Oil Loss And What Causes It

Oil loss is another possible cause of compressor early death. Like a motor vehicle, a refrigeration or air conditioning compressor needs sufficient oil in order to run properly, achieve its design efficiency, and have a longer life.

Where The Oil Goes

In the most basic terms, oil loss occurs when oil has been pumped out of the compressor and it doesn't return. Finding the reason why the oil doesn't return is at the very heart of correcting an oil loss situation.

The most obvious cause is that the system is leaking oil. Telltale signs would be oil on the outside of the system, either in a puddle or possibly in areas where a pipe breach is possible (at joints for example). Examine the system closely for external signs of oil.

Another possible cause of oil loss is improper piping and design. In this case, oil may not be able to continue back through the system because of the nature of gravity.

To understand the concept more readily, think of a garden hose. In order for the water to come out of the hose while it's pointed upward, the water needs to be flowing at a certain pressure. The hose's small diameter makes it possible for water coming out of a household spigot to move upward, especially if the diameter is decreased still more at the end through the nozzle (or by your thumb). If you replaced the garden hose with a fire hose, the water would not have enough pressure to move through the fire hose; the water would fall back and pool at the lowest part of the hose. Likewise, if a refrigeration system has oversized suction line diameters, the refrigerant will not be able to carry the oil back to the compressor. The oil will return to the evaporator.

Asking the oil to move further than it can under a given pressure can also lead to compressor oil loss. To assist nature, some systems use oil traps in the suction line in combination with suction risers (a length of vertical pipe). As refrigerant gas returns from the evaporator, the drops of oil it contains will collect and get mixed in the trap. This breaks up the oil into smaller droplets, which can be carried up the riser pipe more easily by the refrigerant gas.

Traps should be placed every 20 feet in air conditioning system suction risers, or every 10 feet in refrigeration system risers. If the oil comes back, it could be due to poor design or, possibly, poor system redesign.

If you made a conversion to a new refrigerant, you also need to use the appropriate oil per the manufacturer's instructions, and make sure there is enough of it. A small amount of oil will be distributed throughout a normal working system.


Your customer may get an oil trip and call you to come check it out. However, it's more likely that too high box temperatures are what will get your customer on the phone with you. After all, if the oil winds up in the evaporator, it will coat the inside of the coils and the system's heat exchange performance will suffer.

If you are losing flow, it could be due to a broken rod. The pounds of refrigerant moved are lowered, and the system is not returning oil from the evaporator; there typically is a lower temperature where the oil lays because it coats the pipe. The delta T goes up across the evaporator. The system is not transferring heat as it should. You may measure low superheat coming out of the evaporator.

If you are called after the compressor has already stopped working, as always, we recommend opening up the compressor to gather more system information. If the problem is due to an oil loss, you may see the following telltale signs inside the compressor:

  • All rods and bearings will be worn or scored.

  • The crankshaft will be uniformly scored.

  • Rods may be broken due to the compressor seizing up.

  • There will be little or no oil in crankcase.

    Without enough oil in the crankcase to properly lubricate the load-bearing surfaces, wearing and scoring happen. There just isn't enough refrigerant mass flow in the system to return oil to the compressor as fast as it is pumped out. Without enough oil, those surfaces become visibly scored or worn.

    Fix It!

    Here are the steps to take to correct a low-oil problem:

  • Check the operation of the oil failure control (if there is one).

  • Check the system's refrigerant charge. Oil needs to be moved via the refrigerant, and without enough refrigerant, not enough oil can be moved.

  • Correct abnormally low load conditions or short cycling.

  • Check for incorrect pipe sizes.

  • Make sure there are enough oil traps.

  • Check for inadequate defrosts.

    For more information, click on the Emerson Climate Technologies logo above.

  • Did you enjoy this article? Click here to subscribe to The NEWS Magazine

    You must login or register in order to post a comment.



    Image Galleries

    2015 ACCA Conference

    Images from the 2015 ACCA Conference in Grapevine, Texas. Posted on April 8, 2015.


    NEWSMakers: Mark Crockett
    Mark Crockett vice president, Crockett Facilities Services, explains the importance of technician training, the value of being a top minority-owned company in the U.S., current projects the company is managing, and much more. Posted on April 24.
    More Podcasts


    NEWS 04-20-15 cover

    2015 April 20

    Check out the weekly edition of The NEWS today!

    Table Of Contents Subscribe

    Global Warming

    Do you believe in man-made global warming?
    View Results Poll Archive


    2015 National Plumbing & HVAC Estimator

    Every plumbing and HVAC estimator can use the cost estimates in this practical manual!

    More Products

    Clear Seas Research


    Clear Seas ResearchWith access to over one million professionals and more than 60 industry-specific publications, Clear Seas Research offers relevant insights from those who know your industry best. Let us customize a market research solution that exceeds your marketing goals.


    Magazine image
    Register today for complete access to ACHRNews.com. Get full access to the latest features, Extra Edition, and more.


    facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconLinkedIn i con