For all you people who think lubricants are all the same, this article should be interesting.


 Back in the eighties, when I had my own shop, I took pride in the fact that I was taking care of customers' vehicles and extending the service life of them.
Since changing the oil every three months or 5000km was, and still is, a primary ingredient in achieving that goal, I made sure my customers were aware of the importance. And, like most of us we trust the brand names that advertise to the consumer because they have got years of testing and supposed reliability built into their products. Like most managers, owners and technicians, I have always assumed that if an oil product carries the S.A.E. and A.P.I. labels, then the product must be okay and realistically, I really didn't have time to question the products that we use.
Then, one day, everything changed.
A customer came in with a fairly new vehicle and low mileage. His complaint was excessive oil consumption and periodic tappet noises. Of course the first thing you do is check the oil level. The level was fine. But, it was dripping off of the dip stick with the consistency of transmission fluid. It didn't look right to me, but I dismissed it at that moment.

I asked him where he got his last one change done.  His response was the dealer.  I told him "Let's just try changing the oil first and then we will monitor the oil consumption over the next month".  I was using Pennzoil at the time and the change solved the problem. During the next two months, three more similar cases showed up and just changing the oil, solved every case.

Of course with this evidence definitely made me suspicious about the quality of the lubricants that was out there. What was so different between the Pennzoil product and what the dealer and other shops were using? Also, the fact that I knew there was a problem wasn't good enough. If I was going to complain, I would naturally have to have some facts to back me up and who should I have complained to?

First I would have to figure out a way to acquire legitimate used oil samples, and have the samples tested at a lab. And hopefully the lab results could verify my suspicions and possibly give me some clues as to why this was happening.
Was this just a regional problem? Did someone make a mistake in the formula at the plant? Or could this be a bigger problem?

So, I setup the criteria to acquire used oil samples; no brand mixing, normal driving conditions, no additives and within normal drain intervals. Over the next four months only  twenty six samples of different brands and weights were acquired using this criteria because I wanted to be sure that contamination could not be used as an excuse and because most people had no clue (and no sticker) as to what brad of lubricant was in the crankcase.

I also took multiple samples from these vehicles and sent them to different labs just in case there was an error in a test procedure and I also sent new, unused, samples for testing.
The test results more than surprised me.

Many of the 10W30 samples came back a straight 20 weight. They were no longer a multi grade. Also, the same samples had more than double the amount of allowed iron and lead content which proved more than normal engine wear. To be honest, I knew the metal content was going to be high because I could see it settle on the bottom of the sample bottle overnight. One product had a very high sodium content which, in further research, was used as a thickening agent.

For those of you who may not understand the numbers like 10W30, I will explain. Petroleum oil will naturally thicken when it gets cold and thin when it gets hot. An additive called a viscosity indexer is used to prevent or limit these qualities from actually happening. They are spaghetti strand molecules that attach themselves to the oil molecules much like rubber bands. This prevents them from flying apart when they get hot (which is the thinning action) and also prevents them from tightening up when they get cold (which is the thickening action).
A 10W-30 label means that at -30°C, it acts like a 10 weight oil would, at that temperature. Plus, when heated to 100°C, it would have the same characteristics of a 30 weight oil, at that temperature. So, because it has multi-grade properties, it is labeled as such.

What was happening was that the indexers were being sheared. Or, simply put these spaghetti strand molecules, were being cut while in the motor, which eliminated its multi viscosity properties and revealed the base stock that was used in the original formulation. This 20W oil was not adequate for engine protection.
To back up this theory, I took a new bottle of a suspected brand of 10W-30, ran half of it though the blender in my kitchen for 15 minutes and sent both the 'blender' sample as well as the untouched sample to the labs. The results confirmed my suspicion. The untouched sample was true to the bottle's label but the 'blended' version came back a 20W.

I checked with S.A.E. (The Society of Automotive Engineers) and found that their mandate was to insure that what was in the bottle was what the label advertised. It does not, however, have anything to do about how the product reacts under working conditions. The A.P.I. labeling is there to show that the additive package conforms to specific engine types and other criteria and again, does not reflect how well the lubricant will perform as far as viscosity breakdown.

So, what to do with this information? I certainly knew that I was definitely not going to use these products in my shop. And I also knew I had to warn others in the automotive industry of my findings and I also had to tell the general consumer because they had a right to know.
I am not talking about 'no-name' brands or known 'cheap' products. This was happening to lubricants with well known brand names.

During this period of time unknown to me, the Consumer Reports magazine out of New York, had performed similar tests because of consumer complaints. The products they tested resulted in the same findings of my tests.

Yes, I contacted the vehicle manufacturers so they can do something about it because ultimately they were carrying the warranties on their drive trains and if they're going to pay for excessive warranties due to poor lubricants, somebody's head was going to roll. I also went public with my findings which turned out to be a minor nightmare. I was not prepared for the interviews, meetings and the twisty politics from the oil companies. The people that phoned and came to my shop weren't customers, they were people that had their own experiences with bad oil and yes, some were threats from individuals who were probably losing money because of me.

The stand I took was to let people know that there is a problem and that there was plenty of proof. I did not attack the oil companies who allowed this problem to happen because they knew who they were. All I wanted them to do is just fix the problem and not try to cover it up.

The results of this experiment did not teach me to keep my mouth shut. No, quite the opposite. It did make me feel that even as an individual, changes in this large industry are possible. The products did get changed, a new watchdog was created to monitor viscosity breakdown and some products were removed from the shelves and reformulated.
Since then, I have tested most every lubricant and additive before it went on my shelf to see if the products would really deliver what they advertised. But, that's a topic for another article.

Never assume a product is good until you have a chance to prove it first to yourself.
You are ultimately responsible for what you put into your customer's vehicle.
You selected the product and you installed it. If it causes damage or can be proven that the product you supplied and installed caused premature wear or damage, you are responsible.

There are many products out there that do not deserve the label they come with. It's up to you to weed them out.
If you suspect there might be a problem with a product, the worse thing you can do is ignore it. Talk about it in the shop, in forums and at industry meetings. You may be surprised that others are having the same problem.
Together, the problem can be fixed.{jcomments on}