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Oils and lubes – and the impact of Euro

  • 24 October 2011
  • By Laura Hailstone

Several major truck manufacturers have declared their intentions on the Euro-6 front, and the only surprise was Iveco’s announcement that it would achieve the required levels with selective catalytic reduction (SCR) alone.

Motor Transport asked its UK technical director, Martin Flach, what effect running a more intensive SCR system would have on the oils in use. His response was relaxed. “It’s business as usual,” he says. “There’s no fundamental need to look at the oils for Euro-6, as those we use for Euro-5 are fully up to the job.”

Iveco already uses fully synthetic oils developed with its lube partner Petronas and is planning to meet oil drain intervals of 150,000km, although it is debatable if they should be stretched any further. Flach did query what the effects would be of the increased soot generated in crankcases for those opting for exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), but his worries have been dismissed by manufacturers using EGR.

Among them is Nick Blake, sales engineering manager at Mercedes-Benz UK commercial vehicles. He says the use of M-B’s low-ash oils and Fleetboard telematics package will achieve a 150,000km drain interval without issues. This is from engines that have added EGR to SCR to attain Euro-6.

Blake also points out that M-B’s Telligent maintenance software can accommodate different oil quality and spec and, using an interpretation of the truck’s work levels, can adjust the service regime accordingly. This raises the issue of oil cost and whether it is viable to use a cheaper spec oil with more frequent drains as an option.

With as much as 46 litres needed to fill a heavy tractor unit sump, the cost of just the oil can be £300 or £400 at service time. If the cost is absorbed into a service contract, the pain will not be so apparent and while a dealer should be competitive on his oil price, that will be factored into the pence-per-km figure. However, with drain intervals having been progressively stretched to as much as 150,000km, it can be argued that increased oil costs have been mitigated.

As for the strategy of dropping the oil quality and upping drain intervals to cut costs, the picture is a little foggy because all operating regimes are different. The variables of the truck’s duty cycle, fleet utilisation and the operator’s ability to negotiate a keen oil price make it an individual decision for each fleet engineer.

It must also be said that with service intervals of this distance requiring only yearly oil changes, operators might want to see vehicles in the workshop more regularly, which allows for the option of cutting the oil spec.

On the other hand, while the oil can easily be omitted during any six-weekly inspection, the crunch factor is likely to be the additional downtime involved in more frequent drains.

False economy

The general view of the fleet engineers MT spoke to is that such an approach is almost certainly a false economy. Somerset-based Framptons Transport Services, which runs a large contract distribution operation in the UK and on the Continent, is among the fleets that run their own workshops and buy in their oil. General manger Richard Fry was typical of the professionals we spoke to. “We run by the manufacturers’ recommended drain intervals and oils,” he says. “To try and cut corners with oil spec and reduced drain periods would make no economic sense and give us warranty issues too.”

Fry confirms that oil prices per litre vary enormously, but its highest grade fully synthetic is £6 a litre. As an MAN service centre that uses Castrol, Framptons runs its own fleet on Fuchs lubricants, with the lowest price of mineral oil retailing at £2.50 per litre. Oil price was the most contentious issue we looked at, putting technical discussions in the shade.

Oil companies also have their own chemists and engineers. Steve Crawley, commercial vehicle lubricants manager (UK Ireland) for ExxonMobil, spends much of his time convincing truck operators that oil is not a cost, but an investment. He says: “We work closely with OEMs to develop the correct oils, often from their engine blueprint stage, and it’s a working partnership that benefits us both.”

Unsurprisingly, the idea of cheaper oils and more frequent drains does not appeal to him. “Professional fleet engineers understand that oil is not a convenient avenue for cutting costs and corners. We’ve developed a useful spreadsheet for our customers that demonstrates the impact that their choice of oil has on the total cost of ownership,” he says. In a nutshell, it’s longer drain intervals and improved fuel consumption.

Crawley admits it can be an uphill struggle convincing operators of the fuel benefit. “We run trials with customers over an 18-month period and let them see the results for themselves. You do need to be meticulous in ironing out the variables, but a low friction fully synthetic product provides figures for all to see,” he says.

It’s probably a fair deduction that if these fuel gains are measurable, they will rack up over distance and probably put the cost of an oil fill in the shade. ExxonMobil also points to the improved thermal stability of fully synthetic high quality oils, which should be of interest to operators running EGR where higher temperatures are the norm.

David Spence, marketing manager, Europe for Chevron Lubricants, refines the position on oil quality further. “It’s the after-treatment equipment that has driven oil specification for Euro-6. It’s meant there’s no negotiation,” he says. He adds that Chevron has important developmental relationships with truck OEMs and that oils are considered a vital part of the groundwork in new engine development. However, Chevron likes to keep these relationships confidential.

Spence also explodes a ‘synthetic’ myth when he says: “There’s a lot of hocus-pocus surrounding the use of synthetic oils. We’ve satisfied many applications with group two and three low SAPS (sulphated ash, phosphorus, sulphur) oils that are a more highly refined product, working from a mineral base.”

It seems the price premium for synthetic might not always need paying, with Chevron predicting that the move to low viscosity oils will accelerate. “This is partly due to the allure of fuel consumption gains, but also with an eye to cutting CO2,” says Spence.

Own workshops

Research conducted by Chevron and MT parent Road Transport Media confirms that a lot of own-account operators still run their own workshops and need to pay attention to oil quality after vehicles come off contract, or are out of warranty.

After citing the reduced wear on cold starts and improved oxidation qualities of its synthetic low-friction product, ExxonMobil’s Crawley fires a parting shot at the rest of the drivetrain. “Away from the engine, it amazes me that the same care isn’t taken with the lubes in the gearbox and rear axle,” he says. “They have an important contribution to make to overall economy.”

MT is sure he’s highlighting more than a few workshop managers’ guilty secret. While we all understand the harsh degrading environment engine oil has to live with and appreciate the need for timely renewal, the oils that work further away from the front line of combustion are not under the same spotlight.

Low friction oils

The challenge for commercial vehicle engineers after Euro-6 will be reducing CO2 emissions, an objective that has been left at the wayside in recent rounds of Euro emissions legislation. It’s an emission that is in direct proportion to fuel consumption.

After all the mechanical innovation of higher injection pressures, composite camshafts and the like, it is certain that manufacturers that haven’t already turned to low friction oils will do so.

However, Nick Blake, from Mercedes-Benz, has a word of warning. When buying new trucks, it is worth checking what oil the OEM uses as a first fill. “A high-quality fully synthetic or low-friction oil is not good news for a new truck,” he says. “We don’t recommend their use until after the engine is run-in, when they do have a valuable role to play. All operators know that a truck does not reach peak performance on fuel economy until it has a few months’ work behind it.”

Mercedes-Benz uses Shell Rimula Ultra SAE 5W-30 as a factory-fill on its current OM501/502 engines for this reason. So be warned, using a tip-top slippery oil from new will drag out the running-in process and cost money.

As much in the search for smoothness and silence as fuel economy, a few high-end car manufacturers not only use low-friction oils, but have also employed thin-film physical vapour deposition (PVD) coatings technology. Typically 1μm-4μm, all the engine’s impact, rolling and sliding surfaces can be coated to gain an extra edge on lubricity.

Now here’s a dark and devious industry if ever there was one. It encompasses professional and highly rarified coating engineers at one end, and ‘snake oil’ additive salesmen at the other. If any of the truck makers are already using PVD coating technology, they aren’t telling us.


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