Like any tool, fluid analysis is only as good as the person who uses it. To really take advantage of what it has to offer, you must understand what you are trying to accomplish, be able to interpret the results you are given and be able to act on those results.
"Oil analysis is a tool and it can be used many different ways," says Shawn Ewing, technical coordinator, ConocoPhillips Lubricants. Define what you are trying to achieve. Are you trying to eliminate unplanned downtime? Are you having certain types of component failures, such as engines, transmissions or hydraulic systems? Is it being used as a preventive maintenance tool? Are you evaluating different types of oils? Do you want to extend oil drain intervals? The answers to these questions will help you tailor an oil analysis program to best fit your needs.
"Establishing program goals will drive the proper testing," says Brett Minges, POLARIS Laboratories. Consider extended oil drain intervals. "A test package that monitors contamination and wear wouldn't include the base number and oxidation/nitration test necessary to extending drain intervals. Knowing your program's purpose, and always keeping in mind what you're trying to accomplish, identifies the testing that should be done."
You also need to understand that different goals come with different levels of complexity. Evaluate the goals based on where you are currently. You may have to take a stepped approach to get where you eventually want to be. "If you've never done fluid analysis, start slowly," says Minges. "Let your goals and your current program, or lack thereof, dictate where to begin and at what level. Good analysis programs should help discipline maintenance practices, so be sure to get a good handle on what preventive maintenance means to you first."
Then you have to measure the results to determine the success of the program. "Whether your goals are financial in nature or performance-oriented, you have to establish some benchmarks by which you can measure your effectiveness at reaching them," says Minges. "The good thing about fluid analysis is that it generates data. But how well you manage that data is key to measuring program performance."
If you are new to oil analysis, it's not necessary to do everything at once. "I would not jump in with both feet," says Ewing. "I would pick out some critical equipment and get my feet on the ground."
Junk in, junk out
We have all heard the adage "junk in, junk out". This also holds true with a lubricant analysis program.
"When you are setting up the program, accuracy in documenting the type of equipment, the component and the product being used is all very important," says Dan Arcy, Shell Lubricants. "We have seen samples come in and it will just say Cat. It will not say what engine it is, it will not say the number of hours. It makes it very difficult to give a good evaluation of the oil sample."
The more detailed the information you provide the better. "Engine make and model, hours/miles on the engine, hours on the oil, amount of top-off oil added and the oil name/grade are all vital data points to provide to the laboratory," says Donnie Thweatt, off-highway sales, Chevron Products Co.
Consider the case of a new engine vs. an engine that has a few hours. "If you had a unit come in, and it only had 100 hours on it and iron is at 100 ppm, there would be a concern," says Arcy. "But if it has 400 hours on it and there is 100 ppm, that may be normal." Without proper documentation, you could not distinguish between the two samples.
Identification of the make and model of the engine can be very useful to an oil analysis lab. For example, some Caterpillar engines use copper oil coolers. "If all of a sudden copper spikes at 300 ppm, [our lab] is going to get excited about it," says Arcy. But the lab will know to ask if a new oil cooler was put in. "Copper oil coolers sometimes show extremely high levels of copper for the first couple drain intervals."