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Last month, we reported on what we found when we tested a small sampling of packaged engine oils from retail stores. This month, Petroleum Trends set out to test samples from installers who serve the Do-It-For-Me customer.

From what industry insiders tell us about the games people play with lubricant quality in the DIFM channel, we had expected to see a few problems if we tested a small sample set from quick lubes. But we didnt.

Whereas the quality of two of the eight tested samples of engine oil from retail stores was enough to make you cringe, and one to make you wonder (see last months column), the test result we got from quick lubes were far less revealing. But before you breathe a sigh of relief and conclude that the quality of lubricants served up at quick lubes is good to go, consider this: We were only able to test one sample. Not through lack of effort, but admittedly with a limited budget, one sample is all we could get.

Petroleum Trends is not alone in this fruitless search. The American Petroleum Institute, which conducts an Aftermarket Audit Program to protect its trademarked engine oil licenses, has said it finds quick lubes are loath to let samples be taken from their bulk tanks. And Rebecca Cox, of the Midland, Mich.-based Institute of Materials, a private organization that collects engine oil samples and maintains a massive database of test results, also has faced obstinate refusals when it comes to getting quick lubes to cooperate. IOM once went so far as to use a customized vehicle to gather samples undetected, she said.

Only Stephen Benjamin, who heads the state of North Carolinas petroleum sampling program in Raleigh, told LubesnGreases his inspectors have no problem getting quick lubes to pump out a few quarts upon request from the dispensing guns – but they have badges, of course.

To obtain samples, we tried several approaches. The first was the direct approach; politely ask the quick-lube manager for a small sample before we got our oil changed. Then we tried the paying-customer approach by getting our oil changed at a few fast lubes. After shelling out over $30.00 each for oil changes, we then asked for a sample. There was also the thanks for the oil change, and my daughter is doing a science project and needs a little bit of new oil to bring to school approach. And a few other novel angles we thought might work.

In fact, short of telling the quick-lube manager that the Tin Man was in a life-or-death situation and we needed oil to save him, we tried nearly everything to get samples. No luck.

In each case the answers were roughly the same. Its against our company policy to put oil in anything other than your engine. Apparently the one technician who gave us a sample never got the memo, or was working under a different policy. And in that case, the result of the spectrographic analysis and TBN of the quick lubes house brand were indicative of what one would expect to see in a typical API SM passenger car engine oil.

But what about the others that would not provide samples? According to a number of industry insiders with experience in the DIFM channel, even if an outlet did provide samples, its unlikely we would have found anything if the only tests we conducted were metals, TBN and viscosity, as with the retail samples. This is because the games people play at fast lubes are sophisticated and fly under the radar of basic testing, sources say. Moreover, these games focus on reducing cost without running the risk of being caught by causing near-term damage to the vehicle.

One oft-mentioned ploy is the so-called back-door sale. This is when a fast lube features a majors brand and then slips in a load of an unbranded product every three loads or so, pocketing the difference in an effort to reduce its costs. Considering that an installer may be paying $8.00 a gallon for the major brand and looking at $4.25 a gallon for the unbranded product, its no wonder this practice is said to be common.

Another game is said to be played by the unscrupulous marketer who says its delivering a major brand, and in reality pumps a lower-cost product into the fast lubes bulk tank. One red flag in these cases is that the ticket the driver leaves when delivering the product simple states the volume. There is often no reference to the brand, API category, or even the viscosity grade.

The most troublesome issue to some in the industry is quick lubes that source their passenger car engine oil from jobbers at prices well below the cost required to produce an authentic API SM/ILSAC GF-4 product. As noted in Februarys column, the cost of goods sold for an API SM/GF-4 category SAE 5W-30 to a lube blender with bulk purchasing power is well over $4.00 per gallon. So how, skeptics ask, can some blenders currently sell a passenger car engine oil for $3.45 to $3.75 a gallon, or a marketer wholesale it to a fast lube for $4.15 to $4.25 a gallon and make any money? In their minds the answer is, at that price the oil cannot be an API SM/GF-4.

To understand this mysterious math, we looked through the product literature from a large supplier of low-priced engine oils to the DIFM market. The publications gave no indication of any API quality level; just to be sure, we gave them a call. The supplier said its engine oil does meet the SM performance requirements because it uses Group II base stock and an SM additive package; however, it is not an API-licensed product. In fact, the company said, it can offer the engine oil at such a low price because it doesnt have the expense of an API license. Moreover, the companys representative asserted, most of the private-label product available on the market is not API licensed.

Who knows? Maybe most is not, and maybe the unlicensed passenger car engine oils, back-door slide ins, and private-label products at some fast lubes meet or even exceed the performance requirements of API SM/GF-4. Maybe its good stuff at a really good price. But then again, for the consumer maybe its bad stuff at any price.

If its the latter, you can be sure over time consumers will hear about the bad apples in the fast-lube basket, and lose confidence in the industry and the house brands it serves up. And when they do, there is a good chance the only brands trusted will be those of the oil majors and the OEMs.

So rather than saying, Its against our company policy to put oil in anything other than your engine, fast-lube operators and the industry as a whole might be better served by finding a way to raise customers confidence – rather than their suspicions about the quality of the oil going into their engines and transmissions.

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