This oil-change timeframe may be overly cautious

By Matt Hill

AAA World Article

How often should I change my car’s oil? Is the 3,000-mile threshold as set in stone as the 6-month interval dentists recommend for having your teeth cleaned, or is it more flexible? As it turns out, this typically recommended oil-change timeframe may be overly cautious. Service advisor David Lagness describes the 3,000-mile oil change as a “marketing tactic,” adding, “Unless you go to the drag strip on weekends, you don't need it."

Regular oil changes keep your car’s engine well-lubricated, and while oil does break down over time, in most circumstances an oil change will last considerably longer than 3,000 miles. The advice to change your vehicle’s oil every 3,000 miles dates back several decades, prior to the development of synthetic oil, and it is particularly championed by quick lube chains. Unfortunately, relying on this guidance results in unnecessary oil changes, which can negatively impact both your finances and the environment. How often you change your oil should depend on both the type of oil your vehicle requires and the type of driving you do.

Synthetic oils were developed as an alternative to conventional motor oil. Although the technology had been used to lubricate  jet engines for many years, synthetic oil wasn’t widely available commercially for automobiles until the mid-1990s. Synthetics and semi-synthetics are a more highly refined version than the conventional alternative and may boost performance while providing a cleaner overall experience for your engine. Synthetic oil also comes with the added benefit of extending the need for oil changes to nearly 10,000 miles. The drawback to synthetic oil is the higher price tag, but the added cost may be recouped by the reduced cost associated with less-frequent oil changes.

Another factor in determining oil-change frequency is your driving patterns. Drivers who regularly drive short distances or are often in stop-and-go traffic should change their oil more frequently because short trips and low RPMs don’t heat the oil as much and therefore reduce its overall distribution through your engine’s components. Most people are surprised to find that this type of driving can qualify as “severe” driving conditions, even though sitting in traffic can feel like the exact opposite. Many modern cars are equipped with monitoring that takes driving patterns into account. For example, the online Buick Encore manual (p. 209) states that their oil change light is based on a calculation that includes not only mileage but also engine revolutions and engine temperature.

Your vehicle type also plays a role in how frequently oil changes are required. The manual for my Hyundai Santa Fe cites a 7,500-mile regular maintenance schedule for oil changes. Newer vehicles may require less frequent changes, while older engines may require an oil change more often. 

Extend your range between oil changes to far beyond the 3,000-mile mark of years gone by. Not only will you be doing your wallet a favor, but you’ll be doing your part to reduce the impact of unwarranted oil changes on our environment. According to the EPA, the waste oil from just one vehicle has the potential to contaminate one million gallons of fresh water. Note that oil waste should always be recycled or disposed of properly.