Slick decisions

by James Menzies

The impending PC-11 heavy-duty engine oil category will offer fleets the opportunity to improve fuel economy, but will also introduce some added complexity to maintenance programs. The new oil category will be introduced in December 2016, moved ahead from a March 2017 implementation date as Truck News went to press, at the prodding of truck and engine OEMs who want to use PC-11’s fuel economy benefits as another means of meeting GHG17 fuel economy standards.

But unlike in the past, this category will be divided into two sub-categories. The A category will be backwards-compatible with current generation oils, serving as a direct replacement to today’s oils, while the B category will provide greater fuel economy benefits but is not expected to be backwards-compatible. This means fleets wanting to save fuel when transitioning to PC-11 oils may have to stock two types of oil.

“What’s going to be challenging is to manage two types of oil at the same time; that’s a concern for everybody,” said Stephanie Tessier, heavy-duty sales manager with Castrol distributor Wakefield Canada. “They have to make sure they know exactly what they use and for what trucks.”

So beginning in December 2016, fleets will have to decide whether to adopt a two-oil strategy to maximize their fuel economy on new trucks, or to play it safe and only use the PC-11 A category oil until they’ve phased out older engines from their fleet.

“If I’m an end-user, one of the things I’d have to look at is, what’s the make-up of my fleet?” explained Leonard Badal, commercial sector manager, Chevron. “How old or new are the engines? And that would then determine whether I use the backwards-compatible oil or look at the new oil.”

Dan Arcy, OEM technical manager with Shell Lubricants, on the other hand, isn’t quite ready to rule out backwards-compatibility for even the fuel economy grade oils. He said Shell has been able to demonstrate compatibility of the PC-11 B oils with existing engines and some engine manufacturers have hinted they may be okay with the new oils being used in reasonably new engines (ie. model years 2010 or newer).

“Shell has gone out and we’ve run our low-viscosity PC-11 B oils in all the manufacturers’ engines out there,” he said. “We’ve been able to show equivalent wear protection (to today’s oils). If we go back to CJ-4, originally the engine manufacturers during the development process said ‘We don’t think this is going to be backwards-compatible.’ It turned out enough data was generated and they allowed for it. So what I’m really saying is, although we say it may not be backwards-compatible, I think the jury is still out on that one. We’ll have to wait until we get closer to get a definitive statement from each of the individual OEMs on what their position is on it.”

That’s good news for customers, as most oil experts agree there’s little reason not to opt for the fuel economy oils, aside from simplicity and the ability to stock one oil to prevent potentially costly misfills.

“If it’s not backwards-compatible, there could be some issues with fleets having to carry multiple tanks – one for new engines and one for older engines – and everything that goes along with training technicians,” Arcy said.

Just how great the fuel savings will be when PC-11 oils come to market is not yet clear. All oil companies say they’ll be significant, but it’s still too early in the development process to share any hard numbers.

“We haven’t released our numbers yet,” Shell’s Arcy said. “Right now we say there’s a 1.6% improvement going from the current 15W-40 to the current 10W-30. Going to a PC-11 10W-30 is going to be significantly more than 1.6%, I can say that.”

The introduction of the PC-11 category may mark the tipping point in terms of a widespread shift to lower-viscosity engine oils. Many fleets are using 10W-30 and even 5W-30 engine oils today, because engine protection has not been compromised and fuel economy savings are being realized. A thinner oil reduces friction within the engine and provides other benefits as well.

“There are great benefits when it comes to cold temperature operations,” said Tessier. “In Canada, that’s a big plus. Typically with the 10W-30 and 5W-30 you can operate in a very large range of temperatures.”

Cold-weather startability improves, said Arcy, because a thinner oil provides less resistance at start-up and also draws less power from the batteries, alternator and starter while cold-cranking.

“If it’s cold and the oil is thick, it takes more energy to crank over that engine,” he reasoned.

If improved fuel economy and better cold weather startability weren’t enough to get you excited – or at least as excited as one can get about a new heavy-duty engine oil category – there may also be the opportunity to extend oil drain intervals. Though, this is as much to do with cleaner-burning engines as new oil technologies.

“We’re seeing less and less soot being produced, so there’s an opportunity, we believe, that drain intervals will start to increase even more than where they are today,” Chevron’s Badal said. “The other thing too, is with the new category you’re going to have new technologies – new anti-wear components, new oxidation components – that are built into it, that are also going to add to that better performance, potentially for a longer drain. I wouldn’t doubt that we would see in the future that some of the OEMs will start to push (drain intevals) out even further.”

Of course with any new heavy-duty engine oil category, a price hike can usually be expected. Someone has to pay for the all the R&D that went into the formulation of the new oils. Price is a sensitive subject with manufacturers, who like to parry the question by indicating price is “market-driven,” which it is.

However, Chevron’s Badal provides some reason for optimism on the price topic – at least as it relates to the A category oils.

“I would expect that the backwards-compatible oils are not going to be much more expensive than where CJ-4 is today,” he said. “If you go back to when CJ-4 launched, there was probably a 50 cent per gallon premium versus the API CI-4 Plus oils. I don’t think you’ll see that. You will not see that big of an uplift on the CK-4 (Category A) oils. Now the low high-temperature, high-shear (Category B) product, you probably will see a slight increase in price point on those.”

Even so, the market is already slowly transitioning to lower-viscosity engine oils, and PC-11 can only accelerate the shift, as more customers buy into the benefits of lighter-weight oils. Eager fleets don’t have to wait for the new category; they can achieve fuel savings today by transitioning to lighter-weight oils in advance of
PC-11’s implementation.

“15W-40s have been – and will continue for a period of time to represent – a large portion of the market,” said Barnaby Ngai, category portfolio manager, transportation oils Petro-Canada Lubricants. “But as people start to get more educated and more aware of the benefits of lower-viscosity engine oils such as a 10W-30 and 5W-30, I think you will start seeing a more exponential adoption rate.”

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