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Mineral Oil vs Synthetic Oil

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  • Mineral Oil vs Synthetic Oil

    By Jim Self

    Marine Engine Oil is one of the most controversial topics with marine mechanics and boat owners today. It can be especially contentious when it comes to OEM vs. aftermarket products and about the manufacturer's requirements.

    These are confusing topics for many boat owners and particularly in the marine industry, there's a lot of rhetoric. This is primarily because some oil manufacturers and marketers have made a lot of inaccurate and self-serving claims. Most of this rhetoric is fairly opinionated to get you to remain loyal to a particular brand and in some cases insinuate that you may be risking your warranty coverage if you depart from an OEM branded product.

    As far as warranty coverage, you are protected by the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act. As long as you use an oil that meets the specifications laid out by the particular engine manufacturer you can rest assured you are not risking coverage. In the marine industry the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) has made choices easier, working with industry leaders in lubrication technology, the NMMA has developed testing criteria for these marine engine oils. These criteria include bench tests for viscosity, corrosion, filter plugging, foaming and aeration. In addition, the oil must successfully pass a 100-hour general performance engine test.

    Today's marine engines are highly-engineered and precision timed for accurate firing. The pistons in these engines not only keep your boat moving, but are the life and soul of your watercraft. To keep your engine running at its peak performance and to ensure a long life, you need an excellent lubricant.

    The types of oils that are predominantly used to formulate marine lubricants are synthetic oil and mineral oil and these oils have considerable differences in the manufacturing processes. You have a choice in finished oils which are basically of three types: synthetic, semi-synthetic, and mineral. All three types of oils keep the internal moving parts well lubricated and prevent metal to metal contact. However, they do each have pros and cons.

    First let's look at the differences and advantages of synthetics vs. mineral oils.

    Mineral Oil

    Mineral oil is basically a distillate of petroleum. Mineral oil is derived from the process of fractional distillation and crude oil is split into different parts. Thus, mineral oil that is used as a lubricating agent has a natural origin and is primarily made up of acyclic alkane compounds. Due to the nature of mineral oil's origin, it often contains many impurities and requires multiple additives to give it all of the desired properties.

    Mineral oil: Mineral oil base stocks fall into three classifications;

    • Group I - Are manufactured by solvent extraction, solvent or catalytic dewaxing, and hydro-finishing processes.
    • Group II - Are manufactured by hydrocracking and solvent or catalytic dewaxing processes. These base oils have superior anti-oxidation properties since most of the hydrocarbon molecules are saturated (less reactive).
    • Group III - Are manufactured by special processes commonly referred to as severe hydrocracking. The process is similar to the process to make group II oils, but with much higher heat and pressure to achieve an even purer component.

    Improvements in the processing of the base oils has reduced many of the problems that were typical of oils in the 1960s and 70s, but regardless of the level of refining, mineral oils still have inconsistent molecular sizing, unsaturated bonds and impurities such as Sulphur and aromatic compounds leading to shorter oil service life, lessened film strength, lower viscosity indices, and can be more prone to deposit formation. Most often, the desired selling price determines the quality of the base stock used in mineral engine oils.

    Synthetic Oil

    Synthetic oils are manufactured using chemical reaction process.

    Synthetic oils that first appeared in the USA were polyalphaolefin(PAO) based oils. The majority of synthetic oils on the market today are still PAO based, but many manufacturers are also producing synthetic oils based on esters, polyalkylene glycols, alkylated naphthalene and other non-PAO synthetics.

    Synthetic Oils: There are 3 basic types of "synthetic" base oils sold in the USA.

    • Group III lubricants are often marketed as synthetic based on performance and legal definitions. In the USA, group III oils are commonly referred to as being synthetic. In several countries outside the USA, Group III-based lubricants are not permitted to be sold or marketed as "synthetic" because of their petroleum origins.
    • Group IV oils, consist of molecules that are synthesized from chemical compounds. This process allows the engineers to "fine tune" the lubricant to precise specifications. These oils can provide a superior film strength, flow more freely at extreme low temperatures and resist thermal break down at very high temperatures. They generally are used to formulate the lighter viscosity grades of engine oil, which consume less energy and saves fuel due to lower friction inside the engine. These products can provide superior lubrication and you will pay a premium price over mineral or Group III synthetics.
    • Group V oils, include all other base stocks not included in Group I, II, III, and IV. Including esters found in many top end lubricants. There are many different types that each have their own advantages and disadvantages, but common characteristics among most of them include polarity of their molecules which "stick" to surfaces and can provide additional wear protection over other types of oil. They also typically help to counteract seal deterioration and aid in engine cleanliness.

    What about Semi-Synthetics?

    Semi-synthetics can provide superior performance at a lower cost by combining a mineral and a synthetic base oil stock. However, be aware there are no regulatory controls on what ratio of synthetic to mineral base oil constitutes a semi-synthetic, so price can be a direct reflection of that ratio. With some of todays advanced additives, some mineral based engine oils can outperform a semi-synthetic or even some full synthetic products. So base oil alone is not the only consideration to make when selecting a product.

    Additives

    Mineral and synthetic base stocks are only part of the story when it comes to engine lubrication and performance. Additives must be introduced to achieve most desired performance characteristics of the oil. The percentage of additives can range from 10% to 25% by volume on average. Typical additives include detergents, seal conditioners to protect rubber and synthetic seals, anti-foaming agents, anti-wear agents, friction modifiers, dispersants, and corrosion inhibitors.

    Oil viscosity is also determined in part by additives called viscosity index improvers (VII). Motor oil changes its viscosity as temperature changes and the ideal oil viscosity must have a balance between low temperature flow and high temperature protection. VII have a more stable viscosity than most oils and this property helps to augment the oil's ability to do the same.

    Multi-grade oils are formulated to be safely be used over a much wider temperature range than mono-grade oils, and they do this by maintaining a more stable viscosity from low temperature to high temperature.

    Additives make today's multi-grade oil possible. The "multi" in multi-grade refers to a combination of a winter "W" grade and a standard grade as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). In the SAE oil viscosity rating system, the smaller viscosity number indicates a better ability to flow at lower temperatures, a higher viscosity rating number indicates a thicker film at higher temperatures. For example, a 10W-30 meets the low temperature viscosity requirements of a 10W at -25°C and -30°C, but also meets the requirements of a 30 weight engine oil at 100°C and 150°C.

    Which oil should you use?

    My recommendation: Only use a NMMA certified Marine Engine Oil with the viscosity that your owner's manual calls out unless you have unusual operating conditions. Today's marine engines are highly engineered for long engine life, good fuel economy and proper emissions requirements. They are a substantial investment for most boat owners, and you should never risk sacrificing your engine's long term durability by using an automotive type oil to save a few dollars on an oil change.

    Do you suffer from sticker shock every time you shop for a synthetic engine oil? Consider using Bel-Ray Marine Engine Oils, they are NMMA Certified, competitively priced, and have higher performance levels than many competitor's full synthetics.

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