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Begging the Question: One GF-6 Label or Two?

By Steve Swedberg

The question of how to label the new ILSAC GF-6 engine oil category continues to be contentious. Because the categorys developers are proposing to have two levels, GF-6A and GF-6B, there is concern by all quarters of the industry as to how the oil will be designated for consumers.

Current practice calls for all GF-series oils to be identified by the API Certification Mark, popularly known as the Starburst, below. GF stands for gasoline fueled, and each upgrade in the specification has used this same trademark since the launch of GF-1 in 1992. Youll find it on the front label of packages of licensed motor oils.

The Starburst logo is evergreen, in that it does not indicate whether an oil meets the current GF-5 specification or some earlier variant. Thats worked out well, as each prior step in the GF series has been backwards compatible; todays GF-5 oils are fine for older engines that originally were covered by GF-4 and earlier types.

GF-6 presents a new challenge since there will be two versions which (as of this writing) the industry officially hopes to nail down by April 2016. GF-6A will continue the pattern of oils which are suitable for use in older vehicles. GF-6B, on the other hand, has a lower high-temperature/

high-shear viscosity, and there are serious concerns about this lighter-weight oils ability to be backwards compatible.

Ive written about this in Lube Report (most recently on May 13), and also about Hondas requests for very low viscosity oils to maximize fuel economy in its engines. In response to Hondas prodding, SAE even developed a new viscosity grade, SAE 16, which has a lower high-temperature/high-shear viscosity than other non-

winter grades.

The question now is how to designate both GF-6 versions so as to clearly alert consumers as to what is backwards compatible and what may not be.

After Mays meeting of the Auto-Oil Advisory Panel, Dennis Bachelder of the American Petroleum Institute sent an exit poll to panel members and others, identifying three proposals for dealing with the issue. For each trademark option, respondents were asked to indicate if they can accept the choice, cannot accept the choice and why, or have no preference.

Here are the three proposals:

First, simply continue with the current system, with all eligible products showing the Starburst on their front labels whether they meet GF-6A or GF-6B. The API Service Symbol, which has been in use since the 1970s and is commonly known as the Donut, would continue to indicate the products API Service category and GF certification, resource-conserving properties and SAE viscosity grade. One drawback to this option is that it does not help prevent GF-6B oils from finding their way into older engines.

Option two is to continue with the present system only for GF-6A oils, and to have no Starburst mark on GF-6B products. In this case, the Donut symbol alone would be used to designate GF-6B products. However, the purpose of the Starburst is to verify for buyers not only the engine performance of the oil but also its fuel economy benefits. The Donut can denote resource conserving performance but has been criticized as being less clear and less consumer-friendly than the Starburst.

Option three is to continue the current system for GF-6A and create a new certification mark for GF-6B. This choice has the benefit of maintaining the familiar system for GF-6A, while developing a distinct designation for GF-6B (and presumably for future oils, too). The downside is that a new certification mark will require an educational process and could lead to confusion.

The straw poll is still out for comment, but upon reporting all this in Lube Report, I got an earful from two industry stalwarts: Jim Newcombe, the one-time OEM guru at Paramins and Infineum (now retired), and consultant Mike McMillan, formerly with General Motors. Both had helped give birth to the GF-series, and both remain passionate about engine oil development. I also reached out to Mike Brown of SK Lubricants for the views of the Auto-Oil Advisory Panel, which is creating GF-6.

Jim was quick with his take: It appears to me that the industry has finally lost it completely! he e-mailed with familiar bluntness. If there are serious concerns about the lighter-weight oil being able to be protect engines, they need to be based on facts and science. Then a test to show whether an oil with the new HTHS is OK or not would solve the issue. If the serious concerns are based on nothing more than a gut feel, this should not be the basis for needless confusion and/or consternation.

If a test to show an oil to be or not be satisfactory cant be developed, he added, then there isnt a real problem and the industry ought to work on real problems.

To that salvo, Mike McMillan responded, The serious concerns are whether oils with HTHS viscosities as low as 2.3 cPs for XW-16 oils and possibly even lower for future lighter grades will harm existing vehicles in the field. This is an issue that each manufacturer must decide for their engines, and the answer may vary on an engine-by-engine basis. And the issue is complicated even further when you consider the effects of excessive fuel dilution, operation at higher temperatures, etc. So unfortunately, a test in a single engine wouldnt be able to solve the problem.

Jim retorted, I guess my simplistic response to this is that the OEMs need to do their job and make sure THEIR engines DO work with THEIR requested viscosities. To think that no matter what the API, ILSAC, et al, come up with as new labeling, that there wont be misapplication seems to me to be a very Pollyanna-ish thought.

(Jim always had a way of cutting to the core of the question!)

Speaking for myself, I think the industry is right to fear that oils of less than 2.6 cPs HTHS viscosity, if widely used in older vehicles, will be too low in viscosity and lead to problems in the field.

Will there be unprecedented engine failures? Maybe not. Lubrizol actually did a bunch of test work in 2012 that showed an SAE 0W-16 giving similar results to an SAE 5W-20, including in engine sequence tests that included the arduous Nissan Sequence IVA wear test. Honda, which is leading the charge for low-vis oil, also ran a battery of tests on SAE 0W-16 and passed everything including Sequence IVA.

However, the lubricants and auto industries have already seen a small backlash from the motorhead segment over the low zinc levels in todays oils. Maybe theyre being politically correct, but no one wants to add low-vis headaches to that mix. As I told Jim and Mike, the attitude seems to be, Lets confuse the marketplace so we dont get burned.

Let me be perfectly clear; I think it is P.C., Jim zinged back. Methinks you are being P.C. by not calling it B.S.

Just to add more fuel to the fire, Mike interjected, I think at least some of the OEMs feel much like Kevin Costner did in the movie Field of Dreams. If the industry builds these ultra-low viscosity oils, some unknowing consumers they will come and purchase the oils for their older cars, maybe based on wild marketing claims promising higher fuel economy with this new (so it must be better) ultra-low viscosity oil.

On this point, Jim sort-of agreed. No matter what is done by the [industry] regarding labeling, two oils will be on the market with the same performance attributes. This means there will be misapplication. Therefore, if there are serious concerns they need to be addressed via more stringent performance attributes. Not some confusing labeling.

Mike also worried that GF-6A and 6Bs performance requirements may not match up if they cant get the GF-6B oils to run in the GF-6A engine tests. Were already seeing some of this now, and its likely to get much worse when we get to SAE 12, SAE 8, etc.

As I reminded the two, Honda in fact is expecting to see oils as low as SAE 4, whatever that is. It also is looking at SAE 8 and SAE 12. Now if that doesnt scare you nothing will.

Now, SAE 16 has a HTHS viscosity minimum of 2.3 cPs. Extrapolating from there to lower grades, Mike calculates that SAE 12 could have an HTHS viscosity minimum of 2.0 cPs, SAE 8 would be 1.7 cPs, and SAE 4 might be only 1.4 cPs. Maybe Honda is designing their newer engines to run on SAE 8s and 4s, but last time we checked when I was at GM, anything below about 2.4 cPs HTHSV caused the engine to run in boundary lubrication under not-too-severe conditions, he recalled. I wonder how Honda engines built a few years ago would fare on such oils?

Is the only difference in these oils really going to be the viscosities, asked Jim, or are you suggesting that the lower-viscosity GF-6B oils may not pass the tests that 6A oils are required to pass? If thats the case theres going to be a world of hurt out there for the consumers.

I assured Jim and Mike that everything to date from the AOAP meeting minutes and presentations says that the intention is that GF-6A and 6B have the same performance requirements. For more of AOAPs perspective, I turned to panel member Mike Brown of SK Lubricants.

The earliest draft I have of GF-6B is dated Feb. 16, 2012, and that file is titled Revision 2. So the GF-6B discussions have occurred for at least 28 months, Brown noted.

The evolution of engine oils to lower viscosity continues, he went on. It is a proven route to capture more fuel economy and lower emissions. Lower HTHS viscosity and also lower startup viscosities (cold cranking and pumpability viscosities) have been the growing trends. SAE 10W-40 grades migrated to 10W-30, then to 5W-30. Now we see the SAE 5W-20/0W-20 growth at the expense of SAE 5W-30 oil market. It is a slow migration to lower SAE viscosity grades, and it is controlled by the recommendations of the automakers in their owners manuals.

Oil viscosities lower than SAE 5W-20/0W-20 started as genuine oils without an official SAE grade designation. SAE responded by defining one lower viscosity grade, SAE 16 (0W-16 and 5W-16). Some major engine designers have already re-engineered their internal combustion powerplants to operate well on lower HTHS viscosity oils. They and their consumers enjoy increased fuel economy, Brown continued.

As the numbers of these vehicles grow in the vehicle fleet, it is important to license service-fill oils under the current API system by extending it further. I think the fact that Auto and Oil members are working together on GF-6A/B gives testimony to a key point. We all seek API and ILSAC oil performance standards that can be used by all lubricants manufacturers and based on a level playing field. Whether it becomes one GF-6 or remains two, GF-6A and GF-6B, remains to be seen.

So there you have it. On the one hand, Honda and to some extent AOAP are looking for a very low viscosity oil that can meet the performance requirements of GF-6 and future vehicles. However, given the extra-low viscosity of an SAE XW-16, this grade wont be backwards compatible. AOAP is now struggling with how to designate this product in such a way as to prevent misapplication in older vehicles.

At the same time, as Mike McMillan points out, GF-6 is being touted as the next leap forward in engine oil technology. So is it possible that GF-6B will be mistakenly used in older vehicles with catastrophic results? We shall see.

Industry consultant Steve Swedberg has over 40 years experience in lubricants, most notably with Pennzoil and Chevron Oronite. He is a longtime member of the American Chemical Society and SAE International, where he was chairman of Technical Committee 1 on automotive engine oils. He can be reached at steveswedberg@cox.net.

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