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Save oil, money by extending oil drain intervals
By Doug Kaufman
August 16, 2010
Safely extending oil drain intervals has many benefits
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How would you like to substantially increase the life of your fleet’s engine oil, while simultaneously saving thousands of dollars and gallons of fuel per year? Wait; don’t answer yet! What if we also told you that you could use less lubricant, keep your vehicles on the road longer and help make a difference to the environment, as well? NOW how much would you pay?!
With apologies to midway barkers everywhere, the claims being made today by oil suppliers, filter manufacturers and lubrication service providers sound like nothing more than hype designed to separate you, the fleet manager, from your money.
And yet, perhaps surprisingly to some operations managers, these claims in many cases are entirely accurate. It IS possible to see substantial benefits from extending your fleet’s oil drain intervals…but doing so requires significant work on your end to ensure your equipment, your personnel and your operational procedures are up to the challenge.
“Engine lubricating oil is often referred to as the lifeblood of the engine,” says Rod Radosevich, marketing manager for Donaldson Co.’s Engine Group. “This analogy isn’t made simply because the oil circulates through the engine but more importantly because the oil performs critical functions necessary to maintain engine performance and maximize useful service life.”
In a fleet setting, the importance of these functions is amplified by the importance of keeping an assortment of vehicles serving a variety of needs on the road. Engine oil is called upon to do three things: protect critical engine parts from wear; cool the engine and transfer heat; and keep the engine clean. How well it does these things is the determining factor in how long your oil drain intervals should be.
Understanding exactly what the optimum oil drain intervals are can be confusing. Original equipment manufacturers have carefully prescribed parameters to guide you regarding oil changes. Unfortunately, according to Dan Arcy, OEM technical manager at Shell Global Solutions, your mileage may vary.
“There isn’t necessarily an industry standard about drain intervals. Different manufacturers do it a little differently and it can vary based on the type of engine and type of service operation. A line-haul, over-the-road truck is going to have a different service interval versus that very same truck doing local deliveries,” Arcy says.
Most of the engine manufacturers have a recommended interval based on some type of criteria, Arcy explains. For example, Cummins owners can reference a chart that says if the fleet is getting between X and X number of miles per gallon, depending on the type of operation, the specified drain interval is X-thousand miles. “Basically, they give longer drain intervals for better fuel economy, which makes sense,” Arcy says. “If you’re burning more fuel, you’re likely working the engine harder, and consequently, working the oil harder as well. Whereas, if you’re carrying light loads and you’re not working the engine as hard, you’re going to have better fuel economy so you’re a better candidate for a longer drain interval.”
Mark Stamp, heavy duty product manager for Champion Laboratories, agrees that oil drain extension consideration should start with the OEM. “The proper drain interval to consider in beginning a benchmark of drain intervals should be the OE engine manufacturer’s recommendation. Driving conditions, environmental conditions and work environment should all be considered when selecting vehicles to test for extended oil change interval.”
Herb Brown, sales and marketing manager for Filtran Filters, says, “Fleets may face challenges from their engine OEMs based on trying to extend the interval. Therefore, it is imperative that they maintain their oil to the OEM’s specs. If they do their oil analysis on a proper schedule, extending the oil does not hurt the equipment. I would suggest that they involve their OEMs in their process.”
Mark Betner, heavy duty lubricants manager for Citgo, agrees that the potential for extending oil drains is often far greater than the actual participation. “A good percentage of fleets are extended drain capable but choose to operate conservatively in order to avoid warranty disputes in the event of an engine problem. The key is education and partnering with a lubricant and oil analysis provider that will assist with managing the process.”
Like Brown, Betner says fear of warranty disputes often scares fleet managers away. “It is common in the event of a warranty dispute in the case of an engine failure for an engine manufacturer to request two types of documentation. One is the service history and the other is oil analysis history. Having both types of documentation in good order goes a long way in avoiding a warranty dispute. The bottom line is thisif the oil condition history as represented by oil analysis in terms of engine wear and overall oil condition is good, the likelihood of a lubrication related failure is minimal to non-existent. Oil does have an exhaustion point as can be seen with oil analysis. Knowing where the safe operating range is requires fleet testing and working with a provider that will assist with the process.”
The benefits of extending oil drain intervals are many, but ultimately boil down to one thing: money. “Extended oil drain intervals allow for a reduced number of oil and filter changesresulting in the use of less oil, fewer filters, less maintenance time and reduced vehicle downtime,” says
Len Badal, commercial enterprise manager with Chevron Global Lubricants, agrees. “Depending on the size of the fleet, a well-managed extended drain program can result in significant cost savings. When you look at the challenging economy we are facing and the competitive on-road transportation market, any savings that can be safely achieved is critical to a business’ bottom line.”
Of course, if it were just as simple as waiting longer to change your oil, everyone would be doing it. The fact is, extended oil drains can present challenges to fleets, experts acknowledge.
Understanding the factors affecting the engine oil is the first step in extending oil service intervals,” says Donaldson’s Radosevich. “Excessive heat will break down engine oil and create deposits in the engine, adversely affecting engine life. Severe cold will limit the ability of the engine oil to lubricate at start-up and may add unwanted moisture and unburned fuel to the oil. Extended idle time can result in increased amounts of unburned fuel entering the oil, resulting in oil dilution and inadequate lubrication. Extreme dust conditions may tax even the best air filtration system, adding fine contaminants to the oil, overloading the additive package that keeps them in suspension. Heavy loads on the engine can produce extra heat, putting a greater demand on the cooling system and increasing the importance of cooling system maintenance during extended oil drain intervals (EODI).”
Radosevich says today’s cleaner-burning engines make excellent candidates for extended oil drain intervals. However, most customers cannot afford to buy new equipment every year and normally fleets have a mix of equipment varying in vintage and service life. “As piston rings and valve guides wear in the engine, combustion by-products increase. These combustion by-products end up accelerating oil additive depletion and create harmful deposits on internal engine surfaces, making the engine less likely to benefit from an EODI,” he says.
Betner, too, agrees that premature engine failure is a legitimate concern for fleet ownersbut it’s usually in spite of, not because of, lubrication. “Engines fail prematurely for a variety of reasons, including operator error, mechanical malfunction, improper manufacturing or rebuild problems not related to lubrication. When it gets down to lubrication-related failures, there are really only two main causes for early engine failure: one is oil starvation due to low or no oil and cold weather. The other is oil excessively contaminated with coolant, dirt, fuel or soot loading. Overextending the engine oil change interval can lead to accelerated engine wear and engine damage, but this again can be detected with a properly managed oil analysis program.”
Chevron’s Badal explains, “If an extended drain program is not safely developed and managed, the consequences can be severe. These consequences range from excessive wear that results in the replacement of engine components to complete engine failure. If not managed correctly, the program designed to safely save money can cost you in the end. In starting up an extended drain program, fleets must review their whole operation to ensure they have systems in place to monitor truck performance (like oil analysis, coolant analysis, etc.) and ensure their maintenance personnel can interpret the data appropriately to manage fleet performance. Furthermore, a review of systems for ensuring data is provided in real-time is critical for success.”
Does your fleet have a good method of tracking a particular truck’s service record? According to Shell’s Arcy, “I’ve seen fleets that schedule maintenance at 20K, but sometimes those trucks don’t get in there until 25K. And I’ve been with some fleets that have intervals at 20,000 but because of how business is, that truck gets missed and it goes to 40,000 miles. If you’re doing 20,000 and it goes to 40,000, it MAY not cause an issue. But let’s just say, for exaggeration, that it’s at 40,000 as an extended drain and IT gets missed…all of a sudden you’re at 80,000 and that could prove to be significant and be a detriment. There has to be an ability to track and keep the service intervals consistent.”
While every vehicle is, theoretically, capable of handling an extended drain interval, in fact, a comprehensive test program is vital. If severe driving conditions, environmental conditions and work environment are involved, oil analysis will verify any potential risk to the engine. “It’s much easier to manage when you have a large number of vehicles operating under similar conditions,” explains Badal.
Arcy concurs, and recommends that you first determine whether potential savings are worth it from your fleet’s business perspective. “How do you identify candidates for extended drains? You need to consistently run similar routes, similar loads and similar idle times. Those are the basic factors. And if your fleet has several different operations, etc., we recommend you take the worst case scenario and base your drain intervals off that.”
Certainly, some applications would not be appropriate, according to our experts. Say you’re a fleet that’s only putting on 25,000-30,000 miles a year. You probably don’t want to go out any further because you want to change that oil at least on a yearly basis. That’s obviously an extreme, but if you’re operating in an environment that’s getting excessively dirty, you’ll likely need to be changing filters out more regularly anyway. “And again,” suggests Arcy, “once they’ve pulled the truck off the road for service and it’s down for half a day, most fleets are going to find it’s cost beneficial financially to service the truck anyway.”
So if you are a candidate, how do you accomplish extended oil changes? First, know your equipment and know what your limitations are.
Mark Stamp at Champion Labs/Luber-finer explains that the use of laboratory oil analysis is the primary tool for monitoring engine oil condition. It is recommended to begin testing by sampling the current fleet PM interval to establish a benchmark. After a benchmark of the oil condition parameters are established, it is possible to begin an incremental increase of service mileage/hours driven. Follow-up oil analysis testing must then be taken to ensure that oil condition parameters are being maintained.
“Extending oil drains is not an art, it’s a science,” says Badal. “Fleets that don’t take the process seriously could experience serious and costly consequences. There are a few critical components to a successful extended drain program, including consulting with your OEM in advance, conducting a used oil analysis program, using a premium diesel engine oil and having partners that can help you when you have questions.”
When extending drains, utilizing a robust oil analysis program is key to helping maximize drains and minimizing unexpected downtime and costly repairs, say experts. Typically with a good oil analysis program, a fleet will want to focus on wear metals (such as iron, tin, etc.), total acid number, viscosity and fuel dilution as key measures on engine performance.
Determining what the “proper” drain interval is and how much an “extended” interval is appropriate is the elusive question, and should be done with an oil analysis study that includes frequent oil and filter sampling, says Danny Sparling, senior partner and mechanical/reliability engineer at the Oil Analysis Lab, Belle Fourche, S.D.
“A good analysis examines oxidation, nitration, soot load, additive depletion, fuel dilution, coolant entrycontamination and/or burn, water entrainment in the fuel, excessive wear in the liners, rings, guides and geartrain, among other things,” Sparling says. “Our analysis can pinpoint locations of wear and through that analysis, figure out why and what to do about it. Doing this based only on ‘recommendations’ is truly playing with fire. The right way to do this is to sample part of a fleet and keep another part of it as a control.”
Sparling recommends that oil be drained based on fuel burn numbers and not only miles. “Fuel burn is a much more accurate way to measure the amount of work that the engine has done. In addition, idle time is also a real driver on setting up a good oil drain interval.”
Citgo’s Betner recommends several things to consider when determining if your fleet is ready for extended drains, including:
Be aware of engine manufacturer recommendations for make and model of engine, duty cycles or level of severity and other operating conditions such as engine idle time and loads. Is it a regional, vocational fleet or OTR fleet that can have a wide variety of operating conditions?
Some engine manufacturers support the use of oil analysis, whereas others do not support oil analysis as a tool to optimize engine oil change intervals. The reason is often that they do not believe the equipment owner knows how to or will utilize oil analysis properly. Ultimately, oil analysis is recommended if implemented and utilized properly and consistently.
Can you (and, more importantly, will you) implement an oil analysis program that will create trend analysis for your fleet? Just checking a few units for oil condition trends and believing the rest of the fleet will comply with those conditions is like providing flu shots for 1 or 2 of your children and thinking that will protect the rest of the family. If a unit becomes contaminated with coolant, the engine is subject to potential failure regardless of how the rest of the fleet is performing.
Select an engine oil and oil analysis that will partner with you and provide both professional lubricant and oil analysis educationand support the oil change intervals.
Arcy from Shell agrees that a partnership with your oil supplier from the beginning is imperative. “The basic questionsroutes, loads and idleswill be taken into consideration. Let’s say they are considering moving it out and they are a candidate, typically, we’ll say move it out by 10% or 20% to start. We’ll have done oil analysis from the beginning so we’ll have a baseline of how the engine is performing. Then we’ll move it out say, 10% each time, and take another oil sample each time to see how the oil is actually performing and look for any red flags.”
Role of the filter
The Filter Manufacturers Council points out that the filter alone will not extend the life of engine oil. While most filters today do an excellent job in filtering, the trend of extending oil drain intervals two to three times the normal service interval has pushed the materials used in the manufacture of filters to the limit. Adhesives, rubber compounds, filter media and even the steel construction in spin-on filters need to be designed to meet the extended period of time they are expected to be in service. Before considering an extended oil drain interval, make sure the filter manufacturer will warranty its product when used in this manner.
Stamp says this concern, while legitimate, shouldn’t keep fleets from considering extended drains. “Filter manufacturers provide premium service/extended service products for lube, coolant, fuel and air systems. These products are designed to stand up to the rigors of severe/extended service intervals, working and driving conditions.”
Herb Brown from Filtran says products that exist to help fleets extend their oil and filter change intervals include bypass filtration, premium filtration, synthetic oils, premium oils and oil analysis programs. “Bypass and premium filtration do a much better job of keeping the oil cleaner, therefore slowing the degradation of the oil and its inhibitor packages. The best of these also absorb soot out of the oil.”
Radosevich from Donaldson also says his company offers a variety of products to support customers interested in extending oil drain intervals. High-tech filter media are designed to maintain the engine’s lubricant in a healthy condition by replenishing the oil’s additives as the fluid flows through the filter. The line is ideally suited for use in today’s EGR engines, which tend to deplete additives more rapidly than non-EGR engines, since clean, replenished oil is returned to the engine.
While it might seem like a self-defeating prospect for oil and filter companies to support longer oil drain intervals, experts admit there’s a method to the madness.
Citgo’s Betner says it’s about building partnership. “The ultimate job of a reputable oil and oil analysis is to assist customers with the most cost effective program possible. Short-term thinking of selling more oil that is only good for the lubricant company will eventually be countered by someone who will partner with a fleet and create a more cost effective program and long term relationship.”
Arcy agrees. “What we hope is when our customers ask us to assist them in optimizing their drain intervals, that we are looking to build long-term relationships with them and help them to minimize their operating costs.”
And that, concludes Sparling, is the goal of any business. “When coupled with a scientific oil analysis, in the end, this helps build customer confidence and loyalty. And loyalty to a brand builds business.”
City of Oxnard extends oil drains
The City of Oxnard, Calif., has determined that extended oil drains are appropriate for its municipal vehicle fleet, and projects that it will see oil and labor savings of $145,000 and an annual reduction of 24,000 quarts of oil.
The City has converted its vehicle fleet to SOMS’s microGreen Extended Performance Oil Filter. “After extensive testing utilizing scientific oil analysis, we are excited to adopt the microGreen filter program for our fleet,” said Daniel Berlenbach, fleet services manager, City of Oxnard. “Implementing new technologies that help our municipality reduce its operating costs and positively impact the environment is very important to us.”
The City of Oxnard’s fleet services division was rated number 4 in the “The 100 Best Fleets in North America” listing for 2010, number 10 in 2009, and number 3 in 2008. In addition, the fleet services division has been recognized twice by the California EPA as a certified “Green Shop.”
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