Oil chemistry and engine technology have evolved tremendously in recent years, but you’d never know it from the quick-change behavior of American car owners. Driven by an outdated 3,000-mile oil change commandment, they are unnecessarily spending millions of dollars and spilling an ocean of contaminated waste oil.
The majority of automakers today call for oil changes at either 7,500 or 10,000 miles, and the interval can go as high as 15,000 miles in some cars. Yet this wasteful cycle continues largely because the automotive service industry, while fully aware of the technological advances, continues to preach the 3,000-mile gospel as a way to keep the service bays busy. As a result, even the most cautious owners are dumping their engine oil twice as often as their service manuals recommend.
After interviews with oil experts, mechanics, and automakers, one thing is clear: The 3,000-mile oil change is a myth that should be laid to rest. Failing to heed the service interval in your owner’s manual wastes oil and money, while compounding the environmental impact of illicit waste-oil dumping.
Today’s Oil Goes the Distance
While the car-servicing industry is clear about its reasons for believing in the 3,000-mile oil change, customers cling to it only because they’re largely unaware of advances in automotive technology. Among 2013 models, the majority of automakers call for oil changes at either 7,500 or 10,000 miles based on a normal service schedule – more than double the traditional 3,000-mile interval. The longest oil change interval is 15,000 miles for all Jaguar vehicles. The shortest oil change interval is 5,000 miles in some Hyundai and Kia models with turbo engines and Toyota vehicles that call for non-synthetic oil. Toyota has been shifting its fleet to 10,000-mile oil change intervals using synthetic oil.
“Oil has changed quite a bit and most of that isn’t transparent to the average consuming public,” said Robert Sutherland, principal scientist at Pennzoil Passenger Car Engine Lubricants.
Synthetic oils, such as the popular Mobil 1, are stretching oil change intervals, leaving the 3,000-mile mark in the dust. “The great majority of new vehicles today have a recommended oil change interval greater than 3,000 miles,” said Mobil spokeswoman Kristen A. Hellmer. The company’s most advanced synthetic product (Mobil 1 Extended Performance) is guaranteed for 15,000 miles.
Today’s longer oil change intervals are due to:
- Improved “robustness” of today’s oils, with their ability to protect engines from wear and heat and still deliver good fuel economy with low emissions
- More automakers using synthetic oil
- Tighter tolerances (the gap between metal moving parts) of modern engines
- The introduction of oil life monitoring systems, which notify the driver when an oil change is required and are based on the way the car is driven and the conditions it encounters. Sixteen of 34 carmakers now use oil life monitoring systems in their 2013 model-year vehicles, including all three domestic automakers. That represents a majority of the vehicles sold in the U.S.
One GM car Edmunds drove went 13,000 miles before the monitoring system indicated the need for an oil change. We sent a sample of that oil to a lab for analysis. The results showed that the oil could have safely delivered at least another 2,000 miles of service.
Oil experts and car manufacturers are solidly on the side of the less-frequent oil changes that these formulation changes make possible. “If customers always just stayed with the 3,000-mile recommendation, there’d be these great strides in the robustness of oil that oil companies have made [that] wouldn’t be utilized,” said GM’s Matt Snider. Consumers, he said, would be “throwing away good oil.”
Chris Risdon, a product education specialist for Toyota agreed, adding that oil technology advances that permit fewer changes are a tool to protect the environment. “If you’re doing it half as much, that’s five quarts of oil times 1.7 million vehicles a year. That’s a tremendous amount of waste oil that’s not being circulated into the environment.”
Waste oil is a problem exacerbated by too-frequent oil changes, according to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, which has campaigned against the 3,000-mile dictate. The agency says that 153.5 million gallons of used oil is generated in California annually, but only 59 percent of it is recycled.
The Right Time To Change Your Oil
So where does this leave the car owner who was raised on the perceived wisdom of the 3,000-mile oil change? Consult your service manual or Edmunds’ maintenance section to learn your car’s actual oil change schedule. If your car has an oil life monitoring system, don’t try to second-guess it. Understand how it works and follow its guidelines. To probe more deeply into this subject, consider sending a sample of the oil from your next oil change to a lab such as Blackstone Laboratories, for an inexpensive analysis. Our last suggestion? Rip that sticker off your windshield.