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Fuels and lubes column

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What you can learn from diesel engine oil analysis

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Dan Arcy is the global OEM technical manager for Shell Lubricants.

Fuels and lubes column

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Oil analysis is a scientific way to assess the condition of the lubricant in your engine and detect oil contamination or conditions within your engine that could cause premature wear and/or downtime. A regular oil analysis program lets you build a historic database and watch for trends in a variety of areas. Optimally, you should have a sample of used oil analyzed after every oil change for every piece of equipment. Although engine oil analysis is most common, it’s also beneficial to have gear oil, transmission fluid and other vital lubricants tested.

Think of oil analysis as a cost-effective early warning system. Is there too much diesel fuel in the oil? You may need to check your fuel system. What about traces of coolant? Your cooling system may need a check-up. Too much dirt or soot? Maybe you’ve overextended your drain interval or have a leak in the air intake system. In these cases, the lab can notice small abnormalities long before you do, so you can act before these early warning signs turn into possible operational problems or engine damage.

The knowledge gained from a consistent oil analysis program can assist you in optimizing your oil drain interval, help increase equipment reliability, minimize unscheduled downtime, and more precisely track operating efficiency and maintenance practices. This combination can contribute to helping lower total operating costs.

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A good oil analysis program can give you information on both engine condition and oil quality. Sometimes the two are closely interrelated; in other cases they’re not.

The wear metals section of your analysis, for example, may detect a mechanical engine problem that has nothing to do with your oil. High levels of iron could point to cylinder liner wear. Chromium, aluminum, lead, copper, tin—unusual levels of any of these metals can be spotted and interpreted by the lab, helping give you valuable information about your engine.

Another function of an oil analysis is to tell you about your oil. For example, you’ll learn about your oil’s viscosity grade. If it’s too high, then there could be soot or some other kind of contamination that’s making the oil too thick.

Accurate oil analysis

For accurate results, an engine oil analysis program requires users to follow a few fundamental procedures that often don’t get the attention they deserve:

  • Provide a proper oil sample to the lab.
  • Provide all necessary information needed by the lab.

Send the sample in immediately; don’t let it sit on the shop workbench for a month. If you take your sample when the oil is being drained, catch it midstream by waiting at least five seconds. That way, you won’t be collecting heavy metals or other deposits lying at the bottom of the pan.

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Withdrawing oil through the dip-stick opening is another good way to take the sample. This can reduce the chance of outside dirt or contaminants getting into the sample and keep the oil from splattering when you stick the bottle into the stream. However you take the sample, do it in the same manner each time, to help keep your results consistent.

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