Oil Bay: Synthetic and superior

Oils are exposed to demanding conditions at the best of times. In the face of the punishing temperatures and contaminants that are a reality in a diesel engine, oils are expected to provide a reliable defense against the metal-on-metal contact that would otherwise chew components into tiny bits.

Your customers who operate in severe-service environments and applications are making engine oil work even harder. In addition to any traditional stresses, they are starting equipment in frigid conditions, exposing engines to higher loads and generating the extreme temperatures that can wreak havoc with oil chemistry.

It makes their equipment ideal candidates for synthetic lubricants.

In general, synthetic engine oils account for a mere five percent of the heavy-duty market, largely because of the fact that the products tend to cost three or four times more than their conventional counterparts. But technicians could be doing more to promote the return on the investment to customers. Synthetic formulas are designed to flow more effectively at cold temperatures; resist the thermal breakdown and formation of sludge that can shorten the period between drain intervals; and maintain their lubricating properties across a wider range of temperatures.

It is a valuable story to tell.

“Synthetics have a higher tolerance for temperature extremes, so they can maintain a more consistent viscosity,” explains Valvoline’s Barry Bronson, noting how the formulas can offer benefits in hot and cold environments alike.

Explaining the difference between a traditional oil and its synthetic counterpart will come down to a bit of a chemistry lesson. The refining process for conventional oil largely focuses on removing impurities such as the paraffin that will turn the fluid into a waxy mess in cold weather, or the aromatics that will cause the base oil to degrade more quickly and shorten the time between drain intervals.

Chemical reactions that create acids, sludge and deposits – like the performance-robbing deposits on ring lands and the under-crown area of the piston – emerge with a combination of temperature and time, but they also require catalysts such as the contaminants that will be more plentiful in a supply of traditional oil, says Walt Silveira, North American technical manager for Shell Lubricants.

In contrast, the controlled production process for a synthetic formula produces a more consistent base stock from scratch.

“You’re building uniform molecules,” Silveira explains. “You don’t have the impurities, the contaminants that would be there in conventional oil that contribute to the breakdown.”

Perhaps the most visible benefit of synthetic oil comes in the form of easier cold-weather starts that will ease the strain on batteries and starters alike. That explains why the most common weight of the oil is a 5W40. (For those in extremely cold environments that plunge in the range of -40˚F, there are even 0W40 synthetics available.) But there is another benefit that is gaining particular interest among users in the heavy-duty marketplace.

“We’ve seen a lot more interest in full synthetic properties with the potential energy savings,” Silveira says. The switch from a conventional 15W40 to a synthetic 5W40 could improve fuel savings by as much as one percent. At a time when diesel costs more than $4.60 a gallon, that is bound to attract attention.

The cold-weather starting capabilities can have their own impact on fuel economy, adds Paula Del Castilho, Petro-Canada category manager for Commercial Transportation Lubricants. The ability to turn over the engine at a lower temperature may eliminate the need for extended idling time, after all.

“That’s a savings at the end of the day,” she says.

Bronson, meanwhile, points out how equipment manufacturers are demanding more from any oil that is used, and suggests that these demands should focus more attention on synthetic formulas.

“Of primary importance is what the OEM demands. What does Freightliner want, what does Cummins want, what does Mack want? That depends on the engine,” he says, referring to the choice that is available. “You’ve got to be responsive to the kind of equipment your customers have. Do you have a big part of your customer base driving modern, low-emission [engines], extending drain intervals? You’re going to have to carry a synthetic.”

Synthetic formulas may be the newest oil technology on the market, but they also have proven themselves to be technically sound. Earlier concerns about the chemistry attacking the seals on older engines have been put to rest, Bronson adds. Equally, there is no need to use a mineral-based oil to “break in” newer equipment. (That concern was traditionally linked to sports cars with flat tappet cams, which crave a supply of zinc.)

And, of course, the science of synthetic lubricants is not limited to the engine. A heavy-duty synthetic transmission fluid will be important to address temperature extremes as well. “What it does allow in particular cases, for example, transmissions made by Eaton and ArvinMeritor, is extended warranty coverage to 750,000 miles,” Bronson adds. Synthetic gear oils, meanwhile, can lead to less churning losses and even better fuel economy.

Cost-conscious customers may even be interested in synthetic “blends” of engine oils, Del Castilho says, but buyers need to be careful to find out whether the individual formulas will meet their specific needs. There are no rules that determine the percentage of synthetic chemistry that needs to be in the final blend.

And whatever formula that is chosen, she suggests that an oil analysis program will offer the real proof of the oil’s capabilities.

It’s simply a matter of trying the superior options that are available.

Learn how to move your used trucks faster
With unsold used inventory depreciating at a rate of more than 2% monthly, efficient inventory turnover is a must for dealers. Download this eBook to access proven strategies for selling used trucks faster.
Used Truck Guide Cover