Developing A World-Class Lubrication Program At A Major Gulf Coast Refinery

EP Editorial Staff | November 10, 2010


A well-oiled team approach has made the efforts of Valero’s Port Arthur site a model for others.

Many articles have been published on the key components of world-class lubrication programs. This one focuses on a major refinery that, over 10 years ago, implemented the necessary steps to establish a state-of-the-art program. These efforts, in turn, have led to major equipment reliability improvements. The Valero Port Arthur site has built one of the finest refinery/petrochemical plant lubrication programs I have ever seen. …Ray Thibault



Lubrication champion Mark Kavanuugh, CLS and MLA II certified, is a machinist with 40 years of experience.

The Valero Refinery in Port Arthur, TX, is rated at 310,000 bbl/day. It started out as a Gulf Oil Co. refinery (which became Chevron), and was later purchased by Clark/Premcor, through which the lubrication program was originally implemented in 1999. Valero purchased the refinery in 2005 and has supported continuous improvement of the program ever since.

John Gobert, a machinist, was trained and brought in as the lubrication champion in 1999 to evaluate and improve the program. The initial step was to choose a single quality lubricant supplier. The following criteria were used in selecting the supplier:

  • Product quality
  • Logistics
  • Technical service
  • Price

Four candidate companies were carefully evaluated based on the above criteria. The decision was not based on price alone—which is a common mistake made by companies with unsophisticated lubricant programs. The Hurt Company (Hurt), a Houston-based supplier, was selected. The five major objectives for the lubrication program were:

  • Competency
  • Consolidation
  • Cleanliness
  • Condition monitoring
  • Cooperation


Jimmy Thomson, MLA II, MLT certified, is a machinist with 35 years of service. Allan Thibodeaux, MLA II, MLT certified, with 34 years of service, is a head operator on the refinery’s 260,000 bbl/day crude unit.

No lubrication program is successful without a champion. From 1999 until his retirement in 2006, John Gobert, MLA II, MLT certified (first for Premcor and later for Valero), was just that type of champion—the individual most responsible for implementing a successful program. Mark Kavanaugh, now a CLS and MLA II certified, was brought in to work with Gobert on improving the program in 2001. Allan Thibodeaux and Jimmy Thomson, both of whom are now MLA II, MLT certified, joined the team of lube champions in 2002 and 2005, respectively.

While having a champion—or champions—is critical to the success of a lubrication program, so is having competent lubricators and the backing of management.
Valero has provided that backing by strongly supporting certification of employees involved in lubrication. Operators and machinists who perform lubrication have been involved in training programs by the in-house lube team, lubricant supplier and outside consultants. In fact, Valero now has more certified lubricators at its Port Arthur site than any other refinery or chemical company—and more than most manufacturing facilities. Lubrication certifications achieved by personnel at this refinery include:

  • STLE Certified Lubrication Specialist — 1
  • ICML Machinery Lubrication Analyst — 3
  • ICML Machinery Lubrication Technician —17

(Editor’s Note: In 2007, Valero’s Port Arthur refinery received the John Battle Award for the Outstanding Lubrication Program of 2006 from the International Council of Machinery Lubrication. The site is the only refinery or petrochemical plant ever to win this prestigious award.)

Once upon a time, Valero’s Port Arthur facility had several lubricant suppliers—and was using 48 different oils and 20 greases. After the selection of Hurt as its sole supplier, a lube survey was performed with regard to the refinery’s nearly 11,000 pieces of rotating equipment. Following this survey, the site was able to consolidate down to eight oils and three greases. This led to significant savings in storage costs and helped eliminate the risk of introducing the wrong lubricants into equipment. Table I summarizes the lubricating oil used by major equipment type. Table II summarizes the greases used by equipment type.


The key component in the success of the Valero Port Arthur program was the delivery and maintenance of clean oil. The main requirement for the new lubricant supplier was to supply the major oils—ISO 32, 68 and 100 mineral oils—at a cleanliness level of 15/13/11, along with a goal of 25 ppm and a maximum of 50 ppm of water. Higher-viscosity oils are normally allowed an ISO Cleanliness Code two levels higher. Although these goals were initially difficult to achieve, the supplier quickly and consistently began meeting them.

Lubricants are delivered to the site twice a week, in dedicated trucks. Each shipment is checked to meet the cleanliness requirement and then filtered into the storage tank through a 1 micron Beta 1000 filter. Prior to that, the lubricants had been filtered through a 3 micron filter during loading at the supplier’s plant.



Fig. 2. A typical plastic tank used in storing oil

Being able to maintain the desired level of cleanliness required the replacement of most metal tanks with custom-made plastic units. Seventy tanks—ranging in size from 110 to 1000 gallons—are currently in use for lubricant storage at this Port Arthur refinery. The smaller ones are used as storage for dispensing into small containers for small sumps. The larger tanks are hard-piped to the equipment with large reservoirs, where the oil is pumped from the bulk tank into the reservoir.

Centrifugal-compressor reservoir circulating systems are equipped with B3=1000 filters, while reciprocating compressor oils, which are ISO 150, are conditioned with a B6=1000 filter. Heavier oils, such as ISO 220, in other circulating systems, utilize B10=1000 filters. This difficult environment calls for additional filtering of the oil in the reservoir. The goal is to maintain a 17/15/13 cleanliness level for centrifugal compressors and 19/17/15 for the reciprocating compressors—with a maximum of 200 ppm of water. These oils are consistently under those target limits. All bulk tanks are sampled quarterly. If cleanliness and water-level limits are exceeded, the oil in reservoirs under 200 gallons is replaced. Large reservoirs are treated by an outside fluid-conditioning company.

Use of drums at Valero’s Port Arthur operation has been virtually eliminated. Dispensing for small sumps is through sealed plastic containers or other small plastic containers such as five-gallon pails and quart containers. This approach has led to clean oil being maintained in the equipment and, in turn, improved reliability. Fig. 2 shows a typical plastic tank used for storage.

Conditioning monitoring
The success of the Port Arthur program is directly related to its condition-monitoring program. John Gobert instituted the use of on-site oil analysis through the use of a CSI 5100 Trivector Onsite Analyzer. This was later upgraded to the CSI 5200. The instrument allows Valero to measure incoming oil for viscosity, cleanliness (through a laser particle counter), presence of water (through conductivity), ferrous wear and any chemistry changes in oil such as oxidation.

Kavanaugh, a machinist with 40 years of service, is responsible for all of the sample collection and analysis. He also monitors oil purifications and high-velocity flushes by FRS, a subsidiary of The Hurt Company. Thomson, a machinist with 35 years of service, works closely with vendors on all lubricants and oil-filter supplies for the refinery, and also keeps the refinery-wide lubrication and filter surveys current. Kavanaugh and Thomson work in the refinery’s Rotating Equipment Reliability group along with other engineers, analysts and technicians who are responsible for the site’s vibration and ultrasonic programs. Thibodeaux is a head operator on the refinery’s 260,000 bbl/day crude unit, with 34 years of service under his belt. He assisted in the data collection and evaluation of lubrication and filter upgrades before changes were implemented refinery-wide.

Sample collection and evaluation of the data at this site—along with the quality of the oil-analysis program—is impressive: It has prevented catastrophic failures through the early detection and resolution of equipment problems.

All major and critical machinery is sampled quarterly and oil is evaluated on-site. That includes compressors, critical pumps, gearboxes, blowers and other equipment. The oil is checked for cleanliness, water, viscosity, wear debris and oxidation. As mentioned previously, all storage tanks are sampled quarterly for viscosity and contamination. Kavanaugh also runs all “troubleshooting” samples as they occur. Total sample counts average 70 to 90 per month. An outside laboratory is utilized for more extensive testing—such as analytical ferrography—when required. Less than 20 samples per year are usually sent out, resulting in early detection of problems. In most cases, the outside laboratory confirms Kavanaugh’s findings.

Valero has established a real partner relationship with The Hurt Company. Besides doing an outstanding job of delivering clean, quality products, this lubricant supplier has provided excellent service by helping resolve difficult technical problems in a timely manner.

Hurt’s fluid-conditioning group, FRS, also is very responsive when it comes to keeping equipment running at the refinery. A recent example was a seal leak in a centrifugal compressor on ISO 32 oil, causing the viscosity to go as low as 24 cSt. This was detected through on-site oil analysis. It was decided that the lubricant supplier would bring in a degasification unit to keep the compressor running for three months until new seals arrived. Preventing this shutdown resulted in millions of dollars in savings.

A similar partnership was developed with Hy-Pro, a leading filter manufacturer. This supplier teamed with the Port Arthur facility to conduct a filter survey, then developed a program to meet Valero’s stringent cleanliness requirements in a difficult operating environment.

The road to success
As illustrated by Valero’s Port Arthur operations, a well-designed, properly implemented lubrication program can result in significant savings. For example, the maintenance shop at this site is not constantly repairing bearing failures. Rather than running in a reactive mode, it can instead focus more on preventive and condition-based maintenance.

John Gobert succeeded in getting the Port Arthur lube program on the right track by first establishing lubricant cleanliness and quality standards, then developing partnerships with the right suppliers to meet his goals. This was augmented by instituting an effective on-site oil analysis program to monitor both condition of the lubricants and condition of the equipment.

Although Gobert retired in 2006, his vision and efforts have been carried on—and expanded—by Kavanaugh, Thibodeaux and Thomson. As this account of a world-class lubrication program shows, people really can make a real difference on the road to success. LMT

Contributing Editor Ray Thibault is based in Cypress (Houston), TX. An STLE-Certified Lubrication Specialist and Oil Monitoring Analyst, he conducts extensive training in a number of industries. Telephone: (281) 257-1526; e-mail:

All photos associated with this article, including the cover photo of THE Port Arthur refinery, are used courtesy of Valero Energy Corp.

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