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.
"We do engine oil analysis on almost every tractor and combine that comes through," he says. "We also sample transmissions, hydrostatic systems and gearbox oils, so it’s not just for checking engines for wear."
Penn State University senior research scientist Joe Perez says that preventive care can lead to
longer service intervals, providing even more benefits.
"Extended drain intervals, when successful, are one way to more efficiently use our petroleum resources," he says. "This also results in decreased quantities of waste oil and less downtime. This is not only an environmental benefit, but also an economic benefit for the user."
5 Questions You Should Be Asking
Analysts Inc., another company that offers a variety of oil analysis services, suggests you should ask the following five questions to get the most out of your analysis:
- Are there abnormal results or values that deviate from the trend?
- If there are abnormal results, what actions should you take?
- Is there additional analysis needed?
- Are you taking samples from appropriate locations and time intervals?
- Is the testing relevant and keeping with current standards?