Sure you got the right oil?

By Jami Jones, managing editor

A lot of difference 10 years makes, especially when you're talking about truck engines and the demanding conditions they operate under to meet ever-tightening Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

The trickle-down effect, or collateral damage depending on how you want to look at it, of the ever more stringent EPA regulations on truck emissions and fuel economy was that inevitably engine oils were going to need reformulating.

Eyeing the upcoming 2017 EPA requirements, engine makers made the call for the reformulation and development of a new category of oil five years ago.

That launched a three-phase development process: evaluation of the need for a new category; development of specs and test methods for the new category; and implementation of the new category.

Shell Lubricants Global OEM Technical Manager Dan Arcy chaired the new category development team for the American Petroleum Institute. API is a national trade organization that represents all aspects of the U.S. oil and gas industries. API, in that capacity, takes on the responsibility of bringing all stakeholders - which include all engine makers and oil producers - together to develop new industry standards for engine oil categories.

The development and testing phase is the longest of the three and spanned four years from December 2011 to December 2015.

During that time new testing standards were established to put the new oil formulations to the test. The tests are grueling, and the constant monitoring checks on everything from the thickening of oil over time to how it handles soot and other contaminants to if starts to foam up and break down.

Arcy said while improved fuel economy is the ultimate goal, in addition to protecting the engine, there isn't a test for that. But by default, going to a lower viscosity oil, fuel economy will improve.

Normally, when a new oil category is introduced, basically one oil type is developed. This time around the category is split into two standards. This will be far and away the most important thing people learn and understand about the oils hitting the market in December.

Right now, the current category as listed on the API Service Symbol or "donut" on oil bottles is CJ-4. That standard is compatible in all engines on the road currently. In engine oil-industry jargon, that means it is "backward compatible."

The new category has two standards, CK-4 and FA-1. The API donut has been redesigned to accommodate the two standards and to highlight the standard.

That is because the CK-4 standard is 100 percent backward compatible with the 2016 engines and older. The FA-4 will likely have limited backward compatibility, according to Arcy. That means consumers really will have to know what is recommended for their engine and make sure they are grabbing the right bottle off the shelf or specifying the correct oil type to the shop when getting an oil change.

Oil makers cannot be specific about what oils will go in what year model engines; that will be the job of engine makers.

API speculates that any engine currently running the CJ-4 standard of oil will likely be recommended to use the CK-4 standard of oil.

"API FA-4 oils, however, are different. These oils have been designed to protect diesel engines that are expected to be on the road sometime in 2016 or 2017. Some engine manufacturers might recommend FA-4 oils for their previous model-year vehicles, but it is likely manufacturers recommending CJ-4 oils today will just recommend CK-4 for these vehicles when the new categories are introduced," API states on its website.

Pouring the wrong oil in on a top-off - for example putting the new FA-4 oil in an engine recommending CK-4 - will not result in catastrophic engine failure, major oil producers Shell Rotella and Chevron confirm to Land Line. As of press time, Exxon Mobil had not confirmed the same information.

At worst, according to Shell officials, if an oil change results in a full fill of FA-4 oil in an engine needing CK-4, some truck owners could see some oil leaking similar to when synthetics first hit the markets and some older engines simply did not respond well to the thinner oils. Rectifying the situation at the new oil change would be fine. They caution that long-term use of the wrong oil would not be good for the life of the engine.

Chevron agrees.

Shawn Whitacre, senior staff engineer with Chevron, said that other common problems when using the lower viscosity FA-4 in a CK-4 recommended engine could be low oil pressure lights, which could trigger other safeguards including having the engine derate. He agrees that prolonged use could lead to premature engine wear and failure.

Shell Rotella, Chevron and Exxon Mobil will all be packaging the FA-4 oils in distinctive bottles and containers. Shell's FA-4 bottles will be set apart with red caps and labeling. Chevron Delo's FA-4 oils will have yellow caps with FA-4 printed on the cap. Exxon Mobil at press time was days away from publicly unveiling their packaging, but did confirm that the FA-4 products would have a yellow cap and black label. LL