Setting Limits on Fluid Properties

Earlier this month, I talked about how we set limits for wear metals and contaminants. There is one final group of results Data Analysts examine to determine the health of oil, fuels, and coolants: fluid properties.

Fluid properties are the physical and chemical features that allow the fluid to perform as it was designed. Viscosity, Acid Number, Base Number, Oxidation, Nitration and Additives are the main fluid properties examined by fluid analysis.

These properties don’t have much in common. Different tests are used to determine if the fluid still has the ability to protect equipment. Viscosity needs to be run at different temperatures to match the operating conditions of the equipment, ICP is used to quantify the metals found in common additives, oxidation and nitration are measured using FTIR, and acid number and base number need to be run using different titration methods to get the measurement we desire.

Just like wear metals and contaminants, the actual flagging limits depend on what the fluid is, the equipment the fluid is being used in, and what application the equipment is doing. These factors all can change the maintenance recommendations from the Data Analysts, which is why it is important to provide as much information about the sample as possible.

To learn more about the challenges facing each fluid property and how we set our flagging limits, please download this technical bulletin.

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Oil, Coolant and Fuel Contamination

It doesn’t matter if it came from outside the equipment, was generated inside the equipment or if it worked its way into the oil from another system in the machine, contamination is any substance that isn’t supposed to be in the fluid being tested.

Most people think of contamination as something working its way into the equipment from the outside. Water and many types of particles, like dirt, sneak in through cracks, broken seals or unprotected ports, but in equipment with physical and chemical reaction occurring inside of it, foreign substances are only part of what we consider “contamination”.

Some contaminates are created during equipment operations. Soot is a natural byproduct of diesel combustion and commonly works its way into the engine oil, which is why the oil is formulated with additives to deal with soot. Lubricant additives are designed to protect components and prolong oil life; however they can become contaminants when heat, pressure or a chemical reaction causes them to fall out of suspension.

Fluids from other systems can be contaminants, such as coolant and fuel mixing with engine oil. All three systems need to operate in conjunction with the others, and leaks happen. Small holes and cracks between the oil and cooling systems could leak fluid one-way, so testing both fluids is recommended to catch leaks early. Over-fueling or worn cylinder rings can lead to fuel entering crankcase oil. Either way, cross-contamination from other systems is a sign of a mechanical problem that needs to be fixed before it escalates into a breakdown.

The type of equipment and application will determine what contamination could affect it and what tests to perform. The Contamination Flagging Limits technical bulletin has more information on how POLARIS Laboratories® determines the severity of contamination.

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How We Set Flagging Limits

In the Data Analysis department, one of our key responsibilities is to answer any questions customers have about fluid analysis. A lot of our calls are about what results mean. Does the fluid need to be changed? What could be causing that strange noise? We also get questions asking for testing recommendations for a specific application or issue being seen. However, the hardest questions to answer are about our flagging limits. The only easy answer for these questions is: “It’s complicated…”

Our process for defining flagging limits is actually something that we are quite proud of. It can be difficult to provide our limits because they are very dynamic and specific to the information provided about the equipment, fluid, and application. For example, one engine in your fleet may have different flagging limits than another because our limits are customized based on the specific equipment manufacturers and models. Limits are also affected by the rate of change from prior samples. Individual severities may change based on other results that are flagged. These are just a few scenarios that affect limits, but I think you can begin to understand some of the complexities surrounding our limits.

We’d like to clear up some of the confusion by publishing a series of articles to address the more common questions surrounding flagging and alarm limits. What aspects of your report flagging have you been curious about? Post your questions in the comments section of this blog so we have an opportunity to reply and use your questions to guide the topics of our articles.

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Testing Extended Life Coolants

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard coolant marketers, OEMs and customers alike say, “There’s no need to test the coolant. We use an ELC.” Extended life coolants, or ELCs, are designed to be more stable, require no supplemental coolant inhibitors and last longer than conventional coolants. However, that doesn’t eliminate the need for coolant testing.

Fluid design won’t prevent or correct many of the problems affecting cooling systems. Mechanical issues, such as combustion gas leaks, air leaks, localized overheating and hotspots or stray electrical grounding, can chemically affect or destroy the coolant and its inhibitors. Once the chemical change occurs, the coolant can attack the metals and components in the system, causing premature failure. Mechanical problems affect conventional and extended life coolants equally, and neither fluid formulation will fix the root cause of the problem.

Coolant contamination is the result of poor maintenance practices and air leaks. Depending on how they affect the pH, contaminants are either going to form acids or alkaline scale in coolants. The acid will corrode or pit cooling system components, degrade hoses and seals and deplete inhibitors and/or additives. Scale affects the oil side of an engine by decreasing the efficiency of heat transfer, which can lead to cracked heads, ring/cylinder wear or bearing wear. Coolants are affected by these problems whether they are conventional or an ELC, and the fluid cannot fix the root cause.

Coolant mixing is another reason why regular fluid analysis is needed for ELCs. With all of the different coolant formulations available today, coolant mixing is a huge issue in the industry. If an incompatible formula makes up more than 25 percent of the total coolant, the inhibitors from both formulas will be too diluted to protect the system, and serious corrosion can occur. Different OEMs use different coolants, so it is easy for fleets with several different brands to mix incompatible formulas together. Even if a fleet maintenance manager stocks the appropriate coolant formulas in the shop, this makes it even easier for maintenance personnel to add the incorrect coolant to a system. This can result in huge maintenance costs from corrosion issues, and this time, the problem is made worse by adding ELC formulas to the spectrum of coolants in stock.

The bottom line is no matter what coolant formula is used, mechanical issues, contaminants and coolant mixing will reduce the life of your fluid and can harm the cooling system and engine. Only regular laboratory coolant analysis can identify issues before damage has occurred. Our ELC test packages will evaluate the life remaining in these specialized formulas, identify if a problem has reduced the life of the coolant and provide maintenance recommendations to help you address the root cause of the problem.

Interested in adding coolant analysis to your maintenance program? Contact us today and we will be in touch with you shortly!


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Published June 4, 2014

Fluid Analysis Is Greener than You Think

We should all be aware of the impact we as humans have on the environment and want to protect our vital resources for future generations. The world population continues to grow, and for growth to be sustainable we must use less virgin products and capture more what we use for reuse. This is one of the reasons why I’m proud of the impact POLARIS Laboratories® has on the environment.

The fluid analysis industry helps our customers conserve natural resources. We provide customers with information about the remaining useful life of the fluids so they can use their lubricants and antifreeze to the fullest. These extended drain intervals allow the customers to go much farther than the manufactures’ recommendations in some cases. This saves the energy, raw materials and pollutants needed to produce new fluids and reduces millions of gallons of used oil and coolant needed to be disposed of.

In addition, the testing extends the life of the equipment itself. By taking action on the recommendations made by our data analysts, our customers prevent wear and reduce the chances of catastrophic breakdown. They get more miles traveled, hours of productivity and tons moved from their equipment than without our maintenance recommendations. Simply put, engines, transmissions and hydraulic systems last longer. The amount of steel and other metals no longer needed to make replacement equipment is staggering.

While POLARIS Laboratories® helps the environment through our customers; we also do our best to reduce the environmental impact of the testing we perform. We use solvents, plastic, glass and cardboard during the fluid analysis process, as well as the fluids sent in for testing. These items can harm the environment if not handled properly, so we have set up procedures to handle and dispose of these products responsibly. Nearly everything we use can be recycled.

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Six Reasons Why Cooling Systems Need More Attention

It’s easy to think that coolant is separate from engines because it has its own system and fluid. But remember, your coolant flows through your engine and is just millimeters from the oil and fuel. For as vital as coolant is to the life of engines, it’s surprising how often it gets overlooked.

Here’s six reasons why coolants get overlooked and why that’s wrong:

          • It isn’t changed as often as oil. Oil usually gets contaminated more quickly and needs to be changed, but coolant can be contaminated just as quickly.
          • I use an extended life coolant. ELCs can be contaminated just as quickly as conventional coolants.
          • I’ll just change the coolant every fall or spring. Conventional coolants can last two years and extended life coolant formulations can potentially last five or six years. In addition, changing the coolant will just mask some problems instead of fixing what caused the problem.
          • All coolants are the same. Cooling systems have changed dramatically in the last 30 years and coolants have transformed with them. OAT, HOAT and NAPS formulas have joined conventional coolants, and mixing them together can make both coolants less effective.
          • If something’s wrong, I’ll just drain and flush the system. Some coolant/engine problems cause corrosion, deposits, pitting and erosion that can’t be fixed by flushing. One-tenth of an inch of scale alone has the same insulating capacity as three to four inches of cast iron.
          • The problem is in the engine, not the cooling system. About 40 percent of preventable engine failures are caused by problems initiated in the cooling system. The damage might show up in the engine or the oil, but the root cause can be traced back to the cooling system or the coolant itself.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of how cooling systems and coolants are misunderstood. Our Practical Cooling System Maintenance Training class dispels the remaining myths while training you to use analysis data to discover what’s happening in your engine. Want to get started today? Watch my short video to start solving your coolant mystery today.

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Published April 24, 2014

Performing a Program Review

Today I want to get into the nuts and bolts of the review and what to do with the results.

First of all, reserve at least 1 hour of uninterrupted time for the review. Make sure you invite key personnel to attend and everyone is prepared. 

An effective program review will provide answers to the following questions:

        1. What are the goals of the review?
        2. Is your equipment list up to date?
        3. Is your fluid information up to date?
        4. If you test both lubricants and coolants, are you using both sets of data to see if an issue in the cooling system is affecting the lubrication system?
        5. Is the total number of samples increasing or decreasing?
        6. What information did you discover during the review?
        7. What action will you take to resolve problems?
        8. When will you perform the next review?

Make sure everyone leaves the review with a clear expectation of what needs to happen in the future and when it needs to be accomplished. Write down notes from the meeting, assignments and deadlines.

Performance reviews can be a lot of work, but the process can push a fluid analysis program to the next level. If you need assistance setting up a program review, have questions for the Field Services Team or just want to share the results of a successful review, please contact me. I look forward to hearing from you!

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Taking Action On Maintenance Problems Pays

Fluid analysis program reviews can identify root causes of common breakdowns in order to help maximize their fluid analysis investment. Usibelli Coal Mine implemented process changes after their program review which produced compelling, business-improving results. The company is taking action on more recommendations, the number of components with severe problems is dropping and more units are being adequately sampled.

Prior to the program review, Usibelli did not consider contamination to be a contributor to their maintenance issues. POLARIS Laboratories® conducted a fluid analysis audit of the company and discovered several system wide problems that allowed contamination into the lubrication, which led to equipment wear.

Read the Full Case Study


Evaluating the Effectiveness of Your Fluid Analysis Program

Every day I consult with companies about their fluid analysis programs. The majority of them know they could do more to maximize the benefits, but they don’t know all of the different things they can improve or how much it will help them.

Here are the 10 questions we ask our customers to find out how effective their fluid analysis program is.

          1. Has a complete equipment list been compiled and sent to the lab?
          2. Have you set definable and measurable goals for your program?
          3. Has the proper testing regime been selected for each unit type?
          4. Have your personnel received training on proper sampling techniques?
          5. Are samples taken in a timely manner and at consistent intervals?
          6. When maintenance is recommended by the lab, are work orders issued for maintenance or other diagnostics?
          7. How do you evaluate the effectiveness of your program?
          8. How do you evaluate cost savings attributed to your fluid analysis program?
          9. What are the qualifications of the lab you have selected?
          10. Does your current program have immediate access to your data?

If you don’t have an answer for each of those questions, you are most likely not getting what you could out of your fluid analysis program. Contact us today to set up a full, onsite Fluid Analysis Program Assessment so you can achieve all of the financial benefits of a world class fluid analysis program.

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Published March 4, 2014

Avoid Catastrophic Failures

Pulling a boat out of the water for repairs is an expensive wake-up call for marine-based businesses, especially when the damage was preventable. A company in Florida lost nearly $100,000 in replacement parts, repair charges and lost productivity to dry dock a boat after a hydraulic motor suffered a catastrophic failure. The company used this expense as a catalyst to improve their fluid analysis program.

Read the Full Case Study