Light Duty: Color By Numbers

Here's how to avoid "Coolant Confusion" in your shop.

Larry Jackson, a veteran U.S. Government fleet maintenance professional, has some problems with his coolants. “Our biggest issue is with our drivers, who don’t really care and aren’t paying attention,” he says. “They’re not educated about the differences (between coolants) and about the additives.

“Among our technicians, there’s confusion about why one type of coolant works better than another, and why we can’t consolidate to one coolant product,” he goes on. “It’s pretty clear the manufacturers are all using different additives in their coolants; do we need to know why?”

Jackson’s questions are all part of a bigger issue that we here at Fleet Maintenance hear about over and over again, year-in and year-out: Why are there so many different types of light-duty coolant products, and is it safe to use one universal product in every light-duty vehicle in the fleet, regardless of its make?

“This is a complex issue, because of the different recommendations and the different coolants,” says Stede Granger, OEM technical services manager, Shell Lubricants. “If you have a shop and you’re stocking multiple coolants in inventory, it’s much simpler to stock just one coolant, and also if you stock a different coolant for every vehicle then there’s always the chance that the wrong coolant will be put into the wrong vehicle.”


“When you look at municipalities, electrical contractors, people who run mixed fleets with heavy-duty and light-duty vehicles, they’re looking for a product that they can use in everything,” says Shawn Martinelli, southeast regional manager for Penray, Inc.

According to Martinelli, the old green automotive coolant has given way to two newer varieties: hybrid coolants and Dexcool-type extended-life coolants (ELC). Fleet managers looking to use only one product in all the fleet’s light-duty vehicles have to choose which one of these coolants best suits them.

Martinelli points out that all coolants are essentially 50 percent glycol and 50 percent water. The only real difference between coolants is the makeup of the corrosion inhibitor package.

“The ELC, the Dexcool-type product, works very well,” Martinelli says. “It’s good for five years or 150,000 miles. But you can’t contaminate it! The inhibitor package that they use consists of organic acids, and when you dilute that corrosion-inhibitor package, you lose that protection.

“That’s very hard for a fleet to manage, so more of them go with the hybrid product, which is a mixture of more of those technologies,” he explains. “You can contaminate it with another antifreeze and it won’t mess it up, and it will still go for five years and 150,000 miles. You can use it in all makes and all models; you can use it in any color. That’s the type that I would point a fleet to if they were all-automotive and they wanted to go to one coolant. It’s the one-size-fits-all solution.

“Of course,” he says, “we have to add the disclaimer, ‘Always check with your engine manufacturer.’”


Fred Alverson, advisor for Shell Lubricants, clarifies the choices fleets must make:

“For fleets that do have various types of vehicles, there are universal types of coolants out there that could be used if they want to simplify their monitoring and maintenance programs,” he says. “These universal coolants that make the claim that they’re safe for all makes, all models, all years of passenger cars, they will not meet the OEMs’ chemistry requirements, but they have been carefully formulated to meet the performance requirements in a wide variety of engines.

“Shell’s position is, we always follow the OEM’s recommendations,” he says, “but for those fleet managers who want to simplify and go to one coolant, we recommend they contact their coolant supplier, such as Shell, and we’ll look over their vehicles and if a multi-vehicle is suitable, we would recommend it. And then with our multi-vehicle product, we have recommendations that they should follow on the application and use of the product, along with mixing this product with other coolants.”

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