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Wednesday, January 03, 2018

The Diesel Quandary

So I'm looking to re-power Moonfish, which, because it was built before 2000, doesn't fall into the mandatory emission replacement protocols. I'd take another Mack in a heartbeat, but unfortunately, Mack was bought by Volvo, and Volvo had a 6-cylinder 650 hp (650 hp, they claim) marine diesel, and because they didn't want to redesign the motor to meet new emission standards (yeah, right...more like they didn't want the competition from a better, more popular motor, one of the best diesels ever built), Volvo killed the Mack E7M.

I can get another mechanical diesel, rebuilt, remanned, but they are getting harder to find. Not only that, I'd like the exhaust and water pump to be on the starboard side, right side of the motor. Anyway, I've been looking at diesels on Ebay and elsewhere for months, and I've come to realize some stuff.

Government has really screwed the pooch on this. I'm not just talking about emissions, climate change, global warming, or pollution. I'm also talking about the search for more horsepower per pound. While the government is regulating particulates, CO, and NOx out of compression-ignition engines, the military, and even the average consumer or commercial operator, desires the most horsepower out of the smallest package. These two objectives seem to be mutually exclusive.

So how have manufacturers done answering the demands of both goals?

For one thing, to control pollution, all new engines are run by computers that operate on the feedback-loop principle. Basically, it's all about coolant and air temperature, filtration, and engine load. In the old days, if you stepped on the pedal of your tractor hauling 50 tons of frozen hamburger up a hill, the fuel pump would dump roughly the same amount of diesel into the cylinders as if your were riding light. The result: unburnt fuel poured out of the stacks in clouds of black smoke as the fuel pumping into the cylinders failed to fully combust under the heavier than expected load. But today the engine control module senses the load and meters the fuel in precise amounts to only send enough to get the engine accelerating accordingly, all of this to reduce emissions. That's fine. It's great. It's technological advancement, and it's what the human race is about.


New, electronically controlled engines aren't lasting as long as older mechanically controlled engines did. And mechanically controlled engines are being regulated out of existence and destroyed by the government at the same time. Financial incentives to upgrade to Tier 3 and Tier 4 motors are substantial. We're talking forty percent of the cost of the motor including the cost of installation. To give you an example, in my little 37' boat, a 650 hp Tier 3 motor will cost $100,000, including installation. The government will pay 40% of this. Translation: you, the taxpayer, are ponying up $40,000 for my new motor. And I'm just a small time operator.

Now take into account the added cost of maintenance, repair, and downtime on engines, which are much more complex than mechanically controlled engines. When things seem to go wrong in an electronically controlled motor, it tends to be of the catastrophic variety. Yes, we are keeping carcinogens out of the air by turning to newer diesel engines, but at what "net" cost to the environment. Has anyone bothered to analyze this? If an engine is being replaced every 10,000 hours instead of every 50,000 hours, what are we compromising? What it is the environmental cost of replacement manufacturing?

I mentioned that newer engines aren't lasting very long. An example. Thirty years ago it would not have been uncommon to see a 3406 Caterpillar diesel engine with 50,000 hours on it still running strong in a boat. I would like someone to show me one C9 or C10 Cat that hasn't had problems requiring a major at 10,000 hours.

Another example, this one in the automotive industry: The Ford 7.3L diesel, the original Navistar by International, one of the best diesels every built, like my Mack E7. The 7.3 was a slow dog on the entrance ramp but it would go a million miles, literally. Replaced by the 6.0L in 2003 because the 7.3 could not be adapted to meet the new emission standards. The Ford 6.0L was a disaster at rollout. Ford ultimately used the consumer to beta test it. Years of catch-up re-engineering, recalls, and factory remans took place until Ford finally gave up and replaced it with the 6.4L in 2008. This one also had major design issues and I would call it an engineering failure given that it was replaced 2 years later with the 6.7L. The 6.4 was more reliable than the 6.1 but new emission controls made it fuel hungry. The 6.7 is in service 8 years now.The 7.3L had a service life of 9 years but was only taken out of service because of emission regs. The new 6.7L has known issues and went through a Gen2 modification in 2017. It is still a very fussy engine and requires frequent checks and scrupulous attention to its maintenance, as do all late tier on-the-road diesels.

And here's another recent twist: The CEO of Volvo recently announced that their latest automotive diesel redesign would be their last. They will not try to meet new European emission control targets with another diesel engine. This applies just to their car engines. Anyway, the reason: It's just too expensive and not cost-effective. I would also argue -- although I have no data to back this up -- that the intended benefit to the environment by establishing stricter and stricter emission control standards in diesel engines has been reduced significantly, and maybe completely nullified, by the additional manufacturing of emission control components, the manufacturing of new power plants needed to replace those that failed to meet original design parameters, and the deliberate destruction and de-commissioning of perfectly good power plants that don't meet newer emission standards.

The short of it is this: As I look for a mechanical replacement for my perfect Mack diesel, I'm struck by the number of engines I see in the same horsepower range with dual turbos on the back and complex serpentine belt arrangements on the front. Why? Why would I want two turbos to worry about blowing a seal. Why would I want to change a serpentine belt in a raging gale at sea.

At one time, I would look at a new marine diesel and ask myself why an engine manufacturer would mount oil filters horizontally. Now I look at them and I see EGRs and DPFs (Diesel Particulate Filters). The DPF collects particulates before they leave the exhaust. When the DPF fills to a certain point, a sensor triggers a feedback signal to the control module. The module changes the metering of fuel to increase engine exhaust temperature so that the particulate matter can be burned away. Does this seem like a good idea to you? Doesn't this type of engineering feel like an afterthought" At what point are we having the engine do almost as much work controlling emissions as we have it actually moving the vehicle?

I'm being facetious with my last statement, but I think the writing is on the wall. Volvo is getting out of the automotive diesel engine business, and other manufacturers are sure to follow. What comes next for other industries?