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A new engine oil era

As new engine oil category draws near, uncertainty remains about backwards compatibility


No longer a proposal, the upcoming PC-11 (Proposed Category-11) engine oil category has been officially christened. The new API specification will come in two forms: CK-4, a straight replacement to today’s CJ-4 heavy-duty engine oils, which will be compatible with today’s engines; and FA-4, a fuel economy-oriented lower-viscosity engine oil developed specifically for new engines. Fleets and owner/operators will be faced with an important decision when the new category engine oils come online this December.

Confusion remains about to which extent, if any, FA-4 engine oils will be backwards compatible with pre-2017 model year engines. Engine OEMs have so far been mum when it comes to releasing their 2017 engine oil requirements, keeping oil companies and their customers guessing.

“We don’t know for certain from any of the OEMs what their official positions are; if they’re going to recommend FA-4 for new engines and to what extent they will allow those in older engines,” said Shawn Whitacre, senior staff engineer with Chevron. “Even if a truck OEM factory-fills with FA-4 and allows its use, what are they going to tell the end-user who purchases the new vehicle? Will they require continuing to use FA-4? Is it going to be an option? Are they going to be able to use it in their existing older engines? That has not been reconciled and that, ultimately, is going to be the single biggest deciding factor for a fleet.”

Any uncertainty about backwards compatibility relates only to the FA-4 category.

“CK-4 engine oils will be backwards compatible with the previous CJ-4 oils, with older engines and will still be available in both 15W-40 and 10W-30 grades,” explained Jack Fasoli, national marketing manager with Total Lubricants.

Some oil suppliers feel even when it comes to FA-4, concerns about backwards compatibility may be overblown.

“Everybody thinks nothing is going to be backwards compatible, that everybody is going to be carrying two sets of oil, which is not necessarily the case,” explained Hasan Zobairi, marketing controller with Castrol distributor Wakefield Canada.

Extensive testing by oil companies has shown an ability for the FA-4 category oil to not only improve fuel economy, but to also provide adequate protection in older engines. Last year, Shell demonstrated the durability of an FA-4 prototype oil by disassembling an engine that had run 800,000 miles on the new oil. Internal parts showed no signs of premature wear or inadequate protection.

“You can run all the engine tests you want in the lab, but the real proof of performance is how that oil is going to work in someone’s engine in their various operating conditions and applications,” Matt Urbanak, primary formulator for Shell’s Rotella T product line, said during the demonstration.

One Canadian fleet that’s been involved in similar on-road testing is convinced a single-oil strategy will work for new and existing equipment. Chris Iveson, maintenance director with Challenger Motor Freight, said his fleet has done extensive testing of PC-11 prototype oils and while specific results are proprietary, he said he’s not at all concerned about backwards compatibility.

“I can tell you we’ve been testing multiple different oils that will comply with PC-11 and we are very comfortable that as a backwards compatible product it will be fine,” Iveson told Truck News. “We are going to a single oil strategy.”

Iveson said he remains somewhat concerned about FA-4’s ability to perform in Challenger’s heavy-haul fleet, with the higher engine temperatures it generates, but for the most part he’s eager to deploy FA-4 oils across the entire fleet.

Fleets that are waiting on the engine OEMs to declare their requirements may have to be patient. Zobairi said it’s possible no formal announcements will be made until the 2017 engines are introduced to the market. Len Badal, global Delo brand manager with Chevron, added engine OEMs may be taking a wait-and-see approach before declaring their specifications. However, this could have fleets running multiple brands having to comply with different sets of rules, adding unwanted complexity to their oil programs.

“Most fleets have mixed trucks and engines,” Badal said. “You could have one brand that decides earlier and allows backwards compatibility and then all of a sudden, two others don’t. Are all going to allow it? Are some going to allow it? That’s where fleets get into this dilemma.”

There are good reasons to switch to FA-4 engine oil across the board, if permitted to do so. The most compelling reason to make the switch is the promise of greater fuel economy, though oil suppliers are still not attaching specific claims to the new category.

“Directionally, there is a fuel economy benefit,” said Badal. “Whether the fleet actually sees it in the field, that’s the challenge. Even today, trying to measure fuel economy between a
10W-30 and a 15W-40 is tough. There are a lot of external factors – everything from operator behaviour to how old the truck is, tires, transmissions – and those all have big impacts on fuel economy. It’s going to be a challenge for folks to see the difference but at the end of the day, if pricing is comparable and you still get the same protection and drain intervals, why not go to something that is potentially more fuel-efficient?”

In lab testing, Whitacre added, moving from a 15W-40 today to a 10W-30 provides about 1% gain in fuel economy and moving to an FA-4 could provide another half a per cent or so.

“Those benefits are real, but the ability to measure it and decouple it from all the other things that contribute to fuel economy is the challenge,” he said.

Both CK-4 and FA-4 will offer performance benefits above today’s CJ-4 engine oils. Operators should expect to see better piston deposit control and improved oxidation stability and overall better wear protection.

“What that equals, to a lot of fleets, is the opportunity to better extend drain intervals,” Badal explained. “Or if it’s a fleet that tends to keep its trucks and engines for longer periods of time, some extension on engine rebuild life.”

Castrol’s Zobair’s suggestion is to synchronize FA-4 adoption with your asset acquisition cycle, since new vehicles may require, or come factory-filled, with the FA-4 category oil. He also said the changeover to CK-4 and FA-4 oils represents a great opportunity to revisit your entire oil program, something that too often is overlooked until a significant change in technology comes along.

“We think this is going to be an ideal opportunity for fleets to really re-evaluate their entire maintenance practices,” Zobairi said. “Look at it as an opportunity not just to lower your fuel costs, but your maintenance costs as well. Every time in the past when an API specification changed it was for lower emissions, but higher costs to the fleet in terms of more expensive oils. This time around, the benefit is going to be very clear in terms of fuel economy and also lower maintenance costs in terms of longer drain intervals.”

That’s also the message from Petro-Canada Lubricants’ OEM technical liaison, Brian Humphrey.

“We see this as not only an opportunity to improve the efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint of fleets, but also a chance to recognize the potential to cut costs and increase the profitability of fleet operations,” he noted. “As with all business decisions, clear understanding and early adoption could result in a genuine competitive edge.”

Stephanie Jaworski, senior field technical advisor with Imperial Oil, emphasized that the fundamentals behind an effective oil program do not change with the switch to CK-4 and FA-4 products.

“The fundamentals and best practices of the industry won’t change with PC-11,” she said. “What’s working well to drive successful fleets today will be the same as after PC-11. A proactive approach to maintenance, using rigorous data-driven approaches if doing drain extension programs or other engine performance work, those fundamentals that are helping successful fleets differentiate themselves are going to be the same after PC-11.”

Whichever of the two categories you choose to use, there will be benefits, noted Martin Emond, marketing manager with April Super Flo, which is developing both CK-4 and FA-4 engine oils here in Canada.

“The new lubricants will be simply better, helping protect trucks, (offer) longer life span, fuel economy and reduced emissions,” he said. “It will be important for customers to use the proper grade oils for their trucks and follow the truck manufacturer’s recommendations.”


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