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It doesnt take a genius to see that things are getting more expensive. Earlier this year, a Wall Street Journal article highlighted the cost increase in most commodities from February 2010 to February 2011. The results were stunning, to say the least. The big winner(?) was motor fuel, up 20 percent in that time. The cost of groceries was up about 4 percent, while household energy rose about 2 percent.

Other costs were mentioned that have an impact on our business. Vehicle parts and equipment went up 4 percent, vehicle maintenance 3 percent and motor vehicle costs 1 percent.

All of the above points to further pressure on John Q. Public to tighten our belts and make what we have go just a little bit further. Since four of the above items directly impact the family car or light truck, we need to look a lot closer at our modes of transportation to maximize the benefits of our current chariot.

First and foremost, the rising cost of gasoline and diesel makes it imperative that we look to the most efficient use of our wheels to reduce our fuel consumption. Youve heard it all: Combine trips, dont drive at excessive speeds, accelerate smoothly, etc. Heres one that we can all relate to: Use a resource-conserving engine oil.

The new API GF-5 (API SN Resource Conserving) category provides maximum fuel economy benefits from both the oils additive content and from using the lowest viscosity grade your engine can tolerate. For those of us with vehicles of a few years ago, SAE 5W-30 fits the bill. For the newest of the new, SAE 0W-20 may be the right choice. Check your owners manual to see what is recommended.

Costs for vehicle parts and aftermarket equipment are up as well, and that includes the cost of engine oils. It is also a wakeup call for do-it-yourself maintenance. New spark plugs, a new air filter and of course an oil filter along with that oil change – all are an important part of keeping your vehicle in its best operating condition and reducing fuel consumption to the minimum for your make and model.

Vehicle maintenance is another area where diligence is needed. Rotate and balance tires as well as keep them at proper air pressure. Making sure your brake system is correct is an important way to maximize your vehicles efficiency, not to mention being able to stop when needed.

Wheel bearings and transaxle lubrication is an important but often overlooked maintenance item. Using the proper grease for constant velocity joints as well as other parts of the suspension is a sure way to get the most out of your car or light truck.

With the cost of new vehicles going up, not to mention their complexity, taking proper care of your vehicle will pay big dividends in terms of long and satisfactory vehicle life. It will also cost you more. Most of this stuff is not for us shade tree mechanics. We need to take this work to someone with the tools to do the job right. With computers doing a lot of the tasks under the hood that formerly were done by carburetors and vacuum lines, its no wonder we need professional help.

I cant let transmissions escape unscathed. While transmissions are now 100,000-mile devices with no real work needed – unless they break – its still important to watch the automatic transmission fluid both for fill level and for signs of abuse.

The classic ATF test is the paper towel test, in which a droplet or two from the dip stick is dropped on to a paper towel. Depending on the fluids condition, a small or a larger ring of oil will be formed which indicates whether the ATF still has the dispersency needed to protect the transmissions moving parts. (The wider the ring, the better.) There may also be evidence of sludge and other nasties on the paper. Surprisingly, this rudimentary test is not too bad for determining if something is happening to the fluid.

Some transmission flushing devices out there promise consumers that they will replace the fluid and at the same time collect some of the gunk and other junk found in the fluid system. If going this route, its important to assure that the transmission flush doesnt carry over any fluid from the final flush. Even small amounts of contaminants can result in a loss of efficiency for your transmission. The same goes for top treats. They can do some pretty serious harm to the transmission if they are an incompatible composition for the fluid required by your vehicle. The safest bet is to use the ATF recommended in the owners manual for your make and model.

Older vehicles, like my GMC, recommend ATF changes at 50,000 to 100,000 miles, depending on whether your driving cycle is severe or mild. Given that many transmissions are now more expensive to replace than engines, it is no wonder they need some TLC to get the maximum life.

Dont Forget the Axles

Where needed, as in the few remaining rear-wheel-drive cars and some light trucks, rear axles are lubricated by API GL-5 gear oils. Some of these axles have limited slip differentials which require a limited slip boost for satisfactory performance. Its interesting that this is the one part of the vehicle that has changed very little over the years. API GL-5 has been in place since the mid-1960s and is still the standard for rear-axle lubrication. The basic hypoid gear design has been around for many years and is favored in rear-wheel drives because it allows for a driveline to be very low, creating less of a hump in the passenger compartment as well as smoothly transmitting power from the transmission to the rear wheels. (For details of the available gear oil categories for manual transmissions, transaxles and axles, see document API 1560 at the American Petroleum Institutes website, /engineoil/pubs/index.cfm.)

Gear oils are also used in manual transmissions, although not usually GL-5. There are some manual transmission lubricant standards, including MT-1, which are designed to handle the transmission gear set without eating up the so-called yellow metals found in synchronizers and other bushings and bearings.

The bottom line to this discussion is that its important to maintain your vehicle since it is one of the most expensive investments youll probably make in your life. Regular maintenance including oil changes, transmission fluid checks, gear oil levels, chassis and constant velocity lubrication (not to mention brake fluid, power steering fluid and whatever else) is a must to keep that investment running smoothly and for the long haul.

Single-minded on Single-grades

Over the last several months (or is it years), I have been championing the retention of engine oil specifications for single-grade engine oils. The need to retain these specifications was brought home to me in spades with the earthquake and tsunami which ravaged Japan this spring. The property damage and loss of life is horrific enough to gain the attention and compassion of the entire world. However, the news continues to be full of one ongoing threat: the near-disaster at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture.

As I am writing this column, there are still a lot of problems and the danger of significant radioactive contamination is front and center in the minds of the Japanese people and the world press.

One of the great failings at the Fukushima plant was the loss of cooling water on the reactors when they shut down after the earthquake. The tsunami took out many of the auxiliary engines which are designed to supply cooling water in the event of an emergency. Without cooling AUTOMOTIVE water, the reactor cores could not cool rapidly enough to prevent the control rods and fuel rods from actually melting from the heat. Many in the United States immediately went into panic mode and wanted to shut down all nuclear power plants. Their fears are overblown and thankfully, most of these plants are in good shape to withstand a major earthquake and unlikely ever to face a tsunami.

The issue for me is that many of these plants use auxiliary engines manufactured by ALCO which are fueled with diesel fuel and require single-grade engine oil. These engines are older but given that they are strictly standby engines, they are still in use. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission guidelines for changing anything in a nuclear power plant are such that even the engine oil in the auxiliary engines must be viewed as a safety feature and cannot be changed without extensive testing.

Recently, the lubricants industry decided to eliminate the API engine oil categories which define single grades. This created a problem for the nuclear industry, as it led many oil marketers to eliminate single grades from their product lines – erasing the supply of oils needed to service these auxiliaries. ALCO has a rigid process for approving new oils for its engines which takes more than two years to complete, and nuclear authorities also must approve any change in these plant operations, including fluids. Without reliable, approved standby engines, the plants cannot operate, so you can see that this could become a real problem.

My plea to the industry is to not eliminate or reformulate any single-grade oils that will find their way into ALCO engines in nuclear power plants. I also ask ALCO to expedite the approvals necessary to get more modern formulations into these plants. The oil, nuclear and engine building industries should take this as a challenge to make sure that the nuclear industry is as safe as it can possibly be, and we in the oil industry should commit to doing our part expeditiously and properly.

That scraping sound you may be hearing is me putting my soapbox away, for now.

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