Tap into an oil analysis to spot emerging challenges

by Eric Berard

Oil analysis programs can identify many emerging challenges.

All of us have at some point experienced a computer crash caused by viruses, malware or other digital threats that accumulate over time, often interacting with each other until the whole system breaks down. Inevitably, the expert we call in a state of panic has this to ask: “Do you scan your hard drive regularly?”

It’s similar to a question often asked when it comes to oil analyses, says Nicholas Reich, vice-president of sales at Tribologik Laboratories’ Canadian headquarters in Montreal. “When someone approaches us, usually they already have a problem and they’re trying to investigate what happened. But it should be something that’s done constantly, to make sure that nothing happens.”

Oil analyses don’t always bring bad news by revealing latent catastrophes waiting to happen. In fact, they sometimes simply confirm that you’re doing OK or could do even better. “We witnessed a lot of cases where the oil that was brought to us didn’t even require to be drained in the first place,” says Moussa Zidoune, director of Tribologik’s laboratory, illustrating the potential for longer drain intervals and the related savings.

Having the lubes analyzed can also offer hints on how your drivers treat your trucks. For example, high levels of soot, acid, or fuel blow-by values in the oil may indicate excessive idling by drivers. Discovering and modifying such behaviors in time can avoid unnecessary maintenance expenses, says Reich, referring to the way excessive idling can cause oil to thicken and sludge to accumulate.

Reducing the unwanted idling can extend oil life and save fuel alike, and that’s on top of reducing the threat of fines in idle-free zones.

Unwelcome intruders

The most common trespasser in the oil sump is engine coolant. It usually finds its way to the oil through a worn head gasket or engine head cracks that expand as the engine warms. “Coolant is oil’s worst enemy,” Zidoune says, noting how lubricating properties are sacrificed with just a drop of coolant.

The presence of diesel in oil is not unusual, either. It might indicate poor-quality fuel that doesn’t burn completely, or an issue with a seal. “That could dilute the oil. It could make it thinner,” Reich says.

Finding traces of metal particles in the oil will be normal, too. All engines wear and leave traces of copper, iron and other metallic matter behind. The challenges emerge if the levels are too high, or if they appear at the wrong time.

Too much metal in the oil doesn’t necessarily mean that your engine is a lemon. It could be a sign that you’re not using the appropriate type of oil, leading to the conditions that can cause premature wear.

But to determine all the necessary facts, lab technicians need you to provide them with correct, basic background information, such as the engine make and model year, since the alloys used in manufacturing and engine will differ from one brand to another. Readings are also expected to change over time as a specific engine evolves. To put it another way, the same level that’s accepted one day may raise a red flag months down the road.

Reading a report

The engine’s age will also determine how to read an oil analysis report. When construing the presence of metal particles, for example, take into account the normal break-in period of an engine. Copper leaching is normal during that time, Reich says.

“It’s important to tell us for how long you’ve had the engine. How old is the engine? If we see copper at the beginning of the life of the engine, it’s normal. But towards the middle or the end of the life of the engine, well that’s excessive wear, bearing failure and other issues,” he says.

Even your own age and the last time you had an oil analysis performed could create a bias in the way you read results and come to conclusions. Many things have changed in engine design with successive rounds of emission restrictions.

Tony Costa, the maintenance manager at Toronto-based Carmen Transportation, says engineers have actually changed some of the rules about what levels are acceptable or

not. “What used to be a ‘no pass’ became a ‘pass,’” he says, using aluminum levels as an example.

It’s why he says maintenance managers should look beyond binary “pass” or “fail” grades and explore the actual parts per million of different materials that are recorded in an oil report.

Instead of making conclusions based on the snapshot of a single oil analysis, it’s also important to look at trends over time, says Zidoune. Identifying a trend such as a gradual increase of a given contaminant can help indicate issues that are coming your way.

It’s not an onerous amount of reading. The test results are typically reported in one or two pages, and often include visual indicators to offer guidance at a glance.

“Typically on an oil analysis report, you’ll have a few different tables with the test results. You’ll have some comments on those results and you might have trending graphs so you can visualize the numbers,” Tribologik’s Reich says.

Not only for the big guys

Money shouldn’t be an obstacle to oil monitoring, either. A sample can be analyzed for around $35 and save you thousands in avoided downtime, says Gloria Gonzalez, general manager at WearCheck Canada in Burlington, Ont.

Reich at Tribologik agrees. “Spending money on an oil analysis program is not actually spending. It’s investing and saving money. Because if you catch one problem and you save one engine, you paid for the program for the whole year or several years’ worth,” he says. “This is why large fleets typically do their oil analyses, and they take it very seriously.”

Even equipment suppliers themselves rely on oil analyses to guide factors such as warranty decisions. “Cummins uses all the data available, including fluids analysis, to make the most accurate decisions on field issues,” said Autumnlynn Glass, a Cummins fluids chemist and oil industry liaison, referring to one example.

So if major fleets and engine OEMs find oil analyses to be a reliable, profitable business tool, chances are that they could also benefit a small or medium-sized fleet.

“It’s all about early detection. An oil analysis can catch things a heck of a lot earlier than any mechanic or any technician working on the vehicle — because we’re looking at microscopic particles,” Reich concludes.

And it’s a process worth repeating.

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