The oil and fluids in your equipment could be telling you something.
Whether you operate a fleet of rental equipment that includes everything from lifts to backhoes, or you own a commercial mowing operation with attendant trucks, trailers and mowing equipment, maintenance is a big part of your business plan.
Next to employees and buildings, you probably have more capital tied up in your rolling stock than in anything else. Keeping this fleet of equipment going is a major part of your survival — downtime is wasted time, and results in wasted money.
So, how do you maintain your equipment properly, keeping it on the road and out of the shop?
Well, reading the operating manuals and designing a preventative maintenance schedule around the information provided in them is a great place to start. While it's easy to sometimes let regular maintenance slide a little longer than it should, keep it on track by changing oil, coolant and other fluids on a regular basis along with replacing brakes, tires and other components as needed. This is the first step to keep your investments rolling along (along with your profits). Still, you'd like to know you were doing more to protect your investments. For example, what if you could determine the best time to change oil based on its remaining effectiveness, instead of an arbitrary number? What if you could see a problem coming and prevent it from downing a piece of equipment? What if doing all this did not require wearing tights, x-ray vision or the absence of kryptonite to be effective? What if, when you went to trade in or sell a piece of equipment, it was worth more than someone else's?
If you've wondered these things, you should explore implementing fluid analysis as part of your preventative maintenance.
An exact science
Fluid analysis is more than just testing used oil or discolored coolant. It is an exact science that can prevent downtime, extend oil drain intervals and save you some serious money.
According to Lisa Urbach, director of sales and marketing for Titan Laboratories in Denver, Colo., fluid analysis is much more than simply testing oil. There are more than 10 types of equipment that can benefit from fluid analysis. Things like differentials, transmissions, hydraulic systems, PTO gearboxes and any other equipment components using lubrication or cooling fluids can benefit from analysis. It's a fact: Regular testing of your equipment can spot problems coming and help stop them before they stop you, through a process called predictive maintenance.
According to Urbach, predictive maintenance is the ability to reduce unexpected downtime, prevent catastrophic mechanical failures and optimize maintenance programs. Of course, this information about the internal condition of your equipment also can help schedule maintenance when it is needed, allowing you to get the most out of oils and coolants by indicating precisely when they are in need of changing. According to Urbach, “One of the keys to realizing the full benefits of predictive maintenance is regular fluid sampling, which enables (labs) to perform a service known as trend analysis.”
Trend analysis is a powerful technique for detecting mechanical problems that involves analyzing past test results and looking for trends in the results known collectively as a wear pattern, says Urbach. “With each fluid sample you provide, current test results are analyzed using the wear pattern as a baseline for comparison.”
Differences in readings between current test results and the wear pattern can provide the earliest possible warning of a developing mechanical problem. In plain English, when you provide samples on a regular basis, analysts can look for trouble ahead, often stopping it before the component or equipment fails, saving you time and money.
There are several ways of procuring a fluid sample from your equipment. One way is to pull the drain plug and catch the first 4 ounces of oil that emerge (least accurate); another way is to use a mechanical device to suction out a sample; the third and final way is to use a device that allows you to pull a sample from a running engine. The last two methods are favored by Titan and they offer equipment for this type of sampling.
So, how does the sampling process work? Well, in the case of Titan laboratories, first you obtain a sampling kit, which includes necessary containers and instructions, along with a postage-paid return package for the sample. These kits are available with or without sampling tools, and are also sold in multi-packs if you have a fleet or plan to make repeat sampling a part of your routine maintenance.
Once you procure a sample, place it in the postage-paid package and send it off. Within 24 hours of receipt, the fluid is analyzed: checked for several variants and the presence of trace or wear materials. If a major problem is detected, a technician will call you immediately. Test results can be mailed, faxed or e-mailed at your discretion, and most laboratories offer a technical assistance phone line staffed by knowledgeable people to answer any questions you may have about the test results.
Do more than try before you buy
While these tests can be invaluable to the proper maintenance of a fleet, do not overlook other uses for them as well. For instance, if you are considering the purchase of a piece of equipment and want to check to see if it's in the shape it appears to be in, you may want to get a single-use kit from a lab, send off the sample and see what the lab has to say. All the paint and cleaning in the world can't make up for premature or severe wear, and by spending a little on testing you may avoid a several-thousand-dollar mistake.
For example, coolant contamination found in transmission oil is usually a sign of a cracked oil cooler — just the sort of problem you'll either want to correct if you already own the equipment, or avoid if you are testing a piece of equipment you've yet to acquire. Likewise, the test can reveal other wear materials that are not visible to the naked eye but are seen by the laboratory (see “Fluid Analysis,” page 35). The results are much more revealing than what you can tell just by looking and trying out.
As a crusty crime scene investigator might say, “The evidence doesn't lie.” By doing fluid analysis on a regular basis, you can avoid downtime, determine the cause of problems and ensure your equipment is worth more at trade-in time. After all, machinery with a strong maintenance history generally sells quicker and for more money than equipment without it.
Phoebe Harrison is an equipment specialist who resides in Virginia.
FLUID ANALYSIS: COSTS AND BENEFITS?
There are always two questions any business owner asks when presented with a maintenance product: What will it cost, and how will it help the bottom line?
Although this article focuses on Titan labs, an Internet search will yield several other companies that also offer fluid analysis. In looking through those who advertised their prices, the average cost was about $30 to $35 per sample, with at least one company giving a discount in the case of multiple purchases.
The frequency of sampling is entirely up to you of course, so the cost side of things is entirely within your control.
But do the benefits outweigh the costs? Terry Dyson, owner of Dyson Analysis, puts it in perspective. “I can see and predict failures, contamination, wear points before they become costly and catastrophic. Predictive maintenance using oil analysis is a money-saver for that reason. I can tell if you have an air filter that is leaking dirt or is overused and loaded with dirt, when turbos are failing, valve guide seals are leaking, etc.”
The way this is done has nothing to do with magic and everything to do with science. A certain type of trace metal found in oil leads to a certain type of impending failure, and repairing the failed part before it utterly demolishes your equipment is one way oil analysis can save you money.
For example, an oil analysis of your engine may show high concentrations of fuel residue present in the oil, indicating a fuel injection problem (or if coupled with other elements, may be indicative of blow-by or ring wear). Knowing what is going on inside your engine has never been more important than it is today. With the high costs of replacement equipment and the importance of keeping your equipment operating, fluid analysis is cheap insurance.
Unlike life insurance, however, you don't have to wait for something horrible to happen to recoup your investment. Over-the-road drivers have used oil analysis for years to determine when they need to change their oil; that is, they use the oil until it needs to be changed instead of changing at pre set intervals. One of the things the lab will test for is the overall health of the oil itself, and by changing it when it needs it, you may find you can extend your oil change intervals, lowering overall maintenance costs in the process.
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