How to Fine-Tune Your Oil Program

Caroline Casey
Posted on April 1, 2004

The motor oil program is a cornerstone of any maintenance routine, but today’s market offers so many products and best practices that it’s difficult to decide which is right for you.

The key is recognizing that there is no one best practice and that your oil program should reflect the singular needs of your fleet. Choosing motor oils and filters, selecting a supplier and determining oil-change intervals are all opportunities to maximize the fleet value.

Oil programs come in as many varieties as school bus fleets, but what everyone agrees on is the importance of investing in high-quality products. Although tight budgets may make bargains tempting, the most important consideration when designing your program is purchasing products that meet your specifications.

“Today’s engines are more compact and produce more power, creating a need for quality engine oil in conjunction with a quality filtration system,” says Cecil Tomlin, director of transportation at the Stockton (Calif.) Unified School District. “Performance and longevity come with a higher cost but certainly pay off in the long run.”

Quality is top priority
There is a host of reasons to invest in high-quality motor oil and filters, including better performance, reduced engine wear and extended oil-change intervals. It’s important to pick products that will not only protect your engine, but also will not void your warranty. Just as a superior product will improve performance, an inferior one can actually cause problems.

Synthetic oils, although more costly than their petroleum counterparts, can be cost effective despite the higher upfront investment. “They don’t break down, they don’t oxidize and they’re cleaner,” says Ed Newman, marketing manager for Amsoil Inc. in Superior, Wis. Extended oil drains, often up to three times the interval for petroleum products, justify the higher cost of the lubricant, he says.

Newman also points to the ability of synthetic oils to withstand the frigid temperatures experienced by fleets in the northern U.S. earlier this year. “The low pour points of synthetic oils enable your school buses to keep going even when the temperatures drop really low,” he says.

Says John Davies, transportation director at Independence (Mo.) Public Schools, “We use oil that has proven itself despite the cost, because in the long run, buying oil that breaks down easily creates other more expensive maintenance problems. The same philosophy applies to filters.”

Jeff Armstead, transportation director for Cheatham County (Tenn.) School District, agrees. “When you find a brand that works well for your fleet, stick with it even if it may cost slightly more,” he says.

The significance of your investment in high-quality products is even greater with newer vehicles. According to Robert Morgan, fleet maintenance manager for the School District of Hillsborough County (Fla.), increasingly complex engines mean an increased need for high-quality filtration systems.

“Choosing a motor oil and filter type has never been more challenging,” Morgan says. “Quality of oil is important for the operation of the hydraulically actuated electronically controlled unit injector (HEUI) fuel system. Poor oil will result in surging, erratic injector actuation pressure and rough running.”

{+PAGEBREAK+} Choosing a vendor
It is also critical to find a supplier that provides reliable, service-minded access to the products of your choice. Just as the oil and filters need to be fleet specific, vendors should be judged on criteria that are particular to your needs.

Tim McShane, vehicle maintenance manager for Highline (Wash.) School District, picks suppliers based on a number of factors, including convenience. “[Our product] choices are based on having a fully integrated supplier who will provide a high-quality product that exceeds specifications at a competitive price with local factory representation and frequent deliveries,” he says.

For Scott Bearrows, director of buildings and grounds for the Meridian (Ill.) Community Unit School District #223, choosing a supplier means listening to his mechanics’ preferences and looking at the vendor’s track record. “The way we choose the oil brand is based on past performance and confidence in the oil,” Bearrows says.

Keeping costs down
High quality doesn’t have to mean high prices, however. There are strategies you can use to lower costs. It’s just as important to research your options when choosing a supplier as it is when writing your specifications.

Louk Markham, transportation manager for Portage (Mich.) Public Schools, says being an informed consumer is critical. “Do your homework before you send out bids, and talk to your vendors to make sure that your current products and procedures are appropriate for today’s fleet.”

Buying on bid allows Wayne Hopkins, fleet manager for Baltimore County Public Schools, to comparison shop. “With a fleet of almost 800 school buses, I specify the highest-quality products available to ensure vehicle reliability,” he says. “We send out requests for bids to numerous vendors. We then purchase from the vendors offering the lowest price on products meeting our specifications.”

If your fleet size isn’t appropriate for soliciting bids, buying in bulk is another way to keep prices down. If your storage capacity doesn’t make bulk purchases possible, you still may be able to invest when the market is particularly good.

Building relationships with your suppliers can also control costs by providing vendors an incentive to reward loyalty. Says Davies, “We buy in bulk and check the market on a regular basis for price comparisons. We have found it less expensive to stay with the same supplier, as they are more likely to provide a discount to regular customers.”

Whether buying in bulk, on bid or in a strategic manner, what’s key to keeping costs down is being aware of the going price for oils and filters that meet your specifications.

Dean Kesling, fleet service manager for St. Lucie County (Fla.) Public Schools, performed an oil study five years ago. “Out of four major oil companies, I found ours to offer everything I was looking for, including a written warranty on product failure,” he says. “Same holds true with the filters we use. I buy in bulk, do not accept bids and the company has always been comparable for pricing.”

{+PAGEBREAK+} The impact of intervals
The value of your oil program is also dependent on your oil-change interval. An interval that is too brief wastes money by disposing functional oil, while one that is too long will cost you in engine wear and tear.

According to Morgan at Hillsborough County, there are several factors to consider when deciding the length between oil changes, including fuel consumption, distance, service hours and calendar time.

Oil analysis is another way to determine where to set the interval. One of the benefits of the process is that it allows you to adjust your interval to the needs of certain vehicles. The same data can also measure how well your engine is aging.

Jerry Davidson, transportation coordinator for Shelby County (Ala.) Schools, finds the process helpful. “We use analysis to determine if the oils we are using are doing the job and also to determine at what intervals to change the oil,” he says.

With or without oil analysis, setting an interval that suits your fleet is key. Davies’ vehicles are serviced every 3,000 miles or three months, whichever comes first.

Hopkins uses a longer interval and hopes to extend it even further. “We used to change oil and filter every 4,000 miles,” he says. “For the past several years, we have increased the interval to 6,000 miles with no ill effects. We will be using oil analysis in the near future to see if we can safely extend our oil-change intervals.”

Age also affects intervals. Kesling integrates new buses into the oil program as they age. “Our new buses are driven to the recommended mileage for oil change. At 18,000 miles, we change to our long-term program and start our oil analysis. We change filters every 9,000 miles.”

As with everything else, the program for new buses must be tailored to the operation. McShane’s urban school district in Burien, Wash., stresses his vehicles with stop-and-go traffic. All of his fleet, new and old, is on the same oil program.

According to Roger Botti, transportation manager for the North Allegheny (Pa.) School District, “Oil and filters are cheap, engine overhauls aren’t. The key is to choose a mileage/hour interval that serves your operation successfully.”

What works for you
When it comes to oil programs, the best practice is the one that works for your fleet. For Tomlin, his best practice is cooperation. “Communicate with upper management, listen to ideas from your maintenance staff, maintain accurate records and ask your vendors to assist you,” he says. “Many have test programs at no charge that can provide valuable information.”

Adds Tomlin, “Considering budget uncertainties facing departments, we need to think outside the box if we are expected to do more with less.”

Related Topics: engines, preventive maintenance

Comments ( 1 )
  • Sammy Samuelson

     | about 8 years ago

    Hi:We have been performing Oil Analysis for thirty years,using an instrument(handheld)called a Lubri-Sensor with terrific success and don't have to drain the oil to obtain a sample! Any further questions can be answered by a lab should it be deemed necessary.Yes,oil and air filtration are extremely important,especially By-Pass filters capable of filtering down below 2 micron and even lower.However the dirt that is stopped at the source and never reaches the combustion chamber does not contaminate the oil thus allows for a much cleaner and more efficient running engine.Synthetic oils have been proven over millions of miles in every application to not only extend equipment life,extend oil drain intervals,they have shown increased fuel milage,and certainly cut labor costs down as well,something to be considered when other costs continue to spiral upwards!Then concider the fact that the O.E.M.'s have been installing Synthetic Oil at the factory for some 25 years in the differentials of many vehicles. Thanks for letting me share, P.S.Foams on the air filters eliminate replacement too,that is the cabin and the engine air filters! Sammy Samuelson

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