When should I change my oil? Let your owner’s manual be your guide

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I know your answer is likely every 3,000 miles on my daily driver and maybe sooner on my classic car. Well, that’s not exactly correct!

Oil chemistry and engine technology have evolved tremendously in recent years, but you’d never know it from the quick-change behavior of American car owners.

Driven by an outdated 3,000-mile oil change commandment, motorists are unnecessarily spending millions of dollars and spilling an ocean of contaminated waste oil.

The majority of automakers today call for oil changes at either 7,500 or 10,000 miles, and the interval can go as high as 15,000 miles in some cars.

Yet this wasteful cycle continues largely because the automotive service industry, while fully aware of the technological advances, continues to preach the 3,000-mile gospel as a way to keep the service bays busy.

Now your going to say, it only costs $20, and I have a good feeling that my car is ready for the next 3,000 miles. Besides I know after my second oil change it is time to have my tires rotated and part of the oil change is to get free tire rotation.

Yes this may be true, but the tire rotation cost is minimal so you really aren’t saving much. As a result, even the most cautious owners are dumping their engine oil twice as often as their service manuals recommend.

After many interviews with oil experts, mechanics and automakers, one thing is clear: The 3,000-mile oil change is a myth that should be laid to rest. Failing to heed the service interval in your owner’s manual wastes oil and money, while compounding the environmental impact of illicit waste-oil dumping and you know this happens.

If your going to change your own oil (as I did on my classic) please save the old oil in a container and most oil change places will gladly take your old oil. Why do you say, because they make $$$ when they sell it!

Part of the blame for this over-servicing lies in our insecurities about increasingly complicated engines that are all but inaccessible to the average driver. Pop open the hood of a modern car and a mass of plastic covers wall off the engine. On some vehicles, the only thing an owner can easily access is the oil cap.

I once read “Vehicles are so sophisticated that oil is one of the last things that customers can have a direct influence over,” said Matt Snider, project engineer in GM’s Fuels and Lubricants Group. “There’s maybe some feeling that they’re taking care of their vehicle if they change their oil more often.”

The quick-lube industry’s “convenient reminder” windshield sticker also promotes the 3,000-mile myth. It is a surprisingly effective tool that prompts us to continue following a dictate that our fathers (or grandfathers) drummed into our heads: It’s your duty to change your oil every 3,000 miles or your car will pay the price. But as former service advisor put it, the 3,000-mile oil change is “a marketing tactic that dealers use to get you into the service bay on a regular basis. 

Car dealers’ service departments are also guilty of incorrectly listing the mileage for the next oil change. I have also heard them recommend a 3,000-mile oil change on a car with a 10,000-mile interval and also list a 5,000-mile recommendation on a car that has a variable oil change schedule.

Because busy car owners seldom read their owner’s manuals, most have no idea of the actual oil change interval for their cars. And so they blindly follow the windshield reminder sticker, whether it’s an accurate indicator of the need for an oil change or not.

“I just go by the sticker in the windshield,” one person told me. I said have you ever read your owner’s manual?

Our oil-change addiction also comes from the erroneous argument that nearly all cars should be serviced under the “severe” schedule found in the owner’s manual. In fact, a quiz on the Web site maintained by Jiffy Lube International Inc. (owned by petrochemical giant Shell Oil Company) recommends the severe maintenance schedule for virtually every kind of driving pattern.

The argument that most people drive under severe conditions is losing its footing, however. A number of automakers, including Ford and GM, have contacted Edmunds data editors to request that the maintenance section of Edmonds’ site substitute the normal maintenance schedule for the severe schedule that had been displayed.

About the only ones that really need a 3,000-mile oil change are the quick-lube outlets and dealership service departments. In their internal industry communications, they’re frank about how oil changes bring in customers.

“Many people...know when to have their oil changed but don’t pay that much attention to it,” said an article in the National Oil and Lube News online newsletter. “Take advantage of that by using a window sticker system and customers will be making their way back to you in a few short months.”

While the car-servicing industry is clear about its reasons for believing in the 3,000-mile oil change, customers cling to it only because they’re largely unaware of advances in automotive technology. Among 2013 models, the majority of automakers call for oil changes at either 7,500 or 10,000 miles based on a normal service schedule, more than double the traditional 3,000-mile interval change intervals using synthetic oil.

“Oil has changed quite a bit and most of that isn’t transparent to the average consuming public,” said Robert Southland, principal scientist at Pennzoil Passenger Car Engine Lubricants. Synthetic oils, such as the popular Mobil 1 (my brand), are stretching oil change intervals, leaving the 3,000-mile mark in the dust.

“The great majority of new vehicles today have a recommended oil change interval greater than 3,000 miles,” said Mobil spokeswoman Kristen A. Hellmer. The company’s most advanced synthetic product (Mobil 1 Extended Performance) is guaranteed for 15,000 miles.

So the decision is yours, if it is a feel-good thing for an oil change at 3,000 miles do it, but you can’t go wrong reading your owner’s manual for the manufactures requirements.

“Keep ‘Em Rolling” and yes I admit that I changed my oil on the ’36 Dodge every 1,000 miles or sooner, after all a 78-year-old classic deserves some pampering. I can be reached at rbenzing@twcny.rr.com

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