Service station forgot to put cap on, now what?
October 16, 2008 3:59 PM   Subscribe

I got my oil changed Tuesday. When I picked up my car I noticed a bit of an oil smell, but chocked it up to them spilling a little. Yesterday I didn't drive the car. Today I had a lot of driving. In the morning there was still the oil smell, and by this evening it turned to a burning chemical smell. I opened my hood to see oil all over and no oil cap on. I need advice on the following:

We only have one car and my husband needs to be at work an hour before the service station opens. Should I drive him to work? It is about a half hour each way. I have some oil I can add, but probably not enough to fill it up .

What should I expect from the service station? My engine is covered in oil, the foam under the hood is saturated, in fact it is hard to find a spot under my hood that isn't coated. Who knows if they have the cap, if I can't bring my husband to work in the am we are going to lose a bunch of money and, while I'm at it, they are lucky my engine didn't seize. Can you tell I am frustrated?

And finally, what is the foam under the hood? Is it a fire suppression thing? Should I be concerned that a square foot of it is currently drenched in oil?
posted by a22lamia to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total)
The foam is insulation to keep the hood paint from peeling. Insist that the service station replace it. And clean the engine compartment.

Others may have more to add on the drivability but were it me, I check the oil level (that's the key) before going anywhere in the vehicle. If the level is in the normal range you might be able to stop further splashing (which is all that you're seeing) by plugging the hole with some foam rubber.
posted by trinity8-director at 4:09 PM on October 16, 2008

I think the foam is a noise-suppression thing, not a fire-suppression thing. IANAMechanic.

Is there anywhere else that might be able to sell you a cap and some oil before you need to drive the car again?
posted by hattifattener at 4:11 PM on October 16, 2008

DO NOT continue driving the car. Car - oil = no more car.

You may have to suck it up and get a cab (if possible) or friend to bring your husband to work. Have the car towed back to the service station. Insist they pay for the following:

1. New oil cap.
2. Professional engine cleaning.
3. Thorough inspection of car by a mechanic of your choosing. While you're probably not down very much oil, the other problem could be grit and dirt getting in your valve head and really hurting some things.
4. New oil change.
5. Towing and cab charges.

You could always get some oil and an oil cap from Autozone if you have no other way of getting hubby to work, but the service station should still be paying for everything.
posted by moitz at 4:22 PM on October 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

what time does Auto zone close around you? They should have the cap and extra oil. I've driven my car after such a disaster. It drove fine when I replaced the oil. I found my cap stuck in a well below the engine. Get a flashlight and look around to see if it got caught anywhere.
posted by any major dude at 4:24 PM on October 16, 2008

Thanks for the answers so far. Here is a little update and some responses:

Now that the engine has cooled down I checked the oil level and it is about a quart or so low and the cap is definitely not inside. I called autozone and they said they would have to special order a cap. I have a quart of oil that I can put in. Am I tempting fate if I keep driving with the cap off (just to drop off hubby and to the service station). We live in the middle of nowhere so cabs aren't an option.

Also, I thought I had heard that cleaning the engine can do more harm than good - should I get it cleaned anyway?
posted by a22lamia at 5:08 PM on October 16, 2008

First off: Anecdotal evidence is worthless and could well be dangerous - no matter how much "I got away with it' sounds tempting, ignore it. Looking for the cap in the engine bay, however, is good advice (check on the tray under the engine, too).

1: Check the oil level. If it is below the minimum level DO NOT DRIVE THE CAR. It must be topped up before you can drive it.

If it is above the minimum (which is unlikely) I would think you can drive it gently for no more than 5 minutes or so (10 at an absolute maximum, but I'd check the oil again after 5 if it was me), but go straight to the garage/autozone/other suitable venue. If you can't get that far in that time, it is simply not worth the risk of damage to your car, and driving it at all is a risk as you don't know at what rate it is losing oil.

If it is at/below minimum level:

Get a lift/taxi/bus/walk to an auto zone or wherever and get a temporary cap and some oil. Top it up to the correct levl (be aware that new oil is very hard to see on the dipstick, so check the level about 3 or 4 times each time as you slowly fill it up in stages). Once it is above minimum and<> has a cap on, you car drive it.

So, immediate issues out the way:

The noise insulation under the bonnet will have to be cleaned, or more likely replaced. This should be the responsibility of the servicing company. They should also clean your engine bay. I don't think you will get reimbursed for the costs f renting a car/public transport/cabs, but I'd certainly mention it and push for it. They can only refuse.

As for your husband: I imagine you will lose more money either trying to drive your car and destroying the engine, or him not going to work at all, than it will cost for a cab to work. Get him a cab to work. It is the cheapest option in the long run. Get a receipt and wave it in the service stations face.

posted by Brockles at 5:18 PM on October 16, 2008

Now that the engine has cooled down I checked the oil level and it is about a quart or so low and the cap is definitely not inside. I called autozone and they said they would have to special order a cap. I have a quart of oil that I can put in.

Wow, you only lost a quart after driving 'a lot'? I suspect the oil cap fell off along the way, then. I was expecting you'd find a dry dipstick.

Yes, you can drive it if you top it up. I would, however, fashion some sort of cap yourself if you can. Some tightly bunched rag that fits in the opening (only if it has some sort of neck to it) would be enough to stop spillage while you drive. If there is no room (if the cap fits on a flat panel and you can easily see engine bits inside) then don't risk it/ YOu could maybe clean it up and tape some rag to the outside, and then drive gently and get to the service station as soon as you can. Check the oil as regularly as you can.

It looks like you are very lucky, here. You have lost a surprisingly small amount of oil, and my worst case scenario looks redundant. I'd risk it, and if you can prevent any more oil getting out, or check the oil every 10-15 minutes to see how much it is dropping, then that is teh safest bet. Minimise the amount you drive, though.

Also, I thought I had heard that cleaning the engine can do more harm than good - should I get it cleaned anyway?

There is no truth to this at all, unless they try and clean it without replacing the oil cap. A sealed engine is a sealed engine.
posted by Brockles at 5:24 PM on October 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

(To clarify, my first answer was before you posted the update - I didn't preview...).
posted by Brockles at 5:25 PM on October 16, 2008

I strongly advise against using a "tightly bunched rag" or anything like that to plug the oil fill hole while you drive. It was either on AskMe or a car mailing list I'm on, but I heard a horror story about someone doing that, and having the rag get sucked into the engine while they were driving. The repair costs were considerable.
posted by autojack at 5:49 PM on October 16, 2008

Now that the engine has cooled down I checked the oil level and it is about a quart or so low and the cap is definitely not inside.

You got very lucky.

Step one: fill up the oil again. You say you're a quart low, and you have a quart on hand, so fill 'em up, just make sure that you don't overfill and make sure it's the right kind of oil for your car.

Step two: take pictures of everything, and while you're there use a flashlight to look for the oil cap.

Step three: fashion a temporary oil cap out of duct tape. Don't just smack duct tape over the hole; take two strips, one narrower and shorter than the other (but long and wide enough to cover the hole) and smack them together; the shorter/narrower side goes on the bottom to cover the hole, and the larger piece sticks to your engine around all of the edges. Make sure it's stuck well, not just by a few threads. Don't be stingy.

Step four: drive to your destinations, but don't drive quickly, and don't go around corners quickly, just to be safe. Stop after the first five minutes and check your temporary cap; if it's still in place, keep going, but check every five minutes just to be safe. Also bring the roll of tape with you just in case you need to make another one. If the cap came off or appears to be leaking, check the level again.

Caveat: I know of a person who did this, but I did not do it myself.
posted by davejay at 6:04 PM on October 16, 2008

oh for crying out loud, people. if it's just below the "min" marking on the dipstick, there's still like 4 quarts of oil in there. the world won't implode if you drive it like that. the oil is there to lubricate. it prevents against wear over long time periods. being a quart or two or hell even three low will still provide plenty of protection for a 10 or 20 minute drive without significant damage. of course, you take it nice and easy, keep the rpm's down, etc. but i assure you that the modern engine is designed to still run okay for short periods even if you're a couple quarts down.

your cap was probably left sitting on top of your valve cover or something by the tech who forgot to screw it back on. it's entirely possible that it's still somewhere inside your engine bay. i had this very thing happen to me once before (was it jiffy lube? ugh) and i found it wedged into a crevice next to the radiator. you might want to poke around with a flashlight and see if you can find it before you order a new one.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 8:04 PM on October 16, 2008

oh, and getting the engine cleaned is usually fine, if the person doing the cleaning knows what they're doing, and keeps the water out of the electronics. that's probably what you heard about.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 8:10 PM on October 16, 2008

yep, sergeant sandwich is right.

If the oil is only a quart down, the engine is fine. (It's not making any knocking sounds, is it? If not, it's okay). The car should be fine to drive, with one exception: Inspect the serpentine belt(s). With the motor not running, visually inspect them to ensure that they are dry. Use you fingers to feel both the inside and outside of the belt. If they are oily, there is a good chance that the belt may slip off while the car is running. In that case, call the garage and explain that they the left the oil cap off and they need to come remedy the situation. If it is dry, you should be able to drive your husband to work and then to the garage to have them remedy the situation. You can stick an old sock or washcloth into where the oil cap goes to get you to the garage. Don't stick it in too far, just enough to fill the hole. (duct tape won't stick to the oily engine very well).

I've drained engines where maybe a quart of oil came out and the engine was operational. Not, a happy engine, but running okay.

Either way, the garage owes you an oil cap, oil to top your engine off, and they have to clean your engine/ engine compartment. As far as the under-hood foam goes, it is there primarily for sound insulation and doesn't pose a fire hazard as long as it is not hanging down onto the engine when the hood is closed. You can clean the engine, but it takes a little knowledge of what not to get too wet (soaked). They should take care of that, as well.

FWIW I am a mechanic and I would drive it even if it did have an oily belt and take a chance, but I certainly don't recommend it if your serpentine belt is drenched.

Also, even after the garage rectifies the situation, they should at the very least give you a voucher for another free oil change for your troubles.

Frustrating, yes, but this is a common thing in lube shops and garages. I have seen master mechanics make the same mistake. It's a mess, sure, but if there is only a quart of oil missing, your motor will live. It's just a little nasty dirty right now.

Good luck.
posted by peewinkle at 8:25 PM on October 16, 2008

This happened to me a few years back in my '95 Nissan pickup. I just had my oil changed before I was leaving on a trip. After 80 some miles at 65 mph+ on the highway I saw oil coming up out of my hood and pulled over to open it up and find oil everywhere. Amazingly, the cap was sitting in plain view as I opened the hood and was able to do a basic cleaning and fill up on some more oil.

When I got back, the shop was very professional about it(almost like they had done this before, hmmm) and offered to steam clean the engine and check it for mechanical problems. I had been to them a fair amount before so I trusted their assessment. The engine looked and performed as well or better than before(for years after), so I was happy enough. I really should have asked for a free oil change or two, because it really kind of freaked me out and nearly ruined my weekend at the hot springs.

So, while it might not be pretty, as long as there is oil in there, driving probably isn't going to be catastophic but should still be avoided if possible. Perhaps only to save wear and tear on your heart.
posted by a_green_man at 10:39 PM on October 16, 2008

Question for the group. I think one of the tests done to check the PCV Valve involves taking the oil cap off while the engine is running and putting a piece of paper on it. If things are working properly the paper should be pulled in slightly, whereas if the valve is clogged it'll blow the paper up.

Assuming things are working properly, could they just use the top of a can of food (big can... coffee can size) after it had been cleaned very well? Or would the vacuum decrease when they accelerate and blow it off? I know that'll happen in the intake manifold but what about in the engine itself?
posted by jwells at 6:02 AM on October 17, 2008

1. Simple green sprayed on the foam, let sit for 5 minutes, wash off with pressure washer from a distance, be careful.

2. Engine Bright (or similar) over the rest of the engine compartment, let sit as directed, then wash off with pressure washer from a distance. Be sure to cover the alternator with a plastic bag (just don't get it too wet).

3. Top off the oil with "Marvel Mystery Oil" (up to a quart), run for a few hundred miles, then change the oil (and filter) again. Alternatively, use "Restore" which is a good treatment for older engines.

4. If you're concerned about the impact, have it taken to a reputable mechanic - check's "Mechan-X-files"

Some good advice by others above, just adding my two-cents:

(1) See what the oil place will do for you -
--(a) best case: replace foam and cap (they'll need to get these from the dealer), pay to have the engine bay cleaned, and pay for an independent shop to determine if any damage was done by running low on oil.
--(b) Likely case: they replace the oil cap and offer you a discount, maybe spray down the foam and tell you to shove off.
--(c) Worst case: they say you should have checked and that it probably just wiggled loose, then offer no help.

They probably had you sign a form which releases them from most liabilities, even if this qualifies as something that they cannot have you release them from (i.e., using reasonable care or something similar depending on your state's implied warranty provisions) it would probably be costly and time consuming to litigate anything unless there is costly damage to your engine that an independent mechanic will say was caused by their mistake. [not legal advice, just some ideas from my own experience].

I suggest you clean it on your own, get a cap from the dealer, and write a bad Yelp review.

Cleaning the Engine Bay:
I had a similar problem a few years ago and wanted to cheaply remove most of the oil. Unless you were a little zealous about cleaning the engine bay previously (or if your car is relatively new) then the engine bay was probably quite messy, corroded, oily to begin with - that's normal and no problem. But the big oil spray areas and oily foam should be cleaned to prevent potential problems, smells, or hassle later in the car's life.

Cleaning the engine compartment is not hard - mostly you just need to cover the alternator and avoid over spraying the electrical components (i.e., fuse box area which should be covered regardless). You can use a car wash high pressure spray but only from a distance so as not to damage or dislodge any components. Most car washes also have a degreaser/engine bay setting (usually some green crap) that works moderately well - but I'd recommend getting some "Engine Bright" or similar engine degreaser from Kragen or Auto-Zone or similar. It needs to sit for a few minutes and it's important to make sure you get rid of all of it when rinsing, but it works fairly well at neutralizing the oil and removing dirt. Again avoid the alternator, but otherwise you can go fairly nuts with it.

An alternative for cutting down the grease is Simple Green - this is what you should spray (and really go nuts with it) the foam piece with. Now, if that foam (and the cloth over it) is old, it will fall apart if you hit it with the pressure washer from too close, so start pretty dang far away. This may take a couple treatments. Test to see if you've removed all the grease by pressing a paper towel against the foam with your hand - if oil still easily leeches onto the paper towel, try treating it again.

The foam may be available from your dealer for a reasonable price, really just depends on the make and model - VW = expensive, Toyota = reasonable (but not cheap).
posted by unclezeb at 1:41 PM on October 17, 2008

sergeant sandwich is right. Just put more oil in it and fashion a new, temporary cap. Check things in the cupboard -- peanut butter, jam, things like that. Watch your oil temp and pressure gauge while driving. It'll be fine.

The proper way to clean an engine is with Simple Green cleaner. Spray liberally everywhere and then rinse with water poured lightly over the engine, while avoiding any water-sensitive areas. Modern engine compartments are basically sealed water tight, and one should not expose certain sensors and such to water. For this reason, do not pressure wash your engine.
posted by luckypozzo at 7:09 PM on October 17, 2008

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