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Attention Do-It-Yourselfers:cv Read Those Oil Labels

by Susan Christophersen

First it was pumping our own gas, next it was checking our own oil. Now women are browsing automotive departments for brands and types of motor oil. In fact, in households that fix their own cars, one-third of the mechanics are women, according to the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association.

As with most do-it-yourself projects, materials are important. Like shopping for food and medicine, it helps to know how to read the label. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the American Petroleum Institute (API) have established several classifications that defines the characteristics of engine oil. These are shown in the donut shaped logo on the oil container label.

Performance Ratings
The API classification is a two-letter code that defines the oil performance characteristics under different engine speeds and loads, as well as temperature. The letter “S” is for gasoline powered engines and the letter “C” is for diesel powered engines. The second letter indicates the application. Only SL, designated for all automotive engines and SJ, for 2001 and older engines, currently are used.

The SAE classification indicates the oil viscosity and is referenced by a number that appears in the center of the donut shaped logo. The higher the number, the thicker the oil. Thick oil has a high resistance to flow, which means a high viscosity. Oil classified with a “W,” like 5W or 10W for example, indicate the viscosity rating applies at subfreezing temperatures and are generally used for winter conditions. A number rating without the “W” means that the viscosity rating applies at 212°F.

The problem with single grade oil is that the W oils tend to thin out too much in warmer weather and the non-W numbers tend to thicken too much in colder weather. Single grade oils are generally meant for one temperature only and require an oil change with each change of season. That is why most vehicles today call for a multi-grade oil like 5W-30 or 10W-40. These oils have suitable flow properties at both ends of the temperature spectrum, no matter what the season.

Fuel Economy Rating
The third part of the label classification is the “Energy Conservation” term. Oils are rated on their ability to reduce the amount of fuel consumed during driving. Those that are at least 1.5% better than a standard reference oil are rated as Energy Conserving. If the oil is at least 2.7% better, it will be labeled as Energy Conserving II. Oils with this classification are designed to reduce internal engine friction and improve fuel economy.

Synthetic Oils
There are many synthetic oils on the market today and a lot of advertising to promote them. They tend to wear longer and may perform better in extreme conditions. They are also slightly more expensive. Using synthetic oil certainly isn’t harmful, but it may not provide any significant benefit.

Follow the vehicle manufacturer’s recommendations. Change your oil according to the maintenance schedule and always replace the filter when changing oil.