Snapshot oil analysis

Commercial operators and the captains of large yachts have long used oil analysis services for getting a detailed profile of the state of their vessel’s engine (or engines). For the owner of a 40-foot voyaging sailboat or power voyaging boat, however, these services may seem like overkill, as they require that you draw a couple of ounces of oil to test, package and mail off the sample and then wait a few days to a week before you receive the results. But now there’s a product that claims to provide the owners of smaller vessels with an impressive amount of information on their boat’s engine condition immediately while requiring a single drop of oil.

Called EngineCheckUp, this product is a flat panel of treated paper onto which you deposit the drop of warm engine oil (in fact, it has to be only one drop; more than one skews the results and makes the test unuseable). The oil interacts with chemicals in the paper as it expands in concentric rings. After 15 minutes or so (the time required can vary depending on the variety of factors, such as oil viscosity, temperature and humidity), you end up with a blot of oil. But unlike the famous Rorschach inkblot tests, there is no need for subjective interpretation here. According to EngineCheckUp, the dimensions and shapes of the rings will give you valuable information on the state of the engine, such as the extent to which the oil has accumulated grime or combustion residue and whether water or glycol has found its way into the oil. The EngineCheckUp test will also show you whether the oil itself is oxidized or worn out.
“Each circle tells a story,” said Alan Uhler, owner of EngineCheckUp. “It will not only tell you the specific problems you might have, but also the degree of the problem.”

The inner test ring indicates the level of dirt and grime in the oil. The second concentric ring shows the general condition of the oil via its color and shading. This ring can tell you whether the oil’s additive package is still active or has been depleted. Additives are important for neutralizing the buildup of acids and other corrosive elements. The outer boundary of the second ring, the depth of the peaks and valleys along the boundary indicate whether water or antifreeze has infiltrated the oil. And finally the width of the outer ring indicates if fuel has contaminated the oil. Even though the test is quick and inexpensive, it still provides a boatowner with a valuable package of data on what problems his or her engine might be experiencing, before these problems become immediately noticeable.

According to Uhler, there are other paper-based oil tests on the market. But these are focused on a single dimension of testing: indicating whether it is time to change engine oil. Uhler calls EngineCheckUp a multidimensional test that goes beyond merely checking only the oil condition to actually giving you a basic analysis of what’s going on inside the engine. The judges at the 2007 Marine Aftermarket Accessories Trade Show (MAATS) in Las Vegas in July apparently agreed because they awarded EngineCheckUp an Innovation Award in the maintenance category. According to EngineCheckUp, this product has been tested, approved and endorsed by TUV, an internationally recognized German testing authority for efficacy and claim substantiation.

Oil analysis does provide an excellent method for determining what is going on inside an engine. Ocean Navigator contributing editor Steve D’Antonio is also vice president of operations for Zimmerman Marine, a full service boatyard in Cardinal, Va., and is an enthusiastic supporter of regular oil testing. “We do it on every boat we winterize,” D’Antonio said. “We also test a boat’s coolant, its hydraulic oil and transmission fluid.”

Zimmerman uses a full-service testing service like Polaris Labs of Indianapolis for its testing needs. Polaris oil tests provide an impressive array of test data. One test is called elemental analysis by inductively coupled plasma (this registers high on the “so impressive sounding it must be good” scale). This test can detect up to 24 different metals in engine lubrication oil. These metals include iron, chromium, nickel, aluminum, copper, lead, tin, cadmium, silver, titanium and vanadium, silicon, sodium, potassium, molybdenum, antimony, manganese and seven more. This information can indicate the type and amount of wear taking place inside an engine. The oil is also tested for fire point, flash point, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (used to test for levels of soot, sulfates, oxidation, nitro-oxidation, glycol, fuel and water contaminants), nitration, oxidation, particle count (metallic and non-metallic, fibers, dirt, water, bacteria and any other kind of debris), PH level, soot level, acid and base levels, viscosity, water level, and more.

This obviously is a tremendous amount of information, beyond the level of most mariners to absorb. But when provided to a knowledgeable and experienced marine repair yard like Zimmerman, the benefits to the boatowner are substantial.

And even Uhler sees the benefit of using a fast analysis tool like EngineCheckUp along with the more expensive and more detailed analysis provided by an oil-testing facility. “Our product will tell you when to send off a sample for more detailed analysis,” said Uhler. “At $3 a test, you can’t go wrong with using our product to keep track of general trends.” The EngineCheckUp test kit includes six test squares for $19.99.

By Ocean Navigator