Check Engine

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Portrait of an auto mechanic putting oil in a car engine

Stop Sleepwalking Through Oil Changes!

When discussing preventative vehicle maintenance, especially the tasks that are universal across all makes and models, an oil change ranks among the most emphasized, as well as those performed with the most diligence. It seems so simple; depending on your vehicle, you either schedule or perform your oil change within a certain mileage or duration of time. With little more than a calendar reminder on your smartphone, or by reading the sticker left in the upper corner of your driver’s side windshield, you can remain on top of one of your vehicle’s most crucial chores. It almost makes you wonder why so many car owners have trouble staying on top of their oil changes.

Setting aside simple negligence or ineptitude when it comes to time management, the simple truth is that many drivers are unable to identify the signs that they have gone too long without an oil change. With that in mind, let’s establish some important insights as to (i) why oil changes are a crucial component to vehicle longevity, (ii) signs that an oil change is needed and (iii) how to avoid the pitfalls of ‘up-selling’ should you wish to have your oil performed at a service center.

The Importance of Oil Changes

Simply put, your engine consists of countless moving parts, all of which are operating at high speeds. To minimize friction, which can lead to wear, compromised performance and increased engine temperature all components must remain properly lubricated. And yes, that lubrication is provided by engine oil.

During operation, the engine is exposed to a number of contaminants such as dust and debris. The collection of this debris inside of the oil, as well as increased temperatures and lower levels, cause the oil to thicken and lose viscosity. Growing progressively less effective as a lubricant, it becomes important to remove the used oil and replace it with fresh lubricant. This is the process of changing one’s oil; and in terms of preventative maintenance, it is among the most important to ensure your vehicle’s longevity.

Six Signs Your Oil Needs Changing

As ridiculously obvious as it might sound, the best means of determining whether or not your vehicle needs an oil change is to trust your senses. Look. Listen. Smell. Even for those lacking any automotive sensibilities, the signs are both present and detectable.

First and foremost, of course, are the signs detectable by sight. Here at CheckEngine.com, we put a lot of stock in industry-standard Warning Lights. They’re there for a reason, folks…and that reason is to communicate a current issue in terms of your vehicle’s operation. An illuminated ‘oil’ warning light is intended to indicate that oil levels are low. At that point, the best action would be to check oil levels with your dipstick and, if low, pursue an oil change (since low oil levels cause the oil to age and contaminate faster). That said, a ‘Check Engine’ light is communicating that your engine might be at high risk, which could be due to lack of fluid or existing damage which came as a result.

When checking oil levels, it’s important to understand that dirty or dark oil on your dipstick is a sign that an oil change is needed. It is recommended that this is done regularly (every 3-4 weeks) to ensure that both oil levels, and quality of that oil, are being maintained.

The color and consistency of your exhaust is another valuable indicator. While it’s normal to notice translucent vapor being emitted from your exhaust (especially in cold weather) darker, thicker emissions are a warning sign of oil issues or even a leak.

On a related note, the smell of smoke or oil inside of the cabin is a sign that something is wrong. Perhaps there is an oil leak or your vehicle is overheating. Either way, trust your instincts in the presence of discernible fumes.

Understanding that the lubrication provided by oil consists of coating metallic components and minimizing their contact with each other, it’s easy to see how an engine might seem louder if it wasn’t being properly lubricated. Such noises can include knocking, which can grow in intensity the longer a vehicle goes uncared for. And, of course, it doesn’t take a skilled or discerning ear to notice a vehicle running ‘louder’ than usual, so this is one of the simplest means of detecting the need for an oil change.

As noted above, it’s also important to understand your vehicle’s recommended oil change schedule, both in terms of time and mileage. For most vehicles, time-frames are set between in three-to-six month intervals, or in terms of 3,000-6,000 mile increments.

Whatever steps you take to monitor your vehicle’s oil will pay off in dividends, minimizing wear and tear, and preventing costly repairs and hassle down the road.

A dirty hand removing the oil plug under a vehicle

Protect Yourself

While we have no intention of advocating some kind of universal conspiracy facilitated by dealerships, garages and quick lubes – it’s important to understand that each exists as part of the retail service industry. Simply put, the products and services are a revenue stream for a business which aims to be as lucrative as possible. Thus, there is always a likelihood that service managers and/or technicians might advocate additional services or most costly products, while unnecessarily stressing their urgency.

Understanding tiered services offered by the service provider is an important first step. For many, there is a difference between a simple oil change and a Signature Service. While you might prefer the latter, since it includes a number of other ‘checks’ to be performed by a professional, it may include steps that you can easily perform yourself. Examples might be fluid or filter checks. Ultimately, it’s your call, but you shouldn’t pay for any additional services that you don’t want or need. In addition, knowing the services promised allows you to make sure that each and every one that you paid for, was completed.

It’s also important to understand your vehicle’s needs in terms of standard grade, synthetic, or specialty oils. An unsuspecting layperson might accept a technician’s recommendation for a more costly oil, even if there is no reason or benefit to be enjoyed. Less reputable establishments have even been known to upcharge for a higher grade oil, while still using standard formula.

Another common ‘crime’ committed by less reputable providers is the unfulfilled filter change. Assuming the customer’s inability or lack of willingness to double-check the work done, some establishments have been known to charge for filter replacements without actually performing one. Using a Sharpie marker, make a small mark on the filter prior to service. Doing so is an easy means of confirming whether or not the replacement was performed, after the fact.

And finally, most technicians will advise you of additional services that your vehicle will require. Some might attempt to persuade you that such services are more urgent than they are, or exaggerate the convenience of getting the work done now. These are basic upsell tactics, and ones that you should expect. As such, it’s important to understand as much as you can about your vehicle’s needs and service history.

Final Thoughts

Everything we’ve covered here could be used to argue the value of performing your own oil changes and vehicle maintenance, but such things can be more easily said than done. The increasing complexity of today’s vehicles combined with the rigid requirements attached to warranty programs might require professional documentation of service and maintenance, often by the dealership themselves.

Increasing your understanding of your vehicle is the primary goal of CheckEngine.com. If you have any questions about oil changes and requirements, we hope that you’ll ask. We’re glad to help in any way that we can.