Blessed are the Grease Makers

Chances are good you haven’t given grease a second thought since you bought your rig. But like other lubricants that ensure your truck stays on the road, grease isn’t sitting still – today’s lubricant lasts longer and works better than yesterday’s grease.

For the past decade, most of the effort in grease development has been spent keeping up with its thinner cousin, diesel engine oil. As oil quality has improved, so too has the ability of fleets and owner-operators to extend their drains. Just 15 years ago, most owners changed their oil every 8,000 to 12,000 miles. Now it’s not uncommon for fleets to change oil at 40,000 miles and owner-operators at 20,000. Grease, however, must be replenished more frequently – between 6,000 and 15,000 miles, depending on the application.

“The grease had become the Achilles heel of extended drains,” says Matthew Ansari, a heavy-duty automotive segment manager with ChevronTexaco. But the grease guys are starting to catch up, Ansari says.

Warren Eckert, an engineer for ExxonMobil, says today’s greases are more stable and robust. Much of that has to do with coagulants, such as soap or lithium complex, the glue that puts the goo in the lube.

“Lithium complex is the mainstay in over-the-road applications,” Eckert says. “There have been improvements in the chemistry of the complex and advanced additive systems used.”

Those improvements include better protection from corrosion and water washout and better “shear stability,” the ability of a grease to stay in form over time. That form is a grease’s NLGI rating. The ratings range from a number 00 grease, for a fluid-based grease used commonly in wheel ends, to NLGI 2 grease, for standard thick-grease chassis applications. As greases age, they break down from heat, shearing and contamination, eventually losing their thickness. When that thickness leaves, so does the base oil, which is responsible for the lubrication.

Shear stability in the new lithium complex-based grease is better than in earlier greases, helping fleets and owner-operators extend their service intervals, Eckert says. The newer lithium complex greases also provide better protection against corrosion, perform under high temperatures and resist water washout better than their predecessors.

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Will grease be able to match the intervals of which engine oils are capable? Grease engineers hope so, because that’s what customers want. “To increase those intervals means you can you keep the equipment on the road longer,” Eckert says.

Most extended grease applications are currently closed or sealed bearings, such as wheel hubs, typically using a long-life synthetic grease.

“There are a lot of sealed-for-life applications showing up in the heavy duty world,” Eckert says. “They need very little or no service.” Truck makers are even looking at low-lube or no-lube items like spring shackle pins that currently have to be lubed frequently. Manufacturers are designing components with Teflon-like coatings that allow free, greaseless movement.

Unlike sealed-for-life applications, the grease in components exposed to road conditions gets contaminated by debris and washed out by rainwater. Grease used on chassis and fifth-wheel points takes more abuse and needs to be replenished more frequently.
But chassis grease is getting better. Already several greases for truck chassis offer extended service intervals of 18,000 to 30,000 miles. Chevron’s Delo Grease EP, Mobil’s Delvac Xteme Service Grease, Exxon’s Centaur Moly grease and Shell’s Super Duty Grease 2 all offer extended intervals that match conservative extended oil drain intervals.

The Chevron, Mobil and Shell greases are top-end lithium complex greases. Exxon’s Centaur Moly, however, uses a new calcium sulfonate thickener instead of lithium complex.

One reason the new greases last longer is they help prevent washout. Trucks that drive through wet climates often lose their grease when rain and puddles wash it away from the metal.

Even if you use a grease that can extend your service interval, grease engineers say you still need to stop the truck long enough to make sure their grease is doing its job. John Harris, an adviser at Shell’s Westhollow Technology center, says truckers should do one or two inspections on the chassis between oil changes. “The typical change right now is between 6,000 and 20,000 miles,” he says. “But the frequency of grease changes depends largely on the service.” This is especially true if you work in dusty or wet environments. Extended service greases are more expensive, but you’ll use less grease because you’re servicing less often.

Robert Phillips, service manager for Central Florida Kenworth, says extended grease intervals have other drawbacks. Because fleets and drivers service their trucks less often, “They’re not paying close enough attention to leaks,” he says.

When a truck is on a rack being greased, the timing is perfect for a more thorough inspection, Phillips says. Trucks with extended oil and grease intervals aren’t in the shop as often, and small problems, such as an oil drip in a differential or shaft housing, can quickly mount into a big repair bill.

“A burnt-up transmission and burnt-up rear end are also very expensive,” Phillips says. “It’s just as critical to make sure the rear end isn’t leaking when you’re down there greasing the chassis.”

As Phillips reminds owners: Oil and grease are a lot cheaper than iron.

This control box for an automatic lubricator from Lubriquip allows you to set the lubing interval.


Bijur Lubricating System

Vogel Lubrication



Some owner-operators, fed up with the mess of greasing, have switched to centralized automatic lubricators, grease pumps with reservoirs that send lubricants to key points on the chassis. Automatic lubricators – usually mounted on the back of a cab – offer several advantages.

First, they pump fresh lubricant to the grease point at a pre-determined time, ensuring that metal points are constantly covered. “Because grease is being forced in when the bearing is under load, you get a much better job of greasing,” says Peter Sweeny of Bijur Lubricating System.

Second, the unit is constantly greasing, meaning less down time. An owner simply replenishes the grease in the reservoir and makes sure that none of the lines are clogged, says Brian Baker of Vogel Lubrication.

“If you don’t have it down for greasing, your truck is moving,” Baker says. “If you have a maintenance practice that’s top of the line, an automatic system is not going to save you money on parts that were broken down on lack of lubrication. But it will save you money on the time that’s taking it down to lubricate it.”

Third, automatic lubricators work well with extended service intervals. With a larger reservoir, automatic greasers can help extend a grease drain interval to match an extended oil drain interval, Baker says.

Finally, the automated systems consume less grease. When drivers or mechanics replace grease, they often overdo because they must put enough grease into the point to push the old grease out. An automatic system feeds a little bit of grease every few hours and keeps a moist collar around the bearing point.

The lube systems vary in design and ability, but most are capable of pumping lubricants to grease points such as the universal joints, steering mechanism, slack adjusters and fifth wheel. A 32-point SureShot system by Bijur, for instance, can grease tie rods, king pins, drag links, spring pins, cross shafts, shackle pins, slack adjusters, brake cam shafts and fifth wheel pivots and face plate.

Automatic systems use either electric- or air-powered pumps to send grease to a point based on a timer. The systems can also be integrated with trailers. Installation takes about a day, Baker says.

The devices are popular in Europe – where they’re on 50 percent of the trucks – because of environmental concerns and manpower shortages. Owner-operators have been slow to accept automatic greasers.

“One reason is the North American trucker is more of a do-it-yourselfer,” Sweeny says.

Also, cost has an impact. Centralized systems start at around $2,000 and run much higher. Manufacturers say the return is worth it because trucks aren’t in the shop as often and because the systems extend the life of components.

Holland’s FleetMaster fifth wheel uses the company’s Low Lube technology for the faceplate so that greasing is not required.



Holland Hitch


The greasiest component on a typical Class 8 tractor is slowly getting a facelift.

For the past several years, fifth wheel makers say, they have been working on greaseless or nearly greaseless fifth wheel faceplates. The trend has been sparked by fleets wanting to lower their lubrication costs and environmentalists bent on reducing pollution.

“The governments in the various states have jumped on this as a real problem,” says Mark West, regional sales manager for Holland Hitch.

West’s company already sells a low-lube product using polymer-covered metal faceplates, eliminating the need for heavy greasing, West says. The metal surface of the trailer plate glides on and off the fifth wheel faceplate because the two surfaces are different. The polymer-coated metal tops are bolted onto the fifth wheel and eventually have to be replaced once the polymer surface wears. But the fifth wheel has to be serviced less often, and drivers spend less money on grease. The polymer-covered faceplates are particularly well suited for long-distance applications, in which the trailers stay on the fifth wheel longer, West says.

Fontaine Fifth Wheel is also experimenting with no-lube solutions and already offers a greaseless bracket liner that lubes the brackets when the fifth wheel pivots forward and back. The liner has helped eliminate some of the need for grease, but is currently available only on a lightweight fifth wheel. Fontaine is working on heavier-duty applications, such as a no-lube pad for faceplates, because customers are asking for them.

“Sooner or later it’s going to come to a government mandate,” says Eugene Brown, Fontaine tech service and warranty manager. “The greaseless pads will cut time and grease costs as well as help the environment,” Brown says.

Over three years, a typical faceplate gets the equivalent of 6 to 8 inches of grease. Much of that grease ends up on the ground because the trailer pushes it off when it couples with the tractor.

The low-lube or no-lube fifth wheel components add a layer of confusion as they remove a layer of grease, Brown says, because having a greaseless pad breeds complacency. “A pad doesn’t relieve you of greasing the locking components,” Brown says.

West says low-lube fifth wheels account for as much as 10 percent of fifth wheels currently sold.

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