Ch-ch-ch-ch Changes

Some owner-operators buy oil in bulk to increase their savings.

Although diesel engines have become more complex, putting some maintenance out of reach
for most owner-operators, one procedure remains as simple as before the advent of electronics.

Behold the oil change: Remove plug and filters, drain oil, replace plug and install new filters and oil.

Of course, it requires a little more attention to detail than that, and many drivers who perform their own changes prefer to lube their chassis while they’re at it. But generally, changing oil is among the easiest maintenance acts you can do yourself.

Is it worth the effort? That answer depends on your priorities. Some owner-operators swear by doing their oil changes; generally it’s cheaper than even the cheapest quick lubes and gives them an opportunity to personally check over their truck. Others say the time and messiness involved aren’t worth the savings. For drivers who are on the road all week, time spent with family may be more important. Likewise, those same truckers may find it difficult to schedule their maintenance cycle for an off weekend.

Other drivers, like Marshall Palmer, a Lake Butler, Fla., owner-operator who hauls intrastate, say the money is there to be saved. “The minimum in North Florida for a lube and oil change is right at $180,” Palmer says. “Plus you have to hang around until it’s done. You have to burn diesel to do it. I’m 20 miles from the nearest place. If I was an over-the-road driver, I’d want to spend time with my family.”

Some oil change facilities charge as little as $100 for an oil change and lube, although $150 to $200, standard at many truck stops, is still fairly inexpensive. Truckers who change their own oil must buy the oil and filters and often pay to dispose of their waste oil. Some oil companies still pay for waste oil, but that practice is declining.

The most popular diesel engine oil retails around $8 a gallon in six-gallon cases at a dealer. If your engine takes nine gallons, you’ll have to buy two cases to replenish your engine. (Larger engines, like the Cummins ISX 565, can take as much as 14 gallons.) Two cases costs about $96, and that’s before you buy filters and grease and pay a disposal fee.

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Of course, you’ll have extra oil for the next change, and there are other ways to save. Palmer, for example, buys his oil in bulk, getting a 30-gallon drum for slightly more than $4 a gallon. He buys his filters for his Freightliner in bulk, too, saving money as well. For disposal, he goes to a local recycling center that does not charge for waste oil.

Lube centers and many oil sellers will take waste oil for a price, which may include pickup. Bill Dancer, whose operation includes six trucks leased to FedEx Ground, burns his waste oil in the oil-fired heaters in his shop. He says do-it-yourself oil changes work if you make them easy and buy oil and filters in quantity.

Dancer, who is based in Memphis, has changed his own oil for most of the past 20 years, and he has the procedure down to a science. All his trucks have a simple fitting on the oil pan (in place of the factory plug) that allows him to attach a hose for clean drains. He hooks up a Grainger oil pump and sucks the waste oil from his Caterpillar engines. Dancer figures he has about $300 invested in the pump, its dolly and hoses, but it’s long since paid for itself in the 10-plus years he’s used it.

After Dancer begins draining his oil, he uses a hammer and a small metal punch to poke a hole in the bottom of the oil filter. The filter drains into a bucket so it won’t drip when it’s unscrewed.

“While the oil is draining, we change fuel filters and grease the chassis,” Dancer says. “Usually by the time we get that done, the oil is out. We change the oil filter, water filter and both fuel filters and pump new oil back in it. Then I check the lights and the gear boxes. Really, we inspect the entire unit, looking for anything out of the ordinary.”

Because Dancer uses a pump to suck his oil out of the pan, it takes only a few minutes. Once the oil is drained and the old filters replaced, Dancer pumps in fresh oil and double-checks the dipstick. Another easy maintenance chore completed.

Some owner-operators pull the plug when they have hours to spare. “I usually try to work my oil changes in on Friday night,” Palmer says. “I come home, drain my oil and cook a steak at the same time. I leave the oil plug out overnight.”

Different engines have different numbers of filters, but drivers generally change their fuel, oil and water filters at each interval, depending on the medium. For Dancer and Palmer, the money saved outweighs the time and energy expended. Dancer figures he saves as much as $50 a service. For some owner-operators, that’s a small price to pay to avoid crawling under their truck or spending their off-time fiddling with oil and grease.

But the savings can add up quickly. If you run 120,000 miles a year and change your oil every 15,000 miles, you could save as much as $400 a year on those eight oil changes.

Dancer says if he had only one truck and was running over the road, the money might not be worth it. “Truck stops run deals on stuff like that all the time,” he says. “When I was on the road all the time and due a service, I would take advantage of the deal. I’d rather devote my home time to family.”