We've gotten to know the diesel engine on Nine of Cups quite intimately over the years. It was hard not to, since it essentially lived in the galley. To work on the starboard side – which wasn't all that infrequently – I had to open the access doors and lie down on the floor, making the stove, fridge and sink pretty much inaccessible. That, coupled with the wonderful aroma of that old diesel engine, sometimes led to the tiniest bit of friction within the crew.
For our first couple of years aboard, we hired mechanics when we had engine problems. I thought of them as diesel mechanic tutors – I watched, asked lots of questions, and learned a lot. Between these lessons and Nigel Calder's great books, it wasn't long before I could fix most of our engine problems. It was, after all, only a very basic, 1980s vintage, Ford tractor engine that was marinized for use on a boat. No computer modules, no hi-tech emission controls, no supercharger – just a basic four banger diesel.
When we bought Blue, we wanted the diesel version with its much higher fuel efficiency. And since I was now a diesel 'expert', I'd be able to fix most problems we might encounter with it. Well, the fuel economy is great, but after one look under the hood, where the actual engine is only a small part of all the state-of-the-art components crammed in there, I suspect I won't be doing a lot of my own repairs. The engine on Blue bears as much resemblance to the old diesel on Cups as the inside of a laptop does to an abacus. I may still change the filters and oil myself, but I hope that while the warranty lasts, whatever problems crop up will be covered. So far so good – we've had a couple of issues to date, and both have been fully covered. There were no tutorials, of course. No auto repair garages allow the customer inside to watch the repairs being made. After the warranty expires, when problems occur, I'll use whatever computer codes are generated, internet research and common sense to try and figure the problem out, but I suspect Blue will be headed to the nearest Ford dealer to resolve all but the simplest issues.
We've learned a couple of other lessons regarding Blue's diesel engine as well. One has to do with the fuel temperature. As we were making our way north to Boston and the temperature began plummeting, my brother, who knows a lot more about diesels than I ever will, called to ask whether we had treated our fuel for the cold weather. Huh? We never had to do that on Cups. He informed us that diesel contains paraffin, which is usually in solution. When the diesel gets below around 30 F, the paraffin begins to solidify. Initially, it will cloud the fuel and affect the fuel efficiency, but when the temperature gets below about 15 F, it will gel enough to clog the filter and lines. The reason we were never affected by this on Cups was that the fuel tanks are inside the boat, and we never let our living space get below freezing while we were living aboard. While we may have been freezing our tushes off, it was never colder than 40 F inside. Since sub-zero weather was anticipated in Boston, we bought a diesel treatment solution for Blue, Power Service Antigel Solution, that prevents the paraffin from solidifying. Even so, I apparently didn't add enough, because one morning a few days later when the temperature was -5 F, an engine light came on indicating that the fuel filter was clogging up. I was afraid I'd have to crawl under the van in the snow and cold to change the fuel filter, a very unpleasant prospect, but after adding more of the antigel solution, and waiting until it was above zero again, the engine light went off and he's been running fine ever since.
The trick was how to get the anti-gel solution into the fuel tank, since it has to be added with each fill. I used a funnel and measuring cups the first few times. I got most of the solution in the tank, but it's messy and time consuming, and then there's the problem of where to store the smelly, messy funnel and measuring cups. We now use a plastic catsup/mustard dispenser. I marked the outside in 2 oz increments to make it easier to add measured doses. It's still not the ideal method as I have to use a long screwdriver to open both filler tube seals. I think the real solution is to stay in places that are warm enough not to cause the problem to begin with.
Another lesson we learned about the new engine is that it requires diesel exhaust fluid or DEF. As part of the emission control system, the engine has a diesel particulate filter that filters the soot from the exhaust. To prevent the filter from clogging up, it requires periodic 'regeneration', which is accomplished by subjecting the filter to a very high temperature for a short period of time, essentially burning off the particulates. The process is automatic, and the only indication that it is happening is the dash info system displays the message ”Regenerating” for a few seconds from time to time as we are driving.
The regeneration process uses DEF to burn off the particulates. The Ford Transit has a separate tank for DEF and the fill tube is located just below the fuel filler. The tank holds enough to last about 10,000 miles, and an indicator light comes on when the level is getting low.
BTW, DEF is composed of water and urea. Urban legend has it that the urea portion is actually horse or cattle urine. When I first heard this, my mind wandered for days on how the collection process might work - that could well be one of life's more unpleasant jobs. I also wondered whether, in a pinch, I could mix my own. In actuality, urea has been made synthetically since the 1870s and, while I'm not sure whether it ever was, it's certainly not collected from farm animals anymore. Further, the Transit owner's manual states that “You must only use diesel exhaust fluid that is certified by the American Petroleum Institute (API)”, and that you must not dilute the DEF with any other liquid, so I guess that precludes me from mixing my own.