9 Insider Oil Change Tips

The dreaded engine light blinks on your dashboard. Maybe your vehicle's acting up, since it's a really cold day. But something in you knows that's a lie so you guiltily squint at the illegible plastic sticker in the top of your windshield. Yup! You're a good 500 miles over. And it always happens the day before a road trip.

First off, check to see what your oil looks like. Oil in an engine is sort of like blood in the body. It lubricates the system so things can pump and twirl and sputter in a way that moves your car forward. Keep it too thin and it won't coat sufficiently. Leave it thick like tar and your machinery moves at the speed of molasses. Locate your dipstick to see what yours looks like. First wipe it clean, since it's been sloshing around for some time, then reinsert it. After you pull it out, check the level. Your dipstick should be covered to an engraved line and, if it's low or really dark, head to auto ER stat!

If you continue to drive without putting new oil in it, your filter will not be able to completely clean out contaminated particles and your engine will start to suffer. Leave it alone long enough and you'll need a new engine all together. You can't afford to ignore vehicle checkup.

Dad changes his own oil and I am proud that he has the knowledge to make that happen. Way to go, Pops! But I don't trust myself within a mile of a wrench or anything else mechanical, so DIY oil change is a laughable scenario for me. I'll be heading out for an oil change, but before pulling over I need to have several things in order.

1. Grab a coupon for an oil change.
Depending on where you live, this will vary quite a bit. In my neck of the woods oil changes cost $39.99 if you walk in off the street with nothing. Right now, before things go badly for you and your car, sign up for

  • $5 off standard oil change to Jiffy Lube
  • Valvoline text VIOCC to 58720 for $5 off your next oil change service
  • Grab $3-$5 off services at Quick Change Oil
  • Victory Lane coupons $5 off full service oil change

If you purchased your vehicle at a dealership many will offer $19.99 oil change specials, which is obviously a huge bargain. A great benefit to getting serviced at a dealership is they know all about your car and the proper way to change oil. But never get major work done unless you can at all avoid it. Dealerships are notoriously high for car repairs and usually land on the ultra conservative side for recommending maintenance services.

2. Get informed.
After managing to direct the car into that bottomless garage and surrendering your information to the lube guys, the inevitable happens. They run into the waiting room with a dipstick to show you how bad something is. Under the guise of concern, they urge you to spend another $50 so you won't plummet off a cliff when the car dies. Here's exactly what you need, how often you need it, and what it will cost you:

  • Oil Filter
    Next to the oil change itself, this will be the most offered upsell (if they don't include it in the total cost already). The filter catches pieces of dirt and debris that work into the oil to prevent major system meltdown. A filter replacement usually costs around $10 to $15, yet can save you the mega costs of an engine replacement. Most mechanics, not oil change reps, recommend getting a new oil filter every visit. But make sure they actually replace the filter and not just put another one on top (which, experience validates, causes a big mess) or "forget" to give you a new one. 
  • Air Filter
    Do I need a new air filter? Lube dude is convinced it's a dirty mess, but how should it be replaced? Say yes to the air filter every 12,000-20,000 miles for a cost of $20 or just do it yourself for a fraction of the cost. Replacing your air filter takes a few more steps, but isn't that difficult. Folks who live in dustier climates will have to replace more often. 
  • Transmission Flush
    Your car needs a transmission flush every two years or 24,000 miles which will run you $75-$250 (depending on your make and model). The good thing about a flush is a mechanic will be able to tell if your car is having transmission troubles. Getting a good flush before the fluid turns dark and nasty will prevent you from trashing your transmission. And you probably won't have to ask for a filter replacement—the oil dudes will include the offer during your upsell. Get more information on transmission flushes at Gadget Online if you want more info on types of flushes. 
  • Engine Coolant Flush
    This isn't a regular maintenance requirement as some vehicles need it at 36,000 miles and others at 125,000. But you do need to keep tabs on your coolant and make sure levels are adequate. Many places add more coolant for, of course, an extra fee. But I would recommend servicing the engine flush with a trusted mechanic, as the quickie oil change places don't always have the best reputation for flushes. 
  • Other Levels Checked
    Included at most oil change joints, this can be a great quarterly checkup for your car. They will give you a (mostly) unbiased report on your levels, which you can then take to a reputable mechanic if you need additional repairs.

3. Resist False Advertising!

You know that icky feeling the quickie oil change spot gives you? All those sales pitches about fuel injector this and dark brown ratchet your con sensors to code red! And you're sure you should follow some of their recommendations, but equally confident that you don't need all of it...so you shut down and say no to everything. Do these things to stay on top of your game:

  • Ask the price of everything. Practice it in the car on the way there. "How much will that cost?" Say it over and over until it comes out as naturally as your name.
  • Keep records on hand. Set up an electronic maintenance record with eCarlog or Car Minder Plus iPhone app to track details for multiple vehicles by make and model.
  • Mark your oil filter with a sharpie and check to see if they actually replaced it.
  • Ask what is included in the oil change. Jiffy Lube includes floor vacuuming, window washing, tire pressure gauging, and level checking. Did they do everything?
  • Keep your invoice until the next service time. Should you need to pursue litigation for a wrongly busted engine, that's they only record you'll have.
  • Ask about Ladies Specials. Many oil change joints give $10 off on a slow day, usually Tuesdays, to female customers. Get your mom/girlfriend/wife to do the oil change and get the discount!

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