September 18, 2019 5:15 PM, EDT

Panelists Stress Aftertreatment System Maintenance at TMC Meeting

Bruce BalfourBruce Balfour by Jim Stinson/Transport Topics

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RALEIGH, N.C. — As trucks become more complex and high-tech, so, too, do the repairs and maintenance systems, experts said Sept. 18 at the fall meeting of American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council.

And one of the most complex is aftertreatment, the evolving systems introduced to trucks to reduce emissions, industry officials told an audience at the Raleigh Convention Center.

“From the onset, it’s always been a challenge,” said Jon DeBusk, a regional service manager for Maverick USA of Little Rock, Ark., talking to Transport Topics after speaking on a panel on aftertreatment. “It’s just different technology. It requires constant maintenance.”

In 1997, the federal government began issuing new clean-air mandates to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx), particulate matters and nonmethane hydrocarbons. Aftertreatment systems reduce emissions by treating exhaust gases after combustion but before they are released through the tailpipe.

Jon DeBusk

Jon DeBusk by Jim Stinson/Transport Topics

Standards that began taking effect in model year 2004 led to manufacturers installing exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) technology to reduce NOx emissions. Later standards led to the introduction of the diesel particulate filter (DPF) in 2007 and selective catalytic reduction (SCR) in 2010.

While this greener technology has reduced emissions, aftertreatment has caused numerous maintenance headaches for fleet managers, according to a panel at the TMC meeting. Unlike maintenance of oil systems, aftertreatment oversight is less predictable and not easily understood by trucking employees.

Thus, many fleets look for vendors and third-party technicians for assistance. The TMC panel advised the audience on what to look for in service providers, and how to navigate maintenance, breakdowns and vendor management.

Bruce Balfour, a consultant with Clean Diesel Specialists in Colton, Calif., advised trucking firms to check service providers for insurance, for cleaning processes and methods, and for general reputation. In many cases, the maintenance crews tasked with cleaning aftertreatment systems are using dirty equipment, he said.

“Too often, cleaning equipment requires a lot of maintenance, requires a lot of cleaning,” Balfour said. “Too often, we will see shops that don’t keep up on their cleaning equipment, and then their cleaning equipment is barely functioning.”

Bad cleaning equipment means the filters in the aftertreatment systems will not work properly, Balfour told an audience of about 150.

He showed the audience pictures and videos of DPF-cleaning techniques, some of which brought laughs from the audience. Balfour showed the audience a video sent to him by a client, showing a diesel particulate filter being grilled, with heat, as a cleaning method. Balfour told the audience to “never barbecue or cook” a DPF.

“It’s just craziness,” he said. “You can spend an afternoon laughing at how people clean filters.”

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Keeping the DPFs clean also means breakdowns won’t happen on the highway, said Bryan Stewart, maintenance director of Jones Logistics in Columbia, Miss.

Stewart said he cleans his air filters every time he changes his oil to keep the air going into the aftertreatment systems cleaner, too. The maintenance practice, Stewart said, saves his company about $1,600 per truck, per year.

He said he outsources 100% of his maintenance and works to find strong service providers to handle his trucks. Stewart told attendees he checks vendors’ references and asks what they feel they are best at.

DeBusk, whose fleet has 1,650 trucks, told the audience Maverick USA outsources about 40% of maintenance. Careful vetting of aftertreatment technicians is a must, he said.

DeBusk started as a technician making less than $10 an hour, he told TT. Now the industry faces a shortage of technicians to work on trucks in general, but skilled techs familiar with aftertreatment are even fewer, he said.

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“Just like a driver shortage, everyone has a technician shortage,” DeBusk said. “Everybody’s retiring. … And then there’s four-year colleges. People are pushing their kids that way and not pushing them to technical school. They don’t understand there are six-figure jobs in maintenance, depending on who you work for.”

Maverick USA ranks No. 77 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.