Oh, the things people skip. Someone might skip a meal because they are in a hurry. A kid might skip school because they would rather hang out with their friends, skipping rope on the playground or skipping rocks across the pond. A guy might skip church to watch a football game or skip work to go fishing. And some people skip oil changes because they don’t want to spend the time or the money for the service.
But, as with many other things in life that are ignored, skipping oil changes for your engine comes with a trade-off. It comes at a cost.
When you put off changing the oil in your engine – whether because you want to save a few bucks, or because you got some bad advice, or because you just plain forgot – you compromise its performance and protection.
Why are oil changes important?
Oil has a job to do as it works in your engine. It lubricates the moving metal parts that would otherwise come into contact with and grind away at each other in short order. The oil creates a super thin and slippery surface on which those engine components can slide without touching one another. By reducing friction, the oil also helps to manage the temperature of your engine.
Motor oil also serves other functions. With the help of special additives, it helps to keep an engine clean inside. It prevents corrosion. It neutralizes acids that build up. And it responds to a wide range of temperatures so that it lubricates and protects your engine whether it is a hot sweltering day or the thermometer reads well below zero.
In short, motor oil prevents wear and tear on your engine. Without it, your engine wouldn’t last for very long.
But oil only does its job for so long. Over time, motor oil breaks down, losing its ability to lubricate effectively. That is why automakers recommend changing the oil and oil filter as part of routine vehicle maintenance. The time between oil changes may vary by vehicle make and model, but one thing is certain: all engines need the oil changed on a regular basis.
The problem with postponing an oil change
Now, if you decide to wait longer than the manufacturer recommends to get your oil changed (or if you forget or otherwise fail to follow your car’s maintenance schedule), the oil in your engine will deteriorate beyond its ability to perform. It will get thicker and less able to maintain a consistent viscosity (thickness), eventually turning to a thick black sludge that coats engine components and clogs oil passageways.
You see, motor oil is susceptible to the effects of heat inside your engine created by the combustion process and friction. That heat leads to thermal breakdown, oxidation, and the introduction of impurities. Acids form and eat away at engine components. So does corrosion. Even dust and dirt from the air can enter your engine through the air cleaner, eventually making its way into the oil.
Oil additives designed to combat acids, corrosion, and other problems also have a certain lifespan. They too will wear out. When you do not change your oil on time, the problems of thermal breakdown and contamination worsen until engine components wear prematurely or your engine is no longer able to function.
Some well-meaning motorists might encourage you to save a few dollars by forgoing an oil change and simply swapping the oil filter. The suggestion sounds reasonable: oil filters clean out particulates from the oil as it passes through. When the filter gets old, replace it and the new filter can clean up the old oil, right?
No, not really. A fresh filter might remove some dirt and debris, but it will not reverse the effects of thermal breakdown – certainly not the problem of viscosity. And a new filter will not restore the ability of the worn-out additives. The oil and filter should always be changed together.
What if you miss the mileage mark?
Vehicle manufacturers recommend changing the oil in a modern engine somewhere between 5K miles and 10K miles – sometimes longer – under normal conditions (certainly not every three months or three thousand miles, although there are some special conditions that might call for such). It all depends on your specific make and model. You can check with a trusted shop for a recommendation for your car, truck, or SUV. Or you could simply check your owner’s manual.
But what if you miss the mark? What if you suddenly find that you were supposed to have your oil changed eight hundred… a thousand miles ago? What now?
Fortunately, modern motor oil affords you a bit of breathing room. If you change your oil sooner than recommended, you will do nothing but spend more money. And if you overshoot by several hundred or even a thousand miles, as long as it is not a habit, you will not do harm to your engine. The key is to stick to a routine. That way, if you fall down on the job occasionally, your engine will be none the worse for wear.
On the other hand, if you routinely stretch out the oil change intervals significantly, you are playing roulette with your engine. The more that oil degrades, the more premature engine wear is likely to develop.
Stretching your oil change interval with synthetic oil
If you have a tendency to wait too long between oil changes, you might consider switching from conventional oil to synthetic oil.
Where conventional oil is distilled directly from crude oil (with all of its impurities and molecules of uneven size and shape), synthetic motor oil is made artificially in a lab from a highly-refined base oil stock. Synthetics are incredibly uniform at a molecular level, and they contain improved additives over those found in conventional oils.
Because of these qualities, synthetic oil products are better able to withstand thermal breakdown, hold up across a wider range of temperatures, and keep your engine cleaner. But maybe most importantly for you, synthetic oil lasts longer. It is capable of more miles between oil changes. It may cost more (significantly more, in some cases), but that cost can be offset by less-frequent oil changes.
Now, extending the time between oil changes may not necessarily be all it is cracked up to be. After all, many auto owners rely on an oil change service as an occasion to have other routine maintenance procedures taken care of at the same time. Things like tire rotations, other fluids and filters, and vehicle inspections. Lengthening the time between oil change services can mean postponing other important services as well.
Still, switching to synthetic and changing your oil less often is worth considering – as long as your car is not still under the manufacturer’s new car warranty. If it is, you should stick with the recommended oil change interval, whether you use synthetic oil or not.
No matter what type of oil you opt for, make sure to change it regularly. It is the most important service procedure for your engine. So, if you are going to skip anything, skip that five-dollar latte every day. Skip that extra serving of ice cream and take a walk instead. Just don’t shortchange your car by skipping out on an oil change.