Auto Service World
Feature   February 1, 2004   by Auto Service World

Confusion Colouring Coolant Market

Variety of standards, colours, and compatibility concerns vexing coolant-antifreeze market.

Antifreeze-coolant is seldom at the top of mind of consumers, so some misunderstandings are inevitable, but the growing number of types are making them harder even for aftermarket professionals to keep straight.

“When counterpeople are confused, you know the consumer is confused,” says Ed Powderly, in marketing for Old World Indus-tries, makers of Peak antifreeze-coolant. “It is not a top-of-mind category and we know that there is confusion in the marketplace. A lot of the confusion concerns the Japanese, Asian, and European automobiles, because those manufacturers don’t publish the specifications.”

This is in contrast to the domestic manufacturers. General Motors, for example, created the Dex-Cool brand name to distinguish those products from other formulations on the market.

Since then, however, the whole situation has exploded. Dex-Cool’s trademark orange may have been the first significant domestic departure from the telltale green of regular antifreeze-coolant, but the number of colours being used today highlights a whole spectrum of new issues.

“The market now is so fragmented,” says Dennis Favaro, Valvoline Canada, makers of the Zerex brand. “There is a lot of misapplication going on.”

Colours on the market range from the mostly obsolete green, to orange, amber, pink, red and blue. The trouble is that different colours don’t always mean different formulations, and they don’t indicate compatibility. The colour is the decision of the company, for the most part, and the biggest offenders on the colour front are the car manufacturers–who, some think, use colour as a way to drive customers back to the dealer.

Dave Turcotte, technical director for coolant products at Valvoline, says that the range of product types isn’t nearly as broad as the rainbow of colours would lead one to believe.

“For light vehicles, there are really three basic types: Inorganic Acid Technology (IAT), which is the green stuff. Organic acid technology (OAT), which is Dex-Cool and products like VW G12. These additives protect for a long time, but they aren’t as protective as the older green stuff.

“And there is hybrid organic acid technology (HOAT).” The latter, says Turcotte, is the latest technology to find its way into the cooling systems of many vehicles, and is generally referred to as G-05.

Turcotte says that the typical service outlet really needs just three types of coolant in stock to cover the whole light vehicle population, but suggests that there may be more to the colour range than just marketing.

“Different manufacturers want different colours for different reasons. Some people have overflow bottles that darken with age, so they want a dark colour [so the level can be seen]. Some people want a proprietary colour; others want it to be more generic.

“The colour is the prerogative of the manufacturer. BMW used to be yellow, and then they made a global decision to go with blue. The chemistry of the coolant didn’t change.”

Keeping colours in mind is difficult even for manufacturers. Compatibility of chemistry is one thing; keeping coolant from looking like a brown mess after a top-up another. Peak Global Extended Life Antifreeze & Coolant, for example, is compatible with Dex-Cool and G-05 products, but is coloured light amber to minimize colour change in the coolant already in the system.

The danger (if one wants to call it that) is that consumers will either abdicate responsibility and rely solely on the original equipment channel, or give up hope of figuring out what the right one is for their car and just grab the cheapest thing on the shelf.

“First of all, we have to say that people should follow the recommendation of the manufacturer,” says Neal Pankey, marketing manager Zerex. “On the flip side, we need to do a better job of point of sale material. We realize that if they are good consumers they are changing their antifreeze every two years or so, but that still doesn’t keep your mind fresh.

“They very often just buy the cheapest and don’t recognize what they’re doing.”

“It is an engine-critical fluid and you could trash a multi-thousand-dollar engine if you don’t use the right stuff.”

Megan Currie, Prestone marketing manager, Honeywell Consumer Products Group, says that the onus is increasingly on the professional in the field to steer the customer in the right direction.

“There is a lot of confusion in the market right now. A lot of people don’t know what kind of coolant is in their car. They are relying on their local garages and car dealers for the right answers.”

She says that the company’s hotline is receiving a lot of calls from consumers about compatibility and colours. And getting the message out about long-life antifreeze continues to be an issue.

“It is really those longer-life antifreezes that, as a category, are more of a mix and match than they have been in the past. It is the colours that really trip people up.”

Currie says that in addition to the proliferation of colour, the pre-mix, or ready-to-use, option is another issue for consumers and professionals to be aware of. A pre-mixed antifreeze-coolant is a great option for Canadians to use as a top-up–it keeps the concentrations and freeze protection where they should be–but service providers should be careful not to accidentally dilute the already diluted mixture when a consumer offers their bottle for top-up service. (Yes, this does happen, resulting in a half-frozen slushy mess, or worse.)

Currie says that, with so many types available, a jobber may find even he is confused. The jobber must first understand, then take steps to “declutter” the offering, she says.

In the end, the goal of those professionals working at the parts store counter and in the service bay is to communicate this point to the consumer: whether you’re talking about blue, orange, red, pink, or green, when it comes to coolant, it may still be a red herring.

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