Early detection is key to preventing expensive engine repair costs down the road.
When doctors want to know what’s going on inside your body, they’ll often take a blood sample. When you want to know what’s going on inside your engine, you can do something similar, a fluid analysis. A fluid analysis is a quick, inexpensive way to check your engine’s overall health. By analyzing samples of your engine’s oil, coolant, and fuel, you can find a wealth of information on how your engine is running and get ahead of any potential maintenance issues before they become expensive problems.
Like medical tests, you can go for basic reports that paint a broad picture or you can opt to finely-tune your testing to much more specific markers. For this post, we’ll mainly focus on the broader basics.
Oil Analysis–What it can tell you:
A basic oil analysis collection kit reports data on the following for diesel and gasoline engines (though there are options for natural gas and other alternative fuels):
- Elemental metals (such as aluminum, chromium, iron, copper, lead, etc.)
- Fuel dilution percentage
- Soot content
- Estimated water percentage
- Oxidation or nitration
So, for example, an abnormal amount of a metal such as iron most likely indicates increased wear somewhere inside the engine. The type of metal will indicate which engine parts are experiencing abnormal wear: copper from bushings, chromium from piston rings, etc.
Measurements of fuel dilution, soot, and water let you know if you have other mechanical issues. Raw fuel slipping past the piston rings and into the crankcase will dilute the oil. A faulty air intake system results in soot particles dirtying the oil. Water works its way into oil when an engine is frequently run for very short intervals, meaning the oil doesn’t have time to warm up to the optimal operating temperature and evaporate the water (or fuel), resulting in dilution. The viscosity measurement backs these measurements up, telling you how “thick” the oil is. Lower viscosity indicates diluted oil by fuel. And vice versa, higher viscosity can indicate other problems, like contaminates or severe oxidation.
Oil oxidation and nitration at increased levels can indicate aging and degradation of the oil to the point where it can no longer adequately protect engine components.
Those are the base measurements, but more in-depth sample testing can pinpoint more granular information, such as the acid number and base number. Base number is a status indicator of oil additives which combat the build-up of acids in the oil. Combustion engines produce acidic compounds as by-products, and these additives help neutralize those acids. Additives are depleted over time, and once gone can result in inadequate protection.
Diesel Fuel Analysis–What it can tell you:
Like an oil analysis kit, a diesel fuel sample can also report back the number of elemental metals, water, and sediment in the fuel. But in addition, it can report on thermal stability, organic contaminants like bacteria, fungi and mold, and the pour point.
Thermal stability measures the buildup of any oxidation byproducts, which typically occur when fuel is stored improperly over long periods of time or without a fuel stabilizer. Buildup of microbial elements such as bacteria, fungi and mold can result in any number of problems, from corrosion and sludge to filter plugging and loss of thermal stability, all of which affect the performance of the engine. Pour point is essentially the temperature at which the fuel will flow properly, and sometimes an additive is needed to maintain a proper pour point.
As with the oil sample testing, you can also go beyond the basics and analyze things like viscosity, sulfur content, API gravity, distillation, cetane index, particle count, and cloud point. Or, you can zero in on specifics by searching only for contaminants and cleanliness or run tests that look for indicators of ignition quality. Cummins has a wide range of diesel fuel test kits available depending on your needs (including a kit designed specifically for generator diesel fuel).
Coolant Analysis–What it can tell you:
A sample of coolant can tell you about the function of the overall cooling system and indicate any damage that may be occurring. As with fuel and oil testing, the coolant sample can report the presence of elemental metals. These metals can appear in coolant as corrosion metals, contaminant metals, or inhibitor metals. Specific metals and contaminants can indicate potential for scaling on parts, corrosion, and pitting, all problems that will result in more extensive damage if not caught early.
Other analysis markers include antifreeze percentage, freeze (crystallization) and boil points, nitrites, supplemental coolant additives (SCA), pH level, conductance, dissolved solids, and hardness. Freeze and boil point measurements look at the glycol levels: too much causes additive dropout and decreases coolant life, for example. A visual inspection of the coolant sample’s physical properties rates color, odor, foam, and precipitate, and whether oil and fuel are present.
Abnormalities in these measurements can indicate a variety of problems, from metal corrosion and gas leaks to electrical ground problems and chemical breakdowns. It’s recommended that you analyze coolant twice a year to keep an eye on any brewing problems and keep your coolant working efficiently. When it comes to the pH level, anything too acidic will fail to protect the cooling system, so acidity range is another important marker to watch.
Engine fluid analysis is simple and easy, and Cummins offers a wide range of diesel fuel, oil, and coolant analysis kits. Just collect the fluid samples in the included jars, fill out the information labels, and pop them in the prepaid test packages. Turnaround time is typically between 24 and 48 hours once the sample is received at the lab in Edmonton. Analysis reports are emailed directly to you. You can also opt to view your report online and track your results over time for a more accurate picture of engine performance. Kits range from basic to more advanced analysis, and there’s even a combo kit for basic testing of oil, coolant, and diesel fuel.