Case of the Month: Soapy Vandalism

Mar 1, 2018 by

The insured’s late model vehicle was vandalized with a white powder (possibly a cleaning powder or laundry soap) poured into the oil filler opening in the engine. After the vandalism was found, he reportedly drove the vehicle for three days, at which point, it would no longer run. He then turned in a claim to the insurance company for the vandalism damage. GEI was brought in to answer the following questions: 1) Was there damage from a forced entry to the hood or elsewhere? 2) Would we observe the mechanical disassembly and inspect and report on the observed damages? 3) What would an oil analysis tell us?

The exterior of the vehicle was examined and was found in very good condition. The hood was found slightly ajar, as the engine had been partially disassembled prior to our inspection. As the exterior of the vehicle was being examined, the owner stated that he always kept the vehicle locked when it was not in use. Our expert inspected the vehicle for signs of forced entry. There were none. The hood was not opened from beneath the vehicle or from unlatching the hood from the exterior of the vehicle. The initial step in releasing the hood was to pull the hood release lever located in the passenger compartment under the left side of the instrument panel. This mechanism was not modified or altered, it functioned normally when inspected. No other indicators of forced entry were found on the hood, doorjambs, window frames or door handle areas that would indicate forced entry to the interior.

The hood was opened to access and examine the engine compartment. A granulated substance, such as salt and/or sugar was found on the air filter. The cylinder heads and the air intake manifold were exposed for examination. A powdered substance, possibly a cleaning powder or laundry soap, had been poured into the engine oil filler neck on the front of the left side valve cover. The color and distribution of the powder indicated that the engine either had not been run or had run only a short distance prior to its disassembly.

Red boxes indicate powder contamination areas

 

There were no indications that this white powdered contaminant traveled through the lubrication system. The timing chain was not contaminated with the powder, despite it being in close proximity to the oil filler inlet. This was further evidence that the powder contaminant did not travel through the engine oiling system. Additionally, the engine oil filter would have protected the oil pathways from contamination.

Our expert drew an oil sample and sent it to the laboratory for analysis.

The laboratory report indicated an abnormally high wear pattern to the engine’s internal components. The amount of particulates suspended in the oil sample indicated long-term mechanical issues. The report also indicated a problem within the cooling system. The contaminants found covering the components and inside the engine compartment components did not appear to have affected the condition of the engine oil.

Portion of Oil Analysis Report

The engine oil analysis report indicated an abnormal wear pattern within the engine’s internal components. The elevated levels of iron indicated wear to the cylinders. The grossly elevated count of aluminum particles, well over sixty-two times the maximum amount, indicated that the pistons had deteriorated badly. The presence of chromium indicated piston ring wear. The high level of copper along with the presence of tin and lead indicated advanced wear to the engine bearings and/or valve guides. These indicated that the engine was badly worn, and combustion gases were bypassing the piston rings leading to poor engine performance, and increased levels of pollution.

Advanced wear can be caused by detonation and pre-ignition, also known as ‘pinging’ or knocking’, caused by using low octane gasoline or by carbon deposits in the combustion chamber increasing the compression ratio and requiring higher octane gasoline.

There was also a high level of fuel in the sample, which exceeded the alarm limit. This lowered the engine oil’s lubrication ability and, coupled with the other observed damages, would cause the oil pressure to drop. This fuel dilution or contamination would normally also cause higher wear. Fuel can enter the engine oil when a fuel injector is stuck open causing fuel leaks or the cylinders to misfire. If the fuel pressure is too high, fuel can also be forced into the engine oil.

The report also indicated a failing or failed cooling system. The very high level of potassium, over six times the maximum amount, the very high level of sodium, over twenty times the maximum amount, the very high level of silicon, over five times the maximum amount and the presence of water, indicated a severe cooling system issue. The presence of water in the oil sample could indicate a failed head gasket or a cracked cylinder head, which are normally a result of the engine overheating.

The above list of failures indicated that the deterioration of the engine had been occurring over an extended period; these results would not have developed from the recent white powder contamination issue. The engine was overdue for replacement, but the cause was not the vandalism of the laundry powder in the oil.