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Turbochargers and Related Problems

Tags: oil analysis

How can the stages of bearing failure in a plain bearing (not ball bearing) be detected on a turbocharger
installed on a medium-speed engine burning heavy fuel oil? How can one detect the bearing failure
using vibration analysis?

The basic operation of a turbocharger encompasses a turbine and a compressor on a common shaft. The
turbine is driven by exhaust gas, which in turn drives the compressor that injects compressed air into the
engine. This shaft can rotate up to 170,000 RPM.

The compressed air leaving the turbocharger can reach temperatures up to 200°C. This hot air is cooled
by either an intercooler or aftercooler using water or air. This allows more air to be injected into the
engine because cool air is more dense than hot air.

The bearings are generally lubricated by the engine oil, which is pumped through the turbocharger
journal bearings and acts as both a lubricant and a coolant.

The journal bearings are a free-floating rotational type that floats on a six- to nine-micron film of oil. A
free-floating bearing revolves around both bearing and shaft, and bearing and bearing housing. These
bearing clearances are tight, and dirty oil can cause serious damage.

Origins of Turbocharger Problems

Damaged blade caused by contamination from dirt or other particles entering the turbine or compressor

Low power or boost caused by a gas leak or blocked cooler restricting air injection.

Whistling caused by an air or gas leak.

Sluggish or seized turbocharger resulting from oil breakdown and degradation.

Worn or excessive clearance caused by low oil, contaminated oil, and dirt injection.

Other Causes

The best technique for dealing with turbocharger problems is to prevent them from occurring.

Use the proper synthetic oil recommended by the manufacturer.

Install a quality oil filter and change at recommended intervals.

Frequently sample the oil for contamination and additive depletion.

Repair any air leaks and sources from contamination injection.

Idle the engine for two to three minutes to cool down the turbo bearings before shutting off the engine,
and thus the (cooling) oil supply.

Turbochargers have a high infant mortality rate, meaning they often fail early in their functional lives.
This is primarily due to dirt and foreign contamination left in the chambers after rebuild or installation.
For this reason, cleanliness cannot be over stressed.

Diagnosing Problems

Most diagnostics such as vibration analysis or infrared thermography will detect the problem at a stage
only when damage is excessive.
Oil analysis is the best method for determining an impending problem before it reaches catastrophic
proportions. Damage can result in a short time, and because of the high temperatures and speeds in
these machines, proper maintenance - including clean and proper oil, oil analysis, eliminating air leaks
and the shutdown procedure (three minutes cooling off before shutdown) - is critical.

Vibration analysis may be beneficial on a new installation or rebuild to check for balancing problems. It
will also pick up a damaged blade and bad bearing, but not until the damage reaches the stage where a
rebuild is necessary.

Journal Bearing Failures

There are several causes for journal bearing failures, including:

Lubrication contamination

Incorrect lubricant (viscosity and/or additives)

Environmental conditions (temperature)


Load (overloading and/or shock loading)


Shaft problems (bent or cracked)

Oil whirl

Loose foot


Metallurgical and manufacturing defects

A combination of oil and vibration analysis is the best approach to detect early signs of bearing failure.
These two analytical tools can identify worn or damaged components at their earliest stages.

Journal bearings do not fail in the same way as roller bearings. Certain well-defined fundamental
frequencies appear at different failure stages in roller bearings that are not

Common Faults & Our Services

Our experienced team of engineers have been helping vehicle owners from around the world with their
turbo problems for many years. Often a turbocharger will give clues that it is failing, it is important to
recognise these signs and act fast. Ignoring the signs can result in further damage to the turbocharger
and other components, increasing the cost of repairs.

If your turbocharger has failed, we offer turbo repairs for a full range of turbochargers using new genuine
parts to ensure each and every rebuilt turbo meets & exceeds OE specifications. All turbocharger
rebuilds are backed by our 2-year warranty.

What Causes Turbo Problems

There are a number of reasons for turbocharger failure and it’s not always easy to identify a turbo fault.
If you notice your vehicle is losing oil on the dipstick, losing power, smoking or is noisier than usual – you
may have a turbo related issue. In this post, we want to share some of the most common problems
we’ve found with turbochargers – What causes turbocharger damage and how to tell if your
turbocharger is in need of a service, repair or rebuild.

Your turbo requires a constant flow of clean oil to keep the moving parts of the turbocharger well
lubricated. The build-up of carbon deposits and contaminants can cause abrasive damage to the inside
of the turbocharger and if left untreated, over time it can reduce the efficiency and cause irreparable

Low oil levels will reduce the oil pressure, which in turn will make it difficult for the oil to get round to all
of the necessary components and lubricate efficiently. From a cold start, the oil will be thick and takes a
little longer to get round to all the moving parts. Once warm, the oil will thin down and provide better
lubrication. Speeding off from a cold start can cause friction damage to your turbocharger due to a lack
of lubrication.

Fully synthetic oil produces the least amount of carbon. We recommend regular oil + filter changes and
routinely check to ensure your oil is topped up to the correct level. As a rule of thumb, allow the oil 60
seconds to warm up from a cold-start before driving away to ensure the turbocharger is well lubricated.

Foreign Objects

Foreign objects can enter the turbocharger from either the compressor inlet or the turbine inlet. This
could be anything from broken engine components, dust particles, small stones and even leaves. The
impact damage caused by foreign objects entering the turbocharger can be devastating and very
expensive to repair.

We recommend regular servicing of the air filter and checking the intake pipes and turbo for any debris
or loose connections.


A turbocharger works by increasing the air pressure going into the engine. If there are leaks along the air
intake system, the turbocharger will need to work harder to produce the same amount of air pressure.
The increased strain on the turbocharger will reduce the efficiency and will wear out internal
components faster.
Never ignore leaks and split hoses. Leak testers are a cost-effective way of finding leaks.

Blocked Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF)

A blocked DPF can cause the turbocharger to fail for many reasons and below we list the three most
common causes of a turbo failure following a blocked diesel particulate filter:

Increased Exhaust Gas Temperatures (EGT’s)

Increased Back Pressure

Excessive Carbon Build-Up

Regular oil + filter changes and frequent motorway runs will help to prevent a DPF from blocking up.

How To Spot a Failing Turbo

We often hear customers say the rebuilt turbo we returned has increased the power of their vehicle but
actually, it’s the same turbocharger that was removed from the vehicle for reconditioning. The reason for
this is because the turbocharger has been failing for quite some time and the gradual reduction in
efficiency and power goes unnoticed – whereas the restored power and efficiency will feel like a
complete upgrade.

There are many ways to tell if the turbo on your vehicle is giving up and in need of maintenance or

Check Engine Warning Light

Most modern vehicles may log a turbo related fault code, which can be picked up by a diagnostic scan
through the OBDII port. However, you should not rely solely on the diagnostic fault codes – further
checks will be necessary to find the root cause of the fault code being logged.

Monitor Turbo Boost Gauge

A turbo boost gauge will show you how much boost pressure your turbocharger is producing in real
time. Not all vehicles are fitted with a boost gauge but they can be installed as an addon if required. If
you notice your boost gauge is not going up as much as it used to, it would suggest there is either a
boost leak or the turbocharger may be in need of a repair.
Loss of Power

If you notice your vehicle does not accelerate how it used to, struggles to reach the speeds it used to or
there are unusual delays in the power delivery, your turbocharger may be in need of maintenance or

Exhaust Smoke

A cracked turbo housing or leaking oil seals may allow oil to pass through to the exhaust system. As the
oil burns, it will produce a distinctive grey/blue smoke, which may become more visible when you
accelerate. The oil could be leaking through the front of the turbo and making its way through the intake
system. The oil burning in the engine cylinders will have the same effect (blue/grey smoke). Oil in the
cylinders is especially dangerous because it can cause the engine to/

rev up on its own.

Whining Noise

If your turbocharger has lost its balance or suffered damage to the compressor wheel, you may hear a
very distinctive whine/whistle on acceleration.

The Next Step – Checking Your Turbo

If you’ve noticed any of the above symptoms of a failing turbocharger, we recommend getting it checked
out sooner rather than later. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away and the turbo certainly won’t
repair itself. In fact, the longer you leave it, the more damage it can cause and the more expensive it can
become to repair.

At Sinspeed, we’re always happy to help with a cost-effective and efficient diagnosis and repair service
for a full range of turbochargers. If you’re mechanically minded, there are some checks you may be able
to carry out yourself.

Look for signs of oil, excessive movement or impact damage between the compressor wheel and
housing. If you can remove the exhaust all the way back to the turbocharger, then inspect the turbine
wheel too – it should be free of any carbon build-up, scale or oil along the surface with no damage to the
At Sinspeed, our team of turbo specialists can offer a professional turbo rebuild service and carry a full
range of reconditioned turbochargers in stock. We use new OE parts for all turbo repairs and our
remanufactured turbochargers are backed by a 2-year warranty. Get in touch today by calling us on 0203
815 9441 or send an email here.



This will cause a vacuum to build in the compressor housing and pull oil past the seal. This will be most
noticeable when letting the engine idle for extended periods of time. When the engine is running with a
load there is enough pressure in the compressor housing to keep the seal seated and the oil from leaking
past. Servicing the air cleaner at recommended intervals should keep this problem from occurring.


When excessive air pressure is coming from the crankcase the oil is actually being pushed past the seals.
Many times oil will be noticed in both the compressor housing and the turbine housing with this type of
problem. A good place to start when crankcase pressure is suspected is by inspecting the engines
crankcase breather. If this becomes plugged it will cause high crankcase pressure. If it is not plugged but
appears to flow an excessive amount of air, it may be a sign that the seal between the piston rings and
cylinder liner has been compromised and the engine needs to have a rebuild kit installed.



When the oil drain line has a restriction in it, a possible result is that the oil will back up into the bearing
housing. When this happens the oil can push its way past the seals and into the turbine housing. If this is
suspected, there are a couple of trouble spots to check. Look at the drain gasket for excessive silicone
that may have seeped into the line. A second item to check is if the drain line has a silicon rubber
section. Sometimes, if the line has been changed with standard heater hose it may swell due to contact
with oil and cause a blockage. It will need to be replaced with an oil-resistant silicone hose.


If the valve guide seals in the cylinder head pass oil or if the piston rings allow oil to pass it will be
expelled out the exhaust manifold. From the exhaust manifold it then travels through the turbine
housing and out the exhaust pipe. This is a very common problem and has led to many unnecessary
turbochargers to be changed. The turbo will look very suspect and may appear to be leaking both
externally and internally. An excellent way to diagnose this is by adding florescent oil dye to the oil. After
letting the engine idle for some time, the turbocharger can be removed and a black light used to see if
the dye is present in the exhaust manifold. If it is, the oil is coming from the engine and not the turbo.


This issue was also covered under oil in the compressor housing, but should also be mentioned here.
When excessive air pressure is coming from the crankcase the oil is actually being pushed past the seals.
A good place to start when crankcase pressure is suspected is by inspecting the engines crankcase
breather. If this becomes plugged it will cause high crankcase pressure. If it is not plugged but appears to
flow an excessive amount of air, it may be a sign that the seal between the piston rings and cylinder liner
has been compromised and the engine needs to have a rebuild kit installed.



A damaged compressor wheel can be a result of a foreign object getting into the compressor housing.
Turbo bearing failure is also a leading cause. This can be diagnosed by removing the intake tubing and
examining the compressor wheel. If fins are bent, missing, or even just missing a piece the turbo should
be rebuilt or replaced. Also, if pieces are missing it is a good practice to have the charge air cleaner
cleaned and inspected. This will ensure no further engine damage is caused by one of the pieces
entering the intake manifold.


A damaged turbine wheel can be a result of internal engine pieces being expelled out of the engine due
to a failure. Turbo bearing failure is also a leading cause. Another known cause is carbon buildup in

A damaged turbine wheel can be a result of internal engine pieces being expelled out of the engine due
to a failure. Turbo bearing failure is also a leading cause. Another known cause is carbon buildup in the
turbine housing. This can be diagnosed by removing the exhaust pipe and examining the turbine wheel.
As with a damaged compressor wheel, if any of the fins are bent, missing or even just missing a piece the
turbo should be replaced or rebuilt. If any pieces are missing, it is a good practice to try and remove
them from the exhaust piping.

Turbocharger bearings can fail for many reasons. A few of more popular include:

Poor engine maintenance of oil or air cleaner allowing dirt to come in contact with the bearings.

Loose turbo clamps allowing the compressor or turbine housing to move.

Oil starvation on engine startup or when first installing the turbo.

Wastegate malfunction, removal, or wastegate hose pinched.

The best way to diagnose a bearing failure is removal of both the intake piping and exhaust piping. This
will allow access to both ends of the rotating assembly. Check the bearings by spinning the rotating
assembly to ensure it moves freely. Check the end play by pushing and pulling the shaft. If there is any
end play the turbo should be rebuilt or replaced. Check the side play by pushing the rotating assembly
towards the compressor or turbine housing. Some play here is allowed, and the compressor or turbine
wheel may be able to touch the housing depending on how much force is applied. The concern would be
if there is excessive side play or “slop” for lack of a better term. If the side play is deemed excessive the
turbo should be rebuilt or replaced.