Would you like to supersize that oil change?
June 17, 2008 3:43 PM   Subscribe

Are the "extra services" that the oil change shops offer ever worth it?

I'm not particularly gifted in the field auto mechanics, so I have my car's oil changed at a local chain quick-lube shop. It seems like every time I go in, there is something that the computer says is due for my car. I have been to several different chains, and they all seem to do this. "Sir, according to the computer, it is recommended that you have your transmission flushed today." "The computer says that your ____ fluid ought to be changed today." Since I don't know much about auto maintenance, I never know how to respond to these sorts of questions. Are these "upgrades" ever worthwhile?

Last time I had my oil changed, they wanted to change my power steering fluid, and I said yes. The flushing machine had a window in it and I could see some sort of muddy brown fluid leaving my car and then a nice clear-ish fluid returning. It seemed like a good idea at the time and made me feel good about how I was treating my car. However, I thought about it later and realized that I have never heard of anyone ever, ever having their power steering fluid flushed and that this was probably a complete waste of money.

Today, they wanted to clean my fuel injectors with my oil change. I didn't want to be taken again, so I declined. Now I am wondering...are any of these oil change "upgrades" ever worthwhile? I see from my car's manual that the manufacturer has outlined a required maintenance calendar. However, I am of the school of thought that it is better to spend $30 on preventative maintenance now than $3000 a few years down the road when something important wears out. At the same time, I'm sure that some services they offer are just a plain old waste of money.

What do you think, hivemind? What sorts of services are and aren't worth it? In case it matters, I drive a 2004 Honda Civic with just under 40,000 miles, but any generic auto maintenance advice would be appreciated as well.
posted by wondercow to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
They have to put their kids through college too.
Check this out.
posted by albolin at 3:50 PM on June 17, 2008

Read your owner's manual and follow the maintenance schedule listed in it. It's important to change your transmission fluid, but it's usually only done every 80,000-100,000 miles. If something's wrong and you're suspicious of how much a place is charging, get a second opinion somewhere else.

My best advice is to read up a little bit on cars yourself (Auto Repair for Dummies for a good book) so that you can actually talk to the mechanic. Not only will they treat you more fairly, you'll also be able to handle a whole variety of smaller problems by yourself.
posted by Aanidaani at 4:00 PM on June 17, 2008

Yeah, your owner's manual will tell you what routine/preventative maintenance should be done when. I'd say have your regular mechanic do it, rather than the quick-lube place (Actually, I'd recommend the same for the oil changes)
posted by winston at 4:06 PM on June 17, 2008

The air filter for my car was about the same price in the store as the quick-lube place. I was pretty disappointed by that.
posted by smackfu at 4:14 PM on June 17, 2008

Last time I went to Jiffy Lube, they did an oil and air filter change. Afterwards, my engine sounded different. The next time I got my oil changed, I went to a local mechanic. He asked me where my air filter was. The Jiffy Lube guys had not put a filter in, though that didn't stop them from charging me.

Follow the maintenance schedule in your car manual and stay away from chains and shady mechanics.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:21 PM on June 17, 2008

Personally I always advise people to avoid quicky-lube type places. I've heard way too many horror stories about incompetence or work just not being done, and the fact is that simply offering oil changes isn't an economical business model. Places like that need to upsell everyone or they can't make a profit.

Find a local mechanic, who does everything from oil changes to engine repairs, that you trust. Take your car to them for everything from oil changes to engine repairs. You might not always get an oil change while you wait, but if it's a good shop they'll take much better care of you in the long run than the chain oil changers.

Aanidaani's advice about the maintenance schedule is something I always tell people. "The computer" will probably always want you to do some extra work. "The manual" is the guide you should use to make these decisions. Here's a handy online version I just found for your car. It's simple.

At a glance, I would have thought that a power steering fluid flush might be something you would need once in awhile, but a bit of research confirms your suspicion. When I think about it, it makes sense. It's just a hydraulic fluid; it's not in contact with moving parts (like oil and transmission fluid) and it doesn't break down chemically over time (like coolant). You shouldn't be running low on it unless you have a leak, and you shouldn't need to even top it up unless you have other work done on the steering system. Same goes for your brake fluid (and clutch fluid if you have a manual transmission). Note that clutch fluid and transmission fluid are not the same thing. The former is a hydraulic fluid, the latter is a lubricating oil.
posted by autojack at 4:31 PM on June 17, 2008

I use oil-change places for oil changes from time to time, though I usually prefer to do it myself. But I never let them do anything else. And they always want to do something else.
posted by Shohn at 4:43 PM on June 17, 2008

I wouldn't follow the manufacturer maintenance schedule. Honda needs to sell you a new car every 4 or 5 years, it's not really in their interest to help you make a car last 10+ years. I would follow a more aggressive maintenance schedule such as one from Pat Goss.
posted by COD at 4:55 PM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

If in doubt follow your owners manual. After all the guys who wrote it should know what is best for your car and unless you have specific information to the contrary should be trusted. However the only thing I have oil change places change is the fluid in anything that takes gear oil (some transmissions, transfer cases and differentials). But that only because the smell makes me puke and I invariably get some on me and the smell lingers for days even with vigorous washing.

autojack writes "At a glance, I would have thought that a power steering fluid flush might be something you would need once in awhile, but a bit of research confirms your suspicion. When I think about it, it makes sense. It's just a hydraulic fluid; it's not in contact with moving parts (like oil and transmission fluid) and it doesn't break down chemically over time (like coolant)."

Power steering fluid does contact moving parts, either the recirculating balls or a piston plus the moving parts of the pump. However the moving parts aren't breaking down the fluid down much, it's the high heat generated in power steering systems that degrades it. I generally replace it in my major maintenance at each 100K interval.
posted by Mitheral at 5:23 PM on June 17, 2008

Get a good book, follow your manual and find a good oil change center. My family owns one. It is family owned and operated. They often find that after some one that has gone to a chain (jiffy lube, wal-mart) that there are problems. This is not to say that they have never had a problem. But they own up to any problems. This is why people continue to come back. They don't 'upsale' everyone.

The computer can recommend something but the service tech should use that as a recommendation to look at what is saying and check. When the computer says the power steering fluid needs to be changed the service tech should check to see that it really needs it. A good place will do this.

I agree to look for a shop that has video cameras so that you can see what is happening in the bay. Ask for a service review, ask to see the air filter if they tell you it needs to be changed (it might last another 3000 miles easy), look for a shop that doesn't work on commission and don't let them push you into something you don't want.

And "NO" my dad didn't put me through college by talking people into things they didn't need. We were (they still are) quite the middle class family.
posted by nimsey lou at 5:24 PM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I dont think its ever worth it. I wouldnt let those guys do anything but change oil on my car because they dont seem terribly qualified nor are their prices competative.

You should just follow the maintenence schedule in your car and be done with it. The mechanic charges the same rates, except you know, he's actually a mechanic.

Sometimes they'll offer to change a broken tail-light. This is handy as its something thats difficult to screw up and can be done fairly cheaply.
posted by damn dirty ape at 5:24 PM on June 17, 2008

I've run several Hondas well past the ten year mark. Their maintenance schedule works well for me.

I haven't used a Jiffy-type oil change place in years, but if I did, I'd only let them change the oil, and I'd check the dipstick afterwards.

I'd have my regular mechanic do anything else, especially a transmission flush.
posted by zippy at 6:19 PM on June 17, 2008

I always decline the offer - even when I take it to the dealership for oil changes. They always try to supersize your visit. It's not just there - it's everywhere. It's how they make their money.

Just follow the maintenance schedule as recommended by your manufacturer, at the very least while you've got a warranty on the car, and as far as things like filters... Go to your local auto parts retailer, get the book that goes with your car make/model - its made by a third party and it will show you how to do everything from changing a battery to changing spark plugs to replacing air filters and fuses.

I'm not super into cars at all, but I found it easy to read and it had a lot of pictures. Mine was very helpful finding the battery in my car (under the wheel well, fun!) and when my dashboard lit up like Christmas Eve on Route 128 a few months back, it explained the error codes I was getting and ideas on remedying them. The book is about $18. Totally pays for itself the longer you own your car, or if your car has been around the block, as it were.
posted by jerseygirl at 6:46 PM on June 17, 2008

My former boss used a quick-oil-change place near our workplace. They didn't tighten the oil drain plug, and she ran out of oil by the time she made it back to work.

Lots of arguing on the phone, where they tried to convince her to drive it back to them without oil, since they were so close(!!!!), before they agreed to tow it, refill it, and refund the oil change bill.

OTOH, there was a cutie who worked there that caught my eye, and I noticed she knew more about cars than any one else in the place.

Moral: some of the workers in those places suck, like every other no-hope-for-advancement discount workhouse.

Certainly, some places will rip you off for unneeded maintenance or repairs. Years & years ago, 60 Minutes did an exposé on Sears, where they showed shop after shop attempting to rip them off with unneeded parts. They'd show the customer a bad part (air filter, muffler, whatever), which wasn't the actual part from the car. In some cases, they didn't replace the actual part!

Moral: it's not just the quick-change places that suck. Find a mechanic you feel comfortable with, and patronize them.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:16 PM on June 17, 2008

Zomg, dealership for oil changes? Ouch. JiffyLubeMonkey? Ouch.

I realize that "do it yourself" will glaze over a lot of eyes...but, seriously consider learning, especially on an 04 Civic! I run nothing but Mobil1 in my car, getting that change at any normal oilchange place costs ~$65/$75, whereas doing it myself costs ~$30 and 10 minutes, with a premium oil filter. Of course, $30 means more to some people than others.

I'd recommend your favorite brake shop as your oilchange shop. Might cost a spot more, might be a spot slower, BUT those are real mechanics who know WTF they're talking about.

There is, afaik, still a huge class action suit against JiffyLube nationwide for services paid but unrendered.

Oh...and 3000 mile intervals are a joke. 5000 for the win. Honda actually recommends 7000 for many models, and the good synthetics are rated for 7500/8000.
posted by TomMelee at 7:22 PM on June 17, 2008

My friend went to one of those quick oil places till her regular mechanic pointed out all the screws missing from the underside of her car.

I just follow the maintenance schedule in my manual.
posted by acoutu at 7:41 PM on June 17, 2008

I would only use an oil shop for oil changes. The money and time saved doing it myself isn't worth it (a shop charges 20 to 30 bucks here, I'm guessing TomMelee's car runs on oil mixed with gold shavings).

It's not difficult to find the maintenance schedule for your vehicle. As far as repairs the shop finds, I would take that info and get a real mechanic to check it out and make the repair if necessary. You're going to get ripped off otherwise.
posted by justgary at 11:18 PM on June 18, 2008

Lol, not gold shavings, just high quality 100% synthetic. A $20 oil change is getting you some old skool oil. Fine for lots of cars...just not, you know...new ones.
posted by TomMelee at 5:56 PM on June 19, 2008

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