In the ongoing lives of various machines used for punching holes in the ground, diesel engines often serve as the main power source. While those engines start out fresh and healthy in the beginning, in time, they become weary. One might be faced with questions relating to either refreshing them in some manner (repair or rebuild) or — gasp — replacing them completely.

Let’s face it. There’s often a lot invested in one of these machines. The initial purchase price certainly. Customization. Fitting on a special chassis. But, often, more in the way of spare parts. And operational knowledge. And even a familiarity in seeing it each day. They can be “one of a kind.”

At one time, engine life was simpler. If an engine needed attention, it could be repaired or rebuilt — quite often by a company specializing in just that, and not necessarily the original manufacturer. But options have expanded and some constraints are now in place because of emissions regulations.

A Regulatory Overview

The now-familiar EPA emissions regulations — Tier 4 Final for diesel and covered in a prior article — establish the needs for new engines installed in a piece of new equipment. But a continuing concern by various parties — not necessarily the owners of such products — is the ongoing operation of older equipment that is not as “clean.” It’s a challenge to simply take these products out of service (though California operators are cautioned that the California Air Resources Board, CARB, has become quite adept at finding creative ways to do so) and, generally speaking, one is able to keep “refreshing” the engine as long as desired.

So, what are we dealing with these days if an engine needs serious attention? Any number of issues could affect a legacy engine. Perhaps it simply accumulated a lot of hours. Perhaps it suffered an unwanted catastrophic failure. Perhaps an operator just has an interest in putting a little more oomph into a particular rig.

Perhaps a Simple Repair Will Do It?

Repairing remains a viable option for any diesel engine, whether it’s covered by pre-emissions regulations or the latest EPA Tier 4 Final. There are no regulatory (emissions) requirements for these older engines. However, in the case of newer versions, one must keep the engine at the Tier level at which it was first manufactured (or, of course, moving it to an even cleaner version level, if possible). I think it’s clear by now that tampering in any manner with an engine in an effort to affect its emissions output is against the law and subject to considerable fines upon discovery. One might readily envision an engine with wet cylinder liners (which are easily replaced), or a similar easy fix, being repaired multiple times — essentially giving it an unlimited lifetime.

Or is a Robust Rebuild Needed?

The idea of rebuilding an engine completely is not new and has been done for many years, quite often by companies that did not make the engine in the first place. What’s changed in recent years is that more of the engine companies themselves are now offering rebuilt engines.

An advantage to buying an engine from the manufacturer, whether as a short block, long block or some other variation, would be that any ongoing incremental improvements made to a particular model are readily incorporated. To facilitate this, one manufacturer has recently developed a rather extensive program for offering a full range of rebuilt engines at newly established company stores spread across the United States.

As with repaired engines, the EPA is concerned with maintaining the original emissions level of the engine. This is readily accomplished with the reuse of parts such as fuel injection components, or perhaps a brand new set, or one of the very serviceable rebuilt sets that are becoming more readily available.

Maybe a Necessary and Proper Replacement is the Best?

The good folks at the EPA have spent some time thinking about — and developing regulations regarding — the need for a complete replacement engine. After all, there is that interest to get the older engines out of usage as soon as possible. Therefore, their requirements for replacement engines are quite strict.

If it is necessary in a particular installation to fit the exact prior Tier version of a particular model in place, and not a newer version, and such an engine is available, the EPA is quite adamant that the older engine is not reused in some manner. Engine companies also are quite careful to ensure that the old engine cannot be “reused” improperly. Concurrently, the EPA is also quite adamant that these “older” engines not be purchased for installation in a new piece of equipment. Such engines are labeled to clarify their usage (using wording like “This Engine is for Replacement Only”) with substantial fines for someone who does not adhere to this legal requirement.

This is not an area to muck about with when it comes to our good friends in Washington, D.C. But if a true replacement engine is needed, there should be no concerns. I suggest carefully documenting the reasons and results should questions arise later.

An Optional Sort of Replacement… A “Repower” Perhaps

Many drillers — and drilling machines — are not constrained by things that hold back the normal folks in our midst. Breaking protocol can be every bit as familiar as breaking holes in the ground. And with engines on drill rigs often out in the open and not packed into a tight geographical space, there could very well be an opportunity for fitting a complete new engine package.

Think of the possibilities:

  • Higher overall performance possible with the higher combustion temperatures desired to achieve this, and effective means now in place to deal with the extra heat generated.
  • Higher torque available on demand because electronic fuel injection allows for additional doses of fuel at any rpm point to energize things a bit.
  • Higher performance as well, with a turbocharger that might be fitted to initially clean up emissions, but also offering considerable altitude compensation without derating the engine and the slowing down of the work to be done.

And, imagine this: a prominent control panel to not only show off this latest upgrade, but to add important functionality. And perhaps even connect a machine with its younger brethren.

Finally, there’s no reason that a complete switch to a different engine supplier can’t be done. There are plenty of engine houses quite adept these days at assembling complete engine modules and readily fitting them into various products to breathe new life into them. And it’s quite possible, whether for fleet consolidation, because of robust local dealer support or just due to exceptional attributes, that a different engine might be just the ticket.

Our initial question revolved around whether it’s possible to keep “old faithful” around and whether “he” (or “she”) can remain productive. Indeed it is. With a new “ticker” in place, there’s no reason to not welcome them to the jobsite each day.