The Simplest Job

Does it make sense to outsource oil changes for fleets?

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.

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