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Synthetic Oil Is Like Organic Food For Your Engine

  • Posted: 11-11-2015 01:36 AM
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As an authority in real-world automotive wisdom, Heeltoe is here to tell you can save tons of money on oil changes by not using synthetic oil. You can even be that self-respecting automotive enthusiast who changes oil more often than you should and feel perfectly secure using regular oil. For there is a specific reason one would need to use synthetics, and it isn't generally needed for grabbing groceries and driving to work. Save it for when you really need it.

In this blog, we'll be citing some common thoughts on synthetic oil, and illustrating our stance on using it as it might compare to eating organic groceries (we really wouldn't be ourselves if we weren't just a little tongue-in-cheek).


"You need synthetic in your engine"

Like eating organic food, using synthetic oil is going to ensure you are using the best possible product for the application. It is cleaner and full of "good stuff" for your engine. The irony is that organic food is engineered by nature while synthetic oil is engineered by humans; but then again humans are not engines. The additives and calibrations and titrations in synthetic oil are going to ensure that the oil lasts longer, provides more protection, and leaves less residual muck. In contrast, healthy, organic food is more easily digested and doesn't last as long in your body.

But you don't NEED to eat organic, and you most likely don't NEED to use synthetic oil all the time.

Bodies of high performance athletes use every molecule of food they consume. They feel it in their performance if their food is not 100% digestible the way nature intended. Also, they need a consistent and level calorie burn without spikes or dips in supply of energy. Food is everything to an athlete.

Someone average, a non-athlete, is relatively less reliant on the perfection of their diet. The food they eat is bound to get hung up on some of the processed fat and cholesterol residual in their system anyway. A little extra chemistry in food is not going to bother the average daily routine. Eating a balanced diet, avoiding garbage food, walking around the block a few times with the dog, most people can eat non-organic food much of the time and expect to be considered reasonably healthy.

In the same vein, engines need lubrication. As long as the oil in the system is clean and able to cope with the stresses placed on it, the engine will be happy. On public roads, it is even more unlikely than it is possible for enough demand to be placed on the oil such as to require synthetic. Many engines where synthetic is required by the manufacturer only are so because of what these engines are capable of; not so much as they are expected to need it.

When performance demands rise; higher cylinder pressures build heat, higher sustained RPMs increase piston velocity, higher lift camshafts stressing rockers and valves, and turbochargers actively adding heat to the sump; demands on the oil to maintain lubricity and viscosity are very high. Synthetic oil is nearly required for high performance applications, where regular oil might simply burn off if the engine does not wear itself out first.

"Once you go synthetic with your oil, you can't go back"

The average engines in most average cars does not care what oil is in the sump. It does make more of a difference if it is a high performance engine, and if it is being used in high performance environments. But for most people "swearing by" synthetic in their Honda or Acura...they are probably spending more money than they need on oil changes. Changing oil at regular intervals and monitoring burn-rate and condition is a much better way of maintaining your engine's health than spending more money on the oil. We've seen this in oil tests we've performed in our HTSpecTSX. Standard oil works admirably well in standard driving. We've done further tests switching between regular and synthetic and the engine really doesn't seem to respond.

Like eating organic, your engine is not going to suffer a major detriment if you use synthetic oil one time and then don't another. Oil that is lubey, clean, and sufficiently thick is all going to work the same, if it is synthetic or not. Eating healthy foods, certified organic or not, is not likely to make much difference to the average person. Switch to organic lettuce for your salad when you’ve got a little extra money for groceries or for special occasions, and you likely will derive the same general “health” as if you had gotten regular lettuce. Freshness, quality, and flavor aside; both have the same stuff in them.

Consistency in maintenance is a great way to keep the engine in good health. Putting the same oil in every time really is not necessary.

You are not going to change the engine with the oil

Enthusiasts are all about their cars and their engine's health. But, like organic food, putting synthetic oil in your engine is not going to turn it into a performance engine. An engine with loose tolerance (such as nearly every road-car engine) is not going to suddenly become a blueprinted screamer when the oil is changed. The need for synthetic oil depends on the engine build, and also the usage of the engine. Engines which produce more heat, such as turbocharged or high compression engines, will benefit from synthetic oil’s lower breakdown rate and longer life. Also, high-demand driving situations, such as HPDEs, towing, and aggressive road trips, will abuse the engine more. One track day requires fresh oil going in and fresh oil going out as it is quite abusive and wear materials are deposited into the oil. Synthetic will help maintain lubricity and viscosity, and is recommended for cars participating in HPDEs.

In much the same light, a month of eating organic is not going catapult a person into a 120 year life span or a great marathon finish. People need to exercise to increase their performance. While eating healthy is going to help a person feel better than if they ate poorly, and a quality diet is critical for people in training, the switch to organic is not likely make a noticeable physical or performance difference all within itself.

For the food analogy, it would be best not to confuse the distinction between eating organic versus not-organic, and eating poorly versus eating well. If eating unhealthy food one is going to feel like more poorly than if they eat well. To maintain performance and longevity, engines and human bodies alike both benefit from quality oil and food…respectively. But the product supports the need; it doesn't dictate it.

"My synthetic oil is better than yours"

Organic food (even non-certified organic but grown with organic practices) is going to need a chemist to know how one is different than another. Practices at a farm and the local climate will may vary the consistency and nutritional content of the product. However, the difference here is unlikely to show any meaningful difference to the majority of the population. Even an athlete would have a hard time dissecting a good performance by which carrots helped them run farther.

Similarly, all synthetic oil is engineered to do its job well. While some oils might perform better in some situations than others, it would take long term monitoring and testing by an engine builder for a race team to really see a difference in one oil against another. In reality, these users are usually bound by whomever their sponsor is. The rest of us, though, are going to be making our oil selections based more on marketing tactics than lab or track tests. We are not likely to be buying brands based on engine unless the engine manufacturer recommends one or another. Even then, these partnerships don’t always indicate anything more than corporate biases (as an example, does BMW recommend Mobil or Castol these days? Because it isn’t always the same).

We’re just the average joes, and we’ve all got choices

How life plays out has a lot to do with choices and feelings about those choices. One may feel better mentally by eating organic, like they are doing themselves a favor. Many people feel like their car gets a "treat" with the premium fuel or the synthetic oil change. Sometimes, psychology is all that is needed to make a difference in a person's life. And that is an impossible point to argue with. There certainly is nothing wrong with using synthetic oil even if it is not specifically needed. Many people will feel they are “doing well” by their engines to fill it with synthetic oil. To some degree, this is going to be true. But not likely measurable until the engine and oil is actually put to a stressful test.

Which is why I usually run normal oil in my road-car engines (unless I am doing an HPDE), and spend the savings on organic food (unless I am doing an HPDE).


- Marcus di Sabella



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