Walk through any big-box department store and you’ll see a variety of engine oils for sale at relatively low prices. When compared to major brands, some low-cost oils look like they offer good value. But how do you know they can do the job and that you aren’t jeopardizing the lifespan of a very expensive engine? That was the question a Grainewsreader asked us to look into. Here’s what we found.
“All oil comes from the same base stock,”says Mike Bevans, a project engineer at the Alberta Ag Tech Centre at Lethbridge. “But each manufacturer will include different proprietary additives.” The specific blend of them is what sets different oils apart. But how do you know exactly what your engine needs?
“The very first thing we tell consumers is “read your owner’s manual,” says Tony Macerollo, vice-president of the Canadian Petroleum Product Institute (CPPI). “Every vehicle has a manual that carries those specifications. The performance standards of the engine oil recommended for a vehicle will be listed there.” They will be stated in a standardized way, typically as an API (American Petroleum Institute) rating.
Engine oils on the shelf in any store or farm service centre will have their API ratings printed on the label. (API ratings are frequently updated. Oil produced a decade or two ago will be manufactured to different standards than current offerings.)
“When you look at what (oil) big-box stores are providing, there are a number of trademarks that indicate what certifications they meet,” adds Macerollo. The CPPI isn’t aware of any instances of mislabelling. “Luckily, in Canada we haven’t had any significant issues.”
According to Bevans, engine manufacturers base recommended oil change intervals on tested performance with oil of a specific rating. Oil that doesn’t meet those rating requirements may not last as long or perform as well, so change intervals may have to be shortened to compensate.
While budget oils should meet the minimum standard for the API rating printed on their labels, premium blends may provide just as much value per buck spent. “Sometimes you’re paying for the name, but more often than not you’re paying for what’s in there,” adds Bevans. The proprietary blend of additives in premium oils may give them longer life and allow them to better protect an engine.
If you want to try a new oil but aren’t sure how it will perform, Bevans recommends instituting an oil scan program. Take a sample of oil from the engine at regular intervals and send it to one of the many labs that can analyze it for traces of metal worn from bearing surfaces. Local dealers will likely have kits available for taking samples or be able to refer you to a lab.
“It doesn’t cost much to have these analyses done,” says Bevans. “At 50 hours (sampling intervals) you should be able to catch problems.”
But what about really going upscale? Will paying a higher price for synthetic oil provide a payback? “The big advantage with synthetic is you can increase your oil change interval,” says Bevans. That may offset the higher cost per litre.
And while synthetics are generally associated with improved lubricity, that particular advantage only remains as long as you continue to use it. “Once you start using synthetic, you only derive benefits if you keep using it,” says Marcello. Bevans agrees. “If you go back to mineral-based oil, all that (advantage) is going to quickly diminish.”
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