Lots of questions, few answers with ULSD

Feb. 1, 2006
ACROSS the United States and Canada, truck fleet maintenance managers are gearing up for one of the most sweeping changes in fuel and engine technology

ACROSS the United States and Canada, truck fleet maintenance managers are gearing up for one of the most sweeping changes in fuel and engine technology in the history of the industry. In less than five months, truck fleets will switch to ultra-low-sulfur diesel (ULSD), which contains just 15 parts per million of sulfur.

The significance of this change should not be underestimated. Both the ULSD and the new low-emission engines that are designed to use it pose some hefty risks for truck fleets. Companies that stumble during the transition to the new fuel and engines could easily wind up in the dustbin of history.

Of all truck fleets, none will be more affected than petroleum haulers and distributors. These companies will face pressure on two fronts. First, they will be financially and legally responsible for ensuring deliveries of ULSD that doesn't exceed 15 ppm, and that may be easier said than done. Second, their own operations will have to use both the new fuel and new engines, neither of which has had as much testing under real-world conditions as they would like.

The ULSD rollout will come first at the beginning of July. The big challenge will be to ensure that customers receive fuel that is in compliance with federal requirements. Under strict liability, fleets charged with delivering ULSD that is out of compliance will face costly fines, and they have very little defense. They are guilty unless they can prove definitively that someone else caused the fuel to be out of compliance.

Adding to worries is the likelihood that ULSD flowing through the loading rack will be very close to the 15-ppm maximum already. That's the word from many of the players in the pipeline and terminaling sector. Decades of moving high-sulfur product have left significant residues.

In addition, high-sulfur products (such as jet fuel; heating oil, around 3,000 ppm; and even low sulfur diesel at 500 ppm) are still being moved through pipelines and storage terminals. A partial solution may come from refiners, who reportedly have indicated that they may drop all high-sulfur grades of diesel and produce only ULSD. That move may come before the end of this year.

Even with a rapid phase-out of high-sulfur diesel, petroleum fleets may find that dedicated tank trailers are the best option. Fleets that provide custom fueling and petroleum marketers that run tankwagons that deliver multiple products may have no option at all. There is concern that it will be impossible to prevent sulfur contamination in their tank trucks, due to product pumps and manifolded piping and product hoses.

Regardless of the decision on dedicated tanks, fleet maintenance operations will form the first line of defense against sulfur contamination. It will be up to the maintenance team to ensure that each MC306 or DOT406 tank in the fleet can be drained dry after every load. They'll have to go over the equipment from one end to the other to make sure there are no nooks and crannies where high-sulfur product can hide. It might not take much retained high-sulfur fuel to put ULSD out of compliance.

Turning to the 2007 engines, many truck fleet operators still have more questions than answers. How will the new engines perform? Will the engines last? How robust are the emission control systems? How much of a fuel economy penalty is likely?

Engine manufacturers are just beginning to offer answers. During recent interviews, representatives from engine companies say real-world testing indicates the new engines should do just fine. They should perform at least as well as the engines currently on the market.

Cummins officials said recently that the catalytic converters are proving very robust. The equipment has worked well even when paired with engines running 500-ppm diesel. They said they are not worried at all about damage resulting from off-spec fuel.

Taking care of the emission control system may be reasonably simple. If everything works right, the emission treatment system will handle most of the task of keeping itself clean and fully operational. Ash will have to be vacuumed out of the system every 100,000 or 200,000 miles.

Fuel economy probably will be somewhat lower. On top of that, ULSD will cost more — as much as 60 cents a gallon more.

From preparing cargo tanks to haul ULSD to working with the 2007 engines, maintenance managers will have plenty on their plates for the rest of this year. Even if everything goes smoothly, they won't have any time to relax. The next round of diesel engine emission reductions comes in 2010.