ubricant contamination in gear-
box bearing housings can sub-
stantially reduce gear life. In
critical applications, dual-face,
magnetic bearing-protector seals
will keep contamination out (Figure
1). Dual-face, magnetic bearing pro-
tectors are preferred in many diffi-
cult applications, such as wet cooling
tower gearboxes, while advanced ro-
tating labyrinth seals are more uni-
versally applicable. Both users and
gearbox manufacturers should con-
sider peripheral shaft speed, shaft
movement and lubrication method.
However, all things considered, fully
sealing a gearbox by retrofitting
advanced bearing protector seals is
highly cost-effective.
Because many gearboxes operate
in environments that are heavily pol-
luted, traditional lip seals or laby-
rinth seals should not be considered.
In these environments, even close-
clearance, non-contacting rotating
labyrinth seals, shown in Figure 2,
may not be ideal. Rotating labyrinth
seals have an open gap that allows
communication between the housing-
internal and external environments.
Unless ambient air is excluded, the
oil cleanliness condition in these gear-
boxes may be unacceptable. There-
fore, bearing housings with closed
vents and face-type seals employing
mechanical seal principles and ad-
vanced metallurgy are best able to
keep the lubricant “clean,” as defined
by bearing manufacturers.
Limit contaminant ingress
Whenever a gap exists between the
rotating shaft and the surrounding
stationary housing components, the
housings will breathe, as illustrated
in Figure 3. Gearbox manufacturers
apply lip seals for bearing protection
and oil containment, though they are
subject to wear and, unless replaced on
a time-based preventive maintenance
schedule, will allow contaminants to
enter because of the pressure difference
between gearbox interior space and
the ambient atmosphere. Thus, there
is serious risk of water vapor entry
and moisture condensation, resulting
in corrosion and lip wear, as shown in
Figure 4. In particular, note the wear
groove in the shaft, caused by lip seal
The limitations of lip seals for longer-
term contamination control prompted
the American Petroleum Institute
(API) and many equipment users to
seek out superior preventive measures.
Alternative sealing devices include
the rotating non-contacting labyrinth
bearing housing seals shown in Figure
2, and the rotating contacting dual-face
magnetic seal of Figure 1. Collectively,
these styles are called bearing isolators
or bearing protector seals.
Avoid contaminated lube oil
Various factory tests, cost justifications,
and a thorough review of field experience
have established the viability and
effectiveness of cartridge-type, dual-
face, magnetic bearing protectors.
Magnetic sealing has had decades of
use in the aerospace industry. Today,
the bearings or component housings
of pumps, mixers, small turbines, fans,
blowers, star feeders, conveyor lines,
rotary drum filters and other machines
are among the hundreds of shaft-driven
and bearing-supported equipment types
that have been effectively sealed with
dual-face magnetic seals. In particular,
many gear speed reducers (Figures 5
and 6) have benefited substantially
from the virtual elimination of lube oil
contamination. Cost justifications and
data on the projected gear life extension
are readily available.
Construction features
Few environments are harsher than those
that exist in cooling-tower-fan services
(Figure 6), where moisture exclusion is
very important. In equipment with face-
type bearing housing seals, the lubricant
is totally contained and the atmosphere
is effectively excluded. Therefore, in
state-of-the-art gearbox designs, both
Feature Report
44 ChemiCal engineering www.Che.Com DeCember 2008
Feature Report
Chris Rehmann and Alan Roddis
Bearing Housing Protector
Seals for Gearboxes
Rotary seal face
seal face
Stationary seal
face assembly
Outer body
Figure 1. After many repairs to oil-fooded gear speed reducers, engineers at a U.S.
power plant retroftted the application with magnetic, dual-face bearing-protector seals
In extreme environments,
dual-face, magnetic bearing-
housing seals will keep
contamination out
input and output shafts are often sealed
with dual-face magnetic seals. The rotary
portion of the seal is usually fastened
to the shaft by an O-ring that performs
both clamping and sealing functions.
Figure 1 illustrates this configuration
of the dual-face design. Care must be
taken to allow some oil to reach the faces
of these bearing protector seals in both
horizontal and vertical shafts. In shaft
systems operating above certain peripheral
speeds, the seal manufacturer must be
contacted for further guidance.
Instead of using springs to hold the
faces together, the stationary compo-
nent of a modern dual-face, magnetic
bearing housing seal is fitted with a
series of small, nickel-plated samar-
ium-cobalt magnets. The two station-
ary faces are axially movable and
are made of highly wear-resistant,
low-friction antimony carbon. These
faces are encased in a suitable grade
of stainless steel that is attracted by
the strong stationary rod magnets. A
tungsten-carbide rotary is attached to
the shaft. Although single-face, aero-
space magnetic seals date back to the
late 1940s, modern dual-face magnetic
seals represent a more recent develop-
ment, with many having been fully op-
erational since 2002.
Properties and limitations
The type of dual-face magnetic seal shown
in Figure 1 has had its electrostatic and
electromagnetic properties tested to
ensure safe operation in hazardous areas
and potentially explosive atmospheres.
These seals are often used in hazardous
areas where a large number of Group II,
Category 2 equipment is required. The
temperature classification is dependent
on the specific application.
In typical moderate-speed gearboxes
with shaft speeds achieving 1,800 rpm,
the application options for dual-face,
magnetic bearing-housing seals are
almost limitless. These seals are also
used on many pump configurations, in-
cluding horizontal and vertical pumps,
rotary lobe, progressive cavity and gear
pumps. Gear speed reducers and a wide
variety of different machines found
in pulp and paper mills, corn milling
equipment, different pillow blocks and
rotary valves have also been success-
fully sealed with these dual-face car-
tridge magnetic seals. The seal assem-
bly incorporates neither clips nor set
screws. Its dimensional envelope fits
many locations where lip seals were
originally installed.
In gearboxes with marginal lubri-
cation (a light oil splash) on the inner
face of a dual-face, magnetic bearing-
housing seal, and dry-running condi-
tions on the outer face, shaft speeds of
3,600 rpm or peripheral shaft veloci-
ties of 20 m/s, whichever is reached
first, are allowed. Assuming a 4.25-in.
dia. shaft, it would have to rotate at
over 3,600 rpm to reach 20 m/s. Thus,
for this shaft diameter, there is a
“safety cushion” with gear speed re-
ducers operating at only 1,800 rpm.
At 18°C ambient temperature, the re-
sulting face temperature would stay
considerably below the often applied
and generally desired rule-of-thumb
limit of 85°C.
In order to safeguard against mis-
application, manufacturers recom-
mend against dry running above cer-
tain shaft diameters and peripheral
speeds. As a matter of general policy,
continuous monitoring and other ap-
propriate inspection and examination
methods are advocated to ensure cor-
rect equipment oil levels. Fortunately,
the bearing housings of properly de-
signed gearboxes and pumps will
always incorporate lube application
methods that generate an oil fog. This
fog creates adequate bearing lubrica-
tion while also providing a thin coating
of oil at the active seal faces. Only the
complete loss of oil or operation at ex-
cessive peripheral speeds would cause
an unacceptable temperature increase
at one or both of the seal faces.
Used within their design param-
eters, dual-face magnetic seals em-
bodying the features illustrated in
Figure 1 are unsurpassed in keep-
ing oil in, and contamination out of
gearboxes and bearing housings.
Nevertheless, modern rotating laby-
rinth seals are feasible and highly
cost-effective in many applications,
including in virtually all gearboxes.
The seal incorporates O-rings that
never contact sharp edges, whereas
ChemiCal engineering www.Che.Com DeCember 2008 45
Shaft not rotating
Shut off device
Shaft rotating
Micro lift gap
rotor o-ring
rotor o-ring
Figure 2. Modern rotating labyrinth bearing-housing seals run a close second to
dual-face magnetic bearing-housing seals for gearboxes
Air is expelled
Air is ingested
Figure 3. As air in the gearbox warms up, it expands and is expelled (left). As air in
the gearbox cools down, it contracts and surrounding ambient air is ingested (right).
The shut-off device shown in Figure 2 allows warm air to escape during operation, but
prevents cool, moist air from entering while not in operation
Feature Report
46 ChemiCal engineering www.Che.Com DeCember 2008
earlier generation rotating laby-
rinth seals often contained dy-
namic O-rings in contact with the
edge of a groove. During slow-roll
operation or with axial movement
of opposing components, in these
“old-style” bearing isolator seals,
the O-ring quickly becomes un-
Cooling-tower-fan drive gears
Cooling-tower- fan gearboxes are
exposed to one of the most adverse
saturated-water-vapor environments
encountered in the CPI (chemical process
industries), as they are typically enveloped
in a dense fog that contains a mix of water
treatment chemicals. Unless properly
protected, the chemically loaded vapors
will enter the gearboxes through casing
vents and shaft protrusions. Once inside,
the water vapors may cause further
damage by interacting with the lube
oil additives.
In one instance, the contaminating
mixture caused severe rust formation
on gears as well as bearing distress in
eight gearboxes at a facility in the U.S.
Lip seal life did not exceed six months.
With restricted access to cooling-tower
internals, implementing time-based pre-
ventive maintenance measures seemed
too expensive. To gain access, the cool-
ing tower shrouds had to be opened, and
special cranes were brought to the site
for lifting duty. Temporary scaffolding
is needed for some fan cell configura-
tions, and in some locations, safety and
health regulations require the wearing
of cumbersome breathing apparatuses.
This explains why gear-internal re-
placements often cost around $80,000,
compared to gearbox repairs of $30,000
when equipment rental, labor and over-
head costs are considered.
In most instances, replacing lip seals
with dual-face magnetic seals extends
oil replacement intervals from every
six months to 24 months. Based on
feedback regarding cooling towers in
petrochemical plant locations where
moisture intrusion has been elimi-
nated, cooling-tower gearbox failures
at this facility should be a thing of the
past. In the example listed above, the
benefits of conversion and upgrading
to dual-face magnetic seals were as-
sessed and payback periods were found
to range from three to five weeks.
Simple payback calculation
Life-cycle component cost comparisons
consider the total lifetime cost to
purchase, install, operate and maintain
equipment against the total lifetime
cost of equipment without magnetic
bearing housing seals. The comparison
includes associated downtime, plus
certain imputed values of fewer failure
events. Reliability-focused plants
include the avoided cost of plant fires
occasionally brought on by catastrophic
bearing failures, and the implicit value
of utilizing workforce members that
previously spent time on remedial tasks
and are now free to proactively work
on preventive tasks.
Suppose a plant had a dozen cooling-
tower-fan gearboxes with an average
MTBF (mean time between failures) of
six years, and that the average repair
is costing the plant $46,400. Although
this cost includes burden, overhead,
field and shop labor, replacement
parts and more, it represents a rather
low estimate for cooling tower cells
that require crane rentals, disman-
tling of enclosures, safety-mandated
lockout-tagout work, and the cost of
marshalling and supervising a work
crew. Suppose the gearboxes are not
fully sealed, and there is clear evi-
dence of lubricant contamination. As-
Figure 4. A damaged shaft has bearing
corrosion and lip-seal-related wear
Figure 5. A gearbox with dual-face, magnetic-bear-
ing-housing seal ftted in a bearing housing end cap
Lubrication Systems Co.
Figure 6. Cooling tower gearboxes
operate under the most severe
sume that sets of magnetic seals cost
$740 and installation labor amounts
to $2,000 per gearbox. It would be
fair to anticipate that, together with
plugging the vent and switching to a
superior synthetic lubricant formula-
tion, this upgrade holds the promise of
extending gearbox MTBF to 12 years,
a figure often reached by best-of-class
plants. The facility would avoid gear-
box repairs valued at $46,400, and
over a six-year period, would realize a
payback of $46,400/$2,740 — a bene-
fit-to-cost ratio of 17 to 1. ■
Edited by Kate Torzewski
1. Bloch, Heinz P., “Practical Lubrication for
Industrial Facilities,” The Fairmont Press,
Lilburn, Ga., p. 479, 2000.
2. Bloch, Heinz P. and Budris, A., “Pump User’s
Handbook: Life Extension,” The Fairmont
Press, Lilburn, Ga., pp. 232-239, 2006.
3. Bloch, Heinz P. and Geitner, F., “Machinery
Failure Analysis and Troubleshooting,” 3rd
Ed., Gulf Publishing Co., Houston, Tex.,
4. Eschmann, Hasbargen and Weigand, “Ball
and Roller Bearings,” John Wiley & Sons,
New York, N.Y., p. 183, 1995.
5. “Industrial Product Guide,” Royal Purple,
Ltd., Porter, Tex., 2002.
6. SKF USA, Inc., Catalog 4000US, p. 40, 1991.
Chris Rehmann is general
manager of Aesseal’s Compo-
nent Seal and Bearing Protec-
tion Divisions in North America
(Aesseal, Inc., 355 Dunavant
Dr., Rockford, TN 37853; Tel:
865-531-0192; Email: chris.
rehmann@Aesseal.com). Re-
hmann holds a B.S. degree in
Electrical Engineering from
the University of Notre Dame.
He worked for Schlumberger,
an oilfield engineering firm, for 15 years, holding
positions in field engineering, technical sales, and
management in the U.S., Middle East, and Asia-
Pacific. Chris joined Aesseal in 2002, moving his
family from Saudi Arabia to Knoxville, Tennes-
see. He has taught several courses and authored
a number of technical papers dealing with bearing
protection on pumps, electric motors, oil mist, and
gear boxes.
Alan Roddis is the engi-
neering director of Aesseal
plc. (Mill Close, Rotherham,
U.K. S60 1BZ; Email: alanr@
Aesseal.co.uk) He is a gradu-
ate mechanical engineer
(honors degree) and has been
responsible for the design of
modern sealing devices used
in pumps, mixers, compres-
sors, steam turbines, gear
speed reducers and dozens of
other machine categories used by hydrocarbon
processing, power generation, pharmaceuti-
cal, mining, food processing, paper, and many
other industries in dozens of countries. Roddis
holds several U.K. and international patents
on advanced sealing products and related me-
chanical devices. In his position at Aesseal, he
continues to spearhead the design and develop-
ment efforts at this manufacturer of advanced
technology sealing products.
For additional information please contact: FRANKEN FILTERTECHNIK KG, Germany
Phone: +49 (0) 2233 974 40-0, e-mail: info@frankenfilter.com, web: www.frankenfilter.com
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