- Regular oil analysis helps keep vehicle and boat fleet equipment working longer.
- Oil analysis helps optimize your operation and alerts you to impending equipment failures.
- Use multiple tests for comprehensive oil analysis, and employ subject matter experts to assess the results.
Who Does Fleet Oil Analysis and How Often?
Bryan Debshaw, CEO of POLARIS Laboratories®, a commercial fluid analysis laboratory in Indianapolis, Ind., provides oil analysis to a variety of industries, including oil and gas operations, transportation, mining and power generation.
More than half of their customers with oil analysis programs use management reports to set and adjust standard lifecycles for their equipment. Management reports assess average lifetimes for many units, usually grouped by unit type or manufacturer and model. This gives maintenance teams and those in charge of equipment replacement an estimation of how long a unit will last before a major rebuild or replacement. Oil analysis helps evaluate whether the equipment is wearing at a normal rate or showing signs of entering early failure mode, so corrective actions can be taken early.
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Jamie Antaya, senior fleet mechanic for AAA Northeast in Providence, R.I., oversees a fleet of about 120 roadside assistance service trucks, from half-ton pickup trucks to larger medium-duty flatbed trucks. He recommends oil analysis for any size of fleet.
Antaya’s shop’s oil analysis program tests its trucks every 5,000 miles. “The program was started because truck engines were failing, but since the oil analysis program has been in place, there have been no total engine failures,” he says. All the oil testing is done by an outside lab under their oil vendor’s service contract. Antaya’s educational background equips him well to interpret the information coming back from the lab.
Stephen Clifford is the port engineer for The Steamship Authority, which runs ferry boats. He oversees 10 boats and his company’s oil analysis program covers the generators, engines and reduction gears for the ferries. They get lab tests for wear metals, contaminants, additive metals and fuel dilution.
A common test is for metals (aluminum, iron, copper and zinc). Metal particles in an in-service lubricant can come from parts that are starting to fail or from various kinds of contamination. Their abrasive nature can accelerate wear in other parts downstream.
Most wear metal testing incorporates inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectroscopy (ICP-AES, or just ICP). This typically evaluates about 24 chemical elements, including wear metals, contaminants and dirt and metals used as lubricant additives.
Labs still use ASTM D5185 for ICP analysis even though it is an older method. However, many modify this method by creating volume-to-volume dilutions rather than by weight, to speed sample processing. Volume-based dilutions can be used to measure trends over the lifetime of oil from one specific reservoir, but are not suitable for determining absolute values for metal content.
Gas chromatography (GC) has replaced Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) for fuel contamination testing in lubricant oils, according to STLE-member David Hilligoss1, lubricant segments leader for PerkinElmer.
“GC’s ability to distinguish between gasoline, diesel and biodiesel makes it a more reliable and valuable test,” Hilligoss says. Its linear response allows you to quantify the amount of each component present in the sample.
ASTM D7593, a newer standard now in round-robin testing, uses a backflush configuration so sample run time takes about two minutes.
Coolant contaminants increase the acidity of a lubricant and promote corrosion. “GC is replacing ICP for detecting coolant contamination,” says Hilligoss. GC distinguishes lubricants from coolants by identifying the various organic components of each.
Oil analysis also helps monitor levels or required components in the lubricant. For instance, it can be used to track additive level trends and alert the end-user when a particular additive is low. Oil analysis can confirm signs that the lubricant is due for replacement2.
ICP analysis can track trends in metals commonly used in oil additives (organometallics and EP additives, for instance). The unexpected presence of metals in a new oil shipment may indicate that you’ve received the wrong formulation or that batch shipments have become cross contaminated.
FTIR is used to check in-service oils for the depletion of organic additives, and it also indicates whether the oil you’re using is the type you intended to use for a given application. This can help avoid problems such as shipping mixups or by mixing incompatible oils. FTIR also will indicate whether an oil is approaching the end of its service life by measuring levels of oxidation and nitration.
Even though instrument manufacturers and contract laboratories are dealing with an ever-increasing variety of lubricant formulations, end-users tend to limit the number of formulations they use. This not only holds costs down, but it decreases the chances of using the wrong oil or adding an incompatible oil to that which is already in the reservoir.
“Limiting the kinds of lubricants they use helps prevent cross contamination or using the wrong type of oil,” Clifford says. Steamship Authority has a dedicated truck for all their oil deliveries to make sure there is no cross contamination with another customer’s oil.
Contract Lab Services
Fleet managers commonly send samples to a contract laboratory rather than maintaining oil analysis labs in house. It’s more economical to send samples to an accredited commercial lab with the right expertise and instruments on site. Most of POLARIS Laboratories’ customers send samples on a routine schedule.
Contract labs own, maintain and update their testing instruments, and their staff members stay current on changes in testing methods and oil formulations. In addition, contract labs use sample automation and electronic databases to reduce the time it takes to receive and log samples, run the analysis and return results to the customer.
Debshaw emphasized the importance of customers setting and adhering to a sampling schedule. “If a customer says the equipment should be sampled every 60 days—but they stretch it to 90 or 120—it is out of compliance,” he explains. In the same way, if customers set a standard for the number of units they will sample—but they only sample 50 percent of those units—they are out of compliance.
“Being out of compliance increases the risk to the equipment and makes it harder to observe trends in the data,” Debshaw says. “Compliant samples have been pulled on schedule for the equipment, they are drawn from the equipment in a way that minimizes risks of contamination, the forms are completed accurately and they are sent to the laboratory for analysis promptly.”
Oil Analysis Problems Solved
“No one analysis tells you the whole story; interpretation takes skill,” says Hilligoss. Skilled interpretation of the laboratory results can pay off in ways beyond the obvious early warnings for failing parts and oils that are reaching the end of their service life.
Clifford explained tests let them know when they are doing something right so they can keep it up: changing filters or cleaning tanks more often, for example.
What should an operations manager know before setting up an oil analysis program for the first time? To get the most value from an oil analysis program, Debshaw says, “Make sure that your samples are compliant and act on the critical samples. Find ways to take action earlier and focus your time and attention on improvement.”
In the long run, an oil analysis program not only alerts you to impending crises—it helps you avoid crises in the first place and lets you make a good operation even better.
This article features the highlights of a larger feature piece – find additional information in the full Tribology & Lubrication Technology article: Minding the Fleet from the Inside Out.
- Hilligoss, D.R. (Oct. 4, 2016), “Lubricant analysis: The value of oil condition monitoring and PerkinElmer’s continuing commitment.”
- Wooton Consulting. “Using oil analysis as a tool in fluid degradation RCA.”
Nancy McGuire is a free-lance writer based in Silver Spring, Md. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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