Lubrication failures in Industrial plants

When failures occur in industrial plants, the first culprit to be suspected is usually the lubricant. However, should this be the first area that one looks at and what are the main causes of the lubricant failing? To understand this, I’ve taken a look at lubrication failures in industrial plants both globally and locally to understand the impact that they have on the sector.

Van Rensselar(1) explained that a recent study conducted by ExxonMobil Lubricants & Specialities of 192 US based power plants, 40% of these have reported issues of varnishing within their facilities. On the other hand; Livingstone, Prescott and Wooton(2) describe a study carried out by EPT Inc which document 44% lubrication failure of gas turbines (not including GE Frame 7FA & EA). It is therefore clear to see that there exists a prevalent issue of lubrication failure within the industry.

When a lubrication failure occurs, it costs an estimate of USD100,000 per trip in a power plant(1). As such, lubrication failures are costly within the industry and methods to reduce issues relating to these types of failures should be explored. Van Rensselar(1) also interviewed Joe Z. Zhou senior research chemist for Chevron Lubricants in Richmond California who explained that one of the main causes of varnish is the primarily oxidized hydrocarbon molecules which undergo surface aggregation and further surface reaction to produce the varnish. However, Livingstone and Oakton(3) add to this description of the main causes of varnish as the oxidation of the oil whereby there is a loss of electrons from the molecules within the lubricant. They go on to state that hydrolysis and thermal degradation are also leading factors for the degradation of the lubricant.             

Van Rensselar(1) explored the main cause of such increased volumes of varnish cases in recent times and found that due to changes in turbine designs to allow for reduced operating and capital costs, the clearances have become smaller, operations are now continuous and a common lubricant for both bearings and controls is now being used. With the reduced clearances, the lubricant can now heat up faster and allow for quicker oxidation occurrences thus leading to varnish. Additionally, with the use of a common lubricant for bearings and control functions, there are significantly different levels of filtration required. Bearings allow for at least a 200-micron filtration system whereas servo valves will accept nothing less than 3-micron filtration(1). As such, it has now become easier for servo valves to become clogged due to varnish as compared to instances in the past.

Case Studies

Johnson, Wooton, and Livingstone(4) describe a case study on a power plant in Arizona, USA where a failure occurred during a routine test. Upon inspection, soft varnish/sludge was found on the trip valve piston. The varnish/sludge was analysed using FTIR testing and its chemical properties suggested the presence of carboxylic acid, primary amide and methacrylate ester. Further investigations revealed that the varnish had accumulated in a uniformed fashion. However, MPC testing did not reveal significant varnish accumulation since these tests were conducted monthly and the varnish had accumulated significantlyduring that time. Upon performing a root cause analysis, it was discovered that a steam leak containing hydrazine gave rise to the presence of ammonia in the system which reacted with the carboxylic acids (produced from oxidation of turbine oils) to form varnish within the system. It was then decided that lower MPC levels were needed to manage the volume of varnish within the system and reduce the steam leaks into the oil. These actions were taken to ensure that the varnish levels could be managed such that there would be no future trips as a result of this issue.

Wooton and Livingstone(5) conducted another case study on a combined cycle power plant in the US which experienced a type of lubrication failure. The plant had been shut down during an outage and it was noticed that when the lubricant storage tank cooled past 32°C large black tar balls formed and floated at the surface of the tank. The filters appeared to contain the black tar when in a liquid form but when allowed to cool, the tar turned into a black / brown solid. FTIR testing on the deposit revealed decomposed amine antioxidant, an ester and an additive not characteristic of the lubricant in service. The non-characteristic additive was identified as a foam inhibitor which was not found in the lubricant in service. It was then concluded, that an incompatible fluid was mixed with the in-service lubricant. A quality control program was implemented to ensure that all the incoming fluids are compatible with the in-service lubricant. As such, for this case study, lubricant degradation occurred due to contamination.

Trinidad & Tobago

After conducting a lubrication survey with turbine users for the period 2014-2015 and it was found that within Trinidad & Tobago, turbine users can be classified into three main categories namely; Power generation, Oil & Gas and Petrochemical. It was found that internationally, there is a greater focus on the Power Generation sector in research regarding lubrication failures. However locally, Power Generation represents 40% of turbine users while Petrochemical represents 34%. On the contrary, it was found that the Petrochemical sector suffered more lubricant degradation issues as compared to the Power Generation sector from this study. Overall, the Petrochemical industry experienced the highest volume of lubricant failures.

Overall, it appears that while Power generation sector has a higher percentage of turbine users, locally the Petrochemical sector emerges as the larger shareholder of lubrication failures in the industrial sector. Given that most of the lubrication failures occurred via oxidation and contamination (both locally and internationally), one can only conclude that within the industrial sector a greater emphasis should be placed on the monitoring of the condition of the lubricants especially for critical equipment. When lubrication failures occur, they can be very costly, as such greater emphasis should be placed on the monitoring of these lubricants in service.


1 Van Rensselar, Jeanna. 2016. “The unvarnished truth about varnish”. Tribology & Lubrication Technology, November 11.

2 Livingstone, Greg, Jon Prescott, and Dave Wooton. 2007. “Detecting and Solving lube oil varnish problems”. Power Magazine, August 15.

3 Livingstone, Greg and David Oakton. 2010. “The Emerging Problem of Lubricant Varnish.” Maintenance & Asset Management, Jul/Aug.

4 Johnson, Bryan, Dave Wooton, and Greg Livingstone. 2013. “Root Cause Determination of an Unusual Chemical Deposit on a Key Oil Wetted Component.” Paper presented at OilDoc Conference and Exhibition Lubricants Maintenance Tribology, OilDoc Academy, Brannenburg, Rosenheim, Germany, United Kingdom, January 22-24, 2013.

5 Wooton, Dave and Greg Livingstone. 2013. “Lubricant Deposit Characterization.” Paper presented at OilDoc Conference and Exhibition Lubricants Maintenance Tribology, OilDoc Academy, Brannenburg, Rosenheim, Germany, United Kingdom, January 22-24, 2013.