Latest Reader Question (Sept. 22, 2017)

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Here is the latest reader question, along with my reply:

Tom asks: My 03 Ford Ranger engine seized 2 months after an oil change by a tire center. I towed it to my dealer who said that the filter was not tightened by the tire center causing a leak. Could this be?  Should I pursue this with the tire place? I have a friend who says her husband can replace the engine for $800 if I buy the engine. I have repaired the AC transmission and the tires are quite new. Should I do that?

My reply: If the oil filter wasn’t tightened sufficiently – or over-tightened –  and enough oil leaked out, lack of lubrication could absolutely have caused the engine to seize up.

Along with loose (or stripped) drain plugs and crankcases not filled with the correct amount of oil  – or too much oil – this kind of thing is, unfortunately, a fairly common occurrence at quick-lube and tire-change places, where oil changes are often performed by low-skill workers who are expected to do them quickly – and so sometimes do them shoddily.

This is why I recommend not having your oil changed at such places – unless you are absolutely 100 percent confident about their competence. Otherwise, the low cost comes with a pretty high risk. That $19.99 oil change isn’t worth $5,000 for a replacement engine.

If you decide to have your oil change at such a place anyhow, be sure to check the dipstick to confirm the oil level is correct (and that there is actually fresh oil in the engine) before you leave. That it is not too low – or too high. At many of these places, the oil is pumped into the engine via a gun-type device, not poured in one quart at a time. If the person doing the oil change isn’t careful – or misreads the capacity or just doesn’t care – they may put in six quarts when your engine only needs 4.2 quarts.

Or the reverse.

They also are notorious for over-tightening filters (this crushes the gasket and results in leaks) or – as in your case – leaving them too loose. They also sometimes cross-thread the drain plug bolt or use an air gun on it – and damage the threads, resulting in . . . leaks.

These can be catastrophic.

Always look under the car (engine running) for any signs of dripping oil or – much worse – puddles. Do this before you leave their lot. Otherwise, you risk not only major engine damage but also that the place responsible will deny any responsibility. They can easily say the car was fine when it left their shop and once it left, they have no control over what happened to it. You probably signed a waiver absolving them of any responsibility once you drove the car off their property.

Be very vigilant for the smell of burning oil or visible smoke indicating same. If the filter is leaking, it will usually drip on something hot. If the leak is anything more than minor, there will usually be an obvious mess – and smell.

And – always be conscious of your engine’s oil pressure. Most cars have at the least a low pressure warning light – which should come on briefly when you first start the engine, as a “check” – but then go out. If that light ever comes on when the engine is running – other than at initial start-up – immediately shut off the engine, pull off the road and check the oil level. If it is low, top off and restart. If the light goes off, you lost oil due to a leak or burning it internally. Find the leak/problem and fix it. If the light stays on, do not drive the car.

If you have an oil pressure gauge rather than a light, be sure to eyeball it regularly as you drive and be conscious of the “normal” reading for your vehicle. If the gauge ever begins to read low, find out why. Do not continue driving the vehicle.

An engine that’s running low on oil will also often make sounds such as ticking noises when it first starts or while it is running. Pay attention to such noises! Any unusual engine noise should always be investigated and never ignored.

In your specific case, it sounds as though the leak was fairly minor – it took two months for the oil level to drop to a critical level, resulting in engine failure. I am surprised, though, that you got no warning in the form of the oil pressure light coming on, or the gauge (if your truck has one) reading abnormally or some unusual engine sounds happening before the engine actually seized up.

Are you certain the locked up engine was caused by low oil level/inadequate oil pressure?

Are you certain the engine actually is seized? Before you pay for a new/replacement engine, you may want to confirm that you need one – and not just a repair done to your truck’s current engine.

If the engine is locked up due to a leak caused by the place that did the oil change, you probably have no legal recourse at this point because too much time has elapsed and the shop will likely claim it is not their fault. But nothing says you can’t discuss the situation with the store manager or send a letter to corporate – along with documents supporting your claim such as  a repair order from your dealership indicating engine failure caused by lack of oil/low oil pressure resulting from an improperly installed oil filter. Express your dismay and disappointment. Tell them – politely – that you hope they will make it right and if not that you will never do business with them again and strongly advise everyone you know not to do business with them.

But only do this if you know for certain that the engine failed because of shoddy work on their part and not for some other reason.

As far as replacing the engine, if that is in fact necessary: I don’t know your friend’s husband and can’t comment on his competence as a mechanic. That is something you’ll have to decide. Be aware that with any modern vehicle – computer controlled, lots of electrical bits and pieces – everything has to work exactly so for everything to work properly. Be sure the guy knows what he’s doing. Again – like the $19.99 oil change – you often get what you pay for.

Will he be installing a used/parts yard engine? Or a rebuilt engine? It is important to know which you’re getting.

Is it worth doing? It depends.

It depends, first of all, on the condition (and value) of the rest of the truck. It is generally not a good idea to put a lot of work/money into a vehicle that will still need a lot of work/money for other things even after you do a major repair. Or if the cost to repair the truck will be more than what it would have cost you to buy an equivalent replacement truck.

On the other hand, if the truck is otherwise in good condition and you are pretty confident that after the repair you’ll be able to drive it for some time to come without having to put more money into it – or the cost to repair the truck is less than it would cost you to replace it with an equivalent vehicle – then it is well worth paying to get it fixed.

Hope this was helpful!

. . .

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  1. I would say to the original poster, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” If the rest of the car is solid, and by his description it does, and if the vehicle fits his needs, then I would proceed with the repair. It becomes a “business decision”. A good bogey might be to assess if you will get one month (or more) of service for every $100 spent on the repair.

  2. My parents used to use the excuse of getting an oil change to go to a largish town 60 miles away and stuff their guts at a place called Golden Corral, one of those big restaurants that has about anything you want to eat with plenty of the frills like dinner rolls and such. It was mainly buffet or you could go through a line and get cuts of meat. It was cheaper than a good restaurant and you could eat however much you wanted. Neither of them ate much at a sitting, esp. my father so I didn’t see the attraction except they had young waitresses who treated you like a baby, just making you happy happy happy.

    Well, I’d checked their oil on the car and pickup before and found them low. I’d tried to get them to let me service them both. It wouldn’t have take 15 minutes for me to change oil and filter and check coolant, power steering fluid and such and grease the front end of the pickup with no zerks on the PA.

    So they show up one Sunday unannounced which was their custom. They had to open the gate and that’s where my dad noticed the oil light on. Once in the barn I let it cool down and checked the level and found no oil on the dipstick. I had 3 quarts of their type of oil and added it all one at a time giving it time to show on the stick. It wasn’t full to the mark when they left but was safe. They’d had less than 2 quarts of oil installed at that fast lube place. They continued to go back there. You can’t fix some things. After that every time I’d visit them I’d check the oil on their vehicles. When they came to visit I’d check the oil on whatever they were driving.

    Not putting in the correct amount of oil is common with these places. Most have the hose with a meter on the line before the nozzle letting you choose how much oil to deliver. Of course when a drum was empty nobody noticed since they had no time to spare to check the oil because the line would be long. I’m sure I’m not the only person to hear and witness lots of this stuff.


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