Is There a Lubrication Silver Bullet?

Noria Corporation
Tags: industrial lubricants

Silver Bullet noun
1. Something that acts as a magical weapon, especially one that instantly solves a long-standing problem.

Throughout the course of the year, I teach a number of training classes, from management educational sessions focused on the financial aspect of lubrication to craftspeople training focused on the proper use of a grease gun. The classes are quite diverse in both audience and content. Despite this, there is one question which seems to be asked time and time again; that is, “what oil do you use in your car?” The rationale behind this question is simple. Because I am perceived as the lubrication expert – after all, I’m the one at the front of the class – I must have some kind of inside track or advanced knowledge on the different manufacturers, brands and formulations of passenger vehicle engine oils. Surely then, if they were to use the same oil I use in my vehicle, they can’t go wrong – correct?

So what oil do I use? While I could hide behind Noria’s strict vendor neutral policy and not tell you, let me share with you my standard answer. I honestly do not prescribe to one particular brand. When it comes time to change oil, I simply look for the appropriate SAE and API rating based on my owners manual, choose the correct viscosity grade (5W30, given my OEM manual and the climate I live in where the ambient temperature rarely exceeds 85°F or drops below 20°F) and make sure I choose a name-brand manufacturer.

What about synthetics? What about fuel economy and extended oil drains – it is assumed that I have a preference. Again, my response is the same: I own a newer model car, so I don’t need to be concerned with high-mileage issues. I am fortunate to live in a temperate climate where I am not forced to start my car when it’s -40°F. Most of my driving is on highway (mostly to and from the airport, given how much traveling I do!), and I do not own a boat or trailer to tow uphill on weekends. Therefore, I’m content to change my oil every 5,000 miles as my owners manual recommends. And lastly, I do not race my car in the passing lane (I guess I’m getting old!).

Based on these factors, I choose a brandname, 5W30 mineral oil, which again meets the API and SAE requirements for my vehicle. That is not to say that you should not use any other oil type, or that synthetics or high-mileage formulations are gimmicks - they’re not. If you live in a colder climate, wish to extend oil drains, have an older car, have a high RPM motorcycle or have particularly severe duty, you may choose to spend the money to upgrade. For me, this doesn’t make sense. By ensuring I maintain my vehicle properly (tire pressure, timing etc.), I can achieve better fuel economy than I can by switching from one oil brand to another.

I see similar effects with industrial clients in my consulting activities. All too often, I am asked by plants that have lubrication problems whether I know of a better oil or grease that would help eradicate a rash of bearings failures. When I start asking questions, 90 percent of the time, the (wrong) choice is not the lubricant, but how lubrication is performed. How careful are you about eliminating contaminants from the system? Have you calculated the correct volume and frequency for regreasing? Have you considered the ambient conditions (heat, cold, load, etc.) when selecting the correct viscosity grade to use?

My point here is not to suggest that all lubricant suppliers are created equal. They are not. Most have specialty products that perform exceptionally well in difficult applications. They may also have mainstream products that outperform their competitors. Likewise, the service and support provided by the lube supplier is a major component of any lube purchasing contract and must be considered as part of the package. Certainly there are technical, performance and service differences between lubricant suppliers. My point is that bigger gains may be achieved by improving the performance of fundamental preventive maintenance, rather than by worrying about slight differences in the RPVOT numbers of two different turbine oils, or the worked penetration of two different grease formulations.

So select a lubricant supplier carefully. After all, this is a critical decision – but don’t blame them for everything! If you know an application is having lubrication issues, instead of opening the Yellow Pages to look for the next lubricant supplier to invite through the revolving purchasing door, look in the mirror and ask yourself: “Is my lubrication program – areas that I can control such as correct application, cleanliness and storage – up to par?” Is looking for a silver bullet really the answer?

As always, this is my opinion. I’m interested in hearing yours.

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