Maintenance: Are you ready to extend your oil drains?

In these costs-sensitive times, it’s enticing to consider the potential savings of up to 50 percent of oil change costs offered by extending oil life. Those savings may prove false, however, and lead to increased maintenance and even component failure if you don’t have the right systems and people in place. As you delve into this possibility, consider the following:

Start with a goal in mind. Know what potential cost savings or productivity increases are important to your operation. Since the actual cost of oil is a miniscule part of your total maintenance costs, other oil drain costs will be more pertinent, including servicing and downtime. Know how much you’re spending in these areas (or in the case of downtime, the productivity gains you want) and how much you want to save. Another part of the equation: extended oil drains require premium oils, filters and coolants, which cost more. This is one area where cheap won’t cut it.

Do your homework. Have a frank discussion with your equipment dealer, oil distributor and oil analysis lab. Ask them to detail potential cost savings, risks and the internal processes that need to be in place for you to move forward. Know the OEM oil, filter and coolant recommendations for each extended drain candidate machine. Some OEMs will tell you point blank not to extend oil drain intervals on a machine under warranty. Others highly recommend the up-front talks.

Get your oil analysis in order. You need good trend data before you take even a baby step into extended drains. During the initial phases of any extended drain effort, you’ll also need to order more oil samples, which becomes another cost factor. Make sure your oil analysis lab is doing all the key tests to sufficiently monitor all critical factors. This is also the time to thoroughly review how your company receives and acts on oil analysis reports.

Fully discuss your intent within your company. Get everyone on board, including top management, field and shop personnel. Make sure they understand your goals and the effort required to achieve them. And everyone should know the margin for error is now smaller – if an oil drain is missed by 25 or 50 hours it’s a more significant miss than if a machine was on a standard schedule.

Maintenance discipline is a must. Your maintenance practices need to be ship shape to extend oil drain intervals. Some areas to examine: your recordkeeping, lubricant storage and handling procedures and oil sampling practices – plus the overall competence of your service team. Most lubrication-related premature engine failures are caused by contaminated oil from coolant leaks, dirt, fuel dilution and heavy soot loading. Make sure your operation has an eye on these problem areas.

Recognize sometimes oil needs to be changed more often, rather than less. Environmental factors – especially dirty, dusty environments – may make drain extensions inadvisable. Machines working under heavy loads, and in high ambient temperatures or high altitudes are also poor extended drain choices. Good candidates will usually be newer machines – or older machines with recently overhauled engines – involved in typical earthmoving applications.

Start small. Test a small segment of your fleet first, and extend drains in short increments. Watch oil analysis reports closely for any problem signs.

Know that different engines behave differently. Oil analysis will help you decide the best interval for each engine.

Consider the big picture. Your maintenance schedule relies on standard service intervals. An engine oil change, for example, can typically trigger hydraulic and cooling system services. With extended drains, however, the timing may get out of kilter. Consider the service schedule for the entire machine and adjust accordingly. Making extra field service trips just to accommodate an extended drain is expensive, and counter to any potential cost savings.

You have the burden of proof. Recognize if a component fails under warranty, the burden of proof is on you. Your maintenance records and oil analysis reports will be your first line of defense. Ask yourself if you can truly defend your oil change interval.

Filters are part of the equation. Filters must meet the beta and micron rating specified by the OEM. Cheaper filters may not have the same capability and can shorten the life of your oil – not help extend it. Know the rating of the filter you’re buying compared to OEM recommendations. And consider using bypass filtration, which offers an additional level of cleanliness, helping oil longevity. Many times the cost of a bypass filter can be realized within two to three extended oil changes.

Don’t forget the cooling system. Send coolant samples for analysis at the start of your extension effort, and at each oil change. Look at the possibility of using extended life coolants.

Factor in low sulfur fuel. Until the switch to ultra low sulfur fuel in 2010, contractors still have the choice of using low sulfur fuel. Be aware, however, the 500 ppm of sulfur in low sulfur fuel can stress the oil.

Realize that many of today’s machines have extended drain intervals already designed in. For example, design advancements have led several manufacturers to double the engine oil drain intervals – from 250 to 500 hours – from just a few years ago.

Finally, know there’s no risk-free way to extend drains. After you’ve made all your calculations, you may find out the money you save is not worth the increased risk of component repair or failure.


Mark Betner, heavy duty lubricants manager, Citgo Petroleum

Charles Gay, senior data analyst, Analysts Incorporated

Bill Gosse, manager, Komatsu Oil & Wear Analysis program, Komatsu America

Diego Navarro, service marketing manager, John Deere Construction and Forestry

David Nycz, market professional, Caterpillar

John Shepard, direct channel marketing specialist, Chevron Products

Kris Sherman, manager, Advantage Program, Komatsu America

Further resources
Check out for these related past articles:

February, 2008, “From drum to disposal: Hydraulic system cleanliness requires paying attention to the entire fluid cycle.”

May, 2008, “Oil analysis: Get the answers you paid for.”