Before the value of used motor oil, crank case oil, and hydraulic and transmission fluid was recognized, fleet professionals stored the fluids on-site and eventually paid a vendor to haul them away. Now several manufacturers offer alternatives that allow fleets to recycle those used fluids and cut costs.
Clean Burn manufactures heating equipment that burns used oil. Since 1979, when the company was founded, it's built a customer base of facilities that generate approximately 700 gallons of waste oil per year. According to Michael Shirk, president and CEO, construction companies, car dealerships and repair shops, lube centers, carwash facilities, fleet service centers and other organizations that operate large equipment use their services.
“During the past few years, depending on what section of the country you live in, waste-oil haulers and re-refiners have valued used oil at somewhere between zero and $1 per gallon,” says Shirk. “But the value of waste oil isn't in the market price of the discarded oil. It's in how that used oil is used.”
Clean Burn's customers turn their used oil into a free energy source to heat their facilities.
“Our customers don't have to pay for fuel oil, propane or natural gas to heat their buildings,” says Shirk. “They transform waste oil into free heat. That adds up quickly, especially with fuel oil selling for as much as $4.50 a gallon in some parts of the country.”
There's also an environmental benefit for on-site burning of waste oil for heat.
“While it may be easy to pay to have your used oil hauled away, you're opening yourself up to liability during transportation and giving away valuable fuel that could be used for free heat,” says Shirk. “Transporting used oil on highways poses a considerable risk of spills and/or contamination to the environment. Anyone who generates used oil is responsible for making sure it is disposed of properly. If there is a spill, the blame and expense of clean-up could rest entirely with the company that generated the used oil and hired the company to haul it away.”
Using a different approach to the problem of waste oil and fluids, Harvard Corp. makes equipment that recycles fluids to extend service life. The company manufactures a filtration system that has a depth media filter designed to remove very fine particulate matter and water.
“Water is the catalyst for a lot of acids that form in oil,” says Otto Knottnerus, company president. “We take out a substantial amount of water, but at the same time, keep the oil extremely dry. Our system has the ability to remove water and maintain it at lower than 50 parts per million (ppm), which is what most fleet professionals need.”
Knottnerus says used fluids should not be considered waste.
“Many companies don't realize oil doesn't wear out,” he says. “It just becomes contaminated to the point that it no longer serves its function. If you take the contamination out, the oil will last much longer. Some of our customers are getting anywhere from six to eight times more use on the same oil.”
One contractor in South Dakota operates a fleet of Caterpillar 657 scrapers using the Harvard system.
“Prior to installing our system, the scraper engines were running about 10,000 to 12,000 hours between overhauls,” says Knottnerus. “The company installed the Harvard system on both engines on the scrapers. They kept a close eye on the rear engines because that's the engine that eats all the dirt. After the installation, technicians changed oil and filters every 1,000 hours and averaged about 24,000 hours on the engines. At that point, the equipment experienced connecting-rod fatigue, so the contractor backed up the time between overhauls to 20,000 hours.”
That customer also cleans new hydraulic fluid, steering fluid and engine oil that comes from bulk storage before putting it into his diesel equipment.
“Using the Harvard system to clean hydraulic fluid extends component life and the same is true for transmission components,” says Knottnerus. “Our system will clean transmission oil very quickly, and it makes a big difference in how long the torque converter, clutch pack and gears last.”
A fleet manager that wants to extend the life of equipment oil must have an oil-analysis program in place.
“This is very important in using a product like ours,” says Knottnerus.
Pall Corp. makes a portable fluid purifier designed to extend the service life of hydraulic and other fluids.
According to the company, the portable unit draws contaminated fluid into a spinning disk vacuum chamber through a mesh strainer. Fluid entering the chamber impinges on the center of the spinning disk, and as the disk rotates, the fluid flows outward to the edge of the disk. There it is thrown off, breaking into small droplets that create a large surface area. That larger surface area increases the water removal rate. As ambient air is drawn into the vacuum chamber through an air breather, the air expands to about five times its former volume, which reduces relative humidity by about 80 percent, and the dehydrated fluid from the vacuum chamber exits the purifier.
What all that means to fleet professionals is lower operating and maintenance costs, extended fluid service life and reduced system wear.
Obviously, the technology used to recover waste oil for heating purposes and to recycle used fluids for reuse is vastly different.
The Clean Burn waste oil system consists of either a hot-air furnace or a hot-water boiler, an oil storage tank (provided by the company or storage tanks already at the fleet facility) and an oil pumping system with metering pump technology.
“Our metering pump allows fleet managers to dump any mixture of used oils—diesel fuel, automatic transmission fluid, motor oil, crank case oil or regular fuel oil—into the same storage tank,” says Shirk. “It doesn't matter. You can mix it all together and our pumping system accounts for the different viscosities so it always delivers the same volume of oil to the burners regardless of the oil mixture.”
The furnaces typically hang from the shop ceiling and can be used as space heaters or ducted as central furnaces.
Basically the waste oil is pumped from the storage tank to the Clean Burn furnace or boiler's burner, which operates on 10- to 15-psi compressed air.
“We have the only burner on the market that is specifically designed to burn used oil, and we offer the best warranty in the business” says Shirk. “Our equipment is designed for optimum efficiency to obtain the maximum amount of free heat from each gallon of used oil and for ease of maintenance. It's not just a way to dispose of used oil.”
Another benefit for fleet managers is the return on investment. The longevity of the equipment is one of its key features. The economic payback is typically within two to three years, according to Shirk.
“We still have systems out there that have been in use for 20 years,” he says. “Once the system pays for itself, it generates cash flow year after year.”
To reach the point where it is today, the technology behind used-oil heating systems had to go through a significant learning curve. But, Shirk says, the technology has arrived.
“Today's Clean Burn systems offer significant improvements in used-oil combustion and pumping technologies,” he says. “The system's reliability and durability are unmatched in the industry.”
Recovering fluids for reuse, by comparison, using the Harvard system is accomplished by mounting the system onto the machine. On an excavator, for example, the system is installed about 3 or 4 feet from the engine. As it operates, it cleans the old oil, which in turn prolongs engine life.
“The oil is cleaned and then goes back into the engine,” says Knottnerus. “It's like a kitty loop on the engine. The oil that is returned is actually cleaner than new oil.”
The Harvard system mounted on a Caterpillar 3406 engine, for example, runs at 1 gallon per minute and you have a 10-gallon sump. Every 10 minutes you're turning over the 10-gallon sump. Within one hour, you've turned it over six times.
According to Knottnerus, that makes the Harvard technology unique is its ability to take out very fine material.
“By filtering down to about 1 micron, you take away the abrasive bridges that connect the film that's between two moving parts,” he says. “Typically, the film between the two moving parts under pressure is about 3 to 5 microns in thickness. If you can filter to 1 micron, you can have two particles pass each other within the film without locking up and causing an abrasive bridge. This eliminates the “breeding material that causes wear to accelerate.”
Oil has four functions: to clean, cool, lubricate and seal.
“Customers have told us that, with the Harvard system mounted on a machine, they use less oil,” says Knottnerus. “That's because the oil no longer has the contamination between the ring and the cylinder that breaks the seal. By taking out the contamination, it keeps the oil clean up to the end of the drain period.”
Last year, Harvard introduced a second way to reuse waste oil: a fuel-blending system that allows fleets to blend used oil with diesel fuel. The company has also begun to filter bulk diesel fuel.
“We had no idea how dirty diesel fuel is,” says Knottnerus. “It really surprised me. My first thought was, 'You've got to be kidding.' That's like buying a new car with dirty ash trays and trash on the floor. We tell people that new oil is not clean oil, and we've been able to prove that by testing their oil supplies.”
Unlike some industries that have been hamstrung by tougher environmental regulations, the new requirements have actually helped the fluid-recovery business.
“We've been selling a lot more diesel fuel systems—not because we're pushing them—but because low-sulfur fuel has caused a lot of problems,” says Knottnerus. “Right now, many refiners aren't cleaning their tanks as often, and we're starting to see a lot more water and dirt in the fuel.”
In other words, tougher standards have been good for the fluid-recovery and recycling businesses. Now that off-road equipment is going green, fluid recovery can only improve the situation.