Saturday, November 17, 2007

Oil Plug Gaskets

Since buying a used 2006 Honda Element to replace my Jetta and Econoline, I've decided to start changing my own oil again. I'm tired of waiting in grimy rooms, paying too much, and always wondering if the shop is going to make a mistake. Unfortunately, it turns out that auto part stores also can screw up and waste your time.

The oil pan drain plug on my Element has a little aluminum crush washer which ensures a tight seal to the drain pan. According to the manual, you're supposed to change these washers (also known as oil drain plug gaskets) with every oil change. The manual for my Gold 1994 Eagle Vision never mentioned changing a washer, so this is a new thing for me.

You wouldn't think finding a washer at the auto part store would be a problem.
It was. I located a section labeled "oil plugs" which had a small section of expensive washers. Although Auto Zone has a big book which tells you what oil filter to buy for your car, there was no book for the washers.

I walked to the front desk and asked what washer I needed for the oil plug on my Honda Element. Instead of consulting a book or a computer, the clerk walked directly to the washer section and started poking boxes of parts. He handed me a box of M12 Nylon washers and told me this is the kind of washers the factory installed. That seemed fishy, so I asked if he was sure. He was.

I purchased my overpriced washers and went home. Still skeptical, I googled around for what size washer I needed. All I could find was one page mentioned 14mm washers. Mine had about a 12mm inside diameter. I felt quite happy that I had not drained the oil from my vehicle.

Inspecting the box of wrong parts, I discovered that the washer manufacturer had a web site. Even better, Dorman Products has an online parts guide which lets you search by vehicle. Consulting the guide, I learned that I needed an aluminum M14 washer.

I returned my Nylon M12 washers to Auto Zone where a more helpful clerk double-checked the part numbers and exchanged my purchase. It seems to be the correct part: it fit perfectly.

Lessons learned: even simple home maintenance can be fraught with peril and waste lots of time. Also, you reach the nearly-invisible Element oil filter through the passenger-side wheel well (turn the steering wheel hard to the left). Finally, there are still bits of data out there that Google has difficulty finding. I'm amazed that more cars don't disintegrate on the road.

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