Synthetic Oil 101: A Beginners Guide

Synthetic Oil 101: A Beginners Guide

Your vehicle’s engine is undoubtedly what the heart is to the body. It’s the part that can make or break (down) your car. If your engine runs your car, then what keeps your engine going? It’s all about the engine oil you use. Engine oil is what keeps your engine running in top condition, giving you mileage and speed.

Seeing how important engine oil is for your car, choosing the best quality oil becomes absolutely crucial if you love your vehicle, and want it to run well. There are lots of options for engine oils in the market, but it isn’t as simple as picking a brand and using it. 

Different Synthetic Motor Oils

Once you realise how important it is to know your engine oil, you’ll never again make a choice without doing your homework.

The key to picking the right oil for your engine, is to understand the different types of oils available in the market, knowing how they are manufactured, and what determines the quality of good engine oils.

The two basic types of lubricant oils available for your engine in the market are synthetic oil and conventional oil. Conventional oil is simply another word for crude oil or a byproduct of crude oil, and has been widely used traditionally.

Synthetic oil, on the other hand, is created or chemically synthesised from petroleum components, thus getting its name. Apart from these two, there is also something called a semi-synthetic oil or a ‘blend oil’ which is essentially a blend of synthetic oils and conventional mineral oils.

Synthetic Vs. Mineral (Crude Oil)

Conventional and synthetic oils are both sourced from under the surface of the ground, but that’s where the differences between the two begin. Crude oil, aptly named so, is used in a less processed, refined form, whereas synthetic oil undergoes multiple processes of being refined, distilled, purified and being broken down into basic molecules.

A good way to understand this better would be to compare rocks and marbles - think of conventional oil as a rock - oddly-shaped molecules of varying sizes, more impurities, whereas synthetic oil is like marbles, with uniform, consistent molecules and fewer impurities.

Overall, when compared to conventional oil, synthetic oil is superior in terms of better performance at varying high and low temperatures.Having said this, even synthetic oils different in quality from brand to brand, so it becomes equally important to compare brands before making a decision.

Illustration Of Synthetic Vs Mineral Oil Difference

For instance, synthetic oil that is made from natural gas is better than those manufactured from petroleum compounds. This is because natural gas-based synthetic oil, produced using a special gas-to-liquids (GTL) process, is much less volatile, which means less fuel loss, and works in a stable manner even at high temperatures.

How Are Synthetic Oils Made?

Synthetic oils are made through a chemical process known as the Fischer-Tropsch process, which removes more impurities from the crude oil and makes the individual molecules in the oil more suited to modern engines.

In addition, the base oils in synthetic oil are also more highly refined as compared to those used in conventional mineral oils. This gives your engine a higher degree of protection and performance.

Types Of Engine Oils

Even with synthetic oil, there are several kinds available in the market, differing in various factors such as viscosity, chemical composition and quality grade.

Full Synthetic Oil

Full synthetic oils are made specially for high-tech engines, and are used in various high-end automobile brands, like Corvettes or Mercedes Benz. These oils are labeled premium as they are refined at multiple stages, and undergo quality checks for various factors like viscosity to lubrication.

These oils flow best at lower temperatures, and give your engine optimum temperature when it heats to high temperatures. While you may be absolutely tempted to switch to a full synthetic oil, these oils are expensive, and what’s more, they may not work well with all engines, so make sure to check your automobile’s owner manual to make sure this is the oil your engine needs.

Synthetic Blend Oil

Like the name suggests, synthetic blend oils are a combination of high-quality synthetic oil mixed with organic oil, are formulated keeping in mind heavier loads and higher temperatures.

This makes them less volatile, thus giving you increased fuel economy because of reduced oil loss in your engine. Synthetic blend oils are a popular choice with those who own more rugged, high-power vehicles such as pickups or SUVs which need high-load protection.

The best part about synthetic blend oils is that they are really cost effective, being a lot less expensive than full synthetic oils, and only a little more costly than premium conventional (crude) oils.

Higher Mileage Oil

Apart from the above two, there is also a third type of motor oil that’s slowly becoming popular, especially with those who have vehicles that have been on the road for some years now. These are oils manufactured so as to give vehicles more miles, so if you’re going for that six-figure mileage on that odometer, this is the oil for your car.

Shell Helix High Mileage Oil

All these kinds of oils, whether synthetic or blend, reach the market after a series of quality checks. Based on popular, high-quality brands, here are some criteria that can help you decide which synthetic engine oil is best for your vehicle.

Choosing The Right Synthetic Oil

Compatibility With Your Vehicle

Before you take a look at all the brands available in the market, there’s one place you need to look at, and that’s the owner’s manual that came with your car.

Car manufacturers usually specify a recommended oil weight, and it’s important to make sure your chosen engine oil matches the specifications of the manufacturers, else you might end up doing your car more harm than good.

Quality Check Symbols

All synthetic oils have a starburst symbol, indicating that the oil has gone through a series of stringent quality checks and is compatible with the grading given by the American Petroleum Institute (API). In addition to this symbol, oils will also specify if they are SL standard compliant, which is API’s latest service standard comprising some laboratory and engine tests.

Viscosity

The third and very important factor that is essential to determining the quality of the synthetic oil is its viscosity or thickness. Viscosity is defined as a fluid's resistance to flow, and is represented in terms of temperature. For example, a brand of oil marked 10W-30 has lesser viscosity when cold and hot than an oil marked 20W-50. 

Since viscosity is resistance to flow at a particular temperature, care must be taken to stop motor oil of any kind from thinning out too much because of overheating. This is usually taken care of by the addition of substances to the oil which makes its viscosity flexible according to the temperature.

Scientifically speaking, the thicker the oil, the more efficient it will be at sustaining a protective film of lubrication between the moving parts, minimising wear and tear caused by friction.

The desired viscosity or thickness of oils depends on the usual temperatures in which your vehicle operates, and may also be specified in the owner’s manual at times).

The SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) also assigns a viscosity number to most oil brands, and this is mentioned on the packaging as well, telling you if the oil has successfully passed a test for energy conservation.

Benefits Of Using Synthetic Oils

There are many benefits attributed to the use of synthetic oil as compared to conventional oil. Some of these include less friction (subsequently causing less wear and tear) increased fuel economy and longer engine life.

Woman Pouring Oil Into Engine

Since synthetic oils are better suited to modern engines, they are also equipped to keep the engine running smoothly even under fluctuating temperatures, thanks to flexible viscosity because of special chemical additives.

Increased Engine Protection

In more than one way, synthetic oils are a better choice than conventional oils for the enhanced engine protection they offer. Whether it is the time taken to circulate through the engine when the car is fired up, or the deposit buildup because of old oil, synthetic oils surpass conventional oils.

In contrast, conventional oils increase friction between moving parts since they take longer to flow through the engine, and also break down sooner because of engine heat. What’s more, the impurities in conventional oil cause excessive buildup in the engine, reducing its efficiency significantly.

Synthetic oils, on the other hand, are less volatile, and do not evaporate easily, allowing them to flow evenly and consistently. They are also better suited to higher temperatures as they don’t break down easily and leave behind much smaller quantities of buildup since they are highly refined and purified.

Environment-Friendly

In a world where automobiles are a leading cause of pollution, synthetic oils are a small but significant way to reduce engine emissions, making them cleaner and more environment-friendly. In comparison, conventional mineral oils have impurities like sulfurs and hydrocarbons, which do not get filtered while refining, and pose a threat to the environment.

Cleaner Engine

Oil circulating through your engine picks up deposits from burnt fuel. These deposits, if not cleared in time, cause the buildup of sludge, bringing down your engine’s efficiency and performance. Not only does this make costly sludge removal necessary, it also reduces your engine’s life in the long run.

Most of these deposits are caused by impurities present in conventional oil. Synthetic oil, however, being refined and distilled, contains barely any impurities, giving your engine less buildup, and also reduces the need to change oil more frequently than otherwise necessary.

Better Temperature Resistance

Both, temperatures that are high and low can affect your car’s engine. In the case of low temperatures, when your car has been sitting around for a while, or in winter, oil takes much longer to flow through the critical parts of your engine, since it settles.

Car Temperature Gauge

Conventional oils take particularly long to flow through the engine when the car is started, but synthetic oils have enhanced viscosity that ensures the oil flows consistently and quickly, as soon as your car is fired up. This ensures optimum protection against friction, keeping your car’s engine safe and secure.

In the case of higher engine temperature, which can make a running engine really hot, it causes motor oils to break down or evaporate, leaving your engine without adequate lubrication.

Synthetic oils, on the other hand, are far less volatile than conventional oils - not only does this mean your engine is protected from friction, it also increases your fuel economy by minimising fuel loss.

Protection Of Turbocharger Engines

Automobile manufacturers are increasingly jumping on board with the trend of making smaller, more streamlined engines that give greater fuel efficiency. The problem is, that in order to do this, they add turbochargers, which certainly boost power but also end up with soaring engine temperatures.

To meet the shaft speed inside a turbocharger, which is anywhere above 200,000 revolutions per minute, the motor oil must lubricate it efficiently and quickly.

Conventional oils are already prone to breaking down under high temperatures, but with turbochargers this is even quicker, and also leaves behind deposits on the charger, eventually putting your engine on the road to engine failure.

Synthetic oils are better suited to the turbocharger speeds, and offer cleaner combustion and circulation, ensuring that your turbocharger and engine are both protected, and also performing at their peak.

Changing Motor Oil

Traditionally, all car owners will have heard the old advice that’s been going around - that one should change engine oil once every three months, or after every 3,000 miles. While commonly followed, today’s scenario is slightly different - there are different engines and engine oils in the market, and each may have slightly different requirements than the common rule dictates. 

So then, how often should you really change your oil? Let's find out.

First of all, why must engine oil be changed, in the first place? Your car’s engine is a complex piece of machinery, and the tiniest gaps between moving parts - for example, the piston rings and cylinder walls is an opportunity for burned, polluted fuel to mix with the rest of the oil in the engine.

While these contaminants exist in minute proportions, if not removed within time, they eventually contaminate your oil and turn it dark.

Yes, your engine has an oil filter, but it has its limitations too. While it’s true that the oil filter keeps junk out, it is bound to give up with time, and this is exactly what will be avoided if you change your oil regularly, in time before the filter can’t do its job properly anymore.

Holding Car Oil Filter

Engine oil change isn’t something to be taken lightly - if you go too long without doing this, all that junk from burned fuel is going to build up in your engine in the form of sludge, which is going to cause some very costly repairs.

Having said this, it still doesn’t prove that the 3000-mile rule to be true. There is ample evidence showing that the technology that today’s engines come with can easily outdo the 3000-mile limit, thanks to higher buildup tolerances in engine filters, and specially formulated synthetic oils.

The threshold for engine oil change has definitely gone up, and a 5,000-mile to 10,000-mile interval sounds like a more feasible plan.

The science behind oil changes is pretty fascinating too, and there are even companies who actually analyse the chemical composition of your used oil, telling you what exactly it undergoes in your engine, as you stock up the miles on the odometer.

These could be a worthy investment if you have a high-end automobile, as it will alert you well in advance for extreme wear and tear in your engine.

The last word is that yes, changing engine oil is crucial to engine health, and whether you choose to do it with a paid service or take matters into your own hands, it’s important to do it the right way.

How To Change Your Engine Oil

Now that you’ve figured how to pick the best oil for your automobile, why not push yourself a little more and try your hand at changing your engine oil too?

With a little greasy elbow and the satisfaction of going the extra mile to look after your automobile, changing engine oil at home will turn out to be an easy and cost-effective task. After all, all it takes to prevent your engine’s moving parts from moving is a thin, consistent layer of good quality engine oil.

Below are some easy steps that you can follow to change your engine’s oil like a pro.

Getting Down To Business

The first step to changing engine oil is taking care of safety - your own and that f your car too. Raise your vehicle using ramps or jack-stands, and make sure to put blocks behind your tires. Use a jack to raise your car up to a point where you can comfortably lie under it.

Open It Up

Run your car’s engine just enough to warm the oil, enough to let it flow out easily. Next, raise your car’s hood and open the oil cap on top of your engine, letting all the old oil drain out.

Man Changing Car's Oil

Next, it’s time to get down to the messy business. Get under your car with your drain pan, and position it directly under the oil plug. Don’t stress out if some oil initially streams out further than the drain plug, but make sure you’re at a good distance from it.

With a firm grip, use your wrench to loosen the plug a few turns, and finish the rest with your hand, moving your hand out of the way when the oil drains out. Be very, very careful - hot motor oil could cause injuries, so a sturdy pair of gloves is always a good idea.

When the quantity of oil draining out has reduced a bit, start to wipe the drain plug off and inspect it for bent or broken threads, which should tell you if you need to replace it. Don’t forget to replace a damaged drain plug, or it may cause excessive drainage and oil loss, leading to higher friction and eventually lead to engine damage.

Afterall of the oil has drained (this should take about 10-30 minutes depending on your engine) wipe away all the oil residue from the oil pan (do this properly, since any residue left behind will stop your engine from functioning properly) and insert the drain plug back in.

Replacing The Filter

If your filter budges easily, remove it using your hand, or use a wrench - make sure you’re using the right wrench for the job - some wrenches work from one end, while other kinds remove the filter by wrapping around it.

If it still doesn’t budge, spin off your filter using a screwdriver to puncture it at its lowest point to drain it, and then spin it off to remove it. Be careful at this point - removing the filter may cause excess oil to come out, and keeping a few heavy duty rags handy would be a great idea.

Fix Your New Filter

Once you have your new filter gasket in place, coat it with a thin film of clean oil on the top, and then spin the filter till you are about three-quarters of a turn, after the gasket has made contact with the engine. You want the filter to be in place, but make sure it is secured without being over tightened, as this could damage the soft rubber gasket and cause it to leak.

Check Filter, Fill Oil

Before you proceed to fill your engine with oil, double check and ensure that the filter and drain plug are in place, and tightly secured.Next, refer to your car’s manual, and fill your engine with the recommended viscosity and amount of motor oil.

Check Oil Levels

Use your dipstick to check the oil level, and look out for any leaks, first before and after starting your engine. Be careful with your clothes - overalls are a great idea, since engine oil stains tend to be really stubborn.

Checking Oil Level In Car

Conclusion

Now that you have all the information you need, on what synthetic oils are and how they work wonders for your engine, you’re on your way to becoming an expert when it comes to giving your engine the love and care it needs. After all, engine oil is the blood and life of your car, and if you need to go out of your way to find the best car, then so be it.

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