You've probably heard all the excuses: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" "Don't they check all that stuff at the quick-lube when I get my oil changed?" "I know it's time to change my oil when the red oil light comes on!"
There are still more reasons for not doing simple maintenance, such as the using synthetic oil, or planning to trade in the vehicle in the near future, and any other excuses for not observing required service intervals. You might subscribe to some of the same rationale yourself because maybe you, or someone you know, seemed to do all right by such thinking.
Wear Means Tear The reality is, however, that no matter how many excuses humans employ, automobiles wear out with use. The good news is that they take much longer to wear out when properly maintained. It's true that some particular models may stand up to a lack of maintenance better than others. Even so, when routine preventive maintenance is performed, these more durable vehicles will last longer and experience fewer costly breakdowns. For instance, let's start with the engine oil change, since that's the most basic part of routine maintenance.
Change is Good It is true that many manufacturers say that it's all right to go up to 7,500 miles between oil changes, but that's recommended only under ideal conditions. They also describe "severe conditions" in which the oil has to be changed more frequently. Many people might be surprised to learn that the conditions they drive under would qualify as "severe." These include frequent stop-and-go driving (includes rush hour on most freeway/expressway routes), driving in high ambient temperatures, driving frequently over hilly terrain, driving in dusty conditions, or frequent high speed or loading conditions. Under such conditions, the oil change interval is lowered to around three months/3,000 miles, more than twice as often.
Using the red "oil pressure warning" light (not to be confused with the oil change interval light) as a signal to change the oil is a bad idea. It's true that, given an engine oil capacity of four quarts, and an oil consumption (burning) rate of one quart per 1000 miles, you might be able to make it from change to change without adding oil. This sounds appealing, since it appears to save money—on oil, anyway. The drawbacks to this approach can be extremely costly, however.
For one thing, as oil burns off and there's less in the oil pan, oil temperatures go up. This will cause a more rapid burning off process, which will affect your consumption calculations. It will also promote sludge and varnish deposits, as the heat breaks down the additives designed to deal with those bogeys. There will also be less oil to suspend and neutralize typical contaminants created by the combustion process. These, in turn, start attacking the metal in the engine.
On top of that, when the oil level drops low enough—usually to two quarts or less—you run the risk of the engine's oil pump ingesting air. This can happen during heavier g-loading, such as during hard cornering, acceleration, or braking. It also can happen during steady-state driving due to the engine oil "foaming" as the result of depletion of the oil's anti-foaming additives. And all of this can happen without illuminating the warning light!
Really, by the time you see the light coming on, damage has been done, drastically reducing engine life. We've seen engines fail in less than five years when subjected to this treatment.
While synthetic oil is superior stuff, it's still petroleum-based, just like non-synthetic oil. Its molecule size is synthesized, which improves start-up lubrication and enhances flow. But there's nothing in it that will make it last and protect twice as long as the regular stuff. Enough said about oil, now on to routine maintenance.
Routine is Good As with oil change intervals, the best starting point for establishing routine maintenance intervals and procedures for your particular vehicle is the good old owners manual. You'll notice that it usually specifies a lot of "inspection" procedures. That is the key to good, low-cost preventive maintenance. Inspect and repair as needed.
There is a difference—sometimes a huge one—in cost between repairing after a failed inspection and repairing after a failure. For instance, if an accessory drive belt snaps, will it physically damage anything after it breaks? If the vehicle is driven for long after the failure, will the engine overheat and be damaged?
Even vehicles touted to have 100,000-mile tune, trans fluid and coolant change intervals still need to have routine inspections performed. The owners manual will reveal the same needs as other vehicles, such as checking the belts and hoses, braking system, steering and suspension, electrical system (especially the battery), and so on. Besides, remember that the "severe conditions" description may apply and affect the actual time a tune and fluid change will need to be performed.
Conditions A good rule of thumb for service intervals is this: under "ideal conditions" an oil/filter change and routine maintenance inspection every 6,000 miles. Under "severe conditions"—which describes the conditions most vehicles are operated under—oil/filter change at 3,000 mile intervals. And at every other oil/filter change, include a routine maintenance inspection.
All that is left to cover now is the part where you communicate your concerns and requests with your repair professional. Here are a few tips to that can make this process go easier:
TIPS Look at the owner's manual beforehand and get a good idea of what your vehicle is going to need
If you're not sure of the maintenance history of your vehicle, ask for the basic maintenance inspection, and to be advised of any other repairs recommended after inspection
Be careful of what you ask for. Many people, including some shops, mistake a "tune-up," which mainly pertains to the engine management systems, with a "routine maintenance inspection," which pertains to the entire vehicle.
If you don't ask for it, and it's not clearly explained in writing, or by the service pro, you probably aren't going to get it. It's not unusual for customers to ask for only an oil change, and upon delivery, ask if everything else is O.K. with the car!
Listen attentively to the customer service pro, and don't be reluctant to ask pertinent questions about indications of wear and tear to anticipate future preventive maintenance.
If your vehicle is still under factory warranty, and you wish to have it serviced at an independent facility, make sure that it's licensed to do auto repair. Many states have a Bureau of Automotive Repair, and the shop should have an appropriate license from such an entity on display. Your warranty may be considered void, otherwise