December 2016 ushered in a new category of heavy-duty engine oils, giving fleets improved performance and additional choices. The previous category oil, CJ-4, is still in production by some oil suppliers, while the new CK-4 and FA-4 oils offer better performance and are recommended for new engines. In addition to the new American Petroleum Institute (API) standard, the various OEMs have also issued their own, often more stringent, specifications. Clear as a bucket of used oil? Here’s what you need to know to make the right decision for your trucks.
New heavy-duty engine oils are packaged at Total’s blending facility in Montreal, Que.
The case for sticking with CJ-4
One misperception about the category changeover, is the idea that the new categories would completely replace CJ-4 on Dec. 1, 2016. That’s not true and some oil providers have chosen to extend the offering of CJ-4 product indefinitely, which can be safely used in pre-2017 engines.
The boldest of these is Chevron, which is still producing and offering CJ-4 with no firm end date in place.
“Initially, going into it, a lot of people expected there would be a mandatory conversion to CK-4 or FA-4 and that hasn’t been the case,” Rommel Atienza, commercial brand manager for Chevron in North America told Truck News. “To that point, we still have a 15W-40 CJ-4 product available in the market today. That decision was made when we started to hear about the direction OEMs were going and the hesitation some of our customers had in that conversion. They really wanted to see the benefits of CK-4 and FA-4 products before they made that transition.”
Castrol also continues to provide CJ-4 product, for now. Hasan Zobairi, commercial marketing manager with Castrol distributor Wakefield Canada, predicts Castrol will complete its changeover by the end of the year. It opted to extend availability of CJ-4 in response to customer demand.
“We decided to do a gradual transition and make sure all customers were comfortable with the change rather than doing an abrupt change,” Zobairi said.
But not all oil companies see a benefit to maintaining CJ-4 oils in their portfolio, when the new category oils are simply better.
“We don’t feel there’s any benefit to keeping CJ-4 around,” said Dan Arcy, global OEM technical manager with Shell. He cited better oxidation control, improved shear stability, and the opportunity to extend drain intervals as a few of the benefits of moving to the new category oils.
Andre St-Jean, MSC chemist, lab and technical service manager with Total, said the company has transitioned completely to the new category oils, a decision that was made easy because it was able to upgrade its portfolio without passing on much, if any, upcharge to customers.
“The cost of the two products is nearly the same, so we decided we will discontinue the CJ-4 as soon as possible,” he said.
And Petro-Canada took a similar approach, removing CJ-4 from its portfolio.
“From our perspective, by continuing the production of previous category engine oils – namely CJ-4 – customers are faced with unnecessary confusion and complexity,” said Brian Humphrey, OEM technical liaison with Petro-Canada Lubricants.
The benefits of CK-4
Even those oil companies that continue to offer both the new and old oil categories acknowledge that CK-4 and FA-4 oils perform better, making a compelling case to upgrade.
The new category oils deliver “better overall engine protection and longer drain intervals,” according to Petro-Canada’s Humphrey.
But while the tighter specification may bring more parity to the performance of CK-4 oils, not all are created equal, Zobairi cautioned.
“Some companies have gone ahead and reformulated, or uptreated, their CJ-4 oils to transition to CK-4 and other companies have taken a different approach, started from scratch and re-engineered the oil,” he explained. “Those companies would see even better performance in moving from CJ-4 to CK-4.”
When choosing a CK-4 oil, don’t just look for the API donut that identifies the category, but also ensure the oil has met all the OEM specifications as well. In many cases, according to Total’s St-Jean, those OEM standards are much more stringent than the tests the API requires.
“There are two different kinds of oil in the market: the people who have the (OEM) approvals and the people who pretend to have the approvals,” St-Jean said, noting just because an oil meets the API specification doesn’t mean it has also gained the required OEM approvals.
Zobairi agrees that it’s important to look for OEM approvals, not just the API symbol.
“I think it’s absolutely critical for oil companies to be meeting those standards and for customers to be asking whether the oils they are using are actually meeting those standards and passing those tests,” Zobairi said.
In fact, St-Jean went so far as to predict the OEM certifications will eventually dictate the type of oil fleets use – and it may have to vary by engine make.
“More and more, the oil is part of the original design of the engine, so we will have more and more (OEM) specifications,” St-Jean predicted. “The OEM approval will be the decider of what product you need for your vehicle and if you want to carry one oil, maybe you will have to buy all one brand of truck.”
How about FA-4?
FA-4, the new lower-viscosity oil optimized for fuel economy thanks to its high temperature high shear properties, has seen little interest among fleets since its introduction. This is mainly due to a lack of OEM support and a lingering conviction among fleet operators that lower-viscosity engine oils offer inadequate protection.
Among the OEMs, Detroit has been the most vocal cheerleader for FA-4 oil. It factory-fills new engines with FA-4, recommends it for continued use and has even eliminated the backwards compatibility restrictions the industry was expecting, allowing FA-4 in engines as far back as model year EPA2010 engines.
“Not only do we recommend the continued use of FA-4 in our GHG17 engines, but we also recommend switching to FA-4 for EPA10 and later Detroit engines to fully achieve their fuel economy potential,” said Ed Byk, Detroit heavy-duty engine product marketing manager.
After extensive testing, Detroit is convinced engine protection isn’t compromised when moving to a thinner weight FA-4 oil.
“Our testing shows that FA-4 performs the same as CK-4 from a durability and reliability perspective and both perform better than CJ-4,” Byk said.
Humphrey said FA-4 oils can deliver a fuel economy improvement of up to 2% compared to a 15W-40 or 1% versus a 10W-30, “so there can be real cost benefits to switching to the new FA-4 category.”
Zobairi wonders why more progressive fleets aren’t taking advantage of the fuel economy performance of FA-4 oils.
“I’d like to understand why customers are hesitant, especially those using Detroit Diesel trucks, where FA-4 is backwards compatible to 2010,” he said.
But not everyone is surprised the uptake of FA-4 has been slow.
“We kind of knew it would be,” Arcy acknowledged. “Not 100% of the OEMs have elected to use FA-4 at this time. From Shell’s standpoint, we planned the uptake would go this way, that it would be slow at first and then ratchet up.”
He compared the adoption of FA-4 to when 10W-30 was introduced in 2007. At that time, Arcy pointed out, there was a gradual adoption by the OEMs and it wasn’t until 2013 that 10W-30 became a fast-growing viscosity grade.
“The rate at which the industry embraces FA-4 oils will be determined by a variety of factors, including the OEM recommendations and the purchase of the newer 2017 engines,” Humphrey agreed.