How to Benchmark an Oil Analysis Program

Rich Wurzbach

Oil analysis is a vital part of building an effective lubrication strategy. Used correctly, oil analysis is a valuable predictive and proactive tool in ensuring that equipment reliability is optimized, and lubrication-related failures are minimized.

However, in order to ensure continued success, it is important not only to set-up the program properly, but also to review the program periodically to ensure that the program structure meets the stated reliability goals of the organization.

The process of reviewing a program to ascertain compliance with its intended goals is often termed benchmarking. Benchmarking an oil analysis program is an important periodic task, whether the program consists of a fully developed in-house laboratory; a small-scale onsite screening lab, supplemented by offsite analysis; or complete outsourcing to an offsite lab.

In each case, the goal is to achieve the most cost-effective program that adequately supports the organization’s goals of equipment reliability and lubrication excellence. The optimization process is outlined in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The Optimization Process

Figure 1 clearly shows that if the reliability program is underdeveloped, it may cost little to run, but in return, may yield little or no improvement to overall operating efficiency. Commonly, management is concerned only with the upfront cost of oil analysis, without understanding the benefits it may provide from improved equipment reliability.

Likewise, investing heavily in oil analysis and other reliability initiatives, without an overall plan or goal can improve equipment reliability, but at what cost? If the program costs exceed the benefits, the net payback is negative, resulting in increased maintenance costs, far in excess of the tangible benefits of condition monitoring.

The benchmarking process is designed to ensure that the organization is operating in the “sweet-spot” of the curve, whereby the overall program is designed to provide the lowest total overall cost, with the optimum program effectiveness.

Successful benchmarking includes establishing a number of common comparison categories and clearly defined evaluation criteria. Because performance rating can be a subjective exercise, the more detail that is provided to define rating levels and evaluation classes, the more effective the baselining statistics will be.

Similarly, benchmarking requires a knowledge level of all areas under review. Put simply, the auditor cannot rate an initiative on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being world-class, unless he understands what is considered good, bad and acceptable practice.

The power generation industry is one area where efforts have been undertaken to establish baselining criteria for lubricants. Noria has partnered with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to establish a lubrication audit process for participating member utilities.

This project addresses the industry-specific activities that impact lubrication, and defines categories and subelements for evaluation. While the effort is limited to the power generation industry, some of the methods can easily be modified to provide a general benchmarking method for other industries.

Establishing Categories

While there may be industry-specific categories that apply on a case-by-case basis, a few general categories are so fundamental to the success of any lubrication program that they should be considered a core group of elements. These include:

Standards and Procurement
Maintaining site lubricant standards allows product-specific testing to be assigned. Acceptance testing of new lubricants should be well-defined.

Storage and Handling
Proper storage, handling and periodic testing of stored lubricants ensure quality supply. Testing transfer container contents helps control contamination, aging and product mixing.

Sampling Techniques
Accurate and representative sampling is critical to effective oil analysis. New lubricants, bulk and intermediate storage containers and transfer containers should all have defined sampling methods. Used oil samples from machines must be taken from representative locations, with proper equipment. Samples must be handled properly and labeled correctly.

Contamination Control
Particulate and contaminant testing and control are critical to ensuring long machine life. Filtration equipment must be operated and serviced as directed by contaminant level monitoring. Nonparticulate contaminant monitoring (water, glycol, fuel, etc.) must drive corrective actions that target the root cause rather than the symptom of the problem.

Lubricant Life and Oxidation Management
Oil analysis isn’t just about telling us when oil has gone bad. Proactive measures to monitor antioxidant additive concentrations should generate activities to head-off degradation. In some circumstances, reconditioning procedures can be initiated by additive level trends and monitored for effectiveness using oil analysis.

Training, Skill Standards and Certification
Sampling and oil analysis training, as well as other fundamental lubrication-related tasks should be mandatory for all personnel performing these activities. Training and certification requirements help guarantee job function quality.

Analysis Activities
For most plants, some level of onsite analysis capability is usually appropriate, even if it is just some sensory test aids or a viscosity comparator. Both onsite and offsite analysis must employ proper limits and targets and have clearly defined action plans for samples that exceed stated limits.

Program Management
Only with clear guidance and vision will the program continue to be effective and produce results. Charts and displays of program performance, along with clear, concise analysis reports and demonstrated cost benefits ensure continued program support.

Written guidelines must be in place and updated to ensure consistent work practice and results. Lubricant analysis service providers should be given clear directions regarding test scope (including the prescribed test standards to be followed), along with test sequences and alarm levels.

Safety Practices
All individuals involved in oil analysis and sampling activities must be aware of the risks of handling lubricants and working around machinery. Tools and equipment should be provided to minimize risk.

Continuous Improvement
Any program that merely maintains the status quo will be passed by quickly. Individuals involved must stay current with technology developments. Periodic evaluation of documents and practices must be scheduled, along with updated training. Ongoing benchmarking activities will ensure further knowledge sharing and a constant pursuit of lubrication excellence.

Defining the Evaluation Points

With these broad categories to evaluate the facility, it is important to compile a list of specific evaluation points to drive the questioning process. Specifically, list each important area to ensure that an appropriate evaluation is made when benchmarking each category.

A number of evaluation points are shown in the sidebar, presented in a manner to drive the audit process. In addition to these general points, there may also be industry-specific questions that would be appropriate as well; for example, radioactive materials handling issues for nuclear power, gross water contamination management for pulp and paper, etc. These industry-specific issues should be established and agreed upon prior to embarking on a benchmarking study, and will greatly add to the effectiveness of the audit.

Performing the Audit

The actual onsite process can be efficiently executed by adopting a schedule and progression that mimic the path a drop of oil follows on its life through the plant. A lubricant makes its first appearance onsite in a drum, tote, bucket, canister, cartridge or delivery truck.

Step 1
The way in which these arriving deliveries are handled is the first point of investigation. Some of the questions that might be asked include:

  • Who samples new lubricant deliveries?
  • What acceptance criteria are applied?
  • What happens if a new lubricant exceeds a stated acceptance criteria?

Step 2
From there the central and satellite storage locations should be investigated to find out about the management and periodic analysis of stored lubricants.

The sampling process itself is one of the most critical influences on oil analysis quality. It is important to identify who does the sampling, what procedures are followed and to what extent personnel are trained and qualified. Sample bottle and sampling hardware cleanliness should also be reviewed, including specifications for purchasing bottles of a certified cleanliness level. It is also important to look at the machines themselves to determine if sampling points are representative, if there are dead-legs and if the right types of valves and fittings are in place for sampling. At this time, it is also important to consider safety implications of the sampling function.

Step 3
The analysis activities onsite may be limited depending on the program, but at a minimum should include sensory evaluations by the sampler. Routine questions should include:

  • Is the sample clear?
  • Is there any appreciable darkening?
  • Is any particulate visible?
  • Do samplers know how to safely judge oil odors?
  • In addition, the steps to be taken when sensory abnormalities are discovered need to be clearly defined. For example,
  • When should the sampler stop and immediately pull a confirmatory sample?
  • What indications should designate a sample for “rush” shipment and analysis?

Step 4
For those plants with onsite instrumentation, procedures should clearly define how those tests are to be performed. For all programs, test slates should be in place, which drive the right tests for the right machines. Alarms and limits should also be clearly defined for each machine, as well as an action plan when limits are exceeded.

Step 5
The last part of the trip for the little drop of oil is disposal. This includes bottle sampling waste oil and machine oil change quantities. Questions to ask here include:

  • How are any hazardous wastes materials generated by onsite analysis handled?
  • How are waste oils sampled and disposed of to minimize environmental impact?

Finally, we look at the programmatic aspects of lubricant analysis - the activities that ensure the program’s continued support, funding and success. Program goals and metrics can make or break an oil analysis program. Evaluation points include “Are such measures in place? Are they prominently displayed? Do they reflect management expectations and corporate goals?”

Success Beyond the Audit

Certainly the audit is not an end to itself, but merely a tool used to improve the program. Success beyond the audit is driven by two key elements:

  1. An effective plan for implementing the audit recommendations, complete with timelines; and
  2. A continuous improvement plan being adopted and scheduled.

Lubrication excellence is not a destination, but a journey. Goals and targets set by the program must be continually refined in the pursuit of lubrication excellence. It is not enough to look at the program once and say, “This is the way things ought to be.”

A facility that is truly in search of a better way of doing business must realize the overwhelming influence lubrication has on equipment reliability and act to preserve the successes it has achieved to date, while striving to improve areas of continued deficiency. The benchmarking process provides a series of checks and balanced that allows any organization that is serious about lubrication excellence to chart a blueprint for improvement and continued success.

Possible Evaluation Points for Performing an Audit

Standards, Consolidation and Procurement

  • Are general, technical standards maintained for common lubricants?
  • Does the site employ a database linking lubricated components to standardized lubricants?
  • Are supplier quality assurance proce- dures in place and monitored routinely?
  • Are lubricants for special applications properly defined and purchased with the proper documentation or purchase class?


  • Are contaminated sample wastes segregated and minimized?
  • Are stored lubricants periodically sampled and analyzed?
  • Are transfer containers sampled to determine cross-contamination?

Sampling Techniques

  • Do general information and guide- lines for lubricant sampling exist?
  • Are new lubricant deliveries properly sampled?
  • Is the primary sampling port/valve properly located?
  • Are sampling valves correctly selected and installed?
  • Are sample containers properly selected and stored?
  • Does the site employ correct, machine-specific sampling procedures and use of hardware?
  • Do samplers properly complete sample bottle labels and documentation?
  • Do trained and qualified technicians obtain all samples?

Contamination Control

  • Does the site change filters on- condition (particle count and/or pressure differential)?
  • Is effective particulate management of hydraulic fluids included in the oil analysis program?

Lubricant Life/Oxidation Management

  • Are there proactive measures in place to monitor antioxidant additives? Is turbine oil remaining useful life routinely evaluated?
  • Is effective oxidation management of hydraulic fluids included in the oil analysis program?
  • Are lubricant reconditioning proce- dures based on oxidation and additive monitoring?

Training, Skill Standards and Certification

  • Does the site maintain general training and development guidelines?
  • Has a required sampling and oil analysis skill-set been defined for:
    • Lube technicians
    • PdM technicians and engineers
    • Operators
    • Supervisors and managers
    • Suppliers
  • Does the program utilize appropriate skill competency certifications and evaluations?
  • Is five to 10 percent of a lube technician’s time spent in lubrication training and development?
  • Are the lubrication and oil analysis training and procedural documents clearly defined and accessible?
  • Does the training program include safety and environmental responsibility in handling lubricants and lubrication?
  • Is on-the-job training required (such as shadowing an experienced technician) before an individual is approved to perform a specific task?

Analysis Activities

  • Are proper sampling frequencies defined by machine and application?
  • Are test slates defined and used correctly?
  • Are onsite oil analysis methods used properly?
  • Are proper limits and targets defined for each machine?
  • Is lubricant analysis data effec- tively reported and communicated throughout the organization?
  • Does the site utilize effective guide lines for interpreting oil analysis results for:
    • Turbine oils
    • Bearing oils
    • Gear oils
    • Hydraulic oils
  • Is there an effective process for troubleshooting exception conditions?
  • Is effective testing of newly delivered and stored lubricants part of the program?
  • Are procedures in place to test and assure lab quality?

Program Management

  • Is there a public display of trend charts showing sampling/analysis performance?
  • Is there a public display of trend charts showing equipment performance and maintenance costs?
  • Are report findings/work requirements communicated in a format that is clear and easy to understand and act upon?


  • Has the site established and does it follow lubricant sampling procedures?
  • Are lubrication and oil analysis procedures available electronically (for example, Intranet-based manual)?
  • Are lubricant analysis service providers supplied with clear directions regarding test scope, test sequence and alarm levels?

Program Goals/Metrics

  • Does the site employ proactive lubrication management goals and metrics?
  • Does the site employ predictive machine health goals and metrics?
  • Are the metrics periodically compiled and issued as a report to management?
  • Is cost-benefit analysis regularly performed and periodically compiled?

Safety Practices

  • Are Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) easily accessible and complete?
  • Are staff members trained to under stand the health risks associated with improper lubricant handling?
  • Have precautions been taken to reduce lubricant-related injuries such as:
    • Skin contact
    • Inhalation
    • Slippage
    • Fire/explosion

Continuous Improvement

  • Are sampling points periodically reviewed and monitoring techniques adjusted as required?
  • Are alarms and targets periodically reviewed and adjusted based on operating experience?
  • Are recurring problems identified and flagged for root cause analysis?
  • Are procedures and other documents evaluated and updated periodically as required?
  • Are identified problems evaluated to determine if like equipment may be affected?
  • Is the program periodically evaluated and benchmarked to industry best-practice standards?
  • Are program goals evaluated periodically to assure alignment with corporate goals and expectations?
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