Police car maintenance: Do you really need an oil change?

New, inexpensive technology tells you the condition of your engine’s oil

With nearly every law enforcement agency’s budget being in the red or close to it, it’s critical to reduce costs everywhere you can. Departments are keeping vehicles in service longer, and maintenance is more important than ever before. Among the more common maintenance items are oil changes. Do it too often, and you waste money; don’t do it often enough, and you burn up the engine. How do you know?

A hand-held device called Lubricheck may resolve this dilemma. The device, about the size of a business card and maybe half an inch thick, tests engine oil for its capacitive and resistive properties by placing a drop of oil into a recess on the device, and pushing a button. A red, yellow or green LED illuminates, indicating the “health” of the oil.

Fresh engine oil is slightly alkaline and free of metal solids. As the oil circulates in the engine, changes in temperature, pressure and friction increase the acidity, and engine wear deposits metal into the oil. Over time, changes in viscosity and the ability of the oil to effectively lubricate the engine parts make it necessary to drain the old oil and replace it with fresh lubricant. These changes can be measured, if you have the right tools to do that. Up until recently, the cost of doing this was prohibitive, since it typically costs less than $25 to change the oil.

A hand-held device called Lubricheck, about the size of a business card and maybe half an inch thick, tests engine oil for its capacitive and resistive properties. (PoliceOne Image)
A hand-held device called Lubricheck, about the size of a business card and maybe half an inch thick, tests engine oil for its capacitive and resistive properties. (PoliceOne Image)

Auto makers usually recommend the interval for oil changes at 3000-5000 miles, but that’s for the “typical” car. Police cars are anything but typical. They tend to be loaded with high-capacity electrical and cooling systems and they may spend as much time idling as running while moving. Finding the “sweet spot” for changing oil only as often as needed is much more difficult than with the ‘family truckster.’

You can always go by the maker’s recommendations, but they may not take your use into account. Consider what would happen if you replaced your socks every three months. Some might be worn out before then, but others would be serviceable for a year or more. It makes much more sense to replace socks—and engine oil—when needed, not according to a fixed schedule.

The Lubricheck is expected to sell for less than $30, but you may not be able to buy one at all. It’s one of many projects competing for funding through Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a website that offers an interesting approach to funding new ventures. An individual or organization comes up with a new product or service, and decides they need (for example) $30,000 to get it off the ground. They put the project description on Kickstarter and hope that it appeals to enough people to fund it. Each supporter pledges a specific amount via a credit card. If the funding goal is reached by a set target date, the credit card is debited for the amount pledged. If the funding goal isn’t met, it costs the supporters nothing. The people behind the project usually promise something in return for pledges of different amounts, such as a first-off-the-line product. In the case of Lubricheck, a $30 pledge by June 7, 2011 will get you a device if their funding goal of $19,500 is met by then (as this is written, they are 71 percent of the way there). If Lubricheck gets its needed funding, presumably you will be able to buy one directly from them at some future date.

This funding method really does work. A few months back, I helped fund an accessory for the iPhone called the Glif. I pledged $20 to get one of the first Glifs off the line, if they reached their goal. They did (they got $137,417 when the goal was only $10,000), and the product arrived in the mail a few weeks later.

A device like the Lubricheck could pay for itself within one or two oil changes if it saved you from changing oil sooner than necessary. It’s one of those products that is both financially and environmentally worthwhile. If you’re not convinced it would be a good addition to your police fleet, you might consider getting one for your personal vehicles.

About the author

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and criminal justice professor. He has been writing on criminal justice technology issues for virtually every U.S. police publication and commercial website since 1988. Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, and a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

He can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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