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Choices, choices

TORONTO, Ont. - With so many options for heavy-duty engine oils, including basic, semi-synthetic and full synthetic, it's hard to know what really suits your needs the best. The answer, as usual, has everything to do with what they're...

TORONTO, Ont. – With so many options for heavy-duty engine oils, including basic, semi-synthetic and full synthetic, it’s hard to know what really suits your needs the best. The answer, as usual, has everything to do with what they’re being used for and by whom.

For owner/operators, it’s the amount of elbow grease you’re willing to put into your truck that determines the kind of oil you feed its engine.

Just ask Stephen Large, an Alberta-based owner/operator who made it into a certain well-known oil manufacturer’s Haul of Fame for getting over a million miles on his Cat engine using basic 15W-40.

“I’ve always used regular,” says Large, who would rather change the oil on his 1990 Kenworth more frequently than shell out extra for longer lasting synthetic. “The biggest reason I see for using synthetic oil is to extend drain intervals and I drain my oil out every 200 hours or 20,000 km, whichever comes first, to get the wear materials and contaminants out. Most people who run synthetic are trying to get away with changing the oil less often.”

A conventional 15W-40 does the job for owner/operator Gord Cooper as well. Cooper owns an oilfield trucking business in Alberta and maintains the trucks himself.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” says Cooper. “My preference is 15W-40 for the engine, with regular changes, and I’ve been using the same oil for 30 years and I’m happy with it.”

Ditto for Ron Singer Jr. who helps run his father’s gravel truck business out in Calgary. “We’re using older equipment so we run the regular oil package,” he says.

As for Mike “Motor” Rosenau, this O/O prefers to use conventional oil on his truck engine as well, but with a little something extra.

“I’ve got 15W-40 in my engine, but I use a clean oil filter on it as well,” says Rosenau. “With the clean oil filtration system I get the same result as if I was running with synthetic, but it doesn’t cost as much. All I do is change the filters ever three months and take an oil sample at the same time. The information I’m getting back from the lab shows I don’t need to change the oil as often. I’ve been running for a year with the same oil in my engine.”

Rosenau says changing the filters regularly and sending out samples for lab analysis still costs way less than synthetic, even when you factor in the cost of the filtration system, which is roughly $800 to install. (Filters cost $20 each, changed every three months).

Owner/operators and team drivers Ron and Dawn Marie Pickles, running out of Red Deer, Alta. use a bypass filter system to keep the Cummins engine on their 2006 Pete 379 running on 15W-40 conventional with a minimum of oil changes.

“The bypass filter system costs about US$1,200 installed and we average about US$75 per filter change and sample,” says Dawn Marie, who crunches the numbers. You have to do a complete oil change after the initial 10,000 miles and then only change the filters and sample every 10,000 miles after that. At the time we started this (bypass system) the quick oil changes at Speedco were about US$225-$250. So we saved about $175 every 10,000 miles, and after about seven filter changes, we saved enough money to cover the initial purchase.”

Over the time the couple owned the truck, they performed another 63 filter changes, which amounted to an approximate savings of about $9,800, according to Dawn Marie’s calculations, as well as reducing considerable time previously spent off road waiting for complete oil changes at the shop (the filter change only takes 20 minutes for Ron).

“The last sample we took showed soot levels at the same levels they were in the first year we owned the truck,” Dawn Marie says. “That means there was very little engine wear occurring.”

Of course, the Pickles removed the filter system when they recently sold their truck and are now installing it on their new Pete, which includes a street legal 108.5-inch sleeper custom-designed in Indiana.

“Now we’re just saving money,” says Ron, whose obviously very excited about the new truck. “And we sold the old truck for considerably more than what you would get on average for a truck that age, because of the bypass system and because we had the paperwork (the sample data) to prove the engine was in great shape.”

Fleets more receptive to synthetics
Of course, even owner/operators are willing to admit that their oil needs differ substantially from those of fleets when it comes to maintenance, so what’s good for the goose may not be exactly what’s good for the gander. Larger fleets may be more likely to run full or semi-synthetic.

“We’re a large fleet, so we use semi-synthetic in our engines,” says Challenger Motor Freight’s Chris Iveson, maintenance manager for the Cambridge, Ont. operations. “But we only keep our trucks for three years.”

Challenger trucks easily get 50,000 kms on the same oil, says Iveson, “but sometimes we can run it out to 80,000 kms.”
According to ongoing testing and the fleet’s number crunchers, that’s the best value for money the fleet can get, the maintenance manager says.

“Of course it all depends on the truck manufacturer’s recommendations, but using regular oil, doing the changes more often and all the downtime that would involve would kill a fleet this size,” says Iveson.

Challenger owns and operates a fleet of 1,350 trucks, 150 of which are off the road at any given time, says Iveson. Still, the fleet makes sure to send oil samples out for regular testing just to make sure the engines are in good shape.

“We take samples and send them out for testing every time we do an oil change,” says the maintenance manager. “But synthetic just doesn’t have to be changed as often. So we do the check every time a truck comes in for scheduled maintenance.”

Basically, the semi-synthetic oil used in Challenger engines matches the life of the filters already installed on the trucks, says Iveson.

“For us, it would be overdoing it to put full synthetic in. It would cost too much and we don’t need it.”

Still, there’s no lack of full synthetic fans out there, including Bison Transport’s director of fleet assets, Itamar Levine.

Bison runs full synthetic in all of its 1,050 tractors, according to Levine.

“We’re unfortunate enough to be based out of Winnipeg, and we’ve got a number of tractors sitting out in the yard in the winter, so startability is a factor, and there’s a major difference in startability between engines using conventional oil and those using synthetic,” he reasons.

In fact, Bison has been the test fleet of choice for a number of oil companies developing synthetic products.

“Of course, another advantage with the synthetic oils is that we’re able to use them on our reefers and APUs,” he adds. “So as far as inventory management goes, that just makes it easier.”

In short, the benefits far outweigh the costs, sums up Levine. “We also benefit from extended oil drain intervals and of course that keeps more trucks on the road. Believe me, if the extra investment for synthetic weren’t worthwhile, we wouldn’t do it.”

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