HVAC System / Machinery Lubrication / Predictive Maintenance

Why your HVAC lubrication program deserves more attention

5 questions to ask if you want to surprise plant execs with unexpected savings.

By William Kowalski, Interflon

In this article:

In the constant battle to trim costs and increase profits, plant managers would do well to cast their gaze skyward – not in search of divine intervention (though that wouldn’t be unwelcome), but to the HVAC system. Why? Because plants could save thousands of dollars per year if managers were to ask the right questions about HVAC lubrication.

HVAC systems are out of sight, but that shouldn’t mean they’re out of mind. If anything, their hidden location is a good reason to give them closer scrutiny. It’s the same logic parents use when they realize their kids haven’t made a peep for the past half-hour. Quiet doesn’t mean everything’s fine – it often means the opposite.

HVAC also occupies a strange niche in the world of the plant manager. It’s a crucial part of plant equipment, so that makes it a manager’s responsibility. But it’s not directly related to production, so it doesn’t receive the same attention as machines on the line. For this reason, HVAC systems are often left out of PdM planning. The impact this has on the bottom line can be significant in two specific areas: (1) energy costs, and (2) surprise repair or replacement costs.

Because of HVAC equipment’s location, HVAC lubrication tends to get neglected, especially during the hot summer months. When it’s already 90 degrees out, no one looks forward to going out onto a black-tar-covered roof to find out if the fans need a shot of grease. Yet that’s precisely the time when lubrication is needed more than ever, because of the risk of heat-related runout. The hotter the weather, the more lubrication needs to be monitored, but paradoxically the less likely it is that monitoring will happen.

Before we get to our five essential questions, let’s take a look at the main ways in which HVAC systems incur costs:

  1. Purchase and installation
  2. Energy
  3. Repair or replacement

There is no getting around the first item, but the other two are very much within your control.

Energy


HVAC systems are energy hogs. They work hard around the clock. What’s often overlooked is that there is a direct relationship between the amount of energy they consume and the quality of the lubrication on shafts, bearings, and fans. Insufficient lubrication means higher friction. Higher friction means more energy. More energy means higher bills. Higher bills means unhappy owners and board members. Guess whose head this falls on? Spoiler: yours.

Repair and replacement


HVAC systems tend not to get much maintenance. In the world of lubrication specialists, anecdotes abound about maintenance bosses who brag that they never lube their HVAC systems at all. Instead, their plant buys systems with sealed bearings; they run them for four or five years, giving them no attention whatsoever; and they simply replace them when the last drops of lubricant have run out and the metal-on-metal contact causes the fans to come screeching to a halt. Sometimes, they even burst into flames. Yes, it has happened!
This is great news for HVAC manufacturers, but bad news for everyone else – especially you, the plant manager. And guess what? The cost of doing business isn’t set in stone. It’s directly under your control.

If you’re a plant manager who likes surprising executives with shrinking expense sheets, ask yourself the following five questions about the lubrication of your HVAC system.

1. Are you using automatic lube dispensers?


Remember the image of the baking, black-tar-covered roof in July? Does going up there sound like fun? How about in the depths of winter, when an icy wind knifes through your jacket and the rungs of the ladder are covered in ice? If your answer is “nope!” then it’s time you looked at automatic lube dispensers.

When you consider that larger HVAC systems can have upward of a hundred lubrication points, the cost of a separate dispenser for each may seem daunting. However, the amount of money to be saved far outweighs the initial investment.

Automatic lubricant dispensers can be calibrated to release a predetermined amount of grease or oil at set intervals. Instead of heading to the roof every month, just fill it and set it for the next six months. You’ll be saving on labor, providing a safer and more pleasant work environment, and prolonging the life of your equipment.

Automatic lube dispensers are also a very easy workaround to the problem of maintenance personnel who don’t want to include roof visits in their regular work schedule.

2. Are you using the appropriate grease?


Do you know what the recommended grease is for your HVAC system? Or do you, like many plant managers, simply use the cheapest stuff available? For those who haven’t done the math, the news can be surprising: Cheap lubes are the most expensive option.

Why is that? Partly because cheap lube doesn’t last as long, so you’ll run through more of it. But that’s really only the tip of the cheap-lube iceberg.

The worst consequences of cheap lube are our old friends repair and replacement. Because the cheap stuff will experience runout faster, leading to starvation of bearings, your equipment will simply end up needing lubrication sooner. If your maintenance regime doesn’t include a regular check of the HVAC system, then your HVAC is going to experience some hard wear and tear before you’re even aware of it.

In lubrication, as in everything else in life, two maxims hold true: You get what you pay for, and if you try to cheap out, you end up paying the price.

This leads to our next point:

3. Have you done cost comparisons of lubricants?


Cost comparisons can seem daunting for those who really don’t like math. But they aren’t nearly as bad as they seem. Once you have the numbers in black and white, you can make more-intelligent decisions.

For example, as we’ve already mentioned, many production facilities use the cheapest lubricant they can get away with, in the mistaken belief that they’re saving money.

Compare the cheap stuff with the really good stuff – something high-performance that has a track record of lasting longer than other products. It may cost more than $300 a gallon, and to the untrained eye, that may seem like a rip-off. But consider the following:

  • The expensive lube will last many times longer
  • It can greatly extend equipment life (therefore, you’ll also save on repair and replacement costs for those and similar items)
  • Downtime will be greatly reduced or eliminated, and there isn’t a company in the world that can afford the cost and inconvenience of unplanned downtime.

Don’t make assumptions based only on price tags. Write down the numbers and compare them side by side. How much are you spending every year on HVAC-related lube, replacement, labor, and downtime? Now, how much would that higher-quality lube really cost if you subtracted the cost of labor, parts, and downtime?

4. Have you assessed your lubricant cabinet recently?


This point is not limited to HVAC. It applies to your lubrication regime plantwide. Thanks to employee turnover, shifting responsibilities, and busy schedules, lubricant stockpiles can get out of control. You may have four or five products that do the same thing. If that’s the case, you’re wasting money and space. Which brings us to point #5:

5. Are you using multiuse lubricants?


Multiuse lubricants are just what their name indicates: lubricants that can be used in multiple situations, as opposed to extremely specialized products that have only one or two uses.

The benefits of multiuse lubricants are many. They:

  • Offer better value and take up less space
  • Require less training to use correctly
  • Are easier to store in compliance with safety regulations

Some plants require the use of NSF H1-certified food-grade lubricants. If that describes your plant, look for a lube that carries this rating and offers the protection that a high-quality lubricant can buy. Do not, under any circumstances, go the mineral-oil route! Just because it’s cheap and food-grade doesn’t mean it’s the right product for you. You’ll be throwing your money away and accomplishing practically nothing.

Bonus tip: Assess your maintenance team's HVAC program


Energy consumption is not the province of the maintenance team, so it’s not likely to be on the team’s radar. No one thinks to show the energy bill to the head of maintenance. And why would they? The maintenance director’s job is to fix things that are broken, not to explain why electricity costs are up.

The diligent plant manager will ensure that the maintenance team is on board with an HVAC lubrication regime. Think of this as a great opportunity to practice your communication skills. In conclusion, remember: Plant managers can realize great savings by staying on top of their HVAC lubrication regime through better communication with maintenance and a regular – preferably automatic – lubrication regime.