South Africa needs a standards body for lubricants

When it comes to lubrication in South Africa, the lack of recognised and enforceable standards has opened the door wide for ‘snake-oil muti-manufacturers’ who have only profit in mind and not the longevity of the equipment their sub-grade oil must lubricate. It is thus that South Africa urgently needs a VLS writes FleetWatch technical correspondent Dave Scott.

The introduction to this article may seem harsh to some but here’s the facts: Lubrizol, a subsidiary of Warren Buffet’s globally-successful Berkshire Hathaway Group, did a sampling of the local South Africa market and according to their tests:”30% of the oils sampled were off standard.

This meant no conformance to the specification on the packaging, using an incorrect base oil, with incorrect additive levels and viscosity modifiers.”

Lubrizol has been in South Africa since 1961 operating out of its own premises since 1972 in Prospecton KZN. The company supplies custom solutions for select lubricant additive customers in South Africa.

But 30% of the oils sampled off standard! That’s scary! And don’t think because your truck is old that it can get by with sub-standards lubricants. “Aging vehicle hardware still requires the correct lubricant performance profiles,’ say Lubrizol.

So what is a VLS? In South Africa it could be a useful acronym for a ‘Very Large Shove’ which this country needs for establishing recognised and enforceable lubrication standards. In the UK, however, VLS -Verification of Lubrication Standards – is a subsidiary of United Kingdom

Lubricants Association Ltd. It is a membership organisation, funded by its members with each case submitted for verification funded on a case by case basis. Membership is open to any lubricants manufacturer, marketer or associated user or seller who operates within the UK lubricants marketplace. Visit the site at

Admittedly, maintaining standards is a problem, even in the UK.

David Wright, secretary of VLS, has commented in the press that a slew of recent cases of claims suggests that the complex lubricants market requires stringent product validation to maintain high standards. South Africa’s weak position on lube standards is heightened in the transparent activities of VLS in the UK who independently provide a credible and trusted means to verify lubricant specifications.

As FleetWatch has said many times before: “It’s not the price of oil that must be the final arbiter but the cost of lubrication.” However, on the local front, it seems that price does rule under South Africa’s lack of enforceable lubrication standards. As stated above, this has opened the door for the ‘snake-oil mutimanufacturers’.

Standards guarantee lower TCO

Anything goes in the absence of enforceable standards. Inexperience thrives and reliability is compromised. Standards are the foundation of lowering Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).

Hydrocarbon industry expert-0bserver, John Fitton, makes the following comment in the SA Institute of Tribology newsletter:

“To ensure that a machine operates effectively and efficiently, it is critically important that it is lubricated with the correct volume, at the correct time and with the correct quality.”

On a macro-scale, missing standards are not just an automotive industry problem. An Eskom power station can be reduced to bearing failure and load-shedding if moving components are not lubricated to a measurable standard with the correct volume, at the correct time and with the correct quality. And we have all heard -ad nausea – how the lack of maintenance at Eskom plants has led to generation plant failures.

Fitton adds: “Effectively implementing a standards strategy will reduce wear rates and increase the life of the machine, reducing the total cost of ownership. Part of this strategy would be to ensure that the correct specification is being used for the specific machine operating conditions. Often, by using a higher specification product than required, this will result in reduced total cost of ownership and with certain products, a reduction in energy consumption. Care must, however, be taken that the product used meets or exceeds the required specification and has been formulated as such -confirm this!”

Lube standards – an environmental impact

The simple fact is that a subgrade, snake-oil lubricant lacks the correct additives in the correct ratio – and that plays a major role in price. An internationally-branded API Cl-4+ 10W40 engine oil with truck manufacturers’ test compliance and certification -which alone costs millions of US dollars – must compete with backyard blenders that offer no compliance except for an attractive price.

Subgrade lubricants mean more frequent oil changes which, in turn, is an environmental problem because we do not recover all the used oil in the market. In these times of high fuel prices, there is a trend to blending with uncertified biodiesel that impacts on lubrication quality and service intervals. Biodiesel has an even bigger effect on a subgrade lubricant- it’s a vicious circle.

“Truck manufacturers are not happy with biofuel stability and crop quality,” says Lubrizol.

Another big market with a pollutant impact is hydraulic fluid. Not only does expensive equipment perform poorly with subgrade hydraulic fluid, but also hoses burst with consequent downtime.

Wake up South Africa!

The entire industrial and automotive complex of Southern Africa is woefully short of regulation through minimum quality standards for the lubricant industry. The way forward is being pointed out by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) and mandated to set the minimum standard of lubricants that are permitted to be sold in Kenya.

According to a headline feature in Lubezine magazine: ‘Without bodies such as KEBS, the industry in Africa would be suffering immensely from unscrupulous traders who might want to take advantage of consumer ignorance regarding lubricants quality.’

In addition, Lubezine reports that the Energy and Water Utilities Regulatory Authority (EWURA) of Tanzania has officially thrown its weight behind regulating the local lubricants business. According to EWURA, all importers, producers, distributors and sellers of lubricants must register all types of lubricants with the authority. The regulator will not allow any dealer to import, produce or distribute lubricants that have not been registered.

It’s far worse in Nigeria. Lubrizol’s view is that “84% of oils sampled were off spec- lubricants with incorrect viscometries or performance have the potential to damage engine components. Base oil is often sold as an incorrect lubricant solution.”

And finally, from Lubrizol: ‘Products marketed at legacy API performance levels still need quality assurance to preserve brand reputation. Formulations with legacy API performance marketed correctly provide a real-world cost-effective solution meeting developing market needs.’

The good news on the local front is that national lubricant standards are being updated and new SANS codes 1843 and 1517 will be launched shortly. These are considered minimum quality standards for diesel and petrol engines, aligned with the API standards. Hopefully these standards will gain momentum – with your support – ensuring quality lubricants in the market. What is missing from most companies is an oil policy that sets standards for buyers and operations- oil is not just oil.

But, in all this complexity the SA lubricant industry needs an enforceable VLS – Verification of Lubrication Standards.

  • Lubes ‘n’ Greases Europe-Middle East-Africa June 2018
  • David Wright Secretary of Verification of Lubricant Specifications, in the United Kingdom –
  • SA Institute of Tribology – Newsletter April 2018 & June 2018-
  • Lubrizol

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