Every day, hundreds of aerial basket trucks, digger derricks, trenchers, boring machines, work trucks, and cars fan out across eastern Nebraska in a quest to maintain Omaha Public Power District’s (OPPD) 99.98% reliability rate. Their crews service coal-fired, nuclear, and landfill-gas plants; wind turbines; and all the wires, poles, substations, and transformers that make OPPD the nation’s 12th largest public power utility.

Like any vehicle, ruptured hoses drip or leak toxic lubricants and hydraulic fluids onto roads and grass that rain washes into streams and rivers. For most of automotive and industrial history, these fluids were petroleum-based. But there have been times, primarily World War II and the 1973 oil embargo, when the petroleum oil was cut with vegetable oil.

For at least two decades, suppliers have marketed “biobased” hydraulic fluids, gear oils, and greases as a complete replacement to petroleum-based products. Arguments against the formulations — they degrade faster, weaken seals, and lack hydrolytic and oxidative stability — have been effective. But the passage of time has affirmed their reliability, prompting federal and state regulators to begin requiring their use (see sidebar).

Even paying 1.5 times more per gallon is no longer an objection for some fleet managers.

“Considering that aerial devices and digger derricks are well over $200,000 each, the initial cost of incorporating EnviroLogic 122 is very minimal,” says Mark Chapman, OPPD’s supervisor of engineering and administration of vegetable-based hydraulic fluid made by RSC Bio Solutions of Charlotte, N.C. It’s a subsidiary of Radiator Specialty Co., maker of Liquid Wrench penetrant and Gunk degreaser, formed in 2010.

“Look at the product’s overall value and benefits, not the purchase price,” he says. “If we had a hydraulic hose failure, cleaning the spill would cost far more than the product’s initial cost.” For eight years, Chapman has specified EnviroLogic 122 instead of the manufacturer’s oil on basket trucks and digger derricks, and used EnviroLogic 700 universal tractor fluid as replacement oil on trenching equipment. He is considering specifying the 700 for new trenchers at the next replacement cycle.

OPPD conducts preventative maintenance at 5,000 miles, 200 hours of engine use, or every six months (whichever comes first). Depending on equipment class, service pattern, and manufacturer recommendations, service ranges from an engine oil/filter change and visual inspection of components to a complete drain and replacement of all fluids and filters.

OPPD also samples the oil on eight units that use EnviroLogic. The units are in different classes, such as basket trucks, digger derricks, boom cranes, wheel loaders, and around-the-clock troubleshooter units. Even though he could wait longer between fluid changes, Chapman follows the equipment manufacturer’s recommendations to avoid voiding any warranties. No hydraulic component failures due to lubrication have occurred since using EnviroLogic.

Next page: What biodegradable really means