Breathing easier, at least for now

FEW major decisions are clear cut — most involve some sort of trade-off. As for the diesel exhaust emission regulations that will take effect with next year's trucks, the closer we get to the implementation date, the clearer those trade-offs become.

The regulations call for a 90% reduction in the emission of particulate matter (aka “soot”) and a 95% reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions. For those of us who enjoy breathing, that's a good thing.

Several speakers at this year's NTEA Truck Product Conference had a more colorful way of describing the impact of the new standard. Their point: the exhaust gas leaving the tailpipe of these trucks can actually contain less pollution than the air going into the engine.

Why? In addition to reducing their own emissions, the 2007-compliant engines and exhaust systems can clean up some of the soot that other sources (such as cars, trucks, and lawnmowers) put in the air. The exhaust system for these new-generation engines will trap particulates in a filter before they have a chance to enter the atmosphere. It doesn't matter if the truck's engine produced the stuff or merely passed along the particulates that already were in the air. Either way, the particulates are trapped and eventually incinerated into harmless ash.

But this fresher air comes with a price tag. No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Life involves trade-offs. As the 2007 model trucks are getting closer to reality, we are getting a better idea of what these trade-offs look like.

Perhaps the biggest impact will be several thousand dollars that the new technology will add to the purchase price of trucks and tractors. While our industry does not directly buy many trucks, our customers do. And when the customer has to open the checkbook a little wider, less is left for acquiring truck bodies, trailers, and truck equipment.

Industry analysts have been warning for some time that fleets would buy trucks early in order to avoid having to pay thousands more for their vehicles. Fortunately, the months leading up to the implementation date of the new standards come at a time of robust demand for trucks and trailers. Our friends who research the truck and trailer industry point to continued strong demand (although at somewhat reduced levels) as the deadline approaches. Conversations with trailer manufacturers, trailer dealers, and truck equipment distributors also indicate that the industry is performing well. Most expect another good year in 2006, but the jury is still out regarding 2007.

Conventional wisdom has it that fleets will spend more on tractors this year at the expense of trailers. But the new engines and exhaust systems also promise to bring a separate set of concerns to truck equipment distributors. Nothing they can't handle, but the 2007 trucks certainly will limit some options.

Perhaps most significantly, trucks will have to be ordered with the proper exhaust routing. If the chassis shows up with an exhaust system component located where a truck body or equipment installation is supposed to go, too bad. The exhaust system stays. It will be the truck body or equipment that gets rerouted.

The reason: the operating temperatures of the new exhaust systems will be critical. Truck manufacturers will locate the particulate traps as close to the engine as possible in order to provide the traps with the heat needed to incinerate the particulates. The farther the traps are from the engine, the cooler the exhaust gas becomes. The cooling rate is rapid, and it does not take much change of location to keep the system from functioning properly. The days when distributors were free to relocate exhaust systems appear to be gone forever.

The exhaust systems will run hotter. Distributors will need to consider this when designing certain applications. They may have to install heat shields if temperature-critical areas of the body are mounted too close to the hottest part of the exhaust system, one speaker at the Truck Product Conference pointed out.

Radiators also will be affected. The higher engine temperatures will require higher-capacity radiators, which may affect to some extent clearance with the engine.

The 2007 model trucks will be different, but chassis manufacturers downplayed the effect the new technology will have on the ability of truck equipment distributors to install truck bodies and equipment. As one chassis manufacturer said, the new technology will have no effect on about 95% of all body vocations — at least with his company's models. Perhaps distributors can breathe a little easier about the effects of the 2007 regulations — at least until 2010, when even tighter emissions standards will take effect and new truck exhaust technology once again will be required.

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