It is said that you cannot change just one thing in an ecosystem. Go ahead and try. Hang a feeder for the birds outside your window and you will likely attract more than just your feathery friends. Unwanted guests like squirrels, raccoons, and opossums – cute as they may be – will each take their turn at that feeder. And they will probably end up inside your house at some point! Mow a field, dam a river, line up a series of construction barrels on the highway: like the ripple effect of a pebble thrown in the water, every action sets off a series of interconnected events. The same is true of your engine and how frequently you change your oil.
The Three Thousand Mile Myth
If you have ever heard that old standard “three months or three thousand miles” mantra, you may have taken it as gospel for oil change intervals. The truth is, that outmoded recommendation dates back to a time when engine and lubrication technologies were less-developed than they are today. Years ago, engine oil tended to be thicker, it had a higher viscosity, and engines were built with wider spaces between their moving parts. Today’s engines, though, are manufactured to tighter tolerances, and they rely on lighter-weight, lower-viscosity oils. Modern lubricants tend to hold up better than they did in the past, especially synthetic oil products. And engines can run longer between oil changes.
So, instead of following a general guideline, it is better that you follow the specific recommendation of your vehicle’s manufacturer. Each manufacturer suggests an oil change interval particular to its engines. Those recommendations are published in your vehicle’s scheduled maintenance guide. The shortest suggestion for the time between oil changes is 5K miles. Some suggest upwards of 10K miles between oil change services. It really depends on what is recommended for your vehicle.
The Modern Oil Change Misconception
But you can’t change just one thing. The old three-thousand-mile habit may be outdated as a general rule, but at least it was consistent. There is nothing wrong with changing your oil every three thousand miles, it just costs more and takes more time. Three thousand miles was a suggestion that folks could follow – simply. Consistently. Now it is different. The manufacturers changed the plan.
Now, there are many different recommendations. Change your oil every 5K miles, or 7.5K miles, or 10K, or 15K. Even longer. It may not take a brain surgeon to figure out how to check the manual for the right interval; it does take being intentional. Many drivers do not know what their manufacturer recommends, so they either stick with the old adage or take a shot in the dark. Your engine needs more consistency than that.
And that is not the whole story.
A closer look at your owner’s manual or service schedule will reveal that the manufacturer suggests two different maintenance schedules: one for “normal” driving conditions and one for severe or “special operating conditions”.
For instance, the maintenance guide for a 2016 Toyota Camry recommends having its synthetic oil and oil filter replaced every 10K miles as a “standard” procedure. But, when it comes to special operating conditions, the interval drops to 5K miles. That is twice as often as normal. Other manufacturers have similar recommendations for severe driving conditions.
Where most drivers miss the mark is understanding what constitutes “severe” or “special” circumstances. Toyota’s definition?
- Driving on dirt roads or dusty roads
- Driving while towing, using a car-top carrier, or heavy vehicle loading
- Repeated trips of less than five miles in temperatures below 32 degrees
- Extensive idling and/or low speed driving for a long distance
Other manufacturers include driving in hot-weather stop-and-go traffic and driving at speeds less than 50 mph for long distances.
Really? These sound far less like “severe” conditions and more like everyday driving habits for most drivers. If you drive in rush hour traffic, regularly haul a heavy load, have a short commute, or a quick trip to school to pick up the kids every day, your driving probably falls into the “severe” category. Likewise, if you live or drive on a dirt road. Do you get the picture? Recommendations to wait longer between oil changes do not apply to a lot of cars, trucks, and SUVs. And yet, many drivers do not know it.
The Problem of Sludge and Other Oil Conditions
The problem with following the wrong recommendation? Sludge. Nothing in your engine works any harder than the oil. But engine oil is only serviceable for so long. Over time, it becomes contaminated with carbon from the combustion process and water vapor from condensation. Heat causes the oil to break down, which also contributes to the formation of sludge. Engine oil that is supposed to lubricate hundreds of moving parts inside your engine – the pistons, valves, camshafts, and many more parts – can turn into thick, black mud that clings to everything and clogs up tiny oil passageways. This leads to insufficient lubrication and premature wear on engine components.
In addition to normal thermal breakdown over time, other conditions ruin your oil. Short trips where your engine does not heat up enough to burn off water vapor, oxidation, and the formation of acids that wear away at your engine all contribute to oil that will no longer do its job properly. Special additives can be added to your oil to help deal with some of these conditions, but they are not a cure-all.
So, your oil needs to be checked frequently and changed regularly. If your oil level drops between oil changes, the oil that remains has to work harder and breaks down faster. Moreover, if you use oil that is not approved by your vehicle manufacturer, it may not hold up and could exacerbate a sludge condition. And neglected oil change intervals can ruin any oil, even high-end synthetic oils, like Mobil 1.
Then there are all of the other service procedures and inspection items that you miss out on by delaying an oil change. If your service shop provides a courtesy inspection at the time of your oil change, waiting longer between services means that your brake system, steering, suspension, and more are inspected less frequently. Same goes for the other fluids and filters in your car. Tire rotations and other routine services that are traditionally performed at the same time as an oil change might be delayed as well. They need to be done more often than some extended oil change intervals.
No, you can’t change just one thing in an ecosystem. The automotive industry moved away from the three thousand mile oil service suggestion and opened up a veritable can of worms. Of course, one thing has not changed. All oil needs to be replaced regularly. But the time between changes is probably shorter than you think.
Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash | Author: Mike Ales | Copyright
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