Keeping Tabs on Your Equipment’s Vital Bodily Fluids

Jan. 1, 2001

Like the body, a well-primed and -tuned vehicle is going to perform more efficiently and run longer, which translates into enormous cost savings, putting hard-earned money where it belongs: back into the profitability of the business.

A solid, regular preventative maintenance (PM) program, like periodic checkups for the body, can provide contractors with the cost-savings data they need to keep their machinery active and stay in business, avoiding the potentially huge losses and grief that occur from unexpected – and avoidable – breakdowns.

John Brooks of Bradbury Stamm Construction in Albuquerque, NM, is one of those equipment managers who views daily operations as nothing too unusual. “We operate in normal conditions – just damn dirt. That’s the kind of condition this equipment is built for, isn’t it?”

Indeed it is, as heavy-equipment manufacturers will be quick to point out. Each piece of equipment comes with a set of instructions designed to optimize its working life, says John Wolgemuth of Gehl Company in West Bend, W). And a large but simple part of ensuring the longevity of a machine is an effective PM program.

Manufacturers know that even though their heavy equipment is designed to endure rugged conditions, it still requires vigilant care.

“Dirt in oil or air intake is the major cause of failure of both hydraulic and engine components,” points out Wolgemuth. Setting up a maintenance routine for each piece of equipment operated and sticking to it is the key to keeping wear parts in good condition, he adds.

It’s really as simple as that.

“A daily lube and inspection routine can keep a lot of minor problems from becoming major breakdowns.” Recommended maintenance schedules are provided with each operator’s manual, and these should be followed.

Brooks, of course, already knows this. The question involves what approach to take.

Should an equipment manager incorporate an oil analysis program as part of his maintenance program? Or is it better to simply perform daily checks and rely on experience and familiarity with the equipment? Or perhaps some combination of the two?

“Like the old saying goes,” says John Strangberg, senior product service manager for Case Corporation in Racine, WI, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Prevention is the name of the game but is often taken for granted – until a broken piece of equipment forces a contractor to go scrambling for replacement parts, piling up expense upon expense for the costly downtime.

“Grading and excavating contractors rely on their equipment to make a living,” continues Strangberg. “More importantly, unexpected downtime is costly. Repairs are not only higher when there is an actual failure, but in addition, the lost revenue from a machine being out of service can be a huge expense.”

Thus, adds Strangberg, finding and fixing small problems before they turn into huge headaches is vital to the success of a good PM program.

Oil analysis offers one of the most reliable, cost-effective methods for building up a “rap sheet” on all of your equipment, according to manufacturers of heavy equipment and lubricants. Performed routinely, oil analysis gives you a track record of your equipment’s performance and a clear indication that something might be amiss – long before it really becomes a problem.

It’s extremely important, manufacturers argue, to keep this regularity in mind when establishing a PM program.

“Oil analysis,” says Mark Betner, heavy-duty product-line manager at Citgo in Tulsa, OK, “can provide indicators of wear-related problems and provide early warnings of problems that can ultimately lead to failure. It is important, however, to use oil analysis as a part of your preventative maintenance program not just when it is believed there might be a problem.

“The analogy is similar to the human body in that body-fluid analysis can detect conditions that lead to early diagnosis. If the problems are treated early, it can result in a complete cure or prevention. On the other hand, late detection or diagnosis after symptoms have manifested usually results in progressed damaged or incurable conditions.”

Independent Lab Analysts Inc., which provides oil and fluid analysis to the heavy-equipment, power-generation, and aviation industries, says that with effective oil analysis and regular maintenance, “customers understand the what, the where, and the why of events happening inside any lubricated component.”

As most contractors know – but which they may not give much thought to until a costly, hand-wringing breakdown occurs – the day-to-day conditions under which moving parts operate can wreak havoc on any and all of them.

Each day, notes Wolgemuth, a contractor’s heavy equipment faces exposure to a lot of airborne dust and dirt, which will invariably find its way into moving parts, regardless of how well protected they are.

These are the conditions that might seem normal or not so unusual to a contractor but that manufacturers know can test the longevity and durability of a machine, no matter how tough or sturdy it was engineered to be.

Equipment manufacturers want their customers to follow the guidelines in the operator’s manuals that come with their products. Oil and lube manufacturers want their customers to take advantage of the oil analysis programs they use to validate the efficacy of their product.

The people in the shops, however, have their own strong feelings on the subject.

Oil and lube analysis is one of those programs that manufacturers like to sell to their customers to help promote their own products, says Jim Callery, equipment manager for C.F. Jordon Construction in El Paso, TX.

While these might be worthy programs for newer equipment that manufacturers want to help their customers protect, Callery adds, the fact is that the daily demands of the job often warrant a different, more practical approach.

“I’ve had a lot of salespeople in here telling me their grease is better than the next guy’s,” he says. “I don’t care what they tell you – that their grease is going to keep parts lubed and the dirt out – the dirt still gets in there every day. So we grease every day, not to lube the part but to push the dirt out.”

The differences of opinion on the value of oil analysis appear to vary according to where on the operational playing field participants stand.

Lube manufacturers and their retinue of lab technicians and engineering-trained sales staff will fall on the side of a regular oil analysis program, which relies heavily on the study and observation of the chemicals and particulate found in the samples taken.

The guys who work daily on the equipment, however, might find the lab reports interesting, but they tend to rely more on their own hunches and experience, as well as on the regular checkups they perform every day.

For Callery, for example, PM is best managed by daily hands-on servicing. He runs two service trucks 10 hours a day, making at least four onsite oil changes a day, six days a week. He keeps the machinery primed by knowing it inside out.

While lab analyses can provide interesting data on what’s going on inside the machine, Callery notes, they seldom indicate anything that he or his mechanics don’t already know. The oil analysis, which is performed through Caterpillar, “tells me most of the time that I’ve got normal wear, and by the time they tell me I’ve got a major problem, I’ve already figured that out.”

Additionally, he’s never received a report that could reliably tell him how much time remained before servicing was absolutely necessary. But, he adds, “I can tell you that because I know my equipment.”

Callery puts his trust in his mechanics. They’re the ones who know best what is going on with the machinery. He’s not about to sit back on his laurels with assurances from lab technicians or even with automatic lubrication systems that promise fewer servicing problems.

“We had some auto-lube systems in here but we mostly had problems with them,” he recalls. “They didn’t feed the lube properly. I just prefer to have my guys do it so I know it’s done right.”

Callery adds that his mechanics can correct a situation before it becomes a problem, something a machine can’t do.

About 75-80% of the servicing of C.F. Jordan’s more than $6 million in hardware is the result of equipment operators who push their machines too hard or improper use.

“More of our maintenance is due to misuse and abuse than wear,” Callery points out, noting that this is probably true for most contractors.

Then there’s Jim Denmark, programs manager in the lubrications division of Equilon, producer of Shell and Texaco lubricants, who swears by the long-term value offered through oil analysis programs.

“The priority of any construction firm is to operate that vehicle,” and keep it operating effectively for as long as possible without the losses that occur from breakdowns, he adds. The key is properly lubricating your vehicle.

“You’re going to reduce operating costs and downtime and extend the operating life of your equipment, and you’re going to reduce the need to maintain an inventory of spare parts and bearings, which as you know can be very expensive.”

And the surest way to know when it’s time to change lubricants is to have qualified labs analyze the samples regularly. “The tests will tell you if your bearings are going bad. It takes all of the guesswork out of maintaining your equipment,” he states. “As far as I’m concerned, for the customer it’s win, win, win.”

Denmark tells his customers that by following a PM plan using oil analysis, “you can spend a few dollars now and save big dollars that you might lose [from unexpected] shutdowns later.”

As Komatsu’s Bill Gosse discovered in a report he prepared on the benefits of the Komatsu Oil and Wear Analysis (KOWA) program, the savings realized by adhering to such a plan can add up significantly. This conclusion was reinforced by the Patriot Mining Company’s experience.

“We learned the hard way how important it is to pay attention to KOWA results,” reports Adrain Stemple, equipment superintendent at Patriot Mining in Star City, WV.

“Based on oil sampling results, we knew that one of our wheel loaders was developing a hydraulic problem. By the time we got around to repairing it, we already lost the pump. Replacing the hydraulic pump when the problem was first detected would have cost about $5,500. Instead we spent $57,000 to repair the machine after it failed.

“Now when we see the first sign of a problem, we shut down the machine and deal with it. We’re realizing cost savings of up to 10% by using oil sampling to predict problems and plan maintenance accordingly.”

Another KOWA customer, J.C. Evans Construction in Austin, TX, found that independent lab analysis saved untold dollars by providing early warnings on failing equipment. The identified problems range from the simple to the complex.

“We performed routine maintenance, including oil analysis, on a wheel loader and found a high concentration of wear metal in the sample taken from the differential,” Don Day, maintenance manager at J.C. Evans Construction, states in Gosse’s report. “The oil was changed and resampled with the same results. Our distributor looked at the machine and found bearings that were near failure.

“The oil analysis saved us the cost of having to replace the wheel loader’s differential. I hate to think of the losses we would have encountered if we ran the loader until the differential failed.”

Regular sampling of lubricants can also be a lot less labor-intensive than bringing a machine into the shop for routine maintenance, especially if contractors keep accurate records and pay attention to the reports – which, argues Equilon’s Denmark, can provide quick, reliable, and inexpensive data.

Equilon recommends oil analysis programs for all of its customers using Shell or Texaco lubricants. The analyses are sent out to Analysts Inc. (, an independent lab in Torrance, CA.

Denmark explains, “It looks better if the report comes from an independent lab, whether the tests come out good, bad, or indifferent.” Although Equilon could do the testing itself, having an independent lab makes the data more credible, especially when a customer might be faced with a need to replenish or update his oil supply.

Additionally, all Equilon sales reps, says Denmark, are engineers who know the minutiae of oil composition and its usefulness for each piece of equipment. “They have to know the proper product applications down to the finest details,” he emphasizes.

Another benefit of oil analysis, from the oil manufacturer’s standpoint, is to demonstrate the effectiveness of new-product applications. A supplier such as Equilon works closely with customers to test new products.

An area of interest to some fleet managers is extending the intervals between drains, which reduces the amount of time the equipment is in the shop or being worked on.

The risk in extended drains, of course, is that they can go beyond a manufacturer’s recommended intervals, which if ignored could invalidate the manufacturer’s warranty.

Nonetheless, for those on the job, extended drains translate into longer operating hours and fewer logistical nightmares in scheduling routine maintenance checks, especially for those larger contractors with hundreds of machines in their inventory.

In a report from Equilon that focused on a recent application of its highly touted Ursa Premium TDX intended specifically for use in heavy-duty diesel engines, including turbocharged and naturally aspirated engines, United Metro Materials of Arizona reports that it experimented with extended drains. It utilized an oil analysis program to determine the intervals for its “cement trains” – 21 trucks that haul bulk cement across the state for about 20 hours out of every 24.

This is the kind of workload that plays havoc with PM scheduling, notes the report.

“We started extended drain tests with the cement trains because it was so chaotic trying to schedule them for maintenance,” explains Jim Michael, United Metro’s on-highway equipment superintendent. “We put so many hours on those engines, it seemed like every week they were back in the pit for PM. So when the electronic engines came out – they are cleaner-burning engines – we started extending drain intervals. Just using the factory filters, we took them up to 600 hours.

“Now we’re using Ursa Premium TDX and experimenting with some new filters, and we’re doing a lot better than that. Once we see we’re doing pretty good, we use the extended program on the mixers. We’re always trying to set new parameters on exactly how far out we can go.”

It’s not simply a crapshoot. These tests are carefully monitored, assures Tim Dake, United Metro’s equipment manager.

“We tailor our tests to specific requirements, and then we start pushing the limits,” he states. “We do it systematically and watch what we’re doing. It’s not a dartboard. You have to be careful because the cost of failure is high.”

Meanwhile, for the less adventuresome who aren’t interested in pushing the envelope on extended drains, oil analysis simply supplies a steady and reliable flow of information regarding the performance of expensive machinery.

As suppliers see it, adhering to such a program will keep everyone – manufacturers, dealers, and contractors – happier because it will help ensure the operating longevity of the tools of the trade.

“All maintenance schedules and lubricant specs are outlined in the machine’s operator’s manual,” says Strangberg. “Many dealers offer a customized maintenance and inspection program service to their customers and manage the PM responsibilities for them.”

Additionally, he points out, contractors invested in such a program will be much happier with the performance of their machines, with the manufacturers who build them, and with the dealers who sell and service them.

Everyone tends to be better off in the long run when a contractor regularly services his equipment, whether he performs it on-site or farms it out to a dealer, remarks Strangberg. He sits on the board of the Equipment Management Council, which devotes itself to promoting the training and advancement of its members. It’s good for the industry all around, he adds.

Strangberg states that contractors tend to rate the manufacturers higher in customer-satisfaction polls when they service their own equipment or, better yet, allow qualified dealers to perform routine PM checkups.

“The dealers benefit from increased parts and service sales and satisfied repeat buyers,” he maintains.

Bradbury Stamm doesn’t maintain a large fleet, says Brooks. It operates mostly smaller equipment: a few Bobcats, some water trucks, and grading tractors. Most of it is kept fit by following the manufacturer’s specs. “We go by the hours that are on the motor,” he reports.

When it’s time, the shop sends its oil to an independent lab for analysis. “We’re pretty consistent with what we do. We get good mileage and hours out of our equipment. We’re not using it that hard.”

As a result of following the manufacturer’s specs, combined with oil analysis, Bradbury Stamm has avoided the financial anguish of inoperable equipment.

Occasionally a report will come back from the lab indicating that the oil needs to be changed, but nothing more serious than that has been reported, Brooks notes.

The biggest challenge that Equilon’s Denmark faces is simply getting equipment and fleet managers to review the reports when they arrive from the lab.

“Customers often don’t even look at the reports,” Denmark says. “I always tell them that it’s critical to make good use of the samples they’ve sent to the lab and to read and review the results of the report. If they don’t, they may as well throw away their money somewhere else.”

In fact, an unread report may well spell disaster, especially when it contains data that might alert a customer to potential problems.

Denmark attaches a note, which might be perceived by some as offensive but can hardly be missed, to his correspondence with customers. In bold red letters he writes, READ THE REPORT.

“I can’t emphasize this enough,” he asserts. What’s the point in spending the few dollars it takes for the analysis if you’re not going to read it? Yet that’s often what happens with many customers. Denmark points out that when the envelope arrives, it might sit unattended, or if any attention is given to it, it is filed away without any review.

“I have customers who call me and admit that they just throw it into the file without even reading it,” Denmark relates. They’re too busy, he adds.

Yet spending a few minutes with the one-page report as soon as it arrives could make a big difference for any organization seeking to eliminate downtime, which is far more costly in terms of dollars and productive man-hours.

But as some labs know, keeping track of reports for hundreds of pieces of equipment can be a daunting task, even if it only takes a few minutes to review each one.

Citgo understands the challenges that reams of paper can pose to busy shop managers. In the heat of battle, they have little time to review and absorb – let alone take timely action on – frequent reports on their equipment. The Citgo LubeAlert HD Program was specifically designed to address these issues.

Working with a local Citgo marketer, a contractor on the program initially samples oils and fluids at much tighter intervals than original equipment manufacturer hours-in-service requirements. This is done to establish a history on each unit as well as a more appropriate and useful interval between samplings.

Results are delivered electronically through a proprietary Web site for instant download and storage on any PC or server.

LubeAlert’s graphing and charting capabilities allow the contractor an instant picture of changes in contaminant levels in a graphing format most comfortable for him. It is easy to spot abnormalities, and the contractor receives recommendations on a unit-by-unit basis.

The comprehensive maintenance records accumulated through the free LubeAlert service aim to enhance the value of equipment on the resale market as well.

Analysts Inc. offers online support and recommendations for filing and keeping track of reports as they arrive. And software programs are available for tracking the data that come in. Ultimately it’s up to the equipment manager to make sure the data are assimilated and used to their best advantage.

In any event, no matter what plan fleet managers decide upon, in the end it’s up to them to keep their gear primed and ready. It’s more often a matter of preference and what works best for the outfit concerned. Help is always available through dealers and the manufacturers of heavy equipment and lubricants.

Some equipment managers rely less upon lab reports and more upon their experience and training as mechanics. Others find the reports to be another useful tool to draw upon for servicing their machinery.

Whatever methods are developed, the goal, shared by equipment maintenance crews and the corporation’s managers, is to keep the organization’s machinery in optimum running condition as inexpensively as possible, which goes a long way toward prospering and staying competitive in the business.