Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2004   by John G. Smith

Acceptance of Extended-Life Coolants Growing

Colour confusion remains, but underlying technology more important.

There’s one coolant-related question that Dave Anderson hears several times a month. Forget the queries about chemistry, debates about which long-life coolant is best, or questions about cost. The shops calling Carquest Auto Parts in Barrie, Ont. are more likely to wonder whether they can “put green stuff in where the orange is coming out.”

So much for in-depth product knowledge.

“It’s probably going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” Anderson says, referring to the generation of vehicles that was factory-filled with extended-life antifreeze and coolant. Many of those cars and trucks are only now coming into shops for their first flushes and fills. And technicians still have to learn that they can add a traditional green coolant to a reservoir filled with GM’s orange-coloured Dex-Cool, as long as they’re willing to sacrifice the latter coolant’s long-life properties.

If shops are confused by their options, imagine the end users.

Today’s extended-life coolants may last as long as five years, but the trade-off has been a confusing selection of formulas and their respective colours, from GM orange, Ford yellow and BMW blue to the recently introduced Toyota purple.

And yet another category has emerged. Peak has unveiled its one-jug-fits-all Global Extended Life Antifreeze and Coolant, with an amber formula that can top up any reservoir without affecting the properties of existing coolants. Prestone will introduce a pale green single-jug offering in July, while its Celsius counterpart will be unveiled for shops in the fall.

The Market

There is little question that long-life coolants are more effective than their green predecessors, but conventional antifreeze still accounts for 90% of aftermarket coolant sales. Extended-life mixtures account for 9% of purchases, and propylene glycol accounts for the rest, says Craig Gullet of Old World Industries, which markets the Peak brand.

One of the biggest areas of growth is linked to the 50/50 pre-mixed solutions that already include the appropriate amount of de-ionized water.

According to Peak, about 73% of antifreeze/coolant sales are used for top-ups, although 37% of consumers mistakenly use straight coolant, reducing the related heat transfer, or simply add water, depleting the inhibitors that prevent corrosion.

The fact that most retail shelves are still crammed with bottles of green coolants is further proof that consumers are uninformed, Gullett says. If they had been embracing superior long-life formulas, the overall market for antifreeze and coolant would be shrinking because of the longer periods between fills –instead, the market has been relatively flat for several years. “(And) if people are buying that product, you would see more of it on the shelf.”

Most consumers won’t think of doing anything more than a top-up, since modern cooling systems can face airlock problems, adds Dr. Dave Turcotte, technical director for Valvoline’s Zerex brand. “I don’t think (most) people are doing it at home in the garage anymore.”

But when consumers approach shops for their inevitable flushes and fills, the sale of long-life formulas may simply be a matter of outlining related features and benefits, perhaps by building a pallet display with a simple sign asking whether they’ve recently checked the fluids.

Consumers may be further confused about their choices because they don’t have much of an “emotional attachment” to coolants, Gullett suggests. It comes down to how often they see each other. Buyers are closer to their motor oil because they change it three or four times a year. With antifreeze, you’re lucky if they’re thinking about it every two or three years.

Ron Carey of Thiessen Auto Parts in Thompson, Man., admits that he’s less likely to run into confusion over different colours. “There are not a lot of imports up here,” he says. But he sees the use of a long-life coolant as a simple sale.

“It’s not that big a price difference,” he says. “If the long-life was four or five times the price, they might balk at it.”

“I’ve never had a customer ask me, ‘Exactly what type of coolant are you going to use?'” adds David Armstrong of Armstrong Garage in Georgetown, Ont.

The Chemistry

But the differences in coolants don’t begin and end with colours.

Traditional green coolants have inhibitor packages of silicates, phosphates and nitrates to keep ferrous metals from corroding, but these inhibitors tend to deplete more quickly than the carboxylates found in Organic Acid Technology (OAT) formulas, explains Aleksei Gershun, a senior research scientist at Honeywell, which markets Prestone.

By 1995, Volkswagen and General Motors were abandoning their traditional coolants in favour of the longer life that came with an OAT, with GM’s orange formula becoming known as Dex-Cool and offering the “DexCool-approved” stamp to other coolants that were blended with “the right herbs and spices,” says Prestone’s Megan Currie.

Ford and Chrysler later turned to Hybrid Organic Acid Technology (HOAT) coolants that mixed silicates into the OAT, to offer additional protection against corrosion and create five-year drain intervals. The trade-off was a potential mileage that was lower than the 250,000-km life promised by an OAT coolant. (Still, several class action lawsuits in the U.S. claim that Dex-Cool breaks down much earlier than that, and leads to corrosion problems; GM counters that the life of the coolant can be affected by operating conditions such as environment and terrain.)

Don’t Mix Long-Life

Automakers also tend to balk at any thought of mixing different long-life coolants. Ford has actually added “no orange” stickers to its expansion bottles to prevent OAT formulas from being mixed with the HOAT that it prefers. And GM suggested in a recent service bulletin that it would void cooling system warranties if someone decided to use anything other than Dex-Cool.

OAT products are not appropriate for protecting aluminum components from the cavitation-related corrosion that can damage water pumps and aluminum cylinder heads, explains Turcotte, referring to why orange mixtures shouldn’t be added to engines that ask for HOAT. And the coolant will also “aggressively” attack the solder used in copper and brass radiators.

HOAT might mix into an OAT reservoir with fewer problems, but its use may void the warranties associated with some cooling system components, he adds.

While Turcotte agrees that shops shouldn’t need to stock every available colour, Valvoline has stopped short of introducing a single-bottle solution. Instead, most shops could stock just two types of coolants: an OAT formula for GMs, Asian models and most European makes, and a HOAT formula to cover Ford, Chrysler, Mercedes and John Deere, he says. The latter option can even be used in diesel engines because of the nitrates that can protect against liner pitting. “And you can replace the green coolant with (Ford’s) G05.”

It’s just a matter of familiarizing yourself with the differences.

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