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Recently I had a phone conversation with Patricia Wirth, president of the Dallas-based Automotive Oil Change Association (AOCA), the trade association for quick-lube owners. President and CEO of Potomac Hills Express Lube & Car Wash in Fairfax Station, Va., near Washington, D.C., she was calling to discuss engine oils, oil filters, and their impact on her customers. Many of her customers, Wirth said, are coming to her store for oil changes long after they should have. She sees some vehicles with up to 10,000 miles since the last oil change and has encountered more than a few with sludge in the dipstick tube and virtually no oil in the crankcase. In fact, she says that this is becoming a weekly occurrence.

Obviously, this is not good for the vehicle and the owner is not a happy camper either. In her business, Wirth believes in being in partnership with her customers, but this problem is putting a barrier between her and her customer/partners since they expect the oil to protect their engine – even though they drive too many miles before changing it.

Since the advent around 20 years ago of General Motors oil life monitoring system and similar devices in other makes, owners seem to want to drive much longer before coming in to get their oil changed. For many, the longstanding recommended interval of 3,000 miles or three months has been replaced by some time after the oil change light comes on. In the olden days, the 3,000 mile/3 month notation usually meant that the owner would get to it pretty soon.

Now oil life systems have taken the lead, so when the light comes on the owner starts to think that hell get to it before too long. Of course, before too long becomes another 1,000 to 2,000 miles, even though GM urges the oil be changed within 600 miles of the time the dashboard light comes on. Meanwhile, the oil is cooking in the heat and traffic of modern driving – especially in places like Washington D.C. in the summer, where Wirths store is located.

Adding fuel to the fire, on June 14 Jiffy Lube, the largest U.S. fast-lube chain, officially abandoned the 3,000mile oil change recommendation, advising instead that consumers should follow their automakers recommended service intervals.

One big question in Wirths mind is how long an oil filter can go before it is used up. If the oil life monitor says that our drain intervals should be about 5,000 to 6,000 miles, she asks, can we depend on the filter to do its job for that entire time?

I asked Don Smolenski of GM, one of the godfathers of its oil life system, what his company thinks of the oil filter question. Smolenski commented that generally the oil filter will limit the maximum oil change interval in GM vehicles in North America to 12 months, regardless of the oil mileage – that is, an annual filter change is needed. The reason for this is GMs concern that corrosion of the filter housing and potential perforation will lead to a catastrophic loss of engine oil.

Smolenski went on to say that GM doesnt expect any issue with the filtration capabilities of filters, and extended mileage, as allowed by the patented Engine Oil Life System, is not generally a concern in this respect. However, the automaker sees oil filters as a continuing limitation since it cannot control the quality of the aftermarket filters available. (Sounds to me like GM would like to see filters that can last a lot longer.)

On a related note, Smolenski pointed out that hybrid vehicles will create even longer intervals between oil changes since the first 40 miles or so are on the electric motor, and only with the 41st mile does the combustion engine actually turn over. Put simply, that means that the engine oil has only one mile on it while the vehicle has gone 41 miles. GM is working on changing the Oil Life Monitors algorithm to account for this, as well as to address the use of its trademarked Dexos1 oils which are formulated for longer drains. Certainly, synthetic engine oil marketers should welcome this since it will allow longer drains in GM and other oil life monitoring system vehicles.

John DeCostanza, writing on the AllCarAdvice website, notes that an extended drain model for engine oils was attempted in the 1970s. It was abandoned when it became evident that such lengthening of oil life exceeded the ability of then-current filters to keep the lubricant clean. He reasons that the advent of oil life monitoring may ensure success this time around.

Of course, filters must be up to the task if there is to be success. Remember that engine oil life systems do not analyze the oil itself, but only track the conditions under which the engine operates. The system essentially counts engine crankshaft revolutions and applies correction factors (GM calls them penalties) for oil stressors such as short trips and temperatures above or below the optimum level. Some European models (BMW and Mercedes Benz) also have oil life monitoring systems. The Mercedes system incorporates direct electroconductivity measurements of the oil to aid in better identifying the correct oil change interval.

Wix Filters, part of the $2 billion aftermarket supplier Affinia Group Inc., notes that drivers may take their oil filters for granted, but this small, inexpensive part of a vehicles lubrication system plays a vital role in protecting the engine from premature wear. In fact, reading the literature of the leading filter manufacturers, particularly those who produce an extended-drain filter, gives a whole new view of filters.

How can oil filters be modified to make them better than average? Every one of the extended-life filter manufacturers claims that its filter element (media) is a fully or partially synthetic fiber or microfiber. They all claim to have silicone anti-drainback valves. They point to more durable, solid metal caps, rather than cardboard – but stainless steel canisters would also be an improvement they should consider.

The issue of longer drain intervals is definitely on the filter companies radar. Wix claims its top-tier oil filters can remove 45 percent more dirt and can last 30 percent longer than others. Xtended Guard Oil Filters, from the Fram division of Honeywell, claim to last up to 10,000 miles between oil changes, making them a good choice for longer drain intervals, says the maker. And Donaldsons Endurance oil filters are made with premium advanced synthetic media technology that deliver both higher dirt-holding capacity and higher efficiency compared to conventional cellulose filters. Donaldson says the synthetic media also have better durability with usage.

But some wariness remains. After the gasoline price run-up of 2008, Bosch, co-parent of Purolator North America auto filters, noted that U.S. car owners generally were aware of the need to change their vehicles oil and filter every 3,000 miles or as frequently as the manufacturer suggests, but it also reminded drivers of the need to change their filters every three months. It saw drivers dialing back on miles driven then because of high gasoline prices – just like theyre doing today.

According to Ramon Nun˜ez, director of filtration for Bosch, our PureOne premium oil filter can capture up to 13 grams of microscopic contaminants, including dirt and metal shavings – the equivalent of 31 standard-size paper clips. If the oil and filter are not changed in a timely fashion and the filter becomes clogged, the bypass valve [a pressure relief valve built into quality oil filters] will allow gritty, unfiltered oil into critical areas of the engine where it can cause catastrophic damage.

Purolators other owner, Mann+Hummel, is warier yet. Last year it noted that its not uncommon for European automakers to allow 30,000 or even 50,000 kilometers (18,600 to 31,000 miles) between oil changes. But for the engine to function perfectly, it is important to maintain the filter and change it within the prescribed service intervals. Should the period between changes be exceeded, this can adversely affect the oil supply to the engine, the filter maker advised. Not only does an old oil filter cause the oil pump to use more energy, thus increasing fuel consumption, it also may affect the engines durability, it warned.

Some engine oil marketers also offer branded oil filters. Amsoil guarantees its EaO oil filter for up to 25,000 miles when used with its fully synthetic motor oil, and recommends the filter be changed when the oil is changed. For use with oils other than its own, Amsoil recommends filter changes in accordance with engine manufacturer recommendations. It also offers the Ea15K oil filter, with a service life of 15,000 miles when used with their fully synthetic motor oil.

Mobil 1 Extended Performance oil filters have fully synthetic fiber elements which, according to company literature, do a much better job filtering small contaminants than the conventional paper elements found in cheaper filters. But despite their excellent filtering capability, these filters still flow well which means simply that the filter medium doesnt become so clogged and restricted that oil cannot easily pass through. The Mobil 1 oil filters are believed to be manufactured by Champion Labs and can be purchased at many retail locations. Mobil makes no specific mileage claims for its filters.

So getting back to Pat Wirths question, the crux of the matter is this: Do the oil filters available in the marketplace allow for longer oil drain intervals or not? Based on filter manufacturers claims, the answer is a qualified yes; many of the top-line products will provide good filtration, for up to 10,000 miles or more.

However, these filters are not the mainline filters available in quick lubes, garages and auto parts stores. Consumers have to ask for the good ones. Or, as Pat Wirth would do, share with your customer/partner the advantages of better filtration and gain the buyers agreement to spend the extra dollars for improved filtration protection.

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