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Radiator Flush

I took my old reliable 1999 Subaru Legacy Outback Wagon for an oil change at a local fast lube place. After changing the oil they talked me into an air filter replacement which I said yes to. Then they talked me into a radiator flush. I declined first but then after they offered it for $ 79.99 instead of their usual $ 99.99, against my usual good judgment, I said yes.

After they were done I drove the car to work. In about ten miles the engine-hot needle raced to the top, the heater stopped working. I called the shop, the mechanic said may be there were some air bubbles left. Bring the car back. They struggled with it for a few hours to no avail. Couldn’t figure out what was happening. So I asked the lube shop to call the local Subaru dealer, whose advisor said that the head-gasket is blown and the safety mechanism, whatever that is, turns the heater off as a safety precaution. You should not flush the radiator but drain the fluid and refill it.

Before I took the car to the lube shop there was no evidence of leaky or blown head-gasket. The car oil did not have white residue due to radiator fluid leaking into the engine oil. The car heater was working fine. The radiator fluid in the radiator was green. Not black or dirty.

The head-gasket repair is estimated at approximately $ 1800 – $ 2500.

The lube shop says that the damage is not their responsibility because the car is old and has 148,000 miles on it. This thing is common on Subarus etc.

What do you think the reason for the blown head-gasket? “Flushing” the radiator which is usually uses a pump? Or trapped air after the radiator was flushed and refilled? Or both?

Is it worth to get the car repaired or just get another car? Or should I try to pour some radiator leak seal compound in it?


Is the car running poorly or is the head gasket diagnosis given only because of an overheating problem?

Offhand, it sounds like the fast lube erred in filling the coolant. The mistake you made was continuing to drive the vehicle while it was severely overheating.

I would be very leery of a head gasket diagnosis fault that was given to you by a fast lube facility who got their information on a phone call from a service advisor at the Subaru dealer. Most service advisors are not sharp, mechanically speaking, and I have no idea what this alleged safety device is that the advisor refers to.

I doubt if the flushing caused any damage.

Let’s start with the oil change. You say you took it to a &#$* fast oil change joint??? That was your second mistake. The first mistake was not opening the owner’s manual and following the instructions there about when and what maintenance your car needs.

Those fast oil change places off cheap maintenance because they hire cheap - unskilled employees and then push them to get more work done in less time, just begging to have problems. Find a local independent (not a chain or a dealer (dealers usually do a good job, they just charge too much.) 

 I can't tell you what condition the engine is in now, you should take it to that independent shop (Ask your friends and neighbors for someone they trust) and have them check it out.  See what really needs service and what the current problems may be. 

 Chances are the best bet from the stand point of your cost of car ownership is to fix or service as it should have been.  You will know more after you have a real mechanic, not a oil change kid has had a chance to evaluate it in person.  I suspect you will be best off having any needed repairs done and from then on make sure you keep up with all maintenance.  The most expensive maintenance is that maintenance that is not done or done too late. 

Good Luck

Thanks ok4450.

The Subaru dealer looked at the engine , where the car was later taken, and confirmed that the head-gasket needs replacement. I don’t know how they check this without taking things apart. But that’s what the dealer service dept says.

Did the temperature gauge make it all the way to the red? Subarus are, in fact, known for head gasket problems, and the leaks can present in multiple ways - not necessarily via poor running or coolant in oil, etc. It depends on the nature of the leak. But one thing that can get a head gasket to leaking is overheating. So its possible that the shop messed up on refilling w/ coolant. Thus the car overheated, thus the head gasket blew.

But its possible that it was already leaking too. Do some internet searching on Subaru head gasket issues.

Stop taking your cars to fast lube places.

Thanks cigroller.

The temp needle never made it to the red. No more fast lube for me.

If the temp needle never hit the red zone then I think there’s some chance you’re looking at a coincidence. Nothing about flushing to cooling system alone could damage the head gasket, and for heat to blow it you’d have to over heat - as in get to the red.

If there was a lot of air in the cooling system there could be hot spots that might damage a head gasket without making the temp gauge go up to the red zone.

“If there was a lot of air in the cooling system there could be hot spots that might damage a head gasket without making the temp gauge go up to the red zone.”

Good point. That never is a good thing, and with the fragility of those Subaru head gaskets…

There are tests that can be done to determine if a head gasket failed or not and I assume the dealer did some or all of those tests. I apologize for assuming the dealer did not have their hands on the car based on the way the post was written. The point about service advisors still stands though… :slight_smile:

Subarus have been prone to head gasket problems but if there was no problem when you entered the fast lube and the problem surfaced 10 miles after leaving there it makes things a bit too coincidental.
I have to think that someone did not get all of the air out of the system and allowed it to leave low on coolant.
It could be that the fast lube model of hurry up and get it done did not permit the thermostat to open before handing the car back to you. This could have led to a low coolant level.

The fast lube is likely at fault; proving it could be something else.

My first thought based on the description of the chain of events is that a clamp or drain cock was left loose and the car ran out of coolant. I also agree with ok4450’s assessment of the service advisor. Most of these guys were at one time star used car salesmen who were moved to the service counter to move fluid flushes. If your heat stopped working, it was probably because you ran sufficiently low on coolant to have emptied the heater core. The bit about a safety device shutting off the heat in the event of an overheating condition does not make sense and is contrary to conventional wisdom to turn on the heater full blast if your car is overheating since doing so will draw heat out of the engine. This, of course, does not apply to air cooled engines, which your Subaru does not have, and I will stand corrected if someone else brings to my attention some way in which the heating and cooling system on a Subaru is different from other vehicles and running the heat while the car is overheating will in fact damage the engine.

Contrary to what some may believe, the temp needle need not hit the red zone for a gasket to fail. Just sustained period with some over heating is enough given the age and make of a car and the often unreliability of heat gauges. iMHO, the local fast lube people are responsible given the accuracy of your recollection of events. Just being “fast lube” IMO is an admission of failure to do the time honored task of allowing the air bubbles to escape over time while properly filling your coolant system. Some cars are particularly sensitive to this or require a little extra effort.

I completely agree with OK4450 that Subarus may fall into this category and his overall opinion.

Even before you replied with the diagnosis of head gasket, I was guessing it. Your particular generation of Outbacks are notorious for head gasket failures. Usually the question is not “if”, but “when” will it raise its ugly head. It is almost always proceeded by a temperature “spike” which eventually results in the blown head gasket. The fast lube place was the final cause of the failure because almost all the failures are caused by an air pocket in the cooling system because of its design which requires a separate step of bleeding air out of that top pocket. This coupled with the Outback’s very thin area where the gasket always blows is a recipie for failure with the ~1996-2002 generation Outbacks. Take a look at the website (subaruoutback dot org) and look under the problems and maintenance section. There are 22 pages of documented logs of head gasket failures.

I doubt you’ll ever be able to prove that the fast lube place was the cause of the failure because it probably was just the “straw that broke the camel’s back”. It was an unnecessary straw, but nonetheless not the only cause. Your best move is to simply determine whether fixing it is worth the money, find the best place to get the HG replaced properly and move on.

The other thing to keep in mind with all AWD Outbacks is to rotate the tires regularly and replace all 4 at the same time. Otherwise you will probably get the other notorious failure called “torque bind”. You can look that up on the referenced website too.

It’s good to know that the later generations of Outbacks no longer have the head gasket issues. I have a 2008 Outback and it hasn’t had any major problems yet. Strangely enough, there are many owners of the “head gasket” generation of Outback that are still fiercely loyal toward Subarus and many multiple owners of Outback after Outback. That must mean something.

I’m inclimed to agree with OK4450. Once one overheats an engine with a weakness toward headgasket failures anyway, a failure is likely. And I have no doubt that the quickie lube screwed up the coolant replacement, resulting in the overheating and the subsequent blown headgasket.

Proving “cause & effect” can be almost impossible on an older vehicel, but you may have a case here. If you properly document the events and chronology, including shop paperwork, you could try small claims court. Your chances of winning will largely depend on how well you do your homework and on whether the judge has been screwed by the same quickie lube.

Oh, and it might helpo your case if you find out if the “technician” who did the coolant work was ASE certified or not. My money says he was not. That would lay blam eon the quickie lube for having an untrained “tech” work on your car.

For now, I would ask the dealer to properly fill the cooling system and recover your car…Drive it for a few days and see how it responds. Perhaps have an independent mechanic who is familiar with Subaru’s check it over…Monitor the coolant level yourself. The coolant level in the overflow tank should stabilize and not overflow. Your heater should work normally and the “temp” gauge stay in the normal range…

Much depends on just how severe that overheating episode was…If it never boiled over, then chances are the engine survived without any damage…Back in the day, when Subaru’s overheated (boiled over) for whatever reason, it was standard practice to re-torque the heads, a one hour job, which was considered “head gasket insurance” I suspect that with todays OHC engines, that’s considerably more difficult to do…

Thank you all for your helpful information. I have had no luck with the lube shop which did the radiator flush owning up to their negligence or plain ignorance. The consensus has been that they did not get all the air bubbles out of the radiator fluid which ended up “blowing up” the head gasket. There was no evidence that the headgasket was on its way out before I visited the lube shop. Faced with a decision to spend another up to $ 1800 - $ 2500 to get the 1999 Outback fixed, I ended up spending a lot more for getting another car.

You say you took it to a &#$* fast oil change joint??? That was your second mistake.

People love to bash these places, but let’s be objective. They do millions of oil changes a day. Of course, you’ll hear one or two horror stories about something gone wrong. In reality, they probably have a lower percentage of failures than other shops. They do oil changes all day long. Basic math.

OP, you should sue them in small claims, just to prove a point.

I would guess that the cooling system was not properly filled after flushing. It sounds somewhat certain, in fact.

Apparently it’s too late for this advice but I’ll offer it anyway. I think you gave up too soon trying to get some compensation from the lube shop. As a business selling a service the lube shop has a responsibility to know what its doing. If the manager “knew” this engine was prone to head gasket failures then he should have also known that a coolant flush wasn’t the correct procedure. His willingness to call the dealer for a diagnosis is a pretty good indication he didn’t at the time he worked on the car. I assume part of their argument is that the head gasket could have been bad at the time of the flush. Important to your argument is you didn’t ask for the flush They offered you an incentive to let them do it. If you had insisted on the radiator flush against their better judgment the matter would be different. As experts offering a service they had the responsibility to; use the correct procedure, warn you of the risks, or not offer to do it at all.

UsedEconobox2UsedBMW, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree on this one. The things I’ve actually witnessed at quickie lubes convinced me beyond doubt that much of the labor they use is unskilled, seriously lacking in knowledge, pushed for volume at the expense of care, and taught to pull scams to bring in revenue.

I fell into a financial crevasses some years back, ended up in an apartment complex for a few years, and had to access these places. There was more than one occasion where had I ont been watching carefully, and were I not double checking, I too would have had serious problems. And plenty of times where they tried to scam me. I even talked with the manager once and told him I wanted ONLY an oil change. He promised me they’d do only that for me. Then I watched as the kid in the pit went to start turning other plugs. I stopped him, but it never should have happened.

I also watched these clowns doing a so-called annual safety inspection…checking to see if the trunk light worked, and rejecting cars for seepage around the valvecover gasket.