Here’s the $10,000 reason to forget about skimping on engine filters 

Here’s the $10,000 reason to forget about skimping on engine filters 
Eliott Townsend is a warranty and customer aftercare expert for a major automaker, and serves a number of dealerships in the South-Central Ontario region. Part of his job involves supervising and documenting warranty claims.

He’s got some advice for the motoring masses, and especially those of us who are driving newer, still-in-warranty vehicles: If you’re considering using anything other than manufacturer-approved air or oil filters for your vehicle’s engine, don’t.

Townsend mentions one recent customer who started a warranty claim for a one-year-old crossover that had suffered fatal engine damage to its valve timing system, which precisely regulates engine breathing. This engine was completely mucked. The problem?

“The customer had their first oil change done outside of our dealership setting,” Townsend says. “The replacement oil filter failed, caused extensive damage.”

Here’s the sticky — oil filters are equipped with something called a check valve. Usually, it’s made of rubber, and its job is to help control the way the oil moves through the oil filter. Filters have various features and functions built in, to ensure that enough oil can flow through them.

During the customer’s first oil change, the factory-original oil filter was removed and replaced with a parts-store oil filter instead. Several weeks later, the vehicle’s engine suddenly failed one morning, when the customer was leaving for work. A tear-down of the engine revealed extensive the damage to the valve timing system, as well as some associated downstream damage to the catalytic converter.

It also revealed the cause: A piece of the check valve in the oil filter had become dislodged. It got sucked into the engine, where it quickly plugged an important oil passageway. Starved of its lifeblood, the valve timing system upstream failed catastrophically, casting debris into the engine that caused further damage, and allowing oil and other shrapnel to get pumped downstream, where it plugged and ruined the catalytic converter.

In human terms, that’s something like having a heart attack — and a stroke — at the same time.

“The engine was destroyed completely, and the catalytic converter needed replacement as well” Townsend says. The repair bill? About $10,000.

“That’s hardly worth saving $3 on an oil filter,” Townsend continues, adding that the damage would have been totally covered if the same filter failure had occurred with a factory-approved unit.

Oil changes: Do it yourself or leave to the pros?

“If you use a part that we didn’t test, engineer, and validate, and it fails, any resulting damage is your responsibility.” Simply put, a warranty doesn’t cover damage caused by the use of non factory-approved parts.

“It’s right there, in the owner’s manual” Townsend says, adding that a warranty is a two-way agreement. “To be protected by the warranty, the customer has to keep the warranty in good standing by sticking to the warranty conditions — which include using only approved products for maintenance or repair.”

Adding insult to injury, a diagnostic scan revealed that the customer’s Check Engine Light had illuminated some time before the engine failed outright. Turns out, the non-factory filter wasn’t allowing quite enough oil through, in certain conditions. This triggered engine timing problems, which were picked up by the engine computer before the engine failed.

“The engine’s valve timing system needs a precise amount of oil pressure and flow to do its job” Townsend says. “The diagnostic showed us that the valve timing system was operating erratically, and that’s consistent with oil flow problems that might result from incorrect oil filter usage”.

Townsend also recalled a similar story from a few weeks earlier, relating to an engine air filter. This customer replaced their engine air filter with a non-approved filter they bought online from a bargain brand. Thing is, engines have air filters to pre-clean the large volumes of air they suck up to do their jobs. If the incoming air isn’t clean, even a small amount of dirt, sand, or other debris could wind up in the engine or turbocharger, causing significant damage. In this case, the bargain-brand air filter was designed to fit the specific make and model of vehicle to which it was installed, and it nearly did.

“This air filter had quite a few miles on it, but it looked brand new,” Townsend commented.

After installing the air filter themselves, this customer either ignored, or failed to notice, that it was slightly too small. This resulted in a gap, which meant most of the incoming air was bypassing the filter, and entering the engine uncleaned.

“Our diagnostic revealed earier evidence of a problem with the air intake tumble valve system, which we suspect was damaged by debris. Eventually, this engine was also completely destroyed” Townsend says.

The repair bill for this one? About $8,000. Warranty coverage? Not a chance.

“They did save about $11 on their air filter,” Townsend comments.
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