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A Necessary Spending

My little brother cusses annoyingly as hot oil spurts out from the engine, misses the pan, and runs down his left arm. The scene is a mess. His 1989 Honda Accord is jacked up dangerously at an odd angle. Dirty rags and newspapers are scattered everywhere. A black toolbox is resting on its side, while big and small sockets are rolling all over the place. Oil from the spill is now drawing long dark streaks on the brand new driveway (he just had his driveway resurfaced a few weeks ago). My little brother has limited knowledge about automotive repair, but because he wants to save $20, the average cost to have the oil change done by a mechanic, he decides to tackle the task himself. However, if he had paid attention to see how his mechanic did it on his last visit to the shop, he would not be in such a mess as he is now. A passenger car needs oil change once every 3000 miles or so in order to keep the engine running smoothly. Mechanics do this task with ease, not only because they are better equipped, but also because they are well-trained automotive professionals. I personally think that he should just spend the $20 for this service at the shop, for it will be done the mechanics way – the only way.

The getting ready stage is quick and painless for an experienced mechanic. He drives the car up the hydraulic ramps. After setting the parking brake, he climbs out and sets the four wooden blocks against the four tires. Although this is not a necessary step, a good mechanic will do it anyway to ensure the safety of his co-workers, himself, and his customers, who may be standing close by to watch. Next, he opens up the hood, undoes the oil cap (air pressure will help the oil to drain out more easily), then raises the car to where it is a few inches above the top of his head. This way, he won’t have to stoop too low or reach too high to work. The next step is to gather the tools he will need to do this particular task. He walks over to his toolbox. With one dip of his hand into a drawer of what seems to be hundreds of different sized sockets, he was able to pick out the exact socket for the draining bolt of the car. Not forgetting to pick up a ratchet and a filter wrench, he leaves his toolbox and walks over to the “oil catcher”. This oil catcher is a red cylindrical container about two feet in diameter, which can be moved around with the four small wheels at the bottom. Sitting on top of the container is a large, rather funny looking shallow funnel with a long snout. After dragging everything he has collected over to the waiting car, the mechanic is now ready to tackle the business of changing the oil.

The next stage involves draining the used oil from the engine. Every mechanic knows the oil should be drained while the engine is still warm. It will be hot, but that is good; it will flow better and can be drained completely from the engine. After putting on a pair of latex gloves to protect his hands from the oil, he picks up the socket and positions the oil container to where the stream of hot oil will be coming down. He fits the socket onto the draining bolt then uses the ratchet to turn the bolt counter-clockwise to loosen it, after which he unfastens it the rest of the way with his hand. As the bolt rotates through the last thread and falls down to the oil catcher, dark burnt used oil from the engine squirts out from the opening, only to disappear down the large funnel into the container below. While the oil catcher is patiently collecting the last dripping of the dirty black ooze from the engine, the mechanic moves on to the next stage of the process: changing the oil filter. The oil filter is used to filter out debris while the oil is being cycled through a running engine. Without the oil filter, car owners will probably have to change the oil every 100 miles instead of 3000 miles as suggested by most automobile manufactures. The mechanic sets the filter wrench down where it is within his reach in case he needs it. He wraps an old dry rag around the used oil filter. With his hand, he rotates it counter-clockwise to remove it from the engine. Experienced mechanics know not to tighten the oil filter too tight. Doing so will damage the filter gasket, which in turn, will result in oil leakage. After the used filter is removed and the dripping of the black ooze has come to a stop, the mechanic replaces the draining bolt. He twists it in a few threads with his hand to make sure the bolt is going in straight then tightens it with the ratchet. After wiping the area around the bolt clean with a rag, he pulls out a brand new oil filter from its box, runs his finger on the inside of the funnel for some oil then lubricates the rubber gasket on the new filter. Lubrication of the gasket is necessary, as when he rotates the filter to tighten, the friction between the engine and the filter will not damage the delicate gasket, or worse, peel it off from the filter. Now he is ready to install the new oil filter. Like the draining bolt, he turns it slowly clockwise, making sure the threads catch on right. After turning the filter as far as he can with only his hand, he wraps a rag around the filter to get a better grip and gives it a final twist for another quarter of a turn.

The mechanic is now moving on to the next stage of the process, which is putting new oil into the engine. A careful mechanic will refer to the notice under the hood for the type of oil and the required volume for the vehicle. He also knows that, as a rule of thumb, most passenger vehicles under normal driving condition do not require a special oil grade; 10W40 is usually the recommended oil grade. The grade of oil refers to its resistance to flow (viscosity). The first number is viscosity at low temperature (starting), and the second is the viscosity at high temperature (when the engine is hot); higher number means thinner oil and an easier flow. The mechanic lowers the car, pulls a nearby oil drum over, and pumps new oil into the engine. He stops every now and then to check the oil level with the car’s dipstick. This is a 2-½ feet long thin metal stick, usually located on either side of the engine. The top end of the dipstick is hooked into a round handle where the index finger can lace through, while other end of the dipstick is scored with an inch long “safe level” marking. He is making sure the rising oil level mark gets as close to the “full” level mark as it can. If the engine is filled with too much oil, oil pressure will be too high, and the excess oil will get into the combustion compartment, where it will be burned along with the fuel; black smoke from the exhaust system is the direct result of this. If the amount of oil in the combustion compartment is too excessive, it could lead to clogging of sparkplugs and high concentrated oil in combustible fuel mixture; the result is an inoperative vehicle. On the other hand, if the engine doesn’t have enough oil, moving parts of the engine, like pistons and valves, will not be supplied with enough lubrication. Low oil lubrication means engines parts will be worn out faster. In a worst-case scenario, the excessive friction will cause the moving parts to heat up and seize; engine replacement is often the only remedy for this type of complication. When the right oil level is reached, the mechanic replaces the oil cap. This does not mean his job is done.

All conscientious mechanics will make sure they complete the quality assurance stage before they declare the job is done. The mechanic raises the car again. He gets under the engine and looks up to check for signs of leakage. He gives extra attention to the oil filter and draining bolt areas. After everything looks reasonably sound to his trained eyes, only then he would lower the car to the floor. He backs the car out of the shop and test-drives it once around the block to make sure the engine is not making any strange sounds. Finally, he steps out and gets on his hands and knees to give the undercarriage another quick check. Now his job is done.

As I help my little brother clean up the mess, I can hear his mumbling: “It won’t be like this next time!” From the expression on his face, I am sure the meaning of the phrase is: this is my last “do-it-yourself” oil change. For people who don’t know much about cars, (like my little brother), a wise choice would be to pay the $20 and have professional mechanics do the oil change. It is a small price to pay for keeping ones from the troubles associated with “do-it-yourself” automotive repair tasks. I personally think the service is worth every penny asked. The price is not too much or too little; it’s a fair price for a much needed service.


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