The Dirty Secrets of The Fast Oil Change Business

I don't want to bad mouth people or even businesses but there is a disturbing thing that I am seeing in the Fast Oil Change Places that I feel the public needs to be educated about especially women.

I don't think the problem is in all fast oil change businesses but I do see many of them where they are selling services that are not necessary to people who appear to maybe not know the difference. This is not unique to Texas because I have seen the same in other states.  The scenario usually involves the "professional oil change guy" coming out with a white rag or paper towel and they have a sample to show you. It can be transmission fluid, brake fluid, or even a filter. Then they tell you that you need a transmission flush or brake flush or new filters all for the wonderful price of...

This has happened to me many times, in fact every single time I go to one of those places. I am sorry but how many air filters do they really think I need?  I have seen this done to my friends and to my mom. I have been watching in the nice waiting room that they try to scoot you off to, as they pick out the women, the older people and a few men who look or act like they might not know about car mechanics and do their thing.  Grrrrrrrrrrrr!  It really  makes me angry when I see it happen.  Sometimes it is legitimate but many times  (every single time with me) it was not legitimate.

 I grew up as a mechanic's daughter helping my dad in his business and watching the things he did.  My dad is an honest man and he was an honest mechanic. I do not pretend to know everything about the business but I do know more than most women about cars and parts simply because of spending years helping my dad.  I am in no way a mechanic and never wanted to be but I did learn a few tricks in all those years of watching and helping him.

I thought it might be helpful to some of you out there to have a few tips to help you recognize the crooks and/or lazy ones and to help you find the great honest ones. Here is what my dad taught me:

  1.  The very best way to avoid being taken advantage of by these places is to actually not use them and use a mechanic or dealer that you personally know and trust.  Get references from others if you don't know any.  Ask around about them.  Ask them for names and numbers of customers who can tell you about them. You wouldn't leave your child with someone you didn't trust.  Don't leave your car that transports you and your child with them either.
  2. If you absolutely must use these places then there are some ways to know if they are doing you right.  Most won't let you in their shop because of insurance problems and possibility of injury but you can stand at the doorway and watch. (I know that nice waiting room is waiting but they are more likely to do right if they are being watched.  It is OK to ask questions too. 
  3. When there is a new oil filter installed on your vehicle you should be able to see it when you bend down and look under your car.  A new oil filter will be clean and shiny.  A used oil filter will ALWAYS look dirty because of road dust, puddles, etc.  After the oil change guy says they are done, bend down and check to see that you got a nice new shiny filter.  
  4. While you are bent down there check to see if there is any oil dripping.  I can't tell you how many times I saw people with thrashed (ruined) engines because someone they had change their oil didn't put the oil plug back in or didn't get the filter screwed in properly.  If they aren't on properly then the oil will drain out.  Check to see if there are any drips from the filter or plug area. If you don't know where the plug is then open that user's manual in your glove compartment and find out.
  5. Synthetic Oil vs Regular Motor Oil Which weight?  Synthetic oil is great for your vehicle but will cost more although it does allow you to drive twice as many miles before your next change.  Check your owner's manual to know the best oil for your vehicle.  You need to know which one you use and why you use that one.  If you live in Arizona then you may need a larger weight oil than you do in Michigan.  Understand this so your car will work properly year round.  When you get your oil changed they will always ask.  If you don't know then it may mark you as someone they can take advantage of.
  6. If there was air added to your tires then check to see that the valve stem covers are back on.  Many people who add air to your tires will not replace them because they don't want to take the time to bend back down and screw them on (so they just chunk them).  These are important.  They are a last measure of protection to keep the air from leaking out of your tires.  They also keep dirt and debris from getting into the stem of the tire. Make sure those caps are there. If they are missing then ask for some new ones. The valve stems are the small tube like stem part where you add air into the tires. They are made of rubber and metal (usually brass). Some of the older (and better ones) were made of all rubber. They will have screw threads at the very end where a little plastic screw on cap goes.  That little cap is what you are checking for.
  7. A brake flush should be done every time you have the brake pads changed by the mechanic. If you decided (against my advice) to have the fast oil change place do a brake flush then here is how you can check to make sure they at least did it.  A brake flush will usually (not always) cause a mess on their floor.  They can not do a brake flush without draining the brake fluid from all the brakes on your wheels.  If they don't drain them out at every brake then they did not really do a proper brake flush.  Look for a mess of brake fluid on the floor.  Also have them pop the hood, and open the lid of the master cylinder and let you look in (they will be impressed you know what it is called). This is how you check the brake fluid.  If the fluid is dark and black looking they didn't change it.  It should be new fluid that is clear. This was a place they tried to cheat my dad.  He is elderly now but he still has his brain and he called them on it by asking them what color they thought new brake fluid should be because this was old brake fluid.   They apologized and gave him free oil changes along with doing the brake flush properly.  They made a big mess on their clean shiny floor to do it too. Lol.
  8. Transmission Flush:  (Check your owner's manual for how often this needs to be done). Again this is something I would have the dealer or mechanic do not the local fast oil change place.  If it gets done wrong and you lose your transmission fluid then it can be a very expensive fix.  If you do have it done then know this: there is no way to get all the old transmission fluid out of the system completely.  At best they will probably only get out about half of it.  Most cars take about 11 quarts  of transmission fluid to be at the proper level.  If they claim to have done a flush and charge you for more than say 5 quarts of transmission fluid (to be generous) then they are cheating you.  If you check the transmission fluid level by pulling the dipstick as you should when it is complete then the fluid should be a clear red.  Not black or brown or even a darker red color. Note: that some transmission fluids are now blue but should be clear blue not dark.  Also note that you check the transmission fluid when the engine is running.  It should not be low or over full.  One more thing you can do to help be certain is to ask for the old transmission filter.   Write the numbers on it along with the brand name down and google it later to see if it actually fits your vehicle.  If they showed you a part that didn't actually fit your vehicle then you know you were probably rooked.  Ask to see any old parts removed from your car.  Go home and look the number from that part up.  Nearly all car parts will have a number and brand on them somewhere. One more tip in this area is that there should also be no drips under the transmission area when they are finished. Drips are bad.
  9. Note that there will be a core charge for alternators, fuel pumps, batteries, and other large parts which IS a valid industry standard if you do not allow them to keep them so they can be returned to the company for refurbishing. (kind of like bottle deposits) This is one spot where they are NOT trying to cheat you. 
  10.  Air Filters:  These do need to be changed every time you change your oil. (check your manual for how often). Many times one can use an air compressor hose to blow the dirt from the filter along with smacking the filter a bit to shake the dirt out and put it back in again for a little bit more use.  Don't do this every time.  Most city cars need their filter changed once a year. Dirt road drivers or those who live where there are dirt or sand storms will need it a bit more.  If you have the filter changed then ask them to show you the actual new air filter in the breather compartment.  It should be clean and new looking. No dust.
  11. Fuel Filters: Check your owners manual for how often this needs to be replaced.  If it doesn't say, then yearly is a good rule of thumb. Generally if there are problems with the filter you will feel a surge or temporary lack of power when you hit the fuel pedal at times.  That is usually  because something possibly clogged the fuel filter but can be a problem with the fuel pump or another part entirely.  There can sometimes be problems with a clogged fuel filter a day or two after adding a fuel injector cleaner additive like STP to your gas tank because it causes the junk to clean off the injectors which is good except that it will many times clog the filter (bad because will need a new one).  Add the cleaner before you need to change the filter anyway and save on having to get more filters. If you get it changed ask to see the old one and double check the numbers when you get home.
This is not an exhaustive list of things to watch for but it will go a long way to helping you get proper service and not be cheated.  Please know that when you take your vehicle to a mechanic for one reason or another that many times it is a guessing game until they find exactly the right thing that needs to be fixed or replaced.  Most mechanics will start with the cheaper more obvious things and work up to the expensive things hoping it is one of the cheaper items.  They aren't really trying to cheat you out of more parts or work.

Also here is a tip on when to take your car to the mechanic so you don't end up stranded.  If you hear a different noise that is not usual for your car then take it to the mechanic.  If you find drips under your car such as oil, brake fluid, or transmission fluid that is bad.  Note: there will be water dripping from the air conditioner system that is OK but it won't be under the engine or transmission area and it will clearly be water. Funny smells such as burning oil is another indicator.  If a part falls off or is dragging have it checked.  If it acts differently such as surges of power or lack of it.  If it dies on you or doesn't start at first turn of the key.  Have it checked.  These are sure indicators that something is wrong.  This may save you time, money, embarrassment and frustration of having your car die in the middle of an unsafe place such as a bridge or intersection and requiring a tow. Pay attention to where any funny sounds come from on the car.  Mechanics are used to hearing about funny sounds.  Be prepared to describe or even mimic that sound.  It really does help them find the problem.

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