The Simplest Job

Changing the oil in a light-duty vehicle ranks as one of the simplest jobs in the maintenance shop, and yet in many ways it's the most important. Any failure in the oil system to deliver adequate lubricant and the engine literally begins to eat itself with catastrophic results.


New and better oils are constantly being produced. Vehicle manufacturers are turning more and more to engines requiring different grades and weights, making the marketplace for bulk purchasing much more difficult.

At the same time, oil companies are rapidly turning out new products. Synthetics, semi-synthetics, new weights and grades are hitting the shelves, making the choices more difficult to make and potentially more costly.

As a result, many fleets across the country are turning to outsourcing their oil drains to control costs and maximize the ease of servicing their vehicles.

"Every vehicle has different needs," says Dennis Hammons, marketing representative for ConocoPhillips. "GM, Ford, Honda all have different oil requirements and we advise companies to adhere to the manufacturers' recommended grades."

Hammons admits that fleets with several types of vehicles could run into problems trying to meet their oil needs.

"Obviously buying in bulk is the cheapest way to go, but sometimes that's not possible," he explains. "How much you buy depends on how many of each vehicle you have in the inventory. If you're doing the maintenance in-house, you really have no choice but to stock the grades your vehicles require."

"Light duty fleets tend to be vocational in nature and therefore operate under conditions quite different from line-haul fleets," notes Mark Betner, manager of heavy duty lubricants for Citgo Petroleum. "For example, they may be subject to more frequent start-ups or considerable stopping with high idle times."

For this reason, Betner recommends alternating viscosity grades, especially in regions that face temperature extremes. While 15W-40 is considered the 'norm' for diesel engines, he says, using a 5W-40 in the winter, for example, will ensure easier vehicle starting.

"Beyond enhanced vehicle performance, however, alternating oil viscosity offers cost benefits through improved fuel economy of three percent or higher," Betner says. "Average that over the course of a year and, depending on your business, you could see a significant savings."

Tight maintenance practices are key to ensuring the right kind of oil ends up in the vehicle, Hammons adds. "Bad things can happen to the engine when the wrong type of oil is put into a vehicle. It could potentially void a warranty as well."

Betner agrees, "Some common questions I get from customers are, 'Are oils compatible? Can I change from conventional to synthetic or simply change brands? What about mixing oils?' To these questions I say you can mix oils but it is not recommended long term."


Many fleets are turning to outsourcing as a means of meeting their oil needs.

Michael Payette, nationwide fleet manager for Staples, says tight maintenance schedules and solid relationships with his maintenance companies have proven to be a considerable success.

"We've written outside maintenance agreements with Ryder and Penske," Payette explains. "They orchestrate all of our maintenance issues."

Because the 840 vehicles of the Staples fleet are spread out across the country, Payette notes that in-house oil facilities are impractical.

"If I had 50 trucks in one place, I'd do it in-house," he says. "For us, it's cheaper and easier to take them to someone else."

Staples keeps tight maintenance logs and strictly adheres to the vehicle manufacturers' recommendations for oil drains. When a vehicle is due for an oil change, it is flagged in the maintenance log and then sent out to the closest allied shop.


Jerry Krueger, fleet administrator for Alliant Energy, takes a similar strategy for his 1,400 light-duty vehicles spread out across Iowa and southern Wisconsin.

"We put together a 'usage history' for each of our vehicles," he explains. "We look at how long the vehicle takes to get 6,000 miles, then we assign it into one of four different maintenance slots."

Alliant Energy divides their maintenance calendar into four slots: two months, three months, four months and six months.

Once a usage history is done on a vehicle, it's assigned a slot and is scheduled for oil maintenance for that time frame.

Because their fleet is spread out across such a large area, nearly 90 percent of their oil needs are outsourced.

"We send our vehicles for service everywhere from big name companies to the small 'mom-and-pop' shops," says Krueger. "That gives us some flexibility when it's time for that vehicle to get its oil changed and it's cheaper and faster than sending it to one of our service centers."

For those Alliant vehicles fortunate enough to be near an Alliant Energy fleet service center, most, if not all, maintenance is done in-house.

"We have a vendor that supplies our oil needs for the 10 percent of our fleet that we service in-house," explains Krueger.

"We keep two types of oil to service our gas engines and diesel engines. The vendor is in the loop in terms of our maintenance schedules and knows that he needs to keep us inventoried at all times."

"I wouldn't let just anybody do it," says Shell Lubricants OEM technical manager Stede Granger, "but if I was going to outsource my oil changes, I would make sure I checked out the company, make sure they do things right, and most of all, make sure they use a good, well-known product that meets all the requirements and specifications."

The advantage to outsourcing, Granger says, is that an oil change shop has labor dedicated to changing oil. "If your technicians are busy with all the repair work that needs to be done, oil changes are sometimes put at the end of the list," he says.


John Gillenwater, transportation administrator for Aurora Casket Company, located in Aurora, IN, is also a fan of outsourcing the oil maintenance on his 240 nation-wide, light-duty vehicles.

"We have an automated process in place so that when a vehicle hits 5,000 miles, it's immediately flagged for maintenance with the field office," Gillenwater says.

Aurora's maintenance records are kept at its home office and the company is adamant about updating mileage on a daily basis. Reports are sent from the field offices to the home office. If a vehicle is due for an oil change, the home office will alert the field office by e-mail.

Since most of Aurora's fleet is made up of Ford vehicles, Gillenwater says the easiest way to tackle the task of oil needs is to take them directly to the dealer.

"It isn't practical for us to have an in-house maintenance program," he says. "The dealers are intimately familiar with the needs of the vehicles and are able to provide the service the vehicles require."


Tony Petrino, lead technician, US Postal Service Maintenance in New Jersey, says the solution to their oil needs arrived in the form of a government contract.

"Everything we use is recycled," he explains. "The government signed a contract with a major oil company to provide the Postal Service with recycled engine oil. The recycled oil works as well as anything else we've used."

The Postal Service's vehicles aren't known for putting on lots of miles in a given year. According to Petrino, most vehicles in the inventory are due for an oil drain on average about once every six months. The maintenance schedules are staggered so that vehicles are going through their periodic maintenance at different times.

But as he explains, the Post Office is not above outsourcing its oil service requirements if the need arises.

"If a vehicle is out on the streets and it eclipses its mileage, we'll have them stop at a local service station to get it done," Petrino says. "We're very careful not to have vehicles over their mileage."


Oil sampling is available to ensure that vehicles are running at peak performance. Many manufacturers and oil companies will analyze samples taken from vehicles to ensure the oil being run through the engine is doing what it's supposed to.

"We'll ask for a sampling from the fleet to verify the quality of the oil after 30 days or 3,000 miles," explains Hammons. "We want to make sure the oil isn't too thick or contains too much moisture."

Independent companies across the country exist to take these samples as well. "A sampling program is a good way to tell your engines are operating where they should and that the oil you're using is the proper type for the engine," Hammons says.

According to Shell Lubricants' Granger, however, oil analysis for light-duty fleets may not be the answer. Because the amount of oil in the engine is so small, compared to a heavy-duty truck, he fears the cost of the analysis may outweigh the benefits.

"I think what I would rather do is maximize your oil by following the OEM's recommendation," Granger says. "Quite often, people will tell me they change their oil before the OEM recommends it. The typical thing you hear is 3,000 miles, even though the OEM, under typical conditions, call for oil drains at 7,500 miles. If I was a fleet maintenance manager, I'd make sure I work with my OEM supplier, and make sure that I maximize the oil drains for that particular vehicle."

In the end, good maintenance records and a solid process in place to service the engines are key components to ensure they operate at peak performance for as long as possible.

"I highly recommend bringing together your suppliers; the oil, filter, and engine manufacturers," says Betner. "Together, this team can analyze your goals and operating conditions to determine the most appropriate drain interval."


Citgo's Betner predicts that the fleet industry will, in time, see amplified use of synthetic and high-performance lubricants. Much of this, he says, may be due to light-duty diesel engine manufacturers changing their oil recommendations to such products.

"There are significant advantages to using synthetic and high-performance products," Betner says. "However, production of these engine oils is limited as there is a deficiency of the chemicals needed to produce them.

"Another challenge is that of public perception," he goes on. "Single grade lubricants used to be the norm and when the industry shifted to multi-grade there was pushback. Simply put, many believed the oil wouldn't be as good or beneficial. It took awhile for the multi-grades to be generally accepted. The same thing will happen if manufacturers of light-duty diesel engines begin recommending synthetic oils.

"This challenge requires fleet managers to take a holistic approach to their selection of engine oil," Betner says. "Rather than balking at the idea of alternating viscosities or changing to synthetic altogether because of the initial 'sticker shock,' it is necessary to carefully analyze the cost savings that will be realized throughout the year. However, such programs are not right for everyone and therefore, I again recommend working with your manufacturers/suppliers to determine the best course of action."