A few weeks ago, I noticed the sticker on my windshield from the last time I had the oil changed. I had exceeded the mileage recommended on the sticker, which was 3,000 miles from the last time I had it changed. But I also remembered that my owner’s manual didn’t say that. The closest it came was “Under no circumstances should oil change intervals exceed 8,000 miles (13 000 km) or six months, whichever comes first.”
One of the first pieces of mechanical advice I got from my Dad was to “always check the oil.” I learned the hard way once by letting the oil reservoir in a lawnmower go dry, and having the engine seize up. So after learning that costly lesson, I have since adhered to the handy sticker in the corner of the windshield, reminding myself to get the oil changed.
These stickers are a remarkably-effective marketing piece by the oil-change business; I have to give them that. There is probably no more effective advertisement than that little sticker; its always there, in front of you. But the fact is that, with today’s advanced oil and engine technology, most experts agree that you really don’t need to change the oil that frequently. So which is it? When should you really worry about getting your oil changed?
For a professional opinion, I asked David Morse of Carshop in Ridgeland. I’ve known David for more than 40 years, from when he and my big brother tinkered around with go-kart engines in the garage in north Jackson. He knows a thing or two about engines. Morse said a lot has changed with the oil business in the last few years, and the industry has been trying to keep up.
“We recently changed our oil change recommendation from 3,500 miles or three months to 5,000 miles or four months,” Morse said. “Engine and oil technology is much better now than it was several years ago, but one thing hasn’t changed: the engine’s oil is still the lifeblood of our cars we depend on so much.”
Morse said it’s up to individual manufacturers to determine the oil change interval, with recommendations ranging from 7,500 to even 10,000 miles. He noted three considerations to keep in mind:
1. Most cars don’t operate in “ideal” driving conditions. The recommended intervals are for “ideal” driving conditions, and don’t take into account short trips, extreme hot or cold temperatures, and so on, all of which take their toll. “Very few cars are driven in these ideal conditions,” he explained, and “most of us do take a lot of short trips which does not allow enough time for condensation to burn off, and [they] drive in hot weather here in Mississippi.” He adds that manufacturers want to be able to tout lower maintenance costs as an incentive to buy, so they are more likely to use the longer intervals.
“Change your oil; It’s cheap insurance.”
2. Not checking your oil regularly can lead to trouble. “It’s not uncommon for the engine oil level to get low after a few thousand miles, and most people never check the oil level in between changes,” Morse noted. “Most cars have no warning indication of low oil level, just an oil light indicating low oil pressure, meaning major engine damage will occur in a few seconds (kind of like letting you know you are having a heart attack, not forewarning you of one). Low oil level causes premature wear on engine parts, and also puts added stress on the remaining oil, so why risk it?”
3. When in doubt, change it. “You cannot change your oil too often, but you can not change it often enough, causing costly damage,” he noted.
Morse also explained that newer vehicles have systems which are a lot more sophisticated than just the old “oil light”. For example, many newer vehicles have “maintenance minder” systems which actually check the oil quality, not just quantity, and take your driving habits into account. “Most dealers recommend changing the oil when 15% remaining oil life is indicated, which is probably O.K. if you drive almost all highway miles on long trips in good weather,” he said, “but our recommendation is still changing it every 5,000 miles. We have had seen several cars that came in for problems caused by being low on oil, and showed 30% or more oil life remaining.”
Ultimately, spending a little money now for maintenance is a way to avoid costly but avoidable problems later. “I’m not trying to sell more oil changes, there is less profit on an oil change than most any other job,” he said. “I’m just trying to help people take care of their cars in the most cost effective way. Change your oil; It’s cheap insurance.”
For more practical advice, check out this article on Edmunds.com.