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Check Your Oil, Save Your Engine

January 24, 2013
By: Ben Potter, Social Media and Innovation Editor google + 
check your oil
Small traces of metals and elements in an oil analysis can show maintanence issues.  

Oil analysis can detect a wide range of engine troubles

There are many kinds of insurance. Car, home, life and even crop insurance are various ways to protect your most important assets. But you may want to consider another type of insurance—oil analysis. In this case, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, literally.

"It’s pretty amazing what the engine oil analysis can turn up," says Iowa mechanic and Farm Journal columnist Dan Anderson. "Antifreeze, bearing materials, silica—all from a sample that’s only a couple of ounces."

MVTL Laboratories is just one of several companies that do the actual analyzing. Farmers mail in their samples, and the lab mails back a detailed analysis or even calls farmers directly if it detects any imminent disasters.

Hidden dangers. So what exactly are the labs analyzing? Tom Berg, CEO of MVTL Laboratories, explains.

"What we’re looking for are very fine metal particles that slip through filters," he says. "These metals seen together paint a picture of the wear and tear on your vehicle."

Specifically, the technicians are looking for metals and elements such as iron, aluminum, chromium, lead, copper and silicon. As the various moving parts of the tractor rub together, they release tiny amounts of metal into the oil. Through the use of trend, laboratories know what the normal levels of each metal are at various use intervals. When they see a spike above that trend, that’s a good indicator that repairs are needed.

For example, cylinder walls are composed of iron, so high levels of iron indicate abnormal cylinder wear and tear, Berg says. Silicon is a measure of how much dirt is entering the engine, so high silicon could be a signal that you need a new air filter. High aluminum or copper levels points a finger at bearing issues.

The labs also keep an eye out for ethylene glycol and analyze viscosity.

"With ethylene glycol, once in a while, the engine can have an internal coolant leak," Berg says. "And relative viscosity increases when oil has run too hot for too long."

When the sample is complete, they return a report that shows the levels of each trace element along with maintenance and repair recommendations.

Berg says his company’s main customer base has been construction machinery, but heavy duty ag equipment gains just as much benefit from oil analysis.

"It’s very standard practice in the construction industry," he says. "I wish we would see more interest in ag, especially with the cost of machines right now. These engines are very expensive. Hopefully in some instances, you can save the engine and avoid a total failure."

Anderson adds that doing an analysis benefits more than just the engine.

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