The Squeaky Wheel Doesn't Always Get Greased

by Rich Finzer


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Many of us enjoy the convenience of an oil change at one of those "instant" places. It is fast, and you don't have to leave your car all day like at the dealership. I use them, but in the future, I'll be paying closer attention. Here's why. Recently I had to replace one of the universal joints on my SUV. It failed because of inadequate lubrication. There were several grease fittings, which were supposed to be lubed as part of any "instant" oil change. Alas my mechanic discovered that my u-joint was bone dry and probably hadn't been hit with a grease gun in well over a year. However, given the pace that those kids at the oil change places work, coupled with their lack of in-depth knowledge about cars, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. For the record, I've been driving since 1966. I'm no pit row mechanic by any means, but I know what a grease fitting is.

Unfortunately, many of the youngsters working in those places have never seen a vehicle with grease fittings. Newer cars have a sealed chassis and bearings that supposedly don't require lubrication (grease), but many vehicles, particularly older model or antique cars, pickup trucks and SUVs, do. That replacement u-joint plus labor nicked me for $300! It was expensive tuition, but I learned several valuable lessons.

  • Check your owner's manual to determine where your vehicle's grease fittings are located.

  • Have the manual handy and give it to the oil change guys. Better yet, make a copy of the pertinent pages. In their haste to get you in and out, somebody might "forget" to give yours back and then where would you be?

  • Listen for the sound of the grease gun. If you don't hear it, start asking some questions.

  • Still in doubt? Then ask to be taken down into the grease pit and make them prove that they hit every grease fitting.

  • As some fittings are "hidden" on the upper side of the u-joint, the vehicle must be moved slightly to get the driveshaft to turn and expose those concealed fittings. If no one asks you to do this, there's a pretty good chance that grease fitting(s) was missed.

So there's my story. Not only did I have to shell out 300 clams for a completely avoidable repair, but also I lost the use of my SUV while waiting for the correct parts. I know that cars do break and some components require regular replacement, but in my case, I got hosed. I paid for lubrication service but never received it. Then I had to pay again to correct a problem caused by either negligence or inattention.

Given the state of the economy, the last thing any of us need right now (or any other time for that matter) is spending money fixing a problem caused by someone else. Additionally, many oil change places are dropping their lubrication service as a way to save money. Worse yet, some have begun charging extra for grease, which is ludicrous. Grease is not that expensive. So why not perform your own lube job? Since the u-joint debacle, I'll be lubing my '63 Bonneville personally. Here's what getting started as a "grease monkey" will cost you. You'll have to shell out a few bucks up front, but any way you slice it, it will be heaps cheaper than springing for a new u-joint!

At the auto parts store, a basic grease gun costs about $12. "Professional" or pneumatic models are slightly higher. I found one for $21.99. If you Google™ on "grease guns," you might find somewhat better prices. Based on the size/capacity of the gun, the price of the grease cartridges varies too. A three-pack of three-ounce cartridges runs about $4. Depending on the type of grease they contain, 14-ounce tubes range from $4 to about $6.99. I'd also acquire an 18" flexible extension hose (about $5). They make greasing hard-to-reach fittings much easier. Or, look for a grease gun kit that includes the gun, extension and a starter tube of grease. I found one selling for $17.99. And remember that one of the best features about grease is that it has an indefinite shelf life. So don't worry if there's some left over. If there's anything that won't rust, it's a tube of grease!

So is a grease gun a worthwhile purchase? Well, let's see. You can lube your car, riding mower, ATV, snow blower, snowmobile, motorcycle, bicycle, tractor, outboard, essentially anything with grease fittings. Grease guns don't care.

Disclaimer: Prices quoted were as of April 12, 2009.

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