Keeping It Clean

June 13, 2013

Keeping it clean is not the total solution to any maintenance problem. The owner who has his car cleaned, and stands back to see what a lovely, expensive thing he has, knows that the outside cleanliness is not the whole story. It is good to have clean exteriors for our excavators, graders, dozers, and loaders, and that does give a good image of our company, but you and I know that the most important aspects of a well-maintained machine are not always visible. Somebody new to construction equipment may see only today’s performance of a machine, how it digs, how it lifts and carries, how it moves in any soil, but every experienced operator knows that a machine that is kept as close to its new condition as possible, in and out, will perform best for the longest time. Good, regular maintenance can mean a huge savings in ownership costs and an enjoyable freedom from downtime for everybody.

Most manufacturers provide manuals with their machines. Some of them are many pages long, and that may be one reason why they are ignored too often. They cover almost every possible (and certainly every probable) happening. For the best, and necessary, maintenance for a particular machine from a particular manufacturer, employees must be familiar with the recommended procedures. Yes, they may be long, but they do cover as much as possible, and none of the advice is irrelevant. You can spend many hours on perfecting your maintenance program, but you will always have people in your company who question every minute spent on anything. What such critics don’t realize is that their attitude is like that of the machine operator of yesteryear who believed he could run any machine perfectly without anybody else’s help. As machines become more efficient, with new technologies and operating strategies, that kind of know-it-all employee has become more of a hindrance than a help.

It would be helpful if we could devise some kind of maintenance program for our equipment that took care of any emergencies before they occurred and kept machines running efficiently in a cost-effective manner. If an equipment manager could find a way to relieve the daily pressure to keep machines on the job and working well without the equal pressure of “Don’t waste time on that if nothing’s wrong”, he would have a calmer existence. One of the simplest ways to get close to that goal is to develop a program for sampling a machine’s fluids and reading the stories they tell. The fluids in a machine, unseen for the most part, can tell so much about the current condition and likelihood of failure of the components. Monitoring of your machines’ fluids can give you early warnings of potential problems before they become serious problems involving downtime and expensive repairs.

Such a program of regular checking of fluids would be in addition to a standard maintenance program, which is usually time-based, where work is done at specified times according to the simple calendar, or operating hours, or meter readings. But, yes, fluid sampling may require extra trips, extra time. The way it can be justified to those who want to cut hours in what seems to them a nonproductive area is the number of major expenses that have been prevented, thanks to fluid sampling at regular intervals. There are almost always significant savings when a fluid sampling has identified the possibility of component failure, often because the failure of one component (even a small one) can cause failures in a string of other components. All pieces of equipment are really systems; one fault can lead quickly to others. The fluids in any machine can show if one component is weakening, or if it is likely to cause havoc among other components.

DIY, or With Third-Party Help?
If all your equipment comes from one manufacturer, it is likely that you have a fluid sampling and analysis program available from that manufacturer. Not surprisingly, each manufacturer concentrates on its own products. You’ll also notice that there may be different solutions for different applications; it depends what you are asking your excavator or loader to do, and where. If you have a variety of equipment from different manufacturers, as many contractors do, it can be difficult to organize an efficient program for fluid sampling and analysis. In that case, you could consider an outside tester, a third party who has the ability to perform multiple analyses from multiple manufacturers, usually because that is his sole business. He is, truly, a specialist.

Whoever does the fluids analyses must have all the right equipment, enough of it and high enough quality to satisfy both you and your customers. “In a timely manner,” somebody shouted at me the other day to remind me of the importance of time and turnaround in all maintenance programs. The turnaround for an expert analyst to produce the necessary results should be one or two days after receiving the samples from you. The third party should also be competent in analyzing several aspects of your equipment: fuel, coolant, oil, water, plus spectrochemical analyses for the metals in wear parts, additives, and contaminants. The expert should analyze the viscosity of fluids and the particle count as required by ISO. This next comment may seem too obvious but it is important. If a third party does your fluid sampling and analysis, that third party should communicate any alerts and warnings as quickly as possible. And it would be appropriate today if the analysts had a website where results could be published and accessed by you. The good communication of results is essential to the usefulness of the service, and you should ascertain beforehand how efficiently your chosen analyst can give you the required information. Some dealerships have this capability already; they may be the first outsource place to seek help.

The point made above that each application may be different is one that is echoed by experienced operators and equipment managers, as well as by manufacturers. “Each machine has its own requirements set forth in its service manual,” observes Keith Perry at Shell Technical Information. “That is the starting point. Then oil change and greasing intervals can be adjusted as conditions dictate. Oil analysis should be used to monitor the condition of the oil and provide information on the condition of the equipment. Antifreeze coolants are easy to neglect but deserve attention. The trend is toward extended-life coolants that do not require as much monitoring and also provide better water pump life, reduced scaling, better heat transfer, and longer drain intervals. Engine oils have evolved to lower levels of ash and improved wear protection as the allowable fuel-sulfur levels of off-road fuels are now the same as on-road [15 ppm S max contrasted with as high as 5,000 ppm off-road until 2007]. Biodegradable products are a growing trend and most suppliers have biodegradable hydraulic oils available, too.”

Perry mentions coolants as one of the possibly more neglected aspects of good maintenance. Manufacturers are trying to compensate for that weakness some of us have. Shell Rotella ELC Extended Life Coolant/Antifreeze is called a “fill for life” carboxylate-based coolant for heavy-duty diesel, gasoline, and natural-gas powered engines. It contains ethylene glycol and nitrite and molybdate as secondary inhibitors. Shell Rotella ELC requires none of the traditional SCA additions and contains no silicate, borate, nitrate or phosphate. Among those who have approved its use are Caterpillar, International, Cummins, Mack, and Detroit Diesel. The feature that stands out for me is that its minimum coolant life is 1,000,000 km with only one Shell Rotella ELC Extender at 500,000 km. (A million kilometers is more than 621,000 miles.) Additional features-you can see them as benefits-include that no supplemental coolant additives (SCAs) are required, the water pump seal life is improved because there are only low dissolved solid levels, hard water scale is reduced, maintenance for overall coolant and cooling component is reduced, that green goo is reduced, and it is compatible with conventional coolants. It has been used successfully to top up cooling systems containing conventional coolants (following the advice that you do not dilute the product by more than 15% with conventional coolants or water).

Go to the Source
The well-known and established suppliers of lubricants are also a good place to find help with all the details of constant vigilance of your maintenance program. Castrol, for example, offers Castrol Labcheck Next Generation, a program for analyzing used oil. Through this ongoing analysis of used oil samples, the system allows you to pinpoint (and solve) equipment problems. The Castrol program, says its providers, will help you maximize component life. It can pinpoint problems before failure occurs, and that should surely reduce downtime for your equipment and workers and the overall cost of your maintenance. The program can also review trends in your equipment, trends that you and your operators may not notice in the daily operation of everything, and it can establish guidelines for improvement. By interpreting the results garnered from used oil you can also decide drain intervals to the best schedule. Castrol also reminds us that hydraulic oil is of paramount importance to the running of our equipment; don’t just think about engine oil. For long-lasting performance, hydraulic oils will help prevent corrosion and rusting, maintain system pressure, and guard against foaming. Castrol has an application guide available that will help you select the right hydraulic oil for your particular machine needs. Of several, the Castrol Dual Range HV has been very popular for construction equipment where vane and piston pumps are used.

ExxonMobil, too, offers an oil analysis service, known as Signum Oil Analysis. It will provide advance warning of other-than-normal conditions that could be threatening for your valuable equipment. ExxonMobil Lubricants & Specialties (L&S) does tests whose efficacy is based on recognized equipment builder specs and international standards. The engineers doing the analysis establish representative sampling points and intervals, identify trends that could lower performance, document the recommendations and confirmation of benefits you could achieve through reduced, unscheduled downtime, replacement parts for your equipment, labor costs, and oil consumption. ExxonMobil will also conduct on-site training for your employees to give them better awareness of the importance of good lubrication. The analysis options offered will be based on your specific equipment and the construction applications in which you are involved.

One aspect of all construction work that is, surprisingly, seldom addressed by experts and advisers is the weather. Somebody in Florida raises his eyebrows at a trade show when another contractor, from Minnesota, talks about the “season” for contracting. It has nothing to do with a work ethic: It’s the weather. In several northern states there can be months when outside work is stopped, simply because it cannot be done. For those months, some contractors have their machines hibernate, rest, sit idle, however you want to describe the status of long inaction. Maintenance for those machines is vital when they start moving again.

Seasonal Demands
Equipment that has been in storage should be ready to leave the yard and start work, and that means that you don’t just finish your working season and park the equipment until the good weather returns. You make sure, when you’ve finished with it for the year, that it is clean, that you have removed the battery and stored it in a clean, dry place. You’ll cover the muffler and air intake hose, spray a coating on exposed parts like cylinder rods to prevent corrosion during the idle time. You won’t change the engine oil and filter at this end-of-year stage because they are among the first items for attention at the beginning of the new year. When your new working season starts-or better, just before you’re ready to take the machine to the jobsite-you’ll replace the battery after it is tested, recharged if necessary, check belts for tension, clean the radiator and hydraulic cooler if necessary, check the tires’ pressure, probably replace oil and hydraulic filters, top off oil fluid levels, and check all grease and lubrication points. When you are sure the machine is in its best condition for the coming work, you can start it! Give it some minutes to warm up (even if it’s not cold outside) and check the working of the drive and hydraulic functions. Your manufacturer or dealer can tell you if there are special tasks to accomplish for that particular machine (such as track tension) at the start of each work season.

Stay thinking about cold weather for a few minutes and see how providers of oils work constantly to improve their products (and the performance of your heavy equipment). Towards the end of 2012, Lubrication Engineers Inc. announced its new synthetic oil for diesel engines, a product that is especially beneficial in the winter. Monolec Ultra Syn Heavy Duty Engine Oil (8854) is a year-round protector of performance, fuel efficiency, and extended drains. It has an exclusive synthetic base, with exclusive additives, and offers an SAE 5W-40 formulation. One prime advantage of 5W-40 versus 15W-40 engine oil is that it makes for better fuel economy. In a controlled lab setting, GM 6.5-L dyno testing showed an improvement in fuel economy of 1.5 to 1.6% for 5W-40 oils over SAE 15W-40 oils. Extended oil drains, in combination with that essential oil analysis, will give extra cost-saving potential. What’s the winter advantage? Low-viscosity oils are preferred by many contractors in low-temperature conditions because they can achieve flow quickly during cold startups that, in northern places, are really cold. (As I write this, it’s -8° F outside.) Most engine wear occurs within the first two to five minutes of starting. Opposing this thinking is the fact that conventional low-viscosity oils have not always provided the necessary oil film at operating temperatures. The improved technology of LE’s Monolec 8854 has beaten the cold startup problem and maintains viscosity at operating temperatures. Authorized OEM approvals for Monolec Ultra Syn Heavy Duty Engine Oil have come from Caterpillar, Detroit, Cummins, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and other leading engine manufacturers.

A little technical talk here. The proprietary additive mentioned above for Lubrication Engineers Monolec makes a single molecular lubricating film on metal surfaces, increasing the film strength enormously without affecting clearances. Monolec is a component found in LE’s industrial oils, engine oils, and in many of its other lubricants. It allows opposing surfaces to slide by one another, greatly reducing friction, heat, and wear. In my research I came across a most interesting white paper from LE, written by John Sander, the company’s vice president of technology, which addresses the issue of synthetic lubricants in about eight pages and is reading I would recommend for those who buy lubricants but are not absolutely sure what is what.

The Daily Maintenance Schedule
Perhaps the easiest maintenance to neglect is that daily check of the equipment before the day’s work. It’s much easier to arrive at the yard or job site, climb into the cab, and start the engine without checking around the machine for possible hazards. Like so many tasks, it takes only a short time, but it’s too easy to ignore. The important benefit behind the daily check is safety. Nothing can ruin a day’s work, nothing can build up a huge cost, nothing can be more dangerous to equipment and operator than a safety failure. The daily check does not pretend to find as much information as an oil analysis, but it does point to possible dangers during that day’s work.

Check the tires (or tracks) for signs of uneven wear, loose components, or wobbly operation. I can think of three accidents in recent years in my small community that were the result of tire problems that could have been detected at the start of the day. Are there any obvious leaks? Do you know who to tell about that? While you are aware of the ground conditions, take a look at the blade if the machine has one, or the ripper, and the boom. Are the coupling devices in good shape, well positioned? From the cab the operator can check the efficiency of turn signals, mirrors, seat belt, and lights. Are the windows clean? (That’s something that can cause many a scary moment if they are not.)

The quick list could go on to check fluids (just the levels, not the condition for analysis) and the windshield wipers and fluid. How was it, getting up into the cab? Are the hand grabs and steps working well? Are they clean enough to avoid your slipping and falling next time you climb in or out? Some of the daily inspection and remedies may require shop work, but many of the conditions of the equipment can be assessed by the operator before starting to drive.

Whatever I read and hear about good maintenance, my mind keeps coming back to the manufacturers’ manuals. Companies like Caterpillar, Doosan, John Deere, Case, Komatsu, Volvo, Hitachi, Bobcat, Liebherr, Kubota, and Kobelco know their machines better than anybody. They design them, test them, improve them, test them, and test them to make sure their customers get the best results from their work. To ignore the manuals they publish to help do things right is plain stupidity. Many of the recommended procedures will be similar, they will recommend or approve the same fluids, but those who are in charge of maintenance for your equipment should be familiar with the manuals that are written so carefully for each particular machine.

Maintenance is not something for equipment managers (or the boss) only. Operators can play a star role in a good maintenance program, apart from that early morning check of basic features. Operators should listen to their machines. Nobody will hear a strange sound as soon as the operator. Nobody will sense something wrong with movements sooner than the operator. Encourage your operators to report anything strange or unusual; it could save thousands of dollars. Encourage them, too, to treat their machines with respect. Excavators and others in the family of construction equipment do not need or like jackrabbit starts and screaming stops. They don’t like to be driven too hard up slopes, and they don’t need to be. A machine that is driven sensibly (in a friendly way, if you like) will perform better than one that is abused. Good treatment by the operator is part of the best maintenance program.