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"In the course of improving our lubrication management, we discovered that lube oil leaks were being recorded frequently. When combined with higher lubricant consumption, this has led to increased costs and has had an impact on the environment. What can be done to improve our processes and reduce oil consumption and the environmental hazards?"
Lubricant leaks are not a new phenomenon but are taken more seriously today than in the past. Part of the reason for the increased focus on reducing leakage is the higher cost of lubricants. However, perhaps the biggest factor in getting leaks under control is the potential damage to the environment. While some lubricants can biodegrade quickly and have a small environmental impact, the vast majority tend to decompose slowly and can harm vegetation and water sources.
Leaks can be classified into two major groups: internal and external. Internal leakage happens when the lubricant is consumed or lost in the process. This may occur in some equipment such as compressors where the oil can be lost into the gas stream and introduced into the product stream. This type of leakage usually is found by checking the oil level for an explained drop. Ultrasonic equipment can often be used to detect these leaks during normal operation of the equipment.
External leakage is the easiest to identify. When a piece of equipment is inspected, the area around it serves as the tell-tale sign of any lubricant leaks. There may be a small drip of oil coming from a drain valve or a puddle of oil surrounding the machine that would indicate a mechanical or fluid level issue. Although determining the source of an external leak can be difficult, fluorescent dyes can be quite helpful.
A key area to watch for leaks is around shaft seals. The seal in use should be selected based upon the operating environment and the fluid with which it will be in contact. Some synthetic oils have devastating effects on elastomers, which can lead to leakage. Therefore, the oil and seal material must be selected in tandem. If leaks can't be avoided, consider using biodegradable or environmentally safe oils. These lubricants break down rapidly in the environment with little or no effects on plants and animals.
To help reduce oil consumption and leakage, many issues should be addressed. First, when designing equipment or selecting replacement parts, ensure they fit properly and are made of the correct material to withstand the environment in which they are operating. During the installation process, surfaces should be kept clean and parts assembled using the right sealants and torqueing process. Operating the equipment and keeping pressures within normal parameters will optimize the components' longevity and reduce both internal and external leaks. Finally, implement a robust inspection program to capture data from the field concerning leaks and top-ups. This type of program can be a valuable tool to indicate where your efforts should be focused.
Leakage doesn't have to be the norm. In many cases, it can easily be corrected and avoided. To shine a light on the problem, create a key performance indicator (KPI) based on lubricant consumption and the cost of leakage. If work orders relating to leaks are put at the bottom of the pile, consider classifying them as safety concerns due to slips, trips and falls. This typically moves them to the top of the heap, allowing the process to be expedited. Only by continually focusing on the issue will you be able to resolve it.