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The six steps for managing and controlling lubricant contamination are vital for any successful lubrication program. Keeping our lubricants cool, clean and dry will help equipment run better, last longer and become more productive with less downtime. That’s the name of the game – less downtime. Prioritizing the following areas will ensure long-lasting lubricants that protect your equipment 365 days a year.
Managing these six areas and setting strict contamination limits for each lubricant will give you a baseline for the lubricant going into equipment. As equipment is in use, constant monitoring with oil analysis will allow you to detect the slightest problem with equipment by referring to the baseline or limit you have set. The detection could be wear metals or even moisture indicating you might have a seal or cooler leak. Without establishing the baseline or contamination limit and knowing exactly how clean and dry the lubricant is before going into the machine, you will have nothing to reference when problems inevitably start. Predict and catch problems before they become catastrophic and avoid the associated downtime. Contamination is the leading cause of lubricant failure. Managing contamination is critical when it comes to machine reliability and overall machine life. Lubricants are the lifeblood of any industrial plant. Without clean, cool and dry lubricants, the plant simply cannot operate at full capacity. In many ways, lubricants are like the blood in our bodies. When our blood becomes contaminated with the flu, we become sick and start to feel bad. Without medication and vitamins, the issue could become worse and could eventually kill you. In a similar way, when our lubricants are exposed to wear metals, outside contaminants, water and excessive heat, they can start to break down and oxidation, varnish and sludge to begin appearing in the oil. So just like the human body, if we do not correct the contamination issue, lubricants will break down and machines will fail. Staying healthy and clean is how we prevent getting the flu and becoming sick. Managing these six areas is like taking vitamins or antibiotics to prevent lubricant and machine failure. Contamination control management is important in any industrial plant. It’s good to start with setting cleanliness standards for new lubricants being delivered and setting strict standards for lubricants in use. To achieve or meet the lubricant objectives in any facility, strict cleanliness standards and procedures must be set and followed for new lubricants coming into the facility and lubricants in equipment.
The first and most important step is setting cleanliness limits for new lubricants delivered on-site. Yes, new lubricants! Even new lubricants can be contaminated enough to cause serious damage to equipment like turbine bearings and hydraulic systems. This is the starting point for the lubricants on-site. A process or standard should also be set for how new lubricants are received, handled, and dispensed. Starting with the machine, determine how clean and dry each lubricant needs to be. Each piece of equipment can have various types of metals, different clearances and specifications that determine how clean and dry its lubricant needs to be. Cleanliness also refers to moisture, not just solid particles. Some machines are more susceptible to water damage than others because of the metal parts they are constructed from. Remember, heat air and water create oxidation and rust. In a perfect world, contamination limits should be set during the commissioning of equipment before ever being put into service. Determining the contamination limits needed for equipment will indicate how clean new lubricants delivered on site need to be.
Once you set the cleanliness limits, contact the lubricant supplier and let them know the ISO cleanliness needed for each lubricant they supply. Ask for verification or authentication records showing the cleanliness for each lubricant delivered. If the lubricant supplier consistently does not meet the contamination limits you have set or will not provide the information you ask for, it’s time to look for a supplier that will. When lubricants are delivered, place everything in a designated quarantine area. Take a sample of each container of lubricant for personal verification and label “DO NOT USE.” The delivered lubricant should remain in quarantine until oil analysis test results come back and are verified to be within the contamination limits you have set. If the lubricant is not within the set limits, send it back or filter until you have lowered contamination to acceptable levels. All lubricants should remain in quarantine until contamination limits are verified and approved. Then, it’s time to either move the lubricant into bulk storage or place it directly into the machine. If you do store the lubricant, make sure it is properly labeled with the ISO cleanliness reached, the date, brand and viscosity, and that it is ready to use.
The way lubricants are stored and transferred can have a huge impact on the cleanliness of the lubricants going into your machines. Although lubricant storage is starting to become more important in the 21st century, a lot of industrial plants do not make lubricant storage a priority. Even today, I often see lubricants stored in the most awful conditions: outside with no protection from the atmosphere or just collecting dust in the dirtiest areas of the plant. When lubricants are stored outside, there is no way to control temperature. Frequent temperature changes will cause condensation and moisture buildup inside the container. Water can pool and eventually seep into uncovered containers, contaminating the lubricant. I work with customers on understanding the importance of controlling atmospheric conditions as well. Storing lubricants in a climate-controlled environment helps keep the lubricant dry and clean like you paid for. The duration of storage is another important aspect to think about. Lubricants do not last forever, so managing the amount of time lubricants are in storage is important. The shelf life of a lubricant is based largely upon the its additive package. Typically, the heavier the additive package is, the shorter the lubricant’s shelf life. For example, an oil containing extreme-pressure additives could start losing performance in as little as six months. Conversely, some lightly-additized turbine oils may have a shelf life of three years. Storage conditions play a big part in how long a lubricant will last. If oil is stored for extended periods of time, create a recirculation schedule to agitate the oil and re-suspend the additives in the oil. This would be a work order produced for every quarter with a procedure having someone connect a filter cart and circulate each lubricant for approximately two to four hours. If lubricants are stored in bulk tanks, utilize the circulation function to agitate the oil. Remember to always follow the first-in/first-out (FIFO) rotation and clearly label every container with the date and condition so storage time is not accidently extended. Manufacturers’ labels will fade or tear over time, so clear, consistent labeling is critical in the storage process. Managing the amount of lubricant stored is also important. Lubricants should not sit for extended periods of time. Lubricant storage and labeling procedures should be posted and followed to ensure lubricants are still in good operating condition. When it comes to transferring lubricants from bulk storage into your equipment, you’ll need people with both the right equipment and the right training to do the job properly. I repeat: training is important! Over the past five years, I have noticed a big difference in workers who have some lubrication training versus the ones who don’t. I think the big difference is that too many people believe “oil is oil and small amounts of dirt won’t hurt.” Training will show you how wrong that mindset is very quickly. It also gives people a boost of confidence. When they know the “why” behind new procedures, they will have more investment and confidence in their daily work. Don’t just tell them how to do it the right way, tell them why. After everyone involved is trained on the “why,” then it’s time to outline strict procedures for how lubricants are transferred from the lube room or bulk storage into the machines. Once your team is equipped with the right knowledge, they need the right lubricant transfer equipment. Using tools like sealable and reusable containers, transfer carts and modifying equipment with quick connects will allow you to add or subtract oil without ever opening equipment to the environment and the possibility of contamination. Keeping the machine parts and transfer equipment clean during the entire prosses will mitigate the chance of contamination while filling containers or transfer carts. Set strict standards for proper storage procedures and for how clean transfer equipment should be.
Make signs and post notes reminding people of what is expected. This includes storage lockers, lube areas and even workstations. Manage the condition and level of cleanliness of the lubricant by performing weekly or monthly inspections of all lubricant transfer equipment. Periodically replace any transfer equipment that becomes damaged or worn out so the level of lubricant cleanliness can be maintained on its way through the plant. Lubricant cross-contamination, or mixing two lubricants that are not compatible with each other, can be catastrophic to machines. Managing lubricant cross-contamination can be difficult when you have a large amount of people performing lubrication tasks. This is another reason that everyone involved needs the proper training on lubricant identification and proper uses. Labeling machines and transfer equipment to match each other is one way to help people identify which lubricant is used where. Modifying machines and transfer equipment to only accept one type of fitting is another way. Controlling traffic by limiting who has access to lubricants is always recommended as well. Locking cabinets and lube storage areas will prevent cross-contamination because only trained professionals can access lubricants.
Environmental conditions are the conditions surrounding a machine. This could be excessive heat due to nearby steam, dripping water from cooling water lines or excessive product buildup. Heat and water are catalysts for lubricant failure. Add in some outside contaminants, and you have a recipe for lubricant failure or oxidation that could damage most equipment. This is where being creative and doing research comes into play. Figure out ways to eliminate or mitigate the amount of contaminants entering machine parts. Managing this can be a never-ending battle for some industries like paper & pulp or mining, where everything is wet or covered in dust. Determining how to exclude contamination takes time, resources and requires diligence from all those involved in the process. Machine or structure modifications might be necessary to truly protect your assets. For example, I had a customer who was experiencing repeated bearing failures on a conveyor. The bearing was only lasting about six weeks before failing. I verified lubrication procedures on the bearing, and everything looked good. When I looked at the bearing itself, it was off the shaft and what grease remained looked cooked. The next morning, I went out to the newly installed bearing and noticed steam shooting out of the bearing itself. That explained the cooked grease. Somehow, steam was traveling down the shaft and directly into the bearing, cooking any grease inside. I did some research and found a double-wall, greaseable seal that could be installed between the conveyor and the bearing, blocking any steam from coming in contact and cooking the grease. This is a great example of how unexpected contaminants could be killing your lubricants before they even get started working. Another example: I was dealing with a customer who had water continuously contaminating a 100-gallon turbine reservoir. The customer explained they were constantly running a filter cart trying to remove water – so much water that the reservoir overflowed at times. When I went to look at the turbine, I noticed it was skid-mounted with a catch basin built in to redirect cooling water or prevent oil from going on the ground. The catch basin was full of water, or what looked like swamp water mixed with oil. I asked the guy showing me around, “How long has the catch basin been full of water?” “It’s always like that,” he replied. “I think the drain is plugged or something.” I reached down and pulled a heap of garbage from the drain, and the basin started draining. I explained I think this is the cause of the issue. Water was seeping into the reservoir somewhere because the water was not allowed to flow out of the drain. Over time, water will always find a way in if allowed to sit stagnant. I also explained that the seal water lines could be fixed so less water is spraying on top of the reservoir. A week later, the oil had been sufficiently filtered and the problem was solved.
Fixes like these are easy changes that can save you time and money without much effort. Another way of managing environmental conditions is to install rain or drip covers on equipment prone to heavy water contact. Redirect water flow if possible so it doesn’t pile up on equipment. Heavy product buildup can cause heat, and we all know what heat can do to lubricants and to the machine itself.
Performing constant machine inspections and operation walk-downs will help catch these problems.
Oil analysis can be a key indicator for lubricant contamination, if managed correctly. Having the proper training on how to collect samples, what sample location on equipment will give you the most representative sample, and how to install quick sample valves is important. Oil analysis can be very expensive depending on what test you would like performed and the volume of samples sent out for testing. Not to mention the cost it takes for someone to collect, label and send off all the samples. Making sure samples are collected in the most clean and consistent way every time is the only way to detect a true change with the oil inside equipment. When oil samples are not collected correctly, not only are you wasting money on the lab, but you might overreact and change the oil out immediately, wasting good oil. Always try to have the same person collect oil samples for consistency and cleanliness. This person should be a trained professional in oil analysis. Oil analysis result interpretation can be complicated and confusing. Without training on what to look for on oil analysis reports, a problem could slip by. If the oil sample was collected correctly, you should have a good reference point to refer to when determining how clean the oil was going into the equipment and where it is now as well as how many hours... and how many hours it has been in operation. Start building a trend and monitor it to make sure it doesn’t go above the limits set initially. The results will determine if another sample should be pulled and sent off. If lab results come back and something is abnormal, always pull another sample to verify that a problem exists and it’s not just a mistake. Make sure you monitor equipment conditions closely until verification results come back. Set strict standards and procedures for the way oil samples are collected, managed and interpreted for each piece of equipment. When I refer to oil analysis, not only am I referring to lab testing, but also to quick, in-house oil analysis testing. Installing easy-to-view sight glasses and BS&W bowls on equipment to utilize quick visual inspections is good way to catch possible lubricant contamination. This also allows you to take corrective action immediately. There are many different in-house oil analysis testing instruments on the market. Tools like patch test kits, acid and water testing kits, viscosity testing tools and small particle counters are readily available and relatively inexpensive. While the testing may not be as in-depth as you would receive with commercial lab testing, having this equipment will give you a quick in-house indication that a problem is occurring, and corrective action can be taken right away.
Use filtration to keep lubricants in operating condition. Filter management is another aspect where, without training, you might be wasting time and money. As I mentioned before, machines have different clearances, and those clearances can give you a good indication of what size particle to target for each type of equipment you have. When you ask yourself, “Should I use a 4-micron filter or a 20-micron filter? What efficiency should the filter be?” These kinds of questions all require training and research to answer properly. Otherwise, you will be shooting in the dark, just hoping to reach the cleanliness targets you set. Using oil analysis results to determine how dirty and dry the oil is and comparing it to cleanliness target levels set will determine the type and duration of filtration needed. Filtering oil allows you to keep the oil in equipment clean and dry within the contamination limits set. Modifying equipment with quick connects allows you to attach a portable or even dedicated filter whenever needed, giving you the upper hand for managing or removing contamination. Managing lubricant contamination can be accomplished with training and having dedicated teams involved. Focusing on these six areas will help you achieve the contamination and reliability goals set for your facility. Controlling contamination is a slow process, especially in some industries. Sometimes it can even seem impossible. But start with the low-hanging fruit like clearing drains and fixing seal water leaks, adding protective covers, protecting equipment from contamination and making sure all ports and hatches are sealed tight. Start with these simpler fixes and you’ll be on your way to effectively managing lubricant contamination.