First-Person: Quickie Oil Shops Exposed!

Six months ago, I got a job managing a fast-oil-change franchise. You know, one of those places where you can go and in "ten to fifteen minutes," you get a lube, oil, filter, and anything else we can sell you for your car. Since I still work there, let's call this place "Happy Grease." At the time it was a good thing. Rent was due. I called my mother. "Momma, I'm in oil!" I said. She laughed. "At last. I can retire." "Well, not quite. I work for Happy Grease." "Really." I get that a lot when I tell people what I do. "Really." It's a cross between "What the hell were you thinking?" and sudden glassy-eyed disinterest. The next thing that usually happens is a wondering sort of "Why?" "Because they're paying me?" I say with my own wide-eyed innocence. Actually this is just the answer I want to give. Since the people who ask this question are generally my friends, what I really say is "It's a tough market." It is. All a BA in economics and a master's in creative writing have earned me so far is a bunch of form letters from publishing companies that say: "Thank you for your interest in Company Ain't-Gonna-Hire-U. Unfortunately your qualifications don't match our current employment requirements. We wish you luck in your job search and are confident you will eventually work for someone else." Besides the absolute lack of hipness that managing a Happy Grease holds for a 26-year-old Details magazine-type male, there are a couple of other drawbacks to this job. One is that I constantly smell like motor oil; in fact I'm a little afraid to let any of my friends smoke around me. Another is that my fingernails and calluses are never all that clean. I bought a toothbrush specifically for my hands, but my fiancee keeps insisting on latex gloves as a part of our new sexual regime. Still, when Happy Grease offered me the job and said, "It's 45 hours a week and you won't be working nights" and, silly me, I believed them, I thought, "It's better than waiting tables." That's right. I was a waiter before this. I had exactly zero experience working on cars. Zip. Zilch. Nada. In fact, most of the people I hire and-bigger joke-subsequently train have less experience than I did. Some of them don't even own cars, though they enjoy driving yours. Fortunately changing oil is really easy to do. Most anybody can do it at home and probably would if the dealerships didn't have everybody convinced cars are as baffling a mystery as Tia Carrere's success as an actress. They aren't. I'm living proof. And if you read the "Recipe for a Perfect Oil Change" I've included, you can be too. If, on the other hand, the available disk space in your brain doesn't have a file for "auto knowledge" or you just don't like to get really, really dirty but you still care about your car, you'll have to take it somewhere. The dealer? No. Let's face it, dealers are expensive. My car radio got stolen about three days after I moved here, and since then the hazard lights and turn signals haven't worked. I finally got enough money together to take it to my local Dodge dealer. Guess what? Two hundred dollars later my dome light works. They couldn't figure out what was wrong with the turn signals, but assured me they'd probably be able to track the problem down if I came back with a couple hundred more. (By the way, if you have one of those dealers who tries to imply your warranty will be voided if you let anybody except them touch your car, they're lying. When you read the warranty carefully you'll see that it actually says you can take your car just about anywhere-warranties that require a monopoly supplier, like the dealer's service department, are illegal.) And then there's the fact that dealers want to keep your car all day, while we at Happy Grease just need it for about twenty minutes. So, if you're not going to do it yourself and you like convenience with a semi-reasonable price, you're probably going to be visiting me sometime in the near future. When you do, there are a few things you should know: * The staff's not trying to confuse you. If my techs had a brilliant grasp of the English language, they would be working somewhere where they might make more than $6.50 an hour. This doesn't mean they're dumb. Sometimes they even tell jokes. My favorite is when a customer asks, "How's the oil business?" And two or three of my techs say, at the same time, "Changing." * We work hard. My guys are on their feet, standing on cold, hard concrete eight hours a day with a half-hour lunch break. I usually do ten or eleven hours with a fifteen-minute lunch or none at all on Saturdays. When I tell people this they look at me with a "Gee, that's hard" expression on their face, like they're saying "Well, I work pretty hard too"-unless, of course, they happen to be my mother; she just tells me to quit but doesn't actually have an alternate method for paying off ten thousand dollars in credit card debt. What no one seems to understand is that working like this means waking up in the morning with feet that still hurt from the day before and wondering what happened to the 45 hours a week my company promised me. It means I'm 26 and the thing I like to do most on my weekends is sleep. What it should also mean to all you Cadillac owners is that I don't really care how badly you need to be at your golf game, my life sucks, and you own a car that costs more than I make in a year. If you really want me to vacuum the leaves out of the spokes of your spare tire, the only way I'm going to do it is if you're much nicer than you all seem naturally inclined to be. Incidentally, I've only thrown two people out of my store. One was a seventysomething geezer Cadillac owner with checkered pants who hit me across the shoulders with a rolled-up magazine when I had to look in a reference book to figure out how to reset his "Change oil now" warning light. The other was a homeless person trying to steal our coffee supplies. * If you're in a hurry, don't come in. I've never understood the people who have to be at a wedding in an hour but somehow think they ought to get their oil changed first. It can wait. Trust me. * There's no reason I can think of that would explain how our changing your oil three weeks ago could keep your cruise control from working now. If this seems obvious to you too, go ahead and laugh. Maybe the guy who's been calling me every three states or so as he crosses the country will hear you and feel like an idiot. In a similar vein, nothing we do will affect your airbag either. Claiming that having the warning light come on a few days after an oil change can't be coincidental will just get you a sympathetic letter from my regional manager. It will probably also get me yet another lecture on the finer points of customer service but, in the end, that warning light will still be on. While following these suggestions will definitely help us get along a little better, I realize you don't care whether or not I like you. You just want the best service you can get. That's fair. When I moved here, after driving two and a half thousand miles, one of the first things I did was get my oil changed. I wanted to make sure everything was okay, so I bought the "complete" package for $28.95. Then, when I got this job, part of the training process was to work on my own car, and I found out the first people hadn't done many of the things they said they would. Clearly not all oil-change places are the same, and much as I am loathe to tell you this, there are several things you can do to give yourself an edge. One is to get out of your car and watch the people working on it. If they won't let you, go someplace else. The line about the insurance company not allowing you in the work area is bull. There will always be someplace that's out of everyone's way -- but still conspicuous enough to let them know you're there -- where you can see what's being done. You don't have to say anything. Just stand there. If the people have any brains at all they won't leave your power steering fluid reservoir half empty like they did when I wasn't watching. In my shop, we're hip to people watching us, and I've got my guys trained to say, "If I can't do my job with you watching, I shouldn't be doing it at all." It's amazing how quickly most people lose interest in standing there after we say that. There are those who persist though, and they are generally a pain. They get in the way or make the techs nervous or they're the guys who know everything there is to know about cars and want to make sure you know they know. I hate those guys. Still, of the persisters there are a few, the ones who stroke my ego by pretending they're interested in my opinion, that I actually enjoy having there. They are the lucky customers who get the great service everyone else is paying for but are too annoying to receive. Of course the ones who are annoying but are at least watching still have a better guarantee of good service than the ones who aren't watching at all. It's easy to forget to fill someone's tires when we're really busy, and not so easy when they say, "Hey, I was hoping I could get the tires checked. Thanks." As far as trying to sell you extras, we're always going to do that. We have to. It doesn't matter whether or not 25 percent of the cars that come through my shop need air filters, if I don't sell that many they take it out of a bonus that makes up about a third of my income. Therefore I have an incentive program for my techs-if they sell enough I buy them lunch. You can save yourself a little time and aggravation if you just let us go through our sales spiel and then say "No" at the end of it. See, it's like we've been programmed. We do the same thing so many times it becomes habitual. Anything that interrupts the program makes us have to think and that slows us down. To correct this we will usually ignore the interruption; when people tell us, "You don't need to check my air filter," my techs will invariably reply, "Oh. Okay. But since I've already taken it out, I'll just go ahead and show it to you. The manufacturer recommends replacing this every..." Now, while it's not our policy to actually lie, sometimes our presentation is a little less than totally candid. For instance, when we say, "The manufacturer recommends..." we are talking about the manufacturer of the air filter, not your car. Naturally the people who make the air filters are going to want you to change them as often as possible. I have a book from the '60s that says you can get away with changing your oil filter every other oil change. At Happy Grease that's absolute heresy. We have to change the oil filter every oil change and we can be sued if we don't. Unfortunately, you can't really trust the auto manufacturers either. It's in their interest to make you think you have a hassle-free car, but I've gotten really large chunks of extraneous metal out of 3,000-mile transmissions despite manufacturers' assurances that the fluid doesn't need to be changed until at least 30,000 miles. My opinion is that preventative maintenance can't harm your car: you should do it a little more often than your owner's manual indicates and a little less often than Happy Grease tells you to. Finally I have a bit of advice that I really hate to give. When you come to Happy Grease you are buying a limited warranty on the work we do. Make sure you understand what we've done. If anything at all goes wrong with your car after we service it and you can come up with some kind of proof that we did it (or that it's related to something we didn't do), you'll probably be able to get us to pay for it. Even if it's the airbag warning light that doesn't have any possible connection to an oil change. What this means is that it is actually in your own best interests to be picky and to complain a lot. We have no choice but to take you seriously. If it's our fault, the company will pay for it. So will I. Every time someone wins a claim from my shop it comes directly out of my bonus. In fact, a big claim, such as that which would stem from our accidentally putting power steering fluid into your brake fluid reservoir and thus utterly destroying the hydraulic system, can cost over a thousand dollars and wipe out my entire monthly bonus. Even if it's not my shop's fault, there's some chance that I'll have to pay. This means two things: if there's anything I can do to solve the problem I'll do it, and if I can't solve the problem, I will use every ounce of my mechanical acumen to find a plausible explanation that doesn't involve my shop. I won't lie or do anything illegal, of course, but what I tell you will be designed to make you go away. I'm not proud of this, but I like to eat and that's the way it is. So, my advice is, be persistent. Get a mechanic to verify your version of the story in writing. When my answer doesn't satisfy you, ask how to get hold of my regional manager. When he tries to scare you off by threatening to take you to court, go anyway. Since this will be small claims court, there won't be any lawyers involved, and I recommend being thorough. Include your towing fees and the cost of a rental car. You might be surprised: there's a good chance you'll win. The courts tend to favor a consumer who has even a nebulous bit of proof. I've seen it happen. Now that I read this through, I'm surprised to find this article's not an expose about my company screwing its customers, but is actually an expose of the many ways my company and my customers seem to have gotten together to screw me. Oh, I know, I'm being self indulgent, but hopefully I've gotten your sympathy because, who knows, you might be in a position to hire me. I've got a feeling that soon after this is published my boss isn't going to be very fond of me. But before I go, here's my recipe for a perfect oil change: Recipe for a Perfect Oil Change In a nutshell, what you have to do is take your old oil filter off, put a new one on; take the oil drain pan plug out; drain the oil; put a new gasket on the plug; replace the plug; refill the oil and you're done. Simple, huh? For those who want a blow-by-blow, read on: 1) Go out and buy a good quality oil and oil filter. Anything like Quaker State, Valvoline, Pennzoil, or Castrol will do. Most cars take between 3.25 and 5 quarts of oil, although Mercedes, Jaguars, BMWs, and some large trucks can take a bit more. In terms of filters, try Fram or Purolator. 2) Make sure you've saved an empty milk jug or other resealable plastic container to pour your used oil into. Many of the places like Happy Grease are certified oil recycling centers. We're even supposed to pay you for the oil, but most people don't want to wait around long enough for us to give them the seven to twelve cents that your average car's used oil is worth. Whatever you do, don't just pour the oil into your gutter. Not only is this illegal, but those gutters go directly to the bay. 3) Open the hood to see if you can locate the oil pan and filter. The pan will be bolted directly underneath the engine while the filter will be somewhere on it. Certain manufacturers, like Mazda and Toyota, have maladjusted senses of humor and have placed the oil filter directly under the exhaust manifold, the hottest part of the engine. This means you will have to let your car sit for a couple of hours or risk severe burns during your oil change. Remove your oil fill cap and put it where you'll be able to find it again. 4) While on level ground, set the parking brake on your car, put blocks behind the wheels, jack the car up, and then put a stand under the frame (the hydraulic jack itself won't do because, over time, it loses pressure and starts dropping). If you don't do all of this, the car might fall on you and you'll die. 5)If you can remove the filter without raising the car, do that first. At any rate, it will be the first thing to look for. Once you find it, place a catch pan underneath it. An oil filter can hold up to a quart of oil and you will be sure to spill some when you remove it. Most filters can be taken off by hand although some will require a special wrench that can be picked up at any auto parts store. If you have to contort yourself terribly to reach the filter or you can't see it, remember clockwise tightens and counterclockwise loosens. Once you've gotten the filter off, check the engine's oil filter mounting plate to make sure it's smooth and clean, and that there are no bits of an old oil filter's gasket left behind. An extra precaution is to check the old filter. If the gasket isn't on it, you might want to check the mounting plate again. Before you put the new filter on, spread some oil around that gasket. This ensures a better seal and makes the filter easier to remove the next time. Oil filters are meant to be installed by hand. If it doesn't go on smoothly, that means you're cross-threading it and need to start over. Using a wrench to install the filter can damage it and cause it to leak during operation. Just get it as tight as you can with your hands. Check it three times. 6) Next, move the pan underneath the oil drain plug. When you remove the drain plug, do it slowly, checking for signs that it's stripped. After initially loosening the plug, it should come out smoothly using just your fingers; if it doesn't, or if it starts to leak the moment you loosen it, you may want to stop right there and take the car to a mechanic. When this happens at Happy Grease, we stop and refuse to service the car. See, when you take a stripped plug out, you risk taking the pan threads with it, which means you can't put the plug back in and hence can't put oil in the car. If the plug comes out okay, check the threads anyway and replace it if they don't look good. Take the old washer off the plug and put a new one on. Finally, when replacing the plug, start it with your fingers. If it doesn't go in, once again it means you're cross-threading it. Keep trying until you get it. Also, plugs don't need to be that tight. Most cars take around 25 foot-pounds of torque (sort of tight) with Hondas taking the most at 33 pounds (pretty tight). This means you don't need to become the Incredible Hulk when you tighten the thing down. Just put a wrench on it and give it a nice, smooth solid tug. Overtightening can strip a plug as easily as cross-threading can. 7) You are now ready to put new oil in the car. I'd start with about a half quart less than the owner's manual says to. You'll have to put some more in later, but putting more in is a lot easier than draining some out. Once you're done, replace your oil fill cap and get back under the car with a flashlight to make sure the plug isn't leaking. If it is leaking, tighten the plug a little more (if that doesn't work try using some silicone sealant and get the car to a mechanic). If it isn't leaking, lower the car back down with your jack and run the engine for about a minute. You can then check the dipstick (the distance between the high and low marks is equivalent to one quart), top it off with as much more oil as you need, and you're finished. Congratulations and good luck.

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