Don't Fear ULSD

A lot of us do not embrace change. And why should we? With changes come new and unique challenges.

Our latest challenge is the use of ultra low sulfur diesel (ULSD) fuel. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated that by this past June, 80 percent of the on-road diesel fuel refined or imported must be ULSD. Retail outlets have until Oct. 15 to comply with the ULSD rules.

The new fuel standard reduces the amount of sulfur in on-road diesel by 97 percent and will support smokeless diesel engine technologies hitting the market in 2007.

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) believes the transition to ULSD could cause fuel supply and availability disruptions because it is easily contaminated during transport through a complex system of pipelines and fuel terminals.

According to the ATA, ULSD would force the trucking industry to spend more money on fuel that is less efficient at a time when current fuel prices already are hitting historic levels. ULSD, for example, is expected to add about five cents to the production and distribution of every gallon of fuel, reducing fuel economy by up to one percent.

So the big question is, how will the implementation of ULSD affect the service industry? Three words: expect the unexpected.

Because ULSD is prone to pick up contamination as it travels through the distribution system, refiners are planning to produce ULSD at between eight to 10 parts per million (ppm). Most terminal operators are expecting that by the time it reaches the rack to be loaded into trucks, it will likely be at 15 ppm. This leaves no margin for error in transporting compliant product to retail locations.

To put this into perspective, 15 ppm diesel fuel is equivalent to one tablespoon of sulfur in an Olympic-size pool full of fuel.

ULSD may accelerate the need to change filters on trucks and storage tanks, according to Joe Marlow, a vice president with filter manufacturer Fleetguard. Because, in most applications, ULSD is used in conjunction with high pressure common rail fuel systems, the fuel must be able to operate effectively with higher pressure temperatures and flows. This makes it more critical to have clean fuel, and you certainly don't want contaminants in the fuel under pressure.

Marlow noted that water in a high pressure fuel system is a significant concern, and it is harder to get the water out in ULSD. He says that a synthetic media for the filter may be needed rather than the normal cellulose media.

When you take sulfur out of fuel, you tend to get more "organic bugs" which cause filter plugging. ULSD's detergent effect scours fuel-storage tanks, picking up sludge-like particles found on the bottoms of tanks and bringing them into trucks' fuel tanks. This may require a fuel additive to prevent these organic growths.

These problems will certainly increase maintenance costs, specifically for fuel filters, which range from $15 to $50.

Finally, in some applications, you can add more filters to help avoid contamination and extend filter life.

Jack Chesler, an executive with Gold Eagle, has heard many concerns from his customers about ULSD. Gold Eagle and many of its competitors have developed diesel fuel additives to help offset many of the ULSD concerns.

Cutting the maximum allowable sulfur content to 15 ppm in diesel for trucking fleets will reduce the fuel's ability to lubricate components such as fuel pumps and injectors. This may result in having to put some type of lubrication back into the fuel.

There are various additives which may help, including a diesel anti-gel, winter conditioner and cetane booster. Chesler recommends that the technicians become knowledgeable about what's out there that can increase lubricity and decrease gelling.

He also suggests that repair shops go with proven additive companies and not "snake charmers."

Certainly ULSD offers many challenges but there are major opportunities for aftermarket additives and filters. Chesler's advice to the industry: Don't freak out. To independent repair shops, he suggests getting educated on ULSD and working with suppliers in the know.

I agree. We are not walking into this situation blind. There are plenty of suppliers who have prepared themselves to assist the service shops in getting through these questionable times and help them turn this transition into a new service opportunity.

Tim Kraus is Executive Director of the Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association. Prior to joining HDMA, he served as director of sales and marketing at Triseal Corp. The Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association (HDMA) is the heavy duty market segment association of the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Associations (MEMA). HDMA exclusively represents the interests and serves heavy duty product manufacturers.