Lubricant users are increasingly inquiring about the cleanliness of new oil deliveries. This trend is logical and probably unending as the maintenance field becomes more aware of the linkage between contamination and machine reliability. Yet there has been legitimate concerns raised by some lubricant suppliers regarding this trend.

These concerns center on the common disregard for proper storage and handling by distributors, transport companies and, in particular, the end user. After all, how practical is it to go to the extra expense to deliver a clean, high-quality lubricant when this integrity is subsequently adulterated by careless handling and storage practices. Yet it is also not logical to be less vigilant in delivering clean lubricants of dependable high quality.

From my experience, the answer to this dilemma lies in managing the chain of custody from the lubricant supplier to the end user.

Weak Links in the Chain
Some lubricant suppliers ship directly from the blend plant to the user site. This greatly shortens the chain of custody and as well as the transit time from blend plant to point of use. Other suppliers employ the use of various sales channels, often consisting of multiple intermediary channel partners and transport companies. In certain cases, distributors and supply terminals are permitted to repackage lubricants and even custom-blend viscosities.

It is possible for lubricant quality to become compromised in numerous ways during storage and handling by distributors and transport operators. The following list includes examples of the most common sources of such problems:

  • Ingress of environmental dirt and water by unsealed tanks and containers
  • Improper storage conditions that permit additive stratification
  • Tanks and lubricant packages (new or reconditioned) that are contaminated before filling
  • Cross-contamination from hoses, pumps and tanks with the remnants of a previous lubricant

People have often questioned, for instance, how a lubricant with an ISO 15/13/11 cleanliness at the spigot of the blend plant can arrive at the machine weeks later so contaminated that it exceeds that maximum particle concentration measurable without dilution. As an example of how particle growth occurs, let’s take a common R&O oil through the chain of custody from blend plant to point of use. See diagram.

Although neglect is a common reason lubricant quality can be compromised, a larger, more fundamental problem rests on the general misconception that lubricants are already adequately protected by storage and handling. Others have said yes, that they can become contaminated and quality breached, but falsely believe the practical effect on lubricant performance and machine reliability is negligible.

Quality Preservation in the Sales Channels
We know that there are many common handling and storage practices that compromise lubricant quality. We also know that this fact is not obvious to all those to whom lubricants are passed. As such, perhaps a good place to begin is for lubricant marketers to keep quality in check by pre-qualifying or even certifying individuals and organizations in the chain of custody, including transport companies, packaging firms, distributors and jobbers.

Unless an organization has proper credentials for ensuring quality preservation, they should not be allowed to take custody. In other words, you don’t release custody to another person unless that individual or firm has the credentials to ensure that quality won’t be violated. Credentials of individuals and organizations in the sales channels can come in various forms but might include an auditing and reporting process focused on the following:

  • Approved and documented handling or storage procedures
  • Training of all personnel on using the procedures
  • Abridged procedures posted in storage and handling work areas
  • Periodic lubricant testing to confirm lubricant quality
  • Timely remediation of nonconforming conditions

Some lubricant marketers are well along in the process of qualifying channel partners and transport companies. Others have yet to begin.

The End User as a Suspect
Some lubricant suppliers are also taking proactive measures to ensure quality safekeeping of their products by users. These including one or more of the following simple steps:

  • Written guidelines that are periodically distributed to client/users
  • Client training on quality preservation measures
  • Conspicuous tags and labels on every package with notices and warnings on how to protect the product from contamination and neglect
  • Client facilities inspections followed by written reports that bring attention to specific substandard handling and storage practices

It is logical that if the lubricant supplier seems cavalier about lubricant handling and storage practices, then channel partners and end users alike will develop a similar complacent attitude. Conversely, if lubricant suppliers exploit every opportunity to draw attention to the importance of quality in lubricant handling and storage, then conformance all along the chain of custody is likely to occur sooner or later.

Quality by Measurement
Quality should be defined for each lubricant by the supplier. Quality should subsequently be measured and reported. For instance, a lubricant spec sheet should identify the performance and quality features of the product. The blend plant should then confirm that a newly blended batch has been tested and found to meet those quality features.

There are also downstream needs for testing quality. This can be done by the lubricant supplier periodically to confirm that their lubricants haven’t become degraded or contaminated at points along the chain of custody. In the March-April 2003 issue of Machinery Lubrication, I wrote a column about testing new lubricants and the importance of a certificate of analysis.1

The responsibility for quality is a collaborative process beginning with marketers who place their brand name of lubricant products. From there, quality needs to be protected in lock-step by responsible parties along the chain of custody. Users share in this responsibility by testing new lubricant deliveries and taking all appropriate measures to preserve quality to the point of use.


1. Fitch, J. “Should New Lubricant Deliveries be Tested?”. Machinery Lubrication magazine. March-April 2003.