Managing the lubricants that flow through a shop

Truck maintenance facilities are home to many fluids and lubricants, each presenting an opportunity for a costly mix-up. Putting the wrong oil into an engine, used coolant into a reservoir, or allowing contaminants to enter a diesel exhaust fluid storage tote will all create problems for your equipment — and they are easy mistakes to make when performing under pressure.

“I’ve seen used coolant go back into engines,” said Paul Cigala, commercial vehicle lubrication applications engineer with ExxonMobil. All it takes is an improperly labeled drum. “Someone put used coolant in that empty drum. You have to make sure everything is labeled correctly.”

Jean-Francois Leroux, technical lead with lubricant distributor Catalys, said one of the biggest mistakes fleets and repair centers make is not identifying or misidentifying the product that’s in any given container. He said tanks, transfer containers, drums – and anything else used to store and transfer fluids and lubricants – must be labeled. Brad Jordan, technical services manager for coolants with Shell Lubricants, even suggests labeling reservoirs on the vehicles themselves so a technician or driver is reminded of the required fluid before topping up. A labeled reservoir is the final warning opportunity to avoid a misfill.

“If the driver is on the road, they will know what coolant to look for, and if any maintenance is done at a shop that’s unfamiliar with the truck, they’ll know what type of coolant to top off with,” Jordan said.

Back at the shop, labels must be kept up to date. Leroux said fleets may change suppliers but not update the labels.

“People will change their lubricant supplier and keep the old name on drums,” he said.

“We have people that labeled something from five suppliers ago,” agreed Troy Olmsted, Catalys’ Ontario sales manager.

“People think grease can handle contaminants, but that’s really not true.”

Jean-Francois Leroux, Catalys

Transfer containers should also be labeled and only used for the appropriate fluids. Using the same container to transfer different types of lubricant can throw off the specification. Leaving transfer containers open can allow dirt and debris to contaminate the fluid, Leroux added.

This even holds true for products such as grease.

“For some reason, people believe grease is not as important as oil in terms of becoming contaminated,” said Leroux. “People think grease can handle contaminants, but that’s really not true. It’s not designed to handle contaminants.”

Some drivers or technicians like to carry fluids in their own containers, in case they’re needed on the road. “People using their own jugs is fine, as long as they’re clean,” said Olmsted.

Pouring oil to car engine. Fresh oil poured during an oil change to a car.
Organization is key to ensuring the right fluid or lubricant goes into the right vehicles. (Photo: iStock)

Cleanliness of anything that comes into contact with the fluid – such as tank vents, fill caps and filters – is also important. In the shop, Leroux suggested having a dedicated fluid storage area where bulk tanks can be filled. Color-coded labels can help ensure technicians don’t grab the wrong fluid or lubricant.

Lubricants should be stored in a cool, dry environment, added Cigala.

Heavy-duty and light-duty engine oils should also be segregated so a technician in a rush doesn’t grab the wrong jug, said Darryl Purificati, senior technical advisor – OEM/automotive at HF Sinclair. He’s a big fan of color coding.

“Color coding is the easiest thing you can do,” he said. “Good separation, good labelling, and operator training. Anyone who comes into the shop should have training of some sort.”

Dispensing nozzles should also be labeled so they are only used with the appropriate tank, added Olmsted.

Another strategy that can help avoid contamination is to consolidate lubes and fluids whenever possible.

“Reducing the number of products in a shop will minimize the risk of a lubricant mix-up,” said Leroux.

Cigala said one of his first recommendations to a fleet is usually to seek out opportunities to consolidate product.

“The first thing I look at is, how many engine oils, greases, and coolants are there,” he said. The fewer SKUs there are in the shop, the less risk of contamination.

When consolidating lubricants, Leroux warned it must be done strategically so equipment continues to get the recommended product. “It has to be done with some expertise and knowledge,” he said, “to ensure that all the OEM recommendations or spec’s are met.”

For coolants, Jordan says it’s generally possible to manage even a mixed fleets with a single product. “The chances of topping off with the wrong coolant are increased if you have more than one,” he reasoned. “Generally, you can work with your coolant supplier and truck OEM to find one coolant to cover the need of the whole fleet.”

Purificati agreed that consolidation must be done with help from suppliers. “You can’t just do it yourself,” he said. “You can’t pretend that because it’s wet and sticky, that two 5W-30s are fungible, or that you can take whichever is cheapest and go from there.”

Stocking the cheapest lubricant – or whatever is on sale – is a frequent mistake, he added, noting that brings a wider variety of products into the shop, increasing the risk of cross-contamination.

When it comes to engine oil, keeping an extra jug in the truck can help ensure drivers don’t add the wrong formula if they have to top up on the road. But Leroux also recommends training those drivers so they know which fluids to use and where.

Lubricant suppliers will help organize the fluids in a shop, too. Catalys, for example, conducts shop audits and helps maintenance managers implement a “best in class” fluid management program.

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James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 20 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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