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Waste of Money: Excessive Oil Changes (Every 3,000 Miles?)

This article was written by in Consumer. 25 comments.


When I graduated college almost ten years ago and was moving out of the dorms on campus, my father picked me up in his graduation gift to me, a “new” (to me) 1988 Toyota Celica. From this point on, it was my responsibility to care for and maintain the car, but I didn’t really know what that entails.

I found out several months later while I was driving on Interstate 95 in Delaware. Without much warning — or without any warning that I recognized at the time — I heard a loud bang! from under the hood and the car no longer accelerated as I depressed the pedal. I pulled over to the side of the road to keep my broken-down Celica out of the way of traffic and walked to the nearest motorist assistance phone on the highway. This was a few years before I would own a cellular phone, so I had no choice but to risk myself with a leisurely walk alongside the breakdown lane of a major highway.

Well, apparently, cars require not only an oil change once in a while, but the occasional addition of oil to keep the engine lubricated. This knowledge is familiar to most people, I think, but perhaps not to a kid who is taking care of his own car for the first time. From this point on, I don’t know how many people reminded me that you should Check Your Oil Whenever You Get Gasoline and Have Your Oil Changed After Driving 3,000 Miles.

So that’s what I did. I discovered a few things after having the motor replaced in the Celica. First, the rebuilt engine that was installed burned through oil very quickly. I had to add more oil every few weeks just to keep the dip stick reading at “full” and the frequency of oil changes was about once a month.

I had the Celica for at most two years. When I needed a more reliable car in late 1999 or early 2000, I traded it in for a lightly-used 1997 Honda Civic and the accompanying monthly car payment. With this car, I did not need to add new oil so frequently. I also noticed that it took a longer time before the oil blackened so I figured this car might be able to last more than 3,000 miles without changing the oil. The Civic operated fine when waiting 5,000 to 8,000 miles between oil changes.

A number of circumstances led to the need for a car disappearing, and I gave the Civic to a friend of the family for her son’s use while in high school. Eventually, I received the car back but it wasn’t as reliable as it had once been. It wasn’t long before I sold the car and purchased a new 2004 Honda Civic. This car’s oil held up even better. According to the owner’s manual, the oil in the 2004 Honda Civic should be changed every 10,000 miles or one year, whichever comes first. Even four years and almost 90,000 miles later, the oil does not seem to ever get dirty, so I find myself stretching even that to 15,000 miles while still feeling comfortable that I won’t be damaging the car. The other part of my reasoning is to save money on maintenance costs, but I don’t want to find myself penny wise, pound foolish and spending more money to fix major damage.

Maybe the 3,000 mile guideline is only appropriate for older cars, but I’ve talked to many people with newer cars who agree that this is mostly a myth perpetuated by the industry.

According to Honda Owner Link, a personalized record-keeping and maintenance website available to Honda owners, this is better advice for oil changes:

There is absolutely no benefit in changing your oil more frequently than recommended in your owner’s manual. This will only increase your cost of ownership, and create an unnecessary burden upon the environment by increasing the amount of disposed oil.

Do not exceed the recommended maintenance interval. Oil eventually deteriorates and loses its ability to protect your engine, due to heat, friction, and exposure to exhaust components. Engine oil contains special additives to enhance the oil’s performance, and these additives are also broken down or consumed with distance and time. Engine damage can occur if the proper maintenance schedule is not followed.

The 2004 Honda Civic Owner’s Manual explicitly instructs owners to have the car’s engine oil changed every 10,000 miles, and I should force myself to stay on this schedule, particularly as I approach 100,000 miles.

If you own a car, how often do you change your oil?

Published or updated June 21, 2008. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Lobo83

You have it right by following the manufacturer’s recommendation. 3,000 miles per oil change usually applies only to hard driven, stop and go use such as taxis. Do check the oil level at least once a month and add oil if the level is low. I have two Camrys and change oil as Toyota requires – every six months or 7500 miles. Do it yourself! It will cost you less than $20.00.

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avatar Ron

I follow the manufacturer’s recommendations at 5,000 for my wife’s 2005 Honda Odyssey. It has a OIL CHANGE light that is reset when we take it to the dealer and it shows what percentage of oil life remains (kinda like a countdown timer). The bummer is that only the dealer can reset the light, otherwise I would try it myself.

People who change their oil frequently say, “Of course the manufacturer wants you to change it at 5,000+…they hope to sell you a new car.” They never think about the unneeded oil changes that are advised by oil change companies and mechanics! Their motives are as pure as the driven snow…

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avatar AJ

Ron,

You CAN reset it yourself. My Accord has the same thing, and iirc, you reset it by turning the key to the accessories, then holding the trip meter. It had the instructions in the owner’s manual, you might check yours.

This site also claims to have the answer for the Odyssey, but I’m not totally sure I believe it. Worth a shot, anyway: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_to_reset_the_maintenance_light_after_oil_change

AJ

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avatar Muki

I have a 94 civic. I usually try to change the oil every 3K, but I wasn’t very consistent. So probably I averaged an oil change every 5K – 10K miles.

That engine has 280,000 miles on it. Many of those were highway miles, but still… 280,000 miles.

Sure I’ve had to make some repairs…At various times I’ve had to get the clutch, the brake cylinder, and the water pump fixed. But the engine and transmission (other than the clutch) are still working well. And with some conservative hypermiling such as coasting, slow accelaration, and turning the engine off at long red lights, I recently got over 30 mpg out of it.

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avatar Paul Lockwood

You missed one important point. Synthetic v’s regular oil. Running regular oil for 15K miles is a little foolish, but many European cars have recommended change intervals at 20K or more using Synthetic oil (Peugeot for example). Please don’t have your oil changed at a ‘quick lube’ place for $20 and drive for over 15K miles! Bear in mind that just because modern oil can last 20K miles does not mean your oil filter will last that long – many people who do 20K changes on Hondas etc change their filter at 10K miles (these are mainly Amsoil people who are the cream of the oil fetish crowd).

I do oil changes myself on our Honda when the maintenance reminder light comes on but use Mobil One synthetic from WalMart. The BMW is covered by BMWs free service plan until 50K miles, but it normally about 17->18K when the BMW maintenance indicator comes on (varies with average mpg apparently). The motorcycle I change once a year regardless of mileage with Mobile One. Same with push mower, lawn tractor and pressure washer – once a year with Mobile One; since using synthetic they start easier in cold weather too.

if you really want to save money automotive wise you need a spreadsheet like this: http://dotnetworkaholic.com/non-tech-science-of-buying-a-new-car-update-following-flames/

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avatar Paul Lockwood

>>The bummer is that only the dealer can reset the light, otherwise I would try it myself.
The instructions are in the manual for our 2008 Honda CR-V. I suspect they are in yours too. A quick Google found this page: http://www.mechanicki.com/2007/07/27/how-to-reset-the-oil-indicator-in-your-honda-odyssey/

DIY is easy, but be sure to check the dipstick on level ground after running the engine for a minute or so. Don’t forget that overfilling is bad too.

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avatar Eric

I drive a Nissan 350Z, for which the manufacturer’s recommendation is every 3,750 miles. I run full synthetic oil and change every 5,000 or so. I think that’s still faster than is really necessary, but I prefer to err on the side of caution since it’s a high-performance engine.

An option to really optimize the oil change intervals it to save a sample of the used oil and send it for analysis to a lab. I’m not sure exactly what the cost is (probably not too much), but the results can tell you exactly when you need to be changing the oil for your particular driving habits. It also looks for trace contaminants that’ll warn of premature wear, leaky gasket, etc. far before it’s obvious. I’ve never done it myself, but I might look into it once the car gets a little more mileage.

Modern “dino oil” is pretty good stuff, but you can generally run a little longer on synthetic oil. Most manufacturers don’t give a specific recommendation (they don’t want liability if you blow your engine), but various experts have their opinions. Some high-end oil manufacturers do guarantee longer intervals, however. For example, I believe Amsoil guarantees their oil for 10k miles.

I’ve heard various things about what happens if you extend the intervals past the manufacturer’s recommendations and something goes wrong. I have no source for this, but one thing I’ve heard is that they’d have to prove lack of oil change was the cause to refuse warranty. I don’t know if that’s actually the law, and wouldn’t really want to be stuck arguing the fine points of law with a dealer. Simple advice, like Flexo said, is to just monitor the oil level regularly and watch when it gets dirty.

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avatar chriseaker

I use Amsoil synthetic and Amsoil recommends a drain interval of 25,000 miles or one year for regular driving conditions. You have to use an Amsoil oil filter to be able to go that far, but it’s still much cheaper than using regular petroleum based oil, a cheap Fram filter, and changing it every 3,000 miles.

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avatar Daniel

I believe the best idea is to stick to the manufacturer’s recommended schedule and OEM parts. They spend a lot of money on research and development and design the engine to run on their recommended fluids. As a side note on oil consumption, there are brand new cars being produced that have an oil consumption specification of 2.5 quarts for every 1000 miles. That is 1 quart of oil every time you fill your gas tank.

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avatar KC

Ron – try Googling to see if you can figure out how to reset this light. My Acura (nothing but a glorified Honda Accord) tells me in the manual how to reset this light. I don’t know off the top of my head, but its no different then setting a clock – press this button for 2 secs…etc.

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avatar KC

I change my oil every 5k or so miles. My car is a 7 year old Acura that the manual recommends changing every 7k miles. My mechanic, who has a vested interest in me changing my oil frequently, says to stick to 3k due to engine sludge. I fully trust this guy and I’ve been going to him for years, but I settled on 5k miles. I do drive in a hot, hot city and rarely see the interstate – so between the hot temps and the hard driving I think I should change it more frequently than 7k. Also the car is aging (80k miles) and I think this is a factor in how frequently oil should be changed.

My 16 year old Nissan had 150k miles on it with never any engine problems when I sold it. I changed the oil religiously every 3k miles.

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avatar Dan

You can’t reliably tell anything about oil condition by looking at its color. It’s safest to stick to what the owner’s manual says, and check the oil level and top off when necessary–with the same weight (e.g. 10W-40, 5W-30) as was used when the oil was changed. Stretching the maintenance intervals, especially on dino oil, is asking for trouble.

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avatar Paul Lockwood

It is interesting to see many people still do 3K or 5K changes. Since at least 1999 BMW USA has had synthetic oil change intervals of 15>19K (car decides based on mpg). I follow BMW forums and many people are now hitting 200K with those cars – very few sludge issues are reported but some people _never_ change their oil so it is bound to happen once in a while. An oil change at a BMW dealer costs ~$110. Let’s look at the numbers over 200K miles :

3K changes is 66 changes @ $110 = $7,260

~17K changes is 11 changes @ $110 = $1,210

$6K difference of your after tax money. This not even factoring the time you take to have the car serviced – say $50/hr and it takes an hour per service; that is another $3300 for the 3K intervals! Ouch. Hence why I do DIY: I can do it in an evening and not take time off work, use quality oil and know the job is done correctly. A dealer once way overfilled one of my cars which is asking for future engine damage.

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avatar Twiggers

I have a 2006 Chevy pickup. I change the oil when the little life meter says ‘Change your oil’. That usually is about once every 7 months or about 4000 miles. I think it comes on with a combination of time and miles….because your oil can get all gunky if it’s not used enough. My truck is 2.5 years old and has about 23K miles, and the oil has been changed probably 4 times.

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avatar Eric

Paul,

I’m going to take a guess and say that since the interval is so long, BMW wraps some other routine maintenance into those oil changes. Unless you have to disassemble the engine to get at the filter, there’s no way an oil change alone should cost $110. Maybe some inspections, air filter, etc.

If you go to some cheapo Jiffy Lube or whatnot (I wouldn’t), I’d expect to pay $20-$25. Probably cost about the same to get oil and a filter and do it yourself with comparable parts – although the peace of mind is priceless.

I end up spending about $40-$45 per oil change on my car for supplies (I change it myself), but I use Mobil 1 synthetic and a high-end K&N oil filter. I got my oil changed at a garage once with Mobil 1, and that cost me about $65.

Anyway, your point is still valid about saving money by using longer change intervals (that’s the whole point of the thread), but the math is a bit skewed if you assume people are paying $110 every 3k miles. If I do the math for my schedule:

5k changes (40 total) @ $45 = $1800

Still more, but only $600 instead of $6k.

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avatar Paul Lockwood

Eric,

I totally agree ~$60 is more in line for what an 7qt synthetic oil change should cost. There are people online who say BMW charged them up to $300 though!!! In my experience many luxury car owners have zero clue and dealerships are all to happy to take advantage.

BMW is a little different from most manufactures. The have four years/50K free maintenance which is pretty much just a new oil+filter+wiper blades every ~17K miles. In four years I normally get two new free sets of front rotors/pads and one set of rear rotors/pads too. Some people on the BMW forums seem insistent 15->19K is too long so pay for changes every 3, 5 or (mostly) 7.5K miles and are normally charged $110.

Yours is a good choice of oil and filter which should last up to 20K miles, 5K is a little overkill IMO, but you DIY and as you say it does not cost ‘that’ much more. I tend to over analyze though: http://www.dotnetworkaholic.com/csharp/downloads/US_Car_Ownership_Costs.xls

>>although the peace of mind is priceless.
Totally agree, which is why I DIY with quality oil too. That and I normally contract so an hour or two off work to get a car serviced can be way more than the oil change itself.

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avatar KC

I agree about dealerships (especially the luxury ones) taking advantage of their naive customers. The only time I’ve taken my Acura to the dealership was because I had an issue that was under warranty. They tried to fix a bunch of other things, too. I told them all I could afford right now was the free warranty work – funny how the people at the luxury dealership accepted this easily – aren’t luxury car owners supposed to be rich ? HaHa. Anyway, I took my car to my regular mechanic a few weeks later and told him the work Acura wanted to do so he looked at my car while doing the oil change I’d come in for. He came back to me and just laughed, “Your car is fine.”

But at the dealership I noticed lots of people bringing in their new Acuras, but there was one 80+ year old lady who was bringing in her 1990ish Acura Legend for work. The car look immaculate, but I’m just wondering why she’s paying the dealership outrageous prices to fix her car that’s worth less than $2k when she could get my import mechanic who specializes in these older Japanese imports?

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avatar kitty

Totally agree. It is not only oil changes, it’s the whole service schedules that dealerships give to people when they buy a car. They always offer you X-something miles services that include a lot of stuff not recommended by the manufacturer.

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avatar Kevin

I stick to 5,000 miles for our Honda Accord and Civic. I used to work for a car rental agency and we changed ours every 5,000 to 7,500 miles. I figure if they’re willing to do it they must know what they are doing… so I’ll stick with it.

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avatar dino

I am with twiggers. My 06 chevy manual says till the light comes on or 1 year whichever comes first. We changed the oil the first time only cause it was free (the light still hadn’t come on) at about 6k. Then it didn’t come on again till about 16k. I kept getting call from my dad reminding me to change the oil. I just lied about it. You can’t tell him anything.

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avatar Chris

I change the oil in both my vehicles every 5k miles with regular…

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avatar Kyle

What type of oil are you using that you can go 15,000 miles without changing it? I’m thinking it must be a super-expensive synthetic brand like Amsoil. I generally use the inexpensive non-synthetic Castrol or Pennzoil and wouldn’t dare go more than 6,000 miles or so without a change. But I don’t drive much as I live in the city, so that lasts me a while.

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avatar Seth

If you are really obsessive about your car and oil changes you can hang around at http://www.bobistheoilguy.com and you will encounter more opinions and debate about oil quality, oil change frequency, oil filters, oil filter change frequency, and other car fluid discussion than you can stand.

The absolute best way to determine your ideal oil change interval is to get an oil analysis done. The oil analysis companies will check for iron, copper, etc. and then give you some guidance regarding the “ideal” oil viscosity and change frequency for your car and driving style.

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avatar Jaylin

I have been doing work on a national fuel efficiency campaign and in regards to changing motor vehicle oil, we advise people to follow their car manuals. I was surprised to learn that changing oil every 3k or 5k was not necessary – especially since last time I went to an auto mechanic garage (in 2005), the technician put a sticker on my windshield and told me to come back when I drove an additional 3k miles. I have not tried API performance labeled or friction reducing motor oil yet – but there’s a $5 coupon for Mobil 1 Advanced Fuel Economy oil available at the campaign’s website: http://www.drivesmarterchallenge.org

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avatar James

It is generally advisable to not exceed the manufacturers recommended oil-change interval. In fact, most normal driving conditions are considered to be “hard” driving conditions according to most manuals. Oil can be contaminated by dirt, tiny metal particles from your engine, blow-by gases, and coolant, to only name a few. In addition, the additives in the oil, such as detergents and anti-foaming agents can loose their effectiveness. It is true that synthetic oil last longer, but it can still become contaminated, and the oil filter will still need replacement on regular interval. Id still stick to 3000 or so, possibly 5000, especially on a high-performance engine, a high-mileage engine, or an engine constantly submitted to heavy loads. Having had the chance to see engine components from engines that failed due to improper lubrication first hand, I would say its worth the 35 dollars every few months to prevent this.

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