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Spending Smart

Keep your cool about auto maintenance

Studying up before a visit to the oil change center can save money -and frustration

By Dave Copeland
Globe Correspondent / September 6, 2009

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It’s a scene familiar to most drivers who have taken their car to be serviced at a chain oil change center: After waiting for 20 minutes or so, a service technician comes into the waiting area where you and other owners have been sipping stale coffee. You are led out to the service bay where a litany of problems - everything from faulty wiper blades to cracked serpentine belts - is discussed.

“Those quickie oil change places have spent a lot of money on marketing and studying what drives people to make retail decisions,’’ said Tony Blezien, vice president of operations for LeasePlan USA. “And one of the things they have found to be most effective is to call people out in front of their peers. It’s almost as if the customers are embarrassed and feel like they need to buy those extras.’’

In his role, Blezien oversees the maintenance of 300,000 vehicles that are mostly leased to firms that provide company vehicles to their employees.

In his experience, oil change extras fall into two categories: items consumers can fix themselves and items that don’t need to be addressed as often as the oil change places recommend. Blezien broke down the most common add-ons and offered recommendations on how consumers should handle the recommended maintenance.

Oil Changes: The “three months or 3,000 miles’’ mantra for how often oil changes need to be performed has become so common that many drivers don’t realize that it’s an oil industry marketing pitch. Blezien said drivers should check their vehicle’s owner’s manual to see what the manufacturer recommends, as some newer vehicles can go longer in between changes.

Some newer vehicles are equipped with a warning light that tells the driver when the car is due for an oil change, and in some cases it may be up to 6,000 miles in between visits. “The important thing there is once that light goes on, you should get your oil changed within two gas fill-ups of your vehicle,’’ Blezien said.

Air filters and wiper blades: Consumers can purchase and change these parts themselves on most vehicles for a savings of 50 percent or more. To know when an air filter is due for a change, remove it from its casing and hold it up to a light. If light still gets through, Blezien said, your air filter is still working properly.

Transmission and radiator flushes: Most late-model vehicles are equipped with extended-life fluids, but quickie oil change places will generally recommend changing them every 30,000 miles. Once again, Blezien recommends consulting the owner’s manual to see what the manufacturer recommends.

“These aren’t the kinds of services you want to perform on your own, but it usually doesn’t need to be done as often as you’re being told,’’ he said.

Serpentine belts: This is a relatively new offering for the chain oil change places, and a driver will usually be shown a belt that is cracked. The importance of the belt - it drives multiple devices in an engine - will also be stressed.

“The problem is, they can change it and in two days later you can take a look at it and it will be cracked again,’’ Blezien said. “It occurs naturally.’’

Once again, Blezien said drivers should consult their manufacturer’s recommendation, but the general rule of thumb is that serpentine belts should be changed every 50,000 to 60,000 miles.