Understanding Bowling Lane Oil Patterns

The following article is republished courtesy of The Inside Line, a Kegel Publication, and itís by Brandy Padilla, Chemical Engineer and Safety Director at Kegel.

When it comes to lane conditions, every person has their own ideas as to what they think works best.  Mechanics, proprietors, and bowlers all have a difference of opinion when it comes to dressing the lanes.

Ask 100 different people and you're likely to get 100 different answers. In bowling, it's one of those topics that just seems to create a lot of controversy and a lot of differences in opinions.

Because of all these different opinions, we get many questions regarding what the best methods are for ensuring lanes are the same from day to day.  Some of these questions stem from curiosity while others, like the one I got last month, stem from bowler controversy.

I was forwarded a message that came in from our website.  The proprietor was quite frustrated at his bowlers because his bowlers felt like the lanes were getting conditioned too early and the conditioner was "drying up" before they ever started bowling.

The proprietor tried to show the bowlers statisitical data in their score trends that suggested otherwise.  But, the bowlers just didn't agree.  So, he asked "the experts"; how long can an oil pattern sit on a lane before it starts to deteriorate?

Modern lane conditioners, every lane conditioner available in today's market, are all mineral oil based.  Kegel uses pharmaceutical grade mineral oil in our lane conditioners so it is of the highest purity available.  Mineral oil itself doesn't evaporate.  You could fill a cup with mineral oil and leave it sitting and it wouldn't evaporate.

Here is a link to a safety data sheet (SDS) for white mineral oil.  If you look in section 9 (page 4 of the document), it shows the evaporation rate as 'NA'.  This means there is negligible or no evaporation of the material.

There are some chemicals in lane conditioners that will evaporate but these ingredients are minor compared to the percentage of mineral oil.

For example, solvents such as isopropyl alcohol (IPA) are often used as an inexpensive way to lower the surface tension.  Lowering the surface tension will allow the lane conditioner to wet across the lane surface more quickly.

Once the lane conditioner is applied, the IPA would evaporate over time.  Since lane conditioners are applied in such a thin film with a low volume over a larger area, we would estimate this to be in the 30 minute range at most.  It does not take a lot of IPA to lower the surface tension so it is used in amounts of 1% or less.  This evaporation does not affect the lane play characteristics that come from the mineral oil and the other ingredients that are used to give the conditioner its characteristics.

While we've never tested the theory of how long a lane conditioner could sit before deterioration begins, a lane pattern could sit, well, forever without deteriorating.  That is, of course, in theory since we don't have a time machine! There are other things; environmental and atmospheric conditions; that will affect lane conditions.  But, the conditioner itself could sit for days on the lane and it would still be there; it isn't going to evaporate away.

While we haven't tested the 'forever' theory, we have allowed a freshly conditioned lane to sit for 24 hours.  We took tapes from the freshly applied pattern and took tapes on the same pattern 24 hours later.  The results: the tapes were exactly the same for both sit times.  The conditioner sitting on the lane didn't change as a result of evaporation.

Pattern Specialist/Lane Technician John Janawicz describes how to read an oil pattern sheet and how it can impact your game.

Oil pattern distance and oil pattern volume are a couple of things that players should be focusing on.

Video courtesy of USBC Bowling Academy

Other things can affect the conditioners performance though.

Dust from the air or from AC vents can be deposited on the lane.  These particles can greatly affect the playing characteristics of the pattern.  This is one reason that a good cleaning routine is so important.  Applying lane conditioner to a dirty lane will also affect the playing characteristics of the pattern.

Atmospheric conditions like temperature and humidity will also greatly affect lane play and these are more likely the cause of changing lane conditions.

Bowling centers see this a lot as the weather changes, especially when there are sharp changes from cold to hot or hot to cold.  Bowlers will complain that the lanes are tighter or drier or something else but they don't always consider the weather changes and that can affect lane conditions significantly.

How long a conditioner should be allowed to sit on a lane prior to bowling is a very common question.

And, it's one that we've gotten many times.  While consistency is key, we like to support our arguments with science.  So, here's a little science behind conditioner application.

When lane conditioner is immediately applied to a bowling lane, several things must happen before the lane conditioner stabilizes enough to provide consistent playing characteristics.  One is allowing the lane conditioner to adhere to the lane surface.

This takes about 15-30 minutes depending on the amount of conditioner applied, the type of conditioner, the type of cleaner being used, and the surface energy of a particular lane surface.

The surface tension of the conditioner is also important since the surface tension directly affects how the conditioner "wets" across the lane.  The conditioner needs to "like" the lane in order for it to wet across.

If the surface energies between the two don't agree, the conditioner will "sit up" on the lane surface (think of this effect as little beads of water sitting on the surface of your car versus the water sheeting off the surface of the car).

Another bonding takes place within the lane conditioner molecules themselves.

These bonding forces, known as van der Waals forces, are basically weak attractions between atoms, molecules, and surfaces.  The time for this to take place after conditioning a bowling lane is also anywhere from 15-30 minutes.

With the amount of lane conditioner being used in today's lane patterns, it takes about 15-30 minutes for the lane conditioner to 'settle down' and stabilize on the lane.

If time is not allowed for this process to take place, things like excessive carrydown can occur.  The lanes may also play "tighter" simply because the oil is sitting up on top of the lane more and there is less resistance to the bowling ball as it rolls through the oil pattern.

This is one reason during tournaments where we provide lane maintenance; we always try to get the tournament organizers to allow a minimum of 15 minutes of lane conditioner 'sit time' before the first ball is thrown down the lane.

The biggest key is consistency.

It's one of the things that we preach. Create a routine and stick with that routine every day. If you do the lanes an hour before league, do them an hour before league every time and you'll eliminate that variable (and that complaint from your bowlers).

We hope this information helps you. If you have additional questions, please feel free to contact us. We will be happy to assist in any way we can. Until next time, happy bowling!