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If you are an astute buyer of engine oil, you go to your favorite store – be it an auto parts store, big box outlet or mass merchandiser – and immediately find the engine oil aisle. Once there, youll search the front labels (assuming that you dont have a brand preference) for the telltale API Certification Mark or starburst logo, along with the required viscosity grade. Youll pick up the quarts of oil you need, pay for them and be on your way, confident that the oil you selected will protect your engine and assure good performance and long life.

My question to you is: How do you know that the oil will do what it is advertised to do? What criteria define the oils capabilities, and are they really relevant?

For about 50 years, engine oils have been evaluated based on standardized engine tests which are designed to measure various performance parameters deemed important to successful engine operation. These include the oils resistance to sludge and varnish buildup, wear, oxidation and corrosion. More recently, fuel economy performance has been added to the list of tests, gauging the oils ability to reduce fuel consumption. We also now expect engine oils to demonstrate they will not poison catalytic converters, so they can do their job of controlling tailpipe emissions.

The process of engine oil evaluation has evolved from its earliest form, where lubricant companies tested their products in their own labs or in a contract laboratory using engines which were of the proper type operating at recommended conditions. In those days, word sometimes would get around that a particular engine test stand was running sweet, and lube companies would flock to have their oil tested on that stand, confident of an easy pass. Nowadays, API-certified engine oils undergo rigorous testing in standardized engines which have been referenced with industry-recognized oils. (And the engine test stand cannot be chosen by the lubricant company, ending the day of the easy engine.)

The American Chemistry Council, which represents lubricant additive suppliers, developed protocols for engine tests about 20 years ago. These encompass such things as test registration, test engine calibration, test stand selection, guidelines for minor formulation modifications, required paperwork and so on. These safeguards, known as the ACC Code of Practice, took all of the latitude out of engine testing from a procedural point of view.

Meanwhile, ASTM is responsible for writing the engine test procedures, and then monitoring them to assure they are performed as designed. This monitoring is done by teams of volunteers known as surveillance panels, with one panel for each engine sequence test.

Surveillance panels consist of industry members who are experts in engine technology, testing protocols and statistical analysis of data. They watch the test data being generated on reference fluids – standardized fuels and oils which ASTM supplies to all test labs – to make sure the test is operating correctly and is producing data which are consistent and provide discrimination between good oils and bad oils.

Reference oils started out as oils that were used in the field and either performed very well or showed some known deficit. The idea was that the test, if operated correctly, would give those same results. The composition of the reference oils was determined, and ASTMs Test Monitoring Center became the blender and supplier of the reference oil, as well as the keeper of reference test data. As time goes on, new reference oils have been introduced.

So what happens when the test doesnt seem to be doing what it is designed to demonstrate? How does the industry go about correcting problems like that, and how often do they occur?

Theres a good example (actually two) going on in the industry right now. The ASTM Passenger Car Engine Oil Classification Panel recently was notified that the latest batch of Sequence VG reference fuel – the fuel that all VG test stands are supposed to use for both calibration runs and for candidate oil tests – was not acceptable. Infineums Andy Ritchie, chairman of the ASTM Sequence V Surveillance Panel, reported on the situation at a Feb. 24 teleconference.

Ritchie pointed out that the Sequence VG relies on a specially formulated fuel to generate the necessary sludge and varnish formation which are the parameters measured by the Sequence VG. The current batch of fuel was nearly gone and a new batch was screened in a 14-test matrix with three ASTM reference engine oils: Oil 925-3 (failing), Oil 1009 (borderline) and Oil 1006 (passing). The test results on these oils showed that VG tests using the new fuel batch tended to be mild on sludge and varnish, and did not discriminate between Oils 925-3 and 1009.

The Sequence V Surveillance Panel voted to reject the new batch of fuel, which triggered a crash program by the fuel blender to adjust the fuel batch to give more severe sludge results. The bottom line is that the fuel has run out, and the Sequence VG was shut down last month for a period expected to last 120 days. The Surveillance Panel has been meeting weekly by conference call to manage the problem, but the Passenger Car Engine Oil Classification Panel, ASTM Committee D-2 and the American Petroleum Institute concurred in turn that the VG is temporarily unavailable for engine oil qualification and testing.

What happens now to new engine oils that are seeking licenses for the new API SN and ILSAC GF-5 specifications? On April 6, APIs Kevin Ferrick advised that any oil marketer needing to run the VG test to qualify a new product or formulation must apply under provisional licensing, as spelled out in API 1509, the document which governs the Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System (see Provisional licensees have until Sept. 14 to pass the test and submit their test data and revised applications to API – but with the test out of action for four months, that deadline could prove very snug.

What happens if the provisionally licensed oil fails to pass the Sequence VG by Sept. 14, or the marketer fails to submit the required data by then? API will cancel the license and demand that any oil bearing its trademarked Donut or Starburst logos be recalled from the market at the licensees own expense.

Imagine the impact. Once the fuel for the test becomes available, there will be a rush to complete deferred Sequence VG tests prior to the Sept. 14 deadline. Meanwhile, other oils that are not provisionally licensed will be pressing to complete testing, too. Remember, all ILSAC GF-4 licenses die on Oct. 1. We could see a traffic jam at the engine test labs.

Earlier, I said that there were two problems. Heres number two: David Glaenzer of Afton Chemical, chairman of the ASTM Sequence III Surveillance Panel, reported that his group has decided not to set test targets for the ILSAC GF-5 category Reference Oil 1010. Sequence IIIG measures high-temperature deposits, ring sticking and oil thickening, but the panel is concerned with the variability of data from seven tests run on Oil 1010. The data points of highest concern are the measurements for viscosity increase and oil consumption. In fact, three of the test runs were terminated early due to high oil consumption. As an added kicker, the weighted piston deposits measured on this test were a bit low on average, although within test variability parameters.

The Sequence III surveillance panelists expressed concern since they have only seven operationally valid tests on Reference Oil 1010. Five tests were run on so-called common second-run-on-block engines. One lab had run a test on a common block that had oil consumption AUTOMOTIVE issues, and followed that with another high oil consumption test on another common block. It then ran a first-on-block engine test using different hardware from the other tests reported.

In addition, the Sequence III surveillance team chose to review data which had continuous severity adjustments, which are adjustments applied even if the lab didnt surpass the threshold level for applying severity adjustments.

Glaenzer noted that the Sequence III Surveillance Panel recognizes that additional test data are needed. There does seem to be industry resistance to bringing in more data on this test. The concern is that if the reference oil finds its way into the system and test targets are wrong, lab severity adjustments could be made in error. Like true scientists, the Sequence III Surveillance Panel is asking for more data – and to get those data they need more funding.

The Passenger Car Engine Oil Classification Panel, to which the surveillance team appealed for help, agreed that the Sequence IIIG has both severity and variability issues. They recommended that the Sequence III panel investigate the possibility that a correction factor for weighted piston deposits could be developed. They also recommended that all the severity adjustments be reviewed, with the idea that perhaps something other than an arithmetic correction can be developed. And they recommended that a unified engine build be done to reduce variability between laboratories.

The Sequence III Surveillance Panel will give the higher panel an update either before or at the next ASTM Committee D-2 meeting, in Baltimore in mid-June. After the Sequence IIIG is brought under control, the decision about the viability of Oil 1010 as a Sequence IIIG reference oil can be made.

Perhaps all of the above has left many of you in a fog. To be honest, some of the discussion is pretty arcane. However, the point of presenting all of the gory details is to show you how much care is taken to get tests that are reproducible and repeatable to the extent that any engine test can do so. These two examples, the Sequence VG and IIIG, are among the most expensive of engine sequence tests, each costing around $50,000 to run one time; thats money down the drain if the tests arent reliable.

I hope that you are now more aware of the great pains taken by ASTM and its many committees and task forces to make sure that the lubricants we market and use meet quantifiable standards, and can be successfully compared to each other. Without the efforts made by these volunteers, none of the claims made by any marketer or additive supplier could be substantiated objectively.

Life is tough and anything done to make it a bit easier is worth recognizing.

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