I hate paying for something I can't prove I'm getting. That makes me a tough sell on things like "green" soap, organic flour and especially premium motor oil. How do you know? With respect to oils bearing "premium" on the label, I was able recently to narrow the knowledge gap.
Mike Monarchi, the operational product manager of Pennzoil Marine, invited me to its blending facility and toured me through the Southwest Research Institute, where its marine blends are tested against Pennzoil's "premium" standards and the requirements of the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
I had hoped to discover exactly what "premium" in front of "oil" means. Pennzoil's Monarchi offered this: "When we present premium oil brands, we'll formulate them above and beyond the minimum required specifications," referring to NMMA's TCW-3 and FC-W standards for two- and four-stroke marine oils.
An oil's properties are improved with "additives." But what are they? Monarchi, like all oil chemists I've talked to, declined to identify the few additives actually used, but did reveal their purpose in the brew. Additives for detergency help oil dispose of deposits created during the combustion cycle. Other elixirs add corrosion protection and some adjust viscosity, a property of lubricity required by say, an outboard motor running full speed in 100-degree weather. Additives for extra lubricity protect against piston scuffing, and yet others improve engine performance by keeping the exhaust system clear of restriction caused by deposits.
Balancing the blend of oil and additives is easy, but proving the blend works as intended separates premium oils from the generic.
First the oil is submitted to X-ray spectroscopy. Tiny samples are analyzed to look for the chemical markers unique to each compound in the oil and to make sure they're present in the proper quantities.