the single most important thing you can do for your car

When I first started driving, my dad asked me the same question over and over about my car.

“When’s the last time you changed the oil in that thing?”

‘That thing’ was my first car, an avocado-green 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass. My dad wanted me to change its oil and oil filter every couple of thousand miles. I have to admit that I wasn’t the most diligent oil-changer, which was why Dad stayed on me about changing it.

As a typical teenager, I dismissed the question as an annoying intrusion on my newfound car-centric ‘freedom’. But even into adulthood, I was never all that concerned about how often I changed my oil.

It really wasn’t until I bought lowell’s that I understood the true importance of Dad’s question.

A regular oil and filter change is the single most important thing you can do to help keep your car’s engine running longer.

Why your oil matters

Fresh oil keeps internal engine parts clean and lubricated, which prolongs the life of your engine.

Oil breaks down with exposure to the high temperatures of your engine. As it breaks down, your oil stops absorbing dust, moisture, and other contaminants. That means the oil won’t lubricate as well, causing engine parts to wear out faster.

What can go wrong

Because old oil stops lubricating as well, your engine parts rub together. This increased friction causes the parts to wear out faster and makes your engine hotter – which causes your oil to degrade even faster, triggering a downward spiral of deteriorating oil, heat, and engine wear.

Eventually, the oil can break down into sludge – a sticky, tar-like substance which clogs narrow passageways inside your engine – and oil can’t get where it is needed inside your clogged engine.

The increased heat and friction in your engine can also cause your engine to seize and need to be replaced.

What we do

We drain the old oil from your engine and replace it and the oil filter. We use only genuine Toyota oil filters with a double-stage filtering element and an anti-drainback valve.

We also perform a free Courtesy Check – a visual inspection of your belts, fluids, hoses, lights, tire pressures, and tire wear – with each service, which allows us to identify small problems before they become big problems.

What we do with the old stuff

We’ve contracted with a recycling service to pick up your old oil and oil filters. Once the dirt and other contaminants are removed, most of your old oil can be re-refined into high-grade motor oil.

When we recommend it

Our oil change recommendations depend on the type of engine your car has.

For engines using conventional motor oil (5W-20 or 5W-30 grade oil), we recommend changing your oil every 3,500 miles or every 6 months, whichever comes first. This applies to almost all 2009 and earlier Toyotas, and many vehicles made between 2010 and 2013.

For engines using full synthetic motor oil (0W-20 grade), we recommend changing your oil every 5,000 miles or every 6 months, whichever comes first. This applies to almost all 2014 and later Toyotas, and many vehicles made between 2010 and 2013.

So… When’s the last time you changed the oil in that thing?

Repair or replace?

“Is it worth it?”

This question comes up pretty frequently in the shop, and we understand why!

Are you saving or losing money keeping your tried and true vehicle as opposed to starting over with a new car? It’s not difficult to decide when you break down exactly what factors are going into your decision.

With a little evaluation of your finances and a little math, you can make a sound decision.

How much are you (really) spending on maintenance?

Initially, you have to figure out  how much you’re spending on repairs from month to month. Even a couple-hundred-dollar repair bill every few months is significantly less than a new monthly car payment. Assuming that your insurance and fuel costs won’t change much, your old car’s maintenance probably costs less than purchasing a new car. 91-Toyota-Camry-DX-1024x517

If you’re still making payments on your current car, you’ll also lose the money you’ve already put into both paying off the car and what you’ve put into any previous repairs. (This can be especially tricky when you purchase a used car, as it may come with some future repairs!)

Unless you feel as though you’re “always bringing it to the shop” and your maintenance costs are exorbitant, you probably won’t save money by trading your old car in for another.

 

How much are you spending on repairs?

Because maintenance is a cost that comes with every vehicle, the real issue is whether or not the repairs are worth it. This all-important decision comes down to a couple questions you should know the answers to before deciding.

Does the repair cost more than half the market worth of the car?

If not, you should go ahead with the repair. Even with a car that is worth $5000, a $1,500 dollar repair would be worth doing in terms of the longevity of your vehicle. (Websites like Edmunds True Market Value Calculator and Kelley Blue Book are useful in this calculation!)

In going ahead with repairs, you can benefit in 2 ways: Not only are you getting your problem fixed, you can also add to the eventual trade-in value of your car.

How much “life” can your car get from going ahead with the repair?

Now imagine your car is worth $2,200, and you’re faced with the same $1,500 repair. Think of the cost in comparison to potential costs from purchasing a new car instead.

If this $1,500 repair would keep your car road-worthy for a few more years, then compare to how much it would cost for a down payment, new insurance, and the equivalent amount of time in monthly payments for a new vehicle.

The repair usually comes out on top, especially when you have an honest and knowledgeable mechanic you can trust to tell you whether or not it’s going to be worth it. (Like the technicians and service staff we have here at Lowell’s!)

Is the repair less than a few months’ car payment on a new vehicle? 

If the repair in question costs less than one month of payments, and your vehicle on the other hand is paid off, your decision is pretty well made.

If the cost is less than a few months of payments, and your car would be able to go for more than a few months without additional repairs or maintenance costs, then it makes sense to go ahead with the repairs, in this case, too.

Is it in your budget?

If it is hard to pay for a costly repair, how hard will it be to fit a car payment into your current monthly expenses?

In this post, we’ve tried to outline some of the key factors to consider when deciding to repair or replace your vehicle.

At Lowell’s, we’re biased – We usually think repairing your vehicle makes more sense than
replacing it.

But your situation is unique, and may include other considerations.

As always, feel free to talk your decision through with Lowell’s. We’ll give you our honest assessment of your vehicle while helping you make your decision.

Service Schedule Cheat Sheet

With so many things to keep up with on your vehicle, we know it can be hard to stay current on the maintenance for your vehicle.

To help you plan regular service items, here’s the Lowell’s guide to Toyota maintenance:

Oil Change
Oil changes are the single most important service to extend the life of your car. Lowell’s recommends oil changes every 3,500 miles* or every 6 months, whichever comes first.

Cabin and Engine Air Filters
We recommend replacing cabin and engine air filters every 15,000 miles. (If you’re driving in especially dirty or dusty environments, you might consider more frequent replacements.) Check out our guide to cabin air filters here.

Brake Inspections
We recommend brake inspections every 15,000 miles. If your vehicle is equipped with drum brakes, we’ll also clean and adjust your brakes.

Flushes (Brake System, Transmission, Coolant, Power Steering)
Fluid maintenance is another important way to extend the life of your vehicle. We recommend fluid flushes every 30,000 miles. What’s a flush? Great question, and we have your answers here.

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Valve Clearance Inspection and Adjustment
We recommend valve clearance inspections every 60,000 miles. Learn more here.

Timing Belt
We recommend timing belt changes every 90,000 miles. (If your vehicle is equipped with a timing chain, it should not normally need replacement.)

Tune-Up
We recommend getting a tune-up for your vehicle every 30,000, 60,000, or 120,000 miles, depending on the kind of spark plugs your vehicle left the factory with. Check out our guide to tune-ups here.

Call the shop if you ever have any questions about your vehicle or recommended service. We’re always happy to help you prioritize the services your vehicle needs.

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*Note: We know that many Toyota owner’s manuals now recommend an oil change interval up to 5,000 miles. We still recommend oil changes every 3,500 miles.

The 5,000 mile interval may be safe for very new vehicles, but we don’t recommend it for vehicles that are more than a few years old.

If your engine has been leaking or burning oil, the extra 1,500 miles can result in permanent engine damage because your engine lacks enough oil to lubricate properly. Plus, your oil can still get dirty and contaminated, and can start to break down before the 5,000 mile point (which again could result in engine damage). 

That’s why our recommendation is different from Toyota’s. 

What’s a Tune-Up?

Plugs

Old (left) and new spark plugs

One of the most frequently used – but least understood – terms used in our industry is “tune-up”.

A few decades ago, vehicles required frequent mechanical tuning to keep them operating optimally. Over time, “tune-up” became a common way of saying “make my car run better”.

In today’s electronically-controlled vehicles, however, a tune-up is very different. Many of the mechanical adjustments we made in older cars are now made by your vehicle’s onboard computer.

So when we talk about a tune-up at Lowell’s, we mean changing your vehicle’s spark plugs and, when appropriate, your fuel filter and engine air filter.

A spark plug converts an incoming electrical charge into a spark which ignites the mixture of air and fuel that  powers your car’s engine. The spark jumps between two electrodes at the end of the plug, creating the controlled explosion that drives an internal combustion engine.

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Close-up view of old and new spark plugs

Spark plugs can wear out. Each spark burns off tiny bits of metal on the electrodes, and after hundreds of millions of sparks, the spark plug doesn’t fire as efficiently. Spark plugs can also become coated with residue (‘fouled’) if your fuel doesn’t burn cleanly.

Fouled or worn-out spark plugs can reduce your fuel mileage or cause your engine to run roughly. When the gap between the electrodes becomes too large, your ignition coils strain to generate sufficient current, and coil damage can result. (Note how the center electrode for the old plug on the left has tapered into a cone-like shape, requiring significantly more current to spark.)

The electrodes for Toyota plugs (made by Denso) are plated with different highly conductive metals: nickel, platinum, or iridium. The type of metal used determines how long the spark plug lasts: Nickel-plated spark plugs typically last for 30,000 miles; Platinum for 60,000; and Iridium for 120,000 miles.

When we do a tune-up at Lowell’s, we remove and inspect your old spark plugs to see whether there are any issues other than normal wear. We replace them with new spark plugs, adjusting the gap between electrodes when necessary. If needed, we’ll also replace the fuel filter and engine air filter.

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Feel free to call the shop with any questions, and – if it is time for a tune-up or other service for your vehicle – to make an appointment for service.

Noises and your car

Finding and fixing vehicle noises are one of the most difficult tasks for our technicians.

Noises

ASE Master Technician Keith Shelburne listening for engine sounds. Yes, we sometimes use stethiscopes to find noises.

Sometimes, we can’t make the noise occur in the shop or on a test drive. Other times, we might hear a noise, but it isn’t the same one that our customer heard. Often, the customer who brings the vehicle into the shop to fix the noise isn’t the car’s primary driver, and hasn’t really heard the sound and can’t adequately describe it.

So we’ve put together this simple guide to help you describe the noises your car makes. Following the tips we share below will save you time and money, and help us diagnose the issue faster.

1) Describe the kind of noise.

Because your car makes so many sounds, describing the particular kind of noise it is making will usually help us locate the issue faster.

Would you call it a rattle or a squeal? A thump or a hiss? A clank, a ping, a buzz, a scrape, a click, or a pop? Or something else entirely?

Using specific terms like these to describe sounds will help us zero in on the noise and what might be causing it.

2) Notice when and how the noise occurs.

If you can tell us when the noise happens, that will also help us re-create it here in the shop. And if we can hear it in the shop, our chances of finding and fixing the problem go way up.

Here are a few examples of helpful details around noises:

  • It usually happens once, and then doesn’t happen again for a while.
  • It happens over and over.
  • It happens when starting the car; just after starting the car; when the car is cold; first thing in the morning.
  • It happens when the car has warmed up; when it is hot outside.
  • It happens when turning; turning left; turning right; turning sharply; going around curves.
  • It happens when going over bumps or potholes.
  • It happens when using the brakes.
  • It happens when sitting at the light.
  • It happens when cruising down the highway.
  • The noise gets faster or slower (or louder or softer) as the car moves faster or slower.
  • The noise is accompanied by a physical sensation – a vibration or bump that you can feel in the steering wheel or in your seat, for example.

In addition to helping us replicate the noise, these details can give us important clues about what parts of the car might be causing the noise.

3) Make the noise for us.

It sounds kind of funny, but it really helps if you can mimic the exact sound your car is making. It might seem embarrassing to make an “EE-er-EE-er” sound for us in the lobby, but we truly appreciate how much it helps us find the right sound faster. (Besides, people make sounds for us all the time. We’re used to it!)

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The more that you can tell us about the noises your car makes – what kind of noise, when it occurs, and what it sounds like – the faster that our team here at Lowell’s will be able to help. And we’re here to help!

What’s a Valve Clearance Inspection?

Every 60,000 miles or so, we advise to you have us perform a “valve clearance inspection” (also known as a “valve adjustment”). You’ll often see us recommend a valve adjustment in the recommendations at the bottom of your Lowell’s invoice.

But what, exactly, is a valve clearance inspection, and why is it important? (We’re glad you asked!)

Related Posts: What’s a flush? and What’s a cabin air filter?

Your engine’s intake and exhaust valves let air in and out of your engine as it burns fuel. The right mixture of air and fuel can keep your engine running smoothly and ensure that you are getting the best fuel economy from your vehicle.

Wear and stress can cause your valves to slowly get out of adjustment, hurting your fuel mileage and causing your engine to run inefficiently.

Left unaddressed, improperly-adjusted valves can cause your engine run roughly, burn your valves, or even damage your pistons. This kind of damage can be very expensive to repair, because it forces us to disassemble your engine in order to get to the damaged components.

So how does a valve clearance inspection work?

At Lowell’s, we’ll remove your valve covers to measure the clearances of each valve (up to 32 depending on your type of engine).

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If we find valves which aren’t within specification, we can often adjust the clearances while we have the valve covers off. Some newer vehicles, however, require much more extensive work to adjust valve clearances. (If that is the case with your vehicle, we’ll call you for approval before we proceed with the adjustment. Just ask us if you have any questions about which type of engine your vehicle has.)

After inspecting your valve clearances, we put your valve covers back on. Because valve cover gaskets are also a major source of engine oil leaks, we’ll also replace your valve cover gaskets during this service.

What’s a cabin air filter?

We recommend changing your car’s cabin air filter about once a year.  Many customers know about their car’s engine air filter, but they aren’t as familiar with the filter for their cabin.

So when we recommend changing the cabin air filter, we’re often asked “What – exactly – is a cabin air filter?”

Good question.

Put simply, a cabin air filter helps purify the air inside your car’s cabin.  The cabin air filter helps keep dust, pollen, and road particles from getting into your car’s heating and air conditioning system, which then helps keep that stuff out of your lungs and out of your car’s interior.

Clean, Dirty, and Filthy Cabin Air FiltersClean, Dirty, and Filthy Cabin Air Filters

Changing your cabin air filter will ensure that your heating and air conditioning system has maximum air flow while keeping the nasty stuff out of your cabin.

The once-a-year guideline is a general one; We really recommend you change the cabin air filter when it gets dirty.  And that depends on your driving conditions.

If you often drive on dusty roads or over leaf-covered streets in the fall, you may need your cabin filter changed more often.  If you drive in cleaner conditions, you can probably wait longer than a year between changes.

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Feel free to call the shop with any questions, and – if it is time for a filter change or other service for your vehicle – to make an appointment for service.

 

What’s a flush?

Every 30,000 miles, Lowell’s recommends flushing your car’s fluids – including coolant, brake, transmission, and power steering systems.

But when we tell customers that their fluid flushes are due, we often get a quizzical look and a question or two: “What’s a flush?” and “Why do I need one?”

Those are good questions.  We’ll try to answer them, starting with why you need flushes…

“Why do I need one?”
Your car’s fluids tend to break down and get contaminated over time.  How this happens depends on the fluid system.

  • The rust inhibitors in your vehicle’s coolant (also called antifreeze) break down, causing your radiator and engine block to corrode from the inside out.  These rust particles can clog the very small channels within your cooling system, interfering with its ability to cool your engine.  Ultimately, your engine can overheat. Coolant
  • Automatic transmission fluid loses its lubricating and cooling properties as it breaks down, leaving varnish and sludge deposits which can shorten your transmission’s life. Plus, transmission fluid gets contaminated with tiny metal shavings, further degrading its ability to lubricate your transmission.
  • PSFluid Brake fluid and power-steering fluid are hydraulic fluids which get contaminated as the systems’ seals and internal components break down. As they get contaminated, they lose their hydraulic properties, making it hard to brake or steer.  Also, hydraulic fluids attract moisture, which can introduce unwanted air into your brake and power-steering components.

Changing these fluids every 30,000 miles – or whenever the fluids become dirty – can prevent expensive and inconvenient damage to your vehicle, and can help extend your vehicle’s life.

“What’s a flush?”
So now you might understand why you need to regularly change the fluids on your car.  But that doesn’t explain what a flush is (or why Lowell’s recommends flushes instead of other alternatives).

Some repair shops – including some dealers – offer simple “drain-and-refill” fluid changes.  This is faster (and seemingly cheaper) than a flush.  They basically drain the old fluid, and top off the system with new fluid.

In the process, much of the old fluid, contamination, and debris is “stranded” inside the system: old coolant and rust is left in the engine block and radiator, or degraded transmission fluid and varnish are left in the transmission.

These faster and “cheaper” options will degrade the long-term performance of your vehicle and will likely create costly repair issues down the road.

With few rare exceptions, Lowell’s doesn’t offer these drain-and-refill fluid changes.

Instead, we perform fluid system flushes designed to remove almost all of the old fluid, contamination, and debris from the system.

While the technical details differ, the elements of a typical flush are pretty similar:

  • We hook up a flushing machine to your system;
  • We add a solution which gently loosens debris, corrosion, and other contaminants;
  • We let your system run to give the solution time to work;
  • Then, we let the flushing machine apply a small amount of pressure to slowly push all of the old fluid and contamination out of your vehicle;
  • At the same time, the machine fills the system with fresh fluid, while adding conditioners which will help preserve the components of the system.
  • We monitor the process until we see that all of the old fluid is flushed from your vehicle.

That’s what a flush is.

We recommend flushes because we believe that they are the best option for changing your vehicle’s fluids.

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Feel free to call the shop with any questions, and – if it is time for a fluid change or other service for your vehicle – to make an appointment for service.