Shopping for iron

by James Menzies

Emission aftertreatment systems, which in their early years proved troubling and costly for fleets and owner-operators, continue to be a major part of the discussion during used truck transactions. Some customers want nothing to do with the emissions systems that came into play in 2007 and remain a reality today, which has driven up the value of model year 2006 and older trucks.

“There’s a whole subculture for that,” Sean Whalen, sales manager for Vision Truck Group, said of customers wanting nothing but pre-emission trucks. “I’d say 20% of the market is looking for that now.”

Whalen used to have a healthy export business, shipping older Mack trucks to Nigeria. However, the local demand for these pre-emission vehicles has grown so much that he’s having trouble filling orders from overseas. And these older trucks are now commanding a premium.

“A non-emission (system) truck from 2004 to 2007 now has a higher resale value than a 2008 to 2011,” Whalen said. “Those trucks are very hard to find now. It’s all about supply and demand.”

Some operators are so afraid of the emissions systems, and the associated downtime from early generation versions, that they’ve illegally removed the diesel particulate filter (DPF) and/or EGR valve, and had the engine software reprogrammed. Such illegal modifications are often called ‘DPF deletes’ – and used truck buyers should be wary of buying such a truck.

“I can’t take a truck if the emissions (systems) have been defeated,” Whalen said, which is standard practice at OEM truck dealerships. “A dealer can’t take defeated trucks. It has to be run through our shop before we can make the deal and tell them what the truck is worth. As soon as it’s defeated, there’s not a chance it’s coming in here.”

Buying from an OEM dealer provides some peace of mind that the emissions system is in tact, while private sales or “curbsider” transactions don’t provide the same assurance. It can be difficult to tell at a glance if an emissions system is functioning, but enforcement officers have become better educated on what to look for and can park a vehicle that’s been tampered with. There’s also a push from industry for heightened enforcement against emissions system modifications. Restoring the emissions system is no quick fix, either.

“We have had a couple instances where a guy has had to pay $40,000 because of certain defeat items,” said Whalen. “We had a customer here yesterday who said the emissions system is off. He was rubbing his hands like it’s a good thing. It’s not a good thing. As soon as you get caught at the scale, it does not go back on the road and you don’t get it back until you have a letter from the dealer that it’s all been put back to original condition.”

The good news is, emissions systems have been redesigned in recent years, and their reliability has improved. Whalen said they seem to have turned the corner around 2014.
Ron Krulicki, used truck sales manager for Maxim Truck & Trailer, advises buyers that aren’t familiar with modern emissions systems that some adjustments may have to be made to how they operate.

“Today’s engines shouldn’t be idled,” he writes in Maxim’s Ultimate Guide to Buying a Used Semi-Truck. “Idling plugs up the DPF filters. That can lead to huge bills at dealerships if the driver doesn’t watch the gauges. We have some trucks where the drivers have taped over the DPF filter warnings.”

Whalen suggested buyers enquire about the most recent DPF cleaning, and other maintenance items related to the emissions system.
“When was the DPF cleaned? When was the seventh injector cleaned?”

Finding late model used trucks with reliable emissions systems has been challenging, due to a lack of supply.

“Good used trucks are hard to find right now,” said Tony Hartleib of RJ Trucks.

That could soon change, however. North American truck orders surged in 2018, reaching near-record levels, and since those trucks don’t come from the factory with a driver, most of those orders were driven by replacement demand. This means as those trucks are delivered in 2019, late model, lower-mileage trade-ins should be easier to come by.

“Order banks are insane right now, which means there’s going to be a huge truck supply coming up,” Whalen noted, adding fleets are now adopting shorter trade cycles of about five years compared to seven or eight years. This is occurring because fleets don’t want to operate highway trucks once the original warranty has expired. “A lot of companies just want out of the truck when the warranty expires, so the buying cycle’s getting shorter.”

Used truck buyers should share this concern, and consider purchasing additional warranty coverage, Hartleib advised.

“Buyers should make sure they buy the right truck for the job, make sure it’s spec’d right, and if there is no history on the truck, make sure they buy the warranty,” he suggested. “In most cases people aren’t buying the engine warranty as much as they should be, especially with all the new emissions problems. That can get very costly.”

Whalen suggested customers bring a truck they’re considering buying into a dealership affiliated with the truck brand, to have it properly inspected. It may cost a couple hundred bucks to do so, but will save money and headaches down the road.

“If you’re buying off Kijiji, spend the money to go to a dealer so you know the emissions system is okay and if there are any other faults, which only a manufacturer’s dealer would know,” he said. “I wouldn’t rely just on the guy you’re buying from, or a non-affiliated dealer.”

He also emphasized the importance to walk the other way if a malfunction indicator light is on.

“Do not buy a truck with a malfunction light,” Whalen stressed, noting it could be hinting at all sorts of problems running from $800 to $8,000 in repairs.

The types of spec’s in demand in the secondary market are also changing. It used to be hard to find a buyer for a truck with an automated transmission, but that’s no longer the case.
“I would say it’s about 50-50,” said Hartleib. “We are seeing a lot more automatics now than in previous years and there are people who want automatics.”

Whalen said it’s becoming difficult to move trucks with manual transmissions, a contrast from the past when the opposite was true.

“A few years ago, it was a hindrance to sell a truck with an automated transmission and now everybody seems to be asking for that,” he said, noting 90% of new Mack highway tractors are being ordered with automated transmissions, and about half of its vocational trucks.

Hartleib said buyers are also continuing to demand heavy spec’s, and he says the most common mistake he sees is buying a truck that’s underpowered or doesn’t have the right gear ratios for the job it’ll do.

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