Online Oil Analysis

Whether you have one machine or thousands, online reports beat paper anytime.

By Tom Jackson

The fundamentals of oil analysis haven’t changed much over the years, but in the past decade the emergence of online reporting of oil analysis results has given fleet managers a great set of tools to do more, learn more and profit more from the reports.

Procedures for drawing the sample haven’t changed but online reporting of results can change the way you do maintenance.Procedures for drawing the sample haven’t changed but online reporting of results can change the way you do maintenance.

Best of all for companies with time-sensitive maintenance schedules, you can get your results fast – especially critical alerts. “You’re getting data at the speed of light, vs. the mailman,” says Mark Betner, heavy duty motor oil manager at Citgo.

Fast results

Prior to online oil analysis reporting, it could take three or more days to get results back, after the tests were completed. Online reports eliminate that wait.

“Many of our customers schedule maintenance around their sampling,” says Mark Minges, chief operating officer at Polaris Labs. The technicians can pull a sample just prior to the machine coming into the shop for preventive maintenance and get the oil analysis results online from us within 24 hours of the lab finishing the tests – soon enough to take care of any problems that might arise while the machine is still in the shop.” This beats sending the machine back out only to recall it a few days later because it took a week to get the paper results to arrive by mail.

Critical vs. normal

Separating the critical results from those less urgent is another benefit. Most of the providers we spoke to allow you to customize your reports so that you can get an instant e-mail, text message, phone call or fax when your results show serious problems.

Your lab or lube provider will set you up with all the supplies you need to get started taking samples.Your lab or lube provider will set you up with all the supplies you need to get started taking samples.

“Most customers don’t want an e-mail if there is nothing wrong with it,” says Minges. “They just want to deal with the ones that may require maintenance. To view all the normal reports or those that are flagged for observation they can log onto our website anytime and view those as well.”

Alerts and critical issues can be communicated to more than just one person, email address, phone or digital device. “A lot of people carry a phone or Blackberry on the job today, and this is an opportunity, if it is a critical issue, to see it right away,” says Len Badal, Chevron commercial sector manager. “If they’re out on the jobsite they can shut the equipment down immediately to avoid further damage.”

Predictive maintenance

“The advantage to the customer is it gives him a predictive ability,” says Ron LeBlanc Sr., senior technical advisor at Petro Canada America Lubricants. “You can look at a piece of equipment over its lifetime and know when to rebuild it – not on an emergency basis, but on a scheduled basis.”

Taking a clean sample helps make results more accurate.Taking a clean sample helps make results more accurate.

This predictive ability can transform your oil analysis program from a simple warning system to a powerful diagnostic tool. “With the graphing abilities of an online oil analysis program you can cue up reports on wear, chart the trends and quickly sort out the machines that may not be performing up to the norm,” LeBlanc says.

“We have a feature called summary analysis that will allow you to take any data oil analysis provides and click on that data and create a maintenance report card,” Betner says. “It tells you the percentage of time that you’re seeing problems in specific areas. You can set it up by engine type to see of one brand of engine is showing more problems than others and avoid inherent issues that may exist in some equipment types. If you have more than one maintenance facility, you can see how each facility is doing relative to another. We have fleet managers who actually reward their employees based on this type of data,” he says.

“A person can log in and basically take the data and do what they want with it,” says Badal. “They can pick and choose what they want and chart trends very easily. They can customize reports and the things they feel are important to them.” As an example Badal cites contractors who chart the particle size in their hydraulic fluid. Over time these particles will grow in number and when they reach a certain point they can do a lot of expensive damage to your hydraulic system. But by charting the growth of these particles the maintenance manager can choose the optimum point to replace or clean the hydraulic fluid, saving himself an expensive repair, and not waste money on redundant or unneeded maintenance either.

In most cases you can also sync your online oil analysis reports with other maintenance software you use to manage your fleet. Because there are dozens of different maintenance programs these sometimes have to be done on a case-by-case basis, but the process is not difficult.

Getting started

If you’re not already doing oil analysis, the way to get started is to contact your lube supplier or a laboratory such as Polaris or your lube supplier. Some lube oil suppliers have their own labs, others will refer you to a lab. The lab or supplier will set you up with the necessary equipment, sample bottles and preprinted labels. Most experts also recommend you put a sampling valve on your engine. These allow you drain off small amounts of oil cleanly without contaminating the sample.

Analyzing oil sample results online enables you to predict and schedule maintenance.Analyzing oil sample results online enables you to predict and schedule maintenance.

Look for quality in a lab or oil analysis provider. The ASTM has standards for the labs and the lab should be certified, says Badal. Also ask about cost, but don’t go cheap. “If somebody is offering you $2 samples, you’re going to get what you pay for,” Badal says. The average cost for a basic oil sample runs $8 to $12, but for detailed or certain specific tests you may need to pay up to $50.

Your lab or provider should also offer training to you and your maintenance crews or anybody who pulls the samples. “There has been more apathy created about oil analysis by not getting started right. You need to seek out a provider who will work with you and who knows what they’re doing,” Betner says. “Too often oil analysis is used as a sales add-on,” he says. You need to find a provider who will help you set up the program the right way, tell you how often to sample, how to read the reports, the best practices and how to follow up on the reports. And it’s not enough to do it just the first time. There is turnover in people, there are changes in equipment, and there are new things we are learning about oil analysis all the time. It’s a dynamic thing. Too many fleets say ‘I don’t think it really works for me,’ and that’s probably a result of not getting off to a good start and understanding how to make it work.”

Who needs it?

Oil sampling is the rule for most managers of large fleets. And that includes not only engine lube oil sampling but hydraulic fluid, coolant, transmissions, final drives and many other machine compartments.

But what about the guy with just one truck and a backhoe, or just a handful of machines? Is all this really necessary for the small operator?

“If you have just one machine, then that machine is your business,” Betner says. “If that machine goes down, you’ve lost your whole business. There is every reason in the world to take every preventive maintenance tool you can use because if that machine goes down you’re not generating revenue, period.”

Big and small

You don’t have to restrict oil sampling to just heavy, off-road diesel engines either. Sampling is a good tool for every kind of machine, says LeBlanc. “I am seeing more interest in oil sampling now than ever before,” he says. “In this economy it’s just as important on a $2,000 piece of equipment as it is on a $500,000 piece of equipment. People need to get a longer life out of their equipment and they are sampling on a frequency to help them predict the life of that equipment.”

In the last decade all the emissions-related changes to on-road diesel engines, EGR, SCR, plus three new American Petroleum Institute oil categories make an even stronger case for sampling, LeBlanc says. Plus the most recent crop of diesel engine pickup trucks are doing more work with smaller engines, putting a lot of strain on the engines and oil. These are now ¾ and 1-ton pickups routinely pulling 15,000 pound/5th wheel trailers. “It’s vitally important that you do oil sampling here because the demands on engines – particularly since 2007 – have really gone up,” he says.

Oil analysis can also help in diagnosing a machine or truck that has problems that need further investigation, Minges says. Also remember that oil sampling, can help decided warranty issues in your favor as well. “We get samples from units that have failed – typically from insurance or law firms if there is potential litigation,” Minges says. EW