5 Things You Should Know About Motor Oil

Let me begin by saying that I have personally made every mistake on this list, so don’t feel judged. Heck, I grew up the son of a NASCAR driver who was sponsored by an oil company, so if I didn’t know any better, don’t feel bad if most of this is news to you.

Among performance enthusiasts (read things that go fast), bringing up the topic of oil or lubrication is akin to talking politics or religion – there is going to be an argument. A major reason is an overwhelming amount of opinion regarding the science of lubrication and very little fact. This is why I am sharing this with you. I’m a member of the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers, and we deal with the science of lubrication. Throw out all of the marketing slogans. Forget about the sponsorships. STLE deals with the facts. The next 5 points are not my opinion – they are facts condensed from hundreds of Ph.D. scientists that have spent the last 100 years learning how lubricants work.

THE 4 “R’S”

Proper lubrication can be defined as having the right oil, in the right place, at the right time and in the right amount. You can define the right oil as one that has the proper viscosity and additive package for the application. But that oil is useless if it can not reach the parts it needs to lubricate, clean and cool. In fact, it just doesn’t need to reach those parts. The lubricant needs to arrive on time and in enough quantity to properly lubricate, cool and clean the part.

Think about an engine oil. Motor oil needs to flow through the engine to provide an oil film for the moving parts, which reduces friction and carries away heat and contaminants. Some people talk about an oil’s “load carrying” ability, but that fails to consider motor oil is more than just a lubricant. Motor oils must cool, clean and transfer power (think hydraulics) in addition to being a lubricant. If “load carrying” was the most important factor, then you would use grease to lube your engine, but that is simply not the case. While greases and even gear oils have “load carrying” capacity well beyond motor oils, these products do not have either the proper viscosity or additives to properly lubricate, cool, clean and transfer power in your engine. Conversely, don’t put engine oil in your rear gears or wheel bearings.

The key takeaway here is to make sure you are using a lubricant designed specifically for the equipment you are lubricating. Today, performance enthusiasts have a broad selection of lubricants engineered for specific applications, and these products can really make a difference in the longevity and performance of the equipment they are designed for.

BALANCE IS BEST

Second, more is not better. If some ZDDP (Zinc) is good, then more has to be better, right? Nope. I know this runs counter to most of the thinking in the performance marketplace, but when it comes to lubrication, balance trumps more. Too much of any one thing in a lubricant, or even the lubricant itself, is damaging. Too much ZDDP can actually increase wear. Too much viscosity can starve parts of the lubricant they needs (see the 4 “R’s” from item 1), and too much lubricant itself causes churning which increases operating temperatures. Overfilling an engine by just one quart of oil can raise the oil temperature 40°. The number one reason for failed, overheated bearings is overfilling the bearing with grease.

The more is not better mantra also applies to aftermarket additives. Even though the parts store has a wall full of miracle chemicals in a bottle, just keep walking. If you think your current lubricant is deficient, don’t try to find and additive to “fix” it – just use an oil designed for the application. When an oil is designed for the application, it does not need “more” additives or anything else.

Also, know that putting an additive in an oil is like playing chemical Russian roulette. If the additive and the lubricant don’t mix properly, you will have less lubrication than if you had done nothing. This especially applies to ZDDP additives and other “motor oil supplements.” Again, just use an oil designed for your equipment, and you are on the right path.

CLEAN, COOL & DRY

The third thing is to keep the lubricant clean, cool and dry. Now that you have the proper lubricant installed and filled to the proper level, it is time to protect it. Dirty oil is a bad lubricant no matter how “good” the oil itself is. Sometimes, keeping the lubricant clean can be a challenge, especially in dirty and wet environments. However, it is a job worth doing. Not only do dirt particles cause abrasive wear in the equipment, the increased wear metals mean the oil gets even dirtier faster. Keeping the dirt under control is the job of the filters. Very high quality (not necessarily high flow) filters can capture dirt and remove it from the system. In fact, it is proven that oil stays cleaner if you change the filter between oil changes. This is a great way to get the maximum life out of your lubricant. If the oil is cool, clean and dry, then the oil will be good for a very long time. This will allow you to extend drain intervals without compromising the protection of your equipment.

Keeping the oil dry is very important to oil life and performance. Not only is water a poor lubricant, it also depletes the lubricant of the additives that help the lubricant do its job. To keep the lubricant dry, it is recommended the oil sump temperature reach between 180° and 220°. That is hot enough to evaporate out any moisture build-up but not too hot to hurt the oil. This is the keeping the lubricant cool part. While most people would not say 220° is a cool temperature, it is a good temperature for most lubricants – moisture evaporates, oil is unhurt. Every 20° over 220°, the life of the oil drops significantly, so it is similar to our “more is not better” discussion. You need some heat in the oil, but not too much. It is a fine balance.

GET THE FACTS

The 4th thing to know about lubricants is used oil analysis ends speculation and provides facts. Let’s face it, there are many different types of performance equipment operating in a wide variety of environments around the world, from 2-stroke snowmobiles in Canada to jet boats in New Zealand. Each combination presents its own unique challenges, but used oil analysis can give you data to help navigate these challenges based on fact rather than speculation or opinion. Used oil analysis is not very expensive, and it is easy to do. Most heavy equipment dealers (Caterpillar, John Deere, etc…) sell used oil analysis kits for less than $20 in most cases. All you have to do is take a small 3 oz. sample of the lubricant directly from the equipment within a couple of minutes of shutting down the equipment. Fill out the forms to identify the sample and send it off the lab for processing. Don’t worry, the 3 oz. sample is not considered hazardous, so you can send it regular mail. Nothing special needs to be done. In a few days, you get back your results, with interpretation. It is just that simple but can make a big difference for you. For best results, have oil analyzed on a regular, or at least periodic, basis.

FUEL MATTERS

The 5th thing is don’t forget about your fuel. You may be wondering what fuel has to do with oil, but the type of fuel you use (and any additives you may have put into your fuel) do directly effect the life of our oil. For example, upper cylinder lubricants tend to increase fuel dilution of the motor oil, and the upper cylinder lubricant itself can leave deposits in the engine. This shortens the life of the oil because the oil is trying to clean the deposits off the engine parts. Once the oil is “full” of fuel and the upper cylinder lubricant, the oil can no longer hold these contaminants and they separate out from the oil. You don’t want that to happen. Conversely, some fuel additives actually help the oil by keeping certain areas of the engine clean and by keeping the fuel that does get past the piston rings from turning into varnish. So, you do have to pay attention to your fuel and what you put in it; avoid products containing alcohol. You can either improve or decrease the performance and life of lubricant, and the equipment it protects, by the choice of fuel and fuel additives.

If you keep these five facts in mind, they can guide to a safe place that provides protection, performance and value.

Lake Speed Jr. is a Certified Lubrication Specialist at Driven Racing Oil.