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Workshop: Oil Part II – The Label Game


Have you ever tried to make sense of which motor oil is best for your vehicle’s engine? If you want to make a good choice, you could begin by learning about base oils − the starting point of finished lubricants.

The base oils used in engine oils can provide varying levels of performance. However, one first needs to understand the terms fully-synthetic, synthetic technology and semi-synthetic, and how these are factors in our choice of motor oil.

It is a complicated subject, so let’s begin by saying that it is far easier to simply abide by the recommendation of the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM), than it is to make yourself knowledgeable enough to make a wise choice on lubrication options for your motor vehicle.

This is partly because every article written on the subject will have its supporters and its detractors, based on the author’s brand loyalty. So, as you can see, I am wearing my bullet-proof jacket.

Let’s begin by taking a look at the different base oils used in the blending of lubricants. It is important to know that, before additives are added, lubricating oils usually begin as one or more of the five American Petroleum Institute (API) base oil groups (see table), and the choice of a particular base oil is a major determining factor in the quality and performance of the finished product. This is where the chemistry starts.

There are five current API base oil categories. Understanding these categories will help us realise that it can be tricky to determine oil quality simply by looking at the specifications and wording on a can of oil.

The Petroleum Quality Institute of America (PQIA) regularly issues “don’t buy” warnings on their website, advising consumers not to purchase certain products as they will cause harm to an engine. Often, the Department of Consumer Affairs will then order these products to be taken off the shelves.

The PQIA’s mission is to serve the consumer of lubricants by testing and reporting on the quality and integrity of lubricants in the marketplace. (In the past 25 years that I have been in the oil industry, I have yet to hear of such an active organisation here.)

An article in the March issue of the US-based online publication Lube Report claims that the quality of oil sold in South Africa is on the upswing. Noting that demand for better base oil stocks and synthetic lubricants is on the rise in this market, the publication quotes Unichem operations director, Samer Akram, as follows: “The quality of lubricants in South Africa is already quite high compared to other major African markets. In one industry study, only 30 percent of samples of packaged lubricants came back off-spec – compared to 84 percent in Nigeria.”

In other news, Lube Report notes that, in California, a recent bill prohibits the sale of engine oils and lubricants considered obsolete by the American Petroleum Institute; the newest specification to get the axe is API SH.

The bill amends sections in the California Business and Professions Code regarding the sale and labelling of lubricant products. The law now requires that engine oils and lubricants meet at least one active API classification, one active sequence of the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA), or one active Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) specification.