Interview: Synthetic Oil Myth

Synthetic Oil Myth
Harry Rakfeldt

Even though most people understand that car oil changes are important, there are many synthetic oil myths that car owners believe, and those myths usually deter people from using synthetic oil instead of regular engine oil.

Exposing The Synthetic Oil Myth

In this exclusive LoveToKnow Cars interview, Harry Rakfeldt of AMSOIL Synthetic Oil describes some of the misconceptions people have about these pricier oils and how they cannot only protect an engine in the short term, but also dramatically extend its life.

The Difference Between Synthetic Oil and Regular Oil

LTK: Could you describe the composition of synthetic oil and why it's better than regular engine oil?

HR: This is an area where there is both a lack of information and misinformation. Over the past several decades vehicles have become increasingly sophisticated. Smaller engines, turning at very high rpm's, are in tightly packed engine compartments with little airflow for cooling. Engine oil plays a key role in cooling engine components.

Conventional oils are refined from crude oil. The result of refining is that a wide assortment of molecules remain - and any unwanted molecules invite the formation of sludge and other unwanted by-products, especially in high temperature operations.

Imagine a bowl of hot vegetable soup. The vegetables that make up the soup are like the mix of molecules in conventional oil. There is also a lighter faction, the liquid in which these "molecules" exist. Now, run a spoon through this mix. You'll feel varying resistance and when you lift the spoon out there is very little liquid on the handle. Now, imagine a bowl of hot tomato soup. Its composition is absolutely uniform. All of the "molecules" are the same size, weight, and shape. Run the spoon through and it glides easily. Lift the handle out and you'll notice a uniform coating.

Tomato soup represents premium synthetic oil. It's smooth, has a significantly reduced coefficient of friction, adheres tenaciously to metal, is extremely strong (resists metal-to-metal contact) and the molecules are uniform in size, shape, and weight.

Finally, put both soups onto separate burners and crank up the heat. The light faction in the vegetable soup begins to evaporate, leaving behind a veggie mixture that becomes thicker and thicker. Run a spoon handle through this and resistance is increased. The same happens in your engine as conventional oil vaporizes. However, the tomato soup exhibits very little loss to vaporization, continuing to function smoothly and energy-efficiently for a very long time.

LTK: Your website states that by using synthetic oil, a person could change their oil only once a year. How is this really possible?

HR: Yes, it's not only possible - it's been a reality since 1972! There are three characteristics of AMSOIL premium synthetics that make them superior to conventional oil (and other synthetics):

  1. Significant reduction in friction and wear
  2. Performs dependably at extended temperature extremes
  3. Rigorous and lengthy in-use operation without chemical breakdown

AMSOIL Inc was the first oil company in the world to produce an API-approved, fully synthetic engine oil in 1972. Even back then, AMSOIL recommended their oil for 25,000 miles or one year's use, whichever came first!

How Synthetic Engine Oil Is Made

LTK: What is the base used in synthetic oil, is it still regular oil from the earth or is it something else entirely?

HR: No crude oil is used to make a true synthetic. There are a number of items that can be used to develop a synthetic oil base stock. Some items that can be manipulated (chemically engineered) are weak organic acids, long chain alcohols, and ethylene. Ethylene, derived from natural gas, is turned into a liquid.

Because there is no single accepted definition for synthetic oil, there are products that claim to be 'synthetic' but still use highly refined crude oil as their base stock. I prefer to use the term, true synthetic to describe non-crude oil lubricating products.

Synthetic Oil Myth

LTK: Is the process of manufacturing synthetic engine oils very difficult?

HR: I'm not a chemist and cannot speak from personal knowledge to the processes. As I understand, the base stock is made through a chemical process. The most popular base stock is a polyalphaolefin (PAO) and is known as a Group IV oil. A PAO is derived from ethylene, a component of natural gas. (There are a number of different PAO's that can be designed to meet a requirement.)

Once in the hands of the AMSOIL formulators, the PAO is amended with a small amount of an ester synthetic base stock and then the additive package completes the finished lubricant.

The Effects of Synthetic Oil on an Engine

LTK: Does synthetic oil significantly affect the gas mileage of a vehicle?

HR: There are differences among the various available synthetic engine oils in many aspects. As to 'significantly' affect gas mileage, I do not have figures for other synthetic engine oils. However, AMSOIL says its engine oils should conservatively increase gas mileage by 2% to 5%.

LTK: Does the type of filter used matter as much as the type of oil?

HR: Engine oil filters vary across the gamut from cheap to quality. Filter media can be cellulose to synthetic and affects its life and capacity. AMSOIL, for example, has developed the Absolute Efficiency Oil Filter with a lower restriction than cellulose media filters. This is important at startup when cold engine oil flows more readily through the synthetic nanofiber media. Quicker oil flow means less wear. And the nanofiber media construction traps more dirt without loosing efficiency.

A Closer Look at Synthetic Oils

LTK: Are there big differences in various synthetic oils, or will any synthetic oil on the market help improve gas mileage and reduce oil change frequency?

HR: Yes, there are differences among various synthetic oils. Two areas for comparison (there are more) are: the Four Ball Wear Test (ASTM D-4172) and NOACK Volatility (ASTM- D 5800).

In the Four Ball Wear Test, a steel ball is rotated under load against three stationary steel balls bathed in the test lubricant. The tests are run under specific conditions and their diameters are measured and averaged. The smaller the "scar", or decrease in diameter, the greater the wear prevention characteristics of the test lubricant.

In the NOACK Volatility Test, loss of oil due to vaporization (emissions) is measured. Technically, a true synthetic will perform better than a conventional because of its better energy efficiency.

Because of its makeup, any true synthetic should reduce oil change frequency, but most other oil companies seem to avoid specifying mileage or discussing 'extended oil drain intervals.' Why? One reason can be that synthetics for the big oil companies represent only token interest; it's their conventional oil products that bring in the money.

LTK: Can a person ever ruin their engine by using synthetic oils?

HR: The word "ever" is intimidating! Sure, you could ruin an engine if you put in a synthetic and just kept using it forever. But realistically, even an ultra premium synthetic has limitations. However, those limitations may be far beyond what we are normally accustomed to...or what we have been brainwashed to think.

With the right synthetic, you can go thousands of miles without changing your oil as long as you have a mechanically sound engine and seek out the brand that specifies drain intervals. This way, you know you have protection that is based on the very best in technology and experience.

LTK: Is it okay to combine a quart of synthetic oil to the regular oil in my engine if my car is a quart low?

HR: Yes. Polyalphaolefin (PAO) base stocks are synthetic hydrocarbon products. Regular oil is a natural hydrocarbon product. Also, Synthetic engine oils can be recycled just the same as regular oil. I recommend using quick lube locations that will change owner-provided fluids and filters. You stay clean and the used products are properly recycled. On the flip side, if you are using synthetic and you are a quart low you can also add regular oil.

LTK: Do you have any advice for drivers who are unsure about spending so much extra for an oil change using synthetic rather than regular oil?

HR: Higher Quality Costs Less. The 3,000 mile oil change that has been hammered into our core beliefs is a myth. If vehicles have improved greatly over the last several decades and oil companies have had to meet car manufacturer's requirements for improved oil to put into these vehicles, then why do the quick lubes keep pressuring us with changing the oil at 3,000 miles or three months? Even many car dealerships are guilty of suggesting more frequent changes. The answer is simple - it benefits them.

And premium synthetic engine oils are not that much more in price over conventional engine oil.

Again, I'm using AMSOIL as the example. If you drive 20,000 miles a year, you can do it with one oil & filter change (normal driving). Your oil and filter will cost you around $65.00 for a gas engine. That's the only charge if you change the fluid/filter yourself. But even if you use a quick lube and you pay $24.00 for their service (and ask for a reduced rate because you have your own products), you are dollars ahead based on conventional 3,000 mile oil changes or even 5,000 mile oil changes.

And the benefits continue -

  • Better performance (mileage improvement)
  • Convenience (only one visit rather than multiple)
  • Reduced engine wear
  • Reduced emissions (by some 18% plus)
  • Superior performance in extreme weather conditions
  • Significantly reduced wear
  • Lower energy consumption
  • Reduced deposit formation

And for anyone seeking conservation or may have environmental concerns -- you can feel happier because now you are driving GREE - no crude oil in the engine! Every step toward sustainability helps!

LTK: Thank you for sharing your insight and experience with LoveToKnow Cars readers.

HR: I'm here to help with my 29 years of personal use experience and training in Commercial, Fleet, and Industrial applications. Happy Motoring!

Final Words

Whether your driving an older clunker or a brand new car, according to Harry the 3,000 oil change recommendation is a myth when you switch over to using synthetic oil. In fact, by using certain synthetic oil, you may only have to worry about changing your engine oil once a year. That's one less car maintenance issue to worry about.

Interview: Synthetic Oil Myth