Snake Oil

What's in that slimy stuff that makes it so expensive?

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.


“We’ve gone back and poured as little as a shot glassful of one additive into a blend of several thousand gallons of oil to bring the additives into line with the oil’s specifications,” one technician whispered. A shot glass?

“It’s the interaction and interplay of the components that provide the benefits and give the oil its performance attributes,” said Monarchi. “Too much of one component can actually make the performance worse – more is not always better unless everything is increased or decreased in the same proportion.”

In one lab at the Southwest Research Institute, metal plates – pieces of marine engine cylinder sleeves – are doused in oil, heated, doused again and so on. The technician hands me one plate, which has a nearly invisible tinge of what looks like grease baked on a cookie sheet. Another looks like the bottom of a Griswold iron skillet. Additives on the first plate were working.


In another area, salt fog hissed from tiny jets, drenching still more plates. The tech handed me two of the fragments.

“This is your engine on generic oil,” he said pointing at the rusty red one. The other was nearly rust-free. “This is your engine on premium oil.”

Formulating, testing formulations and verifying performance can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Some additives are pricey as well, oil blenders say. They spend this money proving premium oils exceed minimum standards and hope you, as their customer, buy into their effort.


What about marine engine oil brands?

Marine engine makers go through a similar expensive process. Additionally, they test oils in not just a few engines, but many of them.

Whether we’re talking about oil makers or engine makers, branding of oil doesn’t come without careful thought and expensive verification of performance. I still can’t tell you what the formula is, but I can tell you that I’ll buy better oil now, after my peek backstage.