Want to know the best place for an oil change?
Here are the pros and cons of getting your oil change at the dealer or a chain operated or independent shop
Car owners that really care about their vehicles often ask me, “Where’s the best place for an oil change?” They wonder if the best place for an oil change is at the dealer, a chain operated oil change place, or an independent shop. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, so I’ll go through them one at a time.
Is the dealer the best place for an oil change?
One of the biggest advantages of getting your oil changed at the dealer is that they’ll be using the car maker’s oil filter and the proper oil viscosity and grade. How do I know that? Because dealers are under constant inspection by the car maker to make sure they live up to the car makers requirements. Plus, the dealers are constantly rated by their customers for customer satisfaction and those rating affect how much the dealer pays for new cars. So it’s in their best interests to keep you happy.
Now that doesn’t mean that their top mechanics are doing the work. Most dealers and chain operated oil change places employ entry level technicians to do oil changes and routine maintenance. But the difference with dealers is that those technicians work on the same brand day in and day out. So they’re most likely to have the proper tools and know the correct methods to drain the oil and remove the filter. When they get the new filter from the dealer’s parts department, they also get a new genuine drain plug washer, if it’s required. Finally, they know the correct fill quantities.
Do they make mistakes? Sure. They are human after all. But my experience is that the dealer is usually the best place for an oil change.
What’s the downside of getting an oil change at the dealer?
First, you’ll pay more. Even when the dealer offers a promotional coupon, they generally charge more than a chain operated store that offers a promotional coupon. Second, since nobody makes money on oil changes, they’ll inspect your vehicle and recommend additional services just like all the other oil change places. To avoid being taken advantage of, refer to your car’s maintenance guide and agree to only those items listed by the car maker.
Is a chain operated shop the best place for an oil change?
It’s my opinion that the chain operated oil change places are the worst place for an oil change. My automotive school classmates tell horror stories of the types of people these shops hire. And they tell story after story of engines that were sent out with no oil, the wrong oil filter, an over tightened drain plug or a drain plug or filter that was never tightened.
Next, chain operated oil change places buy their oil filters and oil in bulk. Newer cars with longer oil change intervals require a higher quality oil filter to last long enough for those extended changes. My understanding is that chain operated shops use the same filter whether the car is rated for normal or extended oil changes.
As I said above, no shop can make money on an oil change, even without a promotional coupon. Since chain operated shops generally don’t do repair work, they must upsell you to make money. If you take your vehicle to one of these places, don’t be surprised that you’re hit with all kinds of recommendations for a new air filter, cabin air filter, transmission flush, brake fluid flush, coolant flush, or wiper blades. That’s where they make their money.
In many cases you’ll find that the chain operated shops don’t follow the car maker’s recommended maintenance schedule. In fact, they recommend fluid changes far more often than the car maker. In some cases, the fluid changes they recommend aren’t even recommended by the car maker.
Worse yet, it’s my experience that even when the fluid change is proper, chain operated oil change places often use “universal” fluids rather than the car maker’s recommended fluids. Just for the record, no car maker approves of these “universal” fluids. To the contrary, many of the specifications required for a fluid are mutually exclusive….no fluid can meet the different specifications. That puts you in an awkward spot if you ever experience a failure caused by the wrong fluid. If you have an extended warranty, the warranty company may refuse to pay the claim if the shop used a universal fluid. In that case you’d have to get the chain operated oil place to stand behind the repair.
Finally, if you read the news, you’ll discover that chain operated chain places have a reputation for selling additional services and not performing them. Just do an Internet search for the name of the chain, followed by the works “complaint” or “rip off”. I’ll let the news services fill out the rest of the story.
Bottom line: In my personal opinion, chain operated oil change places are not the best place for an oil change.
Advantage: Best price when using a coupon
Disadvantage: Best chance of getting a sub-standard job with an over/under tightened drain plug or oil filter. Higher pressure to buy other services that you may not need. Highest chance for getting a “universal” fluid instead of the exact fluid recommended by the car maker.
Is an independent shop the best place for an oil change?
Independent shops generally don’t have a dedicated oil change technician. Their regular technicians do the oil changes along with their regular repairs. That’s a plus. In general, you can expect an independent shop to do a professional job because they want your return business.
Independent shops can order the proper filter for your vehicle from their local parts supplier. But they’re at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to stocking all the possible oil combinations required for every different engine. In order to match the promotional oil change prices from dealers and chain operated shops, they must buy their oil in bulk drums and that limits their ability to store every type of oil.
New Federal regulations require all shop to list the brand name, SAE viscosity grade and performance category of the oil on their invoice. I’ve noticed an increase in the number of comments on auto forums of car owners whose engines were filled with the wrong oil simply because the shop didn’t stock the right oil.
Using the wrong viscosity or service rating can have a big impact on your engine, especially European engines that require a completely different oil than Japanese or Domestic engines. This is where you have to know your stuff. The correct oil viscosity and grade are listed in your owner’s manual and maintenance guide. Make sure the shop installs the correct oil.
Advantage: Bet chance of getting a professional oil change
Disadvantage: Higher price than a chain operated shop’s promotional price. Higher chance of getting the wrong oil installed.
What’s the right oil?
Auto repair shops buy their oil in bulk drums. You may think they’re buying from name brand oil companies, but that’s not the case. There are many independent blenders in the market that buy oil by the tanker and blend in their own additives before selling it to shops. Until recently, there were no laws requiring those regional blenders to follow standards. So the shop may have thought it was buying a drum of 5W-30 oil that met the requirements of the latest API “SM” or ILSAC GF-5. Whether the oil actually met those standards was simply an issue of trust.
That’s changed. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. Department of Commerce recently issued an update to its “Uniform Laws and Regulation in the areas of legal metrology and engine fuel quality.” The NIST Handbook 130, 2016 now requires shops to list the oil brand name, SAE viscosity grade and performance category on your invoice. And the law gives inspectors the power to get substandard products off the market.
NIST requires oil manufacturers, blenders, and shops to properly label each drum or tank of oil with the required information and transfer that information to the customer’s invoice.
How big is the problem of substandard oil?
During the October ’15 meeting of the Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association, Matthew Curran, chief of standards for the Florida Dept. of Agriculture’s Consumer Services Division, Kevin Ferrick, American Petroleum Institute’s motor oil licensing manager, Tom Glenn, president of the Petroleum Quality Institute of America, and consultant Luc Girard, administrator of ILMA’s quality testing program all agreed that the worst oil comes from bulk tanks. They also noted that the worst oil may also come in quarts and jugs. (Lubes and Greases December ’15 issue)
Armed with this alarming information, you should ask the shop what brand of oil they use for your oil changes. If they’re not using a well known brand, find a shop that does.
©, 2016 Rick Muscoplat