Shocking results of a study by the American Petroleum Institute finds that one in five bulk oils fail to meet their manufacturer’s advertised specs
By Jeff Huneycutt
Picture this scenario: You make a run to the grocery store and pick up a gallon of milk and a box of your favorite cereal, Count Chocula, for breakfast the next morning. Poor choices in a healthy diet to start your day aside, you are ready to enjoy a big bowl of chocolaty, sugary goodness when you pour the contents of the box into your cereal bowl and out comes – macaroni and cheese.
Now, you enjoy mac’n cheese as much as the next guy (or gal), but you are understandably a bit peeved that you didn’t get what was advertised on the box. After all, it’s your hard-earned cash and you deserve to get what you’ve paid for.
That example may seem a bit far-fetched, even ridiculous, but that is exactly what is going on in the oil industry today. Every year the American Petroleum Institute (API) purchases motor oil from many different locations and tests it to confirm the quality. Through its research the API found that oils bottled and sold in quart- and gallon-sized containers were almost always exactly as marked, but when it came to larger bulk quantities—sold in barrels and larger containers—the oil didn’t match the advertised specs an amazing 20 percent of the time.
And that’s not just a one-time blip on quality. The API says in a report recently published in the trade publication Lube Report that it annually tests approximately 200 bulk oil samples and the failure rate has been a consistent 20 percent for the last five years!
The API doesn’t give any details on exactly which oils were tested and how they failed, only that each oil said it met the API standards for consumer motor oil but didn’t. So although not every oil that failed the API testing would mean instant death for your engine, just like the macaroni example, you still expect to get what you pay for, right?
Still, you might be thinking, “This doesn’t affect me. I’m not some trucking company. I don’t buy oil in bulk and don’t know anybody who does.” But if you use an oil change service instead of changing your own oil you probably have oil purchased in bulk in your vehicle right now.
One of the ways your local EZ-Lube is able to keep its prices down is by buying the oil it uses by the tanker load instead of the plastic quart-sized containers you are used to seeing. It gets pumped out of the tanker truck and into the facility’s own holding tank where it sits until you come by for an oil change. Contamination of those storage tanks is likely a major reason why 20 percent of the bulk oil in the United States doesn’t meet its advertised standard.
“If you go to your local oil change place and they aren’t opening up quarts of oil, then they are using a tank,” says Driven Racing Oil’s Lake Speed Jr. “If you get the discount deal, they may tell you what brand they are using—and it may be a very popular brand—but if they aren’t pouring it out of quart bottles, they are getting it from a tanker truck.”
So what can you do? Even a riverboat gambler wouldn’t accept a one-in-five failure rate. Fortunately, Speed says you do have a few options.
“First of all, if you still want to use an oil-change service, you can ask them to only use bottled oil in your car or truck,” Speed says. “They may charge you more, but the API study shows that the bottled oil is hardly ever wrong, and when it is it’s most often an off-brand discount oil.
“Second, you can change your own oil. Not only can you be sure that the job is done right, but getting underneath the car to drain the oil from the pan and getting under the hood to pour in fresh oil really gives you a chance to look over your car and spot potential problems. But I also understand that changing your own oil can bring some hassles with disposing of waste oil and making a mess and stuff like that, so it may not be worth it to you if we are talking about the family minivan.
“The third option is to bring your own oil with you to the oil change place. Some places may not want to do this because they make money on selling you the oil, but there are usually many oil change places in most towns so I bet you can probably find somebody willing to work with you. The advantage here is bringing your own oil allows you to choose the right oil for your car and you aren’t stuck with using whatever they happened to have stocked on the shelf.”
Speed brings up a great point that even if your local oil change place is using oil poured out of quart bottles—which can be considered trustworthy—you may not want it. This is especially true if your car or truck is a classic, a hot rod, or any performance vehicle with a high-horsepower engine. In this situation, the best oil for your vehicle’s needs may not even be an API-approved oil.
Speed stresses that if you have a unique, high-value car, then it deserves a unique, high-quality motor oil. We’ve already discussed two classes of motor oil, those that fail to meet the API spec and those that are API-compliant, but there is also a third class that should be considered. There are high-performance motor oils available that aren’t API certified because they actually exceed the specification. These specialist oils are blended for specific purposes such as racing, or premium protection for valuable classic muscle car engines and don’t make the compromises that meeting the API rules requires.
“You have to understand that the API spec was developed to make sure the oil meets the needs of the vehicle manufacturers,” he says. “The automotive companies have defined what they want for their OEM engines, and the API spec reflects that. The standard isn’t about producing better oil for performance; it’s about producing a motor oil targeted for the general driving population.”
If you are a performance enthusiast and you occasionally take your car to the drag strip or a track day at the road course, you may think you represent what the manufacturers consider a high-demand user of their engines.
But you are hardly even on their radar. What keeps them up nights is the grandmother who only drives a few miles to the store once or twice a week and five miles to see the grandkids on Sunday afternoons. The oil gets enough heat into it to draw condensation when it cools back down but never enough heat to boil off that moisture. It’s a recipe for creating damaging sludge in your motor oil, and that’s what the OEMs are worried about. The population of people driving like that is many times the population of performance enthusiasts.
The API standard is also used to protect the OEMs from costly warranty repairs. For example, changes to the API standard have lowered the acceptable amount of Zinc, or ZDDP, additive packages in certified motor oils because those chemicals can shorten the lifespan of catalytic converters. That part of the standard is only concerned with chemical content and has nothing to do with the performance of the motor oil. Because of that, it actually limits how much an oil manufacturer can do to create a high-performance motor oil that also meets the standard so that they can put the all-important API badge on the front of the bottle.
If you have a high-performance car, truck or motorcycle; a classic muscle car with a flat-tappet valve train; a race car; or enjoy maximum effort driving on track days, you will want to consider actually using a motor oil that’s not API-compliant in order to get the greatest performance and protection possible.
Driven Racing Oil is one brand of ultra-high performance motor oil that doesn’t have the API badge on the bottle. Making the changes necessary to get the certification would force the company to actually reduce the oil’s ability to maximize performance and protection in high-horsepower and racing engines. Driven was developed because the NASCAR engine builders at Joe Gibbs Racing had greater demands than current motor oils on the market could meet, and Driven’s entire lineup of oils still carries that high standard of performance.
“Our performance oils offer more than what API-spec oils can because the API limits things like phosphorus and sulfur, and those kinds of things which can limit catalytic converter life,” Speed explains. “That really limits what you can do with the oil in terms of anti-wear protection or friction modification. Our driving focus has always been to sell our customers oil that matches their engines’ needs as well as possible to help improve performance and win races. The API certification really isn’t designed to protect the all-out performance driver. That’s the type of driver we’re looking to help, so if creating a no-compromises performance oil to meet their needs means that oil won’t be API-compliant, then that’s what we are willing to do.”
So if you are driving a high-value car—and by “value” we mean both money and your own personal attachment to the vehicle—don’t make the mistake of assuming that a bottle of oil will provide your engine the best protection just because it has that “American Petroleum Institute” badge on the label. Your favorite machine is worlds different from all the grocery-getters and minivans on the road. Your pride and joy needs specifically blended oil and that probably means a high performance lubricant that exceeds the API’s specs.