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Synthetic Oil: What are the benefits?

Several people have asked me recently what are the benefits of using synthetic oils – and why the synthetics have those results.

For modern performance engines that operate at dramatically higher temperatures than their predecessors, the advantage of using an oil that can withstand 500+ temperature heat – instead of beginning to break down around 200 as the natural oils do – is pretty obvious and is why the manufacturers of these cars require synthetics.

It may not be so obvious to the owner of a tired engine, or someone who tends to push the miles between oil changes.

In fact, changing to synthetics produces some distinct benefits for these owners, including the elimination of oil burning problems, increased gas mileage and even increased horsepower.

First of all, a car burns oil when the oil gets closer than intended to high heat areas – the combustion chamber and the exhaust valve. Over the course of engine use, petroleum-based oils may produce coking problems on the oil control ring (and eventually the compression rings) on the piston: the rings degrade from stiction, the oil is incompletely burned by the heat in the cylinder, and the resulting carbon deposits on the ring. If this effect continues, the coking will work its way up to the compression rings. Left unattended, the engine could experience catastrophic failure.

Since synthetic oils withstand much higher temperatures, they don’t coke the way a natural base oil can. Their higher shear strength and lower friction reduces wear on the oil control ring because the rings move more smoothly over the cylinder walls (the smaller molecules of synthetic oils actually fill in some of the natural irregularities in the cylinder walls). And on top of all that, the use of synthetics helps clean off and carry away coke and other deposits because synthetics can carry a higher percentage of detergent additives. The soap doesn’t attack the oil molecule, the way it does in petroleums (think of those ads showing how degreasers work in dish soap).

In most cases, by cleaning the cylinder and halting the coking process, the synthetic reduces the problem of the car “burning oil.” It captures the deposits in solution, allowing the oil to circulate while it continues to clean (which also means you should do an oil change after 3,000 miles the first time you switch to synthetics). Cleaning off the deposits reduces the friction in the engine, thereby resulting in a 3-5% improvement in gas mileage. And it increases horsepower – Hot Rod magazine found 10 ft. lbs of torque and 7 hp in an engine improvement project by changing to Royal Purple (see article, February 2002).

Aftermarket Business reported that a recent survey by Kendall Oil found that mechanics strongly recognize the performance advantages of synthetics, in spite of the higher price. 45% of those surveyed who recommend synthetics to their customers do so because of the oils’ weight/viscosity, performance in local climates and under their owners’ driving habits. Almost equally important in their consideration were the condition of the motor and mileage (i.e. synthetics were recommended to prolong the life of older or higher-mileage engines) and manufacturers recommendations (for the new high performance engines).

As I said to the folks who asked me the original question: considering all these advantages that directly counter the primary downsides to hot running, long distance combustion engine performance, synthetic oil is a no brainer. I put synthetic oil in just about anything with an engine.

For more on synthetics, see: http://www.circletrack.com/index.jsp?articleid=6394

This is a great comparison of petroleum, synthetic-additive and pure-synthetic oils. Be sure to check out the sidebar with the graphs.

After you've read the article, and the one on synthetics in the August 02 issue of Hot Rod (following up on their report in February's issue on increasing hp just by switching to Royal Purple), you can buy Royal Purple lubricants at Power Coat Solutions in Greenland NH and at Second Hand Speed in Woolwich ME.

Dave Gamlin at Powder Coating Solutions (25 Autumn Pond Park Greenland NH 03840 603-443-6886) uses Royal Purple in his own motorcycles and is a 2-stroke fan. Thanks to Dave and Leading Edge the New England distributor for Honda now knows where to find a ready supply of Royal Purple.

Dave Crawford at Second Hand Speed (16 Middle Road, Woolrich ME 04578, 207-443-1363) is a classic rod man who put Royal Purple through its paces driving his restored "baby" to the Classic Rod Rally in Philadelphia. You can also catch up with Dave and a beautiful collection of local rods weekly at the local drive-in.

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