Better oils, better choices

Nov. 10, 2014
In light of new formulations, lubricant suppliers suggest fleets consider changing their engine oil

Oil. It’s the lifeblood of an engine. Nothing’s changed about that since the birth of the automotive age. But when it comes to heavy-duty diesel engines, right now a lot about oil is changing. What’s more, say major lubricant suppliers, the changes under way are all for the better. Driving the ongoing push to develop and bring to market new multi-grade oil formulations is the growing recognition that this liquid gold can pump value into trucking operations beyond delivering on its core mission of protecting expensive engines.

Indeed, the latest advances in lubricants for heavy-duty diesel engines promise to arm fleet owners with a potent weapon for further taking down operating costs. For the major oil formulators, the front line they had to push past was determined by staying on top of the various factors that shape their market. They discerned that the role played by heavy-duty engine oil is changing quickly.

That meant working fast to ensure that customer satisfaction with their products would continue.

Complicating matters, there are two key agents of change driving lubricant developments. What’s brought each of these into play is unique. But the impact of each can be absorbed—if not neutralized—by applying a single solution that results in engine oils formulated to directly address these emerging issues.

The biggest agent of change is double-headed, but all green. Like never before, fleets are seeking engine oil that can help their engines run as fuel efficiently as possible to save them money. And the federal government is pushing for that to happen, too, albeit to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) via specific performance standards mandated for truck makers.

The first round of those GHG/MPG rules, jointly promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Administration, kicked in for model-year 2014-2018 trucks. The second round of the regs, not issued yet, will be stricter and will first apply to 2019 model-year vehicles. Once the first GHG/MPG rules were announced, diesel engine makers and truck OEMs determined that they would need motor oil to contribute to the mandated GHG reductions and corresponding increases in MPG performance.

That’s why engine makers petitioned back in 2011 for a new API oil-service category (known as Proposed Category 11, or PC-11 for short) to directly address fuel efficiency and be put in place by the time the initial GHG/MPG rules became effective. However, developing and proving out a new oil-service category is no quick feat. As things stands now, it looks like the work on PC-11 will conclude in time for newly formulated engine oils to hit the marketplace in early 2017.

The other big change-driver is a shift in operational patterns being undertaken by many over-the-road fleets to increase equipment utilization that is negatively impacting oil performance. These fleets are running more tractors in double-duty; that is, the same truck will run over the road at night and then make local deliveries in cities and towns during the day.

According to oil suppliers, the duty cycle of these dual-use trucks is more severe than what it was when such a truck only operated on the highway. That’s because when they’re peddling freight locally, their engines are shut down much more often, either manually or via automatic shutdown systems aimed at curbing idling.

The upshot is “oil is getting heated up more and more often,” explains Jim Gambill,  North America Commercial and Industrial brands manager at Chevron Products. “Over time, every increase in average temperature of 20 deg. can cut the oil’s lifespan by 50%. Pushing up average oil temperature over time does affect the job the oil must perform.

“With a Class 8 tractor, it used to be that the driver would turn on the engine on Monday and not turn it off again until Friday,” he continues. “Now the same truck is getting turned on and off and ‘cold-killed’ so much when operating locally that oil longevity is being impacted. In addition, these trucks are now engaged in more stop-and-go traffic and that cuts their fuel efficiency.”

“Fleet owners have always searched for any opportunity to save costs without risking long-term damage to their primary assets,” says John Cummins, vice president of product technology at Hydrotex and dean of its Lubrication University.

“In recent years,” he continues, “changes due to EPA regulations and the switch by fleets from single modes of operation to mixed local duties is putting even greater pressure on engine oil being used.”

Balancing act

The good news is that “many fleet owners have discovered that new formulations of heavy-duty engine oil with lower-viscosity ranges not only protect their vehicles, but provide increased fuel economy savings as well,” says Cummins.

He stresses that “it’s become essential to use an oil that can properly lubricate fleet engines across a broad range of conditions. Engine oils now have to perform over a wide range of operating conditions and temperatures from cold-weather starting to heavy loads in high temperature situations.”

“Today, fleet owners have to balance multiple concerns,” says Lilo Hurtado, application engineer with ExxonMobil Fuels & Lubricants. “They want to maximize the performance of their vehicles, enhance fuel economy potential, and show their [business] partners that they embrace sustainable business practices.

“Through our commitment to research and close working relationships with leading engine manufacturers and truck builders,” he continues, “we strive to be at the forefront of lubricant technology—even as various challenging requirements come up, like the development of PC-11.”

Given all those lubricant requirements that must be met, Hurtado remarks that ExxonMobil is “certainly seeing greater industry interest in low-viscosity synthetic engine oils that can offer many benefits that trucking fleets want.”

Dan Arcy, global OEM technical manager at Shell Global Solutions, says fleets of late are expressing “much greater interest in fuel economy, but they also remain interested in optimizing drain intervals. There’s a big question these customers have: Can they go to a lower-viscosity oil to reduce fuel consumption without sacrificing any of the engine protection they’re accustomed to?”

Weighing costs

With the caveat that drains may be set by fleets per varying criteria, Arcy says the answer to that question by and large is to move to a semi-synthetic oil formulated to increase fuel efficiency yet retain required protection and durability performance. “The fuel-economy performance of any oil will vary due to various factors,” he points out, “such as on-highway vs. stop-and-go miles and the weight of loads hauled.”

Arcy notes that fleets “often look at the added cost of a lower-viscosity oil, but they should also consider how that will be offset by the fuel-economy gains it delivers as well as the equivalent wear performance it provides compared to a less expensive 15W-40 product.

Len Badal, global Delo brand manager at Chevron, points out that “growth in market acceptance of lower-viscosity oils is also being driven by large fleets that see moving to a 10W-30 product as an easy change to gain up to a 1% improvement in fuel-economy performance.

“At the end of the day,” he continues, “there isn’t a huge price difference between purchasing 15W-40 and 10W-30, especially since fleets see the fuel economy savings they’ll realize as going straight to their bottom line.”

Badal points out that since the 2010 model year, “most engines have been designed to run on lower-viscosity oils—10W-30 in particular. Yet there are still a lot of older trucks on the road whose owners may be skeptical about that. Many view a lower-viscosity grade as too ‘passenger car-ish.’

“On the other hand,” he continues, “the regulations around GHG and the general desire by fleets to reduce fuel consumption will keep driving the market to 10W-30 and then to even lower viscosities. There is the future potential to move to 5W-30 oil for heavy-duty engines to gain even greater fuel efficiency.”

Badal reports that some customers who have tested a 5W-30 have indicated they would switch to it for the fuel economy benefit vs. the higher price it would command due to its fully synthetic formulation, which is necessary to fully protect the engine.” He notes that “some truck OEMs in Europe may trend over the next 10 to 15 years toward even lower-viscosity 5W-20.”

As for what most here now view as low viscosity—10W-30—Badal points out that these products can be formulated “either conventionally or as a higher-priced product that uses a synthetic blend for higher performance, such as our Delo 400 10W-30.”

Viscosity fear

Mark Betner, heavy duty lubricant manager at Citgo Petroleum, recognizes that there is what he calls “the viscosity fear syndrome” at work in the fleet marketplace. “The same thing occurred back when the industry went from straight 30 weight to 15W-40 oil. Fleet managers especially want to know if they can use a lower-viscosity oil, such as 10W-30, in older trucks without sacrificing engine protection.

“Of course, there’s always a lower-cost alternative to consider when a fleet decides on an oil formulation,” he continues. “But with the new low-viscosity formulations  that have been developed, today fleets can go with a lower viscosity to increase fuel efficiency and, most importantly, they do not have to expect any trade-offs in performance.”

Betner does advise that “fleets question why a specific 10W-30 product is being suggested by a supplier” because they are all not created alike. “You can ‘build’ a 10W-30 that provides a fuel-efficiency advantage without impacting wear performance, such as our Citgard 700 synthetic-blend product,” he explains. “On the other hand, you can put together a 10W-30 that offers a fuel-efficiency benefit, but not the wear protection a fleet expects.”

Oil formulators have been busy over the past few years bringing to market lower-viscosity oil. And they’ve been taking pains to educate their customers on why they should consider these formulations over tried-and-true 15W-40 products.

Hydrotex’s Cummins advises that the company has “developed and introduced in the past year HyFilm LEO 5W-30, a lower-viscosity oil that offers superior engine protection in response to tightening EPA emissions standards and the expansion in range and utility of fleets from linehaul to mixed local service.”

He reports that testing by Hydrotex of that 5W-30 has “shown fuel economy savings ranging from 1.5% to 4.2% vs. 15W-40 engine oils, depending on the specific driving conditions.  In addition to the savings associated with extended drain intervals, this could expedite fuel economy savings.

“Ultimately,” says Cummins, “cost savings [from engine oil] are desired, but not at the expense of putting fleet assets at risk.  For example, our premier-quality HyFilm LEO 5W-40,  a CJ-4/SN engine oil, has been tested and shown to have better wear protection than an API CJ-4 standard oil. And it outperformed the Mack EO-O Premium Plus Max Allowable Wear spec within the Mack-12 engine test.”

ExxonMobil’s Hurtado points to Mobil Delvac 1 LE 5W-30, a fully synthetic, heavy-duty diesel engine oil, as a lower-viscosity product “that helps deliver enhanced fuel economy potential, extended drain interval capability, emissions-system protection, and excellent low temperature performance.

“It also provides advanced wear protection for increased engine durability,” Hurtado continues. “And that capability dispels a common misconception that the benefits of lower-viscosity oils come at the expense of engine protection.”

Some solutions

According to Shell’s Arcy, “we’ve made a point of making available to customers the results of various types of durability tests on Rotella T-5 10W-30 oil, which our testing has shown to provide a 1.6% improvement in fuel economy.

“For example,” he continues, “an engine teardown comparison we conducted with one engine that ran on Rotella T-5 and another on 15W-40 oil showed virtually no change in wear protection.”

Arcy says the 10W-30 oil was formulated to have “the extra protection necessary to make it more than capable to handle extended drain intervals; however,” he cautions, “each fleet must consider all the specifics of their operation before extending drains with any oil.”

Chevron's Badal relates that along with its semi-synthetic Delo 400 10W-30, the company offers the 15W-30 Delo 400 SD oil. “Our 15W-30 is aimed at start-and-stop applications that frequently turn engines off as well as those that shut down often to reduce idling,” he explains.

He says such frequent key-offs “cause the turbo to wind down and the heat left over soaks into the oil and that can drive up oxidation. This oil has improved oxidation performance. And it has lower viscosity than 15W-40, but switching to it is not as big a change as moving right to a 10W-30. So, it can be adopted as an interim step by fleets as well.” 

According to Citgo’s Betner, the company’s Citgard 700 synthetic-blend 10W-30 has been shown to attain a 3% gain in fuel efficiency “at some fleets” vs. using 10W-30 oil and without incurring any drop-off in wear protection.

“We also offer the full-synthetic SynDurance 5W-30 oil,” he advises. “We have data on this product that shows it will produce an even higher fuel efficiency improvement than will 10W-30 compared to running 15W-40. And in million-mile field testing we’re conducting of this 5W-30 vs. premium 15W-40 oil, we’re seeing no trade-off in wear protection or oil consumption.”

“We’ve been working closely with major commercial vehicle manufacturers and engine builders on this issue for many years, conducting extensive laboratory testing and field trials,” says ExxonMobil’s Hurtado. He advises that the first engine oils meeting the final requirements to satisfy the PC-11 specs will be licensed starting on March 1, 2017.

As for Hydrotex’s outlook on PC-11, Cummins says the lubricant formulator is “following developments very closely, but we don’t expect to see the new API specifications in play before 2017. We will have product formulations ready whenever they are required.”

Shell’s Arcy, who heads up API’s New Category Evaluation Team for PC-11, says the development of the two new oil-service categories that will result from defining PC-11 remains on track for “first licensing of oils meeting the new criteria during the first quarter of 2017.”

“We won’t see PC-11 completed before mid-year 2017 if not a little later,” forecasts Citgo’s Betner. “We do know that the category will be split into two API service categories. These are currently referred to as Part A and Part B.”

Chevron's Badal describes what he terms the PC-11A category as one that “will be backward-compatible to cover any existing engine while providing better protection, including improved wear and oxidation performance, than oil meeting the CJ-4 requirements.”

As for what he refers to as the PC-11B category, Badal says it’s “being developed specifically for increasing the fuel efficiency of engines beginning with the 2017 model year. Typically, this category won’t be regarded as backward-compatible.”

According to Shell’s Arcy, PC-11A products may be 10W-30 oil that’s formulated at the high end of 30 grade as well as 15W-40 and 5W-40 formulations.

“As for PC-11B products,” he continues, “these will be directed at improving engine fuel efficiency. These will be 10W-30 and 5W-30 oils formulated at the lower end of 30 grade. Just like PC-11A oils, these will have to pass all the CJ-4 criteria tests.”

Certainly, no fleet is waiting for either of those new service categories to arrive to move to lower-viscosity oil. Rather, it seems natural market momentum is moving the switchover along at a decent pace all by itself.

Shell’s Arcy says “it’s worth noting that all OEMs now either factory-fill with 10W-30 oil or offer that as an option. That alone is a big change in the market from 10 years ago.”

“We’re seeing greater acceptance of lower-viscosity oil by fleets,” says Citgo’s Betner. “But with 83% of fleets still using 15W-40, we feel there are still a lot of questions out there about making the switch that oil suppliers must answer for their customers.”

Making the donuts

Rolling out new API (American Petroleum Institute) oil-service categories—commonly called “donuts” for the circles in which each alphanumerical designation is inscribed on packaging—is certainly no picnic for lubricant suppliers. Ever since the Environmental Protection Agency first began clamping down hard on diesel emissions back in the ’90s, engine-oil producers have been compelled to whip up new donuts at a much faster clip.

And doing so while working with more complex recipes engineered to ensure the desired performance attributes are achieved by their new formulations. According to API, its Engine Oil Program, launched in 1993, is a cooperative effort between oil and additive suppliers and vehicle and engine manufacturers.

The performance requirements and test methods for each new oil-service category are established by vehicle and engine manufacturers as well as technical societies and trade associations, including the American Society for Testing & Materials (ASTM), the Society for Automotive Engineers, and the American Chemistry Council.

API licenses oil companies to display service classifications, such as the current CJ-4, on the packaging of qualified products. However, it’s the ASTM committee on heavy-duty diesel engine oil classification that sets the limits and verifies the testing used to develop new oil-service categories.

When the PC-11 proposed-category process is complete,  two new heavy-duty oil categories will be the likely result.

Once the ASTM committee completes the requirements a new oil formulation must meet to qualify for a given donut, the API licensing process kicks in. Seeking to ensure a level playing field, API typically keeps any new donut off all pertinent oil packaging for one year. That’s done to give smaller-scale oil suppliers the opportunity to catch up with their major competitors in reformulating product to the new API spec.

So, in this go-round, that means oils meeting either one of the two new service categories expected to be cooked up by early 2016 will actually become available for purchase some 12 months later—in the springtime of 2017. 


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