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Ensuring engine oil quality is a multi-step process, from engine test laboratories, to the formulation and manufacture of high-tech components, to the lube blending plant. Automotive Editor David McFall concludes this series by asking the recipients of all this effort – OEMs, installers and end users – how they view the quality of lubricants in todays marketplace.

Following the thought in the old saw that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the proof of lubricant quality is in how it performs on the road – in the eyes of engine oil users.

LubesnGreases asked a spectrum of engine oil buyers, installers, mechanics and specifiers for their views, based on their own experience. Questions included: Does marketplace engine oil quality meet your standards, needs and expectations? Is it acceptable or deficient, and in what way? Do you have knowledge of oil-related engine failures or a claim against a warranty over the last five years?

Dave DuVal is fleet quality control superintendent of Fairfax County, Va., a suburban jurisdiction near Washington, D.C., with just over 1 million residents. We use only premium grade, name-brand motor oils of recommended performance and viscosity levels for the specific equipment, he states. Oil is changed at prescribed intervals and we have no record of engine failures during the last five years that we could attribute to the quality of engine oil. The most common failure causes are leaks resulting in lack of proper oil quantity, or an oil contaminant such as antifreeze or fuel from failure of a non-related component.

Ken Chao, senior engineer at John Deere Power Systems Division, notes, API C-category is primarily developed for on-highway applications. Even though oils meeting the requirements of C-category [i.e., CH-4, CI-4 and now CJ-4] can perform reasonably well to protect non-road diesel engines manufactured by John Deere, they come up short of our high expectations in that nonroad conditions are usually much more severe compared with on-highway conditions, particularly in terms of load factor, windage cooling, fuel quality, and dust/moisture contamination.

A case in point is the likely reduction of the oil service interval if customers use the CJ-4 type of low-SAPS oil along with nonroad diesel fuel of great than 15 ppm sulfur content.

Larry Read, president and CEO of Oil Changers Inc., a 21-year-old quick-lube chain which services 500,000 cars a year in the San Francisco and San Diego markets, points out, Despite claims of enhanced quality of the motor oil in the GF-3 and GF-4 categories, our experience has been more premature engine wear and/or failures than ever before. Until GF-3 was introduced, I had never seen engine sludging problems as chronicled by Toyota, Chrysler, Mercedes Benz, etc. I had never seen the number of oil pump failures, or the level of engine oil consumption that we have today. Fully 60 percent of the cars entering our bays for service are below safe oil levels.

Read also asked, Whos responsible for the sludging? Automobiles today are bottom breathers. However, over the last 20 years, OEMs have eliminated side scoops and other body styles to make the cars more aerodynamic and sleek in appearance. This, and other OEM changes, has reduced the air flow around the engine, raising the operating temperature. Today we see hotter running engines using lighter motor oils with less of the traditional wear additives. The lighter oils were tested, of course, but those tests were done in clinical laboratory bench tests, without air-flow restrictions. This testing is almost as absurd as computer modeling without field testing.

For OEMs to suggest that the necessary field testing will occur after the product is introduced is another way of saying to the installer, Were going to use your customers as guinea pigs and let you cover our R&D costs in the form of consumer warranty claims.

Aaron Clements, a manager at C & C Automotive in Augusta, Ga., has 27 years of experience as a certified automotive technician. There is no doubt, he says, that the oil change service plays a large part in retaining customers long term. If we as a company are depended on to service a car or fleet of cars, longevity without major issues determines satisfaction. Even though our customers trust us to make a good decision on the weight and brand of oil used, it is one of the few items that some customers do want to know the brand. It is a very delicate process to change brands and for that reason, our company has only changed brands three times in 30 years.

I feel that even though engine oil is under much tougher conditions than ever before, it holds up very well when changed on a regular schedule. We have a regular flow of customers with [vehicles with] 150,000 to 250,000 miles still doing well. I do not remember any warranty claims for oil-related engine failures. I would have to give engine oil quality a good rating.

Steve Christie, executive director of the Automotive Oil Change Association in Dallas, Texas, has received an earful from his quick-lube operating members for the past three years. He summarizes their views as follows: It seems to me that were simply asking too much of our motor oil when we expect it to simultaneously lower emissions and increase fuel economy. Whats next – aromatherapy? Engine oil is a means of lubrication. By straying from that main purpose, weve ended up with engines that arent lubricated properly; i.e., high consumption and sludging.

Christie adds, Some will argue that the changes in GF-4 have improved fuel economy and lowered emissions, but can they prove it in the field? When AOCA worked with EPA to make sure that OEMs created a public education piece on GF-4, nothing was said about improved fuel economy. Nothing! OEMs couldnt put anything in print about fuel economy because, as I personally heard EPA acknowledge, the expected improvement was so tiny that no single motorist would notice it.

Mike Riley, Ford Motors senior lubricants engineer, points out, Oils certified by the American Petroleum Institute displaying the trademark Starburst symbol meet the requirements of our engines. The recent introduction of ILSAC GF-4/API SM oils provided significant improvement compared to the previous engine oil category.

Its very important for our customers to follow engine oil recommendations in the owner guide, which needs to be supported by oil marketers and oil change service facilities. Riley continues, A common misuse is the wrong viscosity grade, which could affect the warranty coverage as well as cause a decrease in performance like fuel economy. SAE 5W-20 oil provides about 0.5 percent better fuel economy than SAE 5W-30 oil, and more fuel economy improvement compared to other higher-viscosity oils – a very significant fuel savings when many vehicles use the correct lower viscosity oil. The current higher market share of 10W-30 and higher viscosity oils indicates all vehicle owners are not using the recommended 5W-20 and 5W-30 engine oils.

Another significant concern for our customers is the continued availability of API SA oils that are obsolete but still widely sold. These oils are likely to cause serious damage to engines. The lubricants industry needs to take action to educate our customers and eliminate the use of these lower cost oils with unacceptable performance.

Donny Seyfer of Seyfer Automotive in Wheat Ridge, Colo., has 30 years of hands-on experience as a certified automotive mechanic. In light of the large number of varying requirements placed on engine oils it seems that oil manufacturers and the industry do a pretty good job adjusting specs to meet the needs of the ever-changing engine designs, he feels. With that said, my business also specializes in mechanical restoration of muscle cars and 50s to early 70s collector cars. I have recently become aware that in meeting emissions needs to protect catalytic converters, the levels of zinc and phosphorus in the friction package has dropped by over 50 percent in most oils, which seems to explain the increase in cam/lifter failures we are seeing in higher mileage engines built prior to the roller valve train era.

Ed Reyes, senior staff engineer of Mercedes Benz USA, notes, Our engine oil specifications are designed to meet our recommended maintenance intervals, i.e., every 10,000 miles or 1 year for AMG & 12-cylinder engines, and 13,000 miles or 1 year for all others. Our current engine oil spec is MB229.5 and there are only five engine oils available in the U.S. marketplace that have this certification, and all are synthetic-based oil. To our knowledge, there have been no engine failures or warranty claims so long as recommended maintenance intervals have been followed and approved engine oils used.

Bill Moss, part owner of Advantage Certified Auto Group in Manassas Park, Va. , has 30 years of experience specializing in BMWs. He points out, My concern about the quality of lubricants is really more related to the proper usage of the correct lubricants. The OEMs are extending their service intervals to as much as 15,000 miles between oil changes. At that point even the best synthetic is barely good enough, and a petroleum based product is a disaster. What happens when an unknowing individual (vehicle owner or lube tech) puts the wrong lubricant in a vehicle? The reasons for these extended service cycles are largely vehicle-manufacturer based, and the vehicle owner is bearing the burden of the increased wear caused by service schedules that most technicians would consider equivalent to vehicle neglect.

In my opinion, if we dont educate our customer, we are doing them a huge disservice.

Tracey King, senior specialist in organic materials engineering at DaimlerChrysler, observes, We are very pleased with the quality of the GF-4 engine oil available in the market place for our customers. GF-4 provides significant protection for our engines. We are concerned about the continuing availability of oils that do not meet GF-4, such as API SL, in the market as we believe GF-4 oil quality is necessary to protect our engines. We consider GF-4 to be back-serviceable to all of our engines and do not recommend that our customers continue to use obsolete oils that were available when the vehicles were built.

We recommend that our customers only use engine oils that carry the [API trademarked] Starburst for the life of the vehicle, and therefore GF-4 engine oils are the only product suitable to service most of our engines.

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