Bearing Failures & Lubrication

By Applied Industrial Technologies
Published January/February 2009, Machinery Lubrication magazine

Rolling element bearings are highly reliable components, and the vast majority of bearings will outlive the equipment on which they are installed. However, while bearings account for a relatively small percentage of all equipment breakdowns, they do fail occasionally. And when they fail, it is usually a critical event, resulting in costly repair and downtime.

When bearings fail, only a small number are caused by material fatigue. Most failures are caused by a condition that usually can be prevented. Typically, the causes of bearing failure can be traced to:

  • Harsh Operating Conditions
  • Faulty Storage, Handling and Installation
  • Poor Lubrication

This article focuses on bearing failures associated with lubrication problems.

Avoiding Lubricant Failures

Bearings fail for many reasons, but improper lubrication is at the top of the list:

  • Improper lubrication: 40-50%
  • Improper mounting: 25-30%
  • Other causes: apprx. 20%
  • Reaching the natural fatigue limit: <10%

Antifriction bearings must be lubricated to prevent metal-to-metal contact between the rolling elements, raceways and retainers. In addition, lubrication protects the bearing against corrosion and wear, helps dissipate heat, helps seal out solid and liquid contamination, and reduces bearing noise. A properly lubricated bearing has the best chance of reaching its maximum service life.

As with bearings themselves, there are numerous causes for lubricant failure, including:

  • Insufficient lubricant quantity or viscosity
  • Deterioration due to prolonged service without replenishment
  • Excessive temperatures
  • Contamination with foreign matter
  • Use of grease when conditions dictate the use of static or circulating oil
  • Incorrect grease base for a particular application
  • Over lubricating

Rolling element bearings depend on the continuous presence of a very thin – millionths of an inch – elastohydrodynamic film of lubricant between rolling elements and raceways, and between the cage, rings and rolling elements. Lubricant-related failures can be avoided by selecting a grease or oil that generates a sufficient film to keep bearing elements separated. A good lubricant also provides good boundary lubrication.

Lubricant failures can be detected by the presence of discolored (blue/brown) raceways and rolling elements. Excessive wear on rolling elements, rings and cages follows, resulting in overheating and subsequent catastrophic failure.

In addition, if a bearing has insufficient lubrication, or if the lubricant has lost its lubricating properties, an oil film with sufficient load carrying capacity cannot form. The result is metal-to-metal contact between rolling elements and raceways, leading to adhesive wear.

Adhesive wear modes include scoring, galling, seizing and scuffing. These failures result when the lubricant film is too thin to prevent the welding together of microscopic projections at the sliding interfaces between two mating parts. After the projections weld together, sliding forces tear the metal from one surface, creating minute cavities on one surface and projections on the other. These defects lead to even more damage. Although adhesive wear starts on a microscopic level, it progresses steadily once it starts.

Lubricant Selection

Lubrication obviously plays a vital role in the performance and life of a bearing. Without lubrication, bearings can be expected to fail early and possibly cause other equipment to fail. The three main concerns with bearing lubrication are:

  • Specifying the right amount – Rolling element bearings operate at their optimum temperature when the minimum amount of lubricant is used. The quantity of lubricant required also depends on the other functions it must perform, such as cooling and sealing.
  • Specifying the right type – Rolling element bearings can be lubricated with grease or oil. In special cases, solid lubricants can be used.
  • Keeping the lubricant clean.

The choice of lubricant depends on conditions such as operating temperature, rotating speed, loads and the environment. Generally, oil is the best bearing lubricant, but it is not always practical because of design considerations.

Grease lubrication should be used when the bearing operates under normal speeds and temperatures. Grease has several advantages over oil, including simpler and less expensive application procedures, better adhesion and improved protection against moisture and contaminants.

Grease selection varies with the application. Factors to consider include hardness (consistency), stability (ability to retain consistency) and water resistance (emulsification). However, grease is oil suspended in a base or carrier, and when these bases are exposed to moisture or heat, they can turn into soap or carbon ash. Therefore, it may be necessary to use synthetic additives to prevent deterioration of the base.

Overfilling may cause a rapid rise in temperature, particularly at high speeds because the rolling elements have to push the grease out of the way. This leads to churning in the grease, which produces heat. Adding more grease only worsens the problem, adding the risk of blowing out a seal.

Bearings operating at slow speeds, and those requiring corrosion protection, can have their housing completely full of grease. The length of time that a grease-lubricated bearing will operate satisfactorily without relubrication depends on bearing size, type, speed, operating temperature and the grease used.

Oil is the preferred lubricant when speed or operating conditions preclude the use of grease or where heat must be transferred from the bearing. Often oil is used to meet the operating requirements of other components such as seals and gears.

Oil bath systems are suitable for low shaft speeds. To avoid frequent oil changes due to high operating temperatures, an oil circulation system can be used. At high shaft speeds, oil must penetrate the interior of the bearing to remove excess heat. An oil injection system is an effective method to ensure that oil gets to where it is needed. The speed of oil being injected must be high enough to ensure that sufficient oil penetrates the air vortex created during bearing rotation.

The frequency at which oil needs to be changed depends on the operating conditions and the oil quality. For oil bath systems, oil should be changed more often if its temperature exceeds 120°F or if the machine operates in an environment containing abrasives or contaminants. For circulating oil systems, oil change intervals are determined by checking oil quality to determine the presence of abrasive particles, oil oxidation and additive breakdown.

Lubricant Viscosity

Oil viscosity is just as important as oil quantity to ensure adequate lubrication. Required viscosity depends on operating temperature. Inadequate lubricant viscosity appears as a highly glazed or glossy surface. As damage progresses, the surface appears frosty and eventually spalls. This type of spalling is comparatively fine grained compared to the more coarsely grained pattern produced by fatigue failure.

In the frosty stage, the fine slivers of metal pulled from the raceway create a “nap” that can sometimes be felt. The frosted area will feel smooth in one direction but have a distinct roughness in the other. As metal is “pulled” from the surface, pits appear and frosting advances to pulling.

Smearing is a form of surface damage caused when two surfaces slide and the lubricant cannot prevent adhesion of the surfaces. Minute pieces of one surface are torn away and rewelded to either surface.