Professionally putting the wrong oil in since 2008.
June 17, 2011 8:19 AM   Subscribe

The oil-change place has been putting the wrong weight oil in my GF's hybrid for three years (5w instead of 0w). What damage has this done, and how upset should I be?

It's a 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid and it takes 0w oil. It says so in clear, obvious, HUGE letters right on the oil cap. But the place my girlfriend has been religiously taking it to for the last three years has put 5w oil in every single time. My assumption is that this has been damaging the engine slowly, like smoking a cigarette. (The car has a judder when initially accelerating.)

My feeling is that she paid professionals to change her oil correctly, and they've been doing it consistently wrong for years, and that is totally unacceptable. She may have all the receipts. I want to confront the manager, but I need to know more about what actual damage may have been done. Should I be demanding that they replace my girlfriends engine, or should I be demanding that they refund every oil change she ever bought?

When the manager says "no harm done, we're keeping your money" what are my options?
posted by brenton to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You may be out of luck, it's going to be a toss up. On the receipts I get it says in very plain language what weight of oil was placed in the vehicle and I generally have to sign or initial something before they'll do the work anyway.

Can you prove the car has any damage to it from the heavier oil ?
posted by iamabot at 8:25 AM on June 17, 2011

According to some technical data I found, Honda says that 5w20 oil is acceptable if 0w20 oil isn't available. The "5" specifies the viscosity when cold and the "20" when hot; the only consequence of higher viscosity oil is that the engine has to push harder "against" the oil, thus it consumes more energy. I believe Honda recommends the 0w20 oil because it improves gas mileage when the gasoline engine hasn't run for awhile (which is the case in most hybrids driven at city speeds).

Having the slightly higher weight doesn't tear up your engine. If they used something like 10w30 or 15w30, I would complain (because those are probably too thick for the recommended oil filter and the oil pump). 0w20 versus 5w20 is too small of a margin to matter.
posted by fireoyster at 8:35 AM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

The 'damage' done to you is probably more about lost fuel economy than any actual damage to the engine. The oil pumps are designed to handle the 'correct' oil when it self-thickens up to 30w, so as far as they are concerned, the car was just kinda cold all the time.
posted by nomisxid at 8:37 AM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just googled "difference between 5W and 0W oil" and got the same info fireoyster just posted. The difference is negligible.
posted by COD at 8:40 AM on June 17, 2011

The 0w or 5w is for when it's winter outside. If you live somewhere that's consistently warm and sunny, that end of the multi-grade isn't going to make much difference at all. I think you might be making a leap to connect the oil to your engine troubles.
posted by Nahum Tate at 8:42 AM on June 17, 2011

What others have said - the viscosity difference is negligible.

The judder when accelerating is probably a transmission issue, although with Honda's inline hybrid system, it might be caused by the motor switching from output to input.

In any event, the engine oil would not have caused it.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:47 AM on June 17, 2011

I used to switch oil all the time based on season and other conditions not too many years ago with my cars, and nothing ever happened.

Seconding the idea that the juddering you are feeling is the gas engine kicking on when you step on the gas pedal. I drive a hybrid for work and I notice the gas engine starting after it has shut down while not being needed. No one else notices it except for me; it's enough to drive my absolutely bonkers.
posted by TinWhistle at 8:53 AM on June 17, 2011

If you live in SoCal like your profile says, there has been no damage done to the car by using 5w oil. If you lived in Minnesota during the dead of winter, there might be a minor issue.

I actually contend that a lot of major manufacturers are recommending lighter weight oils to improve their CAFE numbers, rather than protect the engine. Any Xw-20 oil is too light for the summer in any warm climate. Case in point, Mazda. Every other world market for the RX-8 recommends 10w-30, but only in the US do they recommend 5w-20. And I've seen lots of pics of engine rebuilds where the bearings are down to the copper (read: bad).

So, don't worry about it. It's fine.
posted by hwyengr at 8:54 AM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

The information posted so far needs some clarification. Yes, "5W30" means 5 weight when cold and 30 weight when hot. However, this does NOT mean that the oil is thickening up as it warms up. Quite the opposite.

You see, the various SAE viscosities are for particular temperatures. At different temperatures, a straight-weight oil will have different *absolute* viscosity. Say a particular straight 5 weight oil has an absolute viscosity of 5 (units make no difference) cold and 2 hot. Then, say some straight 30 weight oil has an absolute viscosity of 10 cold and 4 hot. (here, higher viscosity means thicker.) A multi-weight oil in this scenario, say, 5W30, would have an absolute viscosity of 5 cold, and 4 hot.

Bottom line: 5wXX vs 0wXX? When the engine's cold, the oil is slightly thicker. For the two minutes until the engine reaches operating temperature (and they get hot quick now, since most emissions are when warming up), you're slinging slightly thicker oil, slightly more drag, and slightly lower gas mileage. You're also protecting your engine just so slightly more.

If you really want to waste your time on this, go piss in your back yard, save one toilet flush, and call it even.
posted by notsnot at 8:57 AM on June 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

I have used both 0W-30 and 5W-30 in my cars for years. They are close enough that it really doesn't matter. The oil-change place is using 5W because its cheaper and easier to source, I can never find 0W-30 without ordering it by the case online. No harm done.
posted by Joh at 9:15 AM on June 17, 2011

Agreeing with the majority - this is a non-issue. Oil weights really aren't all that critical for that kind of tiny spec difference. No engine damage will have resulted from this.

If the oil changes have been regular and to the recommended manufacturer schedule, you've probably come out on top anyway. Old oil would be much more detrimental (say, for 2000 miles after it should have been changed) than this difference.
posted by Brockles at 9:16 AM on June 17, 2011

IANYL, but from a legal standpoint, even if the wrong oil is used, you would need to prove damages to prevail on any kind of claim. All you have here is either extremely speculative or so minor that you would spend more on a small claims filing than you'd stand to recover. Thus, you're not in a very strong bargaining position and have no real reason to actually be upset.

If this was me, and I was determined to take it up with the manager, I would politely present it as a "training issue" for his/her employees; explain that your vehicle warranty depends on using the manufacturer's recommended oil weight and that this is posted in plain sight on the oil cap, and how disappointed you were that his employees ignored it. Ask him if it's their policy to ignore the manufacturer recommendation.

You might be able to get a free oil change out of this, which they'll probably offer to restore your trust if they're smart. If they offer nothing, thank them for their time and take your business elsewhere.
posted by Hylas at 9:51 AM on June 17, 2011

I did the same thing to the same type of car for about 5 years. I don't think it had any ill effect (knock on wood I guess).

I get being really mad about this, but given the responses above I would say have your gf switch car places and be done - write a strongly worded letter to executive customer service and hope to recoup something that way, but don't expect it (if you end up with J.Lube credit you can always ebay or plastic jungle it).

I would literally bet my next paycheck that going to the place and trying to resolve it will end in you being more frustrated and pissed off than you were before you went.
posted by mrs. taters at 9:53 AM on June 17, 2011

It's a 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid and it takes 0w oil. It says so in clear, obvious, HUGE letters right on the oil cap.

From the 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid owner's manual, page 196:

A 5W-20 oil may be used if 0W-20 is not available.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:56 AM on June 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to know quite a few people who would use thicker (10W instead of 0W, or 20W instead of 10W) oil in the summer, because they thought that it would protect the engine better, and the lower viscosity wasn't necessary in order to get the engine started (as it was in the winter). If you hang around with "car people", this is pretty common. I don't think it damages the engine at all.

I'd let it go. If anything, you might have protected the engine a little, at the cost of some gas.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:47 AM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

For more than 15 years I cavalierly disregarded the SAE rating of the oil I put in my Volvos, using whatever I could beg or borrow. The engine was going strong at ~350,000 miles when the rest of the car started to get too expensive to repair.
posted by pullayup at 1:35 PM on June 17, 2011

For more information on motor oil (ratings especially) than you could ever possibly need to know (unless you are designing your own engine), go here.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 2:03 PM on June 17, 2011

There is almost literally no difference. For too much info, this pdf. (The relevant graphs are on page 7)

Manufacturers specify lighter weight oils for fleet economy ratings. You might never be able to measure the difference in one vehicle, but over 50,000 cars sold, the oil choice might save a million gallons of gas over the life of all the cars.
posted by gjc at 6:13 PM on June 17, 2011

There are (almost) no 0W standard motor oils available. If you want 0W, you have to buy synthetic oils which are about two or three times the price of standard oils. If you use standard oil it is fine to substitute 5W. So unless you like paying $85 for a synthetic oil change, stick with the standard 5W. Unless you specified and agreed to the price of synthetic, the shop was doing exactly the right thing and saving you a lot of money.
posted by JackFlash at 7:09 PM on June 17, 2011

If your girlfriend decides she wants to start using 0W oil, it's available in all the regular brands (Pennzoil, Valvoline, etc). If you can't find it in stores, it's available online at Amazon and Ebay Motors. Or you can get "Genuine Factory Honda 0W-20 Synthetic Blend Motor Oil" (made by Exxon-Mobil) at your Honda dealer.

Other than the 0W vs. 5W issue, is she happy with her current oil change place? If they don't have 0W oil in stock, they'll probably let her bring in her own. Some places do, some don't. She'll need to buy 3-4 quarts per oil change.
posted by amyms at 10:53 PM on June 17, 2011

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