Like the blood circulating in your veins, the motor oil in your car can tell you a lot about your engine’s condition. Which is why I took a moment during my latest oil change to grab a blood sample from my 2007 Pontiac Vibe.
Inside that sample are telltale visual signs indicating problems with your car. Oil that looks milky means coolant is mixing with the oil, indicating a leak from a gasket or seal. Metallic flakes or “glitter” in the oil indicate abnormal wear on the metal components inside the engine. Unfortunately, if you can see these symptoms yourself, the problem is at DEFCON 3, at best. To identify a problem in the early stages, before real damage is done, you need a laboratory.
Blackstone Laboratories in Fort Wayne, Ind. has been analyzing motor oil on a molecular level since 1985. They can tell you a lot about your car from a few ounces of oil, without ever opening the hood. For $30, they’ll test an oil sample for 20 different metals and elements, along with moisture, coolant, and fuel. Using a spectrometer, they can see how much of each is floating around in your car’s oil, and they’ll tell you whether or not it’s a problem.
I’ve been intrigued by oil analysis a long time, but only just recently made my 2007 Pontiac Vibe an interesting test subject. Interesting, because I haven’t changed the oil in it for two years, and I’ve only driven it 1,500 miles during that time. 90% of those miles were less than 5-minute drives. It feels like the oil should have something to say about that.
So how does it work? Blackstone sends you a free sample kit every time you request one. This includes a sample bottle, an absorbent cloth for leaks, a resealable plastic bag, a slip to fill out details (like your contact and car info), some dos and don’ts for sample-taking, some weird promo stickers, and a bigger bottle to ship it all back to them.
With this gear, you sit tight until your next oil change. While draining out the old stuff, stick the sample bottle in mid-stream and fill it up—it’s about one full second of mid-stream oil. Or ask your friendly mechanic to get a sample for you. They’re pretty likely to do it for you, especially if you tell them what it’s for.
Once you have your sample, you spin the lid on tight, wrap it in the absorbent cloth, then place both in the resealable plastic bag. You fill out the paper form with your contact info and vehicle details (they matter, as you’ll see in a bit). After stuffing everything into the big, black bottle and mailing it, the hard part’s done! Now you wait. I got my results via email about two weeks later. Here’s the report in all its glory:
So what’s the key takeaway here? Well, it wasn’t the two years without an oil change that was the issue, but barely driving the damn thing. Turns out, it’s not really a good idea to only take short trips in your car.
It takes a bit of time for your car’s engine to reach its optimum running temperature, similar to how athletes need to stretch and warm up first before they can perform their best. Until then, a cold engine performs sub-optimally. The oil isn’t warm enough to provide the best lubrication, so it’s not quite getting into all the nooks and crannies. It’s why your mechanic might tell you to take it easy the first few minutes of driving—you don’t want to redline an engine that’s not well-lubricated.
Shorter, and therefore cooler, trips have other effects too. If you never allow your car to get up to ideal running temperature, condensation builds up inside the engine and never fully burns off, accumulating and contributing to corrosion. A cold engine also runs richer, meaning more fuel is dumped into the engine to keep it running until it’s warmer and more efficient. Some of this extra fuel can seep into the oil, thinning it out and decreasing its effectiveness over time.
And there are even more knock-on effects. Spark plugs foul up quicker from richer fuel/air mixtures. The battery doesn’t fully charge back up, causing permanent damage to the battery that affects its longevity and putting more stress on the charging system. And the thermostat can seize up from never being used, just to name a few more things.
Blackstone’s results quantified something I suspected, something I swear was happening, and that was worth it to me. In this case, a lab is telling me to take some longer drives, to give my engine some relief and protection against harsher short drives. Put another way: my wife and I can keep our old car running longer with a trip to Disneyland. Hard to argue against that.
$30 for an oil analysis may sound like a lot—a nerdy oil change for twice the price—but it’s a bargain considering the information and insight you get in return. This isn’t something I’ll do for every oil change on every vehicle I own; maybe yearly or biennially, on the vehicles I really care about. But it’s a relatively cheap way to gather more data about issues that your car may be having—cheaper than learning about it later, anyways.