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Fluid Contamination

Air, water, solvent, and other foreign fluids are in the class of fluid contaminants.

AIR CONTAMINATION.— Hydraulic fluids are adversely affected by dissolved, entrained, or free air. Air may be introduced through improper maintenance or as a result of system design. Any maintenance operation that involves breaking into the hydraulic system, such as disconnecting or removing a line or component will invariably result in some air being introduced into the system. This source of air can and must be minimized by prebilling replacement components with new filtered fluid prior to their installation. Failing to prefill a filter element bowl with fluid is a good example of how air can be introduced into the system. Although prebilling will minimize introduction of air, it is still important to vent the system where venting is possible.

Most hydraulic systems have built-in sources of air. Leaky seals in gas-pressurized accumulators and reservoirs can feed gas into a system faster than it can be removed, even with the best of maintenance. Another lesser known but major source of air is air that is sucked into the system past actuator piston rod seals. This usually occurs when the piston rod is stroked by some external means while the actuator itself is not pressurized.

WATER CONTAMINATION.— Water is a serious contaminant of hydraulic systems. Hydraulic fluids are adversely affected by dissolved, emulsified, or free water. Water contamination may result in the formation of ice, which impedes the operation of valves, actuators, and other moving parts. Water can also cause the formation of oxidation products and corrosion of metallic surfaces.

SOLVENT CONTAMINATION.— Solvent contamination is a special form of foreign fluid contamination in which the original contaminating substance is a chlorinated solvent. Chlorinated solvents or their residues may, when introduced into a hydraulic system, react with any water present to form highly corrosive acids. Chlorinated solvents, when allowed to combine with minute amounts of water often found in operating hydraulic systems, change chemically into hydrochloric acids. These acids then attack internal metallic surfaces in the system, particularly those that are ferrous, and produce a severe rust-like corrosion. NAVAIR 01-1A-17 and NSTM, chapter 556, contain tables of solvents for use in hydraulic maintenance.

FOREIGN-FLUIDS CONTAMINATION.— Hydraulic systems can be seriously contaminated by foreign fluids other than water and chlorinated solvents. This type of contamination is generally a result of lube oil, engine fuel, or incorrect hydraulic fluid being introduced inadvertently into the system during servicing. The effects of such contamination depend on the contaminant, the amount in the system, and how long it has been present.

NOTE: It is extremely important that the different types of hydraulic fluids are not mixed in one system. If different type hydraulic fluids are mixed, the characteristics of the fluid required for a specific purpose are lost. Mixing the different types of fluids usually will result in a heavy, gummy deposit that will clog passages and require a major cleaning. In addition, seals and packing installed for use with one fluid usually are not compatible with other fluids and damage to the seals will result.

ORIGIN OF CONTAMINATION Recall that contaminants are produced from wear and chemical reactions, introduced by improper maintenance, and inadvertently introduced during servicing. These methods of contaminant introduction fall into one of the four major areas of contaminant origin.

1. Particles originally contained in the system. These particles originate during the fabrication and storage of system components. Weld spatter and slag may remain in welded system components, especially in reservoirs and pipe assemblies. The presence is minimized by proper design. For example, seam-welded overlapping joints are preferred, and arc welding of open sections is usually avoided. Hidden passages in valve bodies, inaccessible to sand blasting or other methods of cleaning, are the main source of introduction of core sand. Even the most carefully designed and cleaned casting will almost invariably free some sand particles under the action of hydraulic pressure. Rubber hose assemblies always contain some loose particles. Most of these particles can be removed by flushing the hose before installation; however, some particles withstand cleaning and are freed later by the action of hydraulic pressure. Particles of lint from cleaning rags can cause abrasive damage in hydraulic systems, especially to closely fitted moving parts. In addition, lint in a hydraulic system packs easily into clearances between packing and contacting surfaces, leading to component leakage and decreased efficiency. Lint also helps clog filters prematurely. The use of the proper wiping materials will reduce or eliminate lint contamination. The wiping materials to be used for a given application will be determined by

a.  substances being wiped or absorbed,
b.  the amount of absorbency required,
c.  the required degree of cleanliness.

These wiping materials are categorized for contamination control by the degree of lint or debris that they may deposit during use. For internal hydraulic repairs, this factor itself will determine the choice of wiping material.

NAVAIR 01-1A-17 and NSTM, chapter 556, provides information on low-lint wiping cloths. Rust or corrosion initially present in a hydraulic system can usually be traced to improper storage of materials and component parts. Particles can range in size from large flakes to abrasives of microscopic dimensions. Proper preservation of stored parts is helpful in eliminating corrosion.

2. Particles introduced from outside sources. Particles can be introduced into hydraulic systems at points where either the liquid or certain working parts of the system (for example, piston rods) are at least in temporary contact with the atmosphere. The most common contaminant introduction areas are at the refill and breather openings, cylinder rod packings, and open lines where components are removed for repair or replacement. Contamination arising from carelessness during servicing operations is minimized by the use of filters in the system fill lines and finger strainers in the filler adapter of hydraulic reservoirs. Hydraulic cylinder piston rods incorporate wiper rings and dust seals to prevent the dust that settles on the piston rod during its outward stroke from entering the system when the piston rod retracts. Caps and plugs are available and should be used to seal off the open lines when a component is removed for repair or replacement.

3. Particles created within the system during operation. Contaminants created during system operation are of two general types—mechanical and chemical. Particles of a mechanical nature are formed by wearing of parts in frictional contact, such as pumps, cylinders, and packing gland components. These wear particles can vary from large chunks of packings down to steel shavings that are too small to be trapped by filters. The major source of chemical contaminants in hydraulic liquid is oxidation. These contaminants are formed under high pressure and temperatures and are promoted by the chemical action of water and air and of metals like copper and iron oxides. Liquid-oxidation products appear initially as organic acids, asphaltines, gums, and varnishes—sometimes combined with dust particles as sludge. Liquid-soluble oxidation products tend to increase liquid viscosity, while insoluble types separate and form sediments, especially on colder elements such as heat exchanger coils.

Liquids containing antioxidants have little tendency to form gums and sludge under normal operating conditions. However, as the temperature increases, resistance to oxidation diminishes. Hydraulic liquids that have been subjected to excessively high temperatures (above 250°F for most liquids) will break down, leaving minute particles of asphaltines suspended in the liquids. The liquid changes to brown in color and is referred to as decomposed liquid. This explains the importance of keeping the hydraulic liquid temperature below specific levels.

The second contaminant-producing chemical action in hydraulic liquids is one that permits these liquids to react with certain types of rubber. This reaction causes structural changes in the rubber, turning it brittle, and finally causing its complete disintegration. For this reason, the compatibility of system liquid with seals and hose material is a very important factor.

4. Particles introduced by foreign liquids. One of the most common foreign-fluid contaminants is water, especially in hydraulic systems that require petroleum-based liquids. Water, which enters even the most carefully designed system by condensation of atmospheric moisture, normally settles to the bottom of the reservoir. Oil movement in the reservoir disperses the water into fine droplets, and agitation of the liquid in the pump and in high-speed passages forms an oil-water-air emulsion. This emulsion normally separates during the rest period in the system reservoir; but when fine dust and corrosion particles are present, the emulsion is chemically changed by high pressures into sludge. The damaging action of sludge explains the need for effective filtration, as well as the need for water separation qualities in hydraulic liquids.


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