The 3,000 Mile Oil Change Debate

September 22, 2010

Some years ago a small auto repair shop advertised that it was the home of the “Saturday Morning Oil Change”. It seemed to work since the shop performed an average of 15 LOFs in the six hours they were opened on the weekend. Of course, the success was in part due to the popular notion that any car thrived on fresh oil every 3,000 miles or 3 months, whichever comes first.

Enter a New York Times article that sings the praises of advances in motor oil chemistry and engine technology and the advantages of short oil change intervals is called into question quicker than chicken soup’s healing powers and George Washington’s mastery over a cherry tree.

Philip Reed, a senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com told the Times, “It feels good to get an oil change. If you fill up the car with gas, wash it and change the oil, it runs better. Of course, it doesn’t. But it’s the perception.” Which is a valid point, but is engine lubrication the only goal achieved with the oil change?

All Car Advice addressed this issue in the Spring of 2010 in The Importance Of An Oil Change. This post pointed out that a by-product of the frequent oil change is that an experienced professional is looking under the hood and the belly of your car and is able to point out potential or immediate needs. It is not unusual for belts or CV boots to fail between oil changes even if they are performed at 3,000 mile intervals. How many other potential failures will go undetected or develop into more serious service issues at 8,000 or 10,000 miles?

It is important to point out that commentators on this subject usually defer to the car manufacturers and recommend considering the vehicle’s owner’s manuals as the last word on both the definition of type of service your car operates under and the appropriate service interval. A Pennzoil scientist cited by the Times is among those recommending a strict reading of the manual to determine if your car is operated under stressful conditions, which may include short trips as opposed to highway miles, a notion that goes against the popular perception.

The environmental impact of frequent oil changes is another point made in the article. The idea is that we are discarding usable oil before its time. The concern about losing some output of used crankcase oil may be somewhat mitigated by understanding that your oil isn’t finished when it is collected in the drain pan. The service facility is financially motivated to resell this oil to a recycler who will re-refine it or sell it to an end user who can burn it as is. Probably the best way to ensure that your oil does no harm downstream is to patronize a facility that heats their own shop with used oil. This will minimize the environmental footprint of your oil.

Finally, I return to Mr. Reed’s statement, “It feels good to get an oil change.” None of the arguments for extending the oil change interval said that it did harm to the vehicle to change it more frequently. So aren’t we entitled to a guilty pleasure that protects a very big investment even better than required?   

[New York Times] 

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