Spectro Scientific

Portable oil analysis tools reduce routine maintenance costs

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Courtesy of Spectro Scientific

What do a power plant, a hospital, a police station, and a remote mine have in common? They all have essential assets requiring uninterruptible power, commonly powered by an engine generator as primary or backup power. Engine generators, often termed 'gensets,' combine an electrical generator and an engine. They supply electrical power where normal utility power is not readily available or is unstable. Gensets are used for temporary power demands and are often mounted on trailers or transportable skids.

Unlike large facilities that typically have on-site central oil analysis labs, smaller, temporary, and backup generation has traditionally depended on preventive, time-based oil maintenance. However, now portable, handheld oil analysis tools are widely available and can be used to extend oil drain intervals and reduce routine costs for these generation assets. These tools are getting a boost with the recently amended U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) rules for emergency backup gensets. The new rules allow condition-based oil drain intervals, so asset owners can realize the benefits of oil analysis. This article outlines the challenges and solutions available to portable/emergency genset owners who have previously incurred the cost of time-based oil changes.

Routine Maintenance and Oil Condition

Some of the main operating costs of running and maintaining large engine generators are the material and labor costs associated with changing oil based on a fixed operating time interval. This routine is often recommended by the engine manufacturer and increasingly by local regulations aimed at curbing emissions. Oil changes are suggested based on operating hour or calendar-based intervals, regardless of whether the generator has been running at full load or is idle for most of the time. Until now, this task was nonne-gotiable, especially if the gensetwas under warranty. The U.S. EPA actually mandates oil changes for stationary engines used for emergency backup power.

Here are some issues with scheduled oil changes that trouble engine owners:

  • Good oil gets changed unnecessarily. Not all generators run at the same load; therefore, it is likely that an oil change is unnecessary for some generators at the recommended change interval. This causes increased operating expense and waste, including material, labor, service engineer utilization, efficiency, as well as recycling cost. If an oil change interval can be extended for generators, the cost savings can be significant.
  • Scheduled oil changes will not solve an ongoing contamination problem. Engine damage due to contamination of the lubricant can continue, and usually increases in severity.
  • Catastrophic failures can still happen, and the cost of repair and downtime is not insignificant, even though it might be infrequent.

The Role of Oil Analysis

Forward-thinking genset owners and service providers have recognized these issues for some time, and they employ off-site or on-site oil analysis to determine the lubricant and equipment condition. In turn, they can determine if the oil can be extended or if the genset requires an overhaul.

The U.S. EPA has now acknowledged the benefits of condition-based oil changes founded on oil analysis results. The agency recently amended its regulations for stationary generators in emergency or backup mode to allow for extended changes if oil condition condemnation limits are not exceeded (Table 1).

The rule specifically states that condemned oil must be changed within two days of the engine owner receiving information that oil has exceeded any of the specified limits. If oil condition is examined at the time of scheduled service, a decision can immediately be made as to whether the oil needs to be changed or if minor repairs are needed. This approach reduces both operation and maintenance costs, and the engine runs longer.

A similar situation can occur in managing an automotive fleet. Time-based oil change has been proven to generate additional waste due to unnecessary oil changes. Though the cost savings are real and the marketplace is starting to support them, the question is why condition-based oil changes aren't a popular practice.

One reason is that the investment in a dedicated laboratory is not always practical. In mining operations and large power generation plants, it is common to have central oil analysis labs located on-site to continuously monitor the oil and machine condition of equipment. Decisions about oil change and other maintenance activities are made based on the recommendation of experienced laboratory data analysts.

While this is a very good industrial practice, it is difficult to apply this practice in the case of engine generator fleets because of the large, upfront capital investment, as well as the need to hire laboratory technicians and data analysts. Even if a central laboratory is established, the distributed or temporary nature of the gensets prevents service engineers from making immediate decisions due to the delay in getting results from the central lab. This is the problem with relying on contract labs to perform such work.

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