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Turn DPFs Into Your BFFs

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The do’s and don’ts of servicing diesel particulate filters.

“Outsourcing” is such a dirty word, and hearing it is enough to make a shop owner’s skin crawl. After all, delegating any job to a third party means losing profit as well as control over the task at hand, which is a big deal when it comes to performing diesel particulate filter (DPF) service.

2nd-to-None techs inspect a DPF

Photo courtesy 2nd-to-None Fleet Service

The techs at 2nd-to-None Fleet Service in Albuquerque, New Mexico, prepare to inspect a DPF. 

As their name suggests, DPFs remove harmful particulate matter produced by a truck’s diesel engine. When they get clogged with ash over time, it can cause the filters to fail. Regening is the process by which a DPF automatically burns away some of the ash inside while the truck is running. However, if there’s too much ash present or if a component has ceased working, a forced regen is necessary.

Forced regens need to be performed with special tools and usually form the bulk of DPF-related service in shops. Keep in mind, a filter can become too plugged even for a forced regen, at which point it needs to be cleaned, or “baked,” in expensive, high-temperature ovens that usually cost about $20,000.

That’s why sending the jobs to a local dealership or vendor remains a necessary choice for most independent shops, but it’s not without its drawbacks. “You lose your profit percent,” says Luke Pinkelman, co-owner of Pinkelman Truck & Trailer in Norfolk, Nebraska. “You can’t mark up a lot of what somebody else does, and you’re kind of at [the vendor’s] mercy for when they can do [the job].”

Luke Pinkelman owner of Pinkelman Truck & Trailer

Photo courtesy Pinkelman Truck & Trailer

Luke Pinkelman, co-owner of Pinkelman Truck & Trailer in Norfolk, Nebraska.

The good news is sending out your DPF work doesn’t have to be a profit-draining venture. In fact, as more DPF-fitted trucks come off their warranties, your repair order volume might skyrocket soon.

Let’s look at the facts: Every truck manufactured in the United States since 2007 is equipped with a DPF, and more of these vehicles come off their warranties each year. That means now, in 2017, the number of post-warranty big rigs needing DPF service is going to increase, making performing these
jobs in-house a much more lucrative venture.

Using the following do’s and don’ts, here’s how to turn the most profit when completing in-house regens—as well as outsourcing bake jobs.

Do’s:

1. Invest in the correct diagnostic software.

From Cummins to Peterbilt, a trove of diagnostic programs exists to service plugged DPFs. If you’re looking to become a one-stop shop for regens and DPF service, then investing in a wide range of software ensures you’ll be able to take any truck that comes through your door. Of course, these tools are not cheap, and they add up quickly, according to David Saline.

David Saline of 2nd-to-None Fleet Service

Photo courtesy 2nd-to-None Fleet Service

David Saline, co-owner of 2nd-to-None Fleet Service in Albuquerque and Moriarty, New Mexico.

“We probably spend in the neighborhood of $20,000 to $30,000 per year in software subscriptions,” says the co-owner of 2nd-to-None Fleet Service in Albuquerque and Moriarty, New Mexico. Therefore, opting to specialize doesn’t hurt if you know which vehicles you’ll be working on. “If you’re not seeing the trucks, don’t spend the money,” Pinkelman says.

2. Work with vendors close to you.

When it comes to sending out DPF bake jobs, your vendor’s location is one of the biggest factors to consider. While you’re saving plenty by handing off the work, you’ll be paying more in time wasted if you’re shuttling your filters to a facility hours away.

Marlin Fox works with a dealership more than an hour away when he outsources his DPF baking. ”The bad thing about sending them out is the three-day turnaround time, which is tough for the customer, and it ties up a bay in our shop,” says the co-owner of Quality Truck & Tire Service in Clare, Michigan.

Marlin Fox of Quality Truck & Tire Service

Photo Courtesy Quality Truck & Tire Service

Marlin Fox, co-owner of Quality Truck & Tire Service in Clare, Michigan.

Meanwhile, Pinkelman works with a Peterbilt dealership down the street, resulting in lightning-speed turnarounds. “I can just drive [the DPF] down to the dealer, and they can have it back to me in two or three hours,” he says.

Additionally, seeking vendors that offer pickup and delivery can be a huge boost to your production schedule—even if it costs extra. Although Fox’s dealer is located far from his shop, a nearby satellite store shuttles his filters back and forth, taking some of the sting out of that long turnaround time.

3. Prepare for backup at the vendor.

Depending on where you take your filters, you might not be the only shop your vendor serves. Saline works with a nearby dealership but often loses time competing with other businesses. “Sometimes we run into cases where [the vendor] might have other filters in their cleaning machine, so we have to wait our turn,” Saline says. He suggests taking your filters in toward the end of the day. That way, your component can bake overnight and be ready for hassle-free pickup in the morning.

Sometimes we run into cases where [the vendor] might have other filters in their cleaning machine, so we have to wait our turn.

4. Build a profit-driven partnership with your vendor.

Don’t let your relationship with your vendor stop at baking filters. With the right know-how, you can grow your bond into a lucrative working connection. In Saline’s case, his vendor performs repairs for several truck components, including radiators, coolers and DPFs, but doesn’t physically work on trucks. So, he takes his broken parts to his vendor, and the company in turn refers work to Saline that it can’t complete—adding an extra layer of income to his DPF outsourcing. “It’s a good working relationship and keeps the cost down,” he says.

Diesel Particulate Filter Cross-Section

Photo courtesy Rhonda J. Wilson

The cross section of a DPF unit.

5. Load up on gaskets.

Staying stocked up on parts is Shop Owner 101, but you’d be surprised how many businesses don’t follow this rule. If you’re expecting to service a sizable number of trucks, make sure you have enough gaskets to do so. “The biggest thing is just to stock the gaskets that these filters need when they go back together,” Fox says. Few things match the disappointment that comes with taking on a repair you lack the parts to complete.

6. Keep up with the legislation.

Truck emissions laws change frequently, which is why it’s important for shop owners to stay in the know on the latest DPF news. “It all comes down from the government, and it’s something we have to deal with,” Saline says. “Whatever the regulations, we need to comply with them and adapt to them.” To keep updated, Saline routinely checks the Environmental Protection Agency’s mandates as well as the Department of Transportation’s guidelines. He also recommends reaching out to any trucking associations you belong to since many regularly publish updates on the latest emissions developments.

Don’ts:

1. Don’t treat the regen as a cure-all.

DPFs clog for a variety of reasons, including failed sensors, faulty engines and oil or coolant leaks. These issues need to be properly diagnosed and taken care of before you send your customer back on the road. “The regen is just a Band-Aid,” Saline says. You can bake the filter and test the regen, he adds, but “100 miles down the road, [the driver] will be back in the same situation if you don’t fix his or her original issue.” Remember, time, money and logistics factor into a customer’s decision, but if you do your due diligence and offer all the repairs needed, you’ll net yourself a heftier ticket.

Training Tips

Keeping techs adequately trained is one of the toughest challenges shop owners face—unless you’re David Saline, that is. He cuts no corners when it comes to sharpening his crew’s skills. “We’re big on training,” says the co-owner of 2nd-to-None Fleet Service in Albuquerque and Moriarty, New Mexico.

Saline, who reeled in more than $2 million in combined revenue last year, has developed a comprehensive training program. The following strategies keep his techs on the ball.

Use the buddy system: DPF service is tricky, especially for techs fresh out of school. Saline pairs his new hires with senior employees to walk them through the process. Once they’re comfortable, the lead steps back and oversees the new recruit perform the job alone.

Scholarships: Financing your techs’ training can pay dividends in the long run, especially as they rack up more certifications. “We will send [our employees] to any class they find if we [think] it’s valuable,” Saline says. “And, if they’ll get something out of it, we’ll pay for it.”

Pay to play: Industry competitions are great for honing your techs’ skills. Saline encourages his employees to enter the Technology & Maintenance Council’s SuperTech competition. He even goes as far as to offer a $2,000 to $5,000 bonus for his employees if they place in the event’s top 30.

2. Don’t bog down your bays.

No matter how close your vendor is located, you’ll inevitably face some downtime while the truck’s filter is out for cleaning. This hang-up is not only inconvenient for the customer, but it can also take a toll on your production if that vehicle is sitting in your shop. Pinkelman recommends inspecting the truck and offering to perform any other necessary repairs while it’s occupying your bay.

Towing the vehicle to another location on your property is also an option, but this may tie up valuable shop resources. “If space is tight, we’ll just hook right onto it and pull it outside, but we very seldom do that because it’s a lot of hassle,” Fox says. If moving the truck proves too burdensome, plan your production and budget your space in a way that helps you minimize any hiccups.

3. Don’t neglect your training.

With most DPFs boasting near-perfect effectiveness ratings, you would think the technology has reached its peak. However, these filters keep changing, prompting owners and employees to stay up-to-date on their training. Unfortunately, many shops struggle with keeping their teams sharp. “The difficulty is getting the techs to take their own initiative to [learn],” Pinkelman says.

That’s why incentives and in-house programs are your best friends for honing your techs’ DPF-servicing skills. To get the ball rolling, Pinkelman gives his crew a pay raise whenever they complete an Automotive Service Excellence certification test.

4. Don’t be afraid to invest.

Despite their hefty price tags, investing in DPF cleaning machines might prove a smarter move as more truck owners look to independent shops for service after their warranties run out. “It’s a big investment,” Fox says. “I would believe, too, that if we put that machine in, we would attract a lot of work from local fleets that are sending their filters an hour away because there are so many in this area.”

Pinkelman suspects in-house DPF repair might soon become the norm. “Eventually, it’s going to be a thing where every shop has [a machine], or [the filters] are going to come off the trucks altogether,” he says.

While DPF technology and its legislation are constantly changing, owners agree that adapting is the wisest move. “As shop owners, we’ve got to understand that [emissions laws are] not going away,” Saline says, “So, we just gotta embrace [them], and the bottom line is how do we satisfy the customers’ needs, service [their vehicles] and keep them on the road where they’re making money?”

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