Short of tire-pressure inspections, the monthly grease job is probably the maintenance chore most mechanics and owner-ops would avoid if they could. It’s a messy, labor-intensive job requiring more physical dexterity than mechanical acumen.
It’s not a pleasant task, yet it’s not the kind of job you’d fob off on a rank amateur or the eight-dollar-an-hour guy at the garage down the street. The proper function of some expensive componentry hangs in the balance, and it’s one of the few moments when trucks and their keepers get up close and personal.
Automatic lubrication systems offer a reliable and efficient alternative to the drudgery of the grease job, along with a few other very tangible benefits. They’ll keep the truck greased when you don’t feel like doing it, or when your techs are tied up on more important jobs, and with many maintenance intervals now going out beyond recommended chassis-lube intervals, you’re not faced with pulling a truck into the shop prematurely just for a lube job.
Regular greases may require re-application at anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 miles or so. If you’re pushing PM intervals out to 25,000 miles or more, you need a grease that will last longer — or one that can be applied regularly without human intervention.
Auto-lube systems consist of an integrated pump/reservoir assembly, several grease manifolds plumbed to individual grease fittings, and an air or electrical connection to drive the pump.
Short of rotating parts like U-joints, an automatic lubrication system can relieve you of this particular chore, while ensuring that the job is done properly.
Automatic lubrication systems are available from manufacturers such as ALS (Vogel), CPL Systems (Groeneveld) www.cplsystems.com, Graco, www.graco.com Interlube, www.interlubecorporatio Lincoln (FloComponents), www.flocomponents.com/ and Lubriquip. www.lubriquip.com
While they all work a little differently, the concept is the same. Lubricant is pumped from a reservoir through tubing to the various lube points on the chassis at specified intervals to keep the chassis constantly lubricated.
Kevin Rooney, vice-president of sales and marketing at Groeneveld CPL Systems, says the greatest advantage to an automatic lubrication system is with fleets whose assets are away from home more often than not.
"It’s one thing in a P&D fleet where the trucks are home every night and the mechanics can schedule maintenance, but in an over-the-road application — particularly with trailers — the possibility of missing a service interval is much greater," Rooney says.
Mike Deckert, vice-president of sales and marketing at Flo Components, Canadian distributors of the Lincoln Quicklub system, says kingpins and the fifth-wheel top plate are among the critical items you don’t want to miss. Obviously, a dry fifth-wheel creates vehicle handling and potential safety issues, he says, "but a kingpin damaged by lack of lubrication or the presence of contaminants such as sand, can affect steering, steer tires, and more."
Deckert explains that the greasing of two mating surfaces or a bearing well has two purposes.
"We want to keep the friction surfaces wet with lubricant, and we want the fresh grease to make its way through the joint, pushing out the old grease and any trapped contaminants with it," he says. "With a manual application of grease, much of the lubricant is pushed through the system in a matter of hours. With an auto-greaser, we can replenish the lubricating layer between the surfaces at very short intervals using smaller shots of grease."
NLGI #0 vs. NLGI #2
Traditionally, auto-lube systems have relied on a lighter, semi-fluid NLGI #0 grease, and for a few good reasons: it’s said to flow more easily into bearings and between friction surfaces, and it flows well even in cold temperatures. While the lighter grease may not cling like a heavier #2, its proponents claim it holds fewer surface contaminants in suspension and flushes contaminants out more frequently.
Auto lube systems can be installed on tractors or trailers.
Lincoln’s Quiklub system defies convention, using a #2 grease. Deckert says the heavier grease has advantages, like providing a better lubricant film retention rate than #0 grease, better sealing performance, and better viscosity retention in hot weather, but admits it can be a challenge in really cold weather.
"You need a heavier pump to push the #2 grease, but the Lincoln is up to the task. It was designed with #2 grease in mind," he says. "Sure, the fluid-type greases flow better, but the #2 stays in place longer, and in theory, you’ll use less of it."
Where’s the Payback?
With fleets and owner-ops under horrendous cost pressure, can they afford to tack another few thousand dollars onto the upfront cost of a truck? The question many fleets ask is whether these systems are really worth the money when a mechanic can knock off a grease job in 30 minutes. Labor and materials for a fleet grease job wouldn’t amount to much more than $50. The annual costs for even a biweekly greasing wouldn’t exceed $1,000.
But if you think in terms of failure prevention, the all-in cost of a single bearing failure at an inopportune moment can easily exceed the price of an auto-lube system, says CPL’s Rooney. Of course, you can’t always compare hypothetical costs with real and quantifiable costs.
Promotional material from Lubriquip suggests the typical return on investment is two-and-a-half to three years. When fleets were turning trucks over in three years, the payback wasn’t there. Today, with longer life cycles, the payback is looking better — especially for owner-ops, who often keep their trucks five years or more.
Owner-operators might be hard pressed to shell out a few thousand dollars for something they perceive as an exercise done in the driveway on a Saturday afternoon. But when including the reduction in potential component wear over the life of the vehicle, the longer the vehicle stays in service, the more cost-effective the auto-lube system becomes.
Rooney says fleets with a more sophisticated approach to maintenance are in a better position to test and evaluate these systems.
"The biggest challenge is just getting them to try one," he says. "Once they have a few in service, the results speak for themselves."
Rooney points to Europe, where uptake is very high. "They’re a decade ahead of us. Here, even in the construction sector, less than 10 percent of the equipment is equipped with an auto-lube system. It’s much less than that in transportation," he says.
"But look at where componentry and maintenance requirements are going. No lube, low lube, extended service intervals… Pretty soon it’s not going to make sense to pull a truck off the road just to grease it," he predicts.
But all the no-, low-, and auto-lube technology in the world won’t relieve fleets and owner-ops of the need for visual inspections.
Traditionalists say the weekly grease job provides a convenient opportunity to get under the truck for a close look at things. Nothing will really change in that regard after you install an auto-lube system.
"Simply replace the grease gun with a flashlight and a couple of wrenches," Deckert advises.