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Best oil is best-kept secret

Last September the American Petroleum Institute (API) created a new oil category, but, months later, the news still hasn't reached many farmers — or their oil suppliers.

“I don't think anyone's mentioned it,” says Rick Zoubek, owner of Zoubek Oil Company in Norfolk, NE. Zoubek distributes Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell lubricants, all of which were upgraded to the newly formulated category early last year.

This latest category, technically called CI-4, was developed in response to recent changes in the EPA's rules governing emissions from on-highway diesel engines. These strict regulations have forced most engine makers to start using cooled-exhaust-gas recirculation, or EGR, a technology that routes a portion of the exhaust stream back into the cylinders where it helps lower peak flame temperatures and the formation of oxides of nitrogen, the primary target of the EPA's mandate. The new lubes are designed to handle the extra soot, acid and heat generated inside EGR engines.

Superior blend

It is unlikely that farmers will see EGR hardware hanging on their field equipment in the near future. Still, all will soon use — and benefit from — the oil required for these systems. Nearly every refiner has already reformulated its product line.

Matthew Ansari, a market segment manager for ChevronTexaco, says it wouldn't make economical sense for large refiners to produce and distribute dual categories of oil when the superior blend basically replaces its predecessor and is fully compatible with any diesel or gasoline engine on the street. For the same reasons, he can't imagine customers wanting anything but the latest formulations, even if they're unnecessary for non-EGR engines.

CI-4 oil is built with greater wear protection, more thermal stability, improved oxidation control and increased soot-handling capabilities. This combination of factors should offer longer drain intervals and, ultimately, lower operating costs, says Dan Larkin, technical advisor for ExxonMobil. Larkin is intimately familiar with the CI-4 category. Formerly with Detroit Diesel Corporation, he was the chairman of the group that drafted the initial set of oil performance requirements for EGR engines.

Differences exist

Some farmers, aware of the added capabilities of CI-4 oil, might soon try to cut costs by switching to the cheapest brands on the market. That would be a mistake, says Ross Iwamoto, product development scientist for Phillips Petroleum.

“Brands are formulated differently, so they have individual performance advantages,” he says. “API's categories are sort of a minimum standard. There is a lot of room to build in better performance than that.” Plus, the API licensing system is voluntary, so some lower-end products might not even meet the category criteria.

Michael Monarchi, product manager at Penzoil-Quaker State, agrees, adding that customer flight is a big concern among larger producers each time new categories are introduced. The hard part, he says, is convincing consumers that tangible differences exist between oils: “That's tough to do. We live in a world where people don't want to pay extra for added performance if it's not readily apparent.” He says education is critical to ensure that a brand's distinct characteristics are valued in the market.

Oil companies haven't done much of this educating among their farming customers, at least not yet. However, that might change soon. Bernie Elliot, a lube-oil marketing manager at Cenex in St. Paul, MN, says his company is starting to get its message out. He says Cenex normally delays information about new products until they've saturated the market. “Otherwise, we'd have people concerned whether they were using the appropriate oils,” he says. “We generally give the information after the fact.”

Another change

That strategy might not work with the next category change, scheduled to occur in 2006.

Tentatively dubbed Proposed Category 10, or PC-10, this oil will be used in 2007-model, on-highway heavy diesels, which will burn ultra-low-sulfur fuel and employ exhaust after-treatments and other possible emission-reducing hardware. Engineers say the challenges in reaching the next level of oil performance might require a whole new batch of additive chemistry.

“Everyone is thinking that PC-10 oils will be ‘outside of the box’ from current oils,” says Iwamoto at Phillips. “This could mean that they won't be compatible with any engines other than the ones they were designed to lubricate.” Such a scenario could eventually cause trouble for farmers if they owned a mix of newer and older engines. They'd need to stock two types of oil and make sure that each was correctly dispensed.

Work on PC-10 has just begun, so it's possible that compatibility issues could be resolved during the next three years. That certainly will be among the goals scientists pursue. Getting to that point, however, will require considerable research and money. About $5.7 million was spent developing CI-4 — just to establish the testing procedures.

Unfortunately for oil companies, this massive effort is lost on the buying public. “Consumers don't realize or appreciate how difficult and expensive it is to develop new oils,” says Larkin at ExxonMobil. “They only care about having the best oil delivered at the lowest price.”

Oil identity

Oil categories date back to 1947, when the American Petroleum Institute and several other groups started setting engine-oil standards. Before that time, oil was rated on its viscosity alone.

In the current alphanumeric jargon, “C” means compression ignition, and “4” stands for four-stroke. The middle letter, “I” in this case, changes with each new level of performance.

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