Dealing with DPFs and DEF

by James Menzies

MARKHAM, Ont. – Their acronyms may sound alike, but the care and attention required of DPFs and DEF are very much different. Diesel particulate filters (DPFs), of course, have been on all new trucks since 2007. Their job is to trap and then burn off particulate matter at high temperatures.

Diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) is a new requirement on 2011 model year trucks using selective catalytic reduction (SCR) to eliminate NOx emissions. The new fluid is housed in a separate tank on the frame rail and is injected in small doses into the SCR catalyst, where it sparks a chemical reaction that converts NOx into harmless water and nitrogen.

Both DPFs and DEF are pollution-busting tools, but the similarities end there.

The recent Canadian Fleet Maintenance Seminar included a working session on the care requirements of both items, detailing how drivers and maintenance managers can ensure they get the most out of their costly aftertreatment systems.

Dealing with DEF
Unless you’re buying an International, any new truck you purchase from here on out will come with SCR and require DEF to function properly.

Contrary to early rumours, DEF isn’t a toxic substance. You don’t need rubber gloves, HazMat suits or gas masks to handle the fluid. It’s a mixture of urea and demineralized water that must be injected in small doses into the exhaust stream to trigger the chemical reaction that breaks NOx into harmless vapour.

While the fluid is not hazardous, Mack Trucks Canada’s Steven de Sousa, said there are things drivers and maintenance managers must be aware of.

They say cleanliness is next to godliness, and the same holds true for the SCR system. The biggest mistake a driver or maintenance manager can make is to put something other than DEF into the DEF tank. OEMs have gone to great lengths to prevent this, including putting a universally-coloured blue cap on the inlet, making the inlet too narrow into which to fit a diesel pump and in Mack’s case, magnetizing the opening so it will only accept the appropriate fluid from dispensing equipment.

“Make sure you don’t put anything other than DEF into the tank,” de Sousa warned. “No straight water, oil, gas and don’t use unapproved containers. That’s what’s going to kill us here in the industry, if you use an old funnel you used for coolant or oil, that’s going to cause issues.”

Most DEF is currently sold via plastic tote jug that comes complete with its own single-use funnel.

Another thing to keep in mind is that DEF is corrosive, which is why all truck makers provide plastic DEF tanks.

If dripped, “it will stain aluminum fuel tanks,” de Sousa warned. “Just wash it off with soap if you spill it on yourself, it’s not going to hurt you. If you spill it on paint, don’t scrub it off. Dab it off lightly and rinse with water and soap. It will damage the paint if you leave it on there.”

If left to dry on its own, DEF will turn into a white, powdery substance, which is a good indicator of a DEF leak and something drivers should watch for when conducting their pre-trip inspections.

“Drivers, on their pre-trip should just have a look for leaks,” de Sousa suggested. “Look at the pump, the pump connections, the injector, the exhaust connection from the DPF to the SCR catalyst and look for leaks around the band clamps. Look for a wet stain around those areas or for the white stuff.”

The only maintenance item on an SCR system is a filter underneath the inlet cap, which needs to be replaced every 3,000 hours or 100,000 miles. The filter costs about $30 so de Sousa recommends erring on the side of caution and replacing it early until there is more experience with the filter in real-world operating conditions.

There’s also a rock screen in the fill neck, which should be monitored and cleaned as required.

DEF dilution should not be an issue, but if for some reason old DEF that’s past its best before date is added to the tank throwing the dilution off and triggering the trouble light, customers should take their truck in for service and have the dealer measure the concentration. They’re equipped with special tools for just this purpose and in most cases, the problem can be solved by topping the tank up with fresh DEF.

In a worst case scenario if something other than DEF is put into the DEF tank, de Sousa said there’s a drain plug underneath the tank.

“Drain it on your lawn and you’ll have a nice new patch of grass there next summer,” he said. “If nothing else, it’s a very expensive fertilizer.”

After draining the tank, it should be washed with non-sudsing detergent and rinsed until the water is completely clear.
Drivers may notice a pump running for about four minutes after they shut down an SCR-equipped truck. Upon shutdown, the system reverses the flow of the fluid, drawing it back into the tank to prevent it from freezing in the lines. DEF freezes at -11 C, but as long as it’s in the DEF tank it won’t cause any damage and it will quickly thaw when the engine is restarted.

The other potential mistake – which seems unthinkable but actually became problematic in Europe where SCR has been used for years – is the use of home brew DEF.

“In Europe, some guys thought they could make their own stuff,” de Sousa said. “They got a buildup of residue with non-API certified DEF. You get deposits and the catalyst is useless and you’re basically looking at a replacement cost of about $6,200 each.”

It should go without saying that API-certified DEF is a must and you can identify it by the black seal of approval on the jug. If you come across DEF that isn’t labeled with the API seal, de Sousa suggests asking some questions of the supplier.
Inside the cab, drivers will notice a new gauge indicating DEF fluid levels. On Mack trucks, it’s directly across from the main fuel gauge.

“Make sure drivers know that,” de Sousa said. “We’ve had drivers think it was the left hand (fuel) tank and right hand (fuel) tank and they didn’t get too far with it.”

If DEF levels reach less than 12% of the tank’s capacity, a dash light will appear along with an audible alert and a warning will appear on the in-dash message centre. Numerous other warnings will occur before DEF levels reach 0.1%, at which time the engine will be derated by 25%, which should get the driver’s attention.

When DEF runs out completely, a new set of warnings will appear to let the driver know the engine speed will soon be limited to 5 mph. If the driver, for whatever reason, fills up with fuel but doesn’t add DEF, the truck will be limited to 5 mph, just enough speed to limp to a DEF supply.

While some driver awareness is required, de Sousa said there’s nothing to worry about as long as the SCR system is kept clean and the filter is replaced periodically.

“It’s nothing to be afraid of,” he said. “Keep it clean and stay on top of the maintenance of the filter and this thing is going to save you fuel like you wouldn’t believe.”

Dealing with DPFs

Truckers already have several years’ experience with DPFs, so by now they should be comfortable with the filters, which are responsible for the elimination of particulate matter or soot.

However, even after three years in the field, Norm West of DPF Cleaning Specialists warn many DPFs are being grossly neglected.

Engine OEMs have promised cleaning intervals as long as 320,000 kilometres, however West says they should be cleaned once a year in over-the-road applications and every nine months in vocational applications that involve lots of low speeds and stops and starts.

“We recommend (cleaning) from what we see from the end user’s point of view once a year, that’s minimum,” he warned. “If running vocational, maybe every nine months because they are being abused.”

As a third-party cleaner of particulate filters, West has seen all types of damage. Much of it was avoidable. For starters, he advises customers to get on top of DPF issues early. He sa
ys customers should keep an eye on the condition of connections to ensure they’re in good shape. Using a Krown T-40 on connections will help eliminate corrosion and other damage, he noted.

West also said owner/ops or maintenance managers should take resistance readings across the temperature sensors and look for consistency. If the readings vary, “there’s something wrong with the temperature sensors.”

Drivers may be able to detect potential DPF problems from behind the wheel.

“The first indication they’ll give you is ‘I’ve gotta drop a gear’,” West said. “That’s the first complaint you will get from a driver. If they have to drop a gear going up a long hill, they’re going to complain. By the time he does that, the DPF and the oxidation catalyst are already failing.”

Other symptoms of DPF problems may include poor fuel mileage and black smoke being emitted from the smokestack. If there’s an underlying cause of DPF damage, it should be fixed before the filter is cleaned and replaced.

“It’s not advantageous just to take the filter out, fix it and put it back in and have the same thing happen again,” West pointed out.

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  • DEF fluid keep drying under my cap on my spotter truck at work causing the cap to be perminatly stuck. Anyone know why or how to stop this

  • When taking apart def filter tank when installing new or clean filter should def filter tank be put togetter with new band clamps

  • Brian your cap has a seal check make sure seal is not rolled or broken. It’s also good to have few rags in side locker to wipe tank filling spout off do to def crystallize when exposed to air.

  • I’m working on a freight liner ,Cummings engine. Def pump is not pumping put new one in not working also. And I am getting power to pump. Was wondering if a Cummings def update can stop the pump from pumping I hooked it up to computer and it says it need update but was told not to do it because they having problems on the commons side of this updated

  • This article states no health effects but the container says that it may cause cancer and birth defects according to the State of California. ??

  • is there anything to clean the def system or an additive to put in the tank every now and then for the crystal build up on the container

  • I took a road trip and got a P249d error code after a “def fluid quality poor” message on my 2013 duramax. Took it to a Chevy dealership, paid $900 to have the tank and an injector replaced. Less than a month later, same situation. Is there a warranty I should check before taking it back into the dealer again? I’m hearing this is a common issue with the def systems.

  • This system is crippling the industry and also Dramatically Increasing the Emissions of PM2.5 , very very damaging small particulate matter !!
    The US EPA is packed with idiots!