Regular oil changes aren’t just for your gearbox. Almost every gear reducer uses oil to keep operations smooth and efficient. This oil serves a few specific purposes, namely minimizing friction and wear, dissipating heat, and lubricating component bearings, and seals. Gear reduction wouldn’t last without it.
Friction is unavoidable in gear reduction. Their job is to transmit power, which means they will repeatedly push against one another over and over. Proper lubrication can keep that friction from causing premature damage and wear. Proper lubrication will also dissipate the heat away from the gears. Oil does a lot for your system.
Over time, oxidization, operating temperatures, condensation, and frequent start/stops cause the oil to break down. It can even become contaminated and require changing. Depending on your gear reducer and oil type, the recommended time frame for oil changes may differ slightly. Some conditions require more frequent changing, and we’ll cover those too.
How often does oil really need to be changed?
When you first set up a brand new reduction drive, we recommend changing the oil after 24 hours of operation in a worm gear or 100 hours in a shaft mount reducer. This initial oil change is to account for the breaking-in of the gears. As the gears initially run together, there will be particles from wear that mix in with the oil. Draining this oil will remove any particulates from the reducer, prolonging gearbox life.
After the initial run-in period, it is acceptable to filter the oil and use it again, but we strongly recommend that you use new oil. Once your gear reducer is up and running, it needs oil changes a lot less often. In an established system, replace conventional oil every six months or 2,500 operating hours. Whichever comes first will be fine. To avoid a lubrication-related reducer failure, it is crucial to monitor the oil. This will alert you to oil-level drops, oil degradation, and contamination before the issue becomes a problem.
What about synthetics? More time between changes.
Synthetic lubricants can push your timeframe out to 8,000 operating hours for a shaft mount and maybe even farther for a worm gear drive. These lubricants are affected by the heat of your drive, just like their mineral counterparts. That means high temperatures will shorten the life of your synthetic lubricants. Still, even at 212 degrees, these synthetics beat out the mineral options for longevity.
Regardless of oil type, a sound lubrication system is crucial for drive function. You won’t be able to get the ideal performance or the full lifespan from your parts without it.
Facing unique conditions? Change the oil more often.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some conditions mean you’ll be changing your oil more often. Some environments put added stress on gear reduction systems. These conditions mean that the oil is doing more work, and thus needing more frequent changes.
Unique conditions come down to two things – intense temperatures or contamination. On the heat side of things, sustained temperatures near 200 degrees for extended periods will put more strain on your oil. Similarly, heavy intermittent loads require an increase in oil-change frequency. The changes in load cause your gears and oil to heat up and then quickly cool down. The swings in temperature are similar to driving in stop-and-go traffic. It will wear the oil down faster than usual.
Contamination can come from several sources. Not considered often, contaminants will arise during break-in and wear of the internal gearing. Magnetic drain plugs are essential components, protecting the gears and also prolonging the life of the oil by collecting stray metal that circulates within the reducer.
Extremely dusty or dirty environments are typical examples of where contamination can originate. Humid environments, or applications that see wide temperature swings, can cause condensation inside of your gear reducer, adding water to the oil. Any contamination will decrease the effectiveness of your oil. It’s important to check the quality regularly and change the oil if it’s contaminated.
What happens if I don’t change the oil regularly?
We’ve established that there are regular maintenance schedules for oil changes and even special considerations. But what happens if you don’t follow the recommendations? The damage from improper lubrication can be subtle at first and also takes time to manifest – but it IS pervasive. Whenever your machine is operating with oil that is contaminated or worn out, increased friction, and therefore increased wear, is occurring inside your system.
All the parts inside your reducer are in constant motion, some of which move at high speeds. When coupled with older or impure oil, this means accelerated wear will occur with the gears and bearings. Eventually, one or several of these parts will show signs of wear or failure – probably much sooner than expected. That’s the cost of putting off oil changes and routine maintenance.
Alternatively, changing your oil according to the schedules we laid out above will protect the internal mechanisms of your gear reducer. Having to repair or replace a gear reducer will not only delay your operation, but it will cost significantly more than preventative inspections and oil changes. So keep the maintenance schedule for your drive close at hand and change the oil promptly.