In the past, fleet managers didn’t allow use of re-refined oil in their maintenance operations based on concerns about product quality. A study funded by the California Integrated Waste Management Board in 2006 found that the majority of fleet managers surveyed held that opinion.

However, as re-refining technology continues advancing, and the push toward buying re-refined oils is stronger than ever, it is time to revisit the matter and ask: what exactly is re-refined oil, how has it changed, and should fleets make the switch?

What is re-refined oil?

Re-refined oil is used motor oil that gets cycled through a refining and blending process twice.
Oil does not break down, it simply gets dirty. Additives become depleted, and the chemicals that make up those additives break down. The re-refining process restores the damaged product by cleaning up the used oil and adding new additives.

After a technician drains used oil from a vehicle’s crankcase and sends it to a refiner, the oil goes through a chemical pretreatment, followed by a distillation process that removes all of the contaminants in the oil. The refiner then hydro-finishes the oil, a procedure that eradicates any remaining impurities. Lastly, the refiner puts it into a blender that combines the re-refined oil with a fresh additive package. 

The finished product is an American Petroleum Institute (API) approved Group II base oil equivalent to most virgin motor oils currently on the market.

“You have to meet a certain specification to get the API seal on your material, and recycled materials don’t get any special waivers,” said John Wesley, CEO of Universal Lubricants, a closed-loop provider that collects spent motor oil in their own trucks, re-refines it, and then sells it back to the marketplace. “We have to meet those same high criteria that a virgin produced product does.”

Technological Advances

Many state and local agencies, in addition to private companies and even the Federal government, have already switched over to re-refined oil for their respective vehicle fleets. Universal Lubricants regularly provides their product to the FBI and U.S. Border Control. 

Although re-refined oil has been around for longer than one would think, there has recently been stronger interest in using it. Why the sudden shift?    

With the standards for technology that exist today, the ability to process an API-quality product has become more than accessible.

In the original days of oil re-refining, dirty oils were run through a sock. This removed some heavy particles; however, it did not create a product usable in vehicles. Companies then tried moving to acid-based clay technology, which produced usable but subpar oil.

Finally, with the advent of new technologies that have hydro-treating capabilities — such as high heat and pressure, and the ability to introduce hydrogen into oil — companies were finally able to create a product comparable to virgin-produced base oils. Over time, refineries were able to polish the molecular structure of re-refined oil to create a higher-quality finished product as well.

“I’d say you’re able to create a better product than virgin because you’re starting with a better product on the front end,” said Wesley. “Crude oil by its very nature is extremely nasty — only two percent of a barrel of crude ultimately winds up as base oil. Re-refined oil skips that starting [stage] with a cleaner initial product.”

Now re-refined oil comes in a variety of weights and blends suitable for use in most engines, including those that run on gasoline, diesel, alternative fuels, or hybrid electric systems. Today, with high-quality finished products available as a result of improved technology, it’s a good time make the switch to re-refined oil.

Re-refined Oil’s Financial and Environmental Benefits

Re-refined oil’s green components are fairly obvious—it is recycled, and therefore helps reduce the depletion of natural resources by using less crude oil. It only takes one gallon of used oil to make 2.5 quarts of re-refined oil, whereas it takes 42 gallons of crude oil to make 2.5 quarts of virgin oil.

According to California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), re-refined oil only takes about one-third the energy needed to refine crude oil.

Using re-refined oil can also help you save money on maintenance costs for your fleet. It helps improve operating costs on a cent per mile basis, as you can constantly recycle the oil you’re using. If end-users purchased re-refined oil in greater quantities, its use could help reduce the potential for spikes in gas prices and reduce U.S. dependence on costly foreign oil.

Many consumers worry that re-refined motor oil loses some of its lubricating properties when compared with virgin motor oil; however, CalRecycle refuted this concern in its recently issued list of disproven myths. As long as the re-refined oil you are purchasing is API-certified, it is in the same quality as virgin oil.

In fact, major automakers, such as Ford, GM, Mercedes Benz-and others have conducted their own testing. Each company went on record stating that the use of re-refined motor oil is not only a viable option, but it also in no way infringes upon manufacturers’ warranties on their engines.

“Using re-refined oils for a fleet is completely safe and the most environmentally sustainable thing you can do besides getting on horseback,” said Wesley. “The advantage is that you can get a product that keeps your fleet on the road, a product that will meet the standard warranties and extended warranties placed on your vehicles, and you can do something good for the environment all for a price equal to — if not less than — what you’re currently paying.”