I’m afraid I have some bad news ... and no, it’s not about the economy. It’s about what I often call “imaginary additives”. These are the additives that seem to exist in the minds of many lubrication practitioners but don’t exist in the physical world of lubrication reality. They seem to provide solace to those who engage in lubrication negligence but torment those who pay the bills of machinery unreliability.
As good as modern lubricants may be, they are never a panacea for bad lubrication practices. Conversely, real additives can be real problem-solvers that enhance the performance and reliability of both the machine and the lubricant. So, there’s a difference between the real and imaginary. I want you to know the difference. This column will go down the list of imaginary additives and discuss the many misconceptions that pervade the lubrication community. I hate to be a myth-buster, but reality is reality, so let’s get started:
The only remedy for dirty oil is a filter or an oil change. Even better is not having dirty oil in the first place (via routine contaminant exclusion). Don’t imagine that there is some virulent, dirt-curing additive in your lubricant’s formulation. Dirt doesn’t care how sophisticated your lubricant’s chemistry might be. Whether your lubricant emerged from a backroom or a space-age laboratory, dirt will spare no effort to cut, abrade, dent and score your machine surfaces.
Lubricants and their additives do not automatically adjust to the environs and needs of the machines within which they are placed. There are thousands of different lubricant formulations on the market for a reason. They are not alike and they don’t perform alike and, hence, users will not receive like results. Precision lubrication is about precisely selecting the right lubricant for the target machine and making sure that particular lubricant is always used and then replaced before its life is done.
Water exacts an evil curse on lubricants and machines. It accelerates wear, corrosion, microbial growth, friction, additive depletion, aeration, varnish, oxidation … and, well, the list goes on and on. Outside of the limited capability of rust inhibitors, additives don’t stop the penetration and damage exerted by water. Only controlling the invasion and dispersion of water in our lubricants solves these problems.
Oil Starvation Pain-Killer
Despite the assertions of some late-night television infomercials, additives are not a solution for starved oil supply or low oil levels. Lubricants serve many functions beyond simply controlling friction and wear. As such, they need to be present as an entire formulation, not simply a few chemical remnants clinging to the frictional surfaces of our machine.
Varnish and Sludge Pacifier
Varnish and sludge are produced via many oil degradation pathways. Once they get infused into the oil and deposit on machine surfaces, there is no easy solution to eradicate their presence short of an oil change and flush. Additives may help slow the formation of varnish and sludge precursors, but they will do little to pacify damage after they form.
Ethylene glycol is mixed with water and used as a coolant in a wide range of machines. When allowed to invade a lubricant, it becomes a pungent contaminant that can wreak havoc in numerous ways. Sadly, the thought that there are lubricant additives that will neutralize the effects of glycol contamination is nothing but a fantasy. As much as 10 percent of all diesel engine lubricants in service have trace amounts of glycol contamination. Many are far more grossly contaminated.
Soot can be dispersed by additives, but it can’t be easily expunged. Even dispersed soot causes wear when oil films become contracted, such as in cam lobe/follower contacts and at the ring reversal area on cylinder walls in diesel engines. Soot can also mop up important polar additives and prematurely remove them from active duty.
One of the most common root causes of rolling-element bearing failure is over-greasing. This practice damages seals and shields, and causes uncontrolled heat excursions that accelerate wear and lubricant degradation. No additive has the capacity to work as a magic elixir under such distressful conditions.
Reliability emerges from the optimum combination of quality lubricants and best-practice lubrication. Don’t spend more money on premium lubricants hoping you can spend less on lubrication. This is a false economy. There is no substitute for vigilant inspection, frequent and thorough oil analysis, and well-deployed (and engineered) lubrication practices.
No question, today’s additive technology can serve as a solution-provider across a wide range of potential problems that frequently plague machinery. Yet, they are unable to be miracle cures for numerous other maladies. Practitioners need an arsenal of tools and skills to get the desired reliability results. Begin with training and then follow with programmatic structure and procedures. Develop a culture of lubrication excellence. And remember, reliability is everyone’s responsibility.