Making old diesels new

Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the nonprofit Diesel Technology Forum, is a big fan of clean-diesel retrofits for certain older trucks because of the low-cost benefits retrofits can deliver. The difference between old trucks and the newer clean diesel vehicles is like the difference between analog television and digital, he says. Today, even if your old television still works, there are a whole

Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the nonprofit Diesel Technology Forum, is a big fan of clean-diesel retrofits for certain older trucks because of the low-cost benefits retrofits can deliver. “The difference between old trucks and the newer clean diesel vehicles is like the difference between analog television and digital,” he says.

“Today, even if your old television still works, there are a whole lot of other reasons to upgrade to the newer technology. The same is true with clean-diesel vehicles,” notes Schaeffer. “Your old truck may still run, but it may be time to move to a newer truck just the same, for a variety of financial, performance and environmental reasons. We have always tried to define retrofitting as modernizing and upgrading.”

Available stimulus funds may cover up to 75% of the cost of a new engine, he adds, noting that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides the EPA with $300 million for retrofits. While the money received is about six times the 2008 funding level, it does not even come close to covering requests for funds. According to Schaeffer, the EPA received more than 650 grant applications totaling about $4 billion worth of projects, significantly more than the $300 million in funds available.

Even with the available stimulus funds, retrofitting does not make sense for all vehicles. But if the fit is right, Schaeffer says, retrofitting can be the most cost-efficient path to a newer, cleaner, more fuel-efficient truck.

“There is definitely a sweet spot, a zone where retrofit makes sense,” Schaeffer says. “It just doesn't pay to try to retrofit some of the oldest trucks with naturally aspirated engines, for example, but if you have a used truck with some life left in it, repowering it can give you better fuel economy, lower maintenance costs, improved performance and reduced emissions as well.”

To help fleets and drivers decide if retrofitting equipment makes sense for their operation, Schaeffer offers a short checklist to get the decision process started:

  • Why are you considering retrofitting your vehicle(s)? Is it a requirement because of where you operate?

  • Are you hoping to reduce fuel costs or delay buying new equipment a little longer to conserve capital?

  • Do you want a “greener” fleet? Your reasons for retrofitting will drive your technology choices.

  • Are you expecting to get financial support for the retrofit from one of the federal- or state-level grant or tax credit programs? Do you know that you will qualify for the funding?

  • What equipment do you have? Will you be able to operate it long enough to realize a return on your investment in repowering, or will other components fail before you reach the payback point?

  • What is the duty cycle for your equipment? Is it home every night or on the road for days at a time?

  • How do you handle maintenance?

The decision to replace or retrofit an older truck remains a voluntary, incentive-based one, except for certain operations in California. There are other forces at work which may change that in the future, according to Schaeffer. For now, however, he sees retrofitting as a great financial solution for the right operations.

“The retrofit practice will sunset itself sometime in the future,” Schaeffer notes, “as newer technology vehicles gradually replace the current fleet. Today, every dollar invested in upgrading an older vehicle returns $13 in public health and other benefits. That is one of the most cost-effective strategies I can think of to help reduce emissions and conserve fuel.”

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