Detailed Guide : Synthetic or Conventional Oil?

Editor@Throttle|Updated: May 30, 2018 8:57
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The great debate on synthetic or conventional oil is going on for ages. But there is no specific answer to these questions as the choice depends on a lot of parameters like climate, weather conditions, type of bike etc.
Oil is an important part of the maintenance cost as it is required to lubricate all moving parts of a motorcycle. The performance of your machine depends on it. Hence it is necessary to choose wisely for proper lubrication and optimum performance.
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Basically there are three modes of lubrication :

1) Hydrodynamic lubrication or full film: In this mode, the movement of  parts and the viscosity of the oil are good enough to drag enough oil into the loaded zone fast enough to completely separate the parts (crank journal and bearing, piston ring and cylinder wall, cam lobe and tappet) by a full film of lubricant. Friction is very low—almost 0.001 times the applied load.


2) Mixed lubrication. This is the situation in which the load is partly supported by an oil film, and partly supported by actual contact between the parts. This can occur during start-up, before pumped oil reaches all parts, or it can occur under very heavy load, or when oil viscosity is too low or motion of parts is too slow to generate a full oil film.


3) Boundary lubrication. When the oil film is squeezed out, the load must be supported by actual contact between the parts. While undesirable, this is not as bad as it sounds. Modern oils contain surface-active additives that either bond oil-like molecules to surfaces (so-called “oiliness” or “lubricity”) or form solid layers of fairly low-friction materials on parts. Such chemically bonded additive layers offer  lower friction than the damaging weld-and-tear action of true metal-to-metal contact. 


In full-film lubrication, it is only the viscosity of the oil, combined with the motion of the parts, that supports the load. Thus, any oil of the viscosity specified by the engine manufacturer can do the job, and in this respect, a synthetic oil is no better than petroleum oil.


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What are conventional/synthetic oils?

A mineral or synthetic definition refers to the base oil that makes up about 75 to 80 percent of each liter of oil. The other 20 to 25 percent of the bottle are additives like anti-foaming agents, viscosity modifiers, and friction modifiers. Nearly all additives are synthesized in a lab, but they’re not considered when categorizing an oil. It’s the base oil that makes the difference, and they are grouped based on their characteristics and composition.


Group I, Group II, and Group III oils are derived from crude oil that is pumped out of the ground, while group IV and Group V oils are synthetic, meaning they are concocted in a lab from chemically modified materials. Group IV is reserved for a specific type of chemistry called Polyalphaolefins, or PAOs. Group V includes a pretty wide range of chemistries, but the most popular Group-V synthetics are esters. So the base determines whether an oil is conventional or mineral.




Advantages and Disadvantages of Conventional/Synthetic Oils

Conventional oil has been there for a long time and offers great lubrication. It takes less effort to a finished product, thus making it cheap and an affordable option. But this oil contains a variety of different molecules as well as some lingering contaminants like sulfur. Basically, that means this oil is less chemically stable than synthesized oil so it is more easily oxidized and acidified and can break down more quickly under extreme use ( high temperatures, high speeds etc)
Synthetic oil consists of uniform molecules that are specifically tailored to serve as a performance lubricant. That means it does a better job of reducing wear and holds up better under extreme use. This makes them tad costly.

Synthetic oils definitely hold an advantage in cold-weather conditions. High-viscosity conventional oils simply don’t flow in cold temperatures, and even low-weight conventional oils stop flowing at around 34 degrees Fahrenheit.


Synthetic oil will flow at minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit, a serious advantage if you live in a cold climate. Almost all of the wear in your engine occurs during start-up. If you live in a cold climate and you fire up your bike from time to time during the winter months, you could be doing some serious damage to your engine. 


Synthetic oils also perform well in high temperatures. Some synthetic oils can offer protection at temperatures up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Conventional oils tend to fail at around 270 degrees, although this is seldom an issue since bikes normally run under the 270 mark. But if you have a bike that runs low oil pressure, and could touch the 270 mark on occasion, you should definitely consider using synthetic oil.


The type of bike you ride is also a major consideration when choosing oil. For instance, if you ride a motorcycle that uses the same oil for the clutch as it does for the engine, conventional oil is the way to go. That’s because synthetic oils are “slippery,” for lack of a better word. This can cause major problems with a clutch, because clutches need some friction in order to work properly.


With newer motorcycles, manufacturers recommend using synthetic motorcycle oil. However, this doesn't have as much to do with the oil as the type of engine that is going into. In fact, there are still several motorcycle manufacturers that recommend standard or regular motorcycle oil for some of their motorcycles. The motorcycle engine oil that you will need for your bike's motor will depend usually upon 2 factors: the displacement of the engine and the actual engine type.


Generally speaking, lower displacement engines in the past were made with 2 stroke or 2 cycle engines. 2-stroke engines don't actually store engine oil and the oil is continuously burnt off as it is kept running through the engine in a continuous cycle. Therefore, it is necessary to frequently add small amounts of oil to a 2-stroke engine. Therefore, many manufacturers of bike with 2-stroke engines recommend the use of standard engine oil (actually you should use whatever is one sale with these types of engines and don't worry about mixing and matching).


On the other hand, 4 stroke engines are similar to those in a car in that they have a reservoir that stores engine oil and only cycles it as it is needed. Because the engine oil can sit in a reservoir for long periods of time, synthetic motorcycle oil is often suggested because of its superior resistance to breaking down at cooler temperatures or when not being used. So, simply put, if you have an older 2-stroke engine, use regular oil. If you have a larger engine that uses a 4 stroke design, use synthetic.


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It is best recommended to use the manufacturer's manual in choosing the types of oil. Changing the oil at regular intervals aids in proper maintenance. In most cases synthetic oil is the best choice. Conventional oil is fine for those riders who live in a mild climate, change their oil like clockwork, and ride a bike that uses the motor oil to bathe the clutch. For the rest of us, our bike is best served by spending the extra on the synthetic oils.