By Mike Hunter
Is it a good idea for your shop to try and save your customers 50% or more on their oil change services? With two simple steps, you and your customers may be able to significantly extend oil change intervals and save them money. The first step is to read the vehicle owner’s manual to find out how many miles the manufacturer recommends between oil changes. Second, learn about normal and severe driving conditions as described in the owner’s manual to see if extended oil change intervals can be justified. Because few of your customers will probably take the time to read the owner’s manual and find out about maintenance schedules, oil change intervals, or oil types, your customers will often look to you as the expert for your advice and automotive knowledge in this area.
Automotive technicians understand the importance of regular maintenance in ensuring a full trouble-free life from vehicles. As the expert, it may be your responsibility to make sure your customers understand what maintenance is required. Even with the information readily available in the owner’s manual, many consumers either believe they already know what the recommended oil change interval is or they often depend on an expert’s advice. As an automotive technician you should be able to answer your customers’ questions and give reasonable explanations regarding how many miles to drive between oil changes. You can do this by understanding the automotive manufacturer’s recommendations for oil change intervals and the difference between normal and severe driving conditions, all of which can be found in the vehicle’s owner’s manual.
More Driving Habits-Focused
Although during the 1950s it was common to change a car’s oil every 1,000 to 2,000 miles, automotive engine and oil technology has come a long way from those days. Today automotive manufacturers recommend extended oil changes for most of their vehicles, depending specifically on driving habits. Under certain driving conditions, these extended oil change intervals can be as high as 7,500 miles.
In order to discover basic consumer oil change habits, including how often consumers are having their oil changed and if they understand the manufacturer’s recommendations, a survey was e-mailed to 124 individuals, with 54 respondents completing it correctly. Of the returned surveys, half of the respondents were women and half men, all between the ages of 18 and 66. Sixty percent of the vehicles the participants drive are less than seven years old and 53% of those cars had less than 70,000 miles on them. These cars are relatively new with low mileage.
All of the individuals who completed the survey indicated that they were primarily responsible for their vehicle’s maintenance. When asked who changed their oil, more than 90% indicated that they have a professional do the job. Of those 90%, 47% use a quick-lube establishment such as Jiffy-Lube, 23% use independent repair facilities, and the other 30% go to automotive dealers.
Interestingly, 85% of the respondents feel that they have basic to intermediate knowledge of automobiles. Yet when asked if they knew how many miles to drive between oil changes, only 47% had ever looked in their owner’s manual to see what the manufacturer recommended. Additionally, more than 77% indicated that the service center where they have their oil changed recommends oil changes every 3,000 miles. Furthermore, some of those who indicated they had looked up oil change information in the owner’s manual were incorrect in how often they thought the manual said the oil should be changed.
Only 7% of those surveyed said that the service center or technician had discussed their driving habits and had given them information related to manufacturer’s recommended oil change intervals.
The study showed that consumers tended to trust their technician’s advice, especially since over 68% of the respondents have their oil changed every 3,000 to 4,000 miles, as recommended by the service center technicians. This is only slightly less often than the norm of the 1950s. Moreover, this habit never changed, regardless of the driving conditions of the vehicle. Obviously, most people are interested in doing what is best for their vehicle; for this reason, they follow the advice of their technicians. Some may even be led to believe that changing motor oil every 3,000 miles is “insurance” against engine damage and future repairs. If that is the only concern, there is no argument against the mantra “you can never change your oil too often.”
Some may take it too far however. One person was convinced that every mile driven over 3,000 miles without an oil change caused significant engine damage. The person was so concerned that he would have towed the car to a shop rather than driving more than 3,000 miles without an oil change.
The 3,000-Mile Amendment
If so many people believe their oil should be changed often, there must be some legitimacy to the 3,000-mile oil change. And, yes, there is, but where does this come from? Automobile manufacturers recommend this interval under “severe” driving conditions. The car’s owner’s manual will define both “normal” and “severe” driving conditions. Some common examples of severe conditions would include daily trips with frequent stop-and-go city traffic, frequent trips under 10 miles, typically dusty conditions, extremely cold weather below freezing, frequent idling for long periods, or regularly carrying a heavy load or towing a trailer. When considering whether the vehicle is driven under normal or severe conditions, owners and technicians should not think of individual instances, but rather typical daily driving. Just one trip down a dirt road does not mean a person drives under “severe” conditions.
Oil change intervals are typically indicated in number of miles driven simply because it is an easy number to keep track of. However, the real concern is in how long the engine has been running. An hour’s worth of engine time on the freeway can cover as much as 75 miles, while that same hour of travel through stop-and-go or city traffic may only cover 30 miles. Delivery drivers who park their vehicles and leave them idling in front of businesses for long periods of time may only cover 10 miles of travel in that same hour. Again, it is engine run time, not miles, that is the concern.
Another factor to consider is how long trips are. Short trips with a cold engine will create condensation or water droplets in the engine, which contaminate the oil. Extremely dusty conditions such as driving on dirt roads will also contaminate the oil because dirt particles get into the crankcase. The survey indicated that fewer than 10% of respondents use their vehicles in dusty areas, for delivery type service, for towing, or leave their vehicle idling for long periods of time. In fact, consumers typically drove their cars under normal conditions. However, according to the study, most drivers still followed the manufacturer’s oil change schedule for severe driving. In fact, 81% of their driving included often or occasional trips of more than 15 miles, driving that would qualify them for the normal or extended oil change schedules. Only 6% said they ever used their vehicle for delivery service, and 4% said they occasionally used their vehicle for towing. Delivery service and towing are two of the more significant factors for the 3,000-mile oil change, but these cases were also only under limited circumstances and would not automatically put them on the severe driving condition maintenance schedule.
Here, then, is the challenge: find several owner’s manuals and educate yourself on the manufacturer’s guidelines for various vehicles’ maintenance. You may find some interesting information about how often the manufacturer recommends changing oil and oil filters. Take a close look at what the manufacturer considers “normal” and “severe” driving. As a technician, it’s your responsibility to educate your customers on what they need to do for their particular vehicle. Ask them to think about how they drive and what oil-related factors are important to them, including price and environmental factors. It may save them money and time, and still fully protect their vehicles, if they allow more time between oil changes. If you can save a customer 50% on their oil change costs and educate them at the same time, I believe that they will come back for other service and they will tell their friends, all of which will help you build a better business.
Mike Hunter has been teaching automotive repair for 15 years, the last 13 at Bridgerland Applied Technology College in Logan, UT. He is an ASE Master Technician and has a master’s degree in Engineering and Technology Education.