We expect the motor oils we purchase for our cars to protect our engines from wear, sludge, and rust, and indeed most of the oils on retail shelves do so quite well. But there are some products out there that will not only fail to protect your engine; instead they will actually damage it! And what’s worse, these oils can be found on retail shelves across the country.
The Petroleum Quality Institute of America (PQIA) has been sampling and testing motor oils in the USA for several years and publishing the results on its website (www.pqia.org). The results are often shocking and two issues have become apparent from PQIA’s work:
- The worst of the retail packaged oils are concentrated in convenience stores
- Bad oils are more often found in lower income urban neighborhoods
While most convenient stores do carry high quality motor oils, the inconvenient truth is that some turn a blind eye to quality, not knowing or perhaps caring about what is actually in the bottle. These bad apples that put profit ahead of ethics, and sometimes the law, spoil the reputation of the typical hard working convenience store owner, and harm both the consumer and the lubricant industry. The following are important issues every consumer should be aware of when purchasing oil at a retail store.
Inconvenient Truth #1: There is a better chance you will purchase bad oil if you buy at a convenience store, corner store, or bodega.
Although the majority of convenience stores sell quality brands of motor oils, close to 20% of engine oils on convenience store shelves visited by PQIA only meet obsolete engine oil specifications or have other issues, and these oils can damage an engine. As an example, many brands of engine oils PQIA finds at convenience stores meet only the American Petroleum Institute (API) SA Service Classification. API SA engine oils are obsolete products formulated for use in passenger car engines built before 1930, contain no additives, and can do damage to nearly all cars currently on the road. Further, some of the engine oils PQIA finds at these stores meet no recognized specifications at all and test results indicate these oils are so far off spec that they will damage an engine in short order.
Inconvenient Truth #2: There is typically little to no information on the labels of obsolete engine oils to warn consumers of their limited use.
Adding to the challenge of sorting out the good from the bad, most of the obsolete motor oils on the market have slick labels with such persuasive, yet meaningless marketing terms as Super, Premium, Gold, Quality, and Plus, to name a few. Further, whereas nearly 85 years separates an API SA from current API SN technology, the difference in price between these products is often small. As a result, few alarms go off when a consumer uses price as a measure of quality.
Inconvenient Truth #3: Your chances of running into bad oil increases significantly at convenience stores located in urban areas.
PQIA finds that the chances of picking up a bottle of bad motor oils increases significantly when visiting convenience stores, corner stores, and bodegas in urban areas. As an example, PQIA recently found obsolete and off-spec motor oils at over 60% of the 18 convenience stores it visited in Dearborn and Detroit. Sadly to say, it appears that the producers and marketers of these motor oils are preying on people in lower income communities who tend to purchase on price. These are folks who can ill afford to have their car engines damaged by off-spec oil, and likely have a hard time proving that the oil is the reason their engines failed.
Inconvenient Truth #4: Majors oil companies have little to no say in what engine oils are sold at convenience stores operating under their sign.
Consumers might take comfort in thinking a convenience store located at a major gas station is owned and operated by the major oil company selling the gas, but think again. An estimated 97% of the nation’s convenience stores that sell gasoline are owned and operated by independent companies. These operators have the legal right to decide what brands of oil they carry, and the oil companies are generally powerless to stop them. Understandably, this leaves consumers with the perception, and false sense of confidence, that the major oil companies stand behind the engine oils sold at the stores pumping their gas. Unless it is their branded product, in most cases they do not.
Inconvenient Truth #5: Although there are laws to protect the public from unlawful, unfair and deceptive business practices, enforcement is far more reactive than proactive when comes to engine oils.
Having worked with several state and federal agencies, PQIA is well aware that they have the consumer’s best interest in mind to assure the quality and safety of the products we buy. But the fact is that, as important as engine oils are to what is often a consumer’s second biggest investment, engine oils receive very little regulatory and enforcement attention. This is in part due to lack of budget and resources. Secondly, consumer affair enforcement is often wired to respond to complaints based on the number of like complaints they receive. Whereas this approach is reasonable for products where there is a clear cause and effect, it comes up woefully short with engine oils where the cause of an engine failure is very difficult and expensive to prove. That said, some of the motor oils PQIA has found are so obviously bad that you don’t have to run them in an engine to know they will do harm.
Inconvenient Truth #6: Consumers need to protect themselves, and Knowledge is the best line of defense.
In the absence of effective regulatory oversight, consumers need to look out for themselves by learning how to read an oil label and recognize the danger signs. There are many online resources that can be helpful, including that of the API and PQIA. Furthermore, convenience store owners should also seek some education about what they are selling to their unsuspecting customers. Certainly many store owners should and would take such bad oils off their shelves if they understood the consequences of selling them.