Market Topics

Automotive

Share

It looks like government is beginning to get involved with the 3,000-mile oil drain question. For those of you who dont know, the state of California in November began promoting its Check Your Number program, inviting visitors to the website www. checkyournumber.org to find out what their vehicle manufacturer really recommends as an oil drain interval.

Of course, I input the information for my 2008 Nissan Quest minivan and found out that I should be changing my oil every 7,500 miles! However, when I checked with my owners manual, the number was a bit more modest. For Schedule 1 driving which includes repeated short trips, stop-and-go driving in hot weather (Hello! its Phoenix, Ariz.), driving in dusty conditions (remember, Phoenix?) or towing a trailer, the recommended drain interval is 3,750 miles. Nissans Schedule 2 driving, which is for highway driving in temperate climates, does recommend a 7,500-mile drain interval.

Being a persistent sort, I also checked the recommendation for my 2001 GMC Sierra pickup. Lo and behold, it also should have 7,500 mile drain intervals, CheckYourNumber says. This is truly an interesting result, given that my GMC has an oil life monitor which has pretty consistently picked around 5,000 miles as the drain interval I should be following.

Now Im curious. Next, I checked my daughters 2007 Honda Odyssey: 7,500 miles. The next selection was a 2005 Ford Escape. The answer there was 5,000 miles. How about a 2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser? The answer: 6,000 miles.

I dont mean to nit-pick but it seems to me that the California website must have been set up on the premise that all vehicles run under what Nissan calls Schedule 2 conditions. Sorry, Ive lived in the greater Los Angeles basin and know for a fact that highway driving there is primarily a myth. Just ask anyone who works in the area bounded by Oxnard on the north to San Clemente on the south and east to San Bernardino: Commutes are long and slow. Maybe you can go close to highway speeds but only between midnight and 4 a.m.

If consumers are willing to dig deeper, the website does hedge a bit from the bold advice on its home page. Another page warns drivers that their number is based on ideal conditions that dont include temperatures below 10 degrees F or above 90, or towing, or short trips, or stop-and-go traffic. Got an oil life monitor? Follow that, the fine print says. Above all, read your owners manual and consult your auto dealership, the site urges – the very things we know consumers resist doing.

Californias goals are noble and in line with the trends of the day. As stated on the website, First, it encourages Californians to look up the recommended oil change interval for their vehicle instead of defaulting to the old standard of 3,000 miles. With todays advanced technologies, many car makers confirm that their automobiles can now maintain top performance and engine life while going longer between oil changes. Thus, it makes economic and environmental sense to check your number and be sure you are not changing your oil too soon, unnecessarily wasting money and resources.

The second goal is to inform residents on the proper way to collect and recycle used motor oil and filters. There are many free, local collection centers available throughout the state to help drivers do their part to keep harmful toxins out of the groundwater.

According to the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery, changing motor oil according to manufacturer specifications would reduce motor oil demand in California by about 10 million gallons a year.

The 3,000-mile oil change just says that the marketing campaign by quick-lube companies has been effective, said Steve Mazor, manager of the Auto Club of Southern Californias Automotive Research Center. It made sense years ago, when we had cast iron block engines with cast iron pistons that would expand when they got hot, and older lubricants, Mazor said. (As a side note, the coefficient of expansion for aluminum, which is used in most modern engines, is approximately twice that of iron.)

A 3,000-mile oil change was part of the automakers recommendations for many years prior to the general introduction of quick lubes in the United States. The recommendation was promoted by oil companies and car dealers too.

NPD Autofacts, a nationally recognized market research firm, does extensive tracking of motor oil trends. They survey the aftermarket regularly to determine consumers habits with regard to various aspects of motor oil usage. Recently they asked for motorists views on oil-change intervals. The results show a definite march away from 3,000-mile, three-month oil changes, although its still (barely) a majority view, as shown in the table on page 6.

Dont think that Im opposed to conservation. On the contrary, it makes good sense to use all of our resources wisely. However, I fear that if Californias plan takes hold, the possibility of greater mechanical problems and a reduction in expected vehicle life might be the result.

Theres good evidence that modern passenger cars and light-duty trucks can successfully operate for up to 200,000 miles or even more. I dont know for sure what oil drain interval these results are based upon but I do know that National Oil & Lube News (NOLN), a monthly publication for the fast-lube industry, reported last year that the average drain interval seen at the quick lubes they surveyed was about 4,500 miles. Vehicles equipped with an oil life monitoring system (like my GMC, and other models from Acura, BMW, General Motors, Honda and Mercedes-Benz) reportedly averaged about 4,900 miles, or 10 percent longer.

Dealers have a keen interest in oil drain intervals as well. Many would like to see it stay at 3,000 miles since it gets vehicles into their service departments. They often offer free or very low cost oil changes in order to get customers into the shop so they can sell transmission or coolant services as well as other work such as belt changes, brake jobs, and exhaust and emission system maintenance.

Without the regular oil change to bring customers in, the service department has trouble delivering its share of revenue and profit to the dealer. According to the National Automotive Dealers Association, 15 percent of the average dealerships revenues come from parts and service. While there are no data to identify what part of that is oil changes, the impact on total dealership service must be large.

Obviously, quick lubes also have a strong interest in getting vehicles into their service bays as often as possible. The NOLN data show that oil changes typically are at least 50 percent beyond the dreaded 3,000-mile interval. To be successful, a quick lube needs to see a balance between throughput (car counts) and average sales amounts coming in the door on a daily basis. As oil drain intervals become longer and fewer cars come into their bays, quick lubes will feel the pain and will have to raise prices in order to survive.

Last but not least, engine oil marketers will struggle if/when oil drain intervals rise to the level recommended at Californias website. We can do some quick math here: NOLN calculates that oil drain intervals are on the order of 4,500 miles. If all light-duty trucks and passenger cars switch to 7,000-mile drain intervals, engine oil sales will drop to 65 percent of current volume.

The big impact will be on the little guys who are not lubricating base oil refiners. Margins will drop initially until the less-efficient suppliers are forced out of business and the major marketers, who already hold more than three-quarters of the market, will dominate even more completely. Supply and demand will remain balanced because supply will be trimmed to match the reduced demand. And with fewer marketers in the game, prices will probably rise.

The net/net will be longer oil drains, fewer locations where oil can be changed conveniently, higher prices for engine oil and oil changes, and fewer marketers supplying the oil.

Theres another issue here: A successful market has evolved to take our used oil and rerefine it into a high-quality base oil suitable for lubricating engines. Instead of down the drain and into the water supply, used oil is reprocessed to produce something of value, and several oil marketers lately have stepped up their efforts to supply engine oils from rerefined base oil. The impact of having less used oil as a feed-stock for rerefineries would be a negative on this practice, which makes used oil a valuable commodity instead of a weed killer.

Motor oil has been promoted as the life blood of your engine. Indeed, it does protect, cool, clean and lubricate metal surfaces and moving parts within your engine and does it well. Changing your oil every 3,000 miles still resonates with consumers (even in NPDs survey), who increasingly see their automobiles as a major investment which costs too much and must be maintained properly to get the greatest life possible. But how much longer can that number exercise its hold, and what number will replace it?

We all like to have the latest and greatest in our vehicles but theyre just too expensive. Of course, they are built better now than back in the 60s when you sort of expected to start having major problems with them at about 60,000 miles. But old habits do die hard and we learned to change the oil regularly. Given the total cost of ownership for our vehicles, we now take better care of them, which includes regular service.

As a final point, Ive noted before that the average age of vehicles on U.S. roads keeps going up. The latest number is now just around 11 years. I wonder, would that be the case if everyone was changing their oil every 7,500 to 10,000 miles?

Related Topics

Market Topics