What Happens If Your Hydraulic Fluid Is Contaminated?  

A worker in a blue shirt and yellow safety vest uses hydraulic equipment on a construction site.

Avoiding expensive shutdowns for repairs or replacement of vital equipment is a concern that’s top of mind for facility managers, company owners, and investors alike. And since a major failure point in industrial processes has to do with hydraulic fluid contamination, it pays to become familiar with how contaminants can get into the system in the first place.

What’s at Risk When Hydraulic Fluid Gets Contaminated?

Expensive equipment that needs to be fixed or replaced, along with the costs of downtime from idle workers and lost productivity, are the main risks of contaminated hydraulic oil. Keep in mind that the first point of failure will likely be the all-important pump at the heart of your system.  A system running and circulating contaminated hydraulic fluid also poses a danger to actuators although many actuators will take longer to realize the damage done.

Replacing a pump (and contaminated hoses and filters) will be much more expensive than the costs of a preventative equipment shutdown, cleaning, and repairs. Ideally, however, proper maintenance and strict protocols around how and when fluid is introduced into the system will go a long way toward preventing any major catastrophes. 

First Sign of Hydraulic Fluid Contamination Damage

Pump damage is typically the first warning you’ll notice when there is contaminated hydraulic fluid in the system. Scoring on the internal tight tolerance parts caused by circulating contaminants can be another sign. Remember that contaminants behave differently depending on the oil’s temperature. When the oil is warm, it continuously circulates the contamination particles. But when you turn off the equipment, the oil cools, enabling debris to fall, with contaminants sticking where they settle in place. 

Depending on the type of contamination, the symptoms to watch out for could include a range of indicators; things like unusual noises, sticky valves, or sluggish machine performance could all signify a potential disaster brewing. Paying attention to the early signs of contamination allows you to react and address the problem before the contaminated fluid can cause serious harm. 

Where Does Hydraulic Oil Contamination Come From?

Typically, we find that contamination occurred in a customer’s equipment because the way oil was introduced into the system: not filtered correctly, dirty funnel, dirty bucket, not cleaning around the fill point before opening the system— all common ways debris and contaminants can be inadvertently introduced.

In some cases, oil that has leaked out of the system, often running along its exterior, is collected in a container then reintroduced into the system. DO NOT DO IT!  This will introduce a host of contamination factors. Remember, even brand new oil needs to be filtered based on the requirements outlined by the pump manufacturer as these requirements are nearly always finer than new oil in a drum. That’s an easily preventable problem you can address through careful employee training for new hires and ongoing training and testing for employees regularly handling and using the hydraulic equipment.

Other Sources Of Hydraulic Contamination

While filtering works well with physical particulate matter, aeration and moisture or condensation buildup inside a reservoir can still be seriously problematic. In fact, this excess moisture can have an even worse impact on a hydraulic system than the aforementioned debris.

The best way to protect against moisture buildup within a reservoir is to ensure that the oil itself is formulated to be moisture-resistant. Layering in a moisture filter aids in removing water from your fluid power system, which can help avoid many problems. It’s also a good idea to replace the reservoir’s breather cap with a hygroscopic breather, which is designed to absorb moisture from the air and reduce the introduction of new moisture to the system.

Likewise, minding the temperature of the oil within the reservoir can make a big difference; ideally, a reservoir should be sized to 3-5 times the flow of the pumps and be kept full as low oil level will most certainly make the system run hotter. Being careful to stay within these parameters can minimize condensation buildup at the top and sides of the tank itself.


How Do Professionals Clean Up After Hydraulic Fluid Contamination?

At DHI, our experienced crew are always ready to respond to hydraulic emergencies and on-site facility maintenance to get our clients’ equipment back up and running as soon as possible. Here’s how our hydraulic experts approach the job:

Work will begin with us draining and pumping out the contaminated oil. Then, we clean the reservoir. At this point, our team changes the filters. If you are using cartridge-type filters, we will also clean the filter housings.

Once the contaminated hydraulic fluid has been removed from the system we’ll introduce clean, properly filtered oil into your revitalized system. If there was a catastrophic failure we would flush the entire system and capture all the returning oil before it is reintroduced to the system. 

If necessary, we’ll even help devise a regular cleaning and preventative maintenance schedule for your hydraulic equipment to help avoid the potential for future damage from contamination. 

Expert Help for Contaminated Hydraulic Fluid

Suppose your organization has run into a problem with contaminated hydraulic fluid and you need some professional help sorting out the situation. In that case, we at DHI are standing by, ready to offer aid. To learn more about our approach to hydraulic equipment and troubleshooting breakdowns or to get in touch with our team, please connect with us today.