Often, it may not be worth the cost, hassle and danger of doing a basic oil change yourself
There’s something to be said about doing your own auto maintenance and it’s not always about saving money.
There’s the challenge of learning about and successfully tackling the ever increasing technical complexity of a modern vehicle. There’s the comfort level attained by motorists who boost their confidence levels on being able to keep their vehicles running without any outside assistance. There’s the satisfaction in being able to complete a necessary task on your own schedule and in the comfort and convenience of your own garage or driveway. And with Internet sites overflowing with how-to videos and step-by-step instructions, there’s a wealth of information for those new to the world of internal combustion engine maintenance and repair.
And there’s also the trust factor (or rather the lack of trust) when dealing with service retailers who may be more interested in their agenda of increased sales over a car owner’s desire to get it done right, quickly, and for the lowest price possible. But in the case of the most common service, an engine oil and filter change, is it feasible, cost effective, and safe for the average DIYer (do-it-yourselfer) to tackle this on home turf, or is it best left to the pros?
First consider the restrictions. Many municipalities have bylaws that prohibit automotive repairs being performed on residential properties. While most of these regulations aren’t necessarily aimed at driveway oil changers, they were created to keep people from running auto repair businesses out of their homes and to minimize personal injury and environmental risks. So whether you can expect a visit from a bylaw enforcement officer when you’re under your vehicle in the driveway or garage is a matter of bylaw terms and interpretation. In other words; check with your local municipality first.
The next consideration is safety (it should be the first). For just about anything on the road, except a full-size 4X4 truck, you’ll need some type of lifting device to get the vehicle up high enough for clearance to access the oil drain plug. Drive-on ramps don’t make the grade. On hard paved or concrete surfaces, they are hard to secure while the vehicle wheels are moving on them. On soft or gravel surfaces, they are just too tippy. The majority of ramps offered by retailers aren’t sturdy enough for safe use and if you over-shoot them, you’re in for a major body-shop repair bill. And, of course, if one collapses or tips over while you’re under the car, well, repair bills will be the least of your worries. Properly rated axle stands and a good quality floor jack are the only safe way to lift a vehicle other than a powered shop hoist. For most cars, crossovers, and mid and small size SUVs, all four “corners” should be mounted on stands for safety.
There are a myriad of other safety concerns, such as, exposing flammable substances to open flame or spark sources, handling chemicals and oils, dealing with hot surfaces and materials, but the largest risk to DIYers or backyard mechanics is brought about by working alone. The overwhelming majority of related major injuries and deaths occur when there is no spotter or helper present to call for help or perform first-aid in the case of an emergency.
Knowing exactly where on the vehicle to jack and position the stands are critical as a good deal of undercarriage damage is caused by employing improper lifting methods and locations. These spots vary from vehicle to vehicle, so check in your owner’s manual or with your auto retailer for advice if you’re not sure. As far as the exact recommendations on draining your engine’s oil, replacing the filter, refilling and verifying the oil level, and disposing of the waste oil and filter, there are too many variables between vehicles and area disposal services to go into detail here. But how does the DIY method compare to the alternatives?
On a cost basis, if you own one of the more popular mainstream vehicles and usually get two or three oil changes done annually, you’re likely to save less than $20 each on average between the costs of having this service done at an independent shop or oil change chain and doing it yourself. If you don’t currently have any of the tools or equipment to do the job and have to go out and buy them, your pay-back in DIY savings will take a few years to realize. And of course one small mistake and a DIYer can face some expensive repair bills.
When it comes to convenience and time, appointmentless oil change services are plentiful in most urban centres (even small ones) and many factory dealerships now offer quick-lube services. An experienced lube tech can complete most vehicle oil changes in less than 30 minutes and almost always have any required fluids, filters, and related parts on hand.
In the matter of mastering technology, well, engine oil change services haven’t changed that much in the last century, so you’re not likely to learn anything new. However, you will discover that engine bays have gotten rather crowded in the last several decades and you may develop new yoga-like flexibility in your arms and hands. And you will also learn the cost of replacing/repairing some of that technology due to tight spaces and fragile wiring/sensors/tubes/pipes/etc.
As for being more self-sufficient, especially in automotive emergencies, remember that few road-side crises are ever solved by a DIY oil change. In terms of real return, you (and your vehicle) would be better served by learning to swap out wiper blades, change light bulbs, install the spare tire, and discovering how duct tape and mechanics wire can keep you on the road.
The trust, or lack thereof, issue is a bit of a mystery. If you don’t trust a shop to perform one of the simplest tasks, why would you let them repair your brakes or rectify an electronic problem? If you’re a real fan of a specific brand of oil or filter, most shops will readily let you BYOL (bring your own lube). If you’re worried about being sold extra products or services, you can always say “no thanks.”