Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2008   by J. D. Ney With Files From Andrew Ross

Ensuring Your Coolant Handles The Heat

Jobbers and technicians generally have to deal with their coolant needs quickly–often so quickly that the current proliferation of coolant types and specifications goes unnoticed in the heat of the moment.

However, there are significantly more complex issues to consider beyond the colour of this important fluid. From the continuing local-versus-global debate, water issues, and finally government disposal regulations, the coolantmarket–as always–is taking some heat.

How Global is Global?

Among the purists who feel that technicians and jobbers should use only specific coolants for specific applications is Dennis Favaro, product manager for Valvoline Canada.

“We’re pushing OEM-driven product application and we adhere to it pretty strongly,” he says. “As engines become more finely engineered and exotic, there is a need to test the coolants with the metallurgy of the engine components and other materials. There is a reason why oil is so specific, and as a lifeblood of your car, coolant is no different.” Favaro goes on to note that jobbers immediately balk at the idea of swapping specific oils or other fluids for generic ones, but often do just that with coolant. “Why do you sell Honda-specific power steering fluid, but not [brand-]specific coolant?” he asks.

However, despite some objections from traditional manufacturers, jobbers seem to be responding to the reliability of global coolants, as well as the overall cost benefits to their own business.

“We’ve gone to a global coolant mostly out of a cost decision,” says Kevin Terrio, owner of Crescent Auto Supplies in Sackville, New Brunswick. “Some coolants have priced themselves right out of our market, and being 25 minutes away from the closest major city, global coolant is also a convenience issue for people here,” he says.

However, other jobbers who also prefer the global coolant route say there is still some business to be had in terms of specific applications, particularly at the beginning of the warmer months.

“We’re seeing some increased sales of the old green stuff because of the old cars and the classics coming out of storage,” says Tim Hughes, manager of a NAPA store in Kingston, Ontario. “What’s nice is that most of those sales are walk-in retail sales, and these guys are the purists. They probably don’t have to change their coolant, and can probably use the global product, but this car is their baby.”

Despite some differences around the edges, jobbers unanimously agree on the difficulty with margins associated with the coolant business, and say that it is the associated products that keep the segment viable. “You don’t make any margin on coolant,” says Terrio. “You almost give it away so that the customer will help himself to something else; it’s like providing a service,” he says.

Hughes agrees. “We’re dealing with pretty narrow margins– not as bad as washer fluid with its cost of delivery, but if all you’re sending to the shop is antifreeze, you’re almost better off if the guy had called someone else,” he says. “But most guys are pretty good about selling the companion products that go along with a full fluid service.”

In support of those jobbers, there are some manufacturers of global coolants that say their product isn’t the bogeyman it’s made out to be. “There have been a lot of changes over the years with global coolant, and the technology is improving,” says Peter Liang, regional sales manger with Recochem Inc., a major supplier of private-label coolant across the country. “We’ve got the formulation experience as well as the testing results to prove that our product meets the specifications of all makes and all models.” In fact, Liang goes on to mention that the Recochem product has yet to be implicated in a single coolant system failure.

Even with all of the positives though, one point to watch carefully is claims related to OE specifications. Favaro is quick to point out the subtle difference in language used to describe OE suitability. “There are ‘meets,’ and ‘approved,’ and they are two different things,” he says. “For example, to meet specifications it is a matter of blending a recipe, but for us to get approved for Dex-Cool, we had to undergo a five-calendar year fleet test.”

Liang, too, has seen some spurious claims made in the global coolant business, particularly in the extended-life area. “There are all kinds of people coming out with long-life or extended-life coolant that are not really meeting the claims,” he says. In order to ensure you get the right product, he says, your best bet is to do your buying from a reputable source. “Be careful of the guys selling coolant off the street. There are some very good and reputable sources out there. If you stay with the major players in the aftermarket, they all have reputations to uphold and are not going to want to jeopardize that.”

Liang also mentions that no coolant is any good, regardless of its global or specific applications status, if the job is not done right. “If you’re using any coolant and you want it to work, we always recommend a proper flush and fill, and using de-ionized water to mix.” In fact, it is that water component that is often overlooked.

It’s All In Your Water

Aside from these bad actors, there remains much to be concerned about in the legitimate market. With the emergence of several newer formulations, the days when green was the only colour in the coolant rainbow are long gone.

“People forget that that coolant does more than cool; it must provide freeze protection, boil-over protection, corrosion protection, and prevent scale formation on heavy-duty engines,” Ed Eaton of Amalgamated Laboratories, Inc. told attendees at the Mobile Air Conditioning Society’s 2007 conference.

Today, the coolant world is complicated by the fact that different OEMs have chosen different coolant technologies, in order to maximize the reliability not only of the coolant, but also of the materials used in the engine and cooling system.

“There are some real differences,” said Eaton at the conference. Engineers at all OEMs have made decisions about materials to use in their engines, and have made selections of coolant technologies designed to perform well in that environment. Materials and alloys used are not the same from one OEM to the next, and they do not like the idea that the wrong coolant may be used and end up compromising the life of those components.

However, Eaton pointed out that while the debate over coolant types is an issue, it is more common that a failed coolant and any resulting damage is the product of much less exotic problems: bad water or the wrong mix ratio.

This is particularly prevalent in heavy-duty and off-road applications, where roadside refills can either dilute the coolant package to near-water, or create an increase in the concentration to the point that protection is compromised. (The ideal is 50/50, but no more than 60/40 water/coolant).

Water quality is a huge variable. Chlorine will corrode aluminum tubes. Mineral-laden water will clog them. Sand and dirt, and silicate and inhibitor dropout from incorrect use of supplemental coolant additives (SCAs), also compromise cooling.

Together, these conditions have spurred Eaton to advise that coolant filters be used and changed regularly, and wherever very poor water is present, to use distilled water.

Liang also notes the importance of the proper water mix and quality. “Coolants need water to react with the chemicals and activate their properties,” he says. “But some water can be quite hard, and some hard water will cause the additives and chemicals within the coolant to [fall out of solution and sink to] the bottom, and this plays havoc with the product and your radiator.” As a result, Liang too advocates the use of only de-ionized water, or using premixed coolants from a reputable supplier.

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