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Troubleshooting Rolling Element Bearing Problems

Introduction to Bearing Failures

Troubleshooting rolling element bearing problems and determining their root cause of failure is often difficult, because many failure types look very similar. This is because bearing failures are almost always precipitated by spalling or flaking conditions of the bearing component surfaces. Spalling occurs when a bearing has reached its fatigue life limit, but also when premature failures occur. For this reason, it is important for the troubleshooter to be aware of and able to recognize, all of the common failures of rolling element bearings. This ability to correctly troubleshoot and recognize the root cause of bearing problems will lead the analyst to the right conclusions with regard to the bearing failure. How many times have we heard the comment, even by knowledgeable and well meaning engineers and technicians, this bearing failed prematurely, because it was defective. Manufacturing defects in rolling element bearings make up less than one percent of the millions of bearings in use today around the world and this small defect percentage is being reduced continually by improvements in manufacturing techniques and bearing materials. Bearing manufacturers use ultrasonic inspection devices to detect surface and subsurface bearing material defects, eliminating poor quality products during the production process. Eddy current testing is used to evaluate surface hardness and detect cracks to ensure 100% product conformance to bearing specifications. Only a small fraction of all the bearings in use fail because they have reached their material fatigue limit. The vast majority of bearings outlive the machinery or component in which they are installed. The first question which must be answered therefore is, what constitutes bearing fatigue life limits?

What Is Bearing Life Expectancy?

Rolling element bearing life expectancy is directly related to the number of revolutions performed by the bearing, the magnitude of the load and the lubrication and cleanliness of the lubricant, (assuming correct initial bearing selection and installation). Fatigue is the result of shear stresses, referred to as elastic deformation, cyclically appearing immediately below the load carrying surface, as the rollers or balls pass over the raceway. After many revolutions, these stresses between the rolling element and raceway surfaces will cause subsurface cracks to appear that will gradually extend to the surface of either the rolling element, raceway or both. These cracks may cause surface fragments of bearing material to break away. This condition is referred to as flaking or spalling. The spalling continues until the bearing is no longer serviceable and it has now reached its life limit.

Figure 1 Load zone in a typical bearing with a single defect on a rolling element.

It should come as no surprise to experienced equipment troubleshooters, that assuming proper design and application, rolling element bearings will fail sooner or later due to their natural material fatigue life limit, but all bearings will fail prematurely from abuse or neglect. According to many bearing experts, the following statistics apply to rolling element bearings failures, no matter in what type of rotating equipment they are installed (electric motors, pumps, fans, gear drives, etc.):


Reach their natural fatigue life expectancy. Fail prematurely due to inadequate lubrication. Fail prematurely due to contaminated lubricant, either oil or grease. Fail prematurely due to improper selection or faulty installation. Fail prematurely due to mechanical vibration, excessive temperatures, electrical discharge caused by static electricity or current flow, or by operating conditions which allow overloading and/or over speeding.





These bearing life percentages may vary from industry to industry depending on operating conditions, maintenance practices and industry operational culture. For example, in the pulp and paper industry, poor lubrication or contaminated lubricants are the main causes of failure. Bearing manufactures such as SKF, will provide its customers with bearing life expectancy ratings, defined as the number of revolutions or number of operating

hours at a given constant speed which a bearing is capable of, before the first sign of fatigue spalling occurs on one of the rings or rolling elements. SKF refers to its calculations as the basic life rating or the L10 bearing life in millions of revolutions which is the life that 90% of a sufficiently large group of apparently identical bearings can be expected to attain or exceed under identical operating conditions.

The challenge for troubleshooters is to learn to recognize the difference between the 10% of bearings that display material fatigue spalling and the remaining 90% of bearings that display premature spalling referred to earlier, because in many instances they look similar to the untrained eye. The result is that frequently, the troubleshooter will conclude that the bearing failed due to a defect in manufacture or material and the root cause of failure may never be determined.

What Causes Premature Spalling?

The existing literature available from bearing manufacturers and equipment failure experts generally agrees that the primary causes of premature (and therefore preventable) spalling of rolling element bearings includes the following list: 1. Misalignment; of either the bearing itself or the shafts upon which they may be mounted. Misalignment can be traced as the cause of about 50% of the breakdown of rotating machinery. A 20% load increase caused by misalignment, can reduce the calculated bearing life by almost 50%.

2. Faulty Mounting or Installation Practices; including the careless use of excessive or uneven heating of the bearing prior to the interference fitting to a shaft or into a housing. If heat is required to expand an inner ring, the temperature should never exceed 255F (125C). If induction heaters are used, it is important to remember to

demagnetize the bearing prior to installation. (A magnetized bearing will fail very quickly due to its attraction of ferrous metal particles). Sealed, pre-packed bearings frequently used in electric motors must never be heated and unless approved by the manufacturer, bearings containing shields should also not be heated. Clean hands, clean tools and a thoroughly clean work area are absolutely essential when tradesmen and technicians install new bearings. A small piece of dirt or metal chip trapped in a newly installed bearing is an invitation to another bearing failure. When pressing bearings onto a shaft or into a housing, the use of adequate presses or hydraulic tools must be used and hammers and punches must never be used, if premature spalling failure of a new bearing is to be avoided.

Figure 2 This photo shows a bearing which was installed while magnetized. It failed within hours of operation.

Figure 3 This bearing shows clear evidence of hammer blows to the outer ring during installation.

3. Defective bearing seats on shafts and in housings; factors that produce defective seats include shaft seats and housing bores that are over or undersize, tapered or oval. Oval or out of round housings or undersize shafts can cause a condition called fretting corrosion, where the bearing ring will actually move on its seat during operation. An oversized shaft can cause a bearings inner ring to crack during the cooling period, after installation. An undersized or oval housing can also cause the bearing outer ring to become pinched, causing premature failure.

Figure 4 This bearing failed as a result of several conditions. It was inadequately lubricated, as is evidenced by the smearing on the roller ends and a frosted surface on the inner ring. The inner surface of the ring shows clear signs of fretting corrosion caused by poor seating on the shaft. In addition, water contamination is clearly evident due to the rusty discoloration on the bearing surface. In cases like this, it is difficult to arrive at a root cause of failure, because we may not determine which condition occurred first.

4. Improper Shaft or Housing Fits; The degree of tightness or looseness with which a bearing is mounted on shafts or in housings is governed by the load and speed to which the bearing will be subjected. If a bearing ring rotates with the load, an interference fit is required.


In an automotive front wheel bearing, the outer ring or cup rotates with the wheel and therefore has an interference fit with the wheel hub. On the other hand, the inner rings rotate relative to the load in a gear reducer or electric motor and are therefore mounted on the shaft with an interference fit.

A too loose interference fit may cause a condition called creep, resulting in scoring of the inner ring. If the lubricant can penetrate the loose fit, the bore, as well as the shaft seat, will appear polished. In contrast, an excessive interference fit may cause the bearing ring to crack. The resulting creep in the first condition and the cracked inner ring in the second condition will generate heat and wear particulate, both of which can promote premature spalling and early bearing failure. Either of these conditions may cause a far more serious problem such as bearing seizure resulting in a catastrophic machine failure. It is very important to remember that the degree of fit is governed by the principle that heavier loads require greater interference. The presence of shock or continuous vibration also requires a higher interference fit of the ring that rotates with the load. These concepts related to bearing fits, should make it clear that any plant or facility which arbitrarily increases loads or speeds on industrial equipment must be prepared to expect premature bearing failures!!

5. Ineffective Sealing; The use of incorrect seal materials incompatible with process fluids or the lubricant used, improper seal installation or improper operation or maintenance of mechanical seals, or the use of seals which cannot effectively operate under the existing temperature or contamination conditions are just a few of the considerations which must be reviewed when troubleshooting bearings for premature spalling.

Figures 5 & 6 Water contamination is clearly evident on these bearings. Excessive water contamination will cause severe corrosion, while small amounts of water will stain the surfaces with a brown discoloration.

Figure 7 The surface of this bearing shows clear evidence of scoring (note the scratches along the surface) caused by contaminated lubricant. Some contaminants actually became embedded in the bearing surface as evidenced by the areas of discoloration. This failure shows spalling and flaking which is frequently mistaken for a lubrication failure.

6. Incorrect Initial Bearing Selection; All rolling element bearings must have some internal clearance between components in order to compensate for slight variances in housing and shaft fits and to allow for thermal expansion due to normal operating temperatures. Reduced levels of internal clearance caused by improper initial bearing selection (or incorrect selection of replacement bearings), excessive operating temperature or out of round housings which place excessive loads on bearing components, will all increase bearing loads, causing premature failure which frequently is accepted as a fatigue spalling condition.



Internal radial clearance classifications for spherical roller bearings:

C1 has the least internal clearance, approximately 412 ten thousandths of an inch.

C2 clearance of 1220 ten thousandths of an inch.

C0 clearance of approximately 2129 ten thousandths of an inch.

C3 clearance of approximately 3043 ten thousandths of an inch.

C4 clearance of 4457 ten thousandths of an inch.

C5 has the most clearance, approximately 5770 ten thousandths of an inch. It is a serious mistake to simply select a C3 classification if it should be C5.

7. Unacceptable Operating Conditions; The operating conditions which will cause premature bearing failure include excessive vibration, overloading, over speeding, high temperatures and electrical discharge. If a typical bearing load is doubled, the bearing life may be reduced by up to 90%. Doubling the rated speed will reduce bearing life by about 50%. These


are principles which must be kept in mind when production increases are demanded without increasing equipment capacity! (See Figure 8)

Figure 8

Electrical discharge is becoming a serious problem in some equipment. V-belt drive systems build up high levels of static electricity during operation and this current can dissipate through the bearings to ground causing pits or fluting to form on the bearing. Stray magnetic fields in electric motors, both AC and DC, can generate currents that will pass through bearings. To eliminate these potential problems, grounding brushes should be used to ground motor shafts and V-belts. Silicone greases contain electric insulation properties and these greases might also be considered for some applications. In many of todays machines, insulated bearings are used to eliminate the problem of electrical discharge causing pitting or fluting of the bearing surface.


Figure 9 Typical fluting pattern.

Vibration in a bearing while stationary can cause damage called false brinelling. The damage may be either brightly polished depressions, or the characteristic reddish stain common to fretting. These marks left by false brinelling will be equal to the distance between the rolling elements, just as it is in cases of true brinelling, so these two conditions are often difficult to distinguish. Operating bearings at higher temperatures than those recommended by the manufacturer will dramatically shorten the life of bearings, no matter what type, quality or amount of lubricant is used. To illustrate the importance of this point; consider the fact that a good quality, well-refined mineral oil will begin to oxidize at 160F (71C). The same result will occur in greases where such oils are used as the lubricating agent. What this illustrates is that excessive temperatures; that is, temperatures continually exceeding 160F, will have a detrimental effect on both the bearing and the lubricant used. In fact, mineral oils have a high temperature limit of around 550F (300C), at which point the oil decomposes to a soot or tar like substance.


Figure 10 This catastrophic bearing failure was caused by a combination of factors. There is evidence of overloading or excessive thrust (as indicated by the offset ball path of the inner raceway). This could indicate that the bearing was either not installed correctly or was installed in the wrong position. There is also evidence that the balls reached such temperatures that they turned blue-black in color softening the material, causing them to skid in the raceway. There is evidence of melting, skidding and skewing on both the balls and ball paths in the raceways indicating that these components reached temperatures of over 550F (300C).

8. Improper or Inadequate Lubrication; As already illustrated, about 70% of bearing failures occur for reasons other than their lubrication quality or quantity, yet users of industrial equipment will very often blame the lubricant used when a bearing failure occurs. We often hear the term lubrication failure, implying that there was no oil or grease in the bearing. In most cases the answer is not that simple, because the question that should be asked is, why did the lubricant fail to prevent damage to the bearing? The answer to this question is not so obvious, because the answer involves investigating much more than the lubricant, as we have seen by the discussions of the many other causes of bearing failure. 14

Lubrication related failures occur primarily as a result of three possible situations. The lubricant used was either unsuitable, inadequate, or excessive. 1) Unsuitable Lubricant; is a lubricant which, when used in a particular bearing application, does not contain the suitable additives, is of an incorrect viscosity, or may not be designed for use in such an application or temperature range. i.e. Grease should not be used where oil is recommended (and vice versa).

2) Inadequate Lubricant; Viscosity of the oil, either as oil itself or as the oil content in greases, is the most important property of any lubricant. The viscosity/temperature relationship is critical to the quantity of lubricant which any bearing might require at a given time. If the viscosity is too high (thick) relative to the temperature, insufficient oil will flow to (or through) the bearing. If the viscosity is too low (thin), the oil will not be sufficient to maintain a separating film between the rolling elements and raceways of the bearings. In either case, the asperities (microscopic machined high points) of the bearing component surfaces may contact each other, initially causing a frosted or smearing condition, followed by adhesion at the contact points. Failure of the bearing will be inevitable.


Figure 11 The frosted appearance of this bearing race illustrates what happens when the oil viscosity is too low (thin) and metal to metal contact occurs. This type of premature failure occurs during initial start-up of heavily loaded bearings. This particular damage occurred after only 15 seconds of operation.


Figure 12 This bearing has failed due to continual welding contact between asperities on the metal surfaces, eventually causing metal to be pulled out as the surfaces adhere to each other during rotation. This condition may have been caused by using oil of the wrong viscosity, excessive loads or speeds, incorrect internal clearances, or a combination of these problems. Even an increase of as little as 4 or 5 in temperature may have contributed to this failure, due to unacceptable thinning of the lubricants viscosity. When analyzing the root cause of a failure, all of the possible contributing causes must be considered.

As a general guideline, non-vibrating, lightly loaded bearings operating at temperatures of 70C or less and running at high speeds can operate very effectively using an anti-wear or R & O oil with a viscosity range of ISO 3246 cSt. Bearings running at higher temperatures may require higher viscosity oil of 68 cSt, particularly at heavy loads. These applications may also require oils with EP (extreme pressure) additives. For applications where the ambient temperatures are at 0 or less, viscosity index improved oils of ISO 15 or 22 cSt should be used. Minimum oil viscosities for low and medium speed bearings at normal operating temperatures should not be less than 1320 cSt and not less than 30 cSt for rolling


element thrust bearings, with the generally accepted optimum viscosity in the range of 1350 cSt.

This optimum viscosity range depends upon bearing RPM, size, type and load. For high speed bearings such as spindle bearings, minimum viscosity is 610 cSt. There are several methods of calculating the ISO viscosity selection for bearing lubrication. These methods include the following formulae.

Guide to Rolling Element Bearing Oil ISO Viscosity Grade Selection

Bearing/Oil Temperature (C)

DN Value <75,00 75K-150K >150K

ndm <85,000 85K-170K >170K






22 10/15 10

32/46 22/46 22

100 68 46

150 100 68

320 220 150

DN Value = Shaft diameter or bearing bore (mm) X RPM ndm Value = (Shaft diameter + outside diameter of bearing (mm) X RPM 2

Notes: i. ii. Verify the viscosity selection with the bearing manufacturer. If vibration or shock loading will occur during bearing operation, use a higher viscosity grade with anti-wear or extreme pressure additives and confirm with the bearing manufacturer. (Use the higher viscosity grade only if the temperature does not increase). In grease applications, the results will be the same if the viscosity/temperature relationship is such that oil will not flow from the grease


thickener in sufficient quantities to protect bearing surfaces under all operating conditions. For this reason grease consistency grades are critical in these applications, in addition to the viscosity of the oil contained in the grease. The National Lubricating Grease Institute (NLGI) has established nine (9) consistency grades, based on the worked penetration of greases under test conditions. These grades run from triple zero (000), which has a consistency similar to a high viscosity oil for typical use in a centralized lubrication system, to a number six (6), which is a block grease. Common greases used in machinery applications with ambient temperatures in a range of 6075 F (1624C) might require a consistency of two (2) or three (3) with the appropriate oil viscosities, to ensure sufficient separation of the oil from the grease thickener under these operating conditions. These grease selections would also depend upon bearing speeds.

Typical Maximum Bearing ndm Speed Factors by Type of Bearing; and When They Should be Oil or Grease Lubricated
Bearing Type Radial Ball Cylindrical Roller *Spherical Roller Thrust; Ball or Roller **Oil Lubricated 500,000 500,000 290,000 280,000 Grease Lubricated 340,000 300,000 145,000 140,000

* bearings. **

Grease lubrication is not recommended for spherical roller thrust

When oil lubricant is used, the oil level in the bearing housing should be no higher than the centre of the lowest rolling element of the bearing.

Grease Consistency Grade Selection Determined by Dispensing Method


Dispensing Method gear box central system

NLGI Grade 000 00 0

Worked Penetration 445-475 (semi-fluid) 400-430 355-385 310-340 265-295 (common)

grease gun

1 2 3

grease cup

4 5

175-205 130-160 85-125 (hard)


3) Excessive Lubricant; is frequently the cause of higher than normal bearing operating temperatures. Excessive grease or oil quantities cause internal friction within the lubricant, which in turn promotes excessive temperatures causing oxidation and premature lubricant and bearing failure. Oil levels that are too high and excessive quantities of grease in bearings cause a churning action within the rotating components and the result will always be an increase in temperature. Oil of too high viscosity, or grease with a too high consistency will also increase operating temperatures. Care must be taken therefore, that when investigating high temperatures, the troubleshooter must consider not only the possibility of excessive lubricant, but that the correct lubricant for the application is in use. As a rule of thumb, if the troubleshooter cannot hold his or her hand comfortably on the bearing housing, whether on an electric motor or gear reducer, the temperature is too hot.


Another quite common error made by some inexperienced technicians is to fill new sealed bearings with grease using a syringe under the bearing seal! This is a serious mistake! Churning will occur, internal temperatures will rise, oxidation will take place within the lubricant and premature bearing failure will result. Sealed bearings are shipped from the manufacturer with approximately 20% of the bearing cavities grease filled. No more lubricant is required. Many bearings fail as a direct result of excessive lubrication. The standard tube of grease used in the common grease gun contains 400 grams of grease and typical cylindrical roller bearings with a 6 inch OD and 4 inch ID operating at 1800 RPM only require about 35 grams of grease applied every two and one half (2) months or 1825 hours, when the bearing is operated in ambient room temperatures of 65F (18C). However, when determining re-lubrication intervals, bearing operating temperatures must be considered. If we use the example noted above and the actual operating temperature of the cylindrical roller bearing is 130F (54C), our regreasing interval should be reduced to about 900 hours (or every five (5) weeks) using 35 grams of grease. The general rule of thumb states; the service life of grease lubricated bearings is reduced by half for every 27F (15C) increase in temperature above 160F (70C). If for example, the calculated re-lubrication interval for a given bearing is 1000 hours at 70C, this interval must be cut in half to 500 hours, if the actual operating temperature is 85C (185F). To calculate the required amount of grease in ounces to re-lubricate a bearing in service, use the following calculation.
Bearing OD (inches) X Bearing Width (inches) X the constant .114



3 inch OD X .75 Width X .114 = .25 ounces of grease or 3 X .75 X .114 = .25 ounces of grease

Where bearings are specified in metric dimensions the following calculation may be used.
Bearing OD (mm) X Bearing Width (mm) X the constant .00018 = grease quantity in ounces

(The initial grease pack for a bearing before installation should be 3 X either of the above results).

Tips for Troubleshooting Bearing Lubrication Problems

The first action that should be taken by the troubleshooter when investigating the cause(s) of a bearing problem is to familiarize oneself with the following conditions, regardless of the bearings location or the type of machine in which it is installed.

1. What is the recommended operating temperature of the bearing? Compare this with the actual operating temperature using an accurate testing device, such as an SKF thermopen or a hand-held Thermocam infrared camera.

2. Measure the noise level using a device such as the UE systems ultrasound tester. If noise levels are increasing above those normally experienced, it could indicate insufficient lubricant, vibration, premature spalling, or reduced internal clearance, due to higher than normal temperatures or poor bearing installation. (Keep in mind that noise is frequently accompanied by high temperatures). If insufficient lubricant is suspected, determine if the bearing has the correct amount of oil in the housing and add if necessary. If grease lubricated,


pump a shot or two of grease into the bearing. If the noise level does not change after a few minutes, insufficient lubricant is not the cause.

3. Often noise is associated with mechanical looseness or some other condition which may cause vibration at or near the bearing. A stroboscope will very quickly indicate whether or not a vibration is present.

4. Vibration or noise may also be the result of an overloaded bearing or a bearing rotating at excessive speeds; using a digital tachometer, speeds can quickly and accurately be determined, then compared with specifications. 5. Often noise is associated with defective seals which may be rubbing on the bearings shaft. This may also increase the operating temperature (near the lip of the seal) combined with lubricant leakage or seepage past the seal. A groove at the seal lip may be observed.

6. If a leaking seal is obvious or suspected, contamination may have entered the bearing causing premature damage. An oil or grease sample should be obtained and analyzed for higher than normal wear metals and contaminants, particularly dirt or water.

7. In a grease-lubricated bearing, a leaking seal combined with high temperatures might indicate that the grease has reached or exceeded its dropping point. Confirm that the grease in use is the recommended product and that it has not been mixed with an incompatible type of grease. Incompatibility also might lead to a seal leak, as the two incompatible greases react with each other and oil separates from the thickening agents in either (or both) greases.

8. On machines using ring oiling of the bearings, ensure that the rings are in fact rotating. If they are worn or not rotating, oil will not be picked up and distributed


by the ring. High temperatures, noise and eventual premature bearing failure will be the result.

9. On centralized lubrication or oil mist systems, ensure that the system is calibrated properly and distributing the correct amount of grease or oil to the affected bearings.

10. Finally, the troubleshooter should be thoroughly familiar with the machine itself, its overall operating conditions and the processes or applications for which the machine is used. Above all, remember that about 70% of bearing failures are not lubricant or lubrication related, although they may appear to be!


The Practical Handbook of Machinery Lubrication, 3rd Edition; L. Leugner. SKF Bearing Maintenance Handbook; The SKF Manufacturing Group. Care and Maintenance of Bearings; The NTN Bearing Corporation. Failure Atlas for Hertz Contact Machine Elements, 2nd Edition; T.E. Tallian.