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Synthetic vs mineral: Which HDEO is better?

By James Menzies TORONTO, Ont. - Why is it that a guy with a $60,000 BMW parked in his driveway is more likely to treat his vehicle with synthetic motor oils than an owner/operator or fleet with doubl...

By James Menzies TORONTO, Ont. – Why is it that a guy with a $60,000 BMW parked in his driveway is more likely to treat his vehicle with synthetic motor oils than an owner/operator or fleet with double that amount invested into a Class 8 truck? After all, isn’t pretty much anything labeled ‘synthetic’ better than ‘non-synthetic’?

In short, yes. But with synthetic heavy-duty engine oils costing about triple the price of conventional mineral oils, the increased cost just doesn’t make sense for a lot trucking operations.

That being said, there are proven benefits of using synthetic heavy-duty engine oils (HDEOs), such as extended drain intervals and more reliable start-ups in cold weather.

Some users have even reported fuel economy gains of 1-2.5%. But at a cost of about triple that of conventional HDEOs, the major question surrounding synthetic engine oil, is its ability to deliver a payback.

“Our sales of synthetic product is low for OEM dealers. Synthetic is slower to catch on in Canada, it’s a slow build,” admitted Barbara Palmer, marketing manager for Chevron in Canada. “The obvious benefits of a synthetic is measured against price. For the operator or fleet manager, they must be willing to measure the benefits for extreme operating conditions and the drain intervals.”

Nonetheless, more customers are beginning to inquire about the benefits of full-synthetic HDEOs, Shell’s Walt Silveira told Truck West while at the Mid-America Trucking Show.

“People are becoming more interested in high-performance products,” Silveira said, noting an increase in visitors to the Shell booth wanting to talk about synthetic lubes. “There’s more conversation around full-synthetics than we’ve heard in the past. We’re seeing more interest and a need to further educate people on the benefits of full-synthetics.”

Mark Pagnanelli, heavy-duty sales and marketing manager with Castrol has also noticed an uptick in interest in full-synthetic HDEOs. However, he admitted fleets are slow to embrace the technology, mostly due to the increased cost.

“A lot of people are looking to get some of the purported fuel economy benefits and interval extensions. More fleets are looking at the opportunity, but they’re not jumping in with both feet,” Pagnanelli said. “It comes at a significant premium, so they want to see the true benefits and how the product holds up. There’s a lot of testing going on, but not a wholehearted switch, based on the costs involved.”

Despite the performance enhancements of full-synthetic HDEOs, not all suppliers are as enthusiastic about the product’s potential.

Claude Van Kessel, marketing director with Total Lubricants (formerly Tribospec, but acquired by Total last December), said unless you’re operating in extreme temperatures, the benefits of fullsynthetic HDEOs are not likely worth the investment.

“I think a top-quality mineral oil like a CJ-4 oil is a better choice for the industry than the synthetic,” Van Kessel noted. “In our opinion, the move from mineral to synthetic will be slow. We have mineral products that are as effective as synthetics and are less expensive and meet the requirements of the manufacturers. As long as you meet or exceed all the manufacturers’ recommendations, you don’t need to go to synthetic. But it’s a trend – people like the fact it’s called synthetic.”

Total Lubricants, which does offer a line of full-synthetic HDEOs, concedes there are benefits to using synthetic lubes in extreme temperatures – notably, in the northern reaches of Canada. Beyond that, the biggest benefit is extended drains, and Kessel pointed out “The fleet supervisor doesn’t want to see the drivers every 75,000 kms, because yes, the engine may sustain 70,000 or 80,000 clicks, but there are other parts of the truck that need to be lubricated (more frequently).”

When touting the benefits of synthetic oils, most suppliers have focused on extreme weather performance characteristics.

Synthetic oils boast a lower “pour point” – the lowest temperature at which the oil will flow, which is why they allow for more reliable start-ups in the dead of winter.

“Conventional 15W-40 (oils) do not have the low temperature performance of synthetics and are getting no closer,” said Clinton Smith, with Imperial Oil. “Synthetics are best suited for low temperature and very high temperature applications.”

Reimer Foundations, a sand, gravel and concrete transportation company based out of Valleyview, Alta. has made the switch from conventional HDEOs to Petro-Canada’s Duron Synthetic 5W-40, and reports advantages that go beyond improved operation in temperatures that routinely reach highs of 38 C in the summer and as low as -35 C in the winter.

The company’s fleet of nine gravel trucks, 14 mixers as well as other construction equipment has also extended drain intervals by about 200 hours of operation.

“We’re getting really good performance out of our oil. For example, one of our trucks has about 1.4 million km on it and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it, and it requires very little top-up – about two litres per week,” said Randy Bond, manager of Reimer Foundations.

Paula Del Castilho, category manager, commercial transportation lubricants with Petro-Canada, recently told trucknews. com’s WebTV program, Transportation Matters, that its fleet customers make the switch for a variety of reasons, but cold weather performance generally tops the list.

“Usually with synthetic oils, there is some sort of other performance capability added to it,” she explained. “Usually fleets that are looking at synthetics are looking for some added benefit to it, some added capability.”

But unfortunately, placing a dollar figure on those improved capabilities is not always easy, making it difficult to measure a return-on-investment.

Shell’s Silveira said fleets and owner/operators are becoming more sophisticated when it comes to calculating cost-per-mile, which helps measure the value of a product such as a synthetic lubricant. He said customers should meet with their supplier to discuss the potential benefits as they apply specifically to their unique operation.

“Every fleet maintenance operation is a little bit different, so it gets down to talking to the customer and finding out how they measure ROI and how they measure true cost-per-mile,” Silveira explained.

With increasing fuel costs, the value proposition behind full-synthetic HDEOs appears to be evolving. Fleets are most interested in whether synthetic HDEOs can truly deliver a fuel savings – even a saving of as little as 1% can be substantial in long-haul applications.

Owner/operators on the other hand, appreciate the reliability and reduced downtime that can be realized during the winter months, especially if they operate in Northern Canada.

Customers wanting the cold weather start-up capabilities of a synthetic oil, without the prohibitive cost increase, can consider another option – using synthetic HDEOs in the winter time and switching back to a conventional mineral oil when the temperature warms up.

Total Lubricants’ Kessel said conventional and synthetic HDEOs are fully-compatible, so an operator can seamlessly switch between the two types of oil without even flushing the engine between changes.

In fact, conventional and synthetic HDEOs can even be “blended” to offer more modest performance improvements at a lower cost. There are also “semisynthetic” options, which use a high quality base stock comprised of a combination of mineral and synthetic oils.

These offer some of the benefits of synthetics at an easier to swallow premium of about 15-20%, notes Pagnanelli, whose Castrol Hypuron falls into this category.

For now, the industry seems divided on whether full-synthetic HDEOs will ever become mainstream.

At about triple the purchase price of conventional oils, Shell’s Silveira said “the operator wants to see, will he be getting three times the value?”

Most fleets and owner/operators are not y
et convinced. But with diesel surpassing $4/gallon, the future popularity of synthetic HDEOs may depend on its ability to deliver fuel savings.

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