They can be found in towns and cities across the country. They’re on random corners, tucked into strip mall parking lots, and attached to big box retail stores. They’re owned by mega-corporations or small companies with just a couple of locations. They’re Quick Lube shops. They offer oil changes with the promise of speed and convenience.
You might not even have to leave the comfort of the driver’s seat. But behind this speed and convenience lurks an uncomfortable reality: You might be mistreating your car.
I’ll admit I feel a little bit like I might be preaching to the choir of all you extraordinarily brilliant, beautiful Autopians, who know better than to take your cars to such a place (and obviously I’m biased given that I’m a service advisor). But I’m hoping this might come up in a few random Google searches and save people some heartbreak too.
Most of us who are enthusiasts enjoy riding our creepers (or just scraps of cardboard under our cars) on a nice afternoon to get some up-close-and-personal time. Changing oil on your own is usually a peaceful and smooth procedure with very few unknowns. On the scale of home-based wrenching, it’s low risk with the comfortable reward of feeling like you accomplished something. Unfortunately, the majority of car owners are either not interested in doing it or not equipped for it.
Saturday before last, checking the level after changing the oil on my MR2 pic.twitter.com/4Ffx4lE6qQ— Andrea Petersen (@Neondancer) March 30, 2023
A few months ago while idly browsing social media in the black and red velvet-draped comfort of my Twin Peaks-themed bedroom, I came across a meme, as one does. The meme showed an aerial shot of a Quick Lube joint with a relatively clean entrance and deep black streaks lining the exit of each bay. One particularly fresh line leads to a parking spot to the side; an image telling a cautionary tale. The tale of “somebody made an expensive mistake.”
Out of curiosity, I fired up Google Maps and went to a couple of the speedy oil change places around my neighborhood. Now, to be fair, not all of them were bad. Ok, a couple had freshly paved parking lots to hide any shame, but a couple of them definitely weren’t too far off from the meme.
Around this same time, one of our technicians coined a lovely descriptive phrase: “Quick Lube Condition.” Annoyingly, he decided he held the trademark and started asking for five bucks every time someone used it. I hope like hell he never sees this article or I’m going to owe him a fortune.
“Quick Lube Condition” describes a car that has only ever seen a handful of fast oil changes in the last few years and consequently has fallen significantly behind on regular maintenance and any needed repairs.
Quick Lube Condition. Photo: Author
The oil in it may be fresh, but the filter in it is often an inexpensive and poor-quality part. The filter may have collapsed into an hourglass shape, a tell-tale sign of poor flow or poorly fitting into the housing. There will usually be a variety of leaks and squeaks, and there is often evidence that these problems are not new. The owners are often none the wiser.
Anybody who has been under a car built in roughly the last 25 years will know that they feature aero shields. They’re great for protecting the undercarriage and aiding in aerodynamics, but they’re also really good at keeping fluid drips off your garage floor. The “Quick Lube Condition” car’s squeaks are hidden by simply turning the radio up and pretending they don’t exist. I too would rather have my heart broken by the creaks and rattles of German synthpop or Icelandic post-capitalist bondage techno than the cranks and rattles of my suspension.
When you go to a Quick Lube shop, their job is to remove the oil, remove the filter, put in a new filter and replace the oil. They might check tire pressures too if you’re lucky. Their job does not involve looking at a single other thing on the car. They are not looking for fluid leaks and if on the off chance they do happen to notice one, it’s luck of the draw if they’ll bother to tell you. Again, you’re not paying for them to inspect anything, and in turn, anything they might find falls solidly within the “not my job” category. This is also why they often can’t or won’t reset the service indicator; they’re not completing all the elements of an entire service. When cars come to our shop even if it’s for an unrelated issue, the technicians will note anything they happen to see, ranging from “the tires are at the wear bars” to “this belt is days from becoming forbidden spaghetti.”
[Editor’s Note: Obviously, there are quick lube shops that do a great job. This is just Andrea’s opinion on quick lube shops in general, based on her experience as a service advisor. -DT].
The latest and greatest technique is vacuuming out the oil so they don’t even have to touch the oil drain plug. Any time you touch that plug you run the risk of stripping it or the threads of the oil pan itself. If you don’t have to touch that, you don’t have to pay to replace anything that may break. I myself have occasionally done a vacuum-style oil change on my cars when I’m looking to get it done quickly and the amount that comes out via a straw is usually pretty different from what comes out the traditional way.
Engines are pretty complicated places with lots of nooks and crannies to hide, if you’re just quickly sucking out the oil pan, you’re likely leaving a fair bit of oil in there. This also eliminates the opportunity to look at anything that may have accumulated on the drain plug if it happens to be magnetic.
When you come to a proper mechanic’s shop or dealer service center, you are getting what is better described as an oil service rather than an oil change. Yes, the oil and filter are changed, but where the added time and much of the added expense comes in is having a technician with expertise inspecting the car. Would you rather have a guy who has been working on cars in general for a year or two working on your car or a guy who has been working on the specific brand of your car for a decade or more taking care of it? You’re paying for a person who has the knowledge not just to look over the car but who has the specific knowledge of where to look.
An added expense also comes with the parts used in the service. When you go to a dealer service center you know you are getting a dealer-brand part and the exact oil brand and weight that is supposed to go into your car. This is great when you’re still under warranty because if anything does happen, you have the maintenance records to prove everything was done correctly. A reputable independent shop will use a dealer-brand or OEM part and also use the correct oil. While “dealer” and “OEM” are terms often used interchangeably, the former has the logo of the car’s manufacturer on it and the latter will have the logo of the company that originally manufactured the equipment for the manufacturer. OEM will be the same thing but usually a little less expensive. Still a-ok from a warranty standpoint.
Oil is where independent shops will have a little more flexibility. Every now and then the car’s manufacturer will update the recommendation for what oil goes in the car. Sometimes this is because the manufacturer of the previous brand of oil is no longer meeting their specifications. Suddenly the good ol’ Mobil 1 or Castrol you’ve used for years isn’t the same thing. Or at the very least they’re no longer submitting data to the manufacturer to keep their oil approved for use. Obviously, the sticker on your car and the owner’s handbook doesn’t magically get updated, but we stay up to date on those things. Other times the recommended oil weight may be changed. This is when things get a little more iffy. Usually, we use a bit of oil knowledge, experience, and the recommendations of respected experts to decide whether to update what oil goes in or to stay with the weight that the engine was designed to use. You won’t see a 30-minute discussion over oil viscosity going on at a quick lube, but I’ve seen it a few times in our shop.
One of the things quick lube shops can do that we can’t is offer a menu of services. They can say across the board an oil change is X amount regardless of if it’s a Fiat or an F-150, perhaps with variations for conventional, semi, and full synthetic oils and quantity over a standard amount. I can have wildly different prices for an oil service on the same make and general model based purely on the fact that we charge for oil by the liter or quart and a car with a four-cylinder turbo engine takes less oil than an eight-cylinder engine. The only fully simple service I can throw onto a repair order is a brake fluid flush; I have standard or advanced. Everything else takes significantly more time and thought to price out. Oh, and I’ll need your VIN because “Uh, I think it’s a 2004, maybe a 2005, and I think it’s an ML350” doesn’t let me nail down your exact part numbers and fluid quantities in order to give you a price. Well, maybe Mercedes isn’t a great example; I swear 70% of them use the 000 180 26 09 filter.
What all this adds up to is a little bit of a warning. If you’re really truly desperate, some oil is better than no oil so the occasional quick lube oil change probably won’t kill your car. Probably. No promises.
But realistically, in my view, your car should be meeting with the hands and eyeballs of a qualified mechanic at least once a year. And yes, that includes those of you who don’t put many miles on their cars. I understand “my commute is 12 minutes each way,” but those short trips are brutal in their own way. For most cars, we typically say six months or 6,000 miles and for the love of God, do not believe anyone who says 10,000 miles. Even if the manufacturer says that, I recommend you come in sooner.
Some cars need oil even more frequently than 6,000 miles and in those cases, we’ll adjust your reminder sticker accordingly. However you go about it, please regularly bring your car to a qualified shop that can help you stay on top of maintenance and repairs. It’s largely about avoiding the domino effect; you can pay $1,000 to fix that oil leak we spotted and keep driving happily for years or you can wait till the drive belt shreds from being soaked in oil and end up with repair estimates that exceed the value of the car. It’s not an upsell, it’s keeping you on the road.
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The connectors on the aero skirting I have to remove to get to the filter break about 1/4 of the time they’re used. If I have a bag on the bench, no problem. The dealer service bay ALWAYS has the stupid things. I need to buy another bag of those things.
Service advisors are the plague of the automotive industry. Most have a goal to rip off the customers and the techs as much as possible to boost their commissions.
The industry as a whole needs better training, working conditions, pay, tool allowances… who wants to spend $50k+ on school and another $50k on tools to start out at $20/hr in a shop without HVAC, terrible benefits, and boneheads as managers and service writers?
ASE Master Tech and professional engine builder for 20+ years.
“The latest and most INFERIOR technique is vacuuming out the oil so they don’t even have to touch the oil drain plug.”
There… corrected it for accuracy. When you drain the oil using the drain plug, the crap on the bottom of the pan is more likely to come out with it… something that is far less likely with that vacuum method… which I’m sure is all about just getting it done fast.
But even with shops that don’t do that, you still get an inferior oil change because you drive the car in and they immediately do the change.
The problem with that is there is still lots of old oil in the engine that hasn’t had a chance to drain back into the pan.
When I do an oil change, I drive my car up on ramps. Then I let it sit for at least 30 min.
Then I drain the oil. And I let it drain/drip for maybe 10 minutes which is when it’s fully done dripping.
And when changing the filter, I put a coat of new oil on the oil filter gasket which prevents the gasket from sticking to the engine AND it results in a better seal.
And of course by doing it myself, I know that I’m using a quality filter and quality oil… and the correct oil/filter as well. Many places will use a bullshit ‘universal’ filter… which is what I got with the ‘free’ oil change when I got my current vehicle. And I suspect they used the cheapest bulk oil as well. Thus in my view, ‘free’ or cheap oil changes are worth less than nothing to me..
No quick lube place changes oil as well as the way I do it for myself.
“For most cars, we typically say six months or 6,000 miles and for the love of God, do not believe anyone who says 10,000 miles. “
With the right vehicle with the right oil filter and oil, 10000 miles is definitely possible. Typically it’s possible on vehicles with large oil sumps.
It’s also possible on vehicles that see lots of outside-of-the-city highway use.
“ or you can wait till the drive belt shreds from being soaked in oil”
No… that’s not how it works. The ‘drive belt’ (are you talking about the TIMING belt or the SERPENTINE belt?) will not ‘shred’ from being exposed to a bit of oil.
And typically when there is an oil leak, it doesn’t leak onto the any ‘drive belt’.
Belts shred due to age and wear, not an oil leak.
A drive belt is a serpentine belt. May be a regional colloquialism, I’m not sure.
Some manufacturers call their serpentine belt a ‘drive belt’. I know that only because Smart is one of those manufacturers. Why? I have no idea.
It’s a bit confusing because the author here claims that failure of the “drive belt” may lead to a repair which exceeds the value of the vehicle.
A serpentine belt failure won’t do that.
if it fails and you keep driving without your waterpump it definitely will.
No, in most cases it won’t.
Some engines are extremely sensitive to overheat but most can sustain it for a short period until engine protection kicks in.
Omg this article made me quite literally laugh out loud.
I worked as a “lot boy” at a major, reputable Honda dealer as a teenager. When customers brought their cars in for over-priced dealership oil changes, you think it was an expensive certified technician doing that menial job? Aww hell no. On that job, with no formal training, I learned how to fish drain bolts out of hot oil (oops), how not to cross-thread drain bolts when reinstalling (double oops), how a Honda could actually run fine for thousands of miles with almost no oil at all (oops – but cool!) and how not to put the wrong oil filter on the wrong model. I even learned which parts of a customer car’s undercarriage would support said car on a lift. Or not.
Needless to say, I get my oil changed at an independent shop where I can stand right inside the bay and watch with my own two eyes.
I’m probably done taking my truck to the dealer for oil changes. Between the fact that they overcharge like crazy for oil and filters (they had the gall to charge me $90 for an oil filter once) and the fact that it’s clear the people doing the oil change don’t know what they’re doing (I get a different recommended change interval on the sticker every time I go in, and it’s never the one in the manual. They also only reset the oil life monitor about every other time), I’m not interested in paying them an extortionate amount for something I can do myself, even if I prefer not to.
I’ve had co-workers with recent quick-lube experience. One brought her ’84 VW bus (forgive me if that’s the wrong terminology, I’m not a VW guy) to have an oil change. They had to come tell her that they were unable to find the engine.
Another woman had her oil changed. Well, they changed the oil to the absence of oil since they removed the old but skipped the filling with new part. Engine seized on her way home.
We found reputable local shops for each of them and they have been very pleased with the service – even the quick-lube funded engine replacement for the second woman.
Thanks for reminding me I need to do an oil change this weekend lol.
“Iffy Lube!” How perfect! My closest encounter with a quick lube place was the time I took my Jeep to a Jiffy Lube for a state inspection. They instructed me to leave the vehicle in their lot unlocked and with the key in the ignition. Uh, hell no.
I also had an elderly cousin who swore by the oil changes at their local Sam’s Club, even though this place had forgotten to put oil in the vehicle twice.
I once had a quick lube service where they snapped off my dipstick and then denied it.
I had one snap off my oil pressure sensor on my 93 Cherokee, though to be fair, as Mr Tracy can probably attest, it’s kinda understandable given the placement.
I’d trust a quick lube place more than I trust a dealership. All of this knowledge and care you speak of I haven’t seen in the majority of my interactions with several of them. I’ve got a good independent now and won’t go anywhere else.
This needs to be branded with “ADVERTORIAL” on the header. I expect better from you guys.
What exactly do you think is being advertised here?
While I wouldn’t call it advertising, but what the author does attempt to do here is defend the disgusting dealership practice of denying warranty for engine failures because the owner didn’t have oil changes performed at the dealer.
I would maybe call it propaganda more than advertising.
I think the author means well and has a skill for writing, but she may not be wise to the scams that are happening on the shop floor and in the manager’s office.
Hello! This article isn’t an advertorial. Those tend to advertise some product or service. Andrea is one of our contributors and writes stories about cars from her point of view as a service advisor.
Is this yet another Dealership-leaning article writer trying to sell you on why they are so much better than alternative shops?
Let’s discuss the time I went to the local GM dealership and was persuaded by the Service Writer to have a fuel system cleaning service performed to remove the corn syrup residue (per her description – ’caused by the use of Ethanol-based fuels made from Corn…’) from my tank and fuel system…
Or the bullshit fed from another GM Dealership Service Writer regarding ‘you need to have your transmission fluid & filter replaced – the only way to do this is via our $199.00 Heated pressure flush service’.
And yet, GM doesn’t recommend anything more than a simple drain and refill of trans fluid and filter swap.
I just got my Bolt back from the dealer after a warranty axle replacement. They included a “GM Multipoint Inspection” form, but it was clear that they just by default checked “Good” on every item, including the tires they had previously told me needed to be replaced. They even checked “Good” on exhaust, engine oil, and diesel items. No fields for brake wear or tread depth were completed. Disclosure: I’m a bureaucrat by profession so improperly completed forms are a peeve – I wouldn’t have asked the question if I didn’t need the information.
I guess my point is that dealers’ service centers are not better or worse than anyone else; it all comes down to the leadership of the organization and how they develop a culture of service to the customer.
One would *think* you would get better service from the dealer who sold you the car.
In three years, my Chrysler dealer service stripped the oil pan drain nut, snapped off the dipstick head, forgot to screw in the new PCV thereby blowing oil everywhere, and did not remove the oil filter gasket from the block, meaning two were in place … causing the car to explode oil about a half mile away. That was the last f@#%-ing straw.
I went to the Quik Lube nearby and they have done it perfectly twice a year for over ten years now.
My take: An attentive teen can do it better than a lazy dishonest accredited union mechanic. I can save $20 by doing it myself, but then I have cleanup and disposal to deal with.
I can’t imagine a main shop technician changing oil, unless its part of a larger job. In the dealerships I’ve worked at, the “real” techs arent doing small stuff like oil changes unless a larger job requires it or its a part of a decent sized service. Most quick lube jobs are done by the dealership equivalant of a quick lube tech who just does inspections and oil changes all day long.
Cleanup and disposal.
Boo hoo hoo!
All you have to do is drain the oil from the drain container into empty oil or coolant jugs, or gallon milk or washer fluid bottles, and once you have half a dozen, take them to Autozone or the county hazardous waste facility and drop them off for free. As far as cleaning, just don’t be sloppy. If you do spill a little oil, that’s where paper towels or shop towels come in handy.
You will save money and have a job done right, and not have to sit for half an hour or more in the waiting room watching an endless TV loop of sales pitches for unnecessary add-ons.
Years and years ago, I had one disappointing, one troubling, and one extremely troubling experience with those places before I stopped going.
Extremely troubling: they drained the oil and didn’t replace it. I noticed it as soon as I left the shop. Had them come down to where I stopped and put oil into it before I moved it. Then, got a letter from them admitting they ran it dry in case future trouble happened. None did, which is why it was just extremely troubling.
Troubling: They tried to convince me to change the fluid in the rear differential on my ’86 Taurus wagon. I told them if they could find one, they could change it.
Disappointing: I had the oil changed once at home, once when I was away at a different franchise, and again at the first one. What’s unusual about that? I did that every Thursday for three weeks. I mean I had driven it 6,000 miles in two weeks, so it was recommended. What was disappointing? Not a word of comment on three oil changes in 15 days.
Quick Lube places are down to who owns them and how they are managed.
I worked a Valvoline for 3 years, working from tech to manager. Our store was a 4 bay with a detail shop, in a very affluent area. We used to carry Porsche, BMW, and Mercedes filters due to our area. I even had the pleasure of working on a Diablo and a Ford GT in my time.
Valvoline requires telling the customer of all manufacturer recommended services, as they get all the info for every VIN from the manufacturer and notify them based on mileage of their vehicle. For instance, GM recommends all 3 gearboxes on most GMT800 trucks be replaced every 30,000 miles in “Extreme” conditions. We would recommend this, and usually sell all 3 gearboxes. We’d then replace the fluids in all 3, with the correct fluid and friction modifier. Same with coolant and transmission fluid. We only did transmission jobs if we could get the cooler lines off to swap the fluid through our machine. We didn’t drop the pan for the filter, which I understood but never agreed with.
If we couldn’t do a service (due to a lack of fluid, access, leaks, etc,) we would notify the customer and make a note of it on their receipt so they could go to a dealer/mechanic and get the work done. We ended up seeing a lot of leaking oil pans and valve cover gaskets, which would end up getting repaired. We even had an older tech who, if he was up for it, would offer to do the job if they bought parts and paid him after work.
In our time, we ended getting lifts and could do tire rotations as well. Basically we could sell a 5k oil change, tire rotation, filters, most fluids, and do it all per the owners manual of your vehicle. In my time we only had 2 cars with stripped oil plugs (Chevy Cruze and Honda Odyssey), we ran out of oil drain plug gaskets once and had to reuse a few (we notified the customers and offered them a free oil change for the inconvenience), and broke one lugnut on those stupid 2 piece Ford lugnuts.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to training and pride that a store has. If you get to an oil change place and no one comes out side, no one guides you in with a smile, and the shop looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in 20 years? Yeah, just find another shop.
I should also mention, we topped off all fluids except brake fluid (due to this being a safety concern) and did a double check on all caps with the CSR in the window. We also were required to write dates, names, and oil drain plug torque on the filter. The topside person would watch the bottom side person check the filters were tight and used a torque wrench on the drain plug. He would then hand the torque wrench to the topside tech to verify the torque setting and then show the filter with the gasket in it to the topside tech as well before any starting.
We did it all by the book and I took pride in our very low issue rate and loss at the store. We ended up having several techs become dealer techs or go into engineering. Many of them said it’s the attention to detail we focused on our store that made them want to do a good job, and I take a lot of pride in that.
Sounds like you worked at a great shop. I think that being in an affluent area does help. The customers can afford the dealership so you have to compete with that level of service. In lower income areas, you have a lot of folks who just need to do the bare minimum to keep the car running. I grew up in a low income area and the shops that got the business were the ones that could get you back on the road for the least amount of money. I have a hard time going to shops now even though I can afford it.
“For instance, GM recommends all 3 gearboxes on most GMT800 trucks be replaced every 30,000 miles in “Extreme” conditions.”
WHAAAA? Replacing all three GEARBOXES every 30,000 miles?????
NO FUCKING WAY… Those trucks don’t even have three gearboxes. If it’s an AWD system, it will have 2 DIFFERENTIALS, a transmission and a transfer case.
Here’s the actual maintenance schedule
Now it does say to change the transmission/transfer case/differential FLUIDS every 30,000 miles IF the vehicle is used:
Otherwise the FLUID change interval is 60,000 miles.
And of course if it’s a RWD GMT800, then you only have the transmission and rear diff to worry about.
I used to work at a quick lube joint, and I’ve been trying to steer people away from them ever since. You’ve got high school kids not paid enough to care about the cars at all peeing in oil filters if the owner doesn’t upgrade to semisynthetic, breaking clips on air filter boxes, “pretending” to do an oil change and charging for a service when no service was actually performed, aggressive and unprofessional customer service reps, and promotional and advertising materials misleadingly doctored to include the API starburst on products that didn’t actually have them.
If I can’t do it myself, I’ll gladly take my car to a dealership or at least a reputable shop before Valvoline instant oil scam, or iffy lube.
During our honeymoon trip around-the-US/Canada in our ’76 VW camper we had no choice but to use quick-lube shops. This was back when metric tools were not as pervasive as they are now. So at each and every shop, I laid down on the edge of the pit, laid out the tools and walked them through the servicing of my air-cooled VW engine. Many had never seen the underside of a VW before. One tech was impressed that it had independent suspension. I had no problems, but I was right there every time. We put 20k miles on our bus in about 8 months, so we had to have the oil change many times.
23 years ago I drove from Alaska in a 1998 Ford Ranger to start a new life in the desert. I had no place to live and was over 3000 miles on the oil so I went into a Jiffy Lube. Immediately a valve tick developed. I wonder if they started the engine to get the last bit of oil out and let it go a little too long. I couldn’t prove anything, but that was the last time I ever went to a quick lube shop. Nothing easier than crawling under a lifted Jeep XJ or JKU to drain the oil. Done it ever since I traded the non A/C Ranger.