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How a Cheap Oil Change Can Cost You

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Modern consumers like speed and convenience. We order our goods online and expect them in a day or two. We cook our popcorn in the microwave with the butter already on it. When we’re sick, we visit one of the many urgent care centers or drug store clinics that seem to be popping up everywhere. So why wouldn’t you want the same convenience with your car services? It seems that there’s a cheap, fast, no-appointment-needed oil change provider around every corner. How convenient! But the truth is that you may end up paying more than you bargained for.

How a Cheap Oil Change Can Cost You [infographic]

Why You Need to Change Your Oil

Engine oil is probably the most important fluid in your car. It circulates throughout your engine and valve train to lubricate all the moving parts. Without it, the many metal components would rub against each other, causing some serious damage. If you tried to run your car without any oil, chances are your engine would seize up very quickly. Once that happens there’s pretty much no saving it. Your engine would need to be rebuilt or replaced, which typically costs thousands of dollars.

Most of us would never knowingly run our car without oil. But a surprising number of car owners wait too long between oil changes. Typically, your oil needs to be changed every 3,000 to 10,000 miles depending on your vehicle. Check the owner’s manual to find out about your car. The type and quality of oil you use could also affect its longevity. A good mechanic should be able to tell you when your next oil change will be due.

Over time, the extreme heat of the engine breaks down the oil. When it begins to break down, it becomes a less effective lubricant. If you let this go on too long, your engine parts could start rubbing against each other, causing sometimes irreparable damage. There is also a limit to how much particulate matter engine oil can hold. If the particulates in the oil build up too much, they can start to settle in the engine and cause corrosion.

Perhaps the biggest issue you will face with a delayed oil change is sludge buildup. Sludge is just oil that has begun to gel or solidify. It blocks the free flow of oil around your engine and can starve it of oil. Without enough oil, your engine can be damaged by friction. When you eventually do get your oil changed, the sludge will probably stick around. It’s hard to tell by yourself if your engine has been damaged by delaying an oil change. But if you take it to a mechanic, they can do a leak down test or vacuum test to get a good idea of your engine’s health.

An Oil Change is Actually Very Simple

The reason there are so many businesses and chains selling quick, convenient, low-cost oil changes is that oil changes are usually pretty straightforward. The procedure usually goes like this:

  1. Locate the drain plug and remove it.
  2. Let the oil drain.
  3. Replace the drain plug.
  4. Locate the oil filter and replace it.
  5. Refill the engine with new oil.

That’s it. Simple, right? What could possibly go wrong? The answer is that plenty can go wrong. Those speedy oil change chains offer low prices, but they have to make up their costs somewhere. To keep costs low, they use a number of somewhat questionable practices.

First, they don’t hire mechanics. Many of the technicians who work at these chains are paid barely more than minimum wage and have no prior training. Someone showed them how to do an oil change, and they just do that, over and over, for burger-flipping wages.

Second, they often use off-brand oil and parts. For some cars this may not be too big of a problem, but for many vehicles, especially higher-end vehicles, using cheap oil and parts can cause serious damage.

Third, they make their money on volume. Their profit margins are actually pretty small, so they can only make money by doing lots of oil changes. That means that their priority is speed. While it may seem like a benefit to get in and out quickly, the truth is that rushing through an oil change is not a good idea. With speed comes mistakes, and your engine oil is not a service you want to have mistakes with.

Finally, these chains often make up the low cost of an oil change by upselling you on other services. While the base fee for an oil change may seem enticing, you may end up paying quite a bit more. Often these chains will “top off” other fluids, like coolant or even windshield wiper fluid, and charge you high prices for just a few ounces of liquid. They may also replace your air filter, without even asking, even if your current air filter is just fine. To avoid this, make sure that you specify that you want no additional services without your express permission, and always ask to see any parts they are replacing.

What Can Go Wrong With a Cheap Oil Change

The fact is, no matter how simple a procedure an oil change may be, there are plenty of ways it can go terribly wrong. Most of these problems are the result of two things: carelessness and inadequate training. As we said, most chains don’t hire mechanics and barely pay minimum wage. That doesn’t generally recruit the best technicians. Also, with pressure to keep the volume of customers high, mistakes are bound to crop up.

One common problem with cut-rate oil changes is stripped oil pans or drain plugs. That can make it really hard to change the oil next time. If you return to the same place for your next oil change, they may resort to some pretty blunt measures to get your drain plug off, resulting in permanent damage. Often, untrained technicians will use the wrong parts. They may use the wrong gaskets or filters, resulting in leaks and problems with performance. Sometimes, in the rush to get the next car in, a technician will forget to replace the oil cap, resulting in a huge mess as soon as you drive the car out of the shop.

While it is less common, some customers have had disaster stories like technicians who forgot to refill the oil, leading to catastrophic damage to the engine. In other cases, technicians accidentally drain the transmission fluid instead of the oil, then add new oil on top of the old oil. Suffice it to say that this is a recipe for an engine and transmission replacement, which can cost thousands of dollars. Other times, a technician may leave a rag behind, causing all sorts of damage.

The bottom line is that even with a simple procedure like an oil change, there is lots of room for costly mistakes. When you have your oil changed by low-wage workers with no mechanic training, the likelihood of some kind of accident is much higher than with a more reliable company.

Where Should You Get Your Oil Changed

There are plenty of low-quality oil change providers out there. But if you are looking for speed and convenience, there are some options available that actually do a good job. How do we know? Because Dale has done the research himself. TrustDALE certifies several businesses that have undergone Dale’s intensive 7-point investigative review and signed on to his Make-it-Right Guarantee™. When you take your car to one of these businesses, you can be sure that you are getting quality service at a competitive price. To find the best providers in your area, just check our listing here.