,000 miles);
- Radiator coolant flush and fill (two years or 30,000 miles with conventional antifreeze, five years or 150,000 miles with long-life antifreeze);
- Air conditioning recharge (as needed);
- Fuel injector cleaning as needed/every 30,000 miles;
- Engine "decarbon" treatment for intake manifold, valves and combustion chambers (as needed);
- Engine cleaning to remove sludge and varnish from crankcase (as needed);
- Replace fuel filter (two years or 30,000 miles);
- Replace cabin air filter (yearly or 15,000 miles).
For some of these jobs, special tools and equipment may be needed. A do-it-yourselfer can change coolant, transmission fluid or gear oil with nothing more than a wrench, a catch pan, a floor jack and a pair of safety stands. By comparison, many quick lube shops and full-service repair shops now use fluid exchange equipment because it is faster, easy to use and does a more thorough job than a simple drain and fill. Up to half the coolant remains in the block when the radiator is drained, and up to two-thirds of the fluid in an automatic transmission stays in the torque converter when the transmission pan is removed. Most exchange equipment replaces nearly all of the old ATF or coolant. Shops that don’t yet have this type of equipment should be encouraged to consider the many advantages it offers.
For cleaning jobs, a wide variety of professional and DIY products are available for dirty fuel injectors and fuel systems, for removing carbon from combustion chambers and valves, and for cleaning sludge and varnish from inside the engine. Many shops that perform these services, though, use equipment that is designed for professionals. This includes on- and off-car fuel injector cleaning equipment, engine decarbonizing machines and crankcase flushing machines.
So the next time you’re selling motor oil, filters or other maintenance items to a customer, whether he’s a professional or a DIYer, ask him if he’s doing a "complete" lube/oil/filter job. If he doesn’t know what that includes, rattle off the list of items that most quick lube shops include – then ask him what else he needs to do a complete job.