Auto Service World
Feature   February 1, 2006   by Andrew Ross

The Long Long Long Road Ahead

The Real Impact of Extended Oil Change Intervals

The regular oil change as a safeguard against unperformed repairs is slowly becoming a thing of the past.

While the 5,000-km oil change is still with us for a while yet, the push to extend oil change intervals out to two and three times this distance has also been going on for some time.

And, when vehicles with recommended oil change intervals of 15,000 km begin to dominate the vehicle fleet, most cars will barely have reason to visit their service provider more than once a year.

The long-term impact of that is staggering, but the good news is that it is still some way off. The extended drain interval phenomenon is just now trickling into the aftermarket–which means that it has time to react, and plan ahead.

But plan for what?

For starters, plan for fewer oil changes per vehicle, but with a higher price tag for each service. Moves at the OE level have increased the typical recommended oil change interval from about 5,000 to 8,000 kilometres up to 8,000 to 12,000 km, says Frost & Sullivan consulting analyst Mary-Beth Kellenberger.

She says that research from the company indicates an increased reliance on synthetic motor oils, as well as other changes such as oil filters with extended life capabilities.

“Previously there were still limitations, as a result of the oil filters. Interestingly enough, as much as this is what is coming out from the OEs, when I do any research on the DIY side, [the market] is still recommending the standard intervals.”

There are a few possible reasons for this, but it seems likely that it is a response to a long-standing need to combat the impression that “normal service” requirements noted in an owner’s manual apply to most drivers in Canada, as opposed to the “severe service” interval.

“There is no such thing in Canada as a normal driver,” says Mark Reed, director of marketing, Pennzoil-Quaker State Company of Canada Ltd. “If there is anything we can do as an industry it’s to put only one service level [in the manual].

“It is the old ‘severe service’ argument.”

The advent of oil change indicators on vehicles may forever put this argument to rest, however. While some vehicles have featured service advisory systems for half a decade or more, they recently became much more widespread with General Motors’ decision to expand its Oil Life System.

While some oil monitoring systems actually monitor oil quality, the GM Oil Life System (GMOLS) uses an algorithm that evaluates engine speed and temperature, and the system informs the driver when to change the engine oil with an change oil message on the dash.

While not exactly new–the system was introduced on a variety of vehicles in the mid-1990s–it has been expanded to include 95% of the vehicles GM produces and is now estimated to be on some 20 million vehicles in operation in North America.

GM also keyed a variety of service items to the oil service light system, and began strongly promoting this fact, with some possible undesirable side effects.

“Our experience in the past with auto manufacturers extending drain intervals is you get companies with sludging issues in the motors,” says Dave Jensen, vice-president of the Automotive Oil Change Association (AOCA), and operator of a Pennzoil 10 Minute Oil Change in Waterloo, Ont.

“Then they have a massive recall and reopen the mileage issue. The conventional motor oils just can’t handle the amount of mileage.

“What affects our industry is that when you have a problem, the customer looks for recourse through our chains. So a lot of people in our industry ended up paying damages that were unjustified.”

He says that AOCA members have noticed an increase in oil consumption, which can create problems if consumers do not check oil levels. Increased oil change intervals only work if there is still sufficient oil in the engine. To protect themselves from liability, he says members have started noting the amount of oil coming out of the engine.

“And the second issue is that there is not a filter out there capable of handling the extended drains.”

While there are some specially designed long-life oil filters on the market, what Jensen says is rooted in truth.

Information from Honeywell Consumer Products Group, makers of the Fram filter line, indicates that conventional spin-on oil filters do not have the internal structure or filtering capacity to provide filter protection for the extended intervals being recommended.

To address this, Honeywell, and some others in the market, have special extended life filters with different filtering media and more robust construction.

Regardless, Jensen is concerned about the long-term effect on the independent aftermarket.

“Some of the [oil change] lights are going on at 16,000 km. And once these cars are out of warranty, it’s our issue. If there is engine damage, they are going to go to the third party. [The systems] are designed to take it out of the warranty period and the third party service provider is left holding the bag.”

Aside from those possible long-term effects, in the short term there is already a reduction in oil change activity.

Quoting research by Abijit Ghosh, research analyst at Frost & Sullivan, Kellenberger says that average oil changes have already dropped by half a point per vehicle per year, and now range from 2.5 to 3.5.

“We haven’t done any direct research on how that is affecting the lube/oil/filter, but my assumption is that it is impacting dealer business first. People may still be quite tied to the OE dealer.”

Most agree that it is early days yet for the trend and its affects on the aftermarket.

“As far as the near term, I don’t think it is going to have a big impact,” says Chris Leitch, marketing manager, ChevronTexaco Corporation. “The consumer is pretty comfortable with the current recommended drain intervals. The person who is maintaining his car according to the book is going to continue to do that.

“As far as the mid- and long-term, I think that really depends on where the manufacturers go with it. They have to do a lot of consumer education, as do the oil companies. And the consumer will dictate the success or the failure of the extended oil drain trend.”

Still, he admits that it is a situation being watched, so that products and the communication to the consumer are in step with the technical needs.

“The trend is something that everybody is looking at. The onboard computer is the biggest question mark.” Leitch says that much depends on whether consumers act on the service reminder light or ignore it.

“If you had a crystal ball you could answer that.” But he does not, of course.

Over time, though, its effects are inevitable.

“The truth of the matter is that more and more of the manufacturers are recommending these extended oil changes,” says Megan Currie, Honeywell Consumer Products Group. “That is going to have a trickle-down effect. That will eventually have an impact.

“For the jobber and installer community, they need to be aware that more and more manufacturers are recommending this and they should align themselves with people who can support that.”

The strategy becomes a familiar one: maximizing sales of premium products. The difference is that for vehicles with extended intervals, products such as synthetic oils and high-end filters should no longer be looked at as upsells, but as products best suited to the new reality.

Nonetheless, some of the strategies do carry over. Castrol, for example, has an excellent synthetic oil training program that incorporates a study book and a CD that takes less than 20 minutes to run through. It focuses on communicating the technology and benefits of synthetic oil technology, which is key.

In scanning websites and Internet forums in researching this article, it is clear that there is a lot of work to be done on the communication front. Car owners, even those among the enthusiast crowd, are struggling with the different messages being directed at them: brand-specific motor oils from the dealer only; European spec motor oils; synthetic versus mineral-based oils; oil monitor versus standard recommendations.

It is on this last point that the aftermarket must address its own messaging. When I punched my own car’s specifications into the Filter Manufacturers Council website, an oil-change interval calculator generated a vehicle-monitored oil change interval of greater than 12,000 miles, then recommended a change every 3,750 miles. Rightly or wrongly, it is hard for any car owner to see such a gulf in recommendations as credible.

Accordingly, the aftermarket needs to get its messaging in line with the new reality if it hopes to retain the confidence of the consumer at large.

The issue of extended oil changes is, of course, about more than just a few litres of oil.

The independent aftermarket has relied on regular oil changes as an opportunity to inspect a customer’s vehicle and recommend work that is required. If a customer only needs one or two oil changes every year, service facilities must redouble their efforts to ensure that scheduled maintenance is maintained. It would also be wise for facilities to have formal service reminder systems in place that are keyed to the individual requirements of that customer.

Fortunately, the aftermarket has some time to do this.

Extended Oil Change Means Extending Filters

One of the concerns the aftermarket has regarding the extended oil change interval is that the filters they have relied upon may not have the capacity or internal structure to meet extended mileage needs.

The Filter Manufacturers Council notes that extended drain interval oil requires some of the advantages of synthetic compounds, and the oil filter is expected to follow suit. Synthetic filtration fibres are at the heart of extended drain interval filters and are beginning to become more widespread in their application.

Failure to use oil filters designed for the extended drain needs could have a significant downside.

– Filter media may become so clogged that the opening pressure of the relief valve will be reached. If the relief valve is activated, the filter will go into bypass mode, so the oil is not being filtered. Extended change interval oil filters contain higher capacity filter media than non-extended change interval filters to keep this from happening.

– Extended change interval filter media generally contains more synthetic fibres than non-extended change interval filter media. High synthetic filter media is more resistant than cellulose-based media to degradation over time.

– The black nitrile anti-drain valves often found in regular filters are not made to withstand extended change intervals. Over time they will become stiff and will no longer do their job. Once this happens, oil from the filter may drain out of the filter and not be primed during start-up. Silicone variants are designed to withstand extended change intervals.

The New Synthetic Imperative

With the advent of extended drain intervals from import and domestic automakers, in many cases synthetic motor oils have gone from an upsell to the recommended fill. Yet many myths continue to exist about these highly sophisticated lubricants.

Myth #1: Once I use synthetic motor oil in my car, I cannot switch back to conventional motor oil.

Fact: Even if you’ve switched to a synthetic motor oil, you can always go back to a conventional oil. Synthetic lubricants are fully compatible with conventional motor oil. However, synthetic lubricants do a better job of neutralizing harmful particles in the engine, fighting sludge on vital engine parts, and neutralizing acids in the engine.

Myth #2: Synthetic oil is only for new cars.

Fact: A quality synthetic motor oil can be used in old as well as new cars, including cars in which conventional oil was previously used. While using synthetic motor oil in newer cars has been well documented, synthetic motor oils are beneficial for the good health, long life, and top performance of new and older cars.

Myth #3: Using synthetic motor oil will void a car’s warranty.

Fact: This is one of the biggest misconceptions. Using synthetic oils will absolutely not void a car’s warranty. In fact, virtually all synthetic motor oils have been formulated to meet or exceed all manufacturers warranty requirements. Synthetic oils outperform conventional oil in every category.

Myth #4: Synthetic motor oil is not worth the extra money you pay for it.

Fact: Synthetic motor oil provides superior protection against deposits and is superior to conventional motor oil.

Myth # 5: Synthetics are all the same.

Fact: It is no longer sufficient to look to viscosity grades to determine the appropriate motor oil. Long drain intervals often require different standards, and European manufacturers have settled on ACEA approvals. Products meeting North American ILSAC or API standards may or may not meet these same standards. Ensure that whatever lubricant is being used meets the appropriate standards as set out by the vehicle manufacturer. Check the fine print on the bottle.

Special thanks to Wakefield Canada for their contribution to information used here.

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