Universal Lubricants is determined to lead by example when it comes to improving our local industrial ecology. How are they doing it?
When it comes to reducing their carbon footprints some companies talk the talk. Others, like Universal Lubricants, not only walk the walk, they also lead their corporate peers down a similar path. Through its innovative recycling program, Universal Lubricants re-refines, blends and redistributes engine oils and lubricants.
Driven by its mission to lead by example in improving industrial ecology, the Wichita, Kan.-based company has devised a proprietary, closed-loop process to take its oils and lubricants from the collection stage to the fuel tank. Recently, Universal Lubricants trademarked its base oil as “EcoClear™” as part of its ongoing campaign to encourage environmentally responsible lubricant recycling.
“A large part of our customer base represents the construction industry,” says Jeff Draffan, a sales representative from the Universal Lubricants Kansas City office. “They are tough guys and a tough sell. They have multimillion-dollar equipment [that] they are very protective over. But, still, they want to be good stewards of the planet. Once they give EcoClear a try, they stick with it not only because it’s good for the planet, but because it’s good for their equipment.”
Founded in 1929—long before “carbon footprint” became a buzzword—Universal Lubricants developed many of its eco-friendly products as a result of customer requests. Specifically, as engines and equipment advanced, its customers looked to products that met changing industry needs. With a primary customer emphasis on the heavy duty market—the off road and trucking industries—Universal Lubricants offers an array of products beyond EcoClear, including its Universal, Eco Ultra and Dyna-Plex 21C lines, as well as customized blends. Companies such as Valvoline, Castrol and Panolin distribute its products.
According to Draffan, lubricant base oil is one of the most valuable components in a barrel of crude oil. While many components of crude oil such as gasoline, jet and diesel fuels are “lost” after combustion, lube base oil does not wear out. Drained from automobiles, industrial vehicles, heavy-duty engines, aircraft and railroad engines during oil changes, the oil can be recovered and re-refined to a quality equal to or better than its original form through an advanced re-refining process.
The company’s closed loop process is a self-contained, self-sufficient system that begins by collecting waste oil from customers around the country. Each year, in fact, Universal Lubricants collects more than 40 million gallons of waste oil and ships it to its state-of-the-art re-refinery in Wichita. That’s where the transformation begins. Universal Lubricants, which operates 36 facilities nationally, turns the used waste oil into a re-refined base oil that is so crystal clear, it meets the industry’s highest standards for both purity and performance. Each year, Universal Lubricants produces more than 13 million gallons of its Group II base oil from that re-refinery.
The Wichita-based re-refinery relies on a sophisticated hydrotreating process licensed from Irvine, Calif.-based Chemical Engineering Partners to remove the depleted additives and impurities in the used oil and produce a clean, API licensed Group II base oil. The base oil is then blended with high-performance additives to produce the company’s Eco Ultra® line of high-quality lubricants.
“If there’s an engine out there to test the quality of a lubricant, it’s a diesel engine,” Draffan says. “The first concern most new customers have about a re-refined product—and there are a lot of misnomers—is that it can’t be a quality product. We have to explain the process and get over that hump first. The first thing we emphasize is that they’re not going backwards with our products. They’re going forward. Once they use it, they feel pretty darn good about their decision.”
Tom McClain, parts manager for Legends Toyota in Kansas City, Kan., first tried EcoClear on his own car before offering it to the dealership’s customers. That was five years ago when his car had 92,000 miles. Today, the odometer reads a little more than 270,000, and McClain says he’s hooked for life. As product awareness grows among the dealership’s customer base, McClain says those who’ve tried it request it repeatedly.
“It’s no longer used oil, so people have to understand that,” McClain says. “You can’t tell the difference, and if you check your fuel mileage constantly, you’ll notice the performance features of using EcoClear through improved fuel economy.”
Universal Lubricants’ finished products meet all OEM requirements, as well as those established by the American Petroleum Institute and other manufacturer warranties, Draffan says. And it’s not cheap. Universal Lubricants pays for the waste oil that it later transforms.
Of course, “the proof is in the pudding,” Draffan says of the quality of the company’s products. Each product is lab tested, job proven and made to stand up to real-world challenges, he adds. The company’s Eco Ultra Synthetic Blend Motor Oil was awarded a dexos1® license for meeting the rigorous quality requirements for use in the newest General Motors (GM) gasoline engines.
Each year, the U.S. uses about 1.3 billion gallons of oil, but only about 10 to 15 percent of that oil is repurposed. Re-refining used lubricants requires up to 89 percent less energy and releases up to 65 percent fewer harmful emissions than refining from crude, Draffan says.
Putting used lubricants into the re-refining cycle also eliminates the danger that comes from improper disposal. In fact, he says, one gallon of improperly disposed motor oil can contaminate one million gallons of ground water. And speaking of water, the water reclaimed through the company’s re-refining process is so pure, Draffan says, it’s sold to local municipalities as non-potable water.
“There’s definitely a feel-good component to using our products,” Draffan says. “For every gallon of eco product used, we’re saving two barrels of crude oil from being taken out of the ground. That’s a huge impact on the environment.”
According to Draffan, independent studies show that oils produced from re-refined base stock reduce engine wear, which leads to fewer oil changes, reduced oil consumption and better gas mileage. To back that claim, Universal Lubricants provides customers with an oil analysis in its Quality Assurance Laboratory, a service milestone that tests results. The service is a key differentiator for Universal Lubricants and an integral part of its closed-loop strategy. Specifically, the company’s oil analysis allows its customers to keep their fingers on the pulse of their engine.
“It provides an early indication of problems that can be corrected before they cause sudden equipment failures or prolonged downtime,” Draffan says. “For example, when considering the value of heavy-duty equipment, failure can result in huge production losses and enormous repair costs.”
The oil analysis also helps customers extend oil drain intervals and keep their engines operational to maximize profits. Customers simply collect a sample via the company’s specially designed kit, and ship it (postage-paid) to Universal Lubricants. The lab generates reports within 24 hours of receiving samples via a password-protected website. For abnormal or critical results, the company notifies customers immediately.
“Ultimately, large companies that have to continually show their shareholders they are moving toward sustainability can accomplish this goal by simply changing their oil,” Draffan says. “There’s zero waste, and it’s a no-brainer.”
Story by Susan Fotovich McCabe