Each year, dairymen, farmers, truckers and equipment operators spend an ever-increasing amount of money on maintenance costs. The most expensive of all maintenance repairs are those of catastrophic failures, which occur when a part on a piece of equipment fails completely and is often damaged beyond repair. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to know if an engine was about to fail or a transmission on a piece of equipment was nearing its life expectancy? Because of modern chemistry, it is actually possible through a process known as oil analysis.

What is an oil analysis?
Well, it’s just what the word describes – an analysis of the oil lubricating any operating system on a piece of equipment or vehicle. The analysis consists of three main parts.

Spectral test: The first part of the analysis, the spectral test, assesses the level of several metals and additives found in the oil. This test shows the microscopic level of more than 10 metals including aluminum, copper, iron, chromium and several others. Normal levels of each of the listed metals (measured in ppm or parts per million) are very common in all engines.

The presence of metals in the oil can help us determine if certain parts within the operating system are failing, which will help prevent costly repairs in the future.

For instance, if an engine is found to have uncommonly high levels (above 30 to 50 ppm) of chromium, it can be determined that the piston rings are wearing prematurely. It would then be wise to find the cause of the problem; the high level of chromium is only the result.


Physical test: The next part of an oil analysis is the physical test, which is usually done using ultraviolet light to determine if other substances are found in the oil aside from metals. These substances may include antifreeze/coolant, fuel dilution, oxidation, carbon and soot.

If antifreeze is found in the oil of an engine, then the operator may be looking at a potential head gasket failure or oil cooler problem. The physical test, like the metals test, can point the owner to potential problems that may threaten the life of the operating system.

Viscosity test: The viscosity test, the third and very critical part of an oil analysis, helps determine if the oil is working properly. Viscosity of oil is the thickness of the oil at a specific temperature. For example, suppose you use synthetic SAE-50 fluid in your tractor’s transmission, which has a specific oil viscosity or grade of 50-weight. If you perform an oil analysis and find the oil to have a grade of SAE-10, it can be likely determined that the oil has been overheated and lost some of its properties.

In an engine, if oil is classified as multi-grade, such as 15W-40, but is found to be a 10-weight oil, we may likely find fuel dilution problems. Viscosity tests may also help determine the number of hours between service intervals with an operating system.

Oil analysis history
It is evident that an oil analysis can be money well spent on equipment maintenance. The question you might have now is: How long have oil analyses been around?

It wasn’t until the early 1940s that laboratories were properly equipped to do thorough analyses of oils found in powertrain components on large ships and locomotives. It is believed that railway companies and freight haulers conducted a great majority of pioneering research on oil analyses.

With the growing industries in the U.S., and war in the mix, the U.S. army also turned to oil analyses for its aircraft and transportation division in the ’50s and ’60s. Since then, hundreds of oil laboratories have surfaced and become a viable part of the transportation and agricultural industries in preventative maintenance.

Performing an oil analysis
With many laboratories in the close vicinities, how does one get an oil analysis and how much does it cost? You may have an oil laboratory very close by. If not, the mail or parcel service can ship an oil sample for a reasonable rate.

Depending on which laboratory you choose, they will most likely supply you with one or more small 1-ounce to 2-ounce containers to take an oil sample from your equipment.

If changing the oil, it is best to collect oil from the drain plug midway through the drain cycle – not at the first or at the last. If you’re not draining the oil, then the best way to retrieve an oil sample is after the operating system has been running, through the dipstick opening with a suction tool and small hose.

The sample or samples are then shipped to the laboratory along with other valuable information such as brand of oil used, number of hours on oil change interval and the piece of equipment the oil was collected from.

Usually the oil takes one to two weeks to analyze and a very detailed report is then sent back. This usually costs less than $50 and the information is priceless.

The report will provide several pieces of information, including any metal components and the level present in the oil. The report will also show other substances present in the oil. The report will then offer suggestions depending on any abnormal findings, such as components that are failing or a suggested oil change interval schedule. All of this is an important investment to ensure proper maintenance.

Oil analyses are a very worthwhile tool to prevent large equipment failures and money loss due to significant downtime. It has some great history behind its use and, still today, proves to be a valuable tool in aiding preventative maintenance. PD


Levi Perkins