“Three Months or Three Thousand Miles” and Other Oil Change Myths

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Bigfoot. The Loch Ness Monster. Elvis is alive. What do all these have in common? They are myths. Okay, maybe not Bigfoot. He’s probably real. But, believe it or not, Washington did not really cut down a cherry tree as a kid, cracking your knuckles won’t lead to arthritis, and you can’t get warts from toads. Oh, and lightning can strike the same place twice.

When it comes to the engine oil in your car, truck, or SUV, there are some prevailing myths as well. These myths have been around for years. Some are based more on marketing strategy than in reality. Some are rooted in past practices that have changed over time. New technologies have rendered old ways obsolete. But today, they are myths nonetheless.

If you execute an internet search for “3,000-mile myth,” the first thing you are likely to run into is a Wikipedia page that reads:

The 3,000-mile oil change myth refers to a common belief, particularly in the United States, that all motor vehicles should have their motor oil changed at least every 3,000 miles (4,800 km) to maintain their car engine.

This is probably the most often-repeated oil change myth. But where did it come from? And why is it still so widely believed? Let’s explore answers to this and other oil change myths.

Why get an oil change at all?

Before we look at oil change fairy tales, let’s understand what engine oil does in the first place. It is pretty simple at the core: moving metal components inside your engine rub against each other at high rates of speed, creating a lot of friction and heat. This violent contact causes the parts to deteriorate quickly unless there is some type of lubricant in between. The lubricant – in this case, motor oil – prevents the parts from touching one another at all. Because the engine components are finely-machined and bear extremely close tolerances, the oil must be finely tuned for the application. The oil has to be able to seep into the tiny gaps between the pistons and cylinder walls, or between the connecting rods and bearings, as well as other surfaces. And it has to keep all those surfaces coated without breaking down. Otherwise, your engine will break down.

The truth is, motor oil does break down over time. So your vehicle manufacturer recommends a replacement interval. That’s when it is time to change your oil and oil filter. If you allow too much time between oil changes, the oil will degrade and no longer provide the protection necessary. That’s where engine damage can occur. This leads us back to that first and most common oil change myth.

Myth #1 – You need to change your oil every three months or three thousand miles

This old standard has been around for so long that it has been ingrained into our culture. It is almost a right of passage. Dad hands the keys to a teenager and says, “Be safe and make sure to change the oil every three thousand miles.” Okay, maybe not quite like that. But anyone who drives a car is likely to have heard of this one. And it is a myth.

Now, changing your oil every three thousand miles will not hurt your engine. It just won’t likely help either. Years ago, it may have been a good idea to change your oil more frequently, but advances in engine and lubricant technology allow for today’s vehicles to be driven much further between oil changes. Really, it may never have been necessary to change the oil every three thousand miles. It would seem that some service facilities, commonly quick lube businesses, have perpetuated this myth to increase business. Again, frequent oil changes will not harm your car. But they are usually not necessary, so they might hurt your wallet.

Instead, it is wise to follow your vehicle manufacturer’s recommendation in your owner’s manual. In most cases, an engine can run 5,000 miles or more between oil changes. For example, Honda recommends replacement at 7,500 miles. Some manufacturers recommend oil changes every 10,000 miles, including General Motors, with the development of their proprietary “dexos” oil standard. And BMW, using synthetic oil, says 15,000 miles is the right time for a change. So, you see oil change frequency is dependent on what you drive, not on some artificial rule. There may be some cases where three thousand miles is appropriate, but those cases are uncommon. Check your owner’s manual or check with a professional auto repair shop about the specifics of your car.

Myth #2 – If you switch to synthetic oil, you can never go back

Opinions vary widely as to the benefits of synthetic motor oil, such as Mobil 1, over conventional oil. Many say that synthetic oil provides superior resistance to friction and protection from wear, performance over a broader temperature range, better engine cleaning power, and improved fuel economy. Others insist that synthetics are not worth the extra cost, for they are more expensive. But all agree on one thing – synthetic motor oil lasts longer than conventional oil.

Many drivers have been reticent to consider changing to synthetic oil because they fear the dreaded caution: if you go, you can’t come back. It is difficult to know where this myth came from, but it is not true. If you use synthetic oil in your car, you can change back to conventional oil. In fact, motor oil makers formulate blended products that mix the two. If your vehicle manufacturer put synthetic oil in the engine at the factory, stick with synthetic. It is what your engine was designed to work with. Otherwise, if your car uses conventional oil, the choice is yours.

Myth #3 – Black oil is bad and needs to be changed

There may have been a time when the color of your oil was some indication of its condition, but with today’s motor oils, appearance does not necessarily indicate whether or not your oil has any life left. Yes, fresh oil has a translucent honey color. But several factors cause it to change color. For instance, soot from the combustion process will blacken the oil, yet soot in the oil does not render it useless. The only way to know for certain that the oil has broken down beyond its useful life is to have it tested. Or, change it when the manufacturer says to change it.

Myth #4 – You should have the chassis lubed when you get the oil changed

This one snuck up quietly as a myth. There was a day when you would take your car to a repair shop for an LOF – lube, oil, and filter. Today, we still do the oil and filter part, but the lube? Well, that is a relic of the past. Cars of yesteryear, and we are talking back in the seventies and earlier, had fittings that a technician would use to grease, or “lube” steering and suspension components. That was the chassis lube. Today (and for years now, actually) cars do not have greaseable parts. Instead, the ball joints, control arms, bearings, and tie rod ends – common lube points in the past – are sealed and unserviceable. But some folks still seek a lube, oil, and filter. And some shops will oblige by taking their money. Still, there is nothing to lube. Oh, there may be an occasional truck with grease fittings in the ball joints, but don’t be fooled into getting a lube job for your late-model sedan.

Myth #5 – You can save money changing your own oil

Vehicle owners usually take their vehicles to a shop or quick and affordable oil change location for convenience’s sake. Who wants to crawl on the ground under their car, get an armpit full of used oil, and smash their fingers trying to loosen the old oil filter? Every vehicle needs regular oil changes, so the industry is booming with business because it is more convenient to have the pros do it. But there are those daring individuals who don’t mind a little grime and are willing to tackle the job. And there are those who would at least consider a DIY approach because… well, let’s face it: Changing your oil is cheaper when you do it yourself. Right?

Wrong. In many cases, you can get an oil change done professionally in a shop that is set up for such operations for the same or less money than you can buy the oil and filter yourself. And that does not take into account the cost of the tools and equipment, or the associated safety risk if the vehicle needs to be lifted off the ground. And don’t forget about your labor time. Doing it yourself may not pay at all.

There are further benefits of having your oil changed at a trusted repair shop. They can help you with other routine maintenance and inspection items at the same time. For example, if it is time to have your tires rotated, your brakes inspected, or one of your filters changed, the shop can do it for you during the same visit.

This brings us to our final myth.

Myth #6 – You should change all your filters when you get your oil changed

This myth is largely due to sales personnel at quick oil change businesses trying to upsell to customers. Often, they will suggest replacing your air filter, cabin air filter, and blinker fluid filter (okay, I made that last one up). The only filter that must be replaced at the time of an oil change is the oil filter. It may be convenient to have other filters changed at the same time, but only if your car’s maintenance schedule calls for it.

So, if you believe that Henry Ford invented the automobile, or Abner Doubleday the game of baseball, fine. At least make sure you do not believe the myths associated with oil changes. Yeah, pretty sure Bigfoot is real, but when it comes to your car, don’t fall for these wild tales.

This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Hogan & Sons Tire and Auto and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Hogan & Sons Tire and Auto makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.

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