Oil's well that ends well
Ocean Navigator|May/June 2020
Oil is oil, right? Wrong! Have you experienced the dread of searching for the correct engine oil in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language?
JOHN KETTLEWELL

Your little pocket dictionary won’t have the translation for, “I need API CJ-4 15W-40 diesel oil.” Pointing at the bottle on the shelf might work, but be sure you are pointing at the correct container!

To complicate matters, outside of North America you will find different prominent codes on the container related to other standards organizations like the ACEA (Association des Constructeurs Européens d’Automobiles), and you may see manufacturer specific codes as well. Luckily, major oil suppliers tend to include a wide variety of codes on their labels, but you may find it to be information overkill.

A typical oil label on the back of popular Shell Rimula diesel oil (found widely outside of the U.S.) might look something like this:

“SAE Viscosity Grade: 15W-40.

API CI-4, CG-4, CF-4, CF; ACEA E7, E5; Global DHD-1, Cummins CES 20071, 72, 76, 77, 78; Cat ECF1-A; DDC 93K215; Mack EO-M, EO-M+; MAN 3275; MB Approval 228.3; Renault Trucks RLD-2; Volvo VDS-3.”

Left, marine diesel engines are impressive machines, but without the proper oil, they will not operate as intended. Below, a photo of the oil page from John Kettlewell’s engine manual that he keeps on his phone for reference when buying oil.

What does it mean, and how do you find the correct oil for your engine, or does it matter at all? Addressing the last question first: Yes, it matters. But, depending on the type of engine, its age and what type of oil it was originally spec’d for, you can probably get away with a variety of oils that might not be ideal but likely won’t do any major damage. Notice all the caveats in that last sentence. No, it is not a good idea to stray far from the manufacturer’s guidelines — but yes, you may have to when tied up to the only fish boat dock with supplies of diesel oil.

Reading comprehension

The place to start is in the engine handbook that came with your new motor, which hopefully you have a copy of. If your vessel’s engine dates from the last decade or so, the recommendations might align pretty well wit the labels on oil bottles. H if you have an older boat, don’t be surprised if the official oil information doesn’t really match up with what you can purchase today.

For example, my Perkins diesel dates from 1978 and the engine handbook lists such things as Shell Rotella TX in 20W/20 or 20W/40, both of which are obsolete and no longer available. Plus, it only lists some MIL specs and nothing about API or ACEA stuff. You are unlikely to find MIL specs listed on a bottle of oil today.

Should you go hunting for antique engine oil? Obviously that is impractical, and in fact would be detrimental to your engine. Like many technologies, engine oil quality and performance have advanced significantly in the last 40 years. If you go direct to Perkins, or to many other major diesel engine companies, you will find them recommending their own brand of 15W-40 oil with a CI-4 or CJ-4 designation for a wide variety of engine sizes and types. The particular brand is less important than the API code and weight numbers.

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