Lube Notes: Petroleum Oil vs Synthetic Oil - Petroleum Oil vs Synthetic Oil: Cost

Volume 2 Issue 1 - Lubrication

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Lube Notes: Petroleum Oil vs Synthetic Oil
Oxidation Stability
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Petroleum Oil vs Synthetic Oil: Cost
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Petroleum Oil vs Synthetic Oil: Cost

What is the real cost to use synthetic oil compared to petroleum? To correctly assess cost, it is necessary to differentiate between price and cost. What you pay for an item is the price, how the price is distributed with respect to product utilization over time is cost. For example, if you pay $160 for an 80,000-mile radial tire, then that is the price to purchase the tire. To determine the cost, you have to distribute the $160 over the 80,000 miles; this determines the cost per mile to use the tire. This method allows the direct comparison of products that are priced differently yet have variable life expectancy. Calculating cost is a little of a mixed bag when comparing synthetic and petroleum oils. Not all synthetic oils are designed for extended oil drains and some petroleum oils will perform much better than others. Comparisons are best done on a case-by-case basis. In general, most any synthetic will run longer between oil drains; however, only a select few are designed for very long drain intervals. For the synthetic oil to be equal or less costly, it must have approximately three times the drain interval of a given petroleum oil (see the cost comparison table on the next page).

There are other, indirect cost benefits to synthetic oils, including improved fuel economy and superior lubrication that results in less maintenance. One unheralded feature of synthetic oil is insurance: by that I mean protection from unexpected calamities. The blowing of a radiator hose, the loss of oil or a water pump failure, in most cases, may result in engine damage from excessively high temperatures. When PAO or Ester based synthetics are used, engine damage is highly unlikely to result from engine overheating. This insurance can mean saving thousands of dollars on repairs.

> Cost Advantage: Synthetic

Comparing the features of synthetic oils versus petroleum oils is an exercise that all lubrication professionals have fun with, but for the consumer, what is the bottom line and what action should you take? Clearly, synthetics win in head-to-head features and benefits and they also provide intangibles such as insurance but should every owner switch? The answer is “no”. If you own an older vehicle with more than 100,000 miles, you should not switch unless you have an experienced professional to guide you through the process. If you have a vehicle with leaks that you can not fix, then it makes no sense to pour the higher priced synthetic oil on the ground. If, for some reason, your engine is consuming oil at an alarming rate, again, it is not cost-effective to use synthetic oil. On the other hand, synthetic oils are superior in performance; the right synthetic is more cost effective than petroleum so there is little reason not to switch. The high temperatures (> 600°F) possible in the turbo-charger make synthetic oils (PAO and/or Ester) clearly the best choice; one failed turbo buys a lot of synthetic oil. If you are towing or otherwise involved in severe duty operations, then synthetics offer so many superior benefits and enhanced protection that it is the only right choice. Using petroleum oil vs synthetic oil is an option analogous to using bias ply tires instead of radial tires. Of course the bias ply tire can get you from point A to point B. The difference is in the load carrying capacities, heat range, traction, handling and tread life. For simple casual driving with no severe conditions the bias ply tire may work fine but in the event of something outside normal conditions, the radial is superior; it is simply a matter of the quality of each tire’s construction.


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Petroleum Oil vs Synthetic Oil: Decision Time

The decision, whether to use petroleum oil vs synthetic oil, is dependent on your unique situation; each of us has his own set of circumstances to assess in order to make a decision based on facts. Understanding the benefits and limitations of engine oil will help you make an informed choice. Making sense of the relationships between oil properties and how those properties protect and preserve an engine is the only real way to analyze true cost effectiveness. Sometimes the decision is obvious; severe duty situations call for synthetic oils. Critical components subject to high temperatures like the turbo-charger are best protected by synthetics. I recommend synthetic engine oils in order to provide the most cost effective method to achieve the best lubrication possible for your engine.

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