Proactive maintenance

Jan. 1, 2020
We can help them get more for their buck while, at the same time, helping them protect that investment by revisiting the way we recommend fluid services.
What mileage/time interval do you recommend between oil changes to your customers? “3,000 miles or three months, whichever comes first” was hammered into my skull from the day I first started driving and has been stuck there ever since. Then there’s the infamous “30/60/90” menu board offering you’ll find in many shops that includes both a coolant and transmission fluid service. Unfortunately, both are usually “drain and fills” that provide little benefit to the vehicle or the customer. And what about the other fluids under the hood? When, if at all, should they be serviced?

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Your customers’ mode of transportation, whether it is a passenger car, light truck or SUV, is one of the largest purchases they’ll ever make. And for many, the cost of keeping that conveyance on the road represents another sizable portion of their budget. We can help them get more for their buck while, at the same time, helping them protect that investment by revisiting the way we recommend fluid services.

Engine Oil Changes
Let’s start with that most basic of services: the engine oil change. Today, the average interval recommended by the various OEMs for oil service is approximately 7,800 miles. Some makes are as high as 20,000 miles between changes while others (like my Toyota Corolla) are down on the low end, with 5,000-mile intervals suggested.

But is that under “normal” or “severe” service? If you check the owner’s manual or your service information system, you’ll see two distinct maintenance schedules and it could be argued that nearly every car on the road meets at least one of the conditions listed to classify its uses as severe.

And what about conventional oil versus synthetic? Does switching to a synthetic truly increase the interval required between changes?

Should we ignore the manual and stick to our 3,000-mile/three-month interval?

One factor that made more frequent oil changes necessary was the quality of the oil and filtration used in the past. Oil, in particular, has a hard life protecting the internal workings of an internal combustion engine. But modern oil formulations are more than capable of dealing with the stresses of current engine designs and lasting at least as long as the service interval recommended by the automaker. As a more professional recommendation, stick to the OEM’s scheduled maintenance interval and/or the oil life monitor many newer vehicles are equipped with. Just be sure to reset the light after you’ve completed your service and use the correct oil for the application. 

Want to offer a truly unique oil change package to your customer? If you follow the maintenance schedule recommendations, you might not see this car but once or twice a year. Consider adding an engine oil analysis to your service offerings. A routine analysis of the oil is of benefit in a few important ways, and costs less than a typical conventional oil change. First, it can help you adjust the service intervals based on fact. According to Ryan Stark, head of Blackstone Labs in Fort Wayne, Ind., “These materials (listed on the test report) are abrasives, and a high level of abrasives can indicate change intervals that are too high for the application. Low levels can allow the owner to wait longer between changes.”

A second real benefit to routine analysis is spotting other problems before they cause serious damage. “Of all the samples we test, about 5 percent have problematic levels of fuel or coolant in them,” Stark adds. “We can see evidence of antifreeze long before it ever causes a (mechanical) failure.”

Imagine catching a leaking cylinder head gasket before the oil turns chocolate brown or the engine seizes from hydraulic lock or main bearing failure. Even minor problems can be spotted and corrected before your customer experiences an expensive repair bill. The level of silicone, for example, can point out an air filter that isn’t being changed often enough or an air leak downstream of the filtration that needs to be found and corrected. High levels of aluminum or iron can indicate severe wear of an internal engine component that may require preventative surgery to correct before it takes out the entire powerplant.

Transmission Fluid
If oil is the lifeblood of the engine, than transmission fluid is the equivalent to the transmission. But, as many of the technicians that shared with me pointed out, the time to service it is before it’s bad.

But how do you tell that? Many of us were taught that transmission fluid should be pinkish in color and that fluid that appeared dark brown and/or had a burnt odor to it required replacement. Not so, anymore. Some fluids aren’t even pink from the OEM any longer, and others can quickly turn dark in normal use. Burnt fluid is a sign that something bad has already happened, but as one technician shared with me, there is an OEM TSB that states a burnt odor may be normal for that particular application.

As suggested for engine oil, analysis of the transmission fluid annually might be a good service to add to your menu board. Consider especially those that are “lifetime” fills. High levels of material associated with internal parts can have their lives extended by replacing the fluid and filter(s) more often, keeping the abrasive qualities of this debris to a minimum. It won’t fix what ails the tranny, but it can extend the useful life. Coolant loss into the transmission can also be detected early and corrected before more expensive part damage occurs.

For those transmissions with listed service intervals, be sure to follow the OEM’s recommended procedures and use the correct fluid for the application. And be wary of any customer that comes in requesting a transmission flush. Often, there are underlying problems that the customer is hopeful will be remedied with a simple fix he read about on the Internet.

Coolant is another fluid that has a listed service interval. That can vary quite a bit, depending on the type of coolant in use. We covered coolant inspection and service in a feature all its own in our September 2012 issue, so I won’t dive too deep into it here.  For the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on when coolant should be changed and when it can be serviced.

Under normal conditions, coolant will last a long time. But that is in a perfect world. There are several factors that can drastically shorten a coolant’s life. Using a poor water source, contamination of the coolant fill, even poor electrical grounds can speed up the breakdown of the coolant’s glycol base and destroy the protective inhibitor packages that are added to the coolant formulation.

But you don’t need to send out a sample to have it tested to tell whether or not the coolant is still able to do its job. The first step is to test the concentration of the coolant, preferably using a refractometer. To maintain the correct level of inhibitors, the coolant concentration should be maintained between 40 to 60 percent. If all else checks out OK, this concentration can be adjusted by adding good water or coolant concentrate to bring the mix back in line.

Before you make that adjustment, though, check the pH balance of the coolant using a test strip or a pH meter. Conventional coolants should have a pH in the range of 8.5 to 11 while extended life coolants are in the area of 7.0 to 9.0. Coolant testing outside of this range will require complete replacement, a job best performed with a flush/fill machine designed for the purpose. If the coolant pH has reached a failing level before the normal life expectancy, be sure to identify the cause of the premature failure and correct it to insure the same fate doesn’t fall to the new fill.

Brake Fluid
Opinions on changing brake fluid vary widely. Domestic makers don’t list a specification in their maintenance schedules, while many Asian and European makes do. Techs I spoke with suggested it be changed when it looks dirty or dark, or whenever a brake system service is performed.

Brake fluid, like most fluids under the hood, serves more than one purpose. It provides the medium needed to transfer force from the driver’s foot to the brake pads and shoes. Most of you know that DOT 3 and 4 fluids are hygroscopic; that is, it absorbs moisture easily. Moisture in the brake fluid impacts its boiling point and if the moisture content gets too high, hard braking can overheat the fluid to the point vapor pockets form and brake fade occurs, with a loss of stopping power.

Many shops used to test brake fluid for moisture content using test strips. This method is extremely rare today, if it even still exists at all. The strips, of course, reacted not only to the moisture in the fluid but to the moisture in the air surrounding them as well. At the least, this resulted in erroneous results and at the worst, less than honest wrench turners could leave the strip on their workbench until the desired results appeared.

Currently, there are two basic types of testers on the market. One is a pen-like device with two electrodes that is placed in the suspect fluid. Water conducts electricity differently than untainted brake fluid does, and the tester uses this principal to measure the approximate water content. The other method is a bit more scientific. It, too, is placed in the brake fluid sample but this tool actually heats up and measures the temperature required to boil the fluid. It then displays that measurement on its screen, as well as the wet boiling point (3 percent water content) specifications for DOT 3, 4 and 5.

Brake fluid also lubricates internal components and protects against corrosion. And like it’s coolant cousin, the inhibitors that are included in the fluid formulation have a finite life span. Once depleted, even a small amount of moisture (less than 1 percent) quickly can begin to damage internal components in expensive Antilock Brake System (ABS) hydraulics, wheel cylinders and caliper assemblies. And with the improvement to brake system designs, moisture is not the problem it once was. A better way to tell? Copper.

Copper is used to coat the steel tubing used to make brake lines, and it is one of the first materials attacked by the corrosive process. Copper content in excess of 200 parts per million (ppm) has been proven as a conclusive indicator of the health of the fluid’s inhibitors. It is also the current Motorist Assurance Program (MAP) standard for determining when brake fluid should be serviced. Copper content is easily tested using a special test strip, and a before/after test is an ideal way of showing your customer the benefits of the fluid exchange.

Fluid that fails either test is a candidate for replacement.

What is the best way to exchange the fluid? According to the folks at Phoenix Systems, makers of the Phoenix Injector and BrakeStrip test strips, a pressure flush is the ideal method. This is performed from the master cylinder down using an appropriate tool. Second best is a vacuum flush, performed at each wheel and beginning with the wheel furthest from the master cylinder. In both cases, the first step is to remove the fluid from the master cylinder and clean as much of the debris out of the reservoir as you can.

Last, But Not Least The last underhood fluid we need to discuss is power steering fluid. Once again, suggestions here varied. There are no OEM recommended service intervals (that I could find, anyway), and realistically no fluid will last forever. As with engine and transmission fills, it is the collection of abrasives that develop in the fluid over time that leads to premature wear and tear of the system components.

This is something you can test in the shop with some degree of accuracy by using something that is likely already there; a coffee filter. Take a sample of fluid from the power steering reservoir and place it on the filter. Allow it some time to pass through, and then check the filter for obvious signs of debris. Repair requiring the replacement of the rack and pinion or the pump itself is also good reason to flush the system and replace the fluid. Once you have an established baseline for that particular customer, performing the service at 50,000-mile intervals for conventional fluid or at 100,000-mile intervals for synthetic is a generally accepted standard.

There is general agreement that some in our industry perform services like these to simply flush their customers’ wallets, but professionals know that fluid service can be of real benefit to your customer when performed for cause and as needed. Help your customer be more proactive in protecting their investment, and add legitimate service dollars to your bottom line, by keeping those protective fluids healthy.

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