Fuel additives and cleaners are controversial for service technicians. Many will point to a previous history of using them where the results were not what they wished them to be; or with claims made by some makers of cleaners and additives being less than promised.
Additives and cleaners over the years have improved and the trend in the service industry is to use them judiciously when there is an obvious need and a clear benefit can be had for the vehicle owner. The question is not whether to use them, but when and how to safely use them.
“Most fuel additives are designed to remove deposits,” says Harry Hartkorn, head application engineer at Liqui Moly. “Deposits are inherent to the system of combustion engines and every engine suffers from them sooner or later. They build up in the intake system, in the combustion chamber and in the exhaust system. Common reasons for deposits are short distance trips less than 30 kilometers which do not allow the engine to reach its operating temperature, and substandard fuel quality. Those deposits hamper the proper function of the engine. The newer the engine design, the less tolerant it is towards deposits.
“Additives can be used either as a preventative or to solve existing problems like loss of power, increased fuel consumption, rough idling, and so on. Those problems are not limited to a specific car segment although older cars being driven mostly on short distance trips are more likely to suffer.”
Gork Ma, sales manager at Specchem Inc., distributors of the Bluechem line of engine cleaners and additives agrees such products should be used when engine contaminants are causing performance issues for the vehicle owner. “Bluechem’s Fuel System Cleaner binds and removes moisture from the fuel system while lubricating and cleaning all fuel system components. [It] is recommended every 20,000 kilometers or sooner if drivability issues arise.”
Pat Burrow, technical director with International Lubricants Inc., makers of the Lubegard line of automotive engine cleaners and additives, says questions of when a cleaner or additive should be used often come about when vehicle owners look to prevent problems from fuels that may not meet OEM requirements for their engine. “Fuel in North America contains [anywhere between] 10-15 per cent ethanol. For this reason and the advent of direct injection engines, the use of fuel additives and cleaning agents has become a necessary part of vehicle maintenance.”
“One of the biggest problems with ethanol is reduced storage life of the fuel,” Burrow explains. “The fuel/ethanol blend has a 90-day product life in a closed fuel tank. Vehicles that are not driven frequently – seasonal vehicles, collector vehicles, etc. – can have problems with ‘bad’ fuel in as little as three months. This is also true of hybrids that primarily run on battery and only consume a limited amount of fuel as a back-up energy source.”
In a vehicle’s carburetor, or in port injection or direct injection engines, current fuel blends can create problems that can be addressed by service technicians with periodic cleanings that removes the carbon deposits that are often left behind on intake manifolds, valves and injectors.
The question then becomes how safe are these cleaners and additives. Some technicians remember when cleaners and additives caused more problems than they claimed to fix. In those days, the solvents used to clean an engine and improve its performance would often not fully break down the built-up contaminants. It would leave behind large pieces that would get pushed through the engine, resulting in damaged components. Sometimes the solvents would damage critical engine seals, pumps and injectors.
Bluechem’s Ma says Bluechem’s fuel system cleaner is made to protect against those possibilities as its formulation breaks down deposits enough that “they can be safely burned through regular combustion without clogging or fouling sensors and filters. Bluechem’s philosophy is to first lubricate, then clean.”
Ma claims that Bluechem’s oil system cleaner uses advanced detergents and dispersants to break down sludge, varnish and carbon around the ring areas and throughout the oil system to restore compression and performance to a vehicle’s engine. “[It] does not contain any simple alcohols so it will not dry out seals. In fact, we have special additives to help restore elastomer and seal performance. [The oil system cleaner] is added to the used oil and the engine is run for fifteen minutes. The technician then continues to perform the oil change service. Using the engine’s heat and pressure, contamination in the oil system is broken down and evacuated through the oil change process.”
“Fuel system additives perform several different tasks depending on what the technician is trying to achieve,” adds International Lubricants’ Burrow. “Some only clean and some only stabilize fuel. They are safe to use as required maintenance in the case of direct injection engines in order to maintain performance. Lubegard Fuel System Booster is unique because it is a three-in-one fuel system cleaner, lubricator and fuel stabilizer.”
Burrow continues that the fuel system booster contains a proprietary polyether amine detergent technology that is highly concentrated and performs well in all types of intake systems. “It also contains a proprietary FLA additive that provides lubrication of the fuel pumps and injectors improving oxidative stability and lubricity.”
“If the engine has been serviced on a regular basis, performing the flush with a mild, non-solvent based product such as Lubegard Engine Flush will safely remove varnish and deposits,” continues Burrow. “Add Lubegard Engine Flush to the engine reservoir sump and start the vehicle. Allow to run until operating temperature is reached. Shut down and immediately drain used fluid while still hot. The varnish and contaminants will flow out with the used fluid. Any flush that remains will cause no damage (unlike solvent based flushes) and the fresh fluid will not be affected or damaged by any residual flush remaining in the system. [It] is formulated using detergent and dispersant agents that clean in a manner that will not damage seals or cause large amounts of contaminant to accumulate in clumps. The detergents displace the varnish and deposits holding them in suspension in the used fluid until drained at the end of a warm-up period.”
Ma says any vehicle will benefit from regular injector and combustion chamber cleaning. “However, with today’s direct injection engines, it is increasingly imperative to keep the combustion chamber, valves and injectors free from contamination.” When used as part of a regular maintenance schedule, Bluechem’s pressurized cleaning systems are made to target the injectors and combustion chambers through the intake valves and will help “restore the vehicle performance back to the manufacturer’s [engine] specifications.”
“When performing a flush on any engine it is necessary to know the service history,” Burrow’s adds.
“High mileage engines that have been neglected can be a big problem if the technician tries to use an aggressive flush (such as solvent based product) to remove the sludge and deposits. Very often the end result is an engine that starts to experience problems like leaking seals and improper function.
“Make sure the customer understands the possible negative results before flushing a high mileage unmaintained unit. If the engine has been neglected and there are heavy deposits of sludge it can be difficult to remove once it is displaced. Sometimes the sludge is holding things together and the end result of an aggressive solvent based flush is leaking seals and clogged passages and filters.”
“Of course, it is important to stick to the instruction,” adds Liqui Moly’s Hartkorn. “It is similar to medicine: the dosage makes the venom. Applied in the proper manner, additives are completely safe and there is not even a small risk of damaging the engine.
“Additives are both a problem solver and a problem preventer. Workshops can gain additional turnover by applying additives in a preventative manner [during] regular maintenance. A continuous cleaning is more effective than removing heavily built-up deposits later on.”