Home » That Time I Forgot To Put Oil In A Customer’s Car When I Worked At A Quick Lube Shop

That Time I Forgot To Put Oil In A Customer’s Car When I Worked At A Quick Lube Shop

Quick Lube Smoked Subaru Ts Copy
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What’s the worst thing you can do to a car you’re working on? One of the first thoughts that came to your mind was probably blowing up the engine. Worse yet, what if that engine doesn’t even belong to your car? A couple of years back, I made the kind of automotive mistake that’s the stuff of nightmares, and I still feel terrible to this day.

It was the spring of 2015, and I had just finished what was intended to be my junior year at Ferris State University when I ran out of money. I needed a summer job or possibly something longer than that. After filling out dozens of applications, a Valvoline franchisee was the first to reach out.

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Welcome To Quick Lube

In addition to Valvoline selling various types of automotive oils and lubricants, it’s also the name that many quick lube shops across the country operate under, either through a licensing agreement llike Valvoline Express Care, franchise agreements, or direct ownership. My former employer in Midland, Michigan operated dozens of locations across the state and in Ohio.

Valvoline Shop Selfie
My home Valvoline store back in the day, and a vanity selfie I snapped on break.

I was young and very green. The tasks for new hires are primarily watch-and-learn, help where you can, and try not to get in the way. So, it is not too different than any other service job. Once you graduate from being an active threat to yourself, the first few weeks you’re top side or “topping.” Not in a social or partnership sense, but as in working on the upper deck of the floor. After that, it’s “pitting.” Pitters are the workhorse of the quick lube world. It’s a less-than-glamorous gig that involves crouching under cars on an elevated platform (in the aforementioned pit), pulling drain plugs and replacing oil filters.

Valvoline Filter 2

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For those curious, Valvoline used in-house branded filters, supplied by Fram. If you tore them apart, they looked pretty similar to any other oil filter. There’s even an app for techs to look up parts on their phone if the POS system is otherwise occupied. Slightly ironic though, considering phones are banned from use on the shop floor (for appearance, productivity, and safety reasons).

Learning The Basics

So two weeks in, and I’m topping every day, all day long. The role is to be the “showman” for the customers, making them feel like they got a “full service” treatment. Working topside means checking fluids, yanking out air filters (sometimes even before customers had a chance to say not to), inspecting the serpentine belt and setting tire pressures, usually according to the manufacturer’s recommendation, listed on the door sticker. Of course, there was the task of adding oil once the drain plug was reinstalled.

If you want to go step-bye-step it’s:

  • Introduction
    • Guide the customer in
    • Assist the Customer Service Advisor as they greet the customer and scan them in
    • Check the front headlights, high beams and turn signals as the CSA monitors the rear taillights and brake lights
    • Pop the hood, use a prop rod, and check the transmission fluid if applicable
    • The customer turns the car off off, puts the keys on the dash, topper yells out show time, letting the pitter know it’s safe to climb up onto the catwalk and start working on the customer’s vehicle
  • ABBS
    • Air filter, brake fluid, battery test, serpentine belt inspected and report findings to the CSA
  • Breakpoint #1: start the process on the second bay
  • Tires And Fluid Checks
    • Come back and check/set the tire pressure (very rarely did anyone account for warm vs. cold tires and the impact that has on PSI)
    • Top off the washer fluid, make sure you don’t splash it on the pitter below
    • Check the coolant, take off the cap(very careful with a rag) and make sure the pitter is clear
  • Breakpoint #2 
  • Oil Time
    • Verify the pitter is using the correct oil filter as listed on the POS system
    • Once you hear the callout “oil filter tight, drain plug tight, ready for oil,”  ensure you are using the correct oil weight and quantity and grab a gun.
  • Second Checks
    • Visually and verbally confirm with the pitter that the drain plug and oil filter are tight
    • “Clear for zoom”: stand to the side of the vehicle and ensure the pitter is off the catwalk
    • The CSA then asks the customer to start the vehicle and gently rev their engine to 2,000 rpm (“zooming”). This was done to see if the oil filter and drain plug were properly secured. It’s better to check for leaks now than have something fall off when the customer drives away
    • The customer shuts off the vehicle
    • Pitter wipes off any excessive oil bottom side, reattaches skid plates or access panels if equipped, closes the fall net
    • The topper pulls out the dipstick, wipes it off, and reinserts it to get an accurate reading. The dipstick, with the oil showing at the full mark, is then presented to the customer.
    • Double-check all caps are tight and the air filter is secure
    • Closes hood and guides customer out

That “zoom” part is going to become important here in a sec.

This photo shows what appears to be a slightly weeping oil pan gasket. Techs were also instructed to initial and date filters they installed with a Sharpie so if there was an issue, it could be addressed with the right person.

Disclaimer: I worked this job from June 2015 to August 2016, when I was just a kid, so these are the specifics as I recall … but they might not be 100% accurate or in step with Valvoline Instant Oil Change (VIOC) policy at the time, and may not be VIOC policy now. I left the job on the verge of a second promotion to go back to school. By then, I had built enough of a credit score and proof of income to get a private student loan through Sally Mae. In hindsight, dealing with Sallie Mae and its astronomically high APR instead of waiting a year to turn 23 and having my mother’s income fall off the FAFSA was a terrible financial decision.  

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“You Just Need To Zoom The Car”

About this time, I got loaned out for the day from my store to the busy one across town. They were short-staffed staff and were grateful for all the help they could get. No big deal, right? The steps are the same and the equipment is a pretty familiar way. What’s the worst that could happen?

Over at the busy store, things were going fine. It was a little hectic and this store’s manager was a tough-yet-fair. He believed in the VIOC way and gosh darn it, you’re going to live up to those ideals. I eventually get to take lunch and a chance to breathe. I come back and take over for “D,” a true veteran of the job. He was quick, efficient, and skilled. D told me, “You just need to zoom the car and show oil (to the customer).”

Or at least that’s what I thought I heard.

The CSA zoomed the vehicle with the customer. I presented oil, which showed full on the dipstick, and did second checks. Everything seemed fine as the Subaru drove off and went about its day and I thought nothing of it.

2010 Forester 3
Nine years later, I don’t recall the specific model. It was likely either a third-gen Forester or a fifth-gen Outback. We’ll go with the Forester for illustrative purposes.

Cut to a couple of days later, I was summoned by the district manager for a meeting. They said no oil had been put in that Subaru and the engine had burned out on the highway a few miles from our location. Presumably, its bearings got really hot and wore down to nothing.

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I was mortified and expected the worst – termination, legal action, you name it. But to my surprise, the district manager handled it differently. He acknowledged my error but also seemed to understand my apology was heartfelt, and that I was serious about doing better. As for the customer’s situation, the district manager said they sourced a new engine for the Subaru and got it installed, supposedly at a price tag of $15,000. I guess if you look at it with heavily rose-tinted lenses, the mistake might have worked out in the customer’s favor. And the less said about the oil burning and general longevity of Subaru boxer engines at the time, the better.

Screen Shot 2024 05 06 At 3.15.24 Pm
Image: eBay (JDMHOTLINE)

Beyond the initial shock and embarrassment, I still wondered if I had misheard D or if he had just misspoken. Outside of what I was told about the engine burning out and that the company replaced it, I know nothing about what actually happened to that Subaru, and I could have sworn there was oil on that dipstick. I remain both confused, and deeply apologetic.

Thousands of cars later and I never had another claim issue. But regardless, it’s a stark reminder that some tasks should be seen through from start to finish, with no breaks and no room for error. This is the one car that still haunts me at night and still feel remorse over so many years later. Hopefully, in your wrenching journeys, you never experience a grave mistake like this.

Photos: Author, Google Play App Store, Subaru

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Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
1 month ago

Ah brings back memories. My very first day on the job at the tire/lube shop I started at I drained the transmission fluid instead of the oil out of an Elantra (I had only worked on my 67 Impala, rwd, up to then, so pulled the first plug I saw up front) and then double filled the oil. It went about a block and stopped. The assistant manager popped down and figured it out, filled up the tranny fluid and drive it back over so we could drain the oil. Fortunately it was a rental car from an enterprise we had a contract with so there wasn’t a livid customer involved. I felt terrible and also fully expected my first day to be my last but they were firm but understanding and I never had another major error like that again. No idea how long that trans lasted in the rental car though….

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
1 month ago
Reply to  John Gustin

I feel that man! But I paid a lot more attention from then on…haha. I like to think of myself as a detail oriented person and that ate at me for way longer than it should have.

Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
1 month ago

The only problem I’ve ever had at a quick oil change place was when I drove a Geo Tracker. They ALWAYS inflated the tires to 35psi when the placard clearly states 25psi. After the first couple of times trying to navigate this ping pong ball down the highway I started insisting that they correctly inflate the tire. One guy argued so I showed him the placard. Otherwise, I appreciate that they can do basic maintenance faster and cheaper than I can do it myself. Yes, mistakes happen and some of the employees can be a tad sketchy, but that’s true anywhere. Just pay attention to what’s going on around your car and speak up (politely) if you have concerns.

Mike Dt
Mike Dt
1 month ago

The worst I’ve done is forget to put the drain plug back in on a motorcycle and then start filling it with oil.

Fredzy
Fredzy
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Dt

Yeah I did this with pricy Redline MT90 manual trans gear oil. Lost a whole pricy bottle. I suppose it was a lot cheaper way to instill the “always check and double check” habit into me vs. say blowing an engine.

Mrbrown89
Mrbrown89
1 month ago

I stopped going to those 10 min oil changes places when they only added 5 quarts instead of 7 quarts to my GMC Envoy. During hot days the engine will display a “low oil pressure, stop engine” while waiting for the red light to change. It never cross my mind to check the oil since only happened when I stopped, the engine didn’t sound weird or anything. The next oil change I did it myself and to my surprise less than 5 quarts came out after 3K miles. I put 7 quarts and the error message went away.

JMJR
JMJR
1 month ago

My dad is a self-employed mechanic and only once did he forget to fill the oil in a vehicle.

He was working on a older S10 Blazer, doing some basic maintenance including an oil change. He drained the oil, changed the filter, then lowered the vehicle on the hoist and went for lunch. After returning from lunch, he forgot he hadn’t filled it with oil and called the customer to pick up their vehicle. Shortly thereafter he got a call that the engine had died and there was no oil on the dipstick. Dad ended up paying about $5000 to buy the guy a comparable S10 Blazer to replace his dead one.

From that day forward dad had two rules about oil changes to make sure it didn’t happen again:
-First thing you do when starting an oil change is lift the hood. The hood does not get shut until the oil has been filled and checked.
-Don’t let anything like lunch/break interrupt an oil change.

My Goat Ate My Homework
My Goat Ate My Homework
1 month ago
Reply to  JMJR

Similarly, my rule is that I take out the dipstick and remove the fill cap to begin every oil change. Before even draining the oil. They do not get put back in until the oil is replaced. I usually put the cap in a place where the hood won’t close until the cap is moved. This all also necessarily means that the hood is open and can’t be closed until it is done.

Only caveat is that you have to watch to make sure that when you lift the vehicle to drain the oil you don’t run the open hood into something above.

Angrycat Meowmeow
Angrycat Meowmeow
1 month ago

I worked at a Shell station with a service center when I was in high school. I did pretty much everything there, engine and trans removals, clutches, suspension work..More than you would expect at a gas station. One time I almost dropped my bosses F150 off the lift, but I’m not here to talk about that. One time he forgot to put oil in some Oldsmobile, whatever the Olds equivalent of a Buick Century was in the early 90’s. It made it around the block before it died, but since it was a GM pushrod V6 it shrugged it off like “lol you forgot the oil dummy”. We gave it the required five quarts and it fired up and ran like nothing ever happened. As a side story, it seems like every other week Audi Facebook or Reddit has a post about someone taking their car to a Quick Lube for an oil change, and because of how the underside of these cars look, the shop drains the trans, dumps another 8qt of oil into the engine, and sends the customer on the way. Then they quickly get “Reduce engine oil!” and “Service Transmission” messages.

Last edited 1 month ago by Angrycat Meowmeow
TheDrunkenWrench
TheDrunkenWrench
1 month ago

In the 18 years I spun wrenches for pay, I’ve had two mishaps that I can recall, both in the early years.(For context, I’m in the heavy truck & coach field, there are many steps to the service of a large commercial vehicle)

Once I forgot to fill up the oil and realised my horror when after about 10 seconds the oil pressure still hadn’t come up. Thankfully, no long term damage. That 12.8L MBE4000 ran for at least another 400,000km with no issue.

Another time was an oil change on a 15L Cummins ISX. This particular unit took 42L of 15w40 in the pan. I filled to the 42L mark, pulled the dipstick, aaaaand….nothing.

I’d forgotten to put the pan plug back in and pumped 42L of oil pretty much straight in to the drain pan. At least the oil pan was thoroughly rinsed?

My last story comes circa 2002 when 14 year old me and my neighbour were servicing his field car, an 80s stick shift FWD nugget. We changed the oil but forgot to spin the filter on. The engine immediately pumped every last drop it could suck all over the shop floor.

Micah Cameron
Micah Cameron
1 month ago

I have to chime in here because it sounds like you’re beating yourself up for no reason.

Isn’t the most likely explanation that the technician in the pit did not properly tighten the drain plug and/or oil filter? You wrote that you checked the dipstick, noted that it was full, and then showed it to the customer. What’s more likely – two people somehow misread the dipstick, or the drain plug fell off a few miles down the road and all the oil drained out?

Remember that corporations generally don’t care whether they are blaming the right person for mistakes – they just want some lowly underling to take the fall, and determining the correct person to blame would take too much effort.

Honestly it sounds like you were more conscientious than the vast majority of quick lube techs, so I hope you can put something that probably wasn’t your fault behind you.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 month ago

While I’ve never failed to add new oil, I once neglected to reinstall the drain plug, and therefore poured a couple quarts of Mobile1 on my old porous concrete floor. At the time, a jug of the good stuff cost an appreciable portion of my paycheck.
Thats about when I stopped getting high while wrenching

Beigemobile
Beigemobile
1 month ago

“After filling out dozens of applications,” – No matter what followed I was ready to forgive after reading this line.

Rafael
Rafael
1 month ago

Wait, why was this your fault? Was you in charge of filling in the oil? And how come the dipstick (that the client saw) had oil on it?

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
1 month ago
Reply to  Rafael

I’m pretty sure someone else screwed up, and leadership decided to blame it on the FNG to make it easier on the regular crew.

Rafael
Rafael
1 month ago

Sounds like it, but I don’t know why the author still feel guilty. You were obviously the scapegoat, my dude!
You know what, maybe the client wanted a new engine and drained the oil themselves, that would be a twist 🙂

GumpertApolloGuy
GumpertApolloGuy
1 month ago

Worst I ever did was I worked at Honda right when the 2017 Type R came out, and I was so excited about that car. I was doing PDI and I was pulling a fresh off the truck Type R in (not even a customers car yet) and I swung too wide and accidentally clipped the front splitter on my rack. It wasn’t broken but it definitely needed to be replaced before the car could be sold. That hurt me inside to bang up a Type R

Last edited 1 month ago by GumpertApolloGuy
Knowonelse
Knowonelse
1 month ago

We drove our ’76 VW camper bus for our ’84 honeymoon around the US and Canada. Being on the road fulltime, we had to rely on oil change places to do the deed. This was long enough ago that most shops did not have metric tools, and some of them had never seen the underside of a VW. So, I laid down at the edge of the pit, with my tools by my side, talking the tech through the process step by step handing them the proper tool at the proper time. No troubles, but one tech excalimed how cool the VW was with four wheel independent suspension!

Khalbali
Khalbali
1 month ago

I worked for an OEM dealer and forgot to put oil filters on more times than I care to remember. No lasting damage but it makes a helluva mess and the cleanup takes hours, dunno if it was ADHD or what as I’m usually a pretty meticulous person but I couldn’t even tell you how many times I did it. Just too boring of a job I guess, once I started doing more involved jobs and stuff I never had an issue, but ask me to do an oil change and…..

Greensoul
Greensoul
1 month ago

Wow, so they actually do take out the old oil. Good to know!

Sekim
Sekim
1 month ago
Reply to  Greensoul

Not necessarily… The article stated it was a Subaru… They have a self cleaning mechanism that drains the oil out of the engine anyway.

Jeff Jordan
Jeff Jordan
1 month ago

I wish I could say I never made a mistake

Cal67
Cal67
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff Jordan

I thought I was wrong once but I was mistaken.

Adam Guha
Adam Guha
1 month ago

An old co-worker of mine, probably around 2014 or 2015, had this happen to his Subaru, I believe it was an Imprezza or WRX hatchback. Not sure if they forgot to put oil in it, or left the drain plug loose, but the engine failed while on the highway and Valvoline paid for a new engine. Nice that they stood by their guarantee, though I personally would either do my own oil change or take the car to a mechanic I trust after the warranty is up.

beachbumberry
beachbumberry
1 month ago

We had a guy at the valvoline I worked at do this 2 different times and also drove a car into the pit. But he didn’t have a license so that wasn’t good. The manager had a thing for the guys mom so he hired him.

On another day, we were doing a coolant flush on a lifted diesel manual ram. Guy reached in the door, held the clutch with his hand and started the truck. He didn’t check the truck wasn’t in gear. It rolled right through the front door, hit one of the other tech, and the hood grabbed the door and folded it back to the roof. It continued through the parking lot until another tech jumped in and stopped it.

beachbumberry
beachbumberry
1 month ago
Reply to  beachbumberry

I also only ever paid for an oil change 1 time in my 05 Tacoma. Never double checked it, and never had the habit of checking my oil like I should have. Started developing a crazy rattle and I went through all kinds of troubleshooting to try and isolate the rattle at certain engine speeds but only under load.

Then I went and changed the oil. Out poured maybe 2 quarts. I filled it back up and it never made the sound again.

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
1 month ago
Reply to  beachbumberry

My dad once had me commandeer my brother’s CRV because he saw that the windshield sticker showed he hadn’t changed the oil in 45,000 miles. The oil drained out like molasses, and was at least a couple of quarts short. Being a Honda of course it shrugged off the abuse and is now his mother-in-law’s daily several years later. Has the oil been changed since then? Knowing his mother-in-law, I wouldn’t bet on it.

My bro now has a high end Toyota that provides multiple warnings when it is due for service. I cringe thinking about how much the dealership is charging him, but this is for the best. He and his wife are both software wizards so they can afford it.

beachbumberry
beachbumberry
1 month ago

Oh jeez, and if it was only a couple quarts short, it wasn’t even burning through fast enough to need topping up! I had a journey that burned oil fast enough that I joked about never needing an oil change.

Totally not a robot
Totally not a robot
1 month ago

So if I’m reading this correctly, the job was just handed off to a different tech in the middle of the oil change? I’m guessing store policy is “breaks are breaks and they happen promptly on time” but that’s a shit policy and just begging for trouble. Oh well. I’m sure some Valvoline bean counters determined that $15k engine replacement was still cheaper than any potential employment law issues like overtime.

Bob P
Bob P
1 month ago

I had a Saab 900 and thought I’d bring it into a quick lube joint for an oil change before a long trip. Unfortunately the guys got confused and drained the auto transmission and refilled with 10w-40. Ran for much longer than expected, probably 20 miles before completely giving up.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
1 month ago

Stuff like this and the comments below are why I started doing my own oil changes. That way when I accidentally double gasket the filter and the resulting spill in my driveway rivals the Exxon Valdez, I have no one to blame but myself.

Boosted
Boosted
1 month ago

A local quick lube charged my dad for a transmission fluid change, it did need one being it was 100k miles, I didn’t like that they didn’t use oem fluid. At 105k i decided to swap out the fluid with oem, turns out to be a good call, they never did the change but sure did charge him for it though.

Last edited 1 month ago by Boosted
WalmartTech
WalmartTech
1 month ago

I have very choice and R-rated words for the work done by the local Vavoline Instant Oil Change franchise in my town (I work at a Walmart Auto Care Center as referenced by my username); whenever we get a vehicle in that had their last oil change done at the local Vavoline, they would sometimes have the filter on so tight that it would literally be crushed and punctured by our tools trying to remove it or they would forget to oil the gasket and put it on dry, and the gasket would stick to the oil filter adapter on the engine and creating a potential double gasketing situation. One of our policies is to note anything that we find with the vehicle (oil leaks, exterior damage, warning lights on the dash, etc) and more often than not, I would make a note that the oil filter was over tightened prior to us touching the vehicle. (I dubbed any vehicles that had over tight oil filters from Vavoline “Gorilla Specials” because it felt like the filter was installed by an 800 lb gorilla!)

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 month ago
Reply to  WalmartTech

Hell, my local Ford dealer does the gorilla specials too – I’ll sometimes take my Focus in if I’m short on time/have a coupon, but then next time I do it myself, the majority of my wrenching time is spent getting the damn thing off!

At this point, I own one of nearly every type of filter wrench.

Last edited 1 month ago by Jack Trade
PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
1 month ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

Gorilla specials were routine in my military unit because of the severe harassment we’d face for having drips on the pavement in the motor pool.

Nobody wanted to risk being the one who made their squad do another PT drill, so absolutely everything we touched got over-torqued. Nobody seemed to understand that the real best prevention was tightening everything to spec and not a bit more. On the generators, I sort of understood gorilla-tight filters, because the filters were exposed, and sometimes soldiers from other squads would try to loosen filters of other units by hand as they walked by. Just to be assholes.

The oil filter wrench of last resort was a huge screwdriver driven right through the oil filter itself. Or used as a chisel along the edge, puncturing and bending it as necessary to get it to budge.

I had to use a small sledge hammer and that huge flat tip more times than I can remember, and probably more times than I used the proper tools.

Dingus
Dingus
1 month ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

A strap wrench fits every filter every time. I have two of them (got as a gift set) and it’s literally the only time I use them.

Well, I may have used it on a particularly uncooperative pickle jar ONE time, but I really wanted that pickle!

Last edited 1 month ago by Dingus
Keith M Hammons
Keith M Hammons
1 month ago
Reply to  WalmartTech

Yeah they’re good at cracking the plastic Jeep oil filter housings as well – talked to them about it and they claimed it was a leaky oil pan seal even though oil was coming from the topside, and the seal magically re-sealed once the housing was replaced.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
1 month ago

One of my brothers, now retired, was for many years a self-employed mechanic. Shortly after I got my two-stroke SAAB 96 I drove it to his shop and asked him to change the oil and oil filter, then adjust the valves. He blinked at me, started laughing, then told me no, but that I should feel free to go ahead and do it myself, no charge for the space or tools, as long as he got to watch. I thanked him but declined.

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Harrell

“You there, fill it up with petroleum distillate and re-vulcanize my tires, post haste!”

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
1 month ago

I am a cheapskate and tend to buy inexpensive air and cabin air filters from the internet. When I go to the oil change place and they pull out the air filter to show me how dirty it is, I hand them a brand new one and they replace it for me for no charge.

Don Mynack
Don Mynack
1 month ago
Reply to  MAX FRESH OFF

My local Valvoline place will put on any filter for you if you supply it, and will reduce the cost appropriately. I like Wix and/or OEM so they will out those on for me no prob.

Mechanical Pig
Mechanical Pig
1 month ago
Reply to  MAX FRESH OFF

“You Won’t Believe This One Weird Trick To Get Free Filter Installations- Quick Lube Places Hate It!”

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