Fluid analysis is useful in spotting trends in the equipment you own. Here is part of the Polaris Analysis Kit. 

Seeing traces of coolant or fuel dilution in a lube oil analysis doesn’t necessarily mean what it did 10 years ago. There’s no doubt that Tier 4 Interim and Final diesel emissions technology has drastically cut the pollution going out the exhaust stacks of heavy equipment. The same holds true for diesel truck engines manufactured since 2007. But this new engine technology, along with biodiesel, has brought new complexity to the art and science of engine fluid analysis.
“To understand what’s going on with your engine, you should know how all these new elements work and how they correlate to one another,” says Dave Tingey, field services engineer for Polaris Laboratories. “It’s like a three-legged stool. They all have an effect on the equipment.”
Of particular interest are how coolant leaks via EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) can impact lube oil quality and how biodiesel can throw of tests for fuel dilution. The interrelation of these elements makes fluid analysis more important and useful than ever.
A good fluid sampling and analysis program can help you head off engine problems. And with a little extra effort you can use the results of your fluid analysis as a diagnostic tool for preventive maintenance.
EGRs to consider
Virtually all emissions compliant engines today include an EGR circuit that takes exhaust gas and pumps it back into the cylinders to reduce emissions of NOx. This gas must also be cooled and this is typically done in an EGR cooler that uses the same coolant as the engine. “The biggest issue we’ve seen in the past couple of years…is the coolant,” Tingey says.
In the past, if oil analysis showed traces of sodium or potassium salts (from the coolant) in the lube oil it might indicate a leaking head gasket, cavitation on the cylinder liners or a damaged oil cooler. That still can be the case, but with EGR you have a potential new source of coolant leaks.
If your coolant isn’t maintained you could have coolant additive fallout. Those have a tendency to clog passages in the cooler, which in turn don’t provide the correct amount of heat transfer or heat rejection. You can get hot spots, which could lead to thermal stress on the joints of the cooler or cracks in the material that let coolant back into the exhaust gas where it goes through the combustion process. You’ll also see combustion byproducts in your coolant samples. “Manufacturers have been addressing this by making the EGR coolers longer and bigger, but we still see an increase in coolant contamination in diesel engines,” Tingey says.
The coolant samples Polaris receives show that communication about coolant changes in the shop, are not always ideal. Many fleets are switching to extended life coolants, which provide better protection and last much longer. But in some samples it’s obvious the shop has switched to ELCs but is still using SCA type filters, which add the old style additives back into the coolant.
Twice a year, or at a minimum of once a year, perform an advanced coolant test. These tests can help you determine if problems are a chemistry issue or a mechanical issue. By monitoring coolant condition you can see more and identify whether you have a lot of degradation happening. That’s an indicator that your coolant is not doing what it is supposed to. A lot of times Polaris will have recommendations in the comments section to do further diagnostics, and a lot of times people will call them.
In one transportation fleet, Polaris identified coolant leaks at a severity level of three to four in six percent of the samples submitted. Catching coolant leaks earlier, at severity levels of one or two can prevent premature failure, according to Polaris. Fixing the problem at severity levels one and two may only mean replacing a leaking oil cooler, head gasket or EGR valve. But if the leaks are allowed to progress the coolant can attack soft metals such as copper and lead in the main and rod bearings.
Biodiesel and fuel dilution
A small amount of unburned fuel normally gets past the rings in a piston and enters the lube oil even on a healthy engine. The fuel will dilute the lube oil resulting in a loss of lubricity and a lowering of viscosity. Fuel contamination of the lube oil can also degrade anti-wear additives. Polaris says more than 14 percent of the engine samples it tested in 2010 showed fuel dilution levels high enough to flag.
Biodiesel attracts and holds water more than straight diesel and water can mask some of these problems. As a result, many labs are shifting to a gas chromatography test for fuel dilution to get an accurate picture of fuel dilution. Biodiesel can also attract oil additives leaving less of these available to protect the engine.
Many municipal and government fleets are required to use biodiesel, and in some parts of the country regulations allow refiners to mix up to five percent biodiesel without labeling it as such. So you may be burning biodiesel and do not know it.
When oil analysis shows fuel dilution reaching its limits, you change the oil and the problem is solved – temporarily. “Eighty-five percent of people will change the oil and think they’ve fixed the problem, but it really doesn’t,” Tingey says. If the fuel dilution problem repeatedly tests out of range you can use this information to diagnose potential problems. In addition to coolant contamination, fuel dilution may also signal that the rings are worn or the fuel injectors may not be functioning properly.
Analyze before you buy
Fluid analysis is useful in spotting trends in the equipment you own. It can also be valuable to take a one-time snapshot analysis of the fluids on any machine you are considering for purchase.
A seller can change the oil before selling a machine, which could mask problems, but they’re much less likely to change the coolant. If the coolant is in any way degraded and shows a possible combustion gas leak or something similar, you may have an issue. That tells you if the engine is capable of maintaining its correct operating temperature and it’s condition.

Comments (7)

Tom Jackson

Tom Jackson is the executive editor of Equipment World magazine and has been writing about construction and related fields for 26 years. A 1979 graduate from the University of Alabama, Jackson is also a U.S. Army veteran and a father of two.

Read These Next...


Greasing The Truck

December 22, 2020


A Tale of Two Oils

January 28, 2015


Cooling Systems

July 06, 2013


If theres one thing that will save you lots of money, it has to be having my oil analyzed. Right now I'd say I save around $1500+ by knowing what shape my oil is in, and in return what shape my engine is in. Belive me, this pays for itself quickly

September 26, 2014 10:27:50 AM

Thanks for the article. Polaris labs are a wealth of important information and they
provide great customer service too. There is also an issue of gear oil getting into
the coolant via the internal transmission cooler leaking inside the radiator, it really screws up the coolant and is difficult to eliminate.

August 03, 2014 10:44:09 AM


April 27, 2014 12:38:22 PM

I am so very glad our truck is a 01 model. it runs very clean and much less maintenance. thanks to our 60 series Detroit at almost 2 million original miles. very good article and I will be sure to pass it on.

April 19, 2014 17:00:13 PM

Great article Tom ! With the lack of proper cooling system maintenance being responsible for nearly half of all major engine failures, periodic coolant sampling is a must. I believe that the cooling system is the most overlooked maintenance item in a diesel engine.

March 31, 2014 16:37:05 PM

A good oir analysis program is a great way to protect your investment in equipment !

March 31, 2014 10:59:17 AM

Great information Tom. This is very useful. Thank you.

March 31, 2014 8:38:38 AM