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The other day I spoke with Scotti Lee and Patricia Wirth about recommendations for engine oil changes, as seen in vehicle owners manuals. For those of you who dont know them, Scotti Lee is a longtime veteran of the fast-lube industry. Founder of Oil Changers in Wilmington, Del., he is a past president of the Automotive Oil Change Association and a guru for anyone trying to learn the ropes in the business.

Pat Wirths company, J&P Lube Inc., owns and operates a fast-lube store near Washington, D.C., and she is the current president of AOCA, the trade group representing owners of convenient oil change outlets. This organization has more than 1,200 members who together operate some 3,800 fast-lubes and auto maintenance centers in the United States, Canada, Mexico and elsewhere. Some of these are huge national chains, like Jiffy Lube and Valvoline Instant Oil Change, but many are franchisees or independent one-shop retailers.

Pat told me she is increasingly concerned about the oil change recommendations in vehicle owners manuals and their impact on her industry. Specifically, she recently purchased a 2013 Acura MDX, and on reading the owners manual found that she was supposed to change the oil only when the change oil light came on. There is no maximum mileage or time interval recommended for this service – just when the light comes on.

She also shared with me a note from another colleague, who enclosed a page from a Mini Cooper owners manual. That manual states, Only Mini dealers are to perform oil changes. For someone who sells oil change services, thats like the proverbial red flag in the bulls face!

The fact is that many established oil change stores are seeing declines in car counts, the numbers coming into their bays each day for service, and have for the last five years. To keep the business going, many operators are branching out into light maintenance work or adding carwashes. Some are even offering owners manual classes, teaching their customers about the important information and safety practices theyll find in there, such as regularly checking tire pressure.

As Scotti Lee pointed out, waiting to change the oil until the light comes on means fewer chances to inspect the other vehicle systems. He urged fast-lube operators to provide customers with a written checklist that explains how regular checkups help to assure vehicle safety and reliability; why the engine oil needs changing; what other fluids need to be checked and topped off; and the value of investing in vehicle maintenance.

All this led me to thinking about owners manuals and how they have changed over the years. I decided to track down some older manuals and compare what was in them back in the day versus now.

I started my quest by trying to latch on to an owners manual for a 1957 Chevy Bel Air, which was the first car I owned (secondhand, of course). Its not easy to find such things. Finally, I got in touch with Jim Linden. Retired now from General Motors, he chairs the SAE Fuels & Lubricants Division and also works as a consultant.

Linden is more Internet savvy than I am, and soon came back with an electronic version of the book – a grand total of 33 pages long. When I commented that the owners manual for my 2001 GMC pickup has 446 pages, he quipped that the section on how to set up the GMCs radio probably ran more than 33 pages. (Actually, its only 18 pages.) The GMC manual has 70 pages of advice on seat belts; my 57 Chevy didnt even have seat belts until I installed them.

At any rate, the directions on oil maintenance in the 57 book are quite interesting. The primary recommendation for engine oil reads, In the selection of the gasoline and engine oil to be used, it is best to consider the reputation of the refiner or marketer. He is responsible for the quality of his product and his reputation will be your best indication of quality.

The 57 manual goes on to define oil quality as MS or DG, under the classification system which preceded our current API Service (S) and Commercial (C) categories. the manual is very ambiguous and leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Finally, it offers viscosity-grade recommendations, shown in the table at left.

GMs recommended oil change interval for the Bel Air was 2,000 miles under normal driving conditions, with adverse driving requiring more frequent changes; however adverse wasnt defined.

Quite frankly, I dont know what viscosity grade was actually used in the 57, since I had the oil changed by my friendly local Mobil service station. I think it cost about $3.95 to do the job, which included servicing all of the grease fittings and the other items covered by the oil maintenance guide.

Weve owned many other cars along the way, but tracking down owners manuals for any of these has been a challenge. So for comparison, I turned to my manual for the 2001 GMC Sierra pickup which I am still driving (93,000 miles and going strong).

The oil change information here is quite a bit different than for that old 57. Gone are the days when a reputable brand is sufficient. The 2001 manual tells me that the sole indicator of acceptability is the API starburst trademark, signifying an engine oil that meets the ILSAC GF specification.

The other API trademark seen on engine oil containers, the donut, was introduced in 1983 to identify performance level and viscosity grade; later, fuel economy performance was added too. The donut is still found on most oil containers and is one way to identify performance. However, the starburst was introduced in the early 1990s to satisfy OEMs that only oil with the proper performance credentials – including fuel economy – was being used.

There are viscosity recommendations here, too. However, they now emphasize fuel economy, rather than lowest operating temperature, and the preferred grade for ensuring that is SAE 5W-30.

To answer the big question of when to change the oil, my truck has the GM Oil Life System, with its dash light indicating when to change. As Ive pointed out before, this works on the basis of an algorithm (a set of rules for solving a problem), using the number of crankshaft revolutions and the range of oil temperatures to determine when the oil has had enough. The algorithms rules were established by a large number of ongoing field tests on oils of known quality.

In fact, as higher quality oils come into use, GM has modified the algorithm to account for such things as better oxidation resistance and deposit control.

Thanks to this system, the 2001 manual indicates that the change interval light will likely blink on somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 miles, and warns me not to push beyond 10,000 miles or one year between oil changes. (No worry! Here in hot, dusty Arizona, I typically see the light come on around 4,500 to 5,500 miles.)

Fast-forward another decade, to the current crop of 2013 vehicles, and I might not need to consult an owners manual at all. Many OEM maintenance recommendations are on the Internet. At www.fleet.ford.com, for example, you can enter the year and make of your car, pickup or SUV, and instantly obtain Fords oil change recommendation. Click 2013, Ford and Mustang, and you learn that this car is equipped with an Intelligent Oil Life Monitor, and its oil (synthetic recommended) need only be changed when the display light goes on. Same thing with the Lincoln Navigator, and many other models.

Likewise, last year brought Californias Check Your Number website, www.CheckYourNumber.org, whose online calculator almost always tells visitors to stretch their oil drain intervals to 5,000 miles or more. Many other consumer sites, such as Edmonds.com, loudly trumpet the wastefulness of too-frequent oil changes.

As you can see, Pat Wirth, Scotti Lee and their AOCA colleagues are holding the shrinking end of this stick. More and more, they are going to see cars less and less frequently.

Besides General Motors and Ford, OEMs including Chrysler, Honda, Acura, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi now have oil life monitors. Fifty percent of drivers may still feel 3,000 miles is a good, safe interval, but these systems are rapidly supplanting the need to change at a recommended mileage; and therein lies the rub. For the oil change business, there is waning certainty about when the customer will return. There is also a worry that car owners will not pay attention to the light, and view it as a reminder rather than a requirement.

The question of how long an oil can successfully lubricate has been batted around for some time now. There are those who state that they have seen significant oil degradation after 3,000 miles; depending on the duty cycle, Im sure that there are indeed some situations where the oil should be changed that often. The OEMs are satisfied that oil quality is such that they can go far longer – 7,500 or 8,000 or 10,000 miles in many cases – and their oil life monitors are covering the field.

Pat and Scotti are facing some really tough decisions. There are probably many oil change stores that wont survive this change in owner habits, and they will need to develop a new business model. Some have already done so with the addition of other maintenance activities and services, and there may be other ways to go.

I wish them the best since I am a customer and dont want to lose my convenient, fast and cost-effective oil change partner.

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