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The Fleet Technician’s Log: Getting Fueled Up

In today’s edition of our Technician’s Log Series, we are going to shift gears, pun intended! In the first part of our series, we talked about brake linings, certainly an important topic. Yet, there are more than just brakes to consider. Today we will talk about the latest shop trends in fuel. We’ll start with a fuel source that has been on these pages before but is ever evolving: Biodiesel.

What’s the Latest on Biodiesel?

To be frank, biodiesel is an advanced biofuel that is both renewable and biodegradable. It is also generally cleaner burning than petroleum fuel. Biodiesel can be used not just to power cars but also to power buildings. It is produced mainly from cooking oil, waste animal fats, and other high-grade biodegradable oils. The good part of biodiesel is its ability to have what is called “feedstock flexibility.”

This means that biofuel can be made from almost anything. As manufacturing processes for converting biofuel become more advanced, the chemical processes involved become less costly. Called transesterification, the process that converts the fatty acid into a fuel are incredibly streamlined, which still meeting the ASTM standards required to ensure it is a safe fuel. Consider that B20 biofuel is nearly identical in ASTM specs to standard Number 2 fuel.

B20 essentially stands for biodiesel mixed into a petroleum product’s blend. So, a B20 biofuel would contain 20% biodegradable material and 80% petroleum mix. A B5 blend would include 5% biodiesel. It is unlikely we will ever get to a point where biofuel completely replaces petroleum, but we are certainly getting closer to it.

Some of the biggest advantages for technicians taking a second look at biofuels include money, performance, and efficiency. As an example, biodiesel often costs far les than petroleum diesel counterparts. There are also state and federal incentives for companies to shift to biofuel. It isn’t taking a fleet much to see how switching to biofuels can have a big impact on the bottom line. As big box retailers and other companies work to meet their carbon-reduction guidelines by 2025 and 2030, they will increasingly turn to renewable fuels to make that happen.

Biofuels also offer a significant performance advantage over regular fuels. In many cases biofuel will outperform petroleum fuel in efficiency, torque and horsepower tests. The ASTM spec for biodiesel requires a minimum Cetane number of 47, where as a diesel spec need only be 40. Higher Cetane equals shorter ignition time and overall better performance.

Biofuels generally don’t emit as many pollutants as a branded diesel. A B20 blend of fuel will reduce particulate matter by an appreciable percent and increase the lubricity of the fuel, whereas modern diesel engines rely on oil to stay lubricated. Carbon monoxide emissions are reduced by over 10 percent compared to standard fuels.

Easy to Adopt

When it comes to including biodiesel into your fleet fuel paradigm, consider the blend, if you will. It is easier to begin including biodiesel as an option in your fleet. Fleet operators looking to make the switch can start pumping B20 blends directly into their current vehicles and then head on out. Trucking companies do not need to make any expensive upgrades to their powertrains.

For fleets that operate their own fuel operations, from an infrastructure standpoint, the switch is easy. In many cases, vendors and suppliers will already have partners they can turn to when switching to a B20 fuel blend. It is not hard to find a consistent supply for those who are switching to it. Some trucking companies even blend their own. Of course, you will need a dedicated biodiesel storage tank and a proprietary blending system.

Biodiesel is not going anywhere. Consumption in the U.S. rose over 110% between 2012 and 2018. In many public and private fleets, especially, biodiesel has been growing by double-digits. It is better to work with the fuel in such environments. To learn more about biodiesel, click or tap on this link to the U.S. Renewable Energy Group.

FA-4 Oils Face Slow Adoption

Meanwhile, as we discuss fuels and lubricants, it might be a good time for the Technician’s Log to get into the move away from FA-4 oils that fleet seem to be undertaking, despite the fuel economy gain of around 2%. We spoke a long time ago about why it would be worthwhile for a fleet to switch to the new standard, but an ATA study group found that there are a few reasons more trucking companies aren’t making the switch.

Most of the fleets report backward compatibility problems. The trucking industry stands at the convergence of two different eras in the industry. An older and newer era of equipment. Fleets find it difficult to keep two separate inventories of oil for trucks that need a different formulation, such as CJ-4 or CK-4. There have been improvements in traditional lubricants that have led to low-viscosity, semi-synthetic blends that yield similar benefits.

FA-4 oils represented a sea-change in engine lubrication over the past ten years. With CJ-4 being the last upgrade it had been a long time since the heavy-duty lubrication industry had seen a major change. Yet, although FA-4 oils became available nearly four years ago, 14W-40s still represent most of what is in use today.

Yet, suppliers of the new oil do not seem to be worried. New lubricant product rollouts tend to have a slow uptake as fleets pay attention to others who have tried the product and liked it. Then, the curve rises, and as more positive results are seen, full adoption occurs. Market penetration of F4-A oils will rise over time. It is only inevitable.

We have even seen some OEMs factory filling with FA-4 oils, but it is generally drained as soon as the vehicle hits the shop and the technician dumps it for whatever is currently in their inventory. Take an example of a large trucking company on why switching is such an onerous proposition.

Let’s say you run 3,000 tractors and 5,000 tractors with reefer units on them. As a high-volume truck buyer, fleets need to use what is in bulk, what is currently located in their shop. When they have the bulk oil to use, they need to use what they have. Big fleets also prefer that their third-party suppliers can operate in bulk. They don’t want to wait for a supplier to make a big change just to accommodate their biodiesel needs.

It’s All on the OEM

There is some measure of convincing that needs to be done to ensure fleets begin a greater adoption of FA-4 oils. It is important to remember that with greater adoption and market acceptance comes greater availability and pricing. Motor carriers do not want to get stuck with thousands of gallons of oil they neither want nor will use.

Fleets must also consider how oils are packaged and labeled. Misuse of oil could lead to equipment failure and more problems down the road. If a motor carrier wants to use a specialty product or a new product that may not be compatible with every rig they are running, mechanics can get confused. Labeling is a must, and correct labeling at that. If truck drivers are on the road and they need to top up, they also need to know they are using the right product.

Before FA-4 oils even became a thing, they were touted as providing a one percent gain in fuel efficiency. That promise has held up in fleet testing. Fleets who have made the switch from a 15W-40 CK-4 to a lower viscosity 5W-30 CK-4 saw a gain of up to 1.5 percent efficiency. Another half-percent gain can be added by moving from CK-4 to FA-4.

Fleets must do the math to determine whether the switch is right for them. If a fleet of 5,000 tractors all switches to an oil that can save up to 4% on fuel per year, the company could be looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings annually. Even more, motor carriers can burnish their sustainability chops by advertising that they use less fuel.

Even though not all OEMs are moving lightning-fast to the FA-4 standard, the direction is moving that way. OEM acceptance will be a big factor in how many fleets are running the oil out on the roads. It is a challenge because market price may be high right now, but over time, expect to see increased adoption and less gallons used as more fleets make the switch.

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