Ban the Can: Sealable, Reusable Oil Containers Are Smarter Option

Jim Fitch, Noria Corporation
Tags: lubricant storage and handling, contamination control

The oil can was in need of a major redo years ago. It was grossly outdated in terms of modern views and needs relating to lubrication and machinery reliability. Fortunately, new products sporting highly advanced features have emerged on the market. For clarification, I’ll refer to the historic products as “oil cans” and their modern replacements as S&R containers. S&R is short for “sealable and reusable”.

Despite the obsolescence, the oil can still seems to prevail undeterred in many user organizations like a bad rash. You think it’s finally gone and then it just comes right back. Either these companies that use such archaic products are Neanderthals or they simply do not understand the business case for ditching the old in favor of the new. This column was written to provide a gentle nudge to those who seem to have trouble getting or understanding this important message. In the world of machine reliability, this message is not trivial but rather a foundational underpinning of a well-engineered reliability program.

Figure 1. By their design and generic nature, traditional oil cans contribute to contamination and misapplication issues. Some models are also hard to clean.

Law of the Critical Few

Why do machines fail? The reasons are many, but Vilfredo Pareto (from the Pareto Principle) taught us that we need to focus our time and resources on the so-called “critical few”. It is these few causes that contribute to the vast majority of failure occurrences. Precision maintenance depends on targeting the “critical few”. One such cause is the vital need to control the ingress of contamination that too often enters our machines. Contamination is a silent but terminal disease in machinery that doesn’t get needed attention in most organizations. Another such cause is the importance of ensuring that the correct grade and quality of lubricant goes into the machine. It sounds like common sense, but sadly, it is fraught with human error. Fortunately, S&R containers address both of these causes. (More on that later.)

Further, a surprisingly high percentage of lubricant consumption is disposed of unnecessarily. Oil cans often have residual oil in them from the previous use. They are then placed on the ground in the lube storage room or near a machine. Because (A) these oil cans aren’t labeled correctly (causing identification confusion of the residual lubricant), (B) there is a need to use the container for a different grade of oil, and/or (C) the residual oil has not been protected from environmental contamination, this remaining lubricant is normally discarded. As much as 20 percent of total oil consumption in many organizations is wasted unnecessarily in this manner.

There are many more benefits to lube programs by using S&R containers. These include ergonomics (ease and convenience of use), safety, avoiding human error and general good housekeeping. The following is an overview of how modern S&R containers achieve these important goals.

Contamination Control: The Silent Disease

Particles and moisture enter lubricants from a variety of sources and entry points. Many of these contaminants arrive in stages through the chain of custody as lubricants are handled and transported from blend plant to ultimate point of use. For small machines, a surprisingly large amount of contamination is introduced at the last stage, between intermediate storage (e.g., drum or tote) and the machine. This is where the S&R container plays a vital role in controlling contaminant ingression during routine oil changes and top-ups (the introduction of makeup oil). Here is how that is achieved:

Cleanable: Oil cans with narrow openings are hard to clean (see Figure 1). Ever tried to clean one of these guys? Conversely, wide-mouth bottles such as the S&R containers in Figure 2 and 3 offer welcomed convenience when it comes to routine cleaning, typically done in a parts cleaning station or industrial washing machine. Most importantly, they present little opportunity for invasion of contamination and, hence, there is less need for such periodic cleaning.

Sealable: Unlike teapot type oil cans, S&R containers are tightly sealed to control air exchange and contaminant ingression. The air vent, nozzle and other openings are all snug tight when not in use. You don’t have to filter or clean what doesn’t become dirty.

Vent valve or breather: Yes, air does need to enter during oil dispensing, but S&R containers restrict the exchange of ambient air when not in use. Traditional oil cans, on the other hand, act more like dirt magnets by constantly collecting dust on the oil-wet internal surfaces. Some users have enhanced their S&R containers by installing small breathers (air filters) at the vent opening to remove particles from incoming air during oil dispensing – good, better, best! Some of the hand pumps available from S&R container manufacturers have integrated these breathers into the design.

Dispensing filtration: Some S&R containers are conveniently sold with hand pumps and hoses. An oil filter can be installed between the pump and the hose to serve as a final trap for particles before the oil enters the machine’s sump. This works especially well with low-viscosity fluids (turbine oils, for instance).

Quick-connects: Another advantage of using an S&R container with a hand pump is the ability to install a female quick-connect (QC) on the hose end and the male coupling on the machine (both fitted with dust caps). This eliminates the need to open fill ports to add oil (causing the introduction of contaminants) and also helps ensure that the oil is being filtered during dispensing. Most importantly, there is no need to use dirt-laden funnels. Finally, if the male QC is properly located in an active area of the sump (and below the fill level), this port can double as an oil sampling port (avoiding the undesirable practice of using a drop-tube when vacuum sampling).

Properly sized spout tips: Where a QC is not a practical option, S&R containers can be fitted with spout tips narrow enough to dispense oil into even the smallest fill ports (see Figure 2). Again, this conveniently avoids the need to use funnels.

Liner option: Some users have discussed the application of thin plastic liners with the S&R containers. These clean liners, similar to trash bags, are secured in the threads between the base and the lid of the container. The wide-mouth feature of these containers enables this option when the ability to clean the container is not a practical alternative.

Figure 2. Small fill port? With the right container and spout tip, it is no big deal.

The Human Interface

Today’s S&R containers are clearly the product of human engineering and industrial design. They offer needed convenience and ease of use in addition to safety features. Here are a few examples:

Get a grip: For a simple oil container, you’d think one handle would do the trick. Not true. These guys have as many as four handles (see Figure 3)! Handles are positioned for transport, tipping during dispensing and gripping the base container.

Graduation markings: Some of these S&R containers have level markings for easy measurement of oil volume during fill and dispensing.

Label mania: I mentioned common human errors from introducing the wrong lubricant into the machine. Much of this can be avoided by taking away the guesswork and enhancing communication. The S&R containers have this figured out. They are equipped with an assortment of labeling options including colors, adhesive labels and plastic data pouches for detailed product information (including MSDS sheets). Perhaps you’ve also heard that OSHA doesn’t like lubricants and chemicals sitting around in unmarked containers.

Figure 3. This S&R container features four handles, allowing the technician to choose the grips that are right for the application.

Tips to Best Use Containers

Besides the obvious, what follows are additional tips to optimize the use of S&R containers:

  1. Buy enough containers such that they are dedicated to work areas and lubricant types. Don’t share containers and risk cross-contamination of lubricants.
  2. Store S&R containers near the point of use in lockers to keep them clean and safe. This also enhances convenience (top-ups are more timely) and minimizes the risk of cross-contamination.
  3. On the container labeling, mark the date when it was last cleaned and when it needs to be cleaned next.
  4. Always take note of any sediment, sludge or water. If this is found, troubleshoot the source to avoid future introduction of these contaminants into your machine.
  5. Keep the outside of these containers wiped clean, especially the nozzle and handle areas.
  6. Train all operators and lube technicians on the proper use of S&R containers.

Don’t Be Caught Napping

S&R containers serve as a visual sign of maintenance excellence. Conversely, use of fossilized oil cans serves as a constant reminder of maintenance neglect and program stagnation. S&R containers are not high science, but rather a strong statement of a job well done. It’s time to act.
 


About the Author

Jim Fitch, a founder and CEO of Noria Corporation, has a wealth of experience in lubrication, oil analysis, and machinery failure investigations. He has advised hundreds of companies on developing their lubrication and oil analysis programs. Contact Jim at

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