People often wonder if they should be using synthetic oil in their vehicles. Synthetic oil is better than regular oil for a lot of different reasons – it’s a better lubricant, it maintains integrity at high temperatures, it’s fairly pure, and it rarely turns into sludge (even when it’s abused). To many, the obvious benefits of synthetic oil lead them to conclude they should start using it ASAP. However, despite synthetic oil’s benefits, it really depends on how you take care of your car.
To start with, do you change your oil regularly? Oil needs to be changed before it breaks down and puts your engine at risk. But if you’re good at changing your oil on time every 3-5k miles, you’ll never experience one of the benefits of synthetic oil. Synthetic is resistant to breaking down, even after extended use. If you forget an oil change for instance, or even if you just put one off for a few weeks, synthetic is the best oil to have in your engine. But if you’re changing your oil regularly and at the proper mileage you’ll never be in a situation where your engine is at risk from worn-out oil.
Another benefit of synthetic is that it will last a long time without deteriorating. For instance, let’s say you drive 7k miles per year. At that rate, assuming a 5k mile oil change interval, you’re only going to need an oil change every 9 months (based on mileage). Since regular oil starts to break down after 6 months (even when unused), you should either change your oil sooner than necessary or you should think about using synthetic. It may save you money to pay for one synthetic oil change a year instead of two regular oil changes, and it will definitely save you time.
Other than synthetic’s breakdown resistance and long life, there’s one other common reason you should consider using synthetic. As natural oil gets hot, it starts to breakdown. The longer it stays hot, the worse the breakdown. So, if you regularly operate your vehicle in such a way that the engine temperature is always high, you should run synthetic. Letting your vehicle idle for hours at a time (like on a jobsite) will overheat the engine, as would driving in high ambient temperatures (like the desert) or at high altitudes (over 10k feet). As a rule, high temperature desert air doesn’t cool your engine very well, and neither does “thin” mountain air. If you live in these areas, consider running synthetic oil. Finally, synthetic oil is often used in high performance vehicles. If you are utilizing your vehicle like a high-performance car (high speeds, fast turns, you know who you are) then synthetic is a smart choice.
There are a lot of entities that recommend using synthetic oil, even for people that don’t need it. For example, synthetic is recommended for anyone that drives in stop-and-go traffic. Since all of us drive in stop-and-go at some point, that’s a bad recommendation. You should only use synthetic if you’re driving in stop and go traffic long enough for your engine’s cooling fan to turn on and only if you’re doing so daily. Also, if you drive short trips only, people may recommend synthetic oil as a way to protect you engine. However, short trips, regardless of your choice of oil, can damage your motor. No matter whether you use synthetic or regular oil, your engine was designed to be ran for at least 20 minutes. Running synthetic in these situations might be better, but tests have shown the benefit is minor.
If you determine that one of the above situations applies to you, take care when you purchase synthetic oil. Many places will suggest a synthetic blend as a way to save money (instead of full-synthetic), however the “blend” is often times a mystery. Maybe you’re getting a 50-50 blend, or maybe you’re getting 1% synthetic and 99% regular oil. My recommendation is to go full synthetic or not to bother with it – unless the blend suggested is provided and produced by your vehicle’s manufacturer.
Last but not least, what do auto manufacturers have to say about synthetics? Most state that “any oil that meets API standard specifications can be used in your vehicle.” That means normal oil is just fine. For most people, their vehicles will operate for a very long time without the benefit of synthetic oil as long as they are properly maintained and used normally.