Is That Additive Really A Negative?

Article and Photos by Fred Rau
ROAD RIDER/August 1992/Pg 15


9. Detergents And Solvents

Many of the older, better-known oil treatments on the market do not make claims nearly so lavish as the new upstarts. Old standbys like Bardahl, Rislone and Marvel Mystery Oil, instead offer things like "quieter lifters," "reduced oil burning" and a "cleaner engine."

Most of these products are made up of solvents and detergents designed to dissolve sludge and carbon deposits inside your engine so they can be flushed or burned out. Wynn's Friction Proofing Oil, for example, is 83 percent kerosene. Other brands use naphthalene, xylene, acetone and isopropanol. Usually, these ingredients will be found in a base of standard mineral oil.

In general, these products are designed to do just the opposite of what the PTFE and zinc phosphate additives claim to do. Instead of leaving behind a "coating" or a "plating" on your engine surfaces, they are designed to strip away such things.

All of these products will strip sludge and deposits out and clean up your engine, particularly if it is an older, abused one. The problem is, unless you have some way of determining just how much is needed to remove your deposits without going any further, such solvents also can strip away the boundary lubrication layer provided by your oil. Overuse of solvents is an easy trap to fall into, and one which can promote harmful metal-to-metal contact within your engine.

As a general rule of thumb these products had their place and were at least moderately useful on older automobile and motorcycle engines of the Fifties and Sixties, but are basically unneeded on the more efficient engine designs of the past two decades.

10. The Infamous "No Oil" Demo

At at least three major motorcycle rallies this past year, we have witnessed live demonstrations put on to demonstrate the effectiveness of certain oil additives. The demonstrators would have a bench-mounted engine which they would fill with oil and a prescribed dose of their "miracle additive." After running the engine for a while they would stop it, drain out the oil and start it up again. Instant magic! The engine would run perfectly well for hours on end, seemingly proving the effectiveness of the additive which had supposedly "coated" the inside of the engine so well it didn't even need the oil to run. In one case, we saw this done with an actual motorcycle, which would be rid den around the parking lot after having its oil drained. A pretty convincing demonstration - until you know the facts.

Since some of these demonstrations were conducted using Briggs and Stratton engines, the Briggs and Stratton Company itself decided to run a similar, but somewhat more scientific, experiment. Taking two brand-new, identical engines straight off their assembly line, they set them up for bench-testing. The only difference was that one had the special additive included with its oil and the other did not. Both were operated for 20 hours before being shut down and having the oil drained from them. Then both were started up again and allowed to run for another 20 straight hours. Neither engine seemed to have any problem performing this "minor miracle."

After the second 20-hour run, both engines were completely torn down and inspected by the company's engineers. What they found was that both engines suffered from scored crankpin bearings, but the engine treated with the additive also suffered from heavy cylinder bore damage that was not evident on the untreated engine.

This points out once again the inherent problem with particulate oil additives: They can cause oil starvation. This is particularly true in the area of piston rings, where there is a critical need for adequate oil flow. In practically all of the reports and studies on oil additives, and particularly those involving suspended solids like PTFE, this has been reported as a major area of engine damage.

11. The Racing Perspective

Among the most convincing testimonials in favor of oil additives are those that come from professional racers or racing teams. As noted previously, some of the oil additive products actually are capable of producing less engine friction, better gas mileage and higher horsepower out put. In the world of professional racing, the split-second advantage that might be gained from using such a product could be the difference between victory and defeat.

Virtually all of the downside or detrimental effects attached to these products are related to extended, long-term usage. For short-life, high-revving, ultra-high performance engines designed to last no longer than one racing season (or in some cases, one single race), the long-term effects of oil additives need not even be considered.

Racers also use special high-adhesion tires that give much better traction and control than our normal street tires, but you certainly wouldn't want to go touring on them, since they're designed to wear out in several hundred (or less) miles. Just because certain oil additives may be beneficial in a competitive context is no reason to believe they would be equally beneficial in a touring context.

12. The Best of The Worst

Not all engine oil additives are as potentially harmful as some of those we have described here. However, the best that can be said of those that have not proved to be harmful is that they haven't been proved to offer any real benefits, either. In some cases, introducing an additive with a compatible package of components to your oil in the right proportion and at the right time can conceivably extend the life of your oil. However, in every case we have studied it proves out that it would actually have been cheaper to simply change the engine oil instead.

In addition, recent new evidence has come to light that makes using almost any additive a game of Russian Roulette. Since the additive distributors do not list the ingredients contained within their products, you never know for sure just what you are putting in your engine.

Recent tests have shown that even some of the most inoffensive additives contain products which, though harmless in their initial state, convert to hydrofluoric acid when exposed to the temperatures inside a firing cylinder. This acid is formed as part of the exhaust gases, and though it is instantly expelled from your engine and seems to do it no harm, the gases collect inside your exhaust system and eat away at your mufflers from the inside out.

13. Whatever The Market Will Bear

The pricing of oil additives seems to follow no particular pattern whatsoever. Even among those products that seem to be almost identical, chemically, retail prices covered an extremely wide range. For example:

Industry experts estimate that the actual cost of producing most oil additives is from one-tenth to one-twentieth of the asking retail price. Certainly no additive manufacturer has come forward with any exotic, high-cost ingredient or list of ingredients to dispute this claim. As an interesting note along with this, back before there was so much competition in the field to drive prices down, Petrolon (Slick 50) was selling their PTFE products for as much as $400 per treatment! The words "buyer beware" seem to take on very real significance when talking about oil additives.

14. The Psychological Placebo

You have to wonder, with the volume of evidence accumulating against oil additives, why so many of us still buy them. That's the million-dollar question, and it's just as difficult to answer as why so many of us smoke cigarettes, drink hard liquor or engage in any other number of questionable activities. We know they aren't good for us - but we go ahead and do them anyway.

Part of the answer may lie in what some psychiatrists call the "psychological placebo effect." Simply put, that means that many of us hunger for that peace of mind that comes with believing we have purchased the absolute best or most protection we can possibly get.

Even better, there's that wonderfully smug feeling that comes with thinking we might be a step ahead of the pack, possessing knowledge of something just a bit better than everyone else.

Then again, perhaps it comes from an ancient, deep-seated need we all seem to have to believe in magic. There has never been any shortage of unscrupulous types ready to cash in on our willingness to believe that there's some magical mystery potion we can buy to help us lose weight, grow hair, attract the opposite sex or make our engines run longer and better. I doubt that there's a one of us who hasn't fallen for one of these at least once in our lifetimes. We just want it to be true so bad that we can't help ourselves.

15. Testimonial Hype vs. Scientific Analysis

In general, most producers of oil additives rely on personal "testimonials" to advertise and promote their products. A typical print advertisement will be one or more letters from a satisfied customer stating something like, "1 have used Brand X in my engine for 2 years and 50,000 miles and it runs smoother and gets better gas mileage than ever before. I love this product and would recommend it to anyone."

Such evidence is referred to as "anecdotal" and is most commonly used to pro mote such things as miracle weight loss diets and astrology.

Whenever I see one of these ads I am reminded of a stunt played out several years ago by Allen Funt of "Candid Camera" that clearly demonstrated the side of human nature that makes such advertising possible.

With cameras in full view, fake "product demonstrators" would offer people passing through a grocery store the opportunity to taste-test a "new soft drink." What the victims didn't know was that they were being given a horrendous concoction of castor oil, garlic juice, tabasco sauce and several other foul-tasting ingredients. After taking a nice, big swallow, as instructed by the demonstrators, the unwitting victims provided huge laughs for the audience by desperately trying to conceal their anguish and disgust. Some literally turned away from the cameras and spit the offending potion on the floor.

The fascinating part came when about one out of four of the victims would actually turn back to the cameras and proclaim the new drink was "Great" or "Unique" or, in several cases, "One of the best things I've ever tasted!" Go figure.

The point is, compiling "personal testimonials" for a product is one of the easiest things an advertising company can do - and one of the safest, too. You see, as long as they are only expressing some one else's personal opinion, they don't have to prove a thing! It's just an opinion, and needs no basis in fact whatsoever.

On the other hand, there has been documented, careful scientific analysis done on numerous oil additives by accredited institutions and researchers.

For example:

Petrolon, Inc., of Houston, Texas, makers of Petrolon and producers of at least a dozen other lubrication products containing PTFE, including Slick 50 and Slick 30 Motorcycle Formula, claim that, "Multiple tests by independent laboratories have shown that when properly applied to an automotive engine, Slick 50 Engine Formula reduces wear on engine parts. Test results have shown that Slick 50 treated engines sustained 50 percent less wear than test engines run with premium motor oil alone."

Sounds pretty convincing, doesn't it?

The problem is, Petrolon and the other oil additive companies that claim "scientific evidence" from "independent laboratories," all refuse to identify the laboratories that conducted the tests or the criteria under which the tests were conducted. They claim they are "contractually bound" by the laboratories to not reveal their identities.

In addition, the claim of "50 percent less wear" has never been proven on anything approaching a long-term basis. Typical examples used to support the additive makers' claims involve engines run from 100 to 200 hours after treatment, during which time the amount of wear particles in the oil decreased. While this has proven to be true in some cases, it has also been proven that after 400 to 500 hours of running the test engines invariably reverted to producing just as many wear particles as before treatment, and in some cases, even more.

No matter what the additive makers would like you to believe, nothing has been proven to stop normal engine wear.

You will note that all of the research facilities quoted in this article are clearly identified. They have no problem with making their findings public. You will also note that virtually all of their findings about oil additives are negative. That's not because we wanted to give a biased report against oil additives - it's because we couldn't find a single laboratory, engine manufacturer or independent research facility who would make a public claim, with their name attached to it, that any of the additives were actually beneficial to an engine. The conclusion seems inescapable.

As a final note on advertising hype versus the real world, we saw a television ad the other night for Slick 50 oil additive. The ad encouraged people to buy their product on the basis of the fact that, "Over 14 million Americans have tried Slick 50!" Great. We're sure you could just as easily say, "Over 14 million Americans have smoked cigarettes!"-but is that really any reason for you to try it? Of course not, because you've seen the scientific evidence of the harm it can do. The exact same principle applies here.

16. In Conclusion

The major oil companies are some of the richest, most powerful and aggressive corporations in world. They own multi-million dollar research facilities manned by some of the best chemical engineers money can hire. It is probably safe to say that any one of them has the capabilities and resources at hand in marketing, distribution, advertising, research and product development equal to 20 times that of any of the independent additive companies. It therefore stands to reason that if any of these additive products were actually capable of improving the capabilities of engine lubricants, the major oil companies would have been able to determine that and to find some way to cash in on it.

Yet of all the oil additives we found, none carried the name or endorsement of any of the major oil producers.

In addition, all of the major vehicle and engine manufacturers spend millions of dollars each year trying to increase the longevity of their products, and millions more paying off warranty claims when their products fail. Again, it only stands to reason that if they thought any of these additives would increase the life or improve the performance of their engines, they would be actively using and selling them - or at least endorsing their use.

Instead, many of them advise against the use of these additives and, in some cases, threaten to void their warranty coverage if such things are found to be used in their products.

In any story of this nature, absolute "facts" are virtually impossible to come by. Opinions abound. Evidence that points one direction or the other is avail able, but has to be carefully ferreted out, and is not always totally reliable or completely verifiable.

In this environment, conclusions reached by known, knowledgeable experts in the field must be given a certain amount of weight. Conclusions reached by unknown, unidentifiable sources must be discounted almost totally. That which is left must be weighed, one side against the other, in an attempt to reach a "reasonable" conclusion.

In the case of oil additives, there is a considerable volume of evidence against their effectiveness. This evidence comes from well-known and identifiable expert sources, including independent research laboratories, state universities, major engine manufacturers, and even NASA.

Against this rather formidable barrage of scientific research, additive makers offer not much more than their own claims of effectiveness, plus questionable and totally unscientific personal testimonials. Though the purveyors of these products state they have studies from other independent laboratories supporting their claims, they refuse to identify the labs or provide copies of the research. The only test results they will share are those from their own testing departments, which must, by their very nature, be taken with a rather large grain of salt.

17. Sidebar: Synthetic Oils

Whenever we talk about oil additives, the subject of synthetic oils inevitably crops up. Actually, the tow subjects have very little to do with each other, but since many riders seem to equate additives and synthetics together in their minds, we will take a few lines just to clear the air.

Synthetic oils were originally developed for use in gas turbine engines. In most cases they are capable of maintaining their viscosity for longer periods of use and under much greater temperatures and pressures than petroleum products. Commons synthetics used for engine lubrication today are Polyalphaolefin (like Mobil 1) or Dibasic Organic Esters (like AMSOIL). They are fully compatible with conventional oils and can be mixed, providing their ratings match.

Probably the best situation is a blend of synthetics and mineral oils, such as Golden Spectro and AGIP Sint 2000. These products seem to offer the best of both worlds in protection and extended service life. They may cost considerably more than standard petroleum products, but they also can be used for much longer periods between oil changes without losing their protective capabilities.

Synthetics and synthetic blends offer a wider range of protection than standard petroleum products. However, it should be noted that this extended range of protection reaches into an area of temperatures and pressures virtually impossible to attain inside most motorcycle engines and transmissions. In other words, if you use them, you are buying a sort of "overkill protection." It's certainly not going to hurt anything - it's just unnecessary. That is, unless it makes you feel better knowing the extra protection is on board, in which case the added expense may be well justified.

As a basic rule of thumb, using the standard engine oil recommended by your bike's manufacturer and changing it about every 3000 miles will afford you all the protection you'll ever need. But if you feel better knowing you have more protection than you need or, if you like the extended service-life feature, there's certainly nothing wrong with using a premium grade synthetic blend lubricant.

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