The Number that Busts the Biggest Myth of the 21st Century

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We’ve heard it, you’ve heard it — maybe you’ve even said or thought it — “Extended drain intervals are killing the oil change business.” Extended oil drains are the big bad wolves of the quick lube industry, but are your customers really driving more between oil changes? We think you’ll be surprised by the answer.

Extended oil drains became a hot topic in the early 2000s. Auto manufacturers responded to drivers wanting cars requiring less fuss and produced vehicles with longer maintenance intervals. The fast lube industry sat by and worried, “What will happen when we see customers every 7,000-plus miles instead of the regular 3,000-5,000 miles?”

Fifteen years later, the quick lube industry continues to discuss extended drain intervals. We put on our specs, topped our heads with berets and dug back in the National Oil & Lube News (NOLN) archives “MythBusters” style to see what you’ve said over the years about customer frequency.

The first NOLN Fast Lube Operator Survey was published in 1988, but industry trends didn’t lead us to ask about the miles driven between oil changes until 1999. Since then, we’ve asked the question every year.

According to the 1999 Fast Lube Operator Survey, oil change customers drove an average of 4,445 miles between oil changes in 1999. In 2014, you told us your customers drove an average of 4,597 miles between oil changes — that’s only a 152-mile increase since we first asked more than 16 years ago. From 2005-2014, the average number of miles customers drove between oil changes was 4,470 miles — only 25 miles more than in 1999.

Most extended drain intervals rely on vehicles operating in ideal conditions. While manufacturers advertise fewer oil changes and longer oil life for many of their vehicle makes and models, it’s important for drivers to understand they can’t take advantage of those unless they are driving in perfect operating conditions — and few do. The majority of drivers drive in severe to extreme — not normal — conditions.

For example, Ford defines the different degrees of operating conditions as normal, severe and extreme. Normal operating conditions are commuting with highway driving, no — or moderate — load or towing, flat to moderately hilly roads and no extended idling. Severe operating conditions are moderate to heavy load or towing, mountainous or off-road conditions, extended idling (sitting in traffic) and extended hot or cold operation. Extreme operating conditions are maximum load or towing and extreme hot or cold operation.

Oil change intervals depend on several factors. As the severity of conditions increase, the life of engine oil decreases. A lot of drivers think their driving habits are normal but aren’t. Think about your daily commute to work. Do you idle in traffic? Where do you live? Does it get stifling hot or bitterly cold? What about hauling? Do you tow a boat every weekend or pull a work trailer? All of these things affect the amount of miles your vehicle — and your customers’ vehicles — should go between oil changes.

Manufacturers standards directly affect the fast lube industry. We wanted to know what intervals OEMs have recommended over the years, so we pulled eight OEM maintenance schedules from two different OEMs. The eight vehicles we looked at included a 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015 Toyota Camry and a 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015 Ford Explorer.

Toyota recommends owners of a 2000 Camry change the oil every 7,500 miles. If the car operates in severe conditions, like driving on desert or dirt roads, Toyota suggests oil changes every 5,000 miles. Ford recommends severe drivers with a 2000 Explorer drive no more than 3,000 miles without changing their oil, while normal drivers can go 5,000 miles.

Toyota suggests normal drivers with a 2005 Camry change their oil every 5,000 miles instead of the previous 7,500-mile interval. (Yes, you read right, the oil change interval shortened from 2000-2005). Toyota notes drivers who operate regularly in special operating conditions should perform additional recommended maintenance, as indicated in the owners manual in addition to the regular oil change. Ford didn’t change anything about the 2005 Explorer maintenance schedule in 2005. They continue to advise severe drivers with a 2005 Explorer drive no more than 3,000 miles without changing their oil, while normal drivers can go 5,000 miles.

Toyota didn’t change anything about the Camry’s maintenance requirements in 2010. Toyota still recommends the 2010 Camry get an oil change every 5,000 miles and have special indicated maintenance performed if the car drives regularly in sand or dirt. Ford did extend the 2010 Explorer’s normal driving interval to 7,500 miles and upped the severe driving interval to 5,000 miles.

While some drain intervals were longer in 2010 than they were in 2005, NOLN readers reported their customers drove more miles between oil changes in 2005 (4,564 miles) than in 2010 (4,492 miles).

One contributing factor in 2010 was more OEMs integrating electronic oil life monitors than in 2005. While drain intervals were being extended, more drivers could actively monitor their oil life percentages. Because many of these oil life programs are based off cam shaft rpm monitoring and not miles driven or the actual condition of the oil, drivers who fell into the severe category, but didn’t think they did, started getting realistic reminders of when they needed to change their oil. Prior, when vehicles idled, the odometers didn’t record any mileage, but their cam shafts were still rotating and using oil.

With the onset of oil-life monitoring systems, vehicles were able to more accurately track oil life and take into account idling in traffic, etc. Customers began tracking their vehicle’s oil life percentages through the onboard digital readings provided by the monitoring programs. This ensured they were accurately prompted into your bays when it was time for an oil change. Some OEMs have dropped the use of miles from their recommended service intervals and are instead referring to oil life percentages.

In 2015, the 2015 Ford Explorer’s oil life maintenance included a more specific scale. Ford added a new category of driver, the extreme driver. Ford advised normal drivers get their oil changed between 7,500 – 10,000 miles, severe drivers get their oil changed between 5,000 – 7,499 miles and extreme drivers get their oil changed between 3,000 – 4,999 miles. (So some OEMs are still recommending 3,000-mile oil changes to certain drivers after all!) Ford’s addition of another severity category bumped drivers formerly classified as severe to extreme; those who were normal became severe. Today, Toyota still suggests the same 5,000-mile oil change interval for the Camry as they did in 2005 and 2010.

Not much changed from 2010 to 2015 as far as the miles customers drove before hitting the lube bays. The 2014 Fast Lube Operator Survey reported customers drove 4,597 miles between oil changes — only 105 miles more than in 2010.

There could be several contributing factors for why the extended oil drain conversation continues. The first is unknown market changes. Manufacturers are constantly surveying their customers to find out what they want. You’re well aware consumer needs are always changing. Therefore, OEMs will always be introducing new technology to the marketplace, and there will always be a dose of uncertainty as a result.

Another reason could be the lack of understanding behind the driver severity classes. Only looking at manufacturer recommended oil drains trends is potentially scary stuff for the oil change industry but it’s not the full picture. Understanding all the factors involved is key to accurately assessing the economic environment.

If the culprit isn’t extended oil drains, maybe you’re wondering why your car counts may have declined. It’s because competition is brutal in this industry. There are more quick lubes than there used to be, and other businesses are using oil changes as a loss leader. Just take a look in your community. How many more businesses are advertising oil changes than 15 years ago? Sure, you can still make good money on transmissions and repairs, but many businesses advertise their oil changes to get the car in and up on the rack so they can inspect it and sell additional services. The oil change business is a different game than it used to be, and understanding how to play it is key to winning the game.

Today’s consumers are loyal, savvy and appreciative of a job well done, but they ask a lot from their regular service providers. Drivers are going to visit the shop that meets their needs. If they haven’t established loyalty with one shop in particular, they will visit the one closest to them. Consistent car counts and ticket averages are captured with loyalty.

Recommended oil change intervals are extending slightly, but the miles your customers drive between oil changes aren’t growing at the same rate. The bottom line is, your customers are only driving 152 miles more between oil changes than they were in 1999. That number doesn’t lie, but it does bust the biggest myth of the 21st century!

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