Overheating ranks No. 2 in the list of most common problems with hydraulic equipment. Unlike leaks, which rank No. 1, the causes of overheating and its remedies are often not well understood by maintenance personnel

Why do Hydraulic Systems Overheat?

Heating of hydraulic fluid in operation is caused by inefficiencies. Inefficiencies result in losses of input power, which are converted to heat. A hydraulic system’s heat load is equal to the total power lost (PL) through inefficiencies and can be expressed as:

PLtotal = PLpump + PLvalves + PLplumbing + PLactuators

If the total input power lost to heat is greater than the heat dissipated, the hydraulic system will eventually overheat. Installed cooling capacity typically ranges between 25 and 40 percent of input power, depending on the type of hydraulic system.

Hydraulic Fluid Temperature

How hot is too hot? Hydraulic fluid temperatures above 180°F (82°C) damage most seal compounds and accelerate degradation of the oil. While the operation of any hydraulic system at temperatures above 180°F should be avoided, fluid temperature is too high when viscosity falls below the optimum value for the hydraulic system’s components. This can occur well below 180°F, depending on the fluid’s viscosity grade.

Maintaining Stable Hydraulic Fluid Temperature

To achieve stable fluid temperature, a hydraulic system’s capacity to dissipate heat must exceed its heat load. For example, a system with continuous input power of 100 kW and an efficiency of 80 percent needs to be capable of dissipating a heat load of at least 20 kW. Assuming this system has a designed cooling capacity of 25 kW, anything that increases heat load above 25 kW or reduces the cooling system’s capacity below 25 kW will cause the system to overheat.

Consider this example. I was recently asked to investigate and solve an overheating problem in a mobile application. The hydraulic system was comprised of a diesel-hydraulic power unit, which was being used to power a pipe-cutting saw. The saw was designed for sub-sea use and was connected to the hydraulic power unit on the surface via a 710-foot umbilical. The operating requirements for the saw were 24 GPM at 3,000 PSI.

The hydraulic power unit had a continuous power rating of 37 kW and was fitted with an air-blast heat exchanger. The exchanger was capable of dissipating 10 kW of heat under ambient conditions or 27 percent of available input power (10/37 x 100 = 27). The performance of all cooling circuit components were checked and found to be operating within design limits.

At this point it, was clear that the overheating problem was being caused by excessive heat load. Concerned about the length of the umbilical, I calculated its pressure drop. The theoretical pressure drop across 710 feet of ¾-inch pressure hose at 24 GPM is 800 PSI. The pressure drop across the same length of 1-inch return hose is 200 PSI. The theoretical heat load produced by the pressure drop across the umbilical of 1,000 PSI (800 + 200 = 1,000) was 10.35 kW. This meant that the heat load of the umbilical was 0.35 kW more than the heat dissipation capacity of the hydraulic system’s heat exchanger. This, when combined with the system’s normal heat load (inefficiencies) was causing the hydraulic system to overheat.

Beat the Heat
There are two ways to solve overheating problems in hydraulic systems: decrease heat load or increase heat dissipation.

Hydraulic systems dissipate heat through the reservoir. Therefore, check the reservoir fluid level and if low, fill to the correct level. Check that there are no obstructions to airflow around the reservoir, such as a buildup of dirt or debris.

Inspect the heat exchanger and ensure that the core is not blocked. The ability of the heat exchanger to dissipate heat is dependent on the flow-rate and temperature of both the hydraulic fluid and the cooling air or water circulating through the exchanger. Check the performance of all cooling circuit components and replace as necessary.

An infrared thermometer can be used to check the performance of a heat exchanger, provided the design flow-rate of hydraulic fluid through the exchanger is known. To do this, measure the temperature of the oil entering and exiting the exchanger and substitute the values in the following formula:

Where: kW = heat dissipation of exchanger in kilowatts

L/min = oil flow through the exchanger in liters per minute

T ºC = inlet oil temperature minus outlet oil temperature in Celsius

For example, if the measured temperature drop across the exchanger is 4ºC and the design oil flow-rate is 90 L/min, the exchanger is dissipating 10 kW of heat. Relating this to a system with a continuous input power of 100 kW, the exchanger is dissipating 10 percent of input power. If the system is overheating, it means that either there is a problem in the cooling circuit or the capacity of the exchanger is insufficient for the ambient operating conditions.

On the other hand, if the measured temperature drop across the exchanger is 10ºC and the design oil flow-rate is 90 L/min, the exchanger is dissipating 26 kW of heat. Relating this to a system with a continuous input power of 100 kW, the exchanger is dissipating 26 percent of input power. If the system is overheating, this means that the efficiency of the system has fallen below 74 percent.

Pressure Drop Means Heat

Where there is a pressure drop, heat is generated. This means that any component in the system that has abnormal, internal leakage will increase the heat load on the system and can cause the system to overheat. This could be anything from a cylinder that is leaking high-pressure fluid past its piston seal, to an incorrectly adjusted relief valve. Identify and change-out any heat-generating components.

A common cause of heat generation in closed center circuits is the setting of relief valves below, or too close to, the pressure setting of the variable-displacement pump’s pressure compensator. This prevents system pressure from reaching the setting of the pressure compensator. Instead of pump displacement reducing to zero, the pump continues to produce flow, which passes over the relief valve, generating heat. To prevent this problem in closed center circuits, the pressure setting of the relief valve(s) should be 250 PSI above the pressure setting of the pump’s pressure compensator (Figure 1).


Closed center circuit showing relief
valve (RV) setting 250 PSI above
the pressure compensator (PC)
setting of the variable pump (PV).
Figure 1

Continuing to operate a hydraulic system when the fluid is over-temperature is similar to operating an internal combustion engine with high coolant temperature. Damage is guaranteed. Therefore, whenever a hydraulic system starts to overheat, shut it down, identify the cause and fix it.