Greener lubricants can save operators money on energy, maintenance


Operators required to switch to environmentally acceptable lubricants (EALs) are gradually making the change, absorbing higher initial costs for products that meet new federal standards. What many operators don’t realize, according to EAL manufacturers, is that the extra expense comes with a dividend: Going green will save them money in the long run.

It’s a message that has been tough to convey in an industry long wary of regulations, especially when compliance doesn’t result in a tangible payback. Lubricant manufacturers have been working to change that perception when it comes to EALs, however, and they have been making inroads.

Under the Vessel General Permit (VGP) that took effect in December 2013, operators of commercial vessels longer than 79 feet must use EALs in oil-to-water interfaces when inside the 3-nm limit and in the Great Lakes. The requirement covers equipment including stern tubes, controllable-pitch propellers, rudder bearings, thruster bearings, stabilizers, azimuth thrusters, tow pins and wire rope. Dredges and any other mechanical devices subject to immersion are also covered.

As defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), environmentally acceptable lubricants are biodegradable, minimally toxic and not “bioaccumulative.” The four types of EALs designated by the EPA for marine use are vegetable oil, biodegradable synthetic ester, biodegradable polyalkylene glycols and water. Mineral oils, the choice of many operators seeking an environmentally friendly alternative before the VGP, are no longer acceptable.

The EPA provided a degree of leeway by outlining circumstances in which it is “technically infeasible” to switch to EALs, giving operators an acceptable reason for delay. One acceptable reason is if there are no EALs available that meet the specifications of the original equipment manufacturer. Another reason is if the changeover has to wait until the vessel’s next dry-docking. If the switch hasn’t been made, operators still must include a plan to do so in their annual VGP report.

“The reality is that if somebody isn’t doing a dry dock for three more years, then they have three more years (to switch), because it’s simply not possible to change the lubricant in a system with an oil-to-water interface unless the vessel is actually out of the water,” said Iain White, global field marketing manager for ExxonMobil Marine Fuels and Lubricants. “The whole take-up is going to take quite some time.”

The phased-in approach has given manufacturers more time to get the word out about the benefits that come with adopting EALs, something that White said is unknown to many operators.

“It has started with our one-to-one conversations with people, but it’s going to build as we go forward in terms of helping operators understand what choices to make and how the products are going to benefit them in use,” he said. “While compliance with regulations is obviously important, to us it’s performance in use that is critical for the customer. We try to explain that there is a performance benefit if they use the right oil and do it right thereafter.”

Part of the process is convincing operators that they will save money over the long term. That’s important because of the cost of making the switch: The EPA estimates that EALs will be 50 percent to 120 percent more expensive than mineral oils, for an average annual increase of $555 to $1,111 per vessel.

White said that while it’s too soon to provide figures on what the savings might be — variables include the type of vessel, products used, length of time they’re used and operating conditions — ExxonMobil has shown that synthetic EALs can deliver an energy savings as high as 3.6 percent.

“That’s because the synthetic product has less internal friction in operation, so the machinery can run cooler and consume less energy,” he said. “That’s a realistic savings that someone may achieve if they have, say, a synthetic hydraulic oil in a system.”

White said the longer operating life of synthetic EALs promises to deliver a bigger savings when it comes to maintenance.

“We would expect three to five times the oil life out of a synthetic product depending on how arduous the application is,” he said. “We would expect to see reduced wear on the components, which then leads to extended component life and extended time between overhauls.”

Mike Guggenheimer, president and chief executive of RSC Bio Solutions in Indian Trail, N.C., said the maritime industry is gradually getting the message that regulatory compliance is only part of the picture.

“We see a segmented market,” Guggenheimer said. “There are people taking a short-term approach and leaders taking a long-term view. We focus on the fact that our products perform well. We can reduce costs and a vessel doesn’t operate as hot with an EAL. The fact that it is VGP-compliant is icing on the cake for many customers.”

Caitlyn Stewart, senior manager of regulatory affairs for the American Waterways Operators (AWO), said it was too early to tell what the savings would be for AWO members switching to EALs. Pending certification of EALs for certain types of equipment has delayed implementation for some operators.

“I am hearing that many equipment manufacturers have not completed their testing of EALs, and our members want to ensure that they transition their equipment to EALs that are selected and used consistently with manufacturer recommendations,” she said.

Many operators who have made the switch are also using EALs in their deck equipment — cranes, winches, chains and davits — a step the EPA recommends if there is a risk of leakage running overboard. Readily biodegradable cleaners are available and are growing in popularity, Guggenheimer said.

“We spent a lot of time on the lubrication side of VGP and now we’re focusing more on cleaning and regular maintenance,” he said. “The interest in cleaners is probably going to pick up for us. They’re not only safer but they work better. We’re making the economic case for the product, not just the environmental case. That’s really the mission for us.”

Benjamin Bryant, marine market manager for Kluber Lubrication in Londonderry, N.H., said the company sees the move to EALs continuing to play out over the next five or six years. He said the focus is to make sure customers understand that the right product can extend the life of equipment aboard their vessel.

“The biggest challenge is to get people to look at lube as an investment, and we’re bringing it to the marine industry as an investment,” he said.

By Professional Mariner Staff