Greasing Electric Motors (1)

The lubrication of electric motors can be a critical maintenance practice for improved motor system reliability. Unfortunately, a significant amount of misinformation is provided within industry. For instance, those with a lack of knowledge of how motors and bearing work will often promote the ‘purging’ of motor grease, frequently. This practice puts undue stress on the motor, reducing its life and increasing the chance for both bearing failure and winding contamination.

Grease purging is the practice of forcing grease completely through the bearing housing and bearing until old grease is removed and new grease shows at the grease relief plug. While this practice is performed in highly contaminated environments, it provides many dangers to the reliability of the motor. There was many a time, as a motor repair journeyman, that I would disassemble or troubleshoot a motor winding or bearing failure in which the motor was full of grease. Some grease additives will react with winding insulation or will just provide a thermal blanket, reducing the life of the winding, when purged grease leaks through the bearing or bearing cap and onto the winding, even when you have the grease relief open.

Bearing lubrication, on the other hand, is the practice of adding enough grease to allow for the lubrication of the bearing friction surfaces and the eventual removal of contaminants from the grease housing. The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview and direction for the proper lubrication of bearings.

How a Bearing Works

The most common type of bearing is the AFBMA-7 C-3 rated bearing. C-3 relates to the internal clearances of the surfaces of the bearing. In most motor rated bearings, there is a clearance of between 3-5 mils (thousandths of an inch) in which lubrication flows to reduce friction and wear of the machined surfaces. The bearing, itself, consists of an inner race, an outer race, balls and a cage which evenly distributes the balls. Common bearings are designed to allow for a radial load with some limited axial loading. ALL BEARINGS ARE LUBRICATED WITH OIL.
Grease, itself, is an oil sponge. The base (spongy) part of the grease varies depending on the manufacturer, temperature, environment and user preference. The grease holds the oil in suspension and allows the oil to flow during operation. The oil compresses between the bearing balls, inner and outer races and the cage, reducing friction. Ball bearings have small, microscopically rough surfaces on the balls, these surfaces move the oil, holding it to the ball during operation.
When too much grease is added, the grease is compressed between the bearing surfaces, increasing pressure and resulting with heat. Too little grease causes the surface friction to increase, resulting with heat. In any case, once bearing noise is audible, it has failed. Reducing noise by lubrication requires excessive grease, endangering the motor, and giving the technician the false security of extending the motor life when, in reality, additional damage is occurring to machined surfaces.
Bearings may also have shields or seals mounted on them. Bearing shields are metal fittings that have small clearances between the inner race of the bearing and contact the outer race on either side of the balls and cage. The small clearances near the inner race allows some oil and grease to move into the moving parts of the bearing, but prevents particles of large size from passing into the bearing potentially damaging machined
surfaces. Sealed bearings have seal surfaces touching the inner race, while ‘non-contact’ sealed bearings have extremely close tolerances between the seal surface and the inner race preventing particles under several thousandths of an inch. Sealed, and some shielded, bearings are referred to as non-grease able bearings.

Precautions In Motor Greasing

When greasing electric motors, there are a number of precautions that must be considered:

  • When electric motors are manufactured, or repaired, grease fittings may be put in place on motors that are not grease able. Your supplier should be able to provide confirmation that the motor may be greased.
  • Electric motors must be de-energized and locked/tagged out (LOTO) before greasing.
  • There should be no paint on grease fittings.
  • The average grease gun will introduce 1 ounce for every 23 strokes.
  • Grease compatibility (See Table 1). The additives in some greases do not mix well and can cause the grease to solidify or liquefy.

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