How To Evaluate a Lubricant Distributor

Dwayne Jenkins, O’Rourke Petroleum
Tags: lubricant storage and handling

When a power plant in Texas ran low on turbine oil, the operation’s night crew ordered six drums of turbine oil from a local distributor. What they received was five drums of turbine oil and one drum of motor oil in a drum labeled turbine oil. When the oil was received at the plant and added to the turbine oil reservoir, the effects were devastating.

It was necessary to shut down the unit immediately, which resulted in an unscheduled unit outage and loss of revenue. In power generation, an unscheduled unit outage can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per day in lost production.

Reasonably, senior management asked how this happened. A technician in the distributor’s warehouse had repackaged detergent motor oil from bulk to drums. He ran out of drums labeled for motor oil before the job was complete, so he used a few turbine oil drums, with the intention of relabeling the drums later.

Somehow the relabeling never happened. That night, a different technician filled the power plant’s emergency order, unknowingly adding one of the mislabeled motor-oil drums to the order for turbine oil.

The important point here is that this was avoidable. With the appropriate quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) procedures in place at the distributorship, the shortcut would have never occurred.

At a recent lubrication technology conference, I asked the following question: “How many lubrication managers have visited their distributors and checked the QA/QC facilities and procedures firsthand?” Only one attendee in a crowd of approximately 80 people raised his hand. This is a disturbing response, and it indicates that few people are aware of the importance of the distributor’s role in the lubricant supply chain.

Presumptions and Misconceptions

Many users presume that lubricant manufacturers’ and distributors’ uniform standards and quality measures govern how products are handled. That is not the case. At present, there are no industrial standards that outline even minimal requirements for product handling and delivery to the end user. QA/QC programs (if any) are voluntary and limited in scope.

This industry-wide lack of QA/QC presents serious threats to end users’ investments in both lubricants and production machines.

Finding a reliable way to ensure lubricant quality requires a thorough discussion about the critical role that both lubricant manufacturers and distributors play in the lubricant supply chain.

The key words here are “supply chain.” Oil delivery is not a commodity any more than most lubricants are. Instead, it is a crucial link in the supply chain that can make the difference between getting the product you expect or getting unexpected problems. The remainder of this article focuses on the three links of the supply chain: the manufacturer, the distributor and the end user.

The Lubricant Manufacturer

The first critical step in the lubricant supply chain starts at the manufacturer’s blending facility where products are blended, packaged and sold to market distributors. With so many different lubricant products being formulated, it is imperative that a strong quality control program be in place to ensure a consistent quality product.

O’Rourke Petroleum is a Shell Oil Products distributor. Consequently, I am familiar with Shell’s procedures and distributor requirements. I believe Shell’s rigorous methods could serve as a blueprint for the industry, and I will refer to Shell standards within this case study.

The Shell lube plant in Houston, Texas for example, is ISO 9002- and QS 9000-certified and goes to great lengths to ensure that the same quality product leaves the blending plant each and every time. Here are a few of the many key items that ensure that Shell maintains product quality at its blend facilities - items you might want to inquire about when you visit your manufacturer:

Despite all of a manufacturer’s quality assurance efforts, there are many factors outside of the blend plant that represent product-quality risk to the end user. Most of these factors involve the distributor.

Your Lubricant Distributor

The distributor’s role in determining the quality of the lubricants is often overlooked. It is a presumption and misconception that all distributors follow the same quality standards. While the differences in quality standards among distributors could be addressed in a separate article, I will focus here on the overall aspects of a strong quality control program.

The Shell Corporation Distributor Product Quality Assurance (DPQA) program will again serve as a useful example.

The Distributor Product Quality Assurance program recognizes distributors who adhere to an exhaustive set of more than 120 Shell QA/QC guidelines for both facilities and procedures. DPQA employs many of the same principles as ISO 9002 and QS 9000, but adapts them specifically to the lubricant storage and handling business.

Locating a distributor certified under this program is a good start in ensuring that your lubricants will be delivered with the quality that the OEM requires.

While these sections describe the Shell program, they should give you an idea of what to look for regardless of which distributor you use.

Quality Standards for Facilities

The Shell DPQA certification and inspection requirements include critical guidelines that apply to many areas of a distributor’s facility:

Quality Standards for Procedures

In addition to facilities, the Shell DPQA program evaluates distributor procedures including:

The Manufacturer-Distributor Relationship

A good relationship between the lubricant manufacturer and the distributor can pay dividends for you as an end user.

Shell, for example, works to provide this kind of relationship with its Products Plus Services program, which the company has established in approximately 30 industrial markets nationwide. In these markets, Shell selects a DPQA distributor as its market partner (in Houston, this is O’Rourke Petroleum), and provides a full-time lubrication specialist to work solely with the selected distributor and the distributor’s customers. The company also provides equipment (filtration and dehydration, for example), sample analysis, problem-solving expertise and other assistance as needed.

What does this manufacturer-distributorship relationship offer the end user? One good example is oil filtration service.

Recently, I met with a new customer and suggested that he might want to filter the oil that O’Rourke Petroleum would be delivering. We could filter the oil on its way from the transport tanker to his plant tank and provide a particle count as backup. His immediate response was, “Isn’t new oil supposed to be clean already?”

Well, not necessarily. Even if the manufacturer and distributor have done everything right, the many transfer steps between manufacturing and final delivery (blending, shipping, transferring to the distributor’s tank farm, repackaging, loading to transport tankers, and final pumping to the customer’s reservoir), mean that microscopic particulates will find their way into the oil.

Although filtration can be effective in limiting solid particle contaminants, new particles are introduced each time a lubricant is transferred from one container to another. Let’s face it, where it really matters is the final destination, and it is here where distributor service offerings such as filtration can be so beneficial.

In most cases, on-site filtration can guarantee a cleanliness level of ISO 15/12 or better, giving the end user the satisfaction that the oil cleanliness meets the control limits set forth by his OEM or plant. Not all distributors offer filtration and reclamation services, so it may be necessary to shop around.

Of course, a good manufacturer and a good distributor are not all it takes to ensure trouble-free lubrication. You as a user also play an important role in the process.

The End User’s Role

Your first responsibility as the end user is to be aware of the supplier’s capabilities and commitment to quality. You should routinely investigate the manufacturer and distributor to make sure that quality standards exist and are being met.

Your second responsibility is to insist that the supplier provide a retain sample from the hose end of the transport before the oil reaches the on-site staging tank. (I know of one facility that spent approximately $40,000 for a load of turbine oil but didn’t have it sampled from the truck that delivered it - they assumed the oil was what they expected.

When they finally took a sample two weeks later, they found that the oil failed the water separability test. Unfortunately, because the test occurred after delivery, there was no way to determine whether the distributor was at fault. The facility was faced with replacing its $40,000 oil investment, or running with the risk of emulsification.)

The retain sample should be taken from the hose end for two reasons. First, this is where the product becomes your property. And second, the hose itself is a potential source of contamination. If you’re not sure whether your oil distributor is equipped to take samples at the hose end, ask.

Finally, think of your investment in lubricants in the same manner as your investment in new production machinery. Make sure you have a program in place to regularly analyze and maintain your oil, incorporating filtration, dehydration, additive replacement or other reclamation techniques.


The benefits of having both the right manufacturer and the right distributor on your team are fewer worries and hassles and lower overall costs. A quality-assurance and quality- maintenance program provides a number of benefits including:

Make choosing your distributor as important as choosing your lubricants. Visit and inspect both your lubricant manufacturer and your distributor to make sure their quality standards and quality-assurance procedures meet your own standards. Ask them how they maintain and assure product quality.

Consider filtering your new oil, and remember that new oil is not always clean oil. If possible, choose a distributor that offers on-site oil filtration; such a distributor will also probably offer reclamation and a variety of other services that can help lower overall costs. Finally, stay vigilant in taking retain samples for bulk oil deliveries and never make assumptions. Assumptions can cost you.

Lubricant delivery is no more a uniform commodity than is the lubricant itself!

Read more on best practices for lubricants:

How to Evaluate a New Lubricant

Is Hot Oil More Likely to Foam?

Are Higher-Priced Lubricants Better?