Engine Oil

Auto Service Checklist - Gig Harbor Washington

Engine Oil – Your Engine’s Lifeblood

The other day I was driving my old pickup truck. It has a great little 4-cylinder engine (Toyota’s 22RE if you’re geeky like me and care about that sort of thing). Truly a great workhorse, this little truck serves us well in moving equipment and generally doing what trucks do. On my drive I noticed the engine was ever-so-slightly louder than normal. Adding that to my knowledge of its overall condition and knowing it was due for an oil change I assumed (and later confirmed) it was low on engine oil.

No problem: oil and filter changed as soon as it was back at the shop – engine noises returned to normal.

This experience got me thinking: how does the general public know about such things? The change in engine noise was subtle and, frankly, it was my years of industry experience that told me something many people would miss. The risk to the engine was actually quite high and an inexperience or ill-informed motorist could have actually ended up damaging this trusty little engine. Shame on me: I preach about engine oil all the time yet I was dangerously close to reaping the dome I warn others of.

I get questions about engine oil *all* the time and it is a very important topic. Here is a short list of what I find helpful to share:

  • 1 – engine oil is your vehicle’s (more correctly your engine’s) lifeblood. Engine lubrication is CRITICAL – neglect here will undermine your vehicle’s longevity drastically.
  • 2 – “it is always the strongest swimmers who drown”. I love this expression. It applies so well to engine oil. I find the more stoutly-built and tolerant an engine is the more neglect it receives from its owner. Sad but true. Oil change intervals get dragged out, discount oil services or products get used, dirty or low oil conditions get ignored or never noticed… This becomes a ‘lifestyle’ and before you know it: accelerated engine wear and premature failure happens. Statistically people develop these bad habits with more trustworthy engines and less so with fussier ones. EG the Honda owner is more likely to do this than the Porsche owner. Hence the “stronger swimmer drowns”.
  • 3 – Vehicles that are not driven very far contaminate their oil more. Engine oil suffers from two common contaminants: fuel and water. Water is the bigger problem with modern cars – the engine is made of metal and it collects condensation as it cools – this condensation mixes with the engine oil and creates a sludge condition that will stick to engine parts – including oil passageways – this will restrict oil flow and undermine engine lubrication. It might be counterintuitive but the best way to avoid this sludging is to run your engine hard regularly so the condensation is burnt out of the oil. Failing this your best defense is to change the oil. This pattern reduces the time-frame needed for your oil changes and if you have these driving habits (who doesn’t?) you need a more frequent oil change *time* interval: regardless of mileage I would advise a two to four times per year service interval. For a very casually used vehicle (a summer-only convertible or perhaps an RV) I would change the oil annually – at the start of the season. I would do this even if the annual mileage is 500 miles or less.
  • 4 – As an extension of the above: sludge in your engine oil is very hard to get rid of. Much like cholesterol in your blood, oil sludge cannot be removed easily and often removal strategies are risky. Reversing sludge is difficult to impossible and thus sludge is best handled by simply avoiding it in the first place.
  • 5 – Modern direct-fuel-injection engines have been having failures with piston rings causing expensive internal engine damage due to abnormal carbon build-up from engine oil problems. In these cases, an engine conditioner treatment during its oil change has been very effective at avoiding this problem.
  • 6 – Synthetic oil is better. Synthetic oil performs better at the extremes: extreme temperatures, extreme (high or low) pressures, etc. If your engine doesn’t require synthetic oil it will still benefit from this. If you think about it the extremes are what we really care about. Engines don’t fail at idle or at cooler temperatures – they fail under stress; synthetic oil reduces this stress. Engines that *require* synthetic oils are really just engines that the manufacture expects will be operated in more extremes. Included in ‘extremes’, surprisingly, are engines in hybrid vehicles. I use synthetic oil in all my vehicles and recommend it to all my clients. A myth that needs busting: you are perfectly fine to switch your older engine from non-synthetic oil to synthetic any time. It is *NOT* going to cause leaks or other problems.
  • 7 – “High mileage” oil is a crock. Typically oils marketed this way are simply a blend (usually 50-50) of regular oil and synthetic. The marketing hype is really just a way to make you feel better: you’re ‘treating’ your older engine to something better. Although a synthetic oil blend is better than just regular oil, if you really want to do your old engine a favor go to full synthetic. I suspect this high-mileage game is really about human nature and our tendency to purchase the middle option: Regular oil (cheap), High Mileage (mid price), Full Synthetic (highest price). Don’t fall for this game.
  • 8 – Better oil is better. (sounds about right) Engine oil is not a place to economize. Buy the best – my favorites include: Mobil 1, Valvoline, and Castrol. Your savings are actually very significant: you will prolong your engine’s life which saves significantly more than a few dollars saved on cheaper oil.
  • 9 – Application is critical. Critical. We have a rule in our shop: we check the application of every fluid we use every time. As vehicle technology has advanced engines have become fussier about the oil they need. We advise you follow our rule: check to be sure the oil you use is approved for your engine. Frequently people forget: your vehicle owner’s manual usually has good engine oil recommendations.
  • 10 – Engine oil is political. It’s true and nowhere is it worse than with new cars. Manufactures want you to buy shiny new cars. To make them attractive, amongst other factors, the vehicle’s first few years of maintenance costs are a big deal. Consumer guides / advocates focus heavily on this. So, to appease this condition, vehicle manufactures extend oil change intervals beyond what we would recommend. This is perhaps a little harsh but we put it this way: the manufacturer cares about the first three years of your vehicle’s life; we care about the last three. There are a lot of factors to consider but the bottom line is this: your oil change interval should be suited to you. Our shop management system can set custom schedules for all of our clients to better match your needs.
  • 11 – Capacity counts. Engines with greater oil capacity are (understandably) more expense to perform oil services on. These engines are better protected by this larger capacity and often can go further between services. Larger capacity systems can tolerate more heat or more contaminants. When first faced with the cost of an oil change on a large-capacity system it is human-nature to compare it to smaller systems and wonder why you now have to suffer this greater expense. Diesel pickup trucks, for example, usually have 3-4 times the oil capacity of a small 4-cylinder vehicle. Some of this additional cost has to be simply understood as the price of admission for the added benefits of your engine (your diesel pickup is going to tow things your 4-cylinder vehicle will not) but usually the larger capacity allows your longer oil service interval and if you did the math the cost per mile per quart of oil isn’t as diverse as you would think.
  • 12 – Performance Engines use Performance Oils. (also sounds about right). The higher performance the engine the more it relies on oil to protect it. People sometimes forget that their engine is not that far removed from an engine built for the race-track and thus it needs the same care and feeding that the race-track engine needs. My favorite example are M-spec cars from BMW. Driving these cars is exhilarating, to be sure, but this perform has a cost especially in engine oiling demands. If you have a high-performance vehicle it is MORE important to not neglect its oil.
  • 13 – you need to check your oil level regularly. Expecting your dashboard warning system to tell you about a problem is dangerous. Some vehicle manufactures have oil LEVEL sensors that help warn you ahead of time (BMWs do this well) but others do not. MINIs concern me: I’ve seen MINI engines get dangerously low on oil without the driver knowing it. This causes expensive damage and I’ve replaced MINI engines due to this problem. MOST dashboard oil warning lights are oil pressure warning system not oil level warnings. Critically low oil will eventually impact oil pressure enough to switch this light on but at this point your engine has already suffered significant internal wear.
  • 14 – Low oil levels have two main causes: Oil leaks, obviously are one common cause of low oil conditions. People can sometimes assume, incorrectly, that not seeing oil under their vehicle means their oil level is fine. Oil unfortunately is also burned in an engine, and can have its level reduced significantly this way too. The only way to know is to follow #12 – check your level regularly. Note ‘normal’ oil consumption in an engine a hot and controversial topic in our industry. All engines burn oil but it is a CHANGE in the consumption rate that is cause for concern. Don’t panic though: crankcase ventilation system failures are the more common (and less expensive) cause of these changes and are typically easy to fix. The less common, and more expensive cause, is internal engine wear. People often assume the worst case and attribute increased oil consumption to impending engine failure – don’t fall into this trap.

This is a classic “do as I say, not as a I do” topic. Engine oil really is critical and there is understandable ignorance and misinformation out there. Our business philosophy is to be your advocate so for our clients we simply take ownership of this responsibility and have a great reminder system to ensure our clients don’t forget their oil services. Once in we check before and after conditions of the engine oil and make changes in recommended fluids or schedules as needed. This protects our clients’ investments – following the above advice can do likewise for you.

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