Quick-Lube Primer: Stop! Don't Go For Your Next Oil Change Before Reading This

Some services are unnecessary, or better left to dealers and more sophisticated repair shops

Have you ever gone to a quick-lube place for an oil change and, while you're waiting in the lobby for your car, the service bay/sales person informs you that a certain service(s) "must" be performed on the vehicle immediately to avert a disaster of immense proportion?

It's a high-pressure moment. You think: I can get this done now, and not have to make an appointment at the dealership. I can save money here, too. And I want to take care of my car, which I rely on.

But here is the problem: Most of us do not know much about these products or services before being confronted with the questions and offers. And we hate to come across as ignorant about our car. Many of us can relate to this scenario.

The "recommended service" they advise usually includes one or more of the following:

-High mileage oil

-Fuel system cleaning

-Brake fluid flush

-Transmission flush

-Transfer case or differential fluid change

Knowledge is power. So let's look at each service, the validity of the claim, and whether or not you should follow the advice.

Does Your Vehicle Need "High Mileage" Oil?

High mileage oils supposedly are formulated with more robust additive packages for better lubrication and rust inhibition, along with a nourishing agent to bring old, hardened oil seals back to life. Well, if that's true, why didn't the company initially give me its best formulation so that my car would get more mileage out of the engine in the first place? I consulted an expert in the industry to gather more information. Dan Watson, a Certified Lubrication Specialist (STLE) and publisher of www.lubedepot.com and www.maxxtorque.com (an E-Zine about diesel power) sent me some bullet points to consider when offered "high mileage oil."

-High mileage oils are fortified with additional additives for improving the ability of the oil to deal with byproducts of combustion (otherwise known as "crud.") and enhance engine cleanliness.

-The age of the engine has nothing to do with the protection needed to maintain the engine and prevent wear.

-The best procedure is to start out with oil that doesn't break down and leave sludge and varnish in the engine in the first place.

-Start the engine out from day-one using high quality synthetic engine oil and you will have superior protection and cleanliness from the start. You will never need a "better oil" when you get to a higher mileage.

-It is important to note all synthetic oils are not the same. Look for synthetic oils like AMSOIL or Mobil One; these oils have extremely robust additive packages designed for longer oil-change intervals. This insures you are getting maximum protection and superior cleanliness regardless of vehicle mileage.

Bottom-Line: Use high-quality synthetic oil from the start in a new car. If you are driving a used car that you purchased, start using these same sorts of synthetic oils for maximum protection. Don't pay for something the attendant is calling "high mileage" oil, which could mean any number of things.

Does Your Vehicle Need a Fuel System Cleaning?

Maybe. But I can't recommend getting it done at a quick-lube outlet.

Over time, fuel injectors get clogged with varnish deposits and dirt that's picked up in the fuel. When this happens, the injectors dribble fuel into the combustion chamber rather than deliver a fine mist of air/fuel mixture for perfect combustion.

As an automotive machinist, I have seen many cylinder heads and pistons loaded with carbon buildup from inefficient combustion that resulted in inefficient and/or damaged engines. In addition, I can tell you that fuel additives to the fuel tank alone cannot keep a fuel system clean.

Fuel systems do need to be cleaned. During the fuel delivery system cleaning process, industrial strength carbon and varnish cleaners are injected directly into the fuel delivery system while the engine is running.

The problem I have with having this service done at a quick-lube is that they "recommend" the service almost every time you stop in for an oil change. Also, I question the quality of the fuel system service they offer. In order for this service to work effectively, they must use a special machine and a specific set of tools, as well as an industrial grade carbon and varnish cleaner. Such equipment, found in high quality repair facilities or dealerships, is often not available at quick lubes.

Don't get me wrong. Quick lubes have their place in automotive service. However, I think they are out of their league in this area of service.

Bottom Line: This is not a diagnosis or service I would entrust to a quick-lube station.

Does Your Vehicle Need a Brake Fluid Flush?

Brake fluid flushing is a viable service that should be done if there is rust and sediment in the brake master cylinder. After researching several year, make, and model vehicles in the ALLDATA database, I realized that this is not a recommended service from the manufacturer.

At best, carmakers suggest an inspection of the braking system at regular intervals (every 6K miles or so) that includes inspection of the brake fluid along with the rest of the system. The hydraulic braking system is designed as a closed and sealed system. When it is exposed to the atmosphere because of a broken seal or hydraulic cup, the system will draw moisture into itself because of the hydroscopic (moisture absorbing) nature of the brake fluid.

So a simple inspection of the brake fluid is all that is required. When checking brake fluid, look for proper level, color, and smell. Brake fluid that is clear/translucent in color, at the proper level, and has no evidence of a burnt smell indicates a healthy braking system. If the color is black or rust-colored, there is a problem. Simple flushing will not repair the root cause of the condition.

A dark or black color accompanied by a burnt smell is indication that the system has overheated. There are three causes of overheating: A stuck brake caliper, a seized emergency brake, or a contaminated wheel cylinder that causes a brake shoe to stick in the applied position. A rust-colored fluid indicates that moisture has entered the system, and therefore the system should be checked for a leaking component, a compromised line, or a torn master cylinder gasket. Brake fluid flushing alone without an inspection and/or repair of the root cause of the discolored fluid is not a repair. It is like a band-aid on a compound fracture.

Bottom Line: I do not recommend regular brake fluid flushing. It is simply not necessary unless a problem with color, level, or smell of the brake fluid is observed.

Does Your Vehicle Need a Transmission Fluid Flush?

As a regular maintenance practice (every 35 – 40K miles) transmission flushing can ensure proper operation and longevity of the transmission. More often than that is overkill.

Some carmakers suggest this service every 100K miles or more. However, I don't agree with this time frame because transmission fluid is oil, and oil breaks down over time (especially when the unit is worked hard). In addition, I don't agree with just flushing the fluid without replacing the transmission filter. During the flush procedure, if the old filter is left in place, dirt and wear material will be dislodged and go back into the transmission. Dirt will then be flowing through the unit and contaminating it again. In addition, a worn, dirty filter is expected to do the job it once did when it was new! So when flushing transmission fluid, always replace the filter. Period.

On transmissions with high mileage that have a history of being neglected (have not been serviced for many thousands of miles and the fluid is dark and smells burnt -- evidence of overheating), I do not recommend a transmission flush. On a transmission that has been overheated, internal damage might have occurred. If this is the case, when the transmission is subjected to a complete bath of fresh high-detergency transmission fluid, the transmission will fail internally.

Bottom Line: If you have a high mileage vehicle and the quick lube shop has recommended a fluid flush, get a second opinion from a drivetrain expert before proceeding... or pay the consequences.

Does Your Vehicle Need a Transfer Case or Differential Fluid Change?

Transfer cases are very quirky units. When the differential fluid is compromised in any way from overheating or moisture contamination they can malfunction. Symptoms of a malfunction include chatter, engaging and disengaging rapidly while in gear, slowness to engage from low to high range, and a host of other strange maladies.

Different carmakers use different fluids for their respective transfer cases. Each fluid is uniquely formulated for the respective transfer case application.

Bottom Line: This is an area of service that I would never leave to a quick lube, but rather to a drivetrain specialist or a dealership.

There is simply too much room for error when it comes to filling the unit with the wrong fluid.
I hope this clarifies any concerns or questions you might have before heading out to your local quick lube.

Remember, knowledge is empowering, and in this case, can save you a lot of time and money (and that's probably why you are going to the quick lube in the first place).

'Til next time...Keep Rollin'

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