If you think the price of gasoline is high, you should check out the price of automotive antifreeze. It makes gasoline look cheap.
Hey Mr. Wizard (aka Don Herbert), it’s time for a chemistry lesson.
Monoethylene glycol (MEG), 1,2-ethanediol, IUPAC name: ethane-1,2-diol, has the molecular formula C2H4(OH)2.
Diethylene glycol (DEG), 2,2′-oxybisethanol; 3-oxa-1,5-pentanediol, IUPAC name: (2-hydroxyethoxy)ethan-2-ol, has the molecular formula C4H10O3, and is one of the oligomers of ethylene glycol.
DEG is an unwanted side product formed during the production of EG from ethylene oxide. It appears to be present to some degree in all EG-based antifreezes.
All this reminds us of the phrase “Better living thru chemistry“, an often cynical variation of DuPont’s former advertising slogan, “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry”. The use of the alternate slogan often refers to the problems created by man’s use or abuse of chemical technology. In the 1980s and ’90s, corporate identification with the word “chemical” fell out of favor because of environmental and human disasters such as the Bhopal Incident, and a concern that chemical production or use was increasingly being linked to cancer in humans or damage to the environment . Many chemical manufacturers dropped the word “chemical” from their names, for example, a ficticious “Acme Chemical Corporation” opting instead for “Acme Technologies”.
Historically, antifreeze was sold full-strength only. The consumer would mix it with water to achieve the required level of freeze protection. You would find a chart on the jug that told you what level of protection you would have for different ratios of antifreeze and water. The lowest freezing point was not at 100% antifreeze, as you might expect. It was somewhere around a 50% concentration. Then, a few years ago, we started seeing pre-mixed or pre-diluted antifreeze appearing on store shelves.
Full strength antifreeze (as opposed to the 50/50 antifreeze/water mix that is now widely sold) is almost pure ethylene glycol (EG), consisting of up to 96% MEG, and perhaps a few percent DEG. See the ingredient list in Prestone’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). Worldwide demand as well as high energy prices have driven up the price of ethylene glycol, which is also used to produce “PET” plastic (ie: soda and water bottles), polyester fabric, and many other industrial and consumer products.
Ethylene glycol is synthesized in a process that involves converting ethylene to ethylene oxide (EO), and then a chemical reaction between EO and water to produce ethylene glycol. The hydrocarbon feedstock (raw material) used to produce EG’s precusor, ethylene, is usually natural gas, so you would expect natural gas prices and energy costs in general to affect the price of EG.
But textbook knowledge of the chemistry behind antifreeze production, and a knowledge of commodity prices still leaves us unable to explain not only the unprecedented rise in antifreeze prices, but also the marketing strategies used by manufacturers such as Prestone.
Prestone , originally owned by First Brands (which is now The Clorox Company also see Clorox’s history), is currently owned by Honeywell (formerly known as Allied-Signal, AlliedSignal, the Signal Companies, Allied Chemical and Dye Corp., Allied Corporation, etc., etc., etc.) You need a scorecard to keep track. Read more at Wikipedia.
A few years back, we can remember buying a gallon of full-strength Prestone for two or three dollars. The last time we bought a couple of gallons of Prestone in 2005, I believe we paid six or seven dollars a gallon.
We recently purchased two one-gallon jugs of full-strength Prestone antifreeze. We saw it priced as high as $15.00 a gallon in some stores, and ended up buying it for the bargain price of $12.00 a gallon. The same store was also selling Prestone’s 50/50 pre-diluted “Quick Fill” product for $11.00 a gallon. Since we’re a very good shopper, we’ll make the assumption that the price we paid is about the best you will find the full strength Prestone for, and that the pricing differential between the two products is reflective of the difference in the wholesale cost of the products to retailers.
But wait a minute… One product contains a gallon of full-strength Prestone for $12.00, and the other product contains a half-gallon of Prestone and a half-gallon of water for $11.00. Shouldn’t the jug that’s 50% water be a lot less expensive, say about half the price? We smell something fishy here. Since you would expect the half-gallon of water to be worth almost nothing (certainly less than one cent), why is the price differential only $1.00 between full-strength and half-strength Prestone ? It can’t be that the cost of the plastic jug or the transportation costs to ge it to the store make up most of the value of the product. After all, you can buy some brands of gallon jugs of windshield washer fluid for about a buck! Could it be that the folks at Prestone / Honeywell came up with a way to drastically increase the price of their product? By drastically, we mean almost double.
Since the retail price for a gallon of the full-strength Prestone was $12.00, and the retail price for a gallon of the half antifreeze/half-water product was $11.00, that equates to paying $5.00 for a half-gallon of water (or $10.00 for a gallon of water, since that’s what you’d get if you bought two jugs of pre-diluted Prestone). The two gallons of “Quick-Fill” (or 50/50) pre-diluted Prestone will cost you $10.00 more than buying one gallon of full-strength Prestone and supplying your own gallon of water).
The danger to consumers is not only to their wallets. If the high cost of antifreeze causes some vehicle owners to skimp on the amount of antifreeze they add to their cooling system (vehicle manufacturers generally specify a concentration is 50% antifreeze / 50% water), they not only sacrifice freeze protection, they risk damage to their engine’s water pump and corrosion to the cooling system and to vital engine parts. Repair bills could be very expensive. You might even need a new engine.
We guess another way of looking at it is that you’re paying $10.00 for a gallon of water, versus $12.00 for a gallon of full-strength antifreeze. Something stinks, and it’s not the ethylene glycol, which actually has a sweet smell. That’s why animals are sometimes poisoned by spilled antifreeze. They like the smell and the taste.
Is this price gouging, clever marketing, greed on the part of Prestone (and other companies), or something else that we haven’t thought of ? Since retailers seem to be stocking mostly the half-strength Prestone (and other brands of antifreeze), we think that the “convenience” of pre-mixed antifreeze that they are touting is really little more than a way to charge almost the same price for a product that costs about half as much to produce. We guess that qualifies as both clever marketing AND greed. Actually, we believe it’s yet another example of “Deception Engineering“, which always results in the consumer paying more, getting less, or both.
What we find particularly interesting is that Prestone’s method of giving the consumer less (exactly 50% less, in this case) is 180 degrees opposite from how many consumer product manufacturers have accomplished it. With many items such as detergent, bleach, dishwashing liquid, and the like, there has been a trend to label products with phrases like “ultra”, “concentrated”, etc., and charge much more for a smaller package that promises the same or more “loads”, “uses”, etc. Our experience and the calculations we’ve done have told us that when a manufacturer makes such a change, the consumer generally gets less value for their dollar. Therefore, we avoid such products when possible, opting for the “standard” strength, concentration, etc. In the case of Prestone, it’s not possible to manufacture an “ultra” antifreeze, since their product was already 100% (or nearly so) active ingredient. What they did instead, was to water it down, cutting the concentration in half, keep the package size the same, charge almost as much, and hope that consumers will buy the claim of a more convenient product. We wouldn’t be surprised if they phase out the full strength version of Prestone antifreeze completely, since “Quick Fill” Prestone nearly doubles their profit margin. Kinda reminds us of Coca-Cola’s red herring, “Smooth Serve” 1.5 liter bottles, another attempt at trying to convince the consumer that less (in this case, 25% less, since the standard bottle was 2 liters) is actually more.
Smooth Serve? Quick Fill? Yeah, right. Just how stupid do we consumers look?
Perhaps the most troubling part of all this is that while manufacturers in general have gone to great lengths to reduce plastics used in packaging, and to reduce their packaging costs, Prestone and other antifreeze manufacturers have done exactly the opposite. Now, to get the same amount of antifreeze, which is a poisonous (read about EG poisoning here), environmentally and biologically hazardous substance, you must buy twice as many jugs. This means that they have doubled the amount of plastic needed for their packaging, doubled the amount of fuel required to transport their product to retailers, and doubled the environmental impact of that transportation. It seems to us that the tree huggers at Prestone can’t be too concerned about the environment, let alone the consumer. Apparently, profit comes first, even before protecting the environment, before conserving non-renewable natural resources, and before their customers. What’s the opposite of “green“?
Perhaps we need legislation mandating that manufacturers are required to produce goods that consume the least amount of resources possible, particularly with regard to non renewable or non biodegradable materials used in their products and packaging. Nations around the world have enacted laws to limit or eliminate the production and use of ozone-depleting CFCs. Nations are now realizing the importance of curbing the production of greenhouse gases. Some cities are now banning the use of plastic grocery bags. Governments mandate minimum fuel economy standards for new vehicles. Perhaps more regulation of manufacturers is needed to limit environmental impact, and how natural resources are used, particularly in the chemical manufacturing industry.
While we can’t do without antifreeze, at $11.00 or $12.00 a gallon (and much more at some retailers), we can do without the convenience (and extra cost) of pre-diluted antifreeze, thank you very much. I think we would even save money if we diluted the full-strength Prestone with a gallon of Perrier. We I could drink any that’s left over (not the Prestone… The Perrier).
Often, comparing different package sizes or strengths of a product to determine which is a better value is a difficult process. We think that comparing the Prestone products we’ve discussed is, as they say, a “no-brainer”.
All this makes us wonder just how much that $15.00 jug of Prestone actually costs them to manufacture.
Perhaps we were wrong in our initial estimate. Perhaps the formula is closer to 1% ethylene glycol, 99% chutzpah.