Why 'Cheap' Oil Changes Aren't So Cheap

May 23, 2010

This Friday a customer brought me a car with the oil pressure light on. He had recently had an oil change done on the car by a local chain quick-lube shop. The car, a late model MINI Cooper, uses a cartridge filter that fits over a sleeve inside the oil filter housing cap. The quick-lube shop had completely removed this sleeve when installing the new filter, which prevented the oil from properly circulating with the correct pressure. Fortunately, we caught their error before major engine damage could occur and the customer learned a $75 lesson instead of a multiple thousand dollar lesson.

Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurrence. Over the years I've ran into a significant number of car owners who learn an expensive lesson at the hands of their local quick-lube shop. I've seen a shop drain the transmission fluid and then install new oil on top of the old motor oil, necessitating a new transmission and engine. I've seen hundreds of stripped oil pans and drain plugs, and the wrong filter or a double-gasketed filter installed dozens of times. I've dealt with oil filler caps left off leading to engine bays that resemble the Exxon-Valdez disaster. I've seen the world's largest retailer pay me to put an $8,000 factory Infiniti motor into a car one of their employees left the oil out of while servicing. While not every single mistake I've seen was made by a quick-lube lane, the overwhelming majority are made by these budget service centers during what should be the simplest of services.

These places can get you in and out in a hurry, and usually offer a very inexpensive price. They also don't require an appointment, which means they are incredibly convenient. Nowadays, in our society, convenience and speed trump quality and knowledge for most consumers. Why are these places so bad? They are impersonal places that must move vast quantities of cars in and out to make a profit. It’s unlikely they will take the time to learn about the more unusual cars and their requirements. Do you think they go through the five minute process of checking the on-board computer of a late model dipstick-less Mercedes-Benz to see if the oil level is correct? These places are not hiring professional mechanics to change your oil, rotate your tires, check your wipers, and top off your fluids. They often barely pay more than minimum wage. The quality of work you get out of someone making fast food wages is not what you get from someone who is a professional. A professional independent mechanic doesn't have the luxury of making a mistake that costs him time and money. A quick-lube worker knows if he leaves a couple of drain plugs loose and gets fired he can go down the street and work at Taco Bell for the same amount of money.

A car owner should build a relationship with a mechanic. Finding someone that truly cares about your car and understands his livelihood relies on satisfying you should be a priority if you care about your car. If you own a car that requires special oil, or special service procedures, you want to have confidence that your mechanic is familiar with the model and what to do. Finally, all shops, whether a trustworthy independent, or the lowest of the low quick-lube shops, make a significant portion of their money from up-sales. For example, you come in for an oil service and we check your air filter and find it dirty and recommend its replacement. If a shop will not show you the item they are up-selling, or won't allow you back into the shop and show you how worn out your tires are, you should get your keys and leave that shop before they can rip you off. Don't take any excuse about insurance or corporate policy not allowing you back there. That is pure bull. Shop-keepers’ insurance policies make blanket statements about covering any injury or issue occurred when an escorted customer is doing business in the shop. If they won't show you what they are selling you then you probably don't need it.

Personally, I think you should be on a first name basis with your mechanic. Being a loyal customer and having a trustworthy mechanic is not something to take for granted. Even though it might be slightly more inconvenient and more expensive in the short term to utilize your mechanic for your most basic service, you will end up saving money and time in the long run.

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