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Necessary Fluid Maintanance Services vs. Wallet Flushing

May 01, 2011
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Good service shop managers stay on top of their annual workflow by placing jobs like timing belt and brake replacements into categories that can be tracked on a historic basis. If a tire dealer has faithfully tracked the kinds of work flowing through his service bays during the past 10 years, it might become apparent that the new generation of vehicles require less per-mile maintenance and repair than previous generations.
There are a number of fluid-flushing machines on the market that make it faster and easier for technicians to remove and replace dirty, oxidized fluids from engines, cooling systems, power steering pumps, automatic transmissions, braking systems and drive axle assemblies.

To illustrate, many engines are now using long-wearing timing chains in their engines in place of the less durable rubber timing belts. Permanent magnet starters and high-capacity alternators have now doubled or tripled the service lives of earlier designs. Drive belts and coolant hoses typically last two to three times as long as their counterparts of a decade ago. Engines and transmissions are lasting as long as 300,000 miles. As a result of increased reliability, most quality vehicles need only a few brake and tire replacements and some fluid and filter changes during their first 100,000 miles of use.

Many shops are recovering revenues lost to a shrinking repair market by upselling fluid maintenance services or, as they’re commonly called in the aftermarket, “fluid flushes.” In other words, adding a fluid flush to a money-losing routine oil change can boost a shop’s average repair order amount into the range needed for true profitability.

Automotive equipment manufacturers have been quick to respond by manufacturing a variety of fluid-flushing machines designed to remove dirty, oxidized fluids from engines, cooling systems, automatic transmissions, pow­er steering pumps, braking systems and drive axle assemblies. In most cases, these machines will shorten fluid replacement times by automatically installing an equivalent volume of factory-fresh fluid. In all cases, fluid flushing is a relatively low-skilled but highly profitable service for any import shop operation.

“Wallet Flushing”
While fluid flushing sounds like an excellent method for boosting shop income and better maintaining your customers’ vehicles, many quick-lube and maintenance-based shops have been accused of overselling fluid maintenance services. Overselling fluid maintenance has become known in the industry as “wallet flushing,” and has created a great deal of controversy over how often these services should be performed. At even the most ethical level, the controversy rages between shops that have developed guidelines based on their own repair histories and others that faithfully follow the auto manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedules. With those thoughts in mind, let me share some common views regarding fluid maintenance.

Engine Flushing
When discussing engine flushing, it’s important to remember that, if the correct OE-specification oil has been installed, most OE oil change intervals will prevent sludge deposits from forming in the engine during normal driving cycles.

Traditionally, vehicle manufacturers have adhered to mileage-based service oil change intervals, with “average” and “severe” use being the only modifiers to the mileage-based formula.

Currently, the trend is moving from mileage-based to computer-based strat­egies to estimate oil life. When the oil contamination exceeds a predetermin­ed value, an “oil life monitor” may com­mand the vehicle’s powertrain control module (PCM) to activate a “maintenance required” light on the instrument panel. In other applications, the PCM records data parameters like average ambient and engine coolant temperatures, engine loads and trip len­gths, and uses that data to calculate an oil change interval. When that calculated data indicates oil life is minimal, the maintenance required light is illuminated.

Unfortunately, some vehicle manufacturers have underestimated the effects that certain driving conditions can have on specific engine designs. Short-trip, cold-weather operating conditions cause sludge to build rapidly on an engine’s internal surfaces. In some instances, engine design factors may reduce the capability of the crankcase ventilation system to remove combustion blow-by gases. In other engines, the average oil temperature might be lower or higher than normal, which contributes to sludging and gelling.

Engine flushing, quite obviously, is designed to remove internal sludge deposits formed by abnormal operating conditions. The core issue is that the flushing process may only loosen, rather than completely remove, sludge deposits in heavily sludged engines. In this case, merely loosening engine sludge may allow it to clog the oil pump inlet screen and starve the engine for oil.

In a more optimistic scenario, flushing might prove valuable if the vehicle owner has skipped several oil change intervals and the engine needs the old, viscous oil removed. On the other hand, it’s anybody’s guess if the sludging condition has passed the point of remediation on high-mileage engines with many skipped oil changes.

For this reason, and for the reason that flushing solvents might contaminate the new engine oil, some auto manufacturers have indicated that engine flushing is not a recommended service for their line of vehicles. Whatever the case, it’s important to study the manufacturers’ technical service bulletins regarding the topic before recommending an engine flush.

Coolant Flushing
Coolant exposed to several different metals such as cast iron, brass and aluminum will develop a condition called “electrolysis,” in which the coolant be­comes an electrolyte that causes the metals to act like positive and negative plates in a battery. In worst-case scenarios, electrolysis erodes gaskets and the gasket interface between finely mach­ined cylinder head and intake manifold surfaces until the gasket can no longer contain the coolant.

Although OEMs have reduced electrolysis and other cooling system issues through the use of better materials and coolant additive packages, the coolant still needs replacement at regular intervals. Conventional coolants should be flushed or exchanged every two years. Long-life coolants should be flushed at the manufacturers’ recommended in­tervals or as experience dictates with a particular nameplate.

Can coolant flushing be oversold? Of course, just as with any other service. On the other hand, when the cost of a coolant flush is balanced against the expense of replacing a radiator and heater core, the service can easily be justified to the vehicle owner.

Transmission Flushing
The automatic transmission service industry began the practice of fluid flushing because flushing is the only method in which contaminated and oxidized fluid can be removed from the transmission torque converter, oil cooler and clutch assemblies. Although synthetic transmission fluids are now being used to reduce oxidation and component wear, the life of any fluid can be drastically reduced by activity that exposes the fluid to excessive humidity or prolonged high-operating temperatures.

Because an automatic transmission’s control valve body is a close-tolerance mechanical device that’s extremely sensitive to fluid viscosity, clutch debris and varnish from oxidized fluid, replacing the fluid and filter at regular intervals has traditionally been a highly recommended service.

One of the hurdles to overcome in flushing automatic transmissions is dealing with the diversity of fluids being used in modern vehicles. Because many nameplates require special transmission fluids, substituting special fluids with generic grades or diluting the new fluid with other grades leaves open a liability issue if the transmission fails at a later date. If the fluid is also being changed in electronically controlled transfer cases, the same rules apply regarding the substitution of fluids.

Changing the transmission filter before a flush is another issue that should be dealt with. Some technicians feel that modern transmissions don’t need frequent filter changes, but do need the fluid replaced on a regular basis. In most instances, modern automatic transmissions don’t clog their oil filters with large quantities of clutch debris.

On the other hand, a technician doesn’t know if the filter might be clogged unless he removes the oil pan. Because some customers often demand a fluid flush in a desperate attempt to save an ailing transmission, removing the oil pan for inspection seems like good insurance against a future liability.

Steering and Braking Systems
Most power steering systems accumulate fluid-born debris from internal pressure hose deterioration, moisture absorption and seal wear. DOT 3 brake fluids attract atmospheric moisture and, like a power steering system, braking systems also generate fluid-born debris by corrosion and wear of internal sealing and hydraulic components.

Brake flushing is required by many vehicle manufacturers every few years to remove corrosive moisture from the system. Although I don’t know of similar requirements on power steering systems, installing fresh fluid should go a long way in reducing hose and seal failures.

Whatever the circumstance, most power steering and brake flushes are low-cost maintenance work that more than pay their way through increased component reliability.

Drive Axle Assemblies
OEMs have traditionally incorporated drain plugs in their axle housings to expedite changing the axle oil at specified intervals.

Extreme service, off-road fording of creeks or driving in deep flood water will often turn the clear axle oil into a rusty, muddy or milky-looking fluid. In this instance, the axle oil should be changed before expensive bearing races become pitted and corroded. Left unattended, moisture will ruin any drive axle assembly.

When to Flush
According to some vehicle manufacturers, using discoloration to condemn a fluid is, at best, a subjective method of evaluation. The exception to that statement, obviously, would be if the fluid is severely contaminated with water, other vehicle fluids or particulate matter.

A more objective method is to use fluid test strip kits to evaluate fluid condition. If a shop is performing fleet maintenance, using a reputable testing laboratory to analyze fluid samples is a very cost-effective and objective meth­od for estimating fluid life.

In any case, fluid maintenance or “fluid flushing” is becoming an increasingly important method of extending the service lives of all vehicles.

Maintaining Fluids
Picking the proper lubricant for a customers’ car depends on the application. Serious track racers with large ponies under the hood will want heavy-duty, high-performance racing lubricants designed specifically to stand up under the stress. For the average high-performance car, quality name-brand products will provide good functionality and durability for almost any application.

Regardless of what the OEMs say, I believe the 3,000-mile service is still a very viable benchmark for an oil and filter change and  inspection for any vehicle. Carbon, grit and raw fuel contaminates engine oil, so regular oil drain and refills keep internal engine parts clean and free from gumming up.

Other fluid recommendations include:

• Transmission, power steering and brake fluids should also be flushed regularly (30,000- to 60,000-mile service intervals) to avoid excessive wear and eventual component failure. As a rule of thumb, change those fluids when they start to show discoloration.

• Automatic transmission fluid should be light red in color and should be flushed every 30,000 miles. Fluid that turns a dark brown, black or smells burnt is a sure sign that it needs to be flushed. 

• Clear or red are common colors of healthy power steering fluid. A buzzing sound when the steering wheel is turned at low speeds indicates that the power steering fluid is likely low.

• Brake fluid absorbs water to prevent rust from damaging the brake system. Healthy brake fluid should be clear or have a light brown tint. As it becomes saturated with water, it begins to turn black. The darker the fluid, the greater the need to flush the system. 

• Coolant is another often-overlooked fluid. A good 50/50 mixture of distilled water and quality coolant that is flushed every 30,000 miles or three years (whichever comes first) will prevent electrolysis and internal corrosion from occurring.

Courtesy of Kit Johnson, president of J4 Automotive Inc., East Helena, Mont., 2007 National NAPA Technician of the Year.