Lubrication on the go

Lubrication on the go

Does the idea of improving vehicle availability intrigue you? Just a bit? Then how about improving vehicle availability while cutting your PM expenses? Getting a bit more interested? If you’d like to try it, you might consider spec’ing centralized lubrication systems when you next purchase vehicles.

Does the idea of improving vehicle availability intrigue you? Just a bit? Then how about improving vehicle availability while cutting your PM expenses?

Getting a bit more interested? If you’d like to try it, you might consider spec’ing centralized lubrication systems when you next purchase vehicles.

Melinda Pulliam, Lubriquip’s global product manager, mobile, readily outlines the many advantages offered by using on-board lubricating systems.

“With these systems, you are able to automatically lubricate suspension, steering, brake components, fifth wheels and other points on equipment while it is in operation, she says. “So, with technicians being in high demand, an on-board lubrication system ensures your shop staff is doing something other than greasing the vehicle.”

Less grease is used with an automatic system, she says. Typically with manual lubrication, the tendency is to “overfill” to witness the ooze of clean fresh grease from the joint. Automatic systems use small amounts at frequent intervals, thus always ensuring the joint contains clean grease without overfilling.

According to Pulliam, you have assurance that every point is greased. Unless an operator does his own lube or stands over the person doing the job, there is no assurance that one or more points will not be missed. Miss a point, and encounter bearing wear!

In addition, regular lubrication can extend the life of components up to four times. And, there are a number of additional advantages that are somewhat difficult to measure. They include items like improved handling as a result of regular lubrication of steering components, better backing as result of proper fifth-wheel lubrication and brakes that do not lock up as result of under lubrication, she says.

Mark Pendergrass, a product and customization manager at Lincoln Industrial, says, “Centralized systems are designed to lubricate all chassis points – from the front axle with its steering components to the rear axle’s brake cams, slacks and suspension points – all on a steady interval. Some systems will also lubricate a tractor’s fifth wheel face plate and pivot pins on the fifth wheel. Instead of the wild spikes in lube volume that takes place with manual servicing, with automatic lube systems, the bearings receive a small, but continuous, dose of lubricant.”

The long-term effects offered by using these systems are said to include a vehicle that is worth more at the end of its service life as well as one that’s more pleasant to drive as it ages. Over time, the chassis will remain tighter than one that only gets lubed at PM intervals, according to Pendergrass.

Jim Pinder, a sales activity manager at Groeneveld, says, “A centralized lubrication system is a tool that safely, effectively and efficiently lubricates components on a vehicle as the vehicle is in operation.”

Systems are generally comprised of a reservoir to hold the lubricant ready for distribution; an electric-, pneumatic- or hydraulic-powered pump; a controller of some sort (Groeneveld either counts brake strokes or uses a timer) to initiate lubricant distribution; and supply lines designed to inject a pre-defined amount of grease into each component that requires lubricant. Some systems are designed to use #0 grease. Others can pump NLGI #2 lubricants. Either grade is said to provide effective protection to vehicle components.

The shortage of well qualified technicians also is playing a growing role in the decision to spec centralized lube systems.

“Vehicle lubrication is something that can be automated, so we don’t need to spend limited shop resources on this kind of activity,” Pinder says.

In the field

Such claims are appealing, but do these systems work in the field? They seem to do a good job for Terry Green, director of maintenance for Southdown Inc.’s concrete products group. Houston-based Southdown is the third largest producer of cement products in the United States. Since he joined Southdown, Green has looked for ways to lower maintenance costs and improve productivity. One of his goals was to move from manual to automated lubrication methods.

“I’ve never met a mechanic who likes to grease anything,” Green says. He chose to use Lincoln’s Quicklub system because he wanted to use NLGI #2 grease on his equipment, and this is one of the more popular units capable of pumping this high-viscosity lubricant.

Results have been impressive. A typical ready-mix truck can carry 40,000 pounds of concrete inside the drum that rides on two drum roller bearings. When a truck experiences roller-bearing failure, it must be pulled out of service and the failed roller replaced. It can cost in excess of $400 for parts and labor per failure.

"Some trucks have required six rollers a year,” Green says. “A drum roller costs about $250, takes half a day to replace and was one of our highest maintenance costs.”

Before Southdown installed the centralized lube system, drum roller cost was 3 percent of its total maintenance costs. Afterwards, that figure went down to 1 percent. Green says it would have been even lower had its older trucks been equipped with lubrication systems also.

“In the past, 15 percent of our trucks were always down. With the automated lubrication systems as part of our maintenance initiatives, we’ve reduced that to 2 percent."

Southdown experiences less downtime. For example, it takes about 30 minutes to lubricate a chassis manually and 15 minutes for the two drum roller bearings on the concrete mixer. By using Quicklub, Green says he gains an average of 159 hours of productivity per week, enabling maintenance personnel to work on other projects. He also eliminates the safety hazard created by climbing over, under or around the sometimes slippery equipment.

The fire department of the city of Jacksonville Beach, Fla., has been installing Vogel centralized lubrication systems on its fire engines for several years. A spokesperson for the department says during those years it seems that the apparatus drives better, and the ride is improved because of the improved lubrication.

Groenefeld’s Pinder says that his company’s customers report benefits offered by a properly lubed fifth wheel. First is extended steer tire wear. The second, a safety issue, is the elimination of “trailer steer” due to a dry fifth wheel plate.


Trailers also can benefit from the same technology used on power units. Great Dane’s engineering liaison manager, Adam Hill, says, “A central system eases maintenance. Two basic systems are available. One system simply connects all the lube points to a single port where grease can be pumped into a single point and then distributed through a manifold to multiple points. There are typically 12 lubrication points at the rear of the trailer and five at the landing gear area. Another system allows the operator to install a reservoir of grease that is pumped in intervals to the separate grease points. The intervals can be adjusted by an on-board timer or by the number of brake applications. Either system makes lubricating easier by saving labor time. The grease reservoir system ensures lubrication maintenance automatically.”

The first design Hill mentions is commonly referred to as a single line system. These generally can be expanded to include more components. For example, a single line system can be used to lubricate a power liftgate that might be added to a trailer after it has gone into service. The second type, commonly called a progressive system, is designed for installation on a particular vehicle configuration.

“We have installed systems manufactured by Lincoln, Groeneveld, Lubriquip and Vogel, Hill says. “There may be other systems that can be installed if customers have a preference and the supplier is willing to work with our engineers on proper installation procedures.”

Return on investment

While centralized lube systems can be installed on a retrofit basis, Pendergrass says most are spec’ed on original equipment and installed by dealers or at mod-centers. Fleets, therefore, amortize them along with vehicles.

Still, technology just for the sake of technology doesn’t make sense, so what can be expected as a return on the additional investment required for these systems?

“These systems are cost premiums, and some trucking companies have not been able to justify their expense because they have become so efficient with their own PM programs,” Hill says. “Some companies feel they only address one item on the PM schedule, and if the vehicle has to be pulled into a shop for maintenance of other items (like brakes, tires, wheel lubrication, etc.), their cost hasn’t been reduced to a significant degree.”

Lincoln’s Pendergrass claims his company’s system will pay for itself in nine to 11 months. His calculations include the cost of manual lube jobs over the five-year/600,000-mile life of an over-the-road tractor and assume PMs at 15,000-mile intervals. That means the cost of 30 lube jobs can be saved, along with the costs associated with a 75 percent reduction in replacement parts – kingpins, steering drag links, tie rod ends, etc. – over that five-year life. The bottom line is payback in less than a year.

Vogel Lubrication made some calculations for the Dade County Fire Department from data the fleet had generated over a three-year period that resulted in a payback time of less than eight months. The numbers are in the box above.

“ROI calculations are very fleet specific and related to how well they are able to track their repair costs for replacement components and whether they factor in the added expense of unplanned downtime,” says Lubriquip’s Pulliam. “They also need to factor in longer life of components as result of regular lubrication. Brakes are a classic example. Locking brakes cause flat spots on tires and premature wear. Regular lubrication can prevent that from happening. In addition, fleets or individuals need to consider the potential payback at time of resale.”

Yes, there’s more than money involved when a change is made, but the changes to shop procedures involved with a change to centralized lube systems don’t seem too tough.

“Of course, anything new requires training,” Great Dane’s Hill says. “Personnel must be instructed on how to perform a different PM procedure by knowing where a central lube fitting is located or how to inspect the reservoir of refill. Delivery hoses need to be inspected for disconnects or chaffing. Reservoir systems are electronically controlled, so power must be present to function. Electrical connections must be sound. Reservoir systems need to be periodically filled by replacing grease cartridges or manually refilling. There can also be blockage in the grease lines that prevent the free flow of lubricant. However, many of the systems available can employ warning signals that alarm in the event of such problems.”

The fleet manager’s job is to provide vehicles to operations at the lowest possible cost, and it seems that centralized lubrication systems are items that should be considered. They are not going to be the right solution for all fleets, but a number of them have indicated the systems are products that just might improve vehicle availability while cutting PM expenses.

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