Can cheap oil do damage to my engine


Engines rely significantly on oils to keep them going. It’s essential you use the right, and good quality oil on your engines as inferior or cheap oil can damage your engine. It can reduce the engine’s usable life and also lead to extensive engine problems.

Some of the problems cheap and low-quality oil can do to your engine are:

  • Gumming up of compression and oil rings so that oil passes into the combustion chamber and starts burning
  • Inadequate lubrication of moving parts that induce wear and tear, and additional friction
  • Reduced lubricant flow
  • Some oils accumulate and leak into pistons.
  • Some oils form a tar-like sludge that triggers problems.
  • Some oils gum up and start failing
  • Cheap oils not only lead to expensive engine repairs but also increase fuel consumption.
  • There is a chance of oils not meeting required specs causing major engine repairs that end up voiding your vehicle’s engine warranty.
  • While motor oils meeting latest ILSAC specifications help improve your car’s fuel economy, low-quality oils do the opposite and increase fuel costs.

Any of these problems can lead to a significant engine rebuild, costing thousands of dollars! And if the issue is due to using inferior quality oil that doesn’t meet the manufacturer’s specifications, your vehicle’s warranty may end up a void. This burns a much more significant hole in your pocket than trying to save money using cheap engine oils instead of good quality oil.

Cheap oils trigger all these problems because they quickly break down to reduce its working efficiency. Good quality oils are designed to work efficiently across various temperatures and are not that prone to breaking down into sludge under extreme loads. Their constant viscosity, consistency and lubrication properties help keep your engine parts moving freely.

So while fully synthetic oil is indeed a bit expensive, it offers long-term benefits like improved engine operation, better fuel economy and improved power output. It also reduces wear and tear on moving parts which in turn promotes engine longevity. Besides, the oil quickly flows through your engine and does not gather around components to create blockages.

There is the possibility of your PCV or Positive Crank Ventilation Value blocking up with inferior quality oil. This makes it difficult for your engine to breathe correctly, which is why your engine blows blue smoke.

Which engine oil to use?

Now the problem lies in choosing the right engine oil for your car as if you check any oil’s specifications; you notice there are random series of letters and numbers which you can’t understand! You need to understand this ‘jargon’ to buy and use the right oil for your car.

Basic types of car engine oils

There are three primary engine oils available- mineral, semi-synthetic and synthetic oils.

  • Mineral oil is the cheapest oil produced by refining crude oil. They are not recommended by most car companies as they don’t have engine-cleaning detergents and have a limited temperature operating range. However, they are usable on older engines with less extreme tolerance.
  • Semi-synthetic oils are a cheap mix of synthetic and mineral oils.
  • Synthetic oils are the most expensive oils available designed by engineers to work across a wide range of temperatures and conditions while reducing engine strain and fuel consumption. It also cleans the engine while pumping through it.

Engine oil viscosity

Now coming to the large, confusing numbers you find on oil bottles like 5W30 and 10W40. These numbers refer to the oil viscosity or how well the oil flows, where thin oils have low viscosity and thick oils, high viscosity.

The exterior temperature also affects the engine oil in the car as it flows slowly when it’s cold and quicker when it’s hot outdoors. However, the oil has to flow consistently through a broad range of temperatures to lubricate the engine properly.

Unfortunately, there’s no oil that can flow smoothly in -20 degrees or remain viscous enough to lubricate correctly at 50 degrees temperatures. This is why the Society of Automotive Engineers has started a grading system which informs you about the best oil grade for specific temperature ranges. There are also multi-grade oils that are a combination of different oil grades that broaden the oil temperature usage.

Most oils today are multi-grade oils, with two numbers on their labels separated by the letter ‘W’. While there are oils with a single viscosity rating called mono-grade oils, they are a rarity.

SAE tests oils and assigns a grade number to the oil based on its flow rate at variable temperatures. The system starts from 0, 5, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 and refers to the oil’s ability to flow and lubricate the engine at a specific temperature.

Lower numbers indicate thinner and less viscous oils best for low temperatures like winter. The ‘W’ you see in an oil’s grade means winter. The oil’s flow rates are also tested at hot temperatures of 100°C to stimulate running engines, and it the second number in multi-grade oils. It refers to the thinnest the oil can get when hot.

Additional tips worth knowing about engine oils

  • Some car manufacturers confuse people by having their grades of oils for specific models. Don’t worry as these usually have an equivalent to the SAE grading system for your cross-reference.
  • Don’t assume that the most expensive oils are always the best for your engine. It’s safer and better if you stick to your car manufacturer’s oil grade and specifications as the engine is used to it.
  • While it’s tempting to use oils with the broadest rating, always choose an oil with a narrowest rage that befits your surrounding temperatures.
  • If you switch from cheap oil to synthetic oil, it’s better also to change the filter as it catches carbon deposits and other debris before it’s circulated through the engine.
  • Even if you use synthetic oils, it doesn’t mean you can prolong the oil change. The detergents and other chemicals in it deteriorate with time to reduce the oil’s effectiveness.
  • Last, but not least, while cheap oil can damage your engine, never drive with the oil light illuminated as it means the oil pressure is low and can lead to an engine seizure soon.
  • Check your engine oil levels regularly, weekly for older cars and cars driven for high mileages and perhaps monthly for new vehicles used infrequently.

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