With the vast majority being oil lubricated, that oil has the potential to contaminate food directly, or the employees working in the plant. With the vacuum pump sucking air out, that air needs to exhaust somewhere. Filters are installed to absorb the oil but there is only so much they can take before they become saturated. When that happens the exhaust air will contain oil particles and will eventually generate small puddles of oil under the machine.
As Gardner Denver’s Food & Beverage Sector Manager, Iain Cunningham, who has extensive experience of working in the sector and has seen what can happen to vacuum pumps if they are not regularly checked.
He explains: “I’ve seen first-hand how vacuum pumps can cause problems. Inside food production halls I’ve witnessed smoking, oil lubricated pumps. The next stage if it isn’t dealt with could well be a fire!
“Due to a lack of servicing or other issues, such as badly fitting or failing separators, the filters can become blocked and so oil bypasses the filters and blows out of the back of the pump. Oil droplets are in the air circulating in the food environment. No food processor wants that in their plant.”
Iain, and the Gardner Denver team throughout Europe, work closely with food producers to maximise the benefits their customers can gain from vacuum packaging. Because OEMs often see the pumps as a standard commodity product, they often find that companies aren’t using the machines to their optimum value and so missing out on a faster throughput, or more appropriate vacuum levels.
To avoid potential problems with air contamination around the food, one of the solutions can be as simple as moving the machine away from direct contact with the production area, behind a wall or above a ceiling.
Basic processes such as cleaning and the environment around the machine are also important to the pump’s performance. There is an additional danger that food carryover could get into the pump’s oil filters and washing down with harsh chemicals can also cause parts in the pump to corrode.
A five-point checklist aimed at avoiding potential problems has been compiled to guide food producers through the common pitfalls. Key to the success of the list is using vacuum pump experts and not relying on generalist maintenance providers to make sure the equipment is properly cared for.
Five point pump checklist
- The first is to fit downstream oil filters to act a further safeguard against accidental food contamination from the failure of blocked filters.This will, in turn, prevent the carryover of oil into the environment.
- It is often poor maintenance, or inadequate maintenance practices, and minor equipment faults that risk oil discharging from the exhaust and the potential for oil contamination from oil-lubricated vacuum pumps.Regular and timely maintenance is the best option to avoid potential contamination. This will ensure that pumps run properly with very little or no oil carryover and increases pump efficiency and pump life expectancy.
- Even with a high level of care and due diligence, trace amounts of lubricant can come into contact with a food contact surface, the packaging or the food itself.Choose food grade or incidental contact lubricants as they are specifically designed to meet strict regulatory limitations.
- Always using genuine parts for pumps is another way of minimising problems.Oil-lubricated vacuum pumps run the risk of oil being discharged from the exhaust and there is a chance the separator element may fail due to disuse, a poor fit or poor quality.Genuine parts will dramatically reduce the risk of this happening, ensuring a longer lower risk of operational life than if non-genuine spares and parts are used.
- The ultimate option to avoid the issues associated with oil-lubricated pumps is to go oil-free. Specifically developed to meet the needs of manufacturers requiring only the highest air purity standards, oil-free pumps don’t require the same level of maintenance as oil-lubricated models as there is no need to replace oil or filters.This also provides the added benefit of cutting down on costs over a pump’s lifetime.Another major advantage is that the oil-free pump doesn’t have to be removed to carry out maintenance so there is a considerable reduction in equipment downtime and associated costs from oil, waste old disposal or labour.