Synthetic vs Regular Motor Oil and Understanding Types of Motor Oil
by Terry Buis
Owner Sun Valley Automotive
Las Vegas Auto Repair
4553 N. Rancho Dr. Las Vegas, Nevada 89130
I thought I could write this article about synthetic vs regular motor oil in a few minutes…but I was wrong! This article tackles a lot of info about synthetic oil and answers a lot of questions that I hear from Sun Valley Automotive customers almost daily.
But this is not a simple article, no mater how simple and short I tried to make it – so get come coffee, grab a few snacks, and pace yourself.
Seriously, there’s a lot of great info in here – including stuff about mixing different types of oils, what not to do with motor oils, what that ‘w’ in oil types means, and tracers placed in oil – but it’s going to take awhile to get through it!
Why do we need oil in the first place?
To understand oil types and how synthetic oil blends work and compare to regular motor oil, I think it’s important to understand why we need oil in the first place.
So, why do we need engine oil? – For lubrication and protection from extreme internal heat produced by the motor coupled with the elements we live and drive in.
Most people don’t know this, but the internal combustion motor is actually a controlled explosion. That explosion produces a great deal of heat. Each cylinder fired produces 22,000 degrees…add 8 cylinders and you’ve got some serious heat issues to deal with.
There are large and tiny passages where important liquid moves through the motor to lubricate and cool it. We have ethylene glycol (anti-freeze) and oil. The radiator design in vehicles is a self cooling reservoir. Add a water pump and hoses to allow circulation – and cooler liquid goes in while hot liquid goes out (there’s more stuff going on, but you get the picture).
Oil passages in the engine are there as well. Oil is a great lubricator and also holds on to heat during the “in and out” process. So both coolant and oil is a good thing. If you had a big enough oil cooler (similar to a radiator’s design) and optimal oil viscosity, you can do away with the radiator all together. Cadillac even had a design that held 10 quarts with a big oil cooler, if you lost a water pump or blew a coolant hose, no problem…the large oil reservoir and heat exchange would get you to a shop without destroying your zillion dollar motor.
Types of Motor Oil
In the 1980’s, and before, about all we used in this desert climate was 30 and 40 weight oils – and the rare 50 weight oil for dad’s old leaker with 490k miles that was still running strong.
- When it comes to oil weight, the higher the number, the thicker the weight or viscosity of the oil. The higher the number of the oil too, the more prone that oil weight is to not flowing well when cold – (most motor oils though freeze solid around -90 degrees Fahrenheit).
30 weights were the norm and 40 weight oils were for older cars and trucks.
Then along came a new number in front accompanied with a “w”. (5w/30, 10w/30, 15w/30… etc.) That shook everyone up back then and still today most people are clueless as to what that darn “w” means.
Well here it is: the “w” on types of motor oil is a rating for severe conditions both hot and cold. And the “w” is a rating on how laboratory developed plastics added to oil react with heat and cold to help stabilize oil under extreme conditions. Oil can freeze at low, low temperatures – and in extreme heat will thin to water consistency. The plastics added in the oils help to keep it stable.
5w/30 and regular 30 (if you can find it today) are the same weight, viscosity or thickness. The “w” denotes extreme service. The higher the “w” number, the higher the extreme protection the oil offers.
For Example: 30, 5w/30, 10w/30, 15w/30, 20w/30 are all 30 weight viscosity oils.
Oil rated 5w/30 will offer great protection in hot weather or cold temps in our southern desert climates, it will adjust as needed. 10w/30 will greatly increase protection in extreme cold temperatures and 20w/30 provides even more protection…and yet they are still all the same viscosity (thickness).
Then, along came synthetic oil blends – (which I’ll explain more about below) which included regular motor oils, the plastics that contributed to the “w” factor plus additional additives and ingredients to enhance the performance of oil to create “super” oil.
- On a side note, that’s why car batteries are rated in CCA’s (Cold Cranking Amps). It’s harder to start a car when cold, because oil is thicker cold.
High Performance Oil vs Every Day Performance Oil
Let’s look at hi-performance racing applications. Did you know that most all our safety features and performance designs and vehicle reliability have come from people wanting to go fast?
From the first race in 1887 in Paris, to running moonshine on the back roads during prohibition days to now, the desire to go fast has given the every day automobile direct advantages. So, there is much to learn from that industry.
Some years ago during my racing days I read an article on the type of oil racing teams used in NASCAR. At the track’s race teams all used the sponsor’s oil. Teams strolled up with ball caps on, rags in back pockets and the writer watched as each team went for the popular 50 weight oil. But one team caught his eye – this team rolled up in a fancy golf cart with clean matching uniforms and selected the 00 weight oil no one else was taking. He asked them why? The reply was “why push peanut butter through a small space where sewing machine oil needs to be used”. There is a lot to be said about that statement, and here is the breakdown of that analogy:
- Remember that 20 weight oil is thinner then 30 weight oil, 30 weight oil is thinner then 40 weight oil, and 40 weight oil is thinner then 50 weight oil and so on. And if you ever handled gear oil for your vehicle’s rear-end, you know that 90 weight oil is really think stuff.
Oil with a rated viscosity of 50 is thick and really meant for extremes, like racing. Whereas 00 weight is slippery and thin like water…stay with me.
All engines are designed with close bearing tolerances where oil flows through the engine oil galleys and bearing surfaces to keep the engine from burning up before you get to the mailbox.
In hi-performance racing applications main bearing clearance is very small – about 0.0021” or 0.0022” of an inch bearing clearance. So burning up the track at 200 miles an hour you’re going to need protection from extremes. You want oil that won’t break down under extreme heat and can handle erratic on-off power intervals.
So it seems like the 50 weight oil would be the correct choice. But pushing thick oil (like peanut butter) through such close bearing clearance can actually stretch the bearings and cause low oil pressures and engine failure. It’s so slight that 0.0005ths of an inch can do damage – that’s one-half of one thousandths of an inch! And also keep in mind NASCAR engines can run $50,000 and up. And most regular vehicle engine replacements today run at around $5,000 to $8,000 to replace. Getting this right is valuable.
So looking at this 00 weight oil we find it flows superbly through these tiny spaces because of its thin viscosity, but due to that quality the 00 weight oil by nature gets hotter faster – so how do we justify the thin oil?
You have to cool the oil fast. That’s where the engine oil cooler comes in. It will allow you to run oil that offers excellent lubrication and high flow volume all the while maintaining awesome oil pressure.
Now each team rebuilds the motor each race, so what’s the deal? Well you have to complete the race to win.
In every day passenger vehicles, using a 50 weight oil will do damage over time (instead of within moments during a race in a high performance vehicle) – I’ve seen this damage in my customers’ vehicles firsthand.
Ford understands this and most newer models require a 5w/20 oil (note the 5w is better “extreme” protection and the 20 is the weight of oil). This blend allows oil flow for tight oil flow tolerance requirements that Ford has engineered. The 5w is needed because of the heat produced from lower viscosity oil – it helps the oil to hold its weight so to speak. Otherwise a 20 weight oil would work, but use that or any other type of oil blend…. and you just voided your engine’s warranty.
Newer oils have tracers in them, to identify that the correct oil type is being used. This is becoming more the norm today. Tracers are found in engines, transmissions, rear-ends, power steering and in radiator cooling systems. If your vehicle is given the wrong type of oil – or fluid – then the warranty can be completely voided and the manufacturer can prove the wrong fluid was used with the tracers.
And there are now specific power steering fluids – and other types of fluids – created for certain types of vehicles, like the fluids pictured below which need to be used for the Land Rover and Volvo. And manufacturer specific types of transmission fluids (pictured below) too.
The same thing is true with oil – now, everyone has their own special “designer” oil.
Choosing the Best Type of Motor Oil for Your Vehicle
So now on to the question: What types of oil to use in your vehicle?
Easy…..Whatever the manufacturer specs recommends.
But of course, that simple answer would really be easy if there were only a few choices of oil available.
There was a time not long ago (1980’s) when all engine oils sold in the USA exceeded every vehicle manufacturer’s engine oil specifications by an SAE rating (Society of Automotive Engineers). So it didn’t really matter what type of oil you chose. But today – choosing the wrong oil can void the warranty on your car.
Consumers are baffled by the wide assortments of endless brands, labels, and numbers with letters after them. Added to that, here are RV oils, 4×4 oils, ‘ol truck oils, racing oils etc.
If you are confused, you are not alone. That confusion drives the industry. Ford has oil that is different from Toyota, Chevy from Dodge, and each vehicle year matters as to which oil to use…and so on. In most cases that factory recommended oil is what is required for the engine and the warranty.
So for us old guys – when our new car calls for a full synthetic blend say a 5w/20…. and we think “but hey, I got some old 10w/30 on the shelf since 1974, close enough right?” – No it’s not.
Today we have a wide variety of regular fossil fuel oils and an even greater selection of full and semi-blended synthetic oils – and I dare not get into all the additives and elixirs spouting wild claims of motor rejuvenation. Seems like everyone has their own blend – so now, which one to choose?
Start by taking a look in the vehicle’s manual and/or on the engine oil filler cap. From there, decide whether you want to go with synthetic oil blends or regular motor oil.
Synthetic vs Regular Motor Oil
Today’s synthetic oil blends – full synthetic or mixed synthetic blend oil (half & half) – offer much higher wear and tear protection from extreme heat, cold and advanced lubrication for higher revving performance engines vs regular motor oil.
What about synthetic oil change intervals?
There are a lot of new discussions lately about the mileage intervals in changing oil. In the good old days it was easy – we had lots of cheap low grade fossil oil and we would change it every three months or three thousand miles whichever came first.
A common characteristic of all fossil fuel oils (one brand in particular I shall not mention here) is around 3k miles the oil starts to break down and separate due to heat and the elements, visually leaving a milkshake looking mess on the filler cap and on the dip stick. So it was assumed the oil was old and time for a change. After a time, shops would sell you engine flush to clean out all that junk using kerosene or solvent which did more harm then good. The next fad was to add a detergent in the oil to stabilize that mess… Ah the old days. Like all technology it evolves through trial and error.
- But oil doesn’t go bad – it just gets dirty.
Today that thought process is still with us. Why? We know that synthetic oils today are scientifically proven to easily double that millage – and they have the added bonus of saving precious natural resources in our environment.
Synthetic oils have come a long way and can go a long way between oil changes – meaning you can easily get 5000 miles between oil changes with the use of synthetic oils.
Why then is synthetic oil changed midway through its life at most dealerships? Simple: to get you into the dealership and to see what else there is to sell you.
Oil maintenance reminder lights have also become more intrusive these days. It kind-a forces you to recognize it and get in the shop if for nothing else but to turn off that darn light. We used to just use the key to push a tab to reset the “flag” that covered your odometer. Talk about pushy. But yes, the cat is out of the bag…. it’s about selling a service and up sale potentials as well.
Bottom line though, compared to regular motor oils – synthetic oils have a lower environmental impact, higher vehicle performance and can extend the time between oil changes. Plus, synthetic oils can help to protect the life and longevity of your engine too.
Choosing the Best Synthetic Oil
Here’s the deal on choosing man-made synthetic oils and synthetic oil blends.
1. Start (again) with the oil types recommended by the manufacturer.
2. Next, find a brand you like, trust or were just sold on it because of marketing and stay with it from now on. If you are unsure of what type of synthetic oil or blend to go with, ask your friendly neighborhood mechanic!
- Mixing different brands of the same (example 5w/30) weight synthetic oils is a recipe for disaster.
Synthetic oils have become designer oils, not unlike fashion in the clothing world. It’s all chemicals, and these chemical ingredients vary greatly from manufacture to manufacture. Each company has its own unique formula.
Add a little of this and the oil gets real slippery, add some of that and it bonds to metal better, too much of this and that and it’s peanut butter, way too much of this or that and it’s concrete.
Mixing oils will not cause a disaster all at once, but over time that concoction of chemicals that each manufacture added or did not add to their specific blend comes into contact at one common area – which is your engine’s oil pan. And in time, mixing oils can do serious damage.
And I can assure you no warranty will cover that $5,000 plus repair because you deviated from the manufacturer’s oil type.
- On a side note: If you find yourself in nowhere USA and need to add oil, use an old standby fossil fuel regular oil (non synthetic oil) that will do the job. Non synthetic oil will be ok to add to any synthetic oil. If you do it on a trip, just change the oil and the filter when you get home.
- Don’t mix different types of synthetic weights of the same brand either – meaning a few quarts of this and two of that.
If you’re a do-it-yourselfer and you’d like to change your own synthetic oil, then my suggestion is to pick a blend by brand recognition or by cool advertisement – there are a lot of choices out there – and then use that oil all the time.
Pick a synthetic oil that will be on the shelf at your local auto parts today and a few years from now.
*If you have a favorite oil and our shop does not carry it, by all means bring it to the shop. Just know some other shops may charge an extra labor fee in this instance (because it’s a bit like bringing your own eggs and bacon to a coffee shop).
- At Sun Valley Automotive, we charge $10.00 to change supplied oil and filters on most vehicles (unlike most shops, we don’t charge extra if customers want to bring in their own oil and filters).
Or stick with what a professional automotive service shop uses, as it will be what is recommended by the factory…
Automotive Industry Secret!
Stick with the oil your professional automotive service shop uses “If” the shop is reputable, because many shops say it is “this type of brand”, but in reality they use a cheap “one size fits all” oil. Which is the reason oil changes are so cheap on most coupon specials and at low cost quick lube oil change places.
We have a Las Vegas oil change special going on here at Sun Valley Automotive, and I pick up a portion of the tab on the oil products to keep the prices low for our customers.
A professional shop houses a wide variety of oil brands and blends these days that only a few short years ago were unheard of. I use to have a lot of parts in my parts department…now Sun Valley Automotive has lots of oil brands and blends too.
And that is the end to this Terry’s Tips on Synthetic vs Regular Motor Oil and Understanding Motor Oil Types.
I really hope this sheds some light on the subject!
Thanks for your support in Sun Valley Automotive, and trusting us to serve all of your vehicle’s needs.
Till next time, Terry and the Crew wishing you all the best!