Oils and oil analysis

Thanks to EPA regulations that kicked in about two years ago, the engines you run in your new on-road trucks today and your off-road equipment tomorrrow may very well run hotter and create more soot and acid inside the combustion chamber. In anticipation of this, the oil industry and several engine manufacturers beefed up their oil specs to handle this new and harsher environment.

And while there haven’t been any drastic problems in engine performance and durability, the fact remains that engines have changed and will continue to change as emissions regulations get tighter. The only way you can be sure you’re giving your equipment the best care in this harsh new operating environment is to take a fresh new look at your oil sampling and analysis program.

Different engines, different results
“When the new EGR engines came out there were things we hadn’t anticipated such as the excessive thickening of oil due to soot in some applications,” says Dan Arcy, product marketing manager, Shell Oil. “Soot thickens the oil up, increasing viscosity, and it can become abrasive. You definitely need to look at it.”

The recirculating exhaust gasses also increase the amount of sulfur in the combustion chamber, which creates a slightly more acidic environment. The CI-4 oil spec was designed to alleviate these conditions with better soot dispersal and a higher base content, but when these types of engines are put into construction applications with high idle time and intermittent activity, both soot and sulfur increase.

“The new engines also tend to shear some oils down more than older engines,” Arcy says. Shearing results in a reduction of the oil’s viscosity range. For example, a 15W-40 oil may be sheared down to a 15W-30 viscosity, resulting in a degradation of the oil’s performance characteristics.

“The verdict is still out in many areas of the low-emission engines,” says Mark Betner, heavy-duty products manager, Citgo Petroleum, “but I think the oil trends to date are looking pretty good. I don’t think we’re as bad off as we thought we would be four years ago. In the general population of our customers, I don’t see anybody rolling back drain intervals.”
Bonus for off-road equipment

One of the benefits construction contractors have gained from all of these changes is that the CI-4 diesel engine oil standards are more robust than before.
“It was a significant upgrade in the performance of these oils,” says Ken Cicora,

ExxonMobil’s off-highway advisor for the Americas. “There is a performance benefit for the off-highway user. With the new formulations, soot-loading capability is greater. They also have greater shear stability, wear protection and decreased oil consumption. So you can consider extending your drains out a bit further.”

A vampire pump is used to extract an oil sample from the engine oil filler port.

Getting serious
With all the changes that have already happened and those to come, there has never been a better time to learn more about what an oil sampling and analysis program can do for you. Oil analysis at the very basic level will tell you when your oil is used up or contaminated, or if your engines have fuel or coolant leaks or component wear. But if you’re willing to step up to the next level, oil analysis can also do much more.

“If you see wear trends for a particular machine, it can help you with warranty issues,” Betner says. “It can give you some negotiating leverage if you have an oil analysis history that shows good data reflecting good maintenance.” Good oil sample histories may also play a role in negotiating for new equipment, he adds, if one brand of equipment shows a higher frequency of problems.

Another benefit to trend analysis is that it enables you to optimize your drain intervals. If your samples consistently show good oil and low contamination at the regularly scheduled drain interval, you may be able to extend that drain interval and save considerable money. Before launching any extended drain program, however, you need to talk to your equipment dealer and your lube supplier for guidance on how to set up a pilot program.

“Basically you would take more frequent oil samples and, depending on the size of your fleet, you would take about 10 percent of the vehicles and go through a systematic drain extension,” Cicora says. The oil analysis will tell you when you’ve reached the limits. “When you get to the furthest point out that you think is safe you pull back 10 or 15 percent in order to have that safety factor,” he says.

Both in the pilot and in any extended drain program it is important to standardize your service, says Arcy. Use the same oil and filters and treat every machine alike, keeping in mind that different operating environments and even different amounts of idle time will skewer the results. Arcy also notes that near identical machines from different OEMs or with different engines will give different results.

The biggest limitation in extending drains on off-road equipment is almost always dirt contamination, Arcy says. If you can keep the dirt filtered out, you have a better chance at prolonging drain intervals.

Predicting maintenance
Tracking the trends in your oil analysis also allows you to predict maintenance needs months in advance. For instance, the amount of wear metals in your oil samples will continue to grow as a machine ages. By plotting this increase you can predict when a bearing or component is likely to fail and continue to operate the machine up until you get near that point or until you see an upwards spike in that particular trend.

Likewise if coolant, fuel or dirt consistently show up at above normal levels in your samples, you may want to consider changing your maintenance practices, filters or components to help alleviate the problem.

Buyers of used equipment can be wary of a machine that doesn’t come with a documented maintenance history. Nothing illustrates the care you’ve taken with your machines like four or five years of oil samples. When it comes time to sell that equipment, a complete record of oil samples and maintenance documentation will add thousands of dollars to the value of the equipment.

A permanently installed valve like Polaris Lab’s QuickDraw system shown here allows you to cleanly and quickly take an oil sample upstream of the filter.

The Internet question
Almost all major lubricant suppliers now have some sort of Internet capability built into their oil analysis offerings. With these you get an e-mail notification that your samples have been analyzed and then go to the company’s website to check out the results. There are clearly many advantages to Internet-based reporting systems. But among the experts we talked to there are those who are enthusiastic about Internet reporting and those who say it’s not right for every customer.

“If it’s a small contractor with just a handful of equipment, he may not need the Internet,” says Joe Nixon, coordinator of services, ConocoPhillips. “But a customer with hundreds of pieces of equipment – his paperwork becomes unmanageable. If he’s got the Internet, it’s all right there.”

The fully featured Internet sites, in addition to keeping track of all your oil sample results, will give you a database in which you can record all your equipment and the maintenance histories of those machines. You can also compare how your machines are doing against the histories the lab has on other like machines. The sites also help by reminding you when it’s time for a sample or an oil or filter change, chart trends in your sample results and e-mail you when a sample shows an abnormal critical result. Some of the services will send alerts to cell phones or other wireless media. All this is typically built into the price of your sample and costs no more than getting results by mail or fax.

Multiple points of view
“The beautiful thing about the Internet is I can sit here in my office and when a customer calls I can look at what he’s looking at and the lab or the equipment dealer can see the same thing if the customer wants them in on the discussion,” Nixon says. And since the contractor’s information is confidential and password protected, he doesn’t have to worry about privacy issues.

Having a big, computerized database of information about your machines and their maintenance helps to summarize mountains of data and give you a more comprehensive picture of your needs. In the past managers had trouble sorting and sifting through all the information that came in on paper, Betner says. “They were only looking through little windows of information and they couldn’t see the big picture and that probably caused some apathy,” he says.

Not right for everybody
Arcy agrees that the Internet offers advantages to contractors with large fleets and too much paperwork, but still says the majority of his oil analysis customers rely on paper records sent in the mail. Some contractors don’t have regular access to the Internet, he says, and some don’t want their employees on the Internet.
But for large fleets and maintenance managers who take a rigorous, proactive approach to their service programs, the Internet’s offerings are the way to go.