Assessing the Lubrication Program

Published On: July 16, 2021By Categories: Drilling, Features

The performance and life cycle of water well equipment is at risk if not properly managed.

By Mike Price

Apex Drilling LLC greases the driveline from the gearbox to the air compressor. Photo courtesy David Baker, Apex Drilling in Burley, Idaho.

It may sound simple, but David Baker believes it’s important to not overlook the fact that all water well equipment is engineered for a specific life cycle.

The equipment has been designed to be maintained at a level that allows it to function. Therefore, if the equipment is maintained, not only does it run and function better, but it will also extend its life cycle.

“In the drilling industry, our drill rigs are so expensive that it’s very hard to afford a new rig, run it until it doesn’t run anymore, and then throw it out and buy a new rig,” says Baker, CEO of Apex Drilling LLC in Burley, Idaho.

“That’s not really an option in the drilling industry, so the most viable option is to buy a piece of equipment that does what we want it to do, and then maintain it.”

Baker, past president of the Idaho Ground Water Association, identifies dirt, heat, water, and time as major culprits to watch for when maintaining water well equipment. The existence of these culprits creates the perfect onslaught to equipment.

“So, we’re in the water industry, out there in dirt, we’re dealing with water, we’re creating mud, and we’re in harsh environments,” Baker summarizes. “There’s no place that could be more severe on our equipment than what we’re doing.

“Not taking into account the effects of dirt, heat, water, and time, a piece of equipment is destroyed. To keep that from happening, maintaining equipment is required in order to offset those four things.”

In addition, Baker points out, like he did in the February 2021 issue of Water Well Journal’s feature article, “Preventative Maintenance for the Next Generation,” hydraulic pumps and air compressors are engineered to run for 10,000 hours at 70 degrees in a controlled environment. That’s with the manufacturer’s specified oil being used and changed on specified intervals along with proper filtration.

“As soon as you take that equipment and you make it mobile, you cut that time in half,” he says. “The reason you cut that time in half is you’re no longer in a clean environment, you’re no longer in controlled temperatures, and you’re no longer in a stationary environment.

“The equipment is constantly moving—whether it’s the vibration of the rig, changing locations, etc.; these other factors automatically cut the designed hours in half. So, you have to decide in your maintenance program, what do we do to offset the fact that we’re now mobile, outside, etc.? Where in our maintenance program can we improve that?”

Oil Analysis

To achieve a baseline for one’s lubrication program, Baker believes it begins with a viable oil analysis.

Apex Drilling changes the oil filter on a CAT engine.

The benefits of an oil sampling program give the water well contractor a snapshot into the condition of their equipment, the manufacturer’s specified fluids being used, and the time-change intervals. This information is critical considering the equipment wasn’t designed for the environment it’s operating in.

Specifically, the oil analysis indicates not only how clean it is, and whether there is any moisture in it, but it also tells the user how the additive package in the oil is reacting. When water (moisture) and oil are combined, the oil emulsifies. It breaks down the oil and breaks down the ability for the oil to lubricate as it should.

The worst fluid to get into an engine is antifreeze, according to Baker, who says it will quickly destroy the engine because the oil quits lubricating.

“If you have the ability to sample the oil and you’re faithful with sampling the oil, you’ll have a very good hand on the pulse and a track record of your equipment,” Baker says, “and you’ll know its condition and what you need to be doing to keep it maintained and running properly.

“Oil in and of itself—unless you get it really hot—doesn’t break down. There are a lot of semi-trucks on the road that now run special oils and they don’t change their oil. They sample the oil, and then according to the sample, they will change filters and will put additives in the oil and top it off. But they don’t change it because they’ve learned it’s not the oil that’s the problem—it’s the dirt and the additives.”

Baker has his equipment oil samples (engine, hydraulic, and compressor oils) sent in every 200 to 300 hours of use and analyzed by a lab in Salt Lake City, Utah. The lab runs an International Organization for Standardization (IOS) cleanliness analysis and designates a code to how clean the oil is, and the results dictate when Baker needs to change the oil in his equipment.

“With oil analysis, you’re able to analyze the oil prior to changing it,” Baker explains. “If you’re changing your engine oil, say every 300 hours on your rig engine, or 250 hours and you want to know its condition, you can pull a sample prior to changing your oil at 250 hours, but you can also pull a sample mid-cycle and you’ll start to see some trends.

“You’ll start to realize that maybe you need to move it every 200 hours because you’re not filtering the oil, or not keeping the oil as clean as needed.

“Or you might find out that you’re doing a very good job of staying clean and you want to lengthen the cycle. It just depends on the results of the oil analysis.”

Baker points out the hydraulic oil is difficult to change because half is in the reservoir and half is in the system that isn’t accessible. It makes completely changing out hydraulic oil difficult.

“But you can sample it and filter it and keep it clean,” Baker says, “then your components not only last longer but everything just works better.”

Baker’s crew has found that running non-synthetic automatic transmission fluid (ATF) in air compressors can lead to problems due to ATF’s considerably lower flashpoint than synthetic oils. Synthetic oils have a higher flashpoint than ATF and maintain its lubrication throughout the equipment better, according to Baker.

Over the years Baker has also learned that synthetic oils aren’t a good catch-all and can actually do harm, such as running it in the differential on the axles of trucks.

“Synthetic oils can pull the hard surface off your gears and so you’ll have premature failure in your differential by running synthetic oils,” he says. “There are other oils that are a mix of synthetic and others that work well. There are also petroleum-based oils that work well in that situation.”

Meanwhile, National Ground Water Association Past President David Henrich, CWD/PI, CVCLD, president of Bergerson-Caswell Inc. in Maple Plain, Minnesota, now uses fully synthetic oils in nearly all the company’s equipment. The company relies on a rigid maintenance schedule to ensure all its equipment is in good running condition.

“We talk with our oil suppliers regularly to make sure we are using the right fluids that will give us the maximum performance and service intervals,” Henrich says, “so we don’t spend too much time sampling or testing fluids. We run it to a certain point and then change things out.”


Baker, who started Apex Drilling in 2006, noticed a negative trend in the water well industry that his company was also guilty of during its beginnings.

The trend goes something like this: The crew pulls a filter on the drill rig but doesn’t have the manufacturer’s recommended filter on the shelf with which to replace it as it should. Instead of purchasing the recommended filter, due to time, the company races to its local auto parts store to see if it can purchase a filter (or one comparable to it) to quickly service the rig.

“The auto parts store cross references or measures the dimensions of the filter and says, ‘Here’s a filter with the same dimensions,’ and hands it to you,” Baker says. “That has got to be the greatest disservice that the auto parts store doesn’t understand it’s doing to the drillers, but it’s also the greatest disservice that the drillers can do to their equipment.

“Because the membranes (or filter media) in these filters—even though they’re the same shape and they may look the same—the membranes are not the same. The membranes of what you buy downtown will not hold as much dirt nor will filter to the level of factory-authorized specifications.”

Baker, who now has an employee who maintains inventory of all the filters in boxes for each rig, stresses the importance of proper membranes in the filters. The membranes must be properly sized for microns and flow. Microns means the size of dirt it filters, and flow means the amount of oil it allows to pass through.

“You can have great oil, but if your filter is sized wrong and you start starving a pump or creating excess backpressure or increase suction,” Baker says, “you’ll destroy a pump, a hydraulic motor, all sorts of things. That’s all been engineered, so don’t deviate from that.”

When Baker changes filters on his rigs, he verifies the micron rating and its flow rates. It’s important to note there is a difference between surface filtration and depth filtration, otherwise known as depth media.

“That’s very critical because if you take a surface media filtration element and put it in place of a depth media filtration element, you’re going to say, ‘Well, I put a new filter in, I’m good for 200 hours,’” Baker says. “When in actuality, to be honest, you might be good for only 50 hours and in the process of starting to break down your equipment.”

Taking a page from the mining industry, Baker goes one step further in filtration by installing a kidney loop filtration system. It allows the system to pull oil off and run a small amount through a finer filter and have it return to the system.

“It doesn’t diminish the flow of the main system, and therefore, you can do things with the kidney loop that you can’t do with your mainline filters,” he explains.

Baker’s drill rigs have kidney loop filters on the hydraulic systems that filter to 2 microns.

“Now if I were to do that in place of my mainline filters, you’d be amazed at how that cuts down the flow and it would ruin the system,” he explains.

“But to have a separate kidney loop filter that filters to 2 microns, the oil may only pass through it once a day. The oil might only pass through it once every five to 10 hours of run time, but by the oil passing through that filter and going back into the system, it is far cleaner than the oil that’s running in the system.”

Baker explains that over time the kidney loop filter will pull the small finer dirt and particles out of the system and can subsequently decrease the IOS cleanliness code considerably. “You can drop it three or four or five steps, which, when you look at the long-term effect on the equipment, the equipment life goes way up,” he says.

Regarding the frequency of filter changes, Baker advises others not to deviate from the manufacturer’s interval guidelines until they gather information from the oil analysis.

“I’ve been able to extend oil change intervals on my air compressors to 2000 hours,” he says. “The OEM recommended spec is 1000 hours. But when we’re talking $3000 for a 55-gallon drum of synthetic oil, if I can lengthen out my cycle to 2000 hours versus 1000 hours, I’ve just saved myself an oil change, which is fine provided you’ve done the research and you have the reliable information.”


With heat being an issue, especially on drill rigs, knowing the running temperatures is another key component to having a working lubrication program.

“You have to keep your oils cool,” Baker stresses. “When you’re dealing with hydraulics, you have to verify that the radiators for your oil coolers are clean and running properly.”

Baker uses an infrared temperature gun to establish how hot a pump or motor is running. He’ll do most of his heat checks in the summer during the heat of the day to detect what his maximum heats are.

“I can point it at an air compressor while it is running to get the needed info so I know how to adjust and what to adjust,” he says.

“Sometimes it’s dirty oil coolers, sometimes it’s improper oil flow. I’ve gotten temperature changes in my compressors by simply changing the filters because my filters were plugging up and it was causing a decrease in oil flow through the compressor and through the cooler.”

Like discovering benchmarks through oil analysis, it’s vital to find temperature benchmarks on equipment with the time of day in mind. Equipment will naturally run cooler in the morning and hotter in the afternoon. It’s good to know where those points tend to be.

“Once you get a baseline of what you’re running, checking it once a month is not a problem just to make sure you’re still in the baseline or range that you’ve established at which to operate,” Baker says, “or what your fluids are comfortable running in.”

One of the effects of heat is it can begin to break down oil. However, Baker says the breakdown isn’t a huge issue if one understands when it’s happening.

“If you know that the oil is breaking down with heat at a certain point,” he says, “you can then go in and make changes—whether that’s a change in how often you change the oil, or whether that’s a change in cooling capabilities.

“Sometimes it’s changing the oil. You have to go back to the manufacturer and say, ‘I’m running in a hotter environment,’ they’ll say, ‘Okay, you need to change your oil from an IOS grade 46 to an IOS grade 68 and you need to run heavier oil.’

“When you get in cooler environments, you have to run a lighter oil. So, temperature is a big issue in knowing exactly which oil you should be running as far as which grade thickness of oil and knowing at what point that oil breaks down so you can say what the system is doing, and therefore what oil should be running so it doesn’t break down.”

Oil Additives

Baker, who also works for an oil additives distributor, has learned how additives can help equipment run better, longer, and improve the life of the oil.

“Oil additives most certainly have a place in the industry,” he says,” and one of the reasons is because oil manufacturers typically manufacture for the greatest demand. If Cummins is going to manufacture an engine and say this is the grade of oil we want, then Chevron or whomever you use is going to manufacture its oil to meet that spec and that’s the oil you get.

“But they don’t understand when you take a truck engine that was designed to run down the interstate in those environments and to be worked to the degree that they’re being worked, it’s a totally different story to take the same engine in the same truck and you now attach an engine to a PTO gearbox and run a drill rig stationary. It changes the demands of the engine.”

When a drill rig is stationary, it no longer has the same airflow to cool the engine. The rig has heavier radiators to help compensate, “but you tie it to a gearbox and run at maximum horsepower output for hours on end, the lubrication the manufacturer says to put in the engine is no longer adequate for those new circumstances,” Baker says.

“And so, you have to take a hard look at that and say what do we have to do to improve our lubrication because of the scenario. That’s where oil additives come in.”

When it comes to greasing equipment, Baker sees many either over-grease or under-grease. He says the goal is to get just enough grease to lubricate the surface that needs to be lubricated without forcing grease out of the seals.

“As soon as you’ve forced grease out of the seals, you’ve created an avenue for dirt and water to come in,” he says. “If grease comes out of the seals during normal operation very slowly, it does not break that seal surface. The grease will come out but it’s over time. If you’ve forced them out, then you’ve ruined the seal surface. And so, the best way to grease equipment is a little bit, more often.”

Baker instructs his employees to grease bearings once a week with one pump, or if it’s a larger bearing, two pumps. “Doing it more often with a little bit of grease goes far further than a lot of grease not often enough,” he says.


Baker concludes with another key to maintaining equipment: inspect all the old filters.

“We cut the filters apart and look at them,” he says. “Are they dirty? Should we have replaced them earlier? Are there metal fines in the filter?”

If a filter had ruptures in its membranes, Baker wants to know if it reached the point of whether the filter failed and wasn’t doing its job. He says a failure in a filter membrane is not acceptable.

“If you’re seeing that failure more than once, we need to find out why,” he says. “Do we have a problem in our system that’s over-pressurizing? Do we have a problem in our system with loading up with dirt and it’s creating backpressure? Or do we need to go back to the manufacturer and say, ‘Hey, these filters are failing. Why?’”

It’s taken years for Baker and his crew to get to where it is today with the company’s lubrication program. Learning through failure taught them.

“Trying to maintain our first rig, we were always having problems—gearbox failures and hydraulic failures,” he recalls. “We never had engine failures. But we had to understand why the failures and what to do about it.

“By doing better maintenance, the rigs perform better with less downtime. As you improve the program for maintaining the equipment, you improve the uptime and improve the quality of the downtime. It makes it so that when the rig is down, you’re taking care of things on it so that it makes the uptime better.”

Learn About Automatic Grease Systems and Manual Grease Banks
In the September 2019 issue of Water Well Journal, a feature article titled “Greasing the Drill Rig” explains how automatic grease systems and manual grease banks can make this preventive maintenance task safer for one’s crew.

Greasing is an important preventive maintenance task, yet crawling under the rig or up in the derrick while carrying a rag to wipe off the grease points is one of the dirtiest jobs on a drill rig. Then comes filling the grease points, otherwise known as zerks, with a manual, electric, or pneumatic grease gun.

“Our rig (2018 GEFCO 40K) does have some manual grease banks on it,” says Nic Sprowls of Beinhower Bros. Drilling Co. in Johnstown, Ohio. “It has helped tremendously in efficiently greasing the rig along with cutting down time to do so. It also makes it a lot simpler to find the grease zerks.

“Previous machines would require a person to get into some pretty tight places on the rig to get to the grease fittings. Although there are still some fittings that are in hard-to-reach places, the grease banks are a blessing to have on a rig!”

Click here to read the article.

Learn About Havis IdleRight Fuel Management System
Click here to learn about the Havis IdleRight Fuel Management System, which monitors the battery’s condition and automatically idles the vehicle only when necessary, greatly reducing engine wear and fuel consumption.

Mike Price is the senior editor of Water Well Journal. In addition to his WWJ responsibilities, Price contributes to the Association’s scientific publications. He can be reached at, or at (800) 551-7379, ext. 1541.

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