On June 14, 2021, a devastating fire and explosion occurred at the Chemtool plant in Rockton, Illinois. The fire destroyed the facility, the largest grease lubricant manufacturer in the United States. Since this horrific incident, grease supply shortages have been a significant problem for the lubricant industry, especially when supply issues are already a problem.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, fuel and lubricant demand dropped hard and fast. So producers and manufacturers immediately reduced output, shut down production and closed poor-performing manufacturing locations. No one knew when things would pick up again, and manufacturers were trying to protect their profit margins. But, as we all know, they jumped the gun. Demand picked up fast, and manufacturers have not been able to keep up with it, which has led to widespread shortages and price increases. The last thing the industry needed was a devastating fire at the number one grease manufacturing facility in the country, but unfortunately, that’s what happened.

What is the state of grease lubricant supply today?
Grease lubricants are still available, but they remain in short supply. It’s much more challenging to find different grease lubricants, and many maintenance and fleet managers have to adjust their lubricant protocols. As a result, many people are turning to alternative grease lubricant products or combining products to get the desired lubrication their equipment requires.

Can you safely combine grease products?
Grease compatibility has long been an issue in the industry. Because grease lubricants stay in one spot and provide lubrication, it is difficult to remove grease after application. So when alternative grease lubricants are added to equipment, supplies will inevitably mix. But, the mixing of grease lubricants is a tricky business. If the two products are incompatible, it can lead to ineffective lubrication or even equipment damage.

Grease compatibility charts are one of the safeguard tools that equipment and maintenance managers rely on to protect their equipment. These charts showcase the different elements of grease lubricants and how they compare to others. But many comparison charts are inaccurate or copied from others, so relying on them may be risky. Instead, it’s better to test your grease supplies for compatibility.

What factors affect grease compatibility?
When it comes to grease compatibility, you’re looking at three main categories: base oil compatibility, additive compatibility and thickener compatibility. Let’s examine each of these categories.

  • Base Oil compatibility: Grease products are derived from mineral and synthetic oil bases, but that doesn’t always mean they are compatible. When mixing grease products, you need to know the makeup of each grease product’s base oils. Otherwise, the mixture may not work.
  • Additive compatibility: Additives are added to grease to perform certain lubricating functions, such as preventing corrosion, reducing antioxidants, or adding demulsifying agents. When two grease products mix, you must ensure that the additives are compatible. If they are not, the effectiveness of the additive may diminish, or the corrosiveness will increase, damaging your equipment.
  • Thickener compatibility: Typically, grease lubricants are 70% to 90% finished grease and 10% to 20% thickeners. Thickener products give the grease consistency and hold the lubricant in place, so it stays where it’s supposed to, and the formation remains together. There are three typical grease thickeners used in grease lubricants, including:
    • Polyurea: Polyurea is one of the most popular thickeners used in grease lubricants. It’s known for extending the product’s service life, so you don’t have to make as many grease applications to your equipment. Maintenance managers and mechanics like these grease lubricants because they are particularly effective in hard-to-reach spaces or motor bearings. However, the issue with polyurea thickeners is that they are challenging to produce. Most grease products in the United States made at the Chemtool facility before the fire were grease lubricants with polyurea thickeners. Now that that facility is out of commission finding suitable alternatives is more complicated. Another issue with polyurea thickeners is that they are often not compatible with other grease products and thickeners.
    • Lithium/Lithium Complex: Lithium soap or lithium complex thickeners are also very common in the industry. They are great for all-purpose greasing, have higher temperature tolerances, and can last for longer service intervals. However, there is an ongoing lithium shortage worldwide due to the development of lithium batteries. Therefore, finding grease products with lithium thickeners is more complex and expensive since there is so much demand.
    • Calcium sulfonate: In the wake of thickener shortages, manufacturers are turning to an old favorite thickener: calcium sulfonate. It’s been used for over 50 years, but it is now becoming a popular alternative because of the thickener shortages. It’s a more versatile thickener and more readily compatible with other grease products, making it ideal for mixing. It also offers excellent wear protection and water resistance, so it’s helpful in various industries and equipment.

Grease compatibility testing is the best way to ride out these shortages
Right now, it isn’t easy to find your favorite grease products, and it might be that way for a while. So maintenance and fleet managers may need to get creative and choose alternative grease products or mix products to get the lubrication they need. Understanding the makeup of your grease products and their thickener types can help you determine grease compatibility. But we also encourage you to adopt compatibility testing, too.

This guide from Machinery Lubrication outlines some basic grease compatibility tests and how they can help you find compatible mixtures more effectively than grease compatibility charts. We encourage you to try some of these methods, especially as more alternative grease lubricants with different thickeners hit the market during this time of short supply.

Let us help you find the right lubricant supplies
We know it’s incredibly frustrating to search for your lubricant supplies. That’s why our team is here to help. So if you have questions about your lubricant needs, please get in touch with us. As your lubricants supplier, we’re help to help keep your equipment in great shape and provide you with all of the automotive supplies your business needs!