Key Component to Economic Survival: Equipment Maintenance

by Greg Sitek

“Maintenance is everyone’s business.” It’s a classic cliché, but it applies. When a piece of equipment fails, people are always involved. Equipment failures are never the result of something the machine does. It simply can’t happen. A machine, because

Daily, pre-start inspections are a first line defense against unscheduled downtime and catastrophic failures. Even on large pieces of equipment, like the Cat articulated truck, manufacturers make it safe and easy for operators and maintenance personnel to do the inspections.
Daily, pre-start inspections are a first line defense against unscheduled downtime and catastrophic failures. Even on large pieces of equipment, like the Cat articulated truck, manufacturers make it safe and easy for operators and maintenance personnel to do the inspections.

it’s inanimate, can’t be responsible for its own failure. Left to its own devices, a machine will never do anything. It certainly will never cause its own failure, catastrophic or anticipated.

People cause equipment problems.

If a piece of equipment suddenly fails, and you ask the operator what happened, chances are good you’ll get one of the following answers:

• “I don’t know what happened.”

• “I didn’t see or hear anything out of the ordinary. Everything is just like it always is.”

• “I didn’t think anything would happened when I …”

And there are probably many other similar answers.

The point is, no one ever wants to admit that they contributed to an equipment failure – and that includes the maintenance staff.

These typical responses – “I don’t know,” “I didn’t see” and “I didn’t think” – are indicative of a lack of personal commitment, poor work habits, preoccupation with things other than work, or any number of other distractions. This is very characteristic of all humans. We all stay up late to watch things. We all have personal or family concerns rattling around in out minds, fighting for our attention. Plus, there is the boredom that attaches itself to all jobs – the longer we do the same thing, the less conscious concentration it requires, allowing ample opportunity for our minds to wander.

Maintaining and operating equipment is as habit-oriented as anything. If you have developed good and safe work habits, you will

In addition to daily inspections you need periodic checks that are more detailed and comprehensive. You can enlist the service of your equipment dealer to do these if you want. they have personnel trained specifically for this type of activity.
In addition to daily inspections you need periodic checks that are more detailed and comprehensive. You can enlist the service of your equipment dealer to do these if you want. they have personnel trained specifically for this type of activity.

be an effective and safe worker.

Good operators are always “GOOD OPERATORS.” You never have problems with their equipment. It seems to run forever.

These individuals know their equipment. They know how to operate it, what it can do and what it can’t do. They learn all the machine’s idiosyncrasies and can tell you when it’s time for service.

Good mechanic or equipment maintenance managers are the same: They know their staff, their equipment, and its abilities to deliver to their operators.

Let’s think about maintenance for a few minutes. What is it?

Maintenance is the act of taking care of … you name it. The ultimate goal of all maintenance is continuation, the perpetuation of an existence – a machine’s, a person’s, a company’s.

The thing about maintenance that is really interesting is the fact that if you look for the warning signs, you can take an action to prevent an impending failure in every maintenance application. For example, chest pains, nausea and rapid heartbeat on a slightly overweight person are indications of a serious problem.

Worn belts; soft, enlarged hoses; hydraulic system noise and smoke records are all indicative of developing machine problem.

In all instances you can choose to ignore the warning signs … but you’ll have to pay the price.

The thing with warning signs is we never really know how serious the developing problem is. In every instance it can be either minor (lose the excess weight and do some moderate exercise) or serious (don’t change the belt or hose and you could lose an engine).

According to Caterpillar, there are seven key elements to effective maintenance:

• Preventive Maintenance

• Oil Analysis

• Inspections

• Training

• Scheduling

• Repair Management

• Recordkeeping

Preventive Maintenance

An owner’s manual, lubrication and maintenance guide and/or operator’s manual come with every machine you buy. These manuals will usually detail the machine’s maintenance requirements and illustrate the service point locations on the machine. Over the years, manufacturers have done an outstanding job of locating most service points on the same side of the machine, at or near ground level, where they can easily be serviced or checked. Years ago, one of the biggest complaints operators and

Service and check points are grouped together to make routine prestart checks quick and easy.
Service and check points are grouped together to make routine prestart checks quick and easy.

mechanics had was that they couldn’t find all the service points, especially some of the grease fittings. The manufacturers listened and made routine service and maintenance much easier.

The manuals provide the necessary information needed for the machine’s preventive maintenance program. If your particular application deviates from what is considered normal or standard, you may want to adjust the service and inspection intervals as well as the types of lubricants used. Contact your dealer if you have concerns about making changes to the prescribed program.

Manufacturers and dealers have prepackaged service or preventive maintenance (PM) kits available for specific machines. They usually contain all the supplies you need to do a routine service on the machine and in many instances include a PM checklist. If the kit doesn’t contain a checklist, you can get copies from your dealer or you can go online.

The PM aspect of your overall equipment maintenance program is your first line of defense against problems and catastrophic failures. It needs to be done correctly, regularly as scheduled and completely.

Oil Analysis

Oil analysis or scheduled oil sampling is a very useful tool that gives you an inside look at what is going on inside your engine, transmission, final drive or hydraulic system. Regular oil sampling and analysis by a competent laboratory helps you develop your maintenance procedures and monitor the development of wear-related problems. Since oil analysis was first introduced to the industry, it has proven to be an effective tool in preventing minor problems from becoming catastrophic failures.

Regular oil analysis can be used to avoid repairs and guide you in your efforts to schedule downtime and make needed repairs before failure. Regularity will give you, through your oil analysis service, the opportunity to develop trends and spot problems in early stages of development. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that an occasional sample or selecting a couple of machines to be sampled will provide you with the information that can help you manage your equipment fleet effectively.

Samples are easy to take. There are a variety of tools available to make the job easy and contamination-free. Hand-held vacuum pumps work well when properly used. The better way to get samples is from valves, which have been installed on the equipment. Some equipment comes with factory-installed oil sampling valves. If not, you can install them in your shop or have the dealer do it.

Equipment dealers, engine manufacturers, hydraulic system component manufacturers, oil companies, filter companies and independent laboratories are the most common resources for processing samples. In some cases there is a charge for the service, while in other instances it is provided if you purchase service supplies from the company.

If you want more information on oil analysis, visit a lab or a dealer that performs it. Oil analysis is a worthwhile investment in time and money: It is your best line of defense against catastrophic failure.

Along with oil analysis, you may want to periodically analyze the contents of your filters, especially when you get high-wear indicators from your oils sample analysis. Cutting an oil filter open, spreading the pleats apart and looking at the materials trapped in the folds will tell you many interesting facts about what’s going on inside your engine.

A regularly scheduled analysis of your cooling system is another diagnostic tool that can save you from a failed engine. If the coolant is properly balanced or doesn’t have sufficient chemicals to maintain it, the net result could be an engine failure. Coolant samples should be sent in periodically to determine its level of protection. Note that protection in this case is not only from subzero temperatures; it includes the chemical levels of the cooling system additive package – rust and corrosion inhibitors, pH levels, stray current, and contamination or depletion of other critical additives. Even if you’re using an extended life coolant you should have it analyzed regularly.

Include the hydraulic system fluid in your oil analysis program. Contamination is a hydraulic system’s worst enemy and contamination can come from numerous sources – just consider the environment in which your equipment operates. Another enemy of the system is overheating. Once the oil has been overheated, it will break down chemically and cannot provide the system protection it was designed to deliver. Typically, hydraulic oil starts to break down chemically at 230 degrees Fahrenheit.

You can develop trends over time by sampling equipment fluids regularly. These trends are revealed as various internal parts start wearing and leaving deposits in the fluid. Given the make, model and age of the components on a piece of equipment, the lab can determine what is wearing and often the progressive rate of wear. This information can help you project a time-to-failure for that component.


Your inspection program needs to combine daily, prestart inspections as well as detailed periodic inspections. A checklist should be used for all inspections, and all checklists should be turned in and filed.

If there are problems noted on a daily or prestart inspection, they should be prioritized and a decision should be made regardingD7E_336 when repairs will be made. In the case of safety-related items, these items need to be repaired immediately.

The daily inspection should include all the points noted in the machine’s manual. Most manufacturers provide not only a detailed checklist of what has to be inspected but they also provide a step-by-step procedure that you can follow to minimize your efforts and still perform a good inspection.

Today’s equipment is designed to so that most daily inspections can be accomplished with a minimal amount of climbing up and down on the machine. Sight-gauges, service and lube points are often grouped to make the inspection and service process easy and fast.

Many machines have computerized diagnostic systems that do a lot of the checking. Even if you have equipment with this great tool, you still need to have a prestart walk-around inspection.

Beyond daily inspections you need to have a program of regular, more detailed inspections and tests. Typically, for equipment, hours are used to establish inspection intervals. In addition to daily inspections, most manufacturers recommend inspections at 250 hours, 500 hours, 1,000 hours and 2,000 hours, with each inspection interval being more comprehensive then the preceding inspection.

Some contractors use days, weeks and months as the basis of establishing service intervals rather than using hours. If this works better for you, then use it as the basis for establishing your maintenance program.

Another method of establishing equipment service intervals is based on fuel consumption. Some equipment manufacturers believe this is probably the most accurate way of performing maintenance. When a machine operates under load, it is consuming more fuel; when it is idling, it is consuming less fuel. If you use fuel consumption as the basis for your service intervals, these intervals are then based on actual wear. If you are interested in using this method of managing your service intervals, check with your dealer for specific information on fuel consumption ratios.

Many dealers offer a variety of inspection services that could include the entire machine and all its systems and components or for specific systems or components. Hydraulic system inspection programs are common as well as track and undercarriage and tire inspection programs. Having an outside source come in to perform an extensive inspection is a good way of checking on the effectiveness of your maintenance program.


Training is vital to the success of any preventive maintenance program. The daily service routine should be used as an important step in your overall inspection program. Servicing personnel should be trained not only in fueling, lubing and checking fluid levels; they should also be trained to look for problems such as broken lights, worn ground-engaging tools, cracks, missing caps, leaks and other such conditions.

Good training will go a long way toward reducing equipment problems. Equipment manufacturers have an almost endless supply

The keys to a successful maintenance program are establishing a procedure, scheduling it and making sure everyone is aware of it and that responsible parties perform as expected.
The keys to a successful maintenance program are establishing a procedure, scheduling it and making sure everyone is aware of it and that responsible parties perform as expected.

of training materials available either directly or through their dealer organizations. You should take advantage of every opportunity to train your service and maintenance personnel as well as your operators. The most important result of training, in addition to informing and educating, is that it helps develop good work habits.


The principle objective of scheduling is to have all your maintenance inspections and repairs done on time. “On time” is the key phrase in maintenance effectiveness. Inspections scheduled for 250 hours need to be done as close to that interval as possible. Doing inspections early is almost as bad as doing them late. Letting a scheduled service interval slide 50 or 100 hours is as bad as skipping. Once contamination reaches a level that’s dangerous to the equipment’s life, the risk increases at an unbelievable rate with each passing hour. The plugged filter operating in the bypass mode is dumping all the trash back into the engine or hydraulic system. Once the filter is full, it can’t do its job.

Following the schedule will give you better machine uptime, help you control your downtime, and will give you the best return on your equipment and maintenance investments. Remember, the objective of a maintenance program is to get the most out of your equipment.

There are numerous scheduling systems available – both manual and computerized. Several equipment manufacturers have developed equipment management software programs that run on personal computers. It is important to use a system or program and not rely on your memory. It doesn’t matter if you have one machine or hundreds: You need to manage your equipment uptime and downtime.

One of the biggest problems with many schedules is that not everyone is aware of them. Once you have a schedule, advise everyone from top management to the janitor of it. Post it. Circulate copies and send e-mail versions of it to everyone.

Repair Management

Repair management helps you control downtime and repair costs. Repair management gives you options and lets you make intelligent decisions about your equipment. When you’re faced with a catastrophic failure, there are no options – only reactions. If you need the machine, you’ll get it fixed any way you can. Before-failure repairs are scheduled before an actual breakdown occurs.

If you can manage your repairs, you will reduce your maintenance costs. It’s always less expensive if you can go in and replace the seals, gaskets and wear parts and not have to replace major components. Take an engine, for example: If you go in before failure you’re going to replace rings, bearings, gaskets and seals. If you wait until the engine stops running you will probably be replacing pistons, liners, rods and turning the crank. It doesn’t take a bookkeeper to recognize the savings in actual repairs costs as well as downtime.

By managing your repairs you will get the greatest possible life out of your parts. If an engine never suffers a failure and is renewed on a regularly scheduled basis, it can go through several overhauls before any of the major parts have to be replaced.


Good records will help you make good decisions about your equipment purchases, its repairs and its disposal. Without good records you are operating in the dark. It’s the information in your records that enables you to analyze equipment’s owning and operating costs, repair costs, problem areas and when to schedule your component before-failure repairs.

If kept properly, your equipment records will provide you with all the information you need to know when it is economically advisable to replace a machine. If you take the time to analyze your records, they will tell you if your maintenance program is working, if your personnel are performing as they should be, if you are using the right equipment and if you are using it properly.

Manual recordkeeping systems are available from many equipment dealers as are a selection of software programs. Get a program that you can work with and will work for you.


Technology has expanded our ability to diagnose problems and monitor systems. Many of the machines available today have onboard system monitors either as standard equipment or as an option. These onboard computers can keep careful watch over critical equipment functions. Train your operators to pay attention to the warning signals or lights and simply do what the machine suggests; this will save the machine from catastrophic failure.

In addition to oil analysis, a variety of other diagnostic tools can help keep track of your equipment’s need for service and repair.

Routine service items are placed on the same side of the machine when possible with ample room to inspect and/or replace as required.
Routine service items are placed on the same side of the machine when possible with ample room to inspect and/or replace as required.

Vibration analysis can be a useful tool in isolating drive train problems; borescopes let you look inside a compartment without tearing a machine down; hand-held infrared thermometers make it possible to check ambient temperatures simply and effortlessly; computerized electrical system and hydraulic system analyzers add a dependable level of sophistication to the difficult task of isolating problems in these systems.

It isn’t necessary to invest a lot of money in these types of diagnostic tools. Dealers have them and are willing to use them on your equipment to assist you with keeping your equipment fleet operating economically and profitably.

Contract maintenance programs are available through your equipment dealer. You can make arrangements for complete machine coverage or for specific systems. You can even arrange for the dealer to have someone take your oil samples for you.

Take advantage of the support programs offered by equipment dealers – they are equipment experts and can provide quality service support.

It won’t be long before GPS system monitoring is economically available to all equipment owners. Several manufacturers have such systems in place and use them on expensive mining machines. Others are testing these systems on the type of equipment found on the typical job site. It wasn’t that many years ago when onboard computers were a wish; today they’re standard equipment.


The best program supported by the best maintenance staff can end up with more work than they can handle if the operators don’t cooperate. A properly trained operator can:

• increase production,

• lower maintenance and repair costs,

• reduce fuel consumption,

• extend power train life,

• cut insurance costs,

• improve resale values,

• increase track and tire life,

• increase ground engaging tool life,

• reduce downtime, and

• prevent catastrophic failure.

To illustrate the importance of the operator on machine performance and service, Caterpillar cites three situations:

• “Improper use of the variable capacity torque converter on large wheel loaders can cause a 50-percent increase in tire wear.

• “You can reduce truck loading time by as much as a half-minute by spotting trucks at a 45-degree angle to the face rather than at 90 degrees, while limiting loader travel to 1.5 tire revolutions, forward and reverse.

• “Correct slot-dozing technique can increase productivity by 20 percent.

“Improvements in operator skills and equipment application build a safer workplace and lower the unit cost of output. The bottom line – a well-trained operator will save you money.”

Maintenance work can be hazardous if not done in a careful manner. All personnel should realize workplace hazards and strictly follow safe practices. Equipment maintenance and service is one area where cutting corners never pays.

Photos courtesy of Caterpillar Inc.

This article appeared in the December 2009 issues of the ACP magazines.

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