One of the easiest and most important things you can do to improve and prolong the life of your engine is getting regular oil changes. Engine oil provides lubrication for the many parts of an engine that are in constant contact and friction when operating. This constant friction can cause rubbing and heat damage that can eventually kill an engine. The lubrication makes it easier for these parts to perform their functions by protecting them from friction and heat.
Over time, engine oil breaks down in a process called oxidation. Oxidation is caused by oxygen attacking the molecules in the oil causing an increase in oil viscosity, and is accelerated by the presence of heat and solid contaminants. The viscosity of oil is a measure of how easily it moves through the engine. The lower the viscosity the easier it will flow through the engine while higher viscosity makes it harder for the oil to flow. Your engine, driving habits, and environmental conditions determine the type of oil you will need, consult your owner’s manuals for details.
With this information in mind, we may ask ourselves why it matters if we use conventional or synthetic oil. Are there any advantages to using one over the other? So long as you get regular oil changes does it really make a difference which type you use? To answer these questions, we must first understand the differences between them and what merits and flaws each provides.
So, what is conventional oil? Conventional motor oil is derived from crude oil. This leaves conventional oil products with molecules of varying sizes which effect its viscosity and thus its overall performance. The higher the viscosity the more difficult it is for the oil to move through the engine. These products can be engineered for different kinds of engines, but their base of crude oil does not allow them the same degree of specialization as synthetic oils.
Conventional oil’s thicker consistency and natural impurities make it more vulnerable to clogs and sludge. Sludge buildup can greatly affect engine performance over time because it effects how well the engine parts move. It is also more vulnerable to temperature extremes and harsh weather conditions. It takes longer for conventional oil to warm up in extreme cold meaning it takes longer to get flowing through the engine in extreme cold starts. If you do not give your engine enough time to warm up during a cold start, it can cause added friction damage over time.
What is synthetic oil? Synthetics are made through a more in-depth chemical process. They start with a chemically engineered base stock giving it a smaller and more uniform molecular size. This uniformity helps with viscosity. Next, they craft it with different additives to achieve particular goals. They are often designed for higher performance and lower viscosity with high performance engines in mind. Synthetics are often made with additives to resist sludge build up and to have better temperature resistances.
What are the advantages of synthetic oil?
The main selling point of synthetic oils is that they are designed with greater protection and performance in mind. Not all synthetic oils are the same or made equally, but in general they provide the following advantages:
· Lower viscosity allowing for easier flow through the engine.
· Better heat resistance adding to a lower degradation or oxidization rate. This helps prolong the buildup of sludge and gunk that can damage an engine.
· Many are designed to work better in colder temperatures. This makes it easier for the oil to warm up and flow through the engine when first started in cold weather. This means that the oil starts protecting your engine faster than conventional oils adding a little extra life to your engine every time you start it.
· Those designed for higher temperature resistance are great for engines with turbo chargers. Turbo chargers are becoming more common in cars as developers build cars with smaller engines for better gas mileage then make up for the loss of power through using turbos. Turbos can run hot when used causing faster oil burn off so having oil designed with higher heat resistance means longer lasting protection for the engine and turbo.
· Synthetics generally give longer intervals between needed oil changes. Some blends and brands commonly provide protection for 3,000 to 5,000 miles while the highest performing brands can provide anywhere from 7,500 to 20,000 miles of protection. Remember to consult your manufacturer for your vehicle’s specific needs.
· Synthetics are often good for older cars that may be prone to sludge build up. In the early 2000s there were a number of Chrysler, Toyota, and Volkswagen engines notorious for sludge build up.
· Possible increase in fuel economy caused by a decrease in friction and engine temperatures.
· Some increase in horsepower because of the reduced drag and friction on engine parts.
Synthetic oils bring some great advantages but also come with their own disadvantages. Depending on the specific brand or type of oil these may include:
· Synthetics are often 2 to 4 times more expensive than conventional oil. This can defiantly come with some sticker shock when getting an oil change, though it is good to weigh this cost against the number of oil changes you will need over the life of the engine. Conventional oil requires more oil changes over the life of the engine. Depending on your driving habits and environmental conditions this may add up to a similar amount spent on using higher quality oils.
· Some brands offer slightly lower fuel economy when driving at highway speeds. Depending on your vehicle and driving habits, this may be a major or minor issue for you.
· Possible additive precipitation or separation. This can happen when the car sits for long periods of time, or when the oil experiences rapid changes in pressure and temperature. This means that the oil additives can break down and separate from the oil. They may get stuck to contaminants such as dirt and be filtered out of the oil in the oil filter. Pressure and temperature changes can alter their solubility causing them to building up on engine surfaces or in the oil filter.
But what about synthetic blends? Synthetic blends are the middle ground between the aforementioned oils. They are made using a mix of conventional oils with a synthetic base. They provide a cheaper option to full synthetic oils with some of their higher performance offerings. They are intended to provide customers an option with a lower upfront cost than synthetics while still getting some of the benefits.
Personally, we recommend the use of full synthetics whenever possible. There is nothing inherently wrong with conventional oils, people have been using it for decades. But, the added benefits of synthetic oils make conventional oils a less appealing option. Synthetic may cost a more up front than conventional oil, but the added benefits can easily make up for it. The longer time between oil changes can help negate some of that initial cost since you may not need as many oil changes over the life of the car, depending on your weather conditions and driving habits. The bonus to power and gas mileage is always nice when your engine needs a little extra muscle. This being said, there is nothing wrong with using conventional oils, just remember to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for type of oil and frequency of oil changes.