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Need to Know


When discussing the rising amount of low-quality lubricants in the marketplace, many people point out the same thing to me: Its all about the money. To understand how it might be stopped, one really needs to look at how lubricants are made and the economics of the process. So lets start with engine oil.

Passenger car and heavy-duty engine oils are made by blending base oil and additives. Current PCEO typically comprises about 82 percent to 85 percent base oil and 15 percent to 18 percent additive. To meet the volatility and viscometric requirements of the most common grades of PCEO, manufacturers often must use a blend of API Group II/II+ and Group III base stocks. The additives are virtually always purchased as packages containing detergent, dispersant, antioxidant, corrosion inhibitor, antifoam and others. The additive package also contains about 50 percent base oil, used as a carrier and diluent. In addition to the additive package, viscosity modifiers are usually added to PCEO as a separate component. The amount of viscosity modifier used is a function of the viscosity grade.

If one really shops and has considerable buying power, the cost of the base oils required to make a gallon of SAE 5W-30, meeting API SM, is in the area of $2.80 to $2.90. The additive treat costs about $1.10 to $1.20 a

gallon. Blending cost is typically in the range of $0.10 to $0.12 a gallon. And depending on where a blender is located, you may also be looking at freight-in cost for the base stock and additives of $0.12 to $0.15 a gallon and up, plus fuel surcharges.

This means the cost-of-goods-sold to produce an SAE 5W-30 in bulk is well over $4.00 a gallon. And dont forget, thats for bulk. Cost moves up quickly when you factor in bottles, caps, liners, labels, advertising, distribution and profit.

Heavy-duty engine oils typically comprise 21 percent to 25 percent additive, including the carrier oil. The rest is base oil. Due to the higher treat rates and unique chemistries found in heavy-duty diesel oils, just the additive cost for an API-licensable CJ-4 will range from $2.00 to $2.10 a gallon. With similar base oil, blending and freight costs as PCEO, the cost-of-goods-sold for a CJ-4 oil in bulk is roughly $5.00 or more per gallon.

Although extensive and expensive formulation science is required to make additive packages, blending PCEO and HDEO is not particularly difficult. Whether it uses in-line or batch blending, the process is fundamentally about mixing the additive with the base oil at the appropriate treat rate and blending the two until the additive is consistently dispersed throughout the product. To assure this happens, the blend is routinely sampled and tested for viscosity and the presence of the organometallic elements that comprise its detergent and antiwear additives.

Assuming the blending is done correctly, the finished lubricant will meet the targeted API S and/or C service classification associated with the additive package used. But this doesnt mean the blender can use the API Engine Oil Licensing Marks – those proprietary donut and starburst logos – on containers of the product. For those marks to appear on a bottle, the blender must pay a fee to API and comply with specific API requirements. These requirements include submission of product data sheets, traceability codes, quality systems, company information and others. And keep in mind that the APIs Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System (EOLCS) is a voluntary program.

So where are the weak links in this process, that allow low-quality lubricants into the market? The first should be obvious. Although we should applaud its efforts, the APIs Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System is a voluntary program. And whereas having the API donut certainly helps guide an educated consumer to quality lubricants, it is much harder to find a consumer knowledgeable about API than it is to find an unlicensed engine oil on the shelf. For example, Quaker States SAE 5W-30 for higher mileage engines doesnt bear the API donut, and it flies off the shelves at Wal-Mart. This is not to say Quaker State products are not high-quality, but it does suggest the absence of the API donut is not a deal-breaker. At least one major is having success running without it..

But what about some of the others who elect to go without API licensing? Who stops them from reducing their costs by using outdated API SL, SJ, SH or SG additive packages, or cutting back on the treat rates for API SM or CI-4 add packs? Or worse yet, using no additives at all? What prevents them from using a less-expensive API Group I base oil that cant meet current sulfur or volatility specs? And at the end of the day, what authority says they cant call any of this juice Quality Premium Super Premium and the like?

Next months column will take a look at some of these unlicensed engine oils.

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