Pilot study aims to save money, protect environment with fewer oil changes

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Senior Airman Zachary Goodwin, electrical power production journeyman, collects an oil sample from a small engine March 12 at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina. The sample was collected as part of a pilot study to provide detailed analytics and potentially increase the lifespan of oil used in Air Force small engines. (Courtesy photo)
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JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO – LACKLAND, Texas — A simple change in oil change procedures may save the Air Force more than $1 million per year, while also helping protect the environment.

Current regulatory drivers require installations to analyze the oil in small engines, including generators, annually and replace the oil completely at least every two years. The Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s Environmental Quality Technical Support Branch is currently leading a pilot study that evaluates the use of a standardized oil testing service to provide enhanced analytics and, ideally, allow for longer oil use.

“Historical policies requiring more frequent oil changes have driven higher operating costs than are required,” said Frank Castaneda, AFCEC air quality subject matter expert, who initiated the study. “Based on the extension of oil life made possible through viable analysis, the estimated savings across the Air Force is about $1.5 million annually.”

Power production shops at five installations are currently participating in the study: Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Peterson Air Force Base and Schriever AFB in Colorado; Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey; and Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina.

“AFCEC contacted us last year and asked if we’d be interested in participating,” said Donnie Ray, 4th Civil Engineer Squadron aircraft arresting systems manager at Seymour Johnson. “We figured it was a good thing for the Air Force to cut back on wasted effort and save money.”

As part of the study, small engines at each of the installations are sampled twice per year at a cost of $20 per sample. The installations mail the samples to the participating vendor, who then emails a detailed analysis report in approximately a week. The installation then uploads the report into the Air Program Information Management System for tracking purposes.

Oil that meets performance criteria may not need to be changed at the currently mandated two-year mark.

“Oil analysis results, and the parallel extension of oil life, reduces manpower necessary to change the oil on each engine, reduces waste oil disposal costs and saves on the costs of new oil,” said Stuart Wallace, a contractor supporting Castaneda’s team with the initiative.

In addition to manpower and cost savings associated with the effort, the detailed analytics can also provide early detection for impending engine problems and help identify the root cause of any issues that arise.

“Three of our engine oil tests failed due to fuel in the oil,” Ray said. “This allowed us to identify problem units and made it easier for us to troubleshoot. In another instance, we recently had a rear main seal go out, so we checked the previous report for metal particles. In this case, there was no abnormal wear or underlying issues detected, so we could confirm it just needed a new seal.”

The pilot study began in June 2019 and is now nearing completion. Once the study wraps up, Castaneda will provide a summary report to the AFCEC operations directorate, who can use it to promote internal policy changes and Air Force-wide adoption.

“This is just another example of how our environmental team is constantly looking for opportunities to save money while protecting the environment,” said Ben Kindt, acting chief of the AFCEC Environmental Directorate’s Technical Support Division. “Every dollar saved is money that can be used to support other essential mission requirements at our installations and across the Air Force.”

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