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Tis the Season for Diesel Additives


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Here in Northeast Ohio, we recently experienced a “cold snap.” Temperatures dropped below zero degrees Fahrenheit, with wind chills approaching minus 20 F. Needless to say, most people were caught off-guard by the temperatures, and how long that cold weather stuck around.

It highlighted just how much we’re affected by our climate, and for that matter, our cars and trucks. Drivers lost control on highways and had to be towed out of the ditch along the highway, while others weren’t able to start their engine thanks to a weakened battery. I remember many things from my time behind the parts counter, but none more so than this: With each new season comes a pattern of vehicle repairs or needs. You’ll never sell more wiper blades than on a rainy day, and you’ll sell more batteries when temperatures climb or drop to extreme levels. Today, I want to focus on diesel engines and the challenges they face during the winter months.

Diesel engines typically are associated with larger pickups, thanks in part to their workhorse nature and their abundant torque production. But cold weather is rather harsh on diesel fuel and the fuel system. When temperatures dip, it can form into a gel instead of a liquid. Cold diesel fuel is harder to ignite under compression, which means the engine has to crank longer than usual. In extreme cold, the engine might become difficult to start even when the glow plugs are given the time to do their job.

Diesel fuel has changed quite a bit in recent decades. The United States has mandated the use of ultra-low-sulfur diesel (ULSD) fuel in an effort to improve air quality. But this also has brought about some chemical changes in the refining process, and with it, some new challenges to overcome. Those chemical changes have caused an increase in paraffin inside the fuel, which can lead to a buildup of wax particles. Those wax particles can form larger crystals that can clog up fuel lines, filters and so on.

Condensation inside the fuel also is a concern. Condensation is a major contributor to rust, cold-weather icing and microorganism growth in warmer weather. Diesel engines can operate much better when corrosion and bacteria growth are prevented.

The Solution: Fuel Additives

Additives aren’t new. In fact, they’re present inside each and every container of oil you carry in your store. When it comes to diesel-fuel additives, they have a simple job to do: Help the diesel fuel to resist the effects of the cold weather. Fuel treatments help to reduce fuel gelling by encapsulating and dispersing those waxy crystals as they’re formed. When done right, this can prevent them from growing large enough to clog any of the components in the fuel system. The fuel is then able to flow more easily through the fuel filters and lines and into the combustion chamber where it can be burned.

Some fuel treatments will contain some or all of the following additives. Lubricity additives help to protect diesel-fuel systems from internal wear. Lubricity additives help the fuel to form a boundary layer of lubrication between the metallic parts inside the fuel system. This film helps to reduce friction between the metal surfaces, and the wear and tear on them. This can extend the life of those components and reduce downtime in the future. Cetane boosters increase the flammability of the diesel fuel, and this allows for a cleaner-burning diesel engine.

What Should You Tell Your Customers?

To most customers, fuel treatments can be thought of as just another routine maintenance item. Most fuel treatments will need to be poured into the fuel tank at each fill-up, but it’s best practice to always reference the usage guidelines from the manufacturer.

If you need help to overcome a cost objection, I wouldn’t suggest trying to scare them with the cost of potential breakdowns or repairs down the road. In my eyes, fuel treatments are simply a “peace-of-mind” sort of sale. Their job is simple, and their objectives are clear. So, if we place ourselves into the customer’s shoes, the benefit they have to offer is the peace of mind that their diesel engine will continue to operate without issue throughout the colder winter months. While it’s true that they can reduce the risk of costly repairs or breakdowns later on, I wouldn’t lead with that thought.

The need for diesel-fuel treatment products will definitely spike as the temperatures start to dip. So, I would invite you to take a few moments to read the labels on the products you carry in your store, and familiarize yourself with what separates one from the next. Then, you’ll be ready to help your customers find the right product for their diesel-powered vehicle.

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      When I hear the term diesel, the first thing I always picture in my mind is an 18-wheeler. Then my thoughts drift to gleaming chrome stacks, tons of load-hauling torque and the sounds of a semi-truck. The next thing you know I’m kicking back to watch the greatest trucking movie of all time, “Convoy,” for what’s probably the 10th time.
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      Diesel fuel burns slowly. When the combustion process begins, the force of the expanding gasses pushes the piston downwards, but the air/fuel mixture continues to burn as the piston travels downward, exerting continuous force on the piston until it nears the bottom of the stroke. This continuous force on the piston is why diesel engines produce so much torque. Modern electronic control of diesel-fuel systems has allowed them to precisely control fuel-injection time to maximize this effect.
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      Another reason for increased longevity also has to do with the slower speed in which the diesel fuel burns. The combustion of gasoline is a violent process that applies incredible stresses on the rotating assembly, whereas the diesel-fuel combustion process is less violent, applying a steady, continuous downward force on the piston.
      Then there’s temperature. Diesel fuel ignites at a lower temperature than gasoline, so combustion temperatures, as well as exhaust temperatures, are lower. And finally, there’s construction. Because of the higher compression ratios, diesel engines are built stronger and sturdier from the block and heads to the rotating assembly, often with increased oil capacity and improved oiling systems.
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      In recent years, there’s been turmoil and scandal related to diesel-powered vehicles, and now there’s plenty of speculation that the end of the diesel isn’t too far off. But diesel owners aren’t ready to give up – meaning parts opportunities abound. With fewer diesel vehicles available, there will be a stronger push to keep the current ones on the road.
      Some areas of repair – such as timing belts, water pumps and hoses – ultimately don’t differ from a gasoline vehicle. However, an area where you can capitalize is maintenance. Diesel engines can last a long time, and that longer service life extends the opportunity to sell maintenance items.
      Fuel Treatment
      An immediate area to take advantage of is fuel treatment. The fuel system is the heart of a diesel. Fuel quantity controls engine speed. There’s no ignition system, and there’s no air-volume control or throttle plates like those on a gasoline vehicle. (In case a customer decides to call you out, there are some diesels with throttle plates, but they don’t have anything to do with controlling engine speed – they only smooth out engine shutdown and increase exhaust-gas recirculation.)
      Diesels have complex and expensive injection pumps and injectors. Not only does diesel fuel extend cylinder life with its lubricity, but it also preserves the life of the fuel system itself.
      The problem is that in order to reduce air pollution, ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel was introduced in 2006. By losing the sulfur, diesel fuel also lost the majority of its lubricity. This can be, will be and has been a big problem. Diesel-fuel treatments add back this lubricity, and while they may seem expensive to a customer, a small bottle treats many gallons, and if it’s properly measured, it ultimately only results in a minor fuel-cost increase.
      Cold-weather performance is another problem. Diesel fuel has always had a tendency to gel in extremely cold temperatures, and the loss of sulfur has made it worse. Diesel-fuel additives will combat this problem as well. Additives also battle cylinder deposits, and on a diesel engine these deposits soak up diesel fuel and effect fuel economy. Fuel additives should be recommended for continuous use.
      Filters
      Next on the easy-sell list is filters. Air filters fall under standard replacement guidelines that you’re used to, but fuel filters are an area to concentrate on. Contaminants can be very damaging to diesel-fuel pumps and injectors, and water accumulation in diesel fuel is a common problem. Diesel fuel often is stored for longer periods of time than gasoline, and the water accumulation is a result of condensation from temperature change.
      For this reason, almost every piece of heavy equipment has an individual water separator, and even many small diesel cars have water-drain valves in the bottom of their fuel filters. Generally, water accumulation isn’t a problem at larger-volume gas stations, but there’s no way of knowing for sure, so it’s better to err on the side of caution. Diesel-fuel filters should be replaced at least once a year.
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      Performance upgrades are common among diesel enthusiasts – especially intake and exhaust systems – but it can be a difficult market to get into since there are so many different options and applications. The best opportunities lie with accessories and upgrades that fit all models, such as gauges, lighting and interior accessories.
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      When diesel fuel burns, it leaves behind black soot. This soot finds its way past the piston rings into the crankcase and turns the engine oil black. Even when changing the oil, there’s almost always enough residual oil in the pan and throughout the engine that the new oil is black almost immediately. The soot doesn’t harm the properties and performance of the oil, but think of it like any dirt particles: If there’s too much of it, the oil performance will degrade.
      It’s easy to see oil condition on the dipstick of a gasoline engine, but on a diesel there’s no way of telling. It’s critical for vehicle owners to document oil-change mileage so they don’t go over. It’s best to follow manufacturer recommendations for oil type, and it’s a good idea to recommend a high-quality oil filter. While diesel-powered cars typically have standard oil capacities, many pickup trucks have much higher capacities – sometimes 10 quarts or more. If your customer isn’t sure, take the extra step of looking it up so they don’t get home and end up short.
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      Diesel Exhaust Fluid
      For the 2010 model year, the EPA mandated that diesel engines reduce the production of nitrogen oxides (NOx), which is linked to the formation of acid rain and smog. Diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) is what allowed manufacturers to meet these requirements. DEF is a solution of urea and deionized water that’s injected into the exhaust system before the catalytic converter. The chemical reaction forms ammonia, which then works in conjunction with the catalyst to convert NOx into nitrogen and water.
      It’s ultimately a simple solution, but diesel owners need to keep the DEF reservoirs full. If the DEF runs out, the vehicle will not start. If they’re running, they won’t quit, but often go into a low-power mode.
      Block Heaters
      Historically, diesel engines were known for difficult cold-weather starting, since the heat of compression ignites the fuel. Modern combustion-chamber design and technology have greatly improved this problem, but in the far northern regions of the United States and in Canada, diesel owners often don’t have a choice but to install a block heater. Even in areas where starting isn’t a problem, block heaters are popular in the winter since diesel engines take a long time to warm up.
      There are two different types of heaters. Most factory-style heaters are designed to fit directly into the engine block in place of a casting plug, which places a heating element directly into the engine coolant. This is generally the preferred method, as it’s the most effective.
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      Tips for Your Customers
      The best advice you can give your customers is explaining the importance of diesel maintenance. A critical tip, however, involves replacement of a diesel-fuel filter. When a diesel runs out of fuel, air is drawn into the lines, and they simply won’t start until the air is bled out. Cranking the engine won’t do anything except overheat the starter.
      Some diesel trucks and heavy equipment are equipped with primers, such as those you may be familiar with on small engines. They’re designed to draw fuel from the tank and fill the filter and pump. Some newer vehicles have electronic primers that do this when the key is cycled on, but many diesel-powered cars don’t have either of these features. When the fuel filter is replaced, it needs to be filled with diesel fuel before connecting the lines. It often requires a small funnel, and it can take a few minutes to get it done, but it’s mandatory.
      Seasoned diesel owners should be familiar with fuel-filter replacement, but it never hurts to ask and make sure they are. You can save your customer a lot of trouble.
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