Keeping track of top-off oil is one of the “low-hanging fruit” activities that can be implemented to improve your maintenance program. Reviewing this information on a regular basis will improve equipment availability as well as reduce costs and workload.

By Richard Hassebrock

As part of any successful used oil analysis (UOA) program, it is imperative to track top-off oil, which includes keeping a record of how often maintenance staff tops off the oil sump and how much oil is used.

Maintenance Journey
There are several reasons why this is an important step in moving your maintenance program along the “Maintenance Journey” towards “world-class” performance. It is important to understand the oil consumption patterns for equipment components to help you assess used oil analysis reports.

Contaminants
For example, if an engine is consuming large quantities of oil on a daily basis, then the oil in the sump is constantly being “sweetened” and contaminants are being consumed along with the oil. With the sump being replenished with fresh oil, the UOA reports will always look better than they probably should.

If you are not tracking oil consumption, unless you are personally adding the top-off oil, you may be unaware of the severity of the problem. Thus, when you receive the UOA reports and review them, you may be getting a false sense of security about the health of that engine.
When you have an unexpected failure, rather than blaming the UOA program for not providing a warning, make sure that oil consumption was tracked. If it was, you would have been aware that the engine was consuming excessive oil and you would not be surprised by the failure.

Engine Failure
Another real-life example of how tracking top-off oil is beneficial involves a post-failure analysis of a diesel engine that had spun a connecting rod bearing. During a failure-analysis investigation, all of the evidence pointed to an ongoing issue with low oil level. However, by the time we saw the engine, the oil level was “full.” This is a common occurrence with engine failures that appear to be the result of low oil supply. The oil level gets topped off after the engine fails in an attempt to hide the fact that it was allowed to run low.
Sometimes complete failure of an engine does not happen right away. It may happen weeks or even months later. Damage that occurs during the period of low-oil level can begin an impending failure and the condition can worsen over time until complete failure finally occurs and the engine goes down.

Avoid the Failures
These issues can be avoided if top off-oil usage is recorded every time. For example, a classic example of an engine being allowed to run low on oil is that an engine has a record of using about 1 gallon of oil per day, then it goes several days with no oil top-off followed by 5 gallons of top-off oil recorded several days later.

The causes are many, including when the person who checks the oil levels and tops them off calls in sick or is on vacation or is reassigned to a different task or location and no one else takes over and performs this important task. If the oil consumption is tracked regularly, there will be a record of when the oil was allowed to run low and when the initial damage to the engine bearings may have occurred. A focused equipment manager can use this information to make changes to the maintenance program (i.e. training) in order to avoid these types of failures.

If oil consumption is not tracked, then it is almost impossible to identify exactly what happened and when. The usual outcome is a “guesstimate” based on clues. This often results in no one being held accountable and no changes being made to avoid repeat occurrences. Having an accurate record of events can really make a big difference.

Finally, in modern diesel engines with exhaust after-treatment equipment, like diesel oxidation catalysts (DOC) and diesel particulate filters (DPF), excessive oil consumption can negatively affect these devices, requiring servicing or replacement. Knowing the engines that are consuming oil and how much they are consuming allows an equipment manager to be prepared for problems affecting the DOCs and DPFs in his fleet.

Keeping Track
Keeping track of top-off oil is one of the “low-hanging fruit” activities that can be implemented to improve your maintenance program. The cost to implement is low and can be as simple as tracking forms placed where mechanics, oilers and drivers/operators will have access to them when they top-off the engine oil.

Simply load up a clipboard with a pen and a stack of the forms and place it next to the bulk oil dispenser or next to where new oil bottles are stored. As your employees dispense the top-off oil, they should record this critical information.
Another option is to include this activity as part of the pre-trip inspection process that your drivers/operators use to record the condition of the equipment each day. You then need a routine where the logs are collected and entered into a computerized maintenance management system or even into a simple spreadsheet created for the task.

It is then up to the equipment manager to make time to review this information on a regular basis. It will require a small initial outlay of time and resources to implement, but the payoff is keeping better track of the oil consumers in the fleet and how much they are consuming. Benefits include helping to improve equipment availability as well as reducing costs and workload; this results in a win-win-win situation.

Richard Hassebrock is a Lubricants Field Engineer for Castrol (Lewiston, NY) with more than 30 years of experience in the heavy equipment maintenance and repair industry. He is a Certified Lubrication Specialist with the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers and a Certified Machinery Lubrication Technician II and Oil Monitoring Analyst with the International Council on Machinery Lubrication. Richard can be reached at richard.hassebrock@bp.com.

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