Niagara Gazette

June 13, 2013

TOM'S CORNER: What's really necessary during an oil change?

By Tom Torbjornsen
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Have you ever gone to a quick lube place for an oil change and, while you’re waiting in the lobby, the service bay/sales person informs you that a certain service must be performed on the vehicle immediately to avert a disaster of immense proportion? The “recommended service” usually includes one or more of the following:

• High mileage oil

• Fuel system cleaning

• Brake fluid flush

• Transmission flush

• Transfer case or differential fluid change

How should you respond? Knowledge is power; power gives confidence to make the right decisions. So let’s look at each service, the validity of the claim, and whether or not you should follow the advice.

Does your vehicle need high mileage oil?

High mileage oils supposedly are formulated with more robust additive packages for better lubrication and rust inhibition, along with a nourishing agent to bring old, hardened oil seals back to life. Well, if that’s true, why didn’t the company initially give me their best formulation so that my car would get more mileage out of the engine in the first place?! Not being an expert in lubrication and petroleum products, I consulted an expert in the industry to gather more information. Dan Watson, a Certified Lubrication Specialist (STLE), sent me some bullet points to consider when offered “high mileage oil.”

High mileage oils are fortified with additional additives for improving the ability of the oil to deal with byproducts of combustion and enhance engine cleanliness.

Why not make all oils with robust additive packages? (My point exactly) Engines would stay cleaner and be better protected with the stronger additive package from the start.

The age of the engine has nothing to do with the protection needed to maintain the engine and prevent wear.

Start the engine out using high quality synthetic engine oil and you will have superior protection and cleanliness from the start (no need for a “better oil” at a higher mileage).

All synthetic oils are NOT the same. Look for synthetic oils like AMSOIL or Mobil One that have extremely robust additive packages designed for longer drain intervals. This insures you are getting highly additive-ized oil that provides maximum protection regardless of mileage.

Does your vehicle need a fuel system cleaning?

Fuel system cleaning isn’t addressed directly in maintenance schedules. I checked six specific year, make, and model vehicles in the ALLDATA database and I came up with only one reference regarding fuel delivery system inspection; and two others, one referencing fuel filter replacement and one referencing fuel line inspection. So this is a gray area. I can tell you that fuel flow creates varnish deposits and that inefficient combustion from worn sparkplugs and wires causes carbon buildup within the engine. Over time, the injectors clog up. When this happens, the injectors dribble fuel into the combustion chamber instead of delivering a fine mist of air/fuel mixture for perfect combustion. In addition, I can tell you that fuel additives to the fuel tank alone cannot keep a fuel system clean.

Chemical companies that develop fuel system cleaning chemicals recommend a complete fuel system cleaning every 30K–40K miles. During the cleaning process, industrial strength carbon and varnish cleaners are injected directly into the fuel delivery system while the engine is running. The problem I have with the quick lube recommendation? First, they “recommend” the service almost every time you stop in for an oil change. Second, I question the quality of the fuel system service they offer. For this service to work effectively, they must use a special machine and a specific set of tools, as well as an industrial grade carbon and varnish cleaner. Such equipment, found in high quality repair facilities or dealerships, are often not available at quick lubes. Don’t get me wrong; quick lubes have their place in automotive service. However, I think they are out of their league in this area of service.

Does your vehicle need a brake fluid flush?

Brake fluid flushing is a viable service that should be done if there is rust and sediment in the brake master cylinder. After researching several year, make, and model vehicles in the ALLDATA database, I found that this is not a recommended service from the manufacturer. At best, carmakers suggest an inspection of the braking system at regular intervals (about every 6K miles) that includes inspection of the brake fluid along with the rest of the system. The hydraulic braking system is designed as a closed and sealed system. When it is exposed to the atmosphere because of a broken seal or hydraulic cup, the system will draw moisture into itself because of the hydroscopic (moisture absorbing) nature of the fluid. So a simple inspection of the brake fluid is all that is required.

Look for proper level, color, and smell. Brake fluid that is clear/translucent in color, at the proper level, with no evidence of a burnt smell, indicates a healthy braking system. If the color is black or rust-colored, there is a problem. Simple flushing will not repair the root cause. A dark color accompanied by a burnt smell is indication that the system has overheated. A rust-colored fluid indicates that moisture has entered the system, and therefore the system should be checked for a leaking component, a compromised line, or a torn master cylinder gasket. Brake fluid flushing alone without an inspection and/or repair of the root cause is not a repair. It is like a band-aid on a compound fracture. I do not recommend regular brake fluid flushing. It is simply not necessary unless a problem with color, level, or smell of the brake fluid is observed.

Does your vehicle need a transmission fluid flush?

As a regular maintenance practice (every 35–40K miles) transmission flushing can ensure proper operation and longevity of the transmission. Any more that 35–40K miles is overkill. Some carmakers suggest this service every 100K miles or more. However, I don’t agree with this timeframe because transmission fluid is oil, and oil breaks down over time. In addition, I don’t agree with just flushing the fluid without replacing the transmission filter. Dirt from the filter can flow through the unit and contaminate it again. On transmissions with high mileage that have a history of being neglected (the fluid is dark and smells burnt) I do not recommend a transmission flush. In such case, the transmission has been overheated and internal damage might have occurred. When the transmission is subjected to a complete bath of fresh high-detergency transmission fluid, the transmission will fail internally. So if you have a high mileage vehicle and the quick lube shop has recommended a fluid flush, get a second opinion from a drivetrain expert before proceeding … or pay the consequences. 

Does your vehicle need a transfer case or differential fluid change?

Transfer cases are very quirky units. When the fluid is compromised in any way from overheating or moisture contamination they can malfunction. Some symptoms of a malfunction include chatter, engaging and disengaging rapidly while in gear, and slow to engage from low to high range. I have actually seen TSBs (Technical Service Bulletins) where carmakers consult with petroleum companies to come up with a fix for a transfer case problem by virtue of a fluid reformulation. Also, different carmakers use different fluids for their respective transfer cases. This is an area of service that I would never leave to a quick lube, but rather to a drivetrain specialist or dealership because there is too much room for error. Differentials also vary in the types of fluids they use. Leave fluid maintenance of these units to the experts!

’Til next time … Keep Rollin’.

"America's Car Show" with Tom Torbjornsen airs 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBBZ-TV.