Do you know the six most expensive oil analysis tests? Maybe you do and maybe you’ve learned to tolerate them or simply didn’t register their true cost. For the maintenance organization seeking world-class status, you might call these the “tests of fire” because they often separate the winners from the users.

These six tests are expensive for many reasons but most often it’s because of lost opportunity. Thousands of organizations each year go through the motions of performing oil analysis and get little in return. Why? Often it’s the small things, the critical but seemingly insignificant elements, which have the largest impact on the value-generated potential of an oil analysis program. Like an integrity chain, each link must be strong and secure -brilliance in execution at all points in the process.

So you’re wondering what these tests are and what makes them so expensive? Let’s go down this list together and see what we can learn.

1. The Tardy Test. This test is expensive because it wastes time and opportunity. One common example is when lab data arrives 10-20 days after a sample is pulled. Perhaps this was due to procrastination in forwarding the sample to the lab or a lack of timely service from the lab. By then, responding is often a futile exercise since the data may bear little resemblance to the current conditions of the oil or machine. And, had the belated report flagged an impending failure condition, the consequence of the delay might be a more expensive repair and collateral damage to other machine components.

2. The Garbage Test. Often oil analysis is performed routinely over a period of years on samples that are not representative of machine or lubricant condition. This is typically due to lack of training and proper documentation of correct sampling procedures. As the name implies, the Garbage Test is oil analysis that is done on unrepresentative samples (you’ve heard of garbage in and garbage out). The practice frequently results in un-trendable data and nuisance alarms. No amount of laboratory wizardry can extract useful data from the smog of poorly sampled oil. And, the onward investment in oil analysis from such samples will yield no real return. The Garbage Test is indeed very expensive.

3. The Puzzling Test. This test is oil analysis that reveals a critical machine fault that an unskilled technician fails to identify (false negative), or a benign condition that is mistakenly alarmed (false positive). This could be caused by lack of training, lack of people resources or lack of emphasis on the importance of oil analysis. Effective interpretation of oil analysis data takes knowledge and focus. Sadly, many organizations place little importance on the development of oil analysis skills as a vital part of machine condition monitoring.

4. The Bloody Test. For want of a better term, the Bloody Test describes oil analysis performed post mortem, to find out what went wrong. Too often new maintenance policies and procedures are “written in blood” because change occurs slowly and often only after machine mortality. This is classic “reactive maintenance” when failure proceeds analysis. Oil analysis can’t breath new life into a fatally maintained machine.

5. The Non-Test. This is the test not performed. Sometimes this test is thinly disguised as cost reduction. Common examples are samples taken too infrequently or tests not performed as a part of the test slate. Taking fewer samples or reducing the program test scope can reduce costs but often such practices have woeful consequences. The optimum selection of sampling frequency, routine oil analysis tests and exception tests can significantly enrich the quality and effectiveness of oil analysis.

6. The Get-No-Respect Test. This is lab data that is neglected by the maintenance staff. Common oil analysis exceptions that are sometimes ignored range from the use of a wrong lubricant, to a dirty hydraulic fluid, to a coolant leak. These are failure “root causes” that can, and often do, lead to expensive machine upsets. Occasionally the non-conforming data points to an active degenerative condition in a critical component -- accelerated bearing wear for instance. Yet, sometimes the correction itself risks lost production and downtime. Many people in charge of oil analysis fear “eating crow” if they recommend a corrective repair that upon further inspection (after the bearing was removed for instance), it was found that no maintenance action was needed. The machine lubricant analyst who has mastered his craft and is skillful at troubleshooting and problem solving offers real value to maintenance organizations today.

If one or more of the tests described above make you grimace because they strike a little close to home, it may be time to retool your oil analysis program. And, it may be time to learn about proactive maintenance and how to correctly use oil analysis to get a penetrating view of what’s happening inside your machine.

Jim Fitch