Thanks to Prestone and The Richards Group
June 4, 2012
Recently we were invited to visit the Prestone engineering and development labs in Danbury, CT along with a few other fellow automotive journalists and industry professionals on May 24, 2012.
Our visit to the prestone labs was very interesting. I have to admit, I'm not an expert on coolant, sure I know how to use it and how it works, etc, but never really investigated the little nuances about it, I mean it's just coolant, right? As it turns out, the visit was very interesting in more than one way, and I hope you'll find this article interesting as well.
A big part of the visit is to help dispel some myths about coolant in general, regardless of brand, as well as to show the diffences and effects in blend quality. And as a science geek, I enjoyed looking at all their different testing equipment and plethora of tools that I wish I had in my garage. It also gave me some ideas for some studies that perhaps we can perform on different blends, since although they were testing many different brands in the lab, we were not informed of the performance or quality of different brands (which I think was a professional thing to do on the part of Prestone, this was a learning visit, not a bash-the-competitor visit.)
Lets start off with the lab tour. This testing is one of several electrochemical test that is watching a various things as they maintain the coolant at the boiling point while passing a current through it and tracking the data.
Here you'll see jars filled with coolant as well as sample pieces of various metals used to track how to coolant interacts with different metals.
This test was interesting, you can see the tubes of various coolant blends and brands which all were tested together, and while the test itself was looking at various things, I thought it was interesting that you could see the difference in blend quality quite well.
If we examine the coolant in the tubes you'll see what I'm talking about, if we look at one coolant which is blended with liquid additives, you'll see how it maintains itself:
but a blend that was made using solid additives which are dissolved in the solution has issues, you can see the solids starting to percipitate out of the solution and clump together. Think what happens to that stuff in the coolant passages...
But they showed us how they do testing on their coolant beyond the lab as well. Here they have a unit which is installed in the coolant line of a car with more metal samples which is installed and run under real-life situations over the full life of the coolant to examine the effects.
They also use a engine dyno and test under various engine conditions...
Here's a cutaway inside a head that was tested with a lower quality blend which ended up causing pitting around the combustion chambers when the coolant is less effective and not able to transfer the heat effectively enough.
This setup is testing water pumps specifically...
And this setup was interesting, Prestone has been working with manufacturers to develop better thermal regulation systems for fuel cell vehicles. Which is what this equipment was engineered for...
There were other products they were testing other than coolant as well, since prestone makes a large variety of products from windshield washer fluid, washes and waxes, other detailing and cleaning products.
This is a goniometer which is used for various things, however in this test they're looking at the beading of liquid on a waxed sample surface...
And here they're looking at failure points of different containers...
And look what I found in the lab, out of only 2 vehicles in their lab garage that day, one was a GMT400...I don't know if it was a test vehicle, or something, but I had to get a picture of it...
The tour was very interesting. But beyond the tour, there are some information we discussed which may not be well know.
First off....COOLANT COLOR IS ESSENTIALLY MEANINGLESS...yup, you read that right, meaningless. What is important is the blend and formulation of the coolant, the color is nothing but a dye. There are some different types of coolant, mainly IAT (inorganic additive technology), OAT (organic acid technology), and HOAT (hybrid organic acid technology), and within each type of coolant, there are any number of different blends of the additives and makeup. There are also various coolant bases that are used from classic ethylene glycol, newer propylene glycol, and even glycerol. You need to understand that each type is made in a wide range of colors (yellow, green, red, orange, blue, pink, etc). There are also coolants that are made which can be used and mixed with any other type. There are many different discussions that we could have about type X or type Y regardless of brand...but for now you just need to understand that it's more important to know the type of coolant you're using, rather than the color.
There are a few manfacturers of coolant, which may make coolant blends to be sold under various labels. For example, the GM coolant that you can buy at the dealership is made by Prestone, however they are blended to the specs of GM, and the formulation is a proprietary blend. No one outside of GM is legally allowed to sell the same blend, even Prestone, who makes it. So any brand that claims it is the 'same' as another brand, is a misleading claim, since the blend cannot legally be identical.
Lastly, don't run straight coolant and buying the pre-mixed 50/50 blends are good for people who don't want to mix their own, the water used in the pre-mixed blends is a high quality pure water. If you wish to buy the straight coolant and mix it yourself, there is no problem with that when done correctly, don't blindly use tapwater, or water from the garden hose. There are SOME areas where the tapwater is acceptable to use, however unless you've tested your water throughly, don't chance it, most tapwaters contain minerals and other impurities that can contaminate the coolant blend. If you wish to mix your own, I suggest going to the grocery store and buying the cheap jugs of distilled water, they're usually a store brand, and run around $1 per gallon (give or take). It is an excellent water to use in the cooling system. For typical road usage you want to mix it 50/50, so 1 gallon of water for every gallon of coolant that you use. And when you're filling the system, make sure you purge the air and burp the system very well, air is a insulator and does not conduct the heat out, not only that but the components of the air can react chemically with the coolant mix and cause problems, essentially air is a contaminant. Ideally you should be checking your coolant mix to make sure it is ideal, you can use a hygrometer, but stay away from the 'floating balls' ones, they're hardly ever accurate, even new. You can try the ones with the floating pointer which are much better and still budget, if you're serious though, get a hand held refractometer.
We talked about some other things such as brake fluids and formulations, etc. But I am planning a review of some products where that can be discussed more in depth. In fact the trip gave me some good ideas for doing some independant testing for coolants like we have with our oil filters, and air filters.
Thanks again to the people at Prestone, as well as the Richards Group (the PR firm for Prestone) for the opportunity to visit and observe their lab.