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All Oils Lubricate… But For How Long And Under What Conditions?

By Lake Speed, Jr. – Certified Lubrication Specialist at Driven Racing Oil

If you want to start an argument among car guys just bring up the topic of motor oil. Near religious fervor accompanies these “discussions,” but there never seems to be a resolution to the eternal question of “which is the best oil?”  Each person’s favorite brand seems to have provided “good luck” when it comes to lubrication. But how can this be?

02508The reason for the lack of a clear answer is two-fold. First, there is no “best oil.” The idea of a one-size-fits-all motor oil is a myth. All oils are application-specific in their formulation. “The best” diesel motor oil is still a terrible two-stroke oil.

Second, it is the wrong question to ask. As just described, oils are application-specific by nature.  What you really need to determine is which oil best suits your application.

Simply put, all oils lubricate. The most important question then is, “for how long and under what conditions can they do so?”

A perfect example is Castor bean oil. Castor oil has great lubricity, but it does not stand up to temperature extremes. As a result, it is an excellent two-stroke oil, but it would be a terrible diesel oil.

Another modern example is automatic transmission fluid. Each major transmission manufacturer now has specific viscosity and frictional requirements for their transmissions, and all of these specifications are impossible to meet with a single fluid.

But you are thinking that you’ve seen (maybe even used) Multi-Vehicle ATF and people have had “good luck” with it. Again, how can this be?

What you need to remember here is that you have to determine how long the oil will lubricate and under what conditions.

A Multi-Vehicle ATF may work fine in a mild climate under mild driving conditions, but will it still work towing a trailer in Arizona?

Harsh environments and severe service demand more of the lubricant, and an automatic transmission requires different properties than a diesel engine. So while a diesel motor oil can lubricate an automatic transmission, the question remains – for how long and under what conditions?  Obviously a diesel motor oil in an automatic transmission is a disaster waiting to happen. The viscosity is all wrong, so the transmission likely would not function properly at low temperatures. Purpose-built lubricants are designed to handle severe service in specific applications, especially in extreme conditions.

Please note that “extreme conditions” do not always mean towing a trailer through Death Valley, CA. In fact, sometimes grandma’s grocery getter in Green Bay is more “extreme” in terms of taxing the oil and the potential damage to the engine. Short trip driving can cause way more sludge than operating in desert environments, especially in cold climates where the engine oil struggles to get over 200°F.

That is where motor oils can get confusing. While a racing oil sounds like an oil that is perfect for extreme conditions, it is a bad choice for a daily driver. Using a racing oil in a daily-driven street car is not just overkill; it is just the wrong type of lubricant for a daily driver. Even if your daily driver is a pushrod V8, the racing oil NASCAR teams use in their pushrod V8 engines is not designed for the rigors of daily driving.

NASCAR engines run high engine speeds and high temperatures, both of which require generous amounts of exotic friction modifiers. While this chemistry is perfect for a race engine, these same friction modifiers that reduce wear and oil temperatures at 9,000 RPM also clog emissions system equipment in your daily driver at 3,000 RPM.

ThXP GROUP_newe examples are nearly endless, but the point is still the same. When you choose an oil for your transmission, motor or lawn mower, think about the application before you think about the brand. Once you think about what your application requires, you can then find oils that meet those requirements and are the correct viscosity for the application. Finally, you can choose a brand you trust to deliver the right chemistry in the right viscosity.

A great example of this process is what I do with my wife’s mini-van. To select the right oil I look at the owner’s manual and find what spec is required. In this case it is API SN/GF-5.

Next I look up the recommended viscosity. Her owner’s manual lists 0W-20 as the recommended viscosity grade, so now I choose a brand I trust to deliver API SN/GF-5 performance in a 0W-20 viscosity grade every time I open a quart.

I do the same thing when I select an oil for my four-stroke racing engine. I already know I need a racing spec oil instead of an API spec oil, so the next thing to determine is which viscosity grade racing oil I should use. Based on the operating oil temperature and bearing oil clearances, I see that I need to be running a 0W-20 viscosity.

While both engines ended up running a 0W-20 viscosity grade, the oils needed for each are chemically very different. However each lubricant is the best fit for its specific application. As a result, my wife gets good gas mileage and my race motor makes more horsepower.

Does Your Motor Oil Measure Up?

Shocking results of a study by the American Petroleum Institute finds that one in five bulk oils fail to meet their manufacturer’s advertised specs

By Jeff Huneycutt

Picture this scenario: You make a run to the grocery store and pick up a gallon of milk and a box of your favorite cereal, Count Chocula, for breakfast the next morning. Poor choices in a healthy diet to start your day aside, you are ready to enjoy a big bowl of chocolaty, sugary goodness when you pour the contents of the box into your cereal bowl and out comes – macaroni and cheese.

Now, you enjoy mac’n cheese as much as the next guy (or gal), but you are understandably a bit peeved that you didn’t get what was advertised on the box. After all, it’s your hard-earned cash and you deserve to get what you’ve paid for.

That example may seem a bit far-fetched, even ridiculous, but that is exactly what is going on in the oil industry today. Every year the American Petroleum Institute (API) purchases motor oil from many different locations and tests it to confirm the quality. Through its research the API found that oils bottled and sold in quart- and gallon-sized containers were almost always exactly as marked, but when it came to larger bulk quantities—sold in barrels and larger containers—the oil didn’t match the advertised specs an amazing 20 percent of the time.

And that’s not just a one-time blip on quality. The API says in a report recently published in the trade publication Lube Report that it annually tests approximately 200 bulk oil samples and the failure rate has been a consistent 20 percent for the last five years!

The API doesn’t give any details on exactly which oils were tested and how they failed, only that each oil said it met the API standards for consumer motor oil but didn’t. So although not every oil that failed the API testing would mean instant death for your engine, just like the macaroni example, you still expect to get what you pay for, right?

Still, you might be thinking, “This doesn’t affect me. I’m not some trucking company. I don’t buy oil in bulk and don’t know anybody who does.” But if you use an oil change service instead of changing your own oil you probably have oil purchased in bulk in your vehicle right now.

C3_GroupOne of the ways your local EZ-Lube is able to keep its prices down is by buying the oil it uses by the tanker load instead of the plastic quart-sized containers you are used to seeing. It gets pumped out of the tanker truck and into the facility’s own holding tank where it sits until you come by for an oil change. Contamination of those storage tanks is likely a major reason why 20 percent of the bulk oil in the United States doesn’t meet its advertised standard.

“If you go to your local oil change place and they aren’t opening up quarts of oil, then they are using a tank,” says Driven Racing Oil’s Lake Speed Jr. “If you get the discount deal, they may tell you what brand they are using—and it may be a very popular brand—but if they aren’t pouring it out of quart bottles, they are getting it from a tanker truck.”

So what can you do? Even a riverboat gambler wouldn’t accept a one-in-five failure rate. Fortunately, Speed says you do have a few options.

“First of all, if you still want to use an oil-change service, you can ask them to only use bottled oil in your car or truck,” Speed says. “They may charge you more, but the API study shows that the bottled oil is hardly ever wrong, and when it is it’s most often an off-brand discount oil.

“Second, you can change your own oil. Not only can you be sure that the job is done right, but getting underneath the car to drain the oil from the pan and getting under the hood to pour in fresh oil really gives you a chance to look over your car and spot potential problems. But I also understand that changing your own oil can bring some hassles with disposing of waste oil and making a mess and stuff like that, so it may not be worth it to you if we are talking about the family minivan.

“The third option is to bring your own oil with you to the oil change place. Some places may not want to do this because they make money on selling you the oil, but there are usually many oil change places in most towns so I bet you can probably find somebody willing to work with you. The advantage here is bringing your own oil allows you to choose the right oil for your car and you aren’t stuck with using whatever they happened to have stocked on the shelf.”

Speed brings up a great point that even if your local oil change place is using oil poured out of quart bottles—which can be considered trustworthy—you may not want it. This is especially true if your car or truck is a classic, a hot rod, or any performance vehicle with a high-horsepower engine. In this situation, the best oil for your vehicle’s needs may not even be an API-approved oil.

DRO XP1Speed stresses that if you have a unique, high-value car, then it deserves a unique, high-quality motor oil. We’ve already discussed two classes of motor oil, those that fail to meet the API spec and those that are API-compliant, but there is also a third class that should be considered. There are high-performance motor oils available that aren’t API certified because they actually exceed the specification. These specialist oils are blended for specific purposes such as racing, or premium protection for valuable classic muscle car engines and don’t make the compromises that meeting the API rules requires.

“You have to understand that the API spec was developed to make sure the oil meets the needs of the vehicle manufacturers,” he says. “The automotive companies have defined what they want for their OEM engines, and the API spec reflects that. The standard isn’t about producing better oil for performance; it’s about producing a motor oil targeted for the general driving population.”

If you are a performance enthusiast and you occasionally take your car to the drag strip or a track day at the road course, you may think you represent what the manufacturers consider a high-demand user of their engines.

But you are hardly even on their radar. What keeps them up nights is the grandmother who only drives a few miles to the store once or twice a week and five miles to see the grandkids on Sunday afternoons. The oil gets enough heat into it to draw condensation when it cools back down but never enough heat to boil off that moisture. It’s a recipe for creating damaging sludge in your motor oil, and that’s what the OEMs are worried about. The population of people driving like that is many times the population of performance enthusiasts.

The API standard is also used to protect the OEMs from costly warranty repairs. For example, changes to the API standard have lowered the acceptable amount of Zinc, or ZDDP, additive packages in certified motor oils because those chemicals can shorten the lifespan of catalytic converters. That part of the standard is only concerned with chemical content and has nothing to do with the performance of the motor oil. Because of that, it actually limits how much an oil manufacturer can do to create a high-performance motor oil that also meets the standard so that they can put the all-important API badge on the front of the bottle.

If you have a high-performance car, truck or motorcycle; a classic muscle car with a flat-tappet valve train; a race car; or enjoy maximum effort driving on track days, you will want to consider actually using a motor oil that’s not API-compliant in order to get the greatest performance and protection possible.

Driven Racing Oil is one brand of ultra-high performance motor oil that doesn’t have the API badge on the bottle. Making the changes necessary to get the certification would force the company to actually reduce the oil’s ability to maximize performance and protection in high-horsepower and racing engines. Driven was developed because the NASCAR engine builders at Joe Gibbs Racing had greater demands than current motor oils on the market could meet, and Driven’s entire lineup of oils still carries that high standard of performance.

XP GROUP_new“Our performance oils offer more than what API-spec oils can because the API limits things like phosphorus and sulfur, and those kinds of things which can limit catalytic converter life,” Speed explains. “That really limits what you can do with the oil in terms of anti-wear protection or friction modification. Our driving focus has always been to sell our customers oil that matches their engines’ needs as well as possible to help improve performance and win races. The API certification really isn’t designed to protect the all-out performance driver. That’s the type of driver we’re looking to help, so if creating a no-compromises performance oil to meet their needs means that oil won’t be API-compliant, then that’s what we are willing to do.”

So if you are driving a high-value car—and by “value” we mean both money and your own personal attachment to the vehicle—don’t make the mistake of assuming that a bottle of oil will provide your engine the best protection just because it has that “American Petroleum Institute” badge on the label. Your favorite machine is worlds different from all the grocery-getters and minivans on the road. Your pride and joy needs specifically blended oil and that probably means a high performance lubricant that exceeds the API’s specs.