Lately we’ve been getting questions about the use of synthetic lubricants in industrial and off-highway applications, including heavy duty engines, transmissions and gears. There’s no question that synthetics offer a number of benefits, notably longer drain intervals and support for improved fuel efficiency.
But there are tradeoffs: synthetics are generally more expensive than mineral-base oils, and if you have a broad mix of equipment, it may not make economic sense to use in every application.
If you are doing a lot of short driving, stopping and starting, as is often the case with construction or mining equipment, you’re going to experience a fair amount of fuel dilution, as well as water contamination as the engine heats up then cools down quickly. That means you are going to need to change the oil frequently, in which case you are not going to realize the benefits of synthetics. So they are not cost-effective in those short driving applications.
Conversely, if you are doing longer drives and able to avoid contamination, you will get the benefits of extended drains, fuel efficiency, and better wear protection that synthetics deliver. That, of course, is why synthetics are growing in the on-highway vehicle segment, where fuel costs are a bigger issue than off-highway. The higher cost of synthetic oils is offset by the savings on oil changes, maintenance and fuel.
The same principle applies in gear and transmission fluids. If you are likely to avoid excessive contamination, you might see the benefits of synthetics. If your equipment is exposed to a lot of dirt and dust or water spray, you’re going to need to change out the lubricant more frequently and synthetics don’t make sense.
So where do synthetics make sense? The performance advantages of synthetics are most apparent when operating in extremely low or high temperatures. In cold temperature environments, synthetics help with equipment start-up and wear protection. At higher temperatures, synthetics won’t thin out as quickly as mineral oils. They maintain their viscosity better as the oil heats up, and they resist oxidation and breakdown that can occur with mineral oils at higher temperatures.
On the other hand, in worm gear sets, which are inherently less efficient, synthetics are increasingly the norm, as they deliver better frictional performance and energy efficiency.
As you can see, the decision to use synthetics depends very much on the application, how the equipment is operated, exposure to contamination, and operating temperatures. If you decide to switch to a synthetic, be sure it is compatible with the seals, paints and filters in your equipment, as well as with the previously used mineral oil.
There’s a natural tendency for the sake of simplicity to try and use a single lubricant across as many applications as possible. However, you can save a lot of money by knowing where synthetics will deliver benefits, and where it’s more cost-effective to stick with mineral oils. As always, we’re here to help you select the right products for your different applications.
Relevant information from other sources:
With over 35 years in the oil and gas industry, Dan Holdmeyer has worked for Chevron the past 14 years, serving in a variety of capacities with the company in addition to his current post as Industrial and Coolants Brand Manager where he works as a lubrication engineer that supports Chevron Delo and other related lubricants brands. He plays an integral role in supporting and managing a variety of programs related to off-highway and on-highway lubrication needs. Dan also works as Chevron’s Training Specialist for their Global Lubricants division since joining the company. Prior to joining Chevron, Dan worked as a Field Engineer at Mobil Oil Corporation for 20 years (1979-99) after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering.