Trucker 353 Dscf1918

Oil: New options, new labels

Dec. 1, 2015
“The simplest thing is truck operators really have to follow the manufacturers’ recommendations on this. You may have to have more than one diesel oil in your facility. There are two mantras that we follow: Always use API licensed oil, and don’t deviate from the owner’s manual recommendation.” —Kevin Ferrick, American Petroleum Institute   

In a highly competitive business where every penny-per-mile in costs adds up quickly, truckers now demand better and better fuel efficiency. And beginning with model-year 2017 heavy-duty trucks, federal regulators will as well. So for the first time in 10 years, OEMs, oil marketers, and standards organizations are coming out with a new category for heavy-duty diesel engine lubricants designed to maximize fuel efficiency from the latest in powertrain technology.

The catch is this new category actually will include two lubricant standards, and it will be up to the end users—truck operators and shop personnel—to know and to use the correct engine oil for a variety of equipment. But that decision might not be as simple as just following the engine makers’ recommendations.

And that’s what has everyone’s attention.

The good news, as this edition of American Trucker goes to press, is that the involved parties are expected to have settled the performance details and testing procedures, and the official ballots are circulating with the aim of a year-end final approval. It will be another 12 months before the current product category, CJ-4, will be phased out.

In the meantime, engine oil producers will be perfecting their formulations, testing labs will have their heavy-duty engines humming 24/7, and, ultimately, engine makers will set their official recommendations. That’s essentially not much different from previous new-spec cycles.

What’s different this time around is that the latest generation of engines—designed for low-rpm “downspeeding,” among other high-tech touches to maximize fuel efficiency and limit emissions—run hot. To get every last fraction of mpg out of them requires a lubricant with lower viscosity and even a different way for consumers to consider viscosity called high-temperature/high-shear, or HTHS. Oil marketers, based on tests of preapproval formulations, report low-HTHS lubricants provide a 2 to 3% improvement in highway fuel economy.

For truck operators with older equipment, however, this PC-11B subcategory, to be named FA-4, likely will not be the best option. For those older diesels—certainly pre-EPA ’07 models and perhaps even EPA ’10—the new PC-11A standard, CK-4, will be an improved version of, and direct replacement for, the outgoing CJ-4.

So far, so good. But an anticipated uncertainty in the marketplace will center first on which lubricants the engine manufacturers will recommend and, second, on maintenance shop management. Will a company with both old and new equipment go along with a double-lubricant standard, at least for several years’ worth of drainage intervals as the older trucks are replaced? Or will they opt to sacrifice some of the performance benefits of FA-4 to keep the engine oil inventory simple?

This round of new engine oil standards began with a request from the Truck & Engine Manufacturers Assn. (EMA) and its members, explains Roger Gault, EMA vice president for regulatory activities.

Specifically, the CK-4 formulation is intended to be “fully backward-compatible,” meet enhanced oxidation requirements, and provide some benefit in aeration control. Essentially, CK-4 will be a new and much improved evolution of the tried-and-true CJ designation.
FA-4, however, is “a different animal,” Gault points out. The engine makers wanted a standard that will bring lower HTHS oils into the heavy-duty market.

Previously, whether in 10W-30 or 5W-30 HD oil, the HTHS measure has been 3.5, and CK-4 will retain that baseline. The FA-4 standard will allow HTHS to go as low as 2.9, but that’s still in line with the lower limit of the SAE 30 grade.

“It’s kind of confusing in the marketplace because we’re going to end up with 5W-30s or 10W-30s that fall into both categories and they’re going to be different,” Gault adds. “This is new territory for us. Historically, all the heavy-duty diesel engine oils have been in the higher HTHS category. Part of the consumer education process that the industry will be undertaking is to help them understand that there are multiple oils that would carry the same viscosity grade.”

On the user side, EMA expects the traditional transition discussions around which oil spec applies to which truck make and model. “That’s a challenge every time we change a category, but even more so this time,” Gault says, referring to how far back the compatibility will go. “There’s no simple answer, unfortunately.”

‘Donuts’ made fresh

The American Petroleum Institute has been setting fuel and lubricant standards for 65 years, so the process is nothing new. But Kevin Ferrick, manager for API’s engine oil program, concedes this round is a little different.

“Every new standard is essentially an improvement on the previous one,” Ferrick says. “Traditionally, the newest oil can be used where the old oil is recommended. For CK-4, that’s more than likely going to be true. For FA-4, it may not be backward-compatible. From an in-cab perspective, we’re going to have to work very hard to make sure that fleets, drivers, and owner-operators are aware of the new standard and are very careful to use the oil that’s recommended for their engine. It’s just going to take some work on our part.”

Ferrick anticipates that API will add some sort of additional wording to the certification seal, known as the service symbol donut, on each container to identify the oil.

API will be running an educational campaign beginning early next year and will encourage the marketing companies to do the same.
“Right now everything is on schedule, and we’ll be able to do licensing for Dec. 1, 2016,” Ferrick says. “That’s the first day an oil bottle can show up on the shelf with CK-4 or FA-4 in the API donut.”

Still, the transition will take months before CK-4 becomes dominant in the marketplace—which is “pretty normal,” Ferrick notes.

“The simplest thing is truck operators really have to follow the manufacturers’ recommendations on this,” he continues. “You may have to have more than one diesel oil in your facility. There are two mantras that we follow: Always use API licensed oil, and don’t deviate from the owner’s manual recommendation.”

Choice is good

Shawn Whitacre is the Chevron senior staff engineer-engine oil technology for Chevron’s heavy-duty Delo brand engine oil. He’s also the chairman of ASTM’s heavy-duty engine oil classification panel, and he confirms that finalizing the standard is at a pivotal point in terms of crossing all the t’s and dotting the i’s to hit the December target requested by the engine manufacturers.

“At this point, the picture is still a bit unclear as to how far back the OEMs are going to allow the FA-4 to be used,” Whitacre says. “One thing that is clear is they understand this new grade won’t be practical for the end user if it’s only allowed in new products. There’s got to be some flexibility for fleets to be able to use it in a meaningful fraction of their existing equipment.”

Additionally, the new low-viscosity categories will require the most comprehensive testing and evaluation ever developed for heavy-duty engine oils, including nine “fired-engine tests,” with some tests running as long as 500 hours.

The goals, along with the “drastic improvements” in thermal stability and fuel economy benefits, include longer oil drain intervals.

“Even before the new category was conceived, we were no longer in a one-size-fits-all market. But now we’re seeing not just cold-climate grades but also fuel economy—and you’ve got a variety of OEM-specific requirements here and abroad,” Whitacre says. “And we also have not just diesel engines but natural gas, so we’ve got a whole suite of product offerings. And that’s going to extend further.”

The challenge and the opportunity, he continues, is for oil marketers to make sure they have the right products for the business needs of the customer.

“We’re pretty excited. We enjoy the challenge of these new tighter specifications because we’ve got a comprehensive in-house capability,” Whitacre says. “That’s why we embrace these category upgrades that the OEMs request, and we take a very active role in leading the categories to market. It’s going to be busy the next 14 months.”

In the lab

Indeed, the engine oil testing labs at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) will be running at 100% capacity for the next two years, according to Martin Thompson, a research engineer in fuels and lubricants. His engine tests are designed “to separate the great from the good oils.”

For PC-11, this typically means running engines under severe, high-torque conditions.

The tests don’t come cheap, typically costing $100,000 or more—and there are several tests for each standard. A formulation that passes all of the tests will run up a tab of close to $1.5 million. And some formulations won’t succeed.

“If you have to adjust the oil to pass a particular test, you may have to rerun a test you’ve already passed,” he says. “Running the full battery of tests is no small feat. It’s not a cheap or an easy process to get an API stamp on a bottle of that oil.”

Big diesels, anchored to the floor in the testing rooms, are hooked up to more tubes and monitors than any patient in intensive care, as American Trucker witnessed while visiting SwRI’s sprawling San Antonio campus.

A large part of the cost is to pay for fuel. Engines can burn 20 gals./hr., and tests will run 500 hours—three-and-a-half weeks at full throttle, with the dynamometer holding the engine back to simulate the stress of running under load.

For the PC-11 specific Volvo/Mack T-13 oxidation test, for instance, researchers monitor and measure “just about every temperature and pressure” of importance on the engine.

“We have very tight limits on the controls, trying to keep these tests scientifically repeatable,” Thompson says.

The engines are then torn down and rebuilt after each test, and the parts are examined for wear.

On the road

If you want to know about the real-world effects of a particular lubricant formulation on a truck engine, Shell engineer Howard Hill, the company’s North American field trial coordinator, is the man to see.

Shell has been performing road tests on its FA-4 candidate oils to find out if the low viscosity HTHS formulations designed for tomorrow’s engines will indeed be backward-compatible with older equipment.

Earlier this year, Hill walked American Trucker through the teardown of a 2012 Detroit Diesel 15L with more than 800,000 mi. on it. Hill checked the cylinders for carbon buildup, and the cam shafts, rings and rod bearings, connecting rods, and rocker arms for wear and polish—and all showed no more wear than the parts from an engine using a current lubricant.

And that’s potentially good news for fleet maintenance managers who would rather not stock two different engine oils, explains Matt Urbanak, primary formulator for the Shell Rotella T product line.

“You can run all the engine tests you want in the lab, but the real proof of performance is how that oil works out in someone’s actual engine under various operating conditions and locations,” Urbanak says. “You can’t see cleanliness in an oil analysis. You really need to get in there and see what’s happening.”

Not a magic formula

ExxonMobil also reports working closely with commercial vehicle manufacturers and engine builders on PC-11 for several years, conducting extensive laboratory testing and field trials. And, points out Paul Cigala, a commercial vehicle lubricants application engineer, ExxonMobil has already been working with its customers to educate them about the updated specification.

“It’s important to note that PC-11 will not affect every business in the same way. In fact, it’s possible some fleets will see only a small impact from PC-11,” Cigala says.

More importantly, Cigala emphasizes that the impact of the new oil category will hardly move the needle compared to fundamentally sound management by trucking companies.

“PC-11 will not change the best practices that help drive the success of truck operators,” Cigala says.

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