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The Price of Sludge

by Ed Newman
AMSOIL Marketing & Advertising Manager
This article appeared in National Oil & Lube News, December 2004

Last month our family went to dinner at a somewhat fancy restaurant. We knew it would be pricier than McDonalds, but the menu still held a surprise for us. It presented the appetizers, dinners and desserts in such a way that we weren't sure what the prices were. Sure, there were little tiny numbers by all the menu items, but these numerals had no dollar signs next to them and no decimals or cents. Next to every menu item was a 9 or 5 or 12, etc. After a little confusion we figured it out, of course, but for a while we didn't know what to order because we didn't know what things cost.

Most of us grow up knowing that everything has a price. Nothing is free and that's a lesson we learn at a pretty early age.

When I was ten I would get a weekly allowance of a quarter. I knew exactly what a quarter would buy. It would be five Snickers bars, or a Mad magazine. If I saved two weeks' allowance I could buy a Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine at Lawson's milk store. And if I saved four quarters, I could buy a model airplane or boat at Southgate, the shopping center near my home in Maple Heights, Ohio.

As adults we may not know exact prices, but we know roughly what houses in certain neighborhoods cost and what cars, clothes and movies cost. We know a month long vacation to Australia is going to be pricier than a weekend camping trip.

In point of fact, everything has a price. Unfortunately, whereas some products -- like a gallon of milk or a bundle of twine -- have a simple, straightforward cost, other things have hidden costs that are concealed from immediate view.

What a great word. Sludge. It sounds like what it is, like the words "ish" and "muck". Anyone who has worked on a car knows what sludge is, that yucky goo that builds up inside an engine due to motor oil oxidation and degradation.

The funny thing is, no one ever sets out to buy sludge. So how do we put a price on it?
We all know the damage it can do. This gooey oil can block sensors and cause cars to run badly. Excessive sludge accumulation can even cause an engine to seize.

The reality is, however, that this sludge problem is the hidden price of choosing petroleum motor oils. That is why people in the know say conventional oils have to be changed all the time. Their molecular structure is irregular. In the presence of high temperatures the oil's lighter ingredients boil off, making the oil thicker. In addition, many of the complex chemicals naturally found in petroleum basestocks begin to react with each other, forming sludge, gums and varnishes. Cold temperatures can also be a culprit, resulting in a gelled mess that pumps poorly, if at all.

Synthetic motor oils, because of their higher flash points and their ability to withstand oxidation and evaporation loss, are far more resistant to sludge development. And in cold temps synthetics remain fluid far beyond anything petroleum oils can achieve, even with their special additives. As a result, in all circumstances engines run cleaner with synthetics, offering better fuel economy, wear protection and superior performance.

Today's automakers are well aware of the problems associated with conventional petroleum motor oils knowing that engine designs have been a contributing factor in the sludge problem. One reason is that engine compartments are smaller and hotter than in the old days. They put more demands on motor oil. Another reason, though, is that with all those brain boxes and sensors, engines simply need to be kept cleaner or they don't run right.

This summer VW / Audi of America sent a letter to vehicle owners informing owners of 1998-2004 VW Passats and 1997-2004 Audi A4s that they will receive extended warranty coverage on the 1.8L turbocharged engines. In the letter, VW/Audi recommended synthetic 5W-40 engine oils that meet the VW 502.00 spec because the use of petroleum oils increases the risk of sludge formation.

To their credit VW/Audi does not require that the oil be changed at the dealership. Vehicle owners simply need to keep records of their oil and filter maintenance.

The reason VW/Audi took this stance is easy to surmise. Execs at VW/Audi did not want to get embroiled in the oil related storms that cost Mercedes 32 million dollars or Toyota's bad press due to sludge problems.

In recent years Toyota has also had to deal with serious sludge issues. A 2002 article in Automotive News detailed the high volume of sludge related complaints received by Toyota.

The trouble centered around Toyota's 3.0-liter Sienna V-6 engine. With over 3.3 million such engines the problem could not easily be hidden in a glove compartment. I had become aware of the problem even before it appeared in print.

Accusations flew that the engine was flawed (Toyota, owners spar over sludge, Automotive News, Feb 8, 2002) but Toyota would never acknowledge this. (Toyota to Cover Oil Gelation Damage, by Tim Sullivan, Lube Report, Feb 27, 2002)

The Automotive News article cites numerous sources to make its case. Larry Perry, an A.S.E.-Certified Master Technician who owns a repair shop and hosts a radio talk show in Florida was quoted as saying, "We believe Toyota reduced the size of the cooling passages to the cylinder heads in those engines in order to increase combustion temperatures for more of a complete burn to reduce exhaust emissions." Perry, who has seen more than his share of sludge problems went on to say, "the solution is to use only 100% synthetic motor oil."

In the end, Toyota Motor Sales USA made a one time offer to cover the repairs to vehicles damaged by sludge. For Toyota, this was the tangible price they paid for sludge.

We live in a complicated world. Nothing is really all that black and white. On the one hand, it would appear that the sludge problem would lead to the conclusion that we need to press for more frequent oil changes. On the other hand, we are all too well aware of the strong desire for convenience, often resulting in negligence with regard to routine oil change maintenance.

Because of this latter trend, which shows no sign of abating, I strongly recommend that you train your technicians to teach your customers the benefits of synthetic motor oils. Motorists who use conventional petroleum lubes are putting their vehicles at risk if they do not change the oil regularly. Sludge is a waste of time and money that is no longer necessary. With the advent of synlube technologies, engines can remain cleaner and last longer than ever before.

When it matters, when you want the best for your customers' vehicles, synthetic motor oils are the only reasonable recommendation.

Ed Newman is the Marketing & Advertising Manager for AMSOIL INC.


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