Equipment Details: Autolube systems

The typical excavator has anywhere from 18 to 22 grease points. Artics and rigid frame trucks have as many as 36 places that need grease. If you’re depending on operators to hit every one of these every day with a manual grease gun, you may be setting yourself up for failure.

Even the best operators get in a hurry, forget or neglect a hard-to-reach grease zerk, or sometimes find their grease guns empty. Skipping one greasing isn’t going to bring a machine to a screeching halt. But what about one greasing a week over the course of a year? In many cases pin and bushing replacements require line boring, which can cost $5,000 or more.

Autolube systems solve all these problems and offer a lot of added benefits as well. A controller mounted in the cab or incorporated into the system pump tells you when the autolube is going through its cycle (typically every 20 minutes to an hour), when a line is blocked or when your lube reservoir is running low. Except for visual inspections, an occasional test and filling the reservoir, the system does the rest.

Several OEMs now offer autolube systems factory installed but more of these systems are being installed as aftermarket items too.

The price of an autolube system can run anywhere from $2,500 to $6,000 depending on the size of the machine and the complexity of the installation. Some big trucks may require systems costing up to $9,000. But most equipment owners will see a payback on that investment within a year, says Adrian Britt, vice president of LubriTech, a Stone Mountain, Georgia, company that installs and services autolube systems.

Wheel loaders and excavators are the most popular type of equipment to put autolube systems on, followed by articulated and rigid frame trucks. But you can also put autolube systems on just about any machine, including hammers, pavers, scrapers, cement trucks, trenchers and cranes. Backhoes typically have plenty of grease points to consider, but, like many less expensive machines, may not get set up as often with an automatic lube system, says Kenneth Walsh, manager of marketing communications and research at Lincoln.

The incidence of failure should also influence your decision on an autolube system, Britt says. The higher the incidence of bearing failure, the more appropriate the machine is as a candidate for autolube. For example, hydraulic hammers are not expensive compared with big machines, but since they’re particularly hard on bearings, they’re a good candidate for autolube.

Time savings
To properly grease any piece of construction equipment with a manual grease gun takes 20 to 30 minutes a day, says Shawn King, director of business development at Alemite, even on a system with less than 25 lube points. “And remember, to deliver just one ounce of grease out of a manual grease gun takes 21 strokes,” she adds.

That may just seem like the price of doing business, but over time it adds up. If operators cost you $12 an hour, that half-hour a day winds up being $30 a week and $1,500 over the course of a 50-week year.

Autolube systems should be visually inspected daily, but this can be done in the five minutes or so you spend during your regular walkaround inspection. You get the balance of that 20 or 30 minutes back as sticktime instead of maintenance time.

Done and done right
In manual greasing, even if you’re used to working outside most of the day, there are times, especially when it’s raining or bone-chilling cold, when the last thing you or your operators want to do is crawl around, or worse – under – a machine to apply grease to a hard-to-reach zerk. Paving machine operators often have to grease their machines at night or the end of the day, which only adds to the difficulty and the likelihood that something will get missed.

It’s also easy to over-grease a fitting when manually applying grease, King says. “And lubricant is no longer inexpensive. It’s not 15 cents a cartridge anymore,” she says. With an autolube system you can increase or decrease the amount of grease every point in a system gets by simply changing the timer so it gets a shot of lube more or less frequently.

Autolube systems guarantee your machines get greased regardless of the weather, the time of day (or night) or the attention spans or skill of your operators.

Divider valves can be networked together to route grease to multiple points
on a machine.

A little grease consistently
Instead of a single dose of grease first thing in the morning, autolube systems dispense a little bit of grease throughout the day. “The idea is to put a very small amount of grease into every point while the machine is running and things are moving,” says Walsh, “That moves the grease inside the lubrication point and keeps everything nicely lubricated and the seal intact. If you hit a point with a manual grease gun it tends to ooze out one side or another because the pin is resting against the wall of the bushing and you’re not going to get a lot of grease on that side. When the machine is running, the grease gets distributed evenly on all wear surfaces and it’s by far the most effective way to do it.”

Another problem with manual greasing is that if it gets skipped a few times dirt and grit build up on the zerk and then some of that gets injected into the fitting the next time it’s greased.

“Autolube systems cover those fittings up,” says King. “It definitely helps keep the dirt and debris out so you get longer life out of that component.”

Electric or hydraulic
Autolube pumps can be powered electrically, mechanically, hydraulically or pneumatically, but electrical and hydraulic systems are the most popular on construction equipment. “Some people don’t want to interfere with any of their hydraulic lines and only use electric. Others don’t want to tie into their ignition,” King says. Electric systems run off the machine’s DC power and are either 12 or 24 volt.

Big breakers and hammers typically use hydraulically driven autolube systems, for simplicity’s sake. You can set up a hammer to receive lubrication from an autolube system on the carrier machine, but most rental companies prefer a dedicated autolube mounted directly on the hammer. That way you guarantee the hammer is being lubed anytime it’s working.

For most types of equipment, installation of an autolube system takes about a day, with the exception of excavators, paving equipment and some large trucks, which may take a day and a half. Britt says most of his installations occur in the customer’s shop, but if need be he can do them in the field. Excavators are the most complex because of the number of modifications required. “The OEMs put the grease fittings in all the right places for manual greasing and all the wrong places for an autolube system,” he says.

Injectors are typically used in applications where you need high volumes of grease.

“In high-impact areas we change out the factory fittings to high-pressure fittings then go around to another location and redrill our own lube inlets in a more protected area,” Britt says. The fittings are easily replaceable in the field by the contractor, and Britt gives each of his customers a “first aid” kit with extra fittings and hose in case they are needed. But since he has service contracts with many of his customers he does most of the maintenance on the systems he sells.

When it comes to installation, the skill and experience of your distributor can make a difference, Walsh says. “If a distributor is going to put a system in as cheaply as possible you have to ask yourself: ‘Is it going to hold up in the real world? Are lines going to get knocked off?'” he says.

“With an articulating haul truck you have to be sure you’ve designed the system to flex with the articulation of the truck. But a wheel loader or an excavator where you’re banging around in the dirt or rock you have to think about guarding that system.”

There are no hard and fast rules about what goes where, but a good installer who knows his equipment may put the reservoir at ground level for easy refill or up high to avoid damage.

Routing and protecting the hoses so they’re exposed to minimum damage is also critical. Machined or laser-cut steel guards are bolted or welded to the equipment to protect the feed lines or supply lines, Britt says, but knowing where to put these requires experience.

Routine PM
One problem with autolube systems is they make life so easy operators tend to forget they’re there. To keep them from getting complacent, Britt says you have to educate your operators that autolube systems still have daily, weekly and monthly or 250-hour preventive-maintenance checks.

The daily PM consists of just visually inspecting your lines and fittings and reservoir to make sure everything is intact. “We tell them they have to do the daily walkarounds, because while the system will detect a blockage or a plugged line or a spun bushing, it won’t detect a broken line,” Britt says. “So look for any copious quantities of grease in areas where there shouldn’t be. That’s really critical and that’s a two or three minute task.”

Once a week, Britt recommends you manually override the system and allow it to go into the run mode, complete a full system cycle and notify a technician if there is a fault. Monthly to every 250 hours you should conduct a detailed inspection of all the fittings, lines and connections. Also make sure the visual indicator pins are moving up and down to verify the mechanical operation of the valve.

“Every customer we’ve had who has had success with the autolube systems, it’s almost always come about as a result of ownership,” Britt says. By ownership he means the responsibility of coming to the training class after the system has been installed, keeping up with inspections, making sure mechanics understand the system and doing PM.