Which recommendations from oil change places are necessary or bullshit?
January 12, 2021 12:04 PM   Subscribe

Help an ignorant car owner out! Are the service recommendations from an oil change place I was just at for an oil change bullshit or necessary?

So, first of all... yes, I'm a pretty ignorant/bad car owner. I know this. I'm trying to improve, but I'm pretty stupid with cars beyond "cars go vroom" and knowing how to, oddly enough, change a side mirror!!

I guess, I've always suspected that aside from an oil change that 95% of the things quick lube places recommend are bullshit. Mostly because, I guess, people hold them in such low regard. They make everything sound like a scam.

I've been a pretty ignorant car owner, mostly because I have no idea what services are *really* required or what is BS. I find it confusing to research this stuff because the attitude of most car communities online is "do it yourself, dummy!!" I'm not going to give my car an oil change myself, so that advice is pretty useless.

There were a few things that were recommended to me today after I got an oil change and I'm wondering if they are REALLY necessary, or not.

1) Radiator flush -- Is this necessary? What is it? Why would I need it? The guy at the quick lube place brought out pH strips and tested my coolant. He went over the colors on the strips with me and, according to him, the pH colors reveal that I need a radiator flush. My brain shut off during this explanation, so to be honest I have no idea what he was talking about. Is this bullshit or real?

2) Fuel injection service -- Same questions... Is this necessary? What is it? Why would I need it? After the oil change was finished, he showed me the dipstick and went on about how the oil looked dirty and is "contaminated" or something or other and that I need the fuel injection service to clean everything.

I just said "next time!" and went on my way. If I really need to get these things done, I'll get them... but I really don't know if this is necessary or if I'm being played a fool (my worry with regards to most car maintenance issues).
posted by VirginiaPlain to Travel & Transportation (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of it depends on how much you are driving, as well as engine design and age. I was really pleasantly surprised when during the pandemic last year I went in for one of those drive-though oil change places (Valvoline, if it makes a difference), and the guy working there scanned my car and odometer and said to me, "You've only driven two hundred miles in the last six months, you don't really need this oil change today."
posted by seasparrow at 12:15 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

^ Good point! Despite the pandemic I actually did drive A LOT this year. I made about 10-12 5ish hour trips. In previous years I drove much less and I'm now back to not needing to drive long distances, if I can help it.

My car is a 2007 Nissan Altima, if that changes anything!!

(I know, I should probably just read the maintenance schedule... but I guess I just know so little about cars and I don't *know* anyone who can advise me, I've just been a bad car owner. Car maintenance is so overwhelming to me because I know that I am so ignorant and that I'll probably be taken advantage of anyway because I'm a woman.)
posted by VirginiaPlain at 12:19 PM on January 12

Radiator flush - not bullshit but is often suggested in times when doing it WOULD be bullshit. It depends on how old the car is, how long since the coolant has been changed etc. Can be worth doing just to keep the cooling system free of corrosion or gunk or other stuff that prevent easy flow of coolant and hence system efficiency. Not enough info in the question to answer if it is needed, though.

Fuel injection service -- Same questions... Is this necessary? What is it? Why would I need it? After the oil change was finished, he showed me the dipstick and went on about how the oil looked dirty and is "contaminated" or something or other and that I need the fuel injection service to clean everything.

The pulling out of the dipstick and somehow diagnosing injection cleaning requirement is the HIGHEST order of utter bullshit/snake oil. Yes, injectors work better if they have a service/flush/clean every now and then, but you'd see this in fuel mileage, power or other very subtle signs. Not in 'contaminated oil'. The guy is full of it and doesn't know what he is talking about.

There are fuel injector additives on the market from Pepboys/Autozone etc that will do the job. Drop it in the fuel tank and run it through. That's all you need to do for a normal car. Nothing else magical.
posted by Brockles at 12:20 PM on January 12 [5 favorites]

Ok, with the new info, yes a radiator flush would be a fairly good idea because that is a lot of years and miles that could have put crap in there. But I'd certainly not have this joker do it as I doubt his competence with his magic oil dipstick diagnosis of fuel systems.

It sounds like you may need to go to an actual proper garage and have a service done, though. Like have brakes checked and things like that, but find a local specialist/recommended independent to have this done as they tend to have much better trained people.
posted by Brockles at 12:22 PM on January 12 [4 favorites]

I would start with the maintenance schedule in your car manual. This is the periodic maintenance recommended by the manufacturer of your car. Usually this is listed in miles or years (like "replace brake fluid 100,000 miles OR 10 years") and should have a handy place to mark the car mileage and date when it was last done.

If it's not in the maintenance schedule and the car is working, I would decline all other services.
posted by muddgirl at 12:31 PM on January 12 [5 favorites]

I check my oil change garage's recommendations against the service schedule in my car's owner manual. It's really helpful. For instance, the oil change place wants me to change my oil 2000 miles more often than the manufacturer says I need to, barring extraordinary driving conditions. And it has info about how often other services may be useful.
posted by Orlop at 12:32 PM on January 12

Brockles you mentioned something I forgot about! Yes, he ALSO tried to sell me a little box... of something I can use to clean my fuel. Again, my eyes glazed over thinking "scam. It was some sort of box with 2 things in it to clean stuff with. I wish I paid better attention! One was like a spray bottle and the other was smaller. Were those fuel injector additives? Hmm, I've never heard of these. If this is something I can just buy and use myself, that would work.

Coolant flush -- Okay, so that will be next on my list for my car!

Yes, I'm thinking of doing a bit more research and finding a proper garage to have a look at everything!

I'm going to take my chances and ask ONE more dumb car maintenance question. Please, bear with me, I'm supposed to check my oil level between oil changes regularly, correct? And then top up based on the level I find. I just realized that a) I hadn't been doing this and b) I should be doing this. The places I get my oil changes at are horrified when I come in with low oil, but I had always thought... that was the point of the oil change. It's only dawned on me JUST NOW that I'm supposed to do that. Oh boy, I'm so embarrassed!!
posted by VirginiaPlain at 12:37 PM on January 12

In a properly running car, you shouldn’t be “low” on oil. If you are consistently low (by more than just a smidge), that’s an indication that your engine is burning oil - something it’s not designed to do, and which will cause expensive damage over the long term.
Oil changes are deemed necessary to put clean oil into your engine. Oil becomes dirty and sludgy with use, and can cause damage to the engine.
You would do well to educate yourself on basic car maintenance and operating principles. If you act appropriately armed with this knowledge, your car(s) will run better, cleaner, and last far longer. Driving is one of the most environmentally destructive things we do, so doing your part to keep a car in good order, and on the road is a Good Thing.
I say this as a woman, one who is not totally mechanically minded, but who has changed my own oil. A bit of knowledge can keep you from being taken advantage of by some of the predators at various auto repair shops.
posted by dbmcd at 12:51 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

dbmcd Do you have any recommendations for HOW to become more knowledgeable about cars? Again, I don't know where to begin. I have no one in my "real" life I can ask for help and car forums just amount to "do all car maintenance yourself!!" I really have no idea how to educate myself on these issues.
posted by VirginiaPlain at 12:56 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

you are checking the oil to see if there is an enexpected shortage and make sure you won't harm the vehicle by driving it. if you are losing oil (dbmcd beat me to it) you have an undiagnosed problem that needs to be addressed.

any competent mechanic will know where to start if you take your vehicle in and tell them you are having to top the oil off or that it's low when you have it changed.
posted by lescour at 12:57 PM on January 12

There's kinda two parts to oil maintenance-- as oil gets heated up and cooled down constantly, it loses some of it's magic, it gets sooty from a lifetime of watching explosions up close and what was one a nice slick film between all those moving parts, gets a little less helpful.

The main part of the oil change is to remove that tired-ass oil and give it something fresh and full of pep.

The second part, which falls on the owners shoulders (along will refilling the windscreen fluid, checking radiator is topped up) is to check the oil level. Even in a great new engine, some oil will get eaten up in the engine (I wanna say something like a quart per 2000 miles wouldn't shock me), so over time the oil level will drop. If you also have a tiny leak somewhere, or a big one-- the level will drop quicker, you'll probably catch the bigger leaks from looking at your driveway/parking spot-- but you might not catch a tiny leak that only happens when the engine is up to temp.

Your oil check is to see that the engine has the minimum it needs to keep itself lubricated-- and if it's getting low-- to top it up a little-- if it got too low, then metal starts actually touching metal (instead of being separated by a tinnnyyy film of oil) and you engine will *very* quickly hurt itself.

I quite enjoy Donut Media's car maintenance and general breakdowns-- seem like a fun bunch :)
posted by Static Vagabond at 1:02 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Okay, that makes more sense!

That video is pretty illustrative.

Honestly, I never, ever thought to check my oil between oil changes. I just... thought that's what an oil change for. I didn't know better!

So, I just want to make sure I understand. Bear with me: My oil should NOT become too low between oil changes? Because literally every.single.time. I get an oil change, they show me the dipstick and tell me my oil is low. I've never actually known that... that's bad!!! How embarrassing. I can only imagine how fucked up my engine probably is, yikes.

Because I got the oil change today, I'll be checking it weekly to keep my eyes on it now. If I notice it getting low, I'm supposed to top it off, correct? I'm sorry, this seriously reads like rocket science to me!!
posted by VirginiaPlain at 1:17 PM on January 12

Two things from someone whose knowledge of automobile maintenance is only slightly more advanced than yours: check the oil level when your engine is cold (before you go anywhere rather than when you get back) and if/when you need to top up your oil, don't just dump in the whole quart. Overfilling is bad too. There are lines on your dipstick that show an acceptable range.
posted by kate4914 at 1:26 PM on January 12

In a properly running car, you shouldn’t be “low” on oil. If you are consistently low (by more than just a smidge), that’s an indication that your engine is burning oil - something it’s not designed to do

This is not accurate. Burning oil is a side effect of an internal combustion engine and is normal. New cars tend to burn much less (likely not that noticeable between short oil change intervals) but as they wear they burn more and more as cylinder wear increases with mileage. It is ALWAYS important to check your oil regularly (every 500-1000 miles maybe at least, or every week if it leaks on the driveway!). It is not indicative of a problem until it becomes excessive (more than a quart per 1000 miles, which is actually a manufacturer tolerance for 'normal' in new cars).

Good rule of thumb is to check oil frequently until you get an idea for how often it needs a top up, then you can check less often. So check every 500 miles until you work out it there is room for you to get some in. Usually the top and bottom marks ('max' and 'min') are 1 quart apart but I'd tend to top up when it gets halfway down the range - add half a quart or so in stages until it is full (waiting a minute between adding and checking the level again to allow it to slurp its way down the engine).

It is important to keep your oil topped up because as impurities and by-products (soot, broken down oil, sludge and general shite) get into your oil as a normal part of it's useful life, the more oil you have in the car the less concentrated those impurities are and so less contribute to additional wear. When you say 'they always show you it is low' do you mean below the second line on the dipstick? In which case, yes that is bad and likely producing a higher oil consumption in the engine and reducing engine life. The oil should never be run below the bottom of the two lines.

So check your oil more often. And your tyre pressures (which I will guarantee you are not doing) as these need to be done weekly until you get a feel for how they wander and then less often, but always before every long drive. The correct pressures should be on the inside of the fuel filler door, or on the panel inside the drivers door or similar. Or in the manual. But tyre pressures are as important for road safety and tyre wear as engine oil level is for engine longevity.
posted by Brockles at 1:48 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Yep, you've got it exactly right-- keep it topped off between oil changes and you're ensuring it's enjoying a nice oily bath all day, every day. So if you're peeking at the dipstick today after your fresh oil change-- just aim to fill it back up to that same spot if you see it dropping towards the 'MIN'/'LOW' indicator. (buy a decent funnel!)

Checking it once a month will put you firmly in the top 0.1% of car owners I'm sure :)

Good point Brockles-- check tyre pressures. You'll save gas money and having to buy new tyres so often! Win/win. After paying attention for a while, you'll just know from looking or a pressing into a tyre with your knee that it needs a check.
posted by Static Vagabond at 1:53 PM on January 12

My car is about your car’s age, and I also started with no knowledge of cars!

Three things:
I bought the book Dare to Repair Your Car which is old and possibly out of print now. I liked it because it’s easy to read. I don’t actually do any of the repairs but I liked reading about them.

What I do regularly: check the oil, check the window washer fluid, check tire pressure, keep an eye on tire tread. And follow the maintenance booklet for my car.

Necessary: find a good mechanic you can trust. Ask around, read reviews. They’re worth their weight in gold, because they’ll tell you what absolutely needs to be done, what can wait a bit, and what would be nice to do but not required. They can also tell you about what sorts of things you should be doing, like checking the oil.
posted by umwhat at 2:06 PM on January 12

I actually took a community college class in home auto maintenance ~25 years ago. It was taught by a retired mechanic and we changed spark plugs, oil, various filters etc on our cars. It was so good although I largely don’t do my own maintenance—having gone through the process physically was really helpful for learning it.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 2:24 PM on January 12

The pulling out of the dipstick and somehow diagnosing injection cleaning requirement is the HIGHEST order of utter bullshit/snake oil.

Brockles is underselling how much "bullshit" this. Might as well have slaughtered a chicken and "read" the innards with this one.
posted by sideshow at 2:41 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Do you have any recommendations for HOW to become more knowledgeable about cars? Again, I don't know where to begin.

When I was a young car owner I bought the Auto Repair For Dummies book from the ubiquitous series. I found it very helpful and I'm sure I saved thousands over the years due to it.
posted by COD at 3:07 PM on January 12

Keep track and change your oil at least every 5,000 miles. Some people say 3,000, but I read that was shown to be overkill. Read the manual. It's dead boring, but full of very useful information. It will cover fuel injection, radiator flush, etc. Check the tires pretty often.
posted by theora55 at 3:07 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

VirginiaPlain; this is actually a really good question. The instant oil change places are like convenience stores for cars - they're convenient, but most of the techs there don't know much about what their doing. They are always going to want to up-sell you with an overpriced fuel injector service or a new air filter or new wiper blades, or whatever. That's their business model.

As many above have said, try to find a good mechanic. A good rule of thumb for this is to find a mechanic who is always busy and who guarantee's their work. Ask your friends where they take their expensive cars. These guys are never cheap, but in my experience they don't try to sell you unnecessary parts/services, their just too busy with high-end repairs.
posted by codex99 at 3:53 PM on January 12

Relative to your recent questions: I've had a lot of luck often asking friends or neighbors (especially women) for a good local garage and/or mechanic and I think the Jiffy Lube/7-11 metaphor is apt; you wouldn't ask the 7-11 worker about nutrition information. The good news is that you can try out a garage and if they give you a skeevy vibe or "Let me 'splain something to you little lady" vibe you can just move on. It's nice to have a mechanic that knows your car over time, but you can spend some time trying to find that person. And yeah if your car has a manual, you can flip through it. And you can watch YouTube videos put up by people who have a car like yours about how to do basic stuff like checking the oil or the coolant or how to add wiper fluid or brake fluid or change a fuse or change your wipers or whatever your car has. A 2007 car isn't ancient but it's also old enough that there are still some things you can do yourself pretty easily.
posted by jessamyn at 4:15 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

For minor maintenance, I always go to the same place (Jiffy Lube). They keep track of all the maintenance I've done in the past making it much easier to judge if, in fact, I do need new transmission fluid or whatever. Seems like 90% of car maintenance is just "Do X every N months/miles," so getting someone to keep track of all that for you is very helpful.
posted by TurnKey at 4:18 PM on January 12

One thing that (1) is always recommended by oil change places and (2) is bullshit to have them do but (3) is not bullshit to do generally: air filters. Air filters are cheap as heck and changing them yourself is roughly equivalent in difficulty to changing the batteries in a remote control.

Just search for, e.g., “Honda 2016 air filter” on YouTube. YouTube is generally pretty great for figuring out how to do random, low difficulty car things.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 5:14 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the all the replies so far, I think I have a better idea about how to educate myself for car related matters... for now. It's a start, at least. The convenience store comparison makes sense!

I'm also kind of obsessed with the existence of fuel system cleansers now, so I might by a bottle of that in a few weeks to see how it works. I also re-checked my oil with the dipstick and it doesn't look that dirty to me anymore!!!

Brockles -- Okay that makes much more sense about the oil now! I'm setting a reminder to check it next weekly for now to see where it's at. I went out and bought 1L of motor oil to have on hand for when I need to top it off. Found the manual and bought the correct type of motor oil I need, don't worry! 🤣

Oddly enough, and I'm not even sure why I have this habit, I do get the tire pressure checked quite regularly! I really like the place that does my tires, so I stop there to have them check the tire pressure. I just realized they also offer oil changes, maybe I'll get one from there next time instead of the quick lube.

chesty_a_arthur -- I'll have to check the local community colleges for an option like that (hopefully it will exist post-covid!). I would love to take a course like that.

COD -- I actually think I bought that book a few years ago, but obviously never read it. I will now!! Time to dig it out.
posted by VirginiaPlain at 5:36 PM on January 12

I don’t really know much about my car, I’ve tried but it just hasn’t worked out for me. What has worked out for me is finding people who have lived in my city for YEARS (decades really) and finding out about their mechanic. I bring my car in for an oil change about once a year there (and go to jiffy lube style places the other times). Because I know I’m bringing it to a place I trust and doesn’t bullshit me, I can bring it to jiffy lube and confidently turn down all their extra shit. They’ve fixed some stuff on my car (air conditioner) that ended up being pricy, but they walked me through the entire thing, offered me options and have let me know what other kinds of repairs are “oh shit, you got to fix this” and what others are “eh, eventually”
posted by raccoon409 at 6:49 PM on January 12

I really like the place that does my tires, so I stop there to have them check the tire pressure.

How many miles are on your 14-year-old Nissan, and what do you mean by 'does my tires'? How often are you having your tires replaced?
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:34 PM on January 12

By "does my tires" I mean that I go to them to put on my winter tires put on in the winter and all-seasons put on in the spring for spring/summer/winter. I live in an environment where winter tires are an absolute necessity!
posted by VirginiaPlain at 8:08 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

If the Nissan dealership in your area is decent, start with them. I’m fortunate in that I love my dealership and often their prices are lower than the independent garages around town; some parts have been cheaper through Toyota than Rock Auto. My service writer is AWESOME (I have been working with him for 12+ years) and he treats all of his clients with respect. If you know any other folks around who drive Nissans or have Japanese cars, ask who they would refer you to.

As for the burning oil debacle, older Japanese engines IME *always* burned oil (I drove two Civics and a Pathfinder before I moved to Toyota trucks). Just check the dipstick once a month. You can always throw a can of Seafoam in; it won’t hurt anything - read the directions!

As far as learning about cars, a lot of the sources upthread are excellent. Do you have any friends who know about or enjoy cars? I love cars. Before my Tundra, I did a fair amount of regular maintenance on my Civics, Pathfinder, and Tacoma. Poll your friends or family members to find out who enjoys car stuff and I promise they’ll talk to you at length.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 8:25 PM on January 12

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