Physical characteristics such as appearance and odor can identify gross contamination in a fluid sample. But for optimum performance and longevity for your equipment fleet, you'll want to know what's going on with your fluids long before it's this obvious.
"Visual appearance of the fluid is a pretty good aid for identifying when something is excessive," says Shawn Ewing, technical coordinator, ConocoPhillips Lubricants. "But don't rely strictly on the physical condition of the fluid to identify problems."
Instead, sending the fluid to a reputable lab for analysis is an important tool for monitoring what's going on with the lubricants in your fleet. "If you can identify something that is slowly increasing, it gives you the ability to schedule service," says Tom Bell, manager of laboratory testing at Chevron. "Your ultimate goal should be preventive rather than reactive. Prevention gives you the ability to do repairs on your own timeframe. That way, you aren't in a hurry, nor are you tempted to cut corners on a repair to speed the process. Planning for maintenance, as opposed to being reactive to a breakdown, is a much more economical way to run a business."
In this article, experts will provide information to help you read and respond to fluid analysis reports.
"Don't be intimidated by the reports," encourages Jason Papacek, data analysis manager, POLARIS Laboratories. "There's a lot of guidance in them. And don't be afraid to work with the lab and your lubricants supplier to get the best information so you can make the best decisions."
Capture fluid performance
Most reports are boiled down to a one-page analysis that captures the performance of the fluid and the status of its host unit. And to allow faster, easier access to information, many lubricant suppliers and independent labs are making the reports available through online programs.
"Electronic data management allows you to organize the data more efficiently," says Mark Betner, heavy-duty lubricants manager at Citgo Petroleum. "It also gives you features you don't necessarily have with paper communications."
For example, there are features within computerized oil analysis programs that allow you to summarize data and compare it from one time period to another. They can also help to summarize histories of individual units, which can be combined with maintenance records to enhance resale value.
What does it all mean?
Whether you get reports on paper or via e-mail, start by reading the recommendations/comments and identifying any areas that need immediate attention. (See sample report on page 74 for areas to focus on.) If you are part of an online program, many labs will also send e-mail notification of abnormal or critical issues, enabling you to act more quickly.
If you do get a critical report, don't panic, advises Bell. "A lot depends on the situation," he says. "Typically, a resample will be recommended to determine if it is truly a problem with the equipment or if it's the fluid or the lab. If you went from 'normal' to 'critical' in one analysis, there may be an error with the sampling. You want to be cautious about making a radical decision based on one test result. Instead, look at several reports together and take it all into consideration."
Most suppliers and labs recommend tracking at least three samples to create a history that will highlight any trends developing with your equipment.
"Histories will allow you to see if something like iron is starting to creep up with each successive report," Bell notes. "Then you know you're getting close to doing a tear down and rebuild and you can plan for it."
Ewing adds, "You also need to keep in mind that the report contains general guidelines. Each engine will be different, so watching trends and histories is important. A lot of times, you don't need to panic about every oil analysis that is out of parameter. Talk about the results with your supplier and lab. They can help determine what you really need to focus on."