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Improve Lubricant Performance in Harsh Environments

Ken Bannister | October 10, 2016

Harsh conditions manifest themselves in a variety of ways, depending on the industry. To say that they have ‘no mercy’ on lubricated equipment and the people and products that maintain it is an understatement.

Where equipment is located and the conditions in which it operates are crucial factors in successful lubrication.

Consider the manufacturing sector: Most of us envision stand-alone machinery and process/assembly lines protected from the outside elements in temperature-controlled buildings that are typically located in an urban core or suburban industrial park. Now, consider the natural-resource sector, including the oil and gas, mining, and forestry industries. Their operations are typically outdoors or underground, often in remote, harsh environments that dictate an absolute need for equipment reliability.

Harsh conditions manifest themselves in different ways, depending on the industry. For example, oil and gas fields and terminals in remote locales will require lubricants that work in hot and cold climate extremes. Mining and forestry operations that put temperature demands on equipment subject to dirt and water intrusion will require lubricants of suitable viscosity, consistency of application, and excellent filtration.

Remote operations also create burdens for the organization, as all spare parts and supplies must be shipped long distances, frequently by air. That makes equipment failure in these places many times more expensive than in a manufacturing plant.

Regardless of the industry, the resource sector is highly dependent upon mechanical equipment to power its processes. In the past, however, despite having long been considered a requisite in manufacturing plants, lubrication-management programs have usually been viewed as a secondary maintenance process.

Fortunately, mechanical failure doesn’t have to be part of doing business in harsh environments. Good lubrication practices (GLPs) will significantly reduce such failures at a fraction of the cost of any failure/reparation strategy.

The obvious approach to improving equipment performance in harsh environments is to review your current lubrication practices and implement an inexpensive plant-wide GLP program. Gaining support and buy-in for this type of program sometimes calls for a few preliminary wins to demonstrate value. The following examples reflect ways to do that.

Choose the right lubricant for a working environment. Investigate the use of lubricants with high viscosity-index (VI) ratings, which are more stable over drastically changing seasonal and day/night temperature swings. Although initially more expensive to purchase, synthetic lubricants can help resolve many temperature-related performance issues, as well as increase time between oil-changes and reduce forced downtime.

An oil and gas operation turned to this strategy on a number of gas-field compressor stations that were routinely shut down three days each year for oil changes. A switch to a synthetic lubricant allowed oil changes to be performed on a biannual basis, saving millions of dollars in production losses. The compressors also ran smoother and more efficiently.

Reduce carrying costs and simplify lubricant needs. Many plants still carry an inventory of 20 or more lubricants on site. Consolidation programs have been shown to reduce lubricant inventories by as much as 75%. Among other things, the lubricant-consolidation process forces a facility to inventory all lubricants at the site and list every storage location. The results include less chance of lubricant cross-contamination, lower purchase/carrying costs, and a simplification of the lubricant-application program.

Engage with your suppliers and have them bid on conducting a lubricant-consolidation exercise for your site. This type of program is usually offered—at little or no cost—in exchange for a blanket order that can also work in a site’s favor by fixing lubricant costs for a set period.

Offset the cold. In sub-zero climate conditions, viscosity will increase and make it difficult to pump the product to the bearings. In such cases the lubricant needs to be warmed.

A fish-processing factory ship in the Arctic seas was losing conveyor bearings due to lack of lubrication—even though it had a fully automated lube system in place. The system would stall under flash-freeze conditions as a result of lubricant thickening. A simple $10 automotive block heater, positioned in the oil reservoir, resolved all issues. A similar solution can work for other applications in harsh environments. One example would be to wrap thermostat-controlled blanket-warming devices around oil or grease pails/barrels to offset the effects of cold temperatures.

Ensure all “access-challenged” equipment receives its share of lubrication. Poor accessibility to lubrication points is often a given in elevated transfer equipment, including cranes and conveyors. Since many of these systems don’t warrant the cost of a fully automated approach, they’re often set up for manual greasing that may or may not occur on a consistent basis. In such cases, a simple, cost-effective, engineered solution involves replacing the grease nipple with a $30 automated single-point lubricator.

Note that care must be exercised in setting up this type of solution, as the installation’s elevation will affect the device’s dispensing rate. A 0 or 00 grease is often required in colder climates. Depending on the size of the bearing, an automated single-point lubricator can consistently dispense the proper amount of grease for as long as two years.

Improve lubricant storage to increase shelf life. Oil has a shelf life determined by the type of base oil, additive package ingredients, and how the oil is stored prior to use. Most lubricating-oil manufacturers claim an estimated shelf life of +/- 5 yr. when stored correctly indoors. Wide swings in temperature can result in wax and sediment creation (when too cold), premature oxidation (when too hot), and condensation moisture contamination (from hot/cold temperature cycling).

High-temperature lubricants can be manufactured with volatile carrier agents that could flash off during storage—especially if open to air—and cause the remaining lube to “thicken” or coagulate. Therefore, be sure to store all of your lubricants in a dedicated, closed, temperature-controlled, on-site lubrication storage room/building.

Create lubrication awareness and provide training. A little basic lubrication training can significantly boost understanding and enhance your program. Surprisingly, while lubrication, on the surface, may appear quite intuitive in nature, it is perhaps the least understood area of maintenance. Investing in a basic lubrication-training course for all maintainers and operators will greatly facilitate and enhance understanding of GLPs, in harsh environments and elsewhere. 

Ken Bannister is co-author, with Heinz Bloch, of the soon-to-be-released Practical Lubrication for Industrial Facilities 3rd Edition (Fairmont Press, New York). As managing partner and principal consultant for EngTech Industries (Innerkip, Ontario), he specializes in the implementation of lubrication-effectiveness reviews to ISO 55001 standards, asset-management systems, and training. Contact him directly at, or telephone 519-469-9173.

learnmore2“Industrial Lubrication Fundamentals: Storage and Handling”

“Storage Preservation Strategies”

“Winter Words: Ensuring Plant-Equipment Performance Year-Round”




Ken Bannister

Ken Bannister

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