Frugal Flyer

DIY oil change

January 1, 2009

With this issue, AOPA Pilot introduces “Frugal Flier,” a series designed to help pilots better manage their aircraft and flying in these turbulent economic times.

After a long trip to and from AOPA Expo, the 2008 Get Your Glass Sweepstakes Archer was due for some TLC that included an oil change. But Jiffy Lube doesn’t do airplanes. And many FBOs regard such mundane service items as obstacles that get in the way of larger, more complex, and more lucrative projects. I was quoted the price of an oil change for the single-engine, four-cylinder Archer at $250 (two hours shop time at $79 an hour, oil filter, six quarts of AeroShell, oil analysis, and new gaskets).

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Since owners and pilots can perform their own preventive maintenance, including oil changes (see FAR Part 43, Appendix A, Paragraph C for a full list of approved actions), this seemed like an opportunity to get to know the airplane better—and save some coin. In fact, the total price of the tools needed to perform this, and future oil changes, was significantly less than the quoted cost of a single, full-service oil change.

A rainy, blustery Saturday gave me the chance to spend some quality time under the Archer’s cowl. And I had an enthusiastic assistant—my 9-year-old son, Nathan. He wanted to ride his scooter, and the airport has some of the smoothest pavement in town. (Puddles from the off-and-on rain made scooter riding even more attractive to him.)

The Archer’s two-piece cowl was easy to remove, and I was pleased to find a quick drain on the Lycoming O-360’s oil sump. That meant I wouldn’t have to remove and refasten the drain plug, or cut and reattach the safety wire.

Unseasonably warm weather allowed the old oil to run out fairly quickly, and I took a quick sample to mail in for an oil analysis. The $20 charge may seem unnecessary considering that Penn Yan Aero returned the engine to new condition about 100 flight hours ago. But it’s important to establish a solid baseline early in an engine’s life so that anomalies show up clearly.

The oil screen on the back of the Lycoming can be tough to reach with a socket wrench in some installations. But the Archer’s screen is refreshingly accessible, and it was easy to remove, clean, inspect, and reinstall.

The oil filter also was easy to reach, but I decided to leave it in place this time. The oil screen was clear, so the odds of finding metal in the oil filter seemed remote. I’ll get an oil filter cutter before the next oil change, however, and carefully examine the filter’s innards for metal in the future. (Oil filter cutters typically range in price from about $60 to more than $450.) My shop skills are rudimentary at best. But even with frequent distractions from my scooting son (Hey, Dad, watch this!) the oil change was largely finished in less than two hours.

One of the final tasks was pouring the golden new oil into the engine, something Nathan wanted to do. I placed the funnel, and Nathan stretched onto his tiptoes to dump in each quart of AeroShell 100. We were doing great until the fourth quart escaped his grasp, and he ended up dumping gobs of the honey-colored oil on his gray sweatshirt.

By my calculations, our oil change had cost about $75, including a spool of wire and twist pliers that can be reused many times for future small jobs. Even counting the $15 or so to replace my son’s oil-soaked shirt, we still came out way ahead.

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