TORONTO, Ont. — As long as there have been pollution controls on engines, someone has tried to mess with them, either by removing, bypassing or modifying components. With all the distrust over newer truck engines, it’s not entirely surprising that some owner/operators and small fleet owners might consider tampering with their exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) and diesel particulate filer (DPF) systems.
But what is surprising is how much of this is going on. Although it is technically illegal to obstruct or dismantle pollution controls on trucks, the almost total lack of enforcement across Canadian jurisdictions has allowed some vendors to quickly fill this niche. Calling around, within half an hour, I found several independent garages in Ontario and Quebec that would remove and delete the EGR/DPF systems from almost any EPA-compliant engine.
Either by Internet or word of mouth, truck owners are attracted to shops and vendors that promise better fuel mileage, more horsepower and an end to expensive DPF maintenance bills. With the addition of a straight pipe running through the gutted DPF canister, the modified tractors look almost identical to the ones coming from the factory.
Beyond the reach of Environment Canada, and existing in the grey area of seemingly unregulated “aftermarket modifications,” the practice seems to have picked up steam in the last six months. One garage in Montreal has a two-week waiting list and claims to process 20 rigs per day. A simple search of the Internet turned up an online vendor in British Columbia who openly boasted, “SAVE UP TO 3 MPG!…We can eliminate the DPF-EGR from your Cat C7,C9, C13 or C15, Cummins ISB, ISC, ISL, ISX, Detroit DDEC 4&5 engines.”
The president of J-Ball Electronics, Don Jenner, answered the phone himself when I called an 800-number listed on the above Web site, posing as the owner of a 2009 Peterbilt having problems with the DPF system.
“You and about four million other people!” he joked. “I can take you back to the good old days,” he assured me. He promptly e-mailed me a prospective work order and pricing for “several scenarios” as well as step-by-step instructions on how to remove the turbo and EGR cooler. The final step declared: “Kiss your downtime goodbye!”
Located in Vernon B.C., most of Jenner’s business is by mail order, it seems, with truck owners removing the ECMs from their trucks and shipping them to him by courier for reprogramming. Most likely, his clients would engage a private shop to get their work done using the plates and gaskets that can also be ordered from this supplier, depending on what strategy is employed to defeat the soot burner and EGR cooler.
Reprogramming the ECM to run at a much leaner mixture is crucial to this process and costs thousands of dollars. Evidently, DPF deletion takes about six hours to complete, but the real cash cow in all this is the software. Once the engine codes have been hacked and modified, the program costs nothing to copy and is easy to franchise to other garages, and is the most expensive part of the procedure.
Checking with a few black market garages, the price for the modifications varies from around $3,000-$6,600 depending on the model engine and which methodology the customer wishes to pursue. And Jenner didn’t flinch when I ask him if the tampering is illegal, although he admitted, “We are bending the rules.” Another vendor admitted, after some prodding, “It is illegal…I guess.”
In over-the-phone conversations with other DPF Delete providers, assurances were given that this won’t hurt the engine, but rather, will dramatically increase performance. And the fuel savings can be astronomical, tens of thousands of litres per year is the claim. One garage owner in Central Ontario told me that I could expect to get 50 or 60 more horsepower and much better mileage. More importantly, he promised to tune the exhaust so that it could pass emissions thresholds set by the Ministry of Transportation during inspections that are required every two years in Ontario. A technician at J-Ball Electronics in Vernon, B.C. seemed to concur: “We’ve had lots of guys (from Ontario) running these and haven’t had any complaints or issues.”
It’s worth noting that these are not small, fly-by-night repair shops, as some drivers suggested on the CB radio. The businesses I contacted were mainstream engine tuning and truck repair operations. One fellow was hungry enough for business that he called me back a couple of times, and told me he’d been doing these conversions for two years. He also claimed to have deleted the DPF-EGR on an entire fleet of Class 8 trucks.
Most owner/operators have heard rumours of this kind of thing going on, others may know someone who has had their emissions system “modified.” After getting stuck behind snowplows with a bunch of truck drivers on my way into Toronto last week, opinion on the CB radio was mixed. One driver was annoyed that people are getting away with breaking the law and not playing fair. Another driver told of a bad experience trying to bypass emissions controls on his 2007 engine, and had to replace the whole system eventually, so he obviously didn’t recommend it.
But frustration around EPA-compliant engines post-2007 is understandable. Replacement parts are very expensive: a blown EGR cooler can cost thousands of dollars. Perhaps part of the problem lies with the OEMs, themselves, and poor communications after some start-up problems with the first generation EGRs. It’s not hard to find drivers who have had problems with these engines. One service manager told me about a fleet of 12 trucks that was literally “glued to the yard” because of DPF problems.
Via e-mail, owner/operator Elwood Rines complained about the cost of maintaining the DPF, cleaning the filter and injectors and “all of the things that the dealer doesn’t tell you about.” Rines runs long-haul for Bison Transport out of Winnipeg. He had heard through the grapevine that DPF deletion was going on.
“I wondered when guys would start tampering with the exhaust,” he quipped.
But Rines is pretty sure removing the EGR/DPF is not the solution. “Not interested,” said Rines. “I traded in a 2009 last April because it was regenerating at inappropriate times. But this 2013 Volvo has been good so far with mileage between 7 and 7.5 mpg.”
It is worth noting that some of the shops I called were strongly against this practice, while others were quite willing to provide referrals to places that had no qualms about doing so. But one garage manager and part owner takes a dim view of businesses offering this service.
“It is totally illegal and unethical,” according to Joe Cuffaro of Cambec Diesel in Montreal, Que. “These trucks are born with this. In the long run they may have to reverse the process.”
Cuffaro suggests that it is only a matter of time before provincial governments crack down on these operations.
“It’s not the case that these trucks are spewing a lot of pollution,” he says. “If you do a sniffer test on them you’ll find they run very, very clean. But what gives them the right to remove the original equipment? If I’m Paccar, I have to answer to federal regulations, but who do these guys answer to? The worst-case scenario would be if one of our customers got nailed doing this and it got traced back to us. That’s why we don’t do it.”
DPF delete suppliers might argue that they are providing a service that customers want, and since the modified units will pass emissions tests, what is the harm in doing so? As well, if the regulations are vague, unenforceable and no one has been charged, why not provide this option?
But from another perspective, disconnecting emiss
ions controls is wrong on many levels. The tragedy of this situation is that the latest EPA10-compliant engines seem to have most of the bugs worked out of them, and they produce almost zero NOx and extremely low levels of particulate. If everyone followed the rules, the case could be made that these newer engines shouldn’t even be required to undergo emissions testing as the air coming out of the exhaust is almost breathable.
But removing EGR and DPF systems from trucks means you’re running the emissions wide open once again, and we’re back to pre-2002 levels. And taking a larger view, widespread EGR/DPF tampering is a step backwards for an industry and manufacturers that have taken great pains to show they are good environmental players. Although provincial environment ministries have dropped the ball on this issue, there are some indications that they are starting to pay attention, and that enhanced fines and beefed-up enforcement cannot be very far off.
– This is part two of a two-part series on emissions tampering. You can read part one here.
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs