API Posting Oils Online Showing Certification Misuse

By now, most are aware that The American Petroleum Institute (API) has started showing pictures of oils that are using the certification marks (SN, GF-5, etc.) but do not have the license to use them. The heart of their press release is as follows:

“API is now posting oils displaying the API engine oil certification marks without authorization on its website.

“The marketer and oil brand name, viscosities and sales region for each unauthorized oil are posted along with a photo of each product label. API has not approved these oils to meet any API engine oil standard. As such, these oils are not eligible to display the API engine oil certification marks.

“API encourages consumers to remember that these oils are not authorized by API to display the API certification marks. Most engine manufacturers recommend oils that display one or both API engine oil marks. The API page linked above will be updated as additional oils are identified through API’s Aftermarket Audit Program (AMAP), a program that annually tests packaged and bulk engine oils purchased by API in the marketplace.

“For consumers, API always recommends that they check their owner’s manual to be sure they are using the proper oil. The current standard for gasoline engine oils is API SN and it is backward compatible for most engines; this identification can be found on the back of most labels. If the API Donut has an older designation such as SM or SL, it is designated for older engines. API recommends that the consumer verify that the oil is licensed by checking the online EOLCS Directory of Licensees.”

If you are not an oil blender or marketer, you may wonder, “What does this have to do with me?” If the oil were low-cost, then wouldn’t it be smart to use it anyway? The answer is very simple: These oils are not API approved and may not be suitable for your customers’ engines. It may be that they are properly formulated with an additive/base oil combination that meets API standards but do not have the license and have not been vetted by the approval system.

So, let’s carry this a bit further. If you were to install a non-approved product in a customer’s vehicle, you could be opening your business up to some pretty serious problems. The automakers all say the same in some fashion, “if you use an oil that is not designed and recommended for this engine and it fails, we will not honor the warranty.”

It used to be that warranty issues were relatively loose and automakers rarely denied claims. However, the new engines with advanced ignition systems, higher horsepower density (HP/CID) and fuel injection are a more sensitive system to engine oil properties.

Some of the oil properties that can influence proper performance are such things as wear resistance, detergency, dispersancy, fuel economy and viscosity. Here’s a quick review of these properties and how they can influence engine performance.

Always start with viscosity. The simple definition of viscosity is resistance to flow. We’ve always thought of viscosity as a primary protector of the engine (higher is better), but newer engines are designed with lower viscosity preferences since lower viscosity improves fuel economy. From SAE 10W-40, we’ve settled on SAE 0W-20, and even lower in some cases.

Fuel economy is also affected by friction modifiers. These components are added at small percentages but have big impact on the “slipperiness” of the oil in heavily loaded areas of the engine such as bearings and cam/lifter assemblies.

The automakers are very concerned with fuel economy as one of the two big drivers (emissions being the other) of engine design. They have gone to extremes to improve these two areas, and that includes engine designs to maximize power while minimizing emissions. The best example so far is the direct fuel injected, turbocharged, gasoline fueled (TCID) 1.5L engine, which delivers over 170 HP in an engine of less than 100 CID. That averages out to just less than 2 horsepower for each cubic inch of displacement.

The metallic part of the detergent component has a major impact on low speed pre-ignition (LSPI), which is a worry for these TCID engines. Current thinking is that magnesium, rather than calcium, is better for LSPI protection. Time will tell if this can be corrected.

Engine cleanliness is important due to the tighter tolerances in the engine. Once upon a time, dispersants could keep sludge and varnish from laying down on engine surfaces without much of a problem. As engines got tighter, controlling these contaminants became a bigger challenge to the additive industry. The right combination of dispersants is very critical to overall performance.

Wear protection has been cussed and discussed for 20-30 years. The older pushrod and flat tappet designs preferred a higher level of antiwear in the form of zinc dithiophosphate (ZDP). However, this design cost a lot in terms of fuel economy, so the automakers moved to a roller follower, overhead cam design that doesn’t rob the engine of as much horsepower. ZDP levels could be reduced and place less pressure on catalytic converters. There are still many older design engines out there that probably need the higher ZDP level.

All of the issues related to the chemistry of engine oils are covered by the API categories. Every engine oil formulation licensed by them undergoes engine and bench testing to assure that it meets the standard. If an oil carries the API certification, you should be able to rely on it to perform. If the license is not there, you or your customer may be in for some major disappointment.

Remember what Ben Franklin said, “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.”

Steve Swedberg

STEVE SWEDBERG has over 50 years of experience in the oil industry. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and graduate work in business administration. He also has extensive training in petroleum products technical service as well as total quality management. His work experience includes lubricants research and development with ARCO and UNOCAL, oil additive marketing at Edwin Cooper (now Afton) and Chevron Oronite and lubricants marketing with Pennzoil. He managed technical groups related to oil marketing, product quality and technical services. Swedberg has also been involved with several industry organizations including STLE, NLGI, ASTM and, most notably, SAE, where he was Technical Committee 1 (Engine Oils) chairman from 1992 to 1996. While in that position, he was able to help influence industry direction as well as make many valuable industry contacts. Swedberg is currently consulting on lubricating products and additives and is a technical writer.