TBN decrease


The TBN has dropped significantly, can I still use the oil?

The TBN (Total Base Number) is usually seen in diesel engines. Most modern (smaller) diesel engines have TBNs within the range of 9-15 (especially if they are using ULSD).

The TBN gets depleted when the acids in the oil start to increase.

Typically, higher sulphur levels in the fuel produce more acids. As such, as the sulphur level increases, so does the TBN level.

For instance, in power plants that use larger (older) diesel engines that require HSFO (High Sulphur Fuel Oil, 3.5% sulphur), the TBN of the lubricant can be as much as 50. Here are the different types of fuel and their sulphur ratings:

  • HFSO (High Sulphur Fuel Oil): 3.5%
  • LSFO (Low Sulphur Fuel Oil): 1.0%
  • ULSFO (Ultra Low Sulphur Fuel Oil): 0.1%


With IMO 2020, the cap has been placed on sulphur in fuel to 0.5% for marine vessels. While this cap has not yet been translated to land applications, due to the demand for HSFO declining there may be a shift to ULSFO in land based applications in the not so distant future.


Ideally, if your TBN level gets depleted by 50% then there is a cause for concern and the oil should be changed or topped up with new oil (depending on which is more convenient).

If your TBN levels get to 50% in a very short time, you may want to investigate the reasons behind the value dropping so significantly in such a short time (perhaps fuel dilution or thermal cracking?).

Always investigate the reasons behind unexpected results as these will continue to impact your lubricant in the future.