Wired, Totally

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

We use that expression often enough in everyday life, but nowhere does it resonate better than with heavy truck electrical systems. One of the biggest challenges is integrating emerging technology into legacy infrastructure — the seven-pin-based wire-and-harness systems that have hardly changed in decades.

New technology emerges almost daily, but unless it can be made to work within or alongside existing technology, it’ll never see service on a truck chassis.

For obvious reasons, you cannot make wholesale changes to electrical infrastructure because of the need for backward compatibility. What we are seeing is more creative use of existing hardware.

Take wire, for example. It’s no longer just a conduit for electrons. Thanks to multiplexing, it’s also a pathway for messages, fault codes, activation signals, and more. There’s less wire aboard most power units today, which is good, but systems are still prone to malfunction and failure due to common problems like corrosion and breakage.

And don’t even think about tapping into or adding loads to a multiplexed circuit. Something as benign as a chicken light can sideline a truck today.

Starting and charging systems are expected to deliver as they always have, yet they work harder today than ever in a more hostile environment.

Under-hood temperatures are greater, demand on batteries is greater, and today’s tight-tolerance engines are harder to turn over than previous generation diesels. On top of that, anti-idle laws have increased starter duty cycles, while hotel loads and electric climate control are taxing batteries and alternators to their limits.

In other words, it’s a fine time to be in the electrical business — trucking is primed for innovation.


With all the advancements in this field, electrical problems still dominate the truck repair world –tires notwithstanding — and they are primarily weather-related, says Jerry Bodkins, a master-certified technician who works at Travel Centers of America’s (TA) Youngstown, Ohio location. He’s also a master instructor at TA’s technician training facility in Ohio.

"Hot or cold, wet or dry, it doesn’t matter," says Bodkins. "When we see extremes in weather and temperature, the bays fill up. Heat and cold are both real hard on batteries, starters, and alternators. Our number-one area of concern is the electrical system, and that’s probably never going to change."

Bodkins says heat has always been a concern relative to alternators, and that situation worsened in the months following the introduction of the first EGR systems post Oct. 2002. The higher temperature electrical products run, the less reliable they are over time. Largely, that’s been remedied by more robust alternators, says Kent Jones, vice-president of heavy-duty sales and marketing at Remy International.

Truckers haven’t caught too many breaks,
but one that comes to mind is LED lighting

"Alternators engineered to pre-2004 [pre-EGR] under-hood requirements were built to handle temps in the 93-degree C range. Today we need something capable of handling temps in the 110- to 115-degree range," he says. "Ten degrees doesn’t sound like much, but it sure was hard on alternators."

"If you’re dealing with fleets with different generation engines, you might need to stock three different specifications relative to temperature or output," Jones says. "Locally rebuilt product or will-fit units may not meet today’s fleet requirements."


The changes wrought by the EPA emissions reductions mandates have had another impact on big engines too: they are harder to turn over. Tighter tolerances and extremely high-pressure fuel injection mechanisms have added load to the starter motor’s job, and by extension, to the batteries.

Bodkins says he has seen more battery failures at relatively young service life in post-2007 and pre-2010 engines. There’s really high demand for cranking amps with the new engines, he says, and that has prompted a few OEs to install absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries.

"There’s more punch in the new batteries than the older lead-acid batteries," he says. "They get the job done, but they bring a few other issues to the table. They are completely different batteries.

"They require different testing equipment, and different charging equipment. You can’t just push amps into them like you could with a lead-acid battery. And you have to be careful jump starting them."

On top of that, anti-idle regulations are taking their toll on batteries and starting systems, too.

Jones says idling restrictions mean engines aren’t running all the time anymore, which places two demands on the electrical system.

"One, any electrical demand during engine-off time is coming from the battery. If the alternator isn’t running, it’s not producing any charge. Funding those electrical requirements is taxing batteries harder and harder," he notes.

"And two, where once a driver might have started the truck only a few times a day, today we’re shutting the trucks off every time we stop, and that’s increased the number of starts to 20 or 30 or more per day. That will shorten the life expectancy of a starter."

In the mid-90s, alternators produced 100 amps at 12 volts. By 2000, we were up to 130 amps at 12 volts.
Now, the specifications call for 160 amps for a standard truck. Trucks with electric climate control systems and large hotel loads are calling for something greater than 200 amps.

"We’ve come along way in ten years, doubling the alternator and starter output and dealing with the elevated temperatures," Jones points out. "The concern for the aftermarket is ensuring replacement parts are up to the task. Customers are naturally going to be concerned about cost, but you can’t shortchange them on capacity."


Truckers haven’t caught too many breaks in recent years, but one that comes to mind is LED lighting. It’s common today, and for good reason. LEDs are bright and clear, and hardly ever burn out.

Peterson warrants its Piranha brand LED lamps for 100,000 hours. And most importantly, in the context of this discussion, the current draw on a full compliment of LED lighting is about 10 percent of a similar incandescent system, Peterson claims.

Brad Van Ripen, senior vice-president and chief technology officer at Truck-Lite, believes the days of incandescent lighting are waning. Certain Truck-Lite lamps are no longer available, and more will be discontinued in the next few years, he says.

"The basic Edison-based 60-watt incandescent household light bulb is slated to be obsolete by 2014, in favor of the compact fluorescent and possibly LED-based lights that will screw into the same sockets."

Fleets that have a good handle on their costs and watch the frequency of change-outs have seen the value of switching to LED, Van Riper says, "I guess if you’re looking only at the upfront costs, it could be a barrier, but there’s no doubt the lifecycle costs of LEDs are a fraction of incandescent."

When CSA 2010 comes into play, fleets might become more concerned with lighting failures than cost. Two of the top-10 equipment violations are lighting or electrical-related, notes Page Large, national fleet sales manager at Grote Industries. "At six points a piece, bad lighting could cost a lot more than money."

Grote has made big strides in interior lighting — white interior lights for trailers, now featuring motion-sensing on/off switches. The light stays off until it senses motion, so when a driver is moving about inside the trailer, the light stays on. When the door is closed, or when the driver is out of the trailer, it goes off in three minutes," says Scott Robertson, Grote’s program manager for white lighting.

Repairing problems with connectors and
harnesses is becoming more of a challenge

The take-away with LEDs is pretty simple: they last longer, they save labor costs, and they hardly ever burn out, which will prove an advantage under FMCSA’s new safety monitoring system, CSA 2010.


By now, you should have a sense of the tremendous demand we place on our electrical systems. Anti-idling laws are here to stay, as are the size and weight regs that limit space for batteries, and pending fuel economy standards will likely shift the load of some engine systems, such as compressors and power steering pumps, HVAC systems, and others, to the electrical system. The burden is unlikely to lessen going forward, so the solution has to include better power management.

To get the most out of the electrical system, we’ll need a smart technology to manage battery use across all applications. Power management can integrate incoming AC power from a shore power system so that it’s used efficiently, or manage energy produced onboard via regenerative braking and other emerging and yet-to-be-developed power-harvesting technologies.

"At this juncture, battery technology can take us only so far," says Charles Fetter, general manager of ClimaCab. "There’s only so much you can get from a battery. You need a technology on top of that to really leverage the battery life."

ClimaCab uses such technology now in its onboard climate control system to leverage optimum efficiency from batteries.

"If you have two battery banks, we can move power around between those systems, to ensure longer service intervals for the auxiliary climate control while ensuring there is enough power for start up," says Fetter.

But there are other applications for power management as well. Shorepower is gaining traction just as the sun is beginning to set on the diesel APU. As battery technology improves, we’ll soon have systems that can manage the 10- to 12-hour operating cycles effectively, with power to spare for TVs, computers, microwaves, etc.

"It’s good to have a source of AC power to run these systems, but we can also optimize power distribution across the starting system, the hotel system, the inverters, etc.," Fetter suggests.

"The starting batteries don’t necessarily need a 100-percent charge to guarantee startup, but the more battery capacity we have, the longer we can run the climate control system. We can create a charging profile that guarantees best use of the batteries."

And batteries will play a big part going forward. AGM batteries, for example are state of the art right now. With high purity lead, lower internal resistance, and efficient recharge characteristics, they can recharge more quickly and run longer, says Kristin Rogers of Optima Battery. "But they can be sensitive to overcharging. We generally recommend an alternator output voltage of 13.7-14.7 volts, but if something goes wrong on that end, it could be harmful to the battery."

System integration and compatibility is going to become very important in the future, and that of course, presents tremendous opportunity in the aftermarket, and a few challenges, too. The market for electrical parts, components, and full systems will grow, and as more electronics begin to appear at the OE level, they’ll soon filter down to the aftermarket.

At first, this shift will favor the OEs, as most advances in technology do. But over time, the fleet operators will be looking for support systems through lots of different channels.

"Companies have to look at this," notes Remy’s Jones. "Do I have the right vendor partners? Do I have the expertise to handle electronics? Electrical is a much different animal than mechanical. You can’t put a wrench on this stuff."

The skills and tools are going to change too. And that might not be bad. Younger techs might gravitate to the high-tech world as opposed to the dirty, heavy mechanical repair environment, says Jones, but demand for techs who still pull wrenches isn’t going away.

As TA’s Bodkins notes, there will always be problems with the mundane stuff like switches and connectors, wiring harnesses and the like, especially, he says, with all the anti-icing compound they use on the roads these days.

"Repairing those types of problems is becoming more of a challenge. You need multimeters and all sorts of new tools to diagnose what were once simple problems. With multiplexed systems, you can’t go sticking circuit probes into any old wire. That could kill an ECM."

Bodkins says TA invests about a $1 million a year training and upgrading their 2000 technician’s skills, and that’s just barely keeping up with the demand. The real challenge for the aftermarket will be staying on top of the curve, if not ahead of it. And that curve is getting steeper and steeper all the time.

Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and Trucknews.com, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

Have your say

This is a moderated forum. Comments will no longer be published unless they are accompanied by a first and last name and a verifiable email address. (Today's Trucking will not publish or share the email address.) Profane language and content deemed to be libelous, racist, or threatening in nature will not be published under any circumstances.