Microbial Contamination in Lubricants: How to Detect and Treat Them?

When it comes to proper lubrication management, microbial contamination is something all maintenance managers and lubrication technicians should be aware of. Microbial growth in your machine’s oil or lubricants can cause costly problems if left unchecked, but understanding the sources and methods of protection can help you keep your industrial equipment running efficiently and reliably. In this blog post, we will discuss common sources of microbial contamination in oil-based systems and treatment options. By carefully monitoring your systems for signs of microbial contamination, you can proactively safeguard your machines from harm.

What is Microbial Contamination?

Microbial contamination comes from microbes. Microbes are very small living organisms that are all around us but cannot be seen by the human eye because of their size. There are microbial organisms that live in every environment from air and water to the human body! So, it’s no surprise that these microorganisms can live on or in your machinery. The five main groups of microbes are:

  1. Viruses
  2. Archaea
  3. Fungus
  4. Bacteria
  5. Protists

Humans can have millions of microbes throughout our bodies, and there may be up to 1 billion different species of microbes on the planet.

What are the Risks of Microbial Contamination in Lubricants?

It’s no secret that proper lubrication can be the difference between success and failure when it comes to keeping your machinery running smoothly. But what few may know is that even if you track performance, monitor temperatures, and replace fluids regularly, microbial contamination could still be compromising its effectiveness. When left untreated, microbial contaminants such as bacteria and fungi can lead to the degradation of system components and increased machine downtime. This is due to changes in lubricant viscosity and deposits—ultimately resulting in costly repairs or replacements. To prevent this from occurring, you must employ effective protection techniques to reduce or eliminate microbial contamination in your lubricant supply.

How to Detect Microbial Contamination

When we start to feel unwell, we need to run a few simple diagnostics before we get better. This is also valid for lubrication. What are the signs and symptoms of microbial contamination? What causes them, and how do we fix them? First, watch for the environmental conditions that can increase your risk of microbial contamination, such as:

  • Stagnant Fluids
  • Greater Water Levels
  • Limited Flow
  • Dark Areas

Lubrication areas that match these characteristics are a good place to watch for microbial contamination. But, these characteristics alone don’t mean you have a problem. To actually diagnose the majority of microbial contamination, you need to perform lubricant analysis. The biggest warning sign is an increase of acid in your lubricant.

Because microbes begin growing and reproducing in your lubricant, they need an energy source. So, the microbes eat your lubricant’s carbon atoms from hydrocarbon molecules. However, this results in open bonds that attract oxygen. Finally, the new structure results in oxidation with a byproduct of acid. You don’t need to know or remember all of that as long as you remember to check your acid levels.

Treatment and Prevention of Microbes

If you already have microbial contamination in your lubricant, you have to use a biocide additive to treat it. This is the first step to stopping bacterial growth and getting rid of it. Second, microbes require a murky, moist environment to flourish. So, you must remove as much water as possible from your oil. Unfortunately, if drying is not an option, you will need to take serious action and drain the tainted oil from the reservoir. After draining, the reservoir needs to be thoroughly flushed with an appropriate low-viscosity oil with a biocide additive.

To prevent further microbial contamination, you must actively prevent water contamination. You can use breathers or, in rare situations, dry instrument air to achieve this. Verify that all of the ports and seals are airtight and watertight. Furthermore, to help reduce contaminant ingression provide quick connectors for draining, filling, topping off, and filtering.

A Vital Component of Lubrication Management

Whether you need to prevent microbial contamination or simply want to follow lubrication best practices, establish cleanliness and dryness targets for your most important equipment. Microbe growth may be possible at water levels greater than 500 ppm (parts per million). Another crucial step and valuable best practice is to regularly sample oil and evaluate its condition. This will guarantee that, if microbial contamination begins, you can stop it in its tracks. This should enable you to address microbial contamination with caution and make your machines operate more effectively and efficiently.

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