OK, I admit it, I’m cheap. Ever since I traded my mechanic’s toolbox for more genteel methods of making a living, it has always rubbed me the wrong way to pay for labor on my vehicles. I mean, $80 to $100 an hour for something I can do? Working on cars day in and day out was a grind, but anything can be fun if you do it infrequently enough. Ever since I got my Roadtrek in early 2007, I have done all the mechanical work on it. Here’s what I do, and how you too can maintain your own Chevrolet Express van.
Back in the old days when I was young and the earth was still cooling, maintenance required specialized tools – a dwell meter, a timing light, CO meters, stuff like that – and the skills to use them. Today, thanks to modern advances in automotive technology, all the ignition and mixture control is electronic, with flywheel sensors and engine control modules, and paradoxically, the more complicated the modern vehicles are, the simpler the maintenance procedures and the fewer the specialized tools. We’re talking wrenches and screwdrivers here. It’s really easy once you know what to do.
Let’s start with the easy stuff – oil changes, or in GM bureaucratese, Maintenance I. All you need is new oil, a new filter, a drain pan, a 9/16 inch socket and ratchet (or even a wrench), and a willingness to get a little dirty. I change my oil with the van sitting on the ground – yours may be too low (or you may be too high) to slide underneath it when it’s not jacked up. Since the number one safety problem for amateur mechanics is securely supporting vehicles, make sure you have the proper jacks and jackstands or ramps before you get started, and never, ever put yourself underneath a vehicle that’s not securely supported.
Here’s what the oil change stuff looks like. This is under the rear of the engine, from the driver’s side. The front of the car is to the left. The blue thing is the oil filter, the squarish cast aluminum thing behind it is the oil pan, and the 9/16 head hex bolt on the center of the right (rear) edge of the oil pan is the drain plug. Put your drain pan down directly underneath the oil filter, and unscrew it. It should come loose by hand (if your hands are as strong as the guy who put it on last), or use a big pair of Channel-Lock pliers to grasp the body and loosen it. Oil will come out, but not much. Drain the oil out of the old filter, and throw it away. Place the drain pan behind the drain plug, and then take your 9/16 wrench and unscrew the oil plug. The oil will come out the side of the oil pan and shoot backward, which is why you need the pan behind the plug. You’ll get about five quarts out. Let it drip, and resist the temptation to bump the engine over to empty out the oil pump. It’s not worth the risk. Tolerances on bearings today are so tight that the fewer revs your engine makes with zero oil pressure the better.
Open one of your new oil containers, dip your index finger in the new oil, and lightly coat the rubber seal on the new oil filter. Wipe the surface it mates to on the engine block clean, and install the oil filter hand tight. It won’t leak, and all you do by overtightening is bend the sheet metal it’s made of and create a bad seal. One quarter turn past contact will seat it. Put the oil plug back in, tighten to about 25-30 foot-pounds (you’re cranking on aluminum threads, remember) and wipe all the oil drips off. Pour the new oil in (6 quarts of 5W-30 for my 2003 6.0 liter motor) and start the engine, looking for oil pressure on the gauge. Once you get it, turn it off, let it sit a minute, and pull the dipstick. Wipe it off with a clean rag, then with your fingers to get the rag lint off, insert it into the dipstick hole, and pull it back out. There are a series of holes in the dipstick in the crosshatched area between the full and the one quart low mark – you should see oil in all these holes. New oil is hard to see on the dipstick, but in the right light you’ll see the line where it’s on the stick. Now crawl underneath and check for leaks after running the engine a minute or two.
The only thing left to do is to reset the oil change indicator. To do this, move your floor mat out of the way so the gas pedal can go all the way down to the floor. Turn the ignition on (just so all the dash indicator lights come on; don’t start the car), and stomp on the gas pedal all the way to the floor three times within five seconds. The oil symbol (mine is a yellow oil can) will blink and go out. Newer ones have fancy displays of remaining oil life. Resetting the light means it now knows you have new oil, and will remind you at the proper time to change it. We used to change oil every 3000 miles, but with the new oils and engines that’s a waste. I am trying mightily to adjust to these newfangled ways, and went 5000 miles last time (almost) before breaking into a cold sweat and rushing out to buy oil, but it nearly killed me. Old habits die hard. I have never actually seen the oil change light come on – it would probably give me a heart attack.
What oil to use? It’s a matter of personal preference. I spend much time and effort finding a particular type of oil – Castrol Edge with Titanium – but freely admit most of the reason I do so is superstition. At almost $8 a quart, it’s pretty expensive superstition, but I’m happy with Castrol and have been using it for 40 years, with good results. There are folks who are just as happy with their brand. If you want to argue about oil, go over to the Bob is the Oil Guy website and have at it.
Put the old oil into the containers the new oil came in, and take it back to where you bought it. They will recycle it for you. I would rather pay for fancy synthetic oil and do it myself for cheaper than Jiffy Lube ever could with bargain basement oil than trust someone else to work on my car, but that’s just me. It may not be worth your time, or you may not want to get dirty. For $80 an hour, I can get dirty.