Oil: What You Need To Know (Jim Tucker)
Published on Tuesday, February 1, 2011 in Guest Columns, News & Updates, Snowmobile Tech
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I have a confession to make- I don’t know much about oil! Oh sure, I’ve done a lot of research on this slippery liquid called bubblin’ crude, but soon realized the more I knew the less I understood about all the properties and additives contained within. One could spend their whole adult waking life on just this one topic, that’s what lubrication engineers have been doing for decades. Volumes have been written on just that subject and new developments are on the horizon with regard to a new super class of lubricants coming your way.

There are some key points I’ve learned through my many years in the world of mechanical gizmos, some that can help you out along the lubrication road of life. I would like to discuss both two-stroke and four-stroke oils, a topic unheard of about five years ago. Two-stroke motors have dominated the snowmobile market, but now that’s changing somewhat with the advent of four-stroke power plants being placed into snowmobile chassis’.

Years ago we had to mix-up oil and gas in a red container, then pour this mixture into our five gallon gas tanks. This always prompted the question –“did I or didn’t I mix up the oil”? Whoops-Too late! If you did mix it properly, one was always getting fouled plugs because the mixture was the same at idle as it was at WOT. The good old days were not so good! The advent of oil injection by Yamaha in the 70’s made these problems disappear and here we are in the Millennium with bulletproof oil pumps and high quality oils. Life is good!

First, let’s discuss two-stroke injector oils for snowmobiles. I’ll start by saying that one should not use an oil classified for the boating industry, they are not safe to use in a modern two-stroke snowmobile. Obviously the operating environment is much different in an outboard motor than a snowmobile. Outboards typically run at a constant speed and a lower operating temperature, cooled by immersion in a cold body of water. Snowmobiles on the other hand work in extreme cold, have a hotter operating temperature, use a sealed cooling system, and rev higher. Outboard oils are not bad, rather they are designed for a specific purpose and perform that function very well.

Let’s also say that there is no such thing as bad two-stroke oil, rather there are some oils that are better than others. Most folks say: “I have used Blasto oil for years and never had any problems” Well, there is a reason for that. Modern oils do not separate or breakdown like in the “good old days of sledding” Most oils nowadays are Tcw-3 rated and that is more than sufficient to run the motor with. Oils that keep the motor clean are really what you want, in addition to good lubricity, because carbon deposits can lead to detonation and destruction of the motor itself. With lesser quality oils, the motor will accumulate carbon over a fairly long period of time and begin to build up around the ring lands. This carbon accumulation then forces the ring outward, ultimately getting caught in the exhaust bridge. Bang ! Hello to expensive repairs!

Does the price you pay equal better or lesser quality oil? Not necessarily. The base stock and additive package are the essential keys here. Marketing guys always get involved when the oil has a high profile name, they have to charge more simply because of the name itself. Advertising is expensive, it’s simple business economics at work.

The major snowmobile manufacturers do not make their own oil, rather they contract the larger well known companies to make the oil to their specifications. Now that last part is very key. An oil manufacturer can make oil, put their own brand on it and it may not be the same as say Polaris oil. It all depends on what Polaris specifies, what they want the oil to do and so on. I find it odd that the major sled companies do not put the oil ratings on their containers. The only thing I know here is that if it has their name on it they will have to stand behind it.

This leads us to the next topic, which is –“Do I have to use the manufacturers oil to validate the warranty”? This turns out to be a very thorny issue, lets break it down into simple component parts. First, under the Magnusson Act, if a manufacturer states the consumer must use their oil to validate warranty coverage, than they must supply that oil for free to the consumer. Yikes! The manufacturer’s would soon go bye-bye money wise, so this is not a viable option. Rather than pay for your oil, they state that an oil of “equivalent or better” be used in their product. Well what is equivalent or better? Most of us are not lubrication engineers .We only know what we are told or read on the container, so what is a rider to do? My suggestion; Use the oil you feel most comfortable with. If you think Blasto oil is equal to or better than the manufacturer’s product than go ahead and use it. If you feel the manufacturers oil is the best thing since sliced bread, then use that oil. Be aware that if a warranty issue comes up and the dealer asks what kind of oil you use and it’s not what is stated by the manufacturer, they may give you a hassle. Some would argue this point, but Caveat Emptor is my advice here.

You must make sure that the oil you select is at least an American rated Tcw-3 product. The newer Japanese and European standards are Jaso, and Eg-L respectively and are even tougher standards of lubricity. There have been significant improvements with respect to engine metallurgy over the years. Newer engines are now getting tighter, tolerance wise, and are running hotter than ever, so the oil needs to be top notch.

There are essentially three types of oil- mineral, synthetic, and petroleum. Mineral oil is a food grade type of petroleum based oil. This type of oil will not foul waterways and will keep your clothes smelling fresher at the end of the day. Pure petroleum oil is for non-power-valved motors, and synthetic is for clean power valve operation. Again it’s not that one is better than another rather they are aimed at a specific application.

How do I break-in a two-stroke motor in? As most tuners know the first few hours of motor operation really determine the quality and length of life that a particular engine will have. I know some folks that start their sled up cold and race down the trail like they were chasing Blair Morgan. This is about the worst thing you can do for any engine, but two-strokes can suffer a nasty little gremlin called cold seizure. Cold seizure is when the pistons expand faster than the bore that they ride in due to immediate excessive heat. The result is a seizure at the four quadrants of the piston. The proper method is to let the engine warm up slowly, do not run at high speed or full throttle until the handlebar warmers are nice and toasty hot. Yep, that’s right, this is something your mother never told you about!

The break-in is simple and you do not need any special preparation. It goes like this- start the sled up on a jack stand and run the motor until you can feel the radiator or heat exchangers get hot. Not burning hot, but hot to the touch. Rev the engine, but not excessively. Shut the sled off and let it cool down completely. After the engine is stone cold, start it up again and do the same thing. Do this about four or five times and then go out and ride it like it says in the manual. No high speed runs, no constant speeds, or extended full throttle operation until break-in is complete. I know this last step is hard to perform on the trail because you end up with varying speeds and a herky jerky type operation. I usually do this by myself or make sure I’m the last in the group so I do not bother other riders with my stop and go riding style during break-in. I like to put on about 300-400 miles before any sustained high speed top end runs and you should do the same. Remember that the newer motors are very tight and need to be broken in slowly. This type of break-in allows the metals to expand and contract evenly so that the internal surfaces mate together nicely.

Now with the advent of four strokes into the snowmobile world what is the oil of choice? Should I use synthetic or petroleum based? How should I break that motor in?

The old adage for two and four-strokes was not to run synthetics during break-in, as the rings will not seat right. We were told to always use petroleum base oil and then switch to synthetics after a reasonable break-in was completed. The jury is out on this one as far as I am concerned. My question for you is; Why do the makers of some high performance cars install synthetic oil right from the factory? What does this tell you? Time will tell on this matter, but suffice it to say that if the manufacturers thought they would have long term speed issues or warranty problems they would not do it. It’s not that the companies don’t make mistakes, but synthetic oils have been out for years and any concerns have been addressed, be it durability, seal compatibility, lubricity, or off season storage issues.

Again, I state that just like two stroke oils, there are no bad four stroke oils out there. I believe that it is the frequency of oil changes rather than the oil itself that will determine an engines service life. In the winter environment that we ride in, use the best quality synthetic oil that you can get without paying mega dollars for the privilege of using that particular oil. Remember that when you look at the rating of oil that the first number is the viscosity in the winter, and the second number is the viscosity at 210 degrees F. Example OW-40 is a very easy flowing oil in the winter and yet still maintains 40 weight when the temperature rises. Using synthetics will save the starter motor and battery life while putting your mind at ease at the same time.

With regard to break-in, the same rules applies to four-strokes as it does for two-strokes, although four-strokes are not so finicky. Use the above mentioned procedure for your new four-stroke. My break-in procedure can be done in you garage or driveway, requires no special training or time constraints, and seats the metals very nicely. Usually new sleds are purchased and received way before the snow flies anyway, so a little time on the motor will only serve to help things along. Folks will argue with me on this one, saying that the break-in they do is to “just ride it”. My answer is… its’ your sled! The fate of that machine is in your hands and your hands only!

Special thanks to Ken Chacci at Spectro Oils and Tim Dziok at Sportsman’s Marine for technical assistance on this article.

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