A Look at Additives: Are They Worth A Try?

A few years ago, Carroll Shelby said he wouldn’t recommend zMAX unless he knew it worked. In this day and age of incessant paid sponsorship, that kind of bold talk should be taken with a grain of salt, be it from the “Godfather of Pony Cars” or otherwise. While Shelby personally endorses zMax – although he’s said to have refused paid sponsorship from the brand – that doesn’t boil down to cool, hard facts to you and me.

When it comes to additives, it seems like anyone can claim anything they want. That makes evaluating additives – like zMax, difficult. In the interests of full disclosure, zMAX is an advertiser. However, we also wanted to look into the product and evaluate it’s merit.

Put It To The Test

Oil and additive tests are usually performed by independent agencies, specifically the API (American Petroleum Institute), SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) and ASTM (American Society For Testing and Materials) Lab.

Moreover, the tests are complicated, time-consuming and expensive; the SAE J1321 “Procedure I or II Fuel Economy Test” in particular, costs $80,000 to perform. This test is used to determine whether a product actually saves fuel mileage, performed in running vehicles where the fuel usage for each test is accurately measured by weighing the fuel.

zMax told us they spent some big loot: $4.5 million dollars testing their products, including eleven individual tests performed by the SAE and ASTM alone. Tested using the Aujer Electron Spectroscopy Test, zMax was noted as soaking into metal 82% deeper that standard motor oil.

zMAX told us that it begins life as a pure petroleum product, modified by a proprietary reclamation process that is designed to stretch the hydrocarbons into a linear hot-dog shape, rather than an round shape. When the metal warms up, these new linear hydrocarbons are engineered to permeate the porous surface of the metal, as all machined surfaces have jagged edges at the molecular level. According to zMax, they argue that this micro lubrication moves in and smooths out the edges. This in turn would cool the surface of the metal because it creates a better barrier for friction.

According to zMAX, it’s not an oil replacement or additive, it is micro-lubrication. Ed Rachanski Jr., Director of Manufacturing and Technical Consultant for zMAX explained that this is the difference between itself and other lubricants is because it is not really an additive; it’s a pure micro-lubricant. This is an important distinction because unless an additive is tested and rated by the SAE, ASTM, and API, adding that chemical to the oil voids the oil’s API certification.

zMax's micro-lubricant claims to be beneficial in removing built-up deposits on pistons, rings, valves, and injectors when applied accordingly.

This is one of the main reasons the OEMs suggest that you don’t use additives, as they can change the formulation of the oil. Additives “enhance” the oil with solids and other chemicals.

This “reformulated oil” is a new oil that doesn’t have any of the testing and validation of the original oil, leaving you really not knowing what the oil is doing.

“PTFE (Teflon) and chlorine are commonly used in additives,“ said Rachanski. “zMAX doesn’t use those, therefore zMAX doesn’t void the API certification.”

How It All Began

Joe Lencki was racing Offenhauser engines at Indy. Back then, starting the engine was a dangerous proposition. By the time the engine builds up oil pressure, where the splash lubrication becomes effective, the camshaft profiles were already damaged. This necessitated squirting oil by hand onto the camshaft to protect the engine at start up. This is the true meaning of a dry start. Joe started working with oil, playing with the molecular structure. He came upon a mixture he called the “Speedway Cocktail” and began using it in his engines.

Skip forward to WWII, where Lencki was a supervisor at a Dodge plant in Chicago, building B-29 bombers. This is where he met Enrico Fermi, the director of the Manhattan Project. Working with Fermi, Joe improved his formula and brought it to market in 1947.

Lots of Applications

The addition of a micro-lubricant like zMAX allows for a variety of applications, allowing it to work with oil, fuel, and transmission fluids.

When applied to engines requiring a heavier weight oil – commonly understood to suffer significant wear and tear – zMAX is designed to protect the metal from future wear while adding additional friction-reducing properties to the oil.

In an image provided by zMax, we can see the valve on left - claimed to have been treated with zMAX - compared to the valve on the right was not, shows far less topical discoloring and wear even though these two engines had the same amount run time.

It bears noting that zMAX does not replace the oils and fluids, it is solely an additive that assists in preventing internal wear.

Due to the flexibility of anti-wear additives such as zMax, these products also work in diesel and small-engine applications, as well as turbochargers. In heavy use or top performance applications, the center shaft of the turbo has a tendency to heat soak and distort when left to “cook” in the oil once the engine has shut off.

The Super Soaker

Unlike several other additives that raise the fluid level, zMAX claims it will initially, but over time will return to normal because of its ability to soak into the metal itself, a claim backed by the aforementioned Aujer Electron Spectroscopy Test results.

With a 12-oz bottle, zMax states that it takes about 1,000 miles or 30-hours to “fully soak into the metal,” or return to a normal fluid level. It is all based on heat cycles. The hot cycle weeps out the lubricant while the cold cycle draws it in.

Commonly, it takes several heat cycles for the fluid level to resettle. With a previously untreated or heavily broken-in engine, zMax expresses that the first bottle is a “sacrificial lamb,” being used to clean out the deposits. There will be some penetration into the metal, but much of that first bottle will be used for cleaning, as the second treatment will be exclusively for treating the metal surfaces.

“We recommend that you use zMAX every 6 months or 6,000 miles,” Rachanski continued. ”This maintains the protection provided by zMAX.”

Breaking-In Without Breaking

zMAX suggests that it is a good choice for break-in, or actually using in during the assembly process. This begins by placing the parts on a cookie sheet and heating them to 200-degrees in an electric (not gas) until the parts reach 200. Next, the parts are taken out of the oven and sprayed with raw zMAX (from a squirt bottle) and allowed to cool. Then the engine could be assembled with 5% zMAX in the assembly oil.

According to zMax’s own private testing, the results of impregnating all of the engine components bore some interesting results; particularly when compared against equally assembled – but untreated – engines, both in the way of performance and longevity.

zMAX told us they also were one of the first commercial pure lubricants to be approved by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) for use in piston-engine aircraft. In the early 1970s, the Chicago Manufacturing Engineering branch for the Great Lakes Region along with WGN radio in Chicago (Excetuive Helicopter provided the maintenance for the helicopters) tested Enstrom lycholming HIO-360 C1C engines to increase the teardown rate and reduce the number of replaced cylinders.

In zMax’s testing, helicopter engines using zMAX showed better ring seal throughout their 1,000 hour teardown cycles. Before AVblend, the technicians were replacing cylinders within 365 hours of teardown. Under FAA Manufacturer Engineers supervision, these helicopters were tested with AVBlend. The .0015-.0018 was the typical valve guide wear, with AVblend (the aerospace zMAX brand) showed .0001 wear.

While that sounds like a lot of math, the next time you’re at the parts counter, remember this: the guy behind counter really doesn’t know what works, only what the boss tells him to push that week. Whether you’re looking at a bottle of zMax or the bottle next to it, be sure you do your homework and check into the test results. We’re not going to tell you to try the additive or not – but make sure you know what you’re putting in your oil, and make a smart decision – before you tip the bottle.

About the author

Jefferson Bryant

It is almost terrifying the breadth of Jefferson's technical abilities. A fabricator, master technician, engine builder, paint and body guy, dirt track racer, road course driver, or a glossy magazine reporter, Jefferson can do it all. Oh yeah, he's also a YouTube hero.
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