We all know that diesel trucks are expensive to purchase and maintain, but how can we reduce our maintenance expenses while monitoring and improving the longevity of our engines, transmissions, and the rest of our drivetrains? Of course, keeping a regular maintenance schedule regarding your fluid and filter changes will help you get the most out of your truck; however, how do you know if the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule is compatible with your particular driving environment and circumstances? You could be changing the oil too early, causing you to waste money, or worse still, you could be changing your oil too late, causing internal damage to your engine, transmission and other lubricated driveline components by running on contaminated, broken-down oils.

1 The oil analysis kit from Merchant Automotive includes the sample bottle, shipping container and a postage-paid shipping envelope to send the sample to Apex for analysis.
2 On the first truck, Jake Phaff drained the sample directly from the oil pan on the truck. This method is easy if you are draining the oil but can be difficult and messy if you’re just taking a small sample.
3 The other truck that was brought into the shop sounded horrible and ran even worse, so the Merchant Automotive team believed something was amiss. Their suspicion was confirmed by a simple check of the oil on the dipstick: Something was definitely wrong with the engine.
4 Phaff used a vacuum pump to draw oil out of the engine through the dipstick tube without draining the oil from the pan. This is a clever method for analyzing oil between changes when draining is not needed.
5 After the milky oil filled half the sample container, Phaff removed it from the vacuum pump and sealed the bottle.
6 Rather than waiting for our samples to arrive via mail, we saved time and hand-delivered both samples to the team at Apex Oil Lab; Jason Rainey labeled and logged each bottle into the Apex system for processing and analysis.
7 Each sample bottle gets its own unique number and bar code so that it can be logged and scanned at each test station to be sure that the test results correlate to the proper sample.
8 Rainey measures fuel dilution within each oil sample to help determine the oil’s capability to safely lubricate, as well as troubleshoot fuel delivery problems, such as, a failing injector or bad injector seals.
9 A small drop of the sample oil is placed on the scanner to do a fluid scan using the IR Spectroscopy test: It measures TAN, TBM, water PPM, oxidation, nitration, sulfation, glycol percent, and soot to show how much contamination is present and how much usable life the oil still has.
10 To measure the oil’s Viscosity Index, Rainey places sample amounts into the Viscometer, and the machine measures the precise time it takes the oil to flow through specific orifices within the temperature-controlled fluid medium.
11 The team at Apex can test viscosity at both 40 degrees C (104 F) and 100 degrees C (212 F) to simulate engine-operating temperatures and determine oil flow characteristics at those temperatures.
12 Rainey uses a clean pipet at each test station to prevent sample contamination. Here, he fills the sample cups to test our two samples in the Spectrometer; as you can see, the tray can hold up to 48 individual test samples per run.
13 After loading the sample tray into the Spectrometer (see arrow) Rainey closes the machine and runs the test for both samples. The Spectrometer is used for elemental testing; it measures elements contained within the oil specifically looking for wear metals, contaminants and oil additives in PPM (Parts Per Million).
14 An electric plasma bolt using RDE technology takes place inside the Spectrometer (see arrow) to burn the oil and measure the sample to determine the elemental makeup of components in the oil.
15 Once all the test results are completed and compiled, an Apex technician, in this case, lab owner Jason Rainey, analyzes the data. Along with the data results, the technician relies on years of oil-industry experience to provide recommendations for service intervals and maintenance needs that should be addressed.
16 The test results of the milky sample show some of the problems the team at Merchant expected—11.2 percent glycol content, and nearly 16,000 PPM of water in the oil, as well as low viscosity, supporting the likelihood that the truck has blown its head gaskets. But, what wasn’t clear from a visual inspection of the oil was the high content of wear metals and contaminants indicating that the engine was likely driven in that state for many miles: The bearings are likely shot, so the engine will need a complete rebuild rather than just a new set of head gaskets.
17 The other sample showed elevated levels of silicon and sodium, which could have resulted from a crankcase breather leak, so the team at Merchant will inspect that and continue to monitor contaminant levels in the future. Everything else looked pretty good with this oil sample.
18 Looking at a sample sheet, we can see how the history of the engine, transmission, or differential can be tracked over time with each sample. Notice on this sheet that the previous two samples looked good, but problems cropped up in the third sample showing head gasket, fuel dilution and internal wear issues.

With generic oils for diesel engines costing more than $5 per quart and high-end brand name oils going for $10 or more per quart, it can be expensive to maintain your truck. So, how can you know when it is the proper time to change the fluids? The team at Merchant Automotive in Zeeland, Michigan, has teamed up with Apex Oil Lab in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to offer an oil analysis for the diesel industry at a reasonable price.

The Apex Oil analysis kit includes a sample bottle, shipping container, and pre-paid return envelope for you to sample your engine, transmission, transfer case or differential and send off for analysis. You can fill the sample bottle while draining the fluid/oil during a regular service, or you can use a vacuum pump (available from Apex or Merchant) to draw the fluid out through the dipstick tube directly into the sample bottle if you are between services.

Once the crew at Apex Oil Lab receives the sample, they log it into the system and give it a unique identifier in their system so that it can be tracked throughout the process. Typically, test results are completed within 24 hours. The lab can analyze motor oil, automatic transmission fluid, manual transmission gear oil, transfer case oils and gear oils.

The analysis covers basic items including: measurement of wear metals, contaminants, additives, viscosity index, fuel dilution, soot, glycol, oxidation, nitration, sulfation, water percent, TAN (Total Acid Number), TBN (Total Base Number) and particle count so that you will know exactly what is in the oil you are relying on to protect your truck’s vital components. When wear metals like iron, copper, tin, and aluminum are present in high quantities, it is a sign of significant engine, transmission or gear wear that could lead to catastrophic results if not repaired. Apex Oil Lab also maintains your information so that past analysis can be compared to current results to see any trends develop before they become problems.
Follow along as we tour the Merchant Automotive shop with lab owner Jason Rainey and technician Jake Phaff as they take an engine oil sample from a customer’s truck to submit to Apex for analysis, and watch as the technician uses a new suction tool to extract a sample through the dipstick tube from another customer’s truck that rolled in with major engine problems.

You can use an oil and fluid analysis to determine the proper service interval for your particular circumstance rather than relying on an arbitrary schedule and wasting resources by changing oils prematurely or by causing damage to your engine or drivetrain by waiting too long when the oil’s protection capability has already broken down. If you want a good idea of what’s happening inside your engine and driveline, without tearing down the parts, an oil analysis will help you make educated maintenance and repair decisions. DW

Apex Oil Lab
844.APEX.OIL (273.9645)

Merchant Automotive

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