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Downtime in construction operations can cause significant disruption and make a real difference to a business’s bottom line. It’s therefore essential that all equipment operates smoothly – with reliability, efficiency and safety of paramount importance – even in the dirtiest and most extreme of conditions. 

There are a host of factors that impact fuel efficiency and equipment performance, but even marginal gains can offer a welcome boost to a business’s bottom line. All aspects should be evaluated and optimized, including the role of engine idling, an area that is often overlooked.

Idling time and the impact on the engine and fuel economy

Heavy duty equipment on construction sites spend a considerable amount of time with an idling engine. In fact, manufacturer Komatsu estimates a machine's average idle time is 40 percent. Due to the nature of construction sites and the long periods of time that machinery remains stationary, some fleets may idle significantly more than this. 

In these cases, it’s important to be aware that an hour of idle time has the same impact on an engine as driving approximately 25 miles.

Affecting the combustion process, idling increases the likelihood of the oil temperature dropping below 100oC. This can cause water to build up, resulting in fuel dilution and increased acids, while ultimately accelerating engine wear.

In addition, fuel costs are one of the largest expenses for heavy equipment managers, so improving fleet fuel efficiency is a continual and ongoing challenge. Within a program of improvements, the impact of idling is rarely considered, even though it is estimated that a large diesel engine can consume up to one gallon of fuel for each hour it is left idling.

So how can lubricants help improve fleet fuel economy and protect equipment from the detrimental impact of idling?

The role of lubricants

Lubricants enhance engine performance and protect it, while improving fuel economy. This is achieved by reducing pumping and spinning losses and minimizing metal-to-metal contact between moving components.

When selecting a heavy duty lubricant, API CK-4 oils are of particular relevance to those within the construction industry as they offer improved resistance to oxidation and aeration along with increased shear stability. For off-highway engines, improved aeration control is important, due to the potential for more air than usual to become entrained within the oil. At the bearings this can be dangerous due to the need for an oil film to protect them.

API CK-4 SAE 10W-30 and 5W-30 oils also benefit from a lower viscosity at low temperature and can move more easily throughout the engine and flow faster. This helps prevent engine wear during start-up and unplanned maintenance – an essential benefit as idling reduces the work rate of the engine so it’s important to use an oil with a good low flow temperature. Modern low viscosity oils also enable easier cold starts, which supports the ability for the engine to be turned off in order to reduce idling.

Also, to neutralize any acid build up during prolonged periods of idling, the oil selected should be able to maintain its base number. 

Oils that combine these properties offer heavy duty equipment engines enhanced protection and can improve reliability to reduce unplanned vehicle downtime. Before selecting a product, lubricant choice should always be based on the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) recommendations as outlined in the owner’s manual.

Monitoring and analysis

A used oil analysis program is also beneficial for engines that spend significant periods idling, as it can highlight if the oil should be changed earlier than normal and bring attention to maintenance issues before they become serious and expensive to repair. 

Additionally, these programs can support the extension of oil drain intervals. However, oil analysis testing should always be supported by recommendations from the relevant OEM manual, alongside advice from technical experts; particularly when it comes to considering whether and how to extend drain intervals. Going against the recommendations in the OEM manual could void warranty coverage if any damage or engine failure occurs, which could be an expensive problem to solve. 

The oil analysis process typically involves three steps: taking a representative sample from the equipment in question, sending the sample to a qualified used oil analysis lab and interpreting/acting upon the recommendations of the results. This is most effective when performed at regular intervals, as it will enable a performance database to be generated and trends to be measured over time. This allows for maintenance plans to be adjusted in advance and managed in-line with any planned downtime.

Engine idling can have a significant impact on the fuel efficiency and performance of off-highway engines. By selecting a tough heavy duty lubricant that can perform under these conditions and by effectively monitoring the effect on the engine, equipment can be better protected, resulting in fleet fuel savings while reducing unplanned downtime.

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