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New generations of oils begin to take hold

Nov. 14, 2017
Lower viscosity options offer higher fuel economy, longer drain cycles

Nearly one year since the official transition to the latest generation of engine oils, industry executives said the process has gone just about as smoothly as anyone could have hoped for.

Among the payoffs, for fleets already taking advantage of the CK-4 or FA-4 oils, have been increased fuel economy and longer drain cycles. 

“As engines and technology have evolved, so have engine oils,” said American Petroleum Institute senior manager Kevin Ferrick, who has been involved with the group’s engine oil licensing and certification program for 20 years.

From 2006 through last December, CJ-4 was the industry standard, lasting through multiple phases of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s engine emissions regulation.

“Ten years for engine oil standards is a long time,” said Ferrick.

Shawn Whitacre, senior staff engineer with Chevron, called the decade-long period of oil stability “unusual,” with longtime truckers and technicians used to a faster pace of change.

For a variety of reasons, including additional controls required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the latest models, there “was a recognition the engines … about to be put on the road were different than the ones when CJ-4 went into place in 2006,” Whitacre said.

Several years of industry collaboration yielded two variations of the next generation of oil—CK-4 and FA-4.

“The oils are thinner but just as durable and are able to withstand a high-shear engine environment,” said Brian Humphrey, OEM technical liaison at Petro-Canada Lubricants. Higher fuel economy “can be achieved because lower viscosity oil means less friction in the engine, leading to a reduction in both fuel consumption and [carbon dioxide] emissions—while still offering exceptional levels of wear protection.”

Since officially being released into the market in December, about 600 licensed CK-4 products have been approved and registered. They were rapidly becoming readily available at stores nationwide.

Conversely, the introduction of FA-4 has been far slower, with only about 80 licensed items thus far. That comes as little surprise or concern to the officials interviewed for this story.

“It is not slower than what we expected, but I will say it has had a slow start,” said Dan Arcy, OEM technical manager with Shell Global Solutions. “We expected a slow ramp-up, and at some point it will break the slow curve and expand exponentially.”

FA-4 was developed preemptively alongside CK-4 in order to lay the groundwork for future engine designs that will be able to further leverage the benefits of thinner viscosity, said Chevron’s Whitacre.

Jason Richards, program manager of preventive maintenance for TA Truck Service, said that over the course of 2017, “we have definitely experienced a large shift from 15W40 to 10W30.  15W40 is still king of the road, but we are definitely experiencing a shift to 10W30, especially with larger fleets.”

API’s Ferrick said while Detroit Diesel recommended use of FA-4 in its latest engines from the start, other manufacturers are taking a more cautious approach, and are “looking to get a little more assurance FA-4 is suitable.”

Some of the hesitation involves the limited backwards compatibility of FA-4, because some older engines are not designed for low viscosity oils.

The latest engines have slightly more finely polished surfaces on critical parts, according to Valvoline. These surfaces can tolerate the slightly thinner film of oil produced by FA-4 because of its lower viscosity.

“Unless a fleet has all [Detroit Diesel] series engines, they really are kind of handcuffed,” said Paul Cigala, applications engineer for commercial vehicles at ExxonMobil.

Beyond the endorsement of engine manufacturers, recommendations on oil use from makers of reefer trailer units and auxiliary power units will temporarily slow overall industry-wide adoption of FA-4 oil, Cigala added.

He projected FA-4 will not truly become relevant in the field until 2019 or 2020, depending on how quickly fleets choose to replenish their equipment.

 “My guess is you will start to see more recommending it,” API’s Ferrick said. “We will eventually see them migrate over and will become the majority in time.”

Whitacre agreed, saying while CJ-4 represents the immediate, natural progression from CK-4, in a few years FA-4 will become the prominent oil.

“We expect the uptake to increase as OEMs release their recommendations for 2017 and newer vehicles as fleets and owner-operators view evidence of the potential cost benefits and operational efficiencies the new oils can deliver,” said Humphrey of Petro-Canada.

That is slowly changing, with Navistar and Cummins approving use of FA-4 in X-15 and A26 engines, respectively.

Arcy noted that Shell has done a lot of FA-4 testing, including on engines that are not yet recommended for use.  He said engine makers are doing their “due diligence” and taking into account the various duty cycles of their customers.

Richards said TA truck stops plans to begin conducting tests on FA-4 oil in the near future “with select customers wanting to explore it so we can better understand the product before we introduce it into our network.”  

Understanding the benefits

The top benefit for fleets that transition to the new generation of oil is higher fuel economy.

According to the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE), over-the-road fleets that use CJ-4 or CK-4 (a 5W or 10W-30 engine oil) instead of the more traditional 15W-40 “can realistically expect fuel savings in the range of 0.5% to 1.5%. The savings from switching to the fuel-efficient FA-4 variant … can be expected to add a further 0.4–0.7% of increased fuel efficiency.”

NAFCE said while these gains are modest, it is a rare instance when “an efficiency technology can be implemented across the entire fleet very quickly, does not require an upfront investment, and does not require any changes in operation or maintenance practices.”

Chevron’s Whitacre put it an even simpler way:  “Extrapolate that across a large fleet;that is real money being saved.”

Even if FA-4 is not yet a realistic possibility for most fleets, API’s Ferrick urged that they don’t wait on advancing to the latest CJ-4 products “because they offer a higher performance.”

That was a similar message from Exxon’s Cigala, who said “it boggles my mind” that some fleets ignore the recommendation to use 10W30 and continue to use 10W40 “because of success in the past.”

Whitacre said this is a key reason Chevron and other companies have put a strong emphasis on outreach and education with customers as a way to “demystify” the new oils.

Some customers can be “skeptical there may not be anything in it for them,” he said, adding that even for reluctant fleets, the new oils provide an opportunity to modernize their operations with updated oil choices that match their current vehicles.

Beyond better fuel economy, what they also will find with the new oils are extended drain intervals.

“This is huge for customers that want to have the opportunity to keep trucks on the road and not in the shops and still have warranty coverage,” Cigala said.

NACFE noted “a switch to lower-viscosity oil may allow a fleet to consider an extended drain interval, which can help offset that price premium.”

Humphrey estimated the new oils could boost drain intervals up to 50%, to 750 hours from 500 hours. “These new oils have been designed to be more robust and more resistant to oxidation, all of which contribute the ability to extend drains with no compromise to engine protection and uptime,” he stressed.

Shell’s Arcy recommends fleets focus on optimizing their intervals  based on maintenance programs. For example, an extended interval may call for 50,000 miles, but “if the truck has to come in at 40,000 for something else, it doesn’t make any sense” to bring it back in a second time, Arcy said.

The new oils are also credited for protecting against catalyst poisoning, particulate filter blocking, piston deposits, and soot-related viscosity increase.

Proceed with caution

Even as FA-4 becomes a bit more widely accepted, fleets should check the recommendations of their trucks and engines before making decisions, officials said. Likewise, they said while fleets should expect longer drain intervals, it does depend on the severity of service and type of application.

There are other reasons fleets need to be careful before bringing FA-4 oil into the mix, said API’s Ferrick.

“Take great care not to mix FA-4 with CK-4. Co-mingling will adversely impact the viscosity grade of the FA-4 oil, and that is part of the reason they are getting FA-4 oil in the first place,” he said.

Shell’s Arcy noted that large fleets have truck trade-in cycles “and one thing we know is they want one oil to use in all their equipment.” He added they already understand the fuel economy gains will “add up quickly,” especially if they are burning millions of gallons of fuel a month.

Exxon’s Cigala said it is logical that fleets will not want more than one engine oil on hand “to avoid the possibility of cross-contamination, and keep to it as simple as possible for technicians. Otherwise, it would be a “no-brainer” to switch sooner, in order to reach the additional fuel-economy benefit, he said.

In the meantime, Ferrick urged fleets, especially those buying in bulk, to not only purchase API-licensed oil but to make sure suppliers confirm in writing the oil being delivered has been properly tested. “Historically, unfortunately, bulk oil fails at a higher rate,” Ferrick said.

Using analysis 

Regardless of oil or engine a fleet uses, Exxon’s Cigala said conducting an oil analysis is a needed tool to help set intervals and discover potential issues before they become catastrophic failures.

Some large fleet customers use analysis labs on a daily basis, far different than other fleets “that seem to run blind and don’t take advantage of the tools that are out there,” he said.

While Cigala looks at oil analysis as providing “piece of mind,” it often is a “harder sell than you would think.”

Chevron’s Whitacre also strongly recommended taking advantage of oil analysis testing. He noted that prior to changing products, fleets should alert the oil analysis lab so they know to expect a different profile. They should also provide a fresh oil sample to allow for the baseline testing that future samples will be compared with.

TA’s Richards said “it’s strongly recommended by our vendors that trucks performing extended drains are on an oil analysis program even if they are running synthetic blend or fully synthetic oil. It reduces warranty risks and improves equipment life.”

He noted that for truckers that purchase a kit at a TA location, technicians could take a sample and ship it to a third-party lab at no additional cost.

Cummins Inc. is just one of the engine makers linking together longer drain cycles with analysis. The company announced earlier this year its X15 Efficiency Series and X15 Performance Series offered intervals up to 80,000 miles using the free Cummins OilGuard program, which combines engine performance data and oil analysis.

“With oil changes routinely costing $350 or more for the oil, oil filter, labor and disposal costs—and a typical over-the-road trucker performing two to three oil changes per year—we see the potential to significantly reduce costs and downtime, with some customers needing an oil change only once a year,” said Mark Ulrich, Cummins’ director of customer support. “Most importantly, you get an optimized oil change interval while preserving your warranty coverage—and at no risk to engine component durability or resale value.”

Exxon’s Cigala said he is using his role with the Technology & Maintenance Council’s (TMC’s) S.3 Study Group to help educate the industry on the intricacies of the newer engines, and the role the new oils play in achieving higher levels of performance and protection.

Cigala is already involved in creating a full session during TMC’s annual meeting in March in Atlanta that will focus on new maintenance strategies and other advice for taking complete advantage of the new oils to lower a vehicle’s total cost of ownership. 

About the Author

Neil Abt

Neil Abt, editorial director at Fleet Owner, is a veteran journalist with over 20 years of reporting experience, including 15 years spent covering the trucking industry. A graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., he began his career covering sports for The Washington Post newspaper, followed by a position in the newsroom of America Online (AOL) and then both reporting and leadership roles at Transport Topics. Abt is based out of Portland, Oregon.

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