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Extra muscle: ECM reprogramming

| October 12, 2012

Chris Backlund scoured the Internet for months looking for someone to reprogram his engine’s electronic control module. The Fort Collins, Colo., resident hauls asphalt and road base in varied terrain and says he wanted his 1995 Peterbilt 379 to have more uphill push from its 3406E Caterpillar.

He eventually found a local shop, Elite Diesel Services. The shop connected a laptop to the engine, flashed the electronic control module and inserted a file with new data.

“It’s been a night and day difference with fuel economy and power,” Backlund says.

He hasn’t tracked the exact fuel mileage benefits, but says he did gain nearly 150 horsepower – currently at 580, up from the stock 435.

Fuel costs can be cut and power squeezed from stock ECM programming, says Pittsburgh Power owner Bruce Mallinson, whose company specializes in diesel engine performance and does the type of work Backlund had done.

“If you can do just a mile or a mile and a half [a gallon] better, you’re going to put about $20,000 extra in your pocket each year,” he says. Pitt Power engineers are constantly researching modern engines and ECMs to determine what can be improved, he says.

Toying with tuning? Proceed with caution

Re-flashing your ECM or remotely advancing injection timing and the quantity of fuel that goes in for each power stroke could certainly give an underpowered, fuel-thirsty truck a boot in the rear.

It’s also bound to send Nox emissions through the roof and, along with them, peak cylinder pressures and the amount of heat your cooling system and engine oil will have to remove from cylinder liners, pistons and other parts.

A drastic increase in power is likely to significantly increase oil soot, caused by the greatly increased ratio of fuel and air going into the cylinders. It could also over-speed the turbo and cause erosion of the turbine blades on the exhaust side.

Increasing the torque sent through the drivetrain can cause serious trouble, too. Transmission, driveshaft and rear axle manufacturers design their products to precisely match the level of torque they are specified for.

Here are a few pointers to minimize impact of engine alterations if you decide to do so:


USE AN EXHAUST PYROMETER. If your dash doesn’t already include an exhaust pyrometer, install one. Then, consult an engine shop as to the maximum exhaust temperature that is considered satisfactory. When exhaust exceeds this temperature, back off on the throttle.

ANALYZE OIL AND LUBES. This way, you’ll know whether or not the soot levels in your oil are building to maximum tolerable levels and if your oil is breaking down from the extra heat. Keep a close eye on oil and coolant temperatures, too, and reduce power if they exceed normal operating recommendations. Watch transmission and axle oil temperatures, too. Pay close attention to the gearbox gauge because there is more friction and heat there. If the manufacturer’s recommended operating temperature is exceeded, reduce power until it drops to a satisfactory level. Also, use only synthetic lubes because they handle heat much better.

AVOID HEAVY THROTTLE. The most critical time for torque damage to drivetrain components is when running in lower gears. Mimic the operation of multi-torque systems by avoiding heavy throttle until you’re in high range and, preferably, until you are operating in the top two gears in the transmission.

–John Baxter

Companies like Pitt Power, Bully Dog and Delta Force have two major reprogramming methods:

• A flash of the ECM that tunes it to perform differently.

• Installation of a device on the engine that changes signals either to or from the ECM, based on parameters entered by the user.

Mack Trucks’ Dave McKenna cautions owner-operators to be careful with their equipment, as “bootlegged” data files haven’t been through the rigorous tests manufacturers subject their equipment and software to each year.

“We spend tens of millions of dollars a year – if you lump the industry together, hundreds of millions of dollars a year – to try to have a better product than the next guy,” says McKenna, director of powertrain sales and marketing.

“If you’ve got a guy with an iPad or whatever that says he’s got a file that can improve fuel economy, well, yeah, it may improve fuel economy but it’s going to cause problems somewhere else,” he says.

McKenna points to engine life and disruption of meeting emission standards as probable compromises.

“It’s a balance,” he says. “When we put an engine data file together, the first thing we try to do is achieve a torque profile that’s going to work, a horsepower profile that’s going to work with that torque profile, and then we work our darnedest to get optimal power, fuel economy and emission regulation.”

Alex Nikolic, sales manager for Delta Force Tuning, based in Sanford, Fla., agrees that engine changes usually compromise the engine elsewhere. So his company carefully “tips the scales to make the engine achieve what the customer is after,” he says.

From a technical standpoint, electronic engine tuning slightly alters injection timing, pressure or a combination of the two, Nikolic says.

To determine how much to change timing and pressure and what parameters to alter in the ECM, Nikolic says the company quizzes owner-operators about driving habits, loads, terrains and desired effects. It then must obtain the engine’s base tune – the manufacturer’s settings – by hacking into the ECM with a worm, a virus-like program used to gather information.

Delta Force then alters the data, flashes the ECM and uploads the new file, unless it’s using an inline device, in which case hardware and a wire harness are installed.

Shawn Udy, project manager at BullyDog, says his company offers three basic electronic tunes – fuel economy, fuel economy with power, and a return to stock, which changes altered ECM parameters back to original settings. The basic fuel economy tune can increase fuel mileage by 6 percent to 12 percent, he says, and the loss of horsepower “is a wash.”

The fuel economy with power tune, however, increases fuel economy 6 percent to 12 percent and horsepower and torque each about 15 percent, Udy says. A tune at Bully Dog runs about $3,000. Udy says the changes don’t leave a footprint that manufacturers can see and it doesn’t interfere with diagnostic tools.

Small-fleet owner and driver Wes Malmgren of Malmgren Transport in Aurora, Utah, says in 2009 he installed Bully Dog’s Power Pup onto a 2006 Caterpillar and immediately saw an increase in horsepower and fuel mileage.

Manufacturers frown on retuning

NAVISTAR. Changing manufacturer ECM calibrations will decrease life of all drivetrain and engine parts, says Anil Bansal, global electronic and electrical systems director. “Anything that deals with fuel or turbo could be affected,” he says. Dealers will work with customers to change calibrations, which is the safest option, Bansal says. The company deals with third-party ECM tuning relative to warranty coverage on a case by case basis, he says.

CUMMINS. Lou Wenzler, Technical Sales Support Director, says the manufacturer has worked to prevent ECM recalibrating by requiring a tool that can only be obtained within the dealer network. He says Cummins’ dealers can uprate engines roughly 50 hp, but if done by a third-party, engine failures caused by ECM reprogramming will not be covered by a manufacturer warranty.

DETROIT. Mark Thomas says the company’s engines keep records of reprogramming and tools that have been used in doing so, and unauthorized tampering voids a warranty. “These are very finely-tuned machines,” he says. “It will take away from the life of the engine.” Thomas also says owner-operators could be fined up to $3,000 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency if their engine tampering defeats emissions technology.

MACK. With improving ECM technology, says Dave McKenna, Mack can track changes to an ECM with a log kept within the engine computer. He also says ECM flashing voids the manufacturer’s warranty. It can harm engine performance and engine life, and defeat emissions technology. “It can’t possibly be good for the engine,” McKenna says.

VOLVO. Ed Saxman, product marketing manager, says he’s skeptical of anyone “not schooled” in the manufacturer’s design. “If you change the parameters within the ECM, you could exceed design limits of some of the components within the engine,” he says. Spokesman Brandon Borgna says the company’s warranties do not cover any vehicle or system altered to affect “stability, durability or reliability.”

PACCAR. “There is nothing to be gained by unauthorized attempts to reconfigure the engine ECM’s calibrations beyond the available parameter settings,” says Paccar VP Craig Brewster. Tampering can reduce performance and engine life and, per EPA emissions standards, make the engine non-compliant, Brewster says.

“We jumped about 1.2 miles per gallon, and when running a hill, you’re basically a full gear higher going up it now,” he says. He’s since installed the devices onto four other trucks. “Anybody can do it as long as they have a computer,” he says. “You just plug it in, bolt it on the ECM and that was that.”

Malmgren also says he’s been able to have warranty work done to the engines after he installed the Power Pup. “I’ve been into shops and no one could tell the difference,” he says. “The warranty work was still done. I didn’t tell them, and I wasn’t going to unless they asked.”

Repair and maintenance hasn’t been an issue yet, either, for the five trucks they’ve tuned. “Compared to the other 28, we actually haven’t noticed a difference,” he says.

McKenna says that though dealerships or Mack-authorized mechanics may not be able to notice electronic tunes, they do void warranties when spotted, and steps have been taken on 2007 and newer Mack engines to decrease tampering. If parameters within the ECM change, a fault code will flash and issues are time- and date-stamped.

Mark Thomas, director of electrical and electronic engineering for Detroit, says the company voids warranties, too, when an ECM has been tampered with. “It could hurt the mechanics of the engine and it’s going to cut down on the life of the engine and the whole drivetrain – the engine, the transmission, driveline, axles,” he says.

“If you want 600 hp out of your engine, why buy a 450 hp engine in the first place?” Thomas says. “Spec a 600 hp engine to begin with, and it will end up saving you money overall.”

Carnduff, Saskatchewan resident Blake Small flashed the ECM of his current truck and his former truck. Performance Diesel in St. George, Utah, reprogrammed the 600-hp Cummins ISX he uses in his 2009 Peterbilt 389, and it now runs at about 800 hp, Small says.

He says the engine’s also running 2 mpg better than when he bought it. “The money saved in fuel costs more than pays for modifications, and it’s more fun to drive,” Small says. His former truck, a 2005 Peterbilt 379 with a 550-hp MXS C15 Caterpillar, has 22,000 hours on it and hasn’t had any major problems, he says. He had PDI tune it to about 750 hp. He sold the truck, but has kept up with its current owner.

Pitt Power’s Mallinson does say owner-operators should be careful about engine modifications when under warranty, but to consider the bottom line.

“Is it worth it to have a warranty and a truck that drives like a dog? Or do I want to drive a truck that’s a thoroughbred and going to save me $20,000 worth of fuel?” Mallinson asks. “It’s something to think about.”


  • jescott418

    Its obvious that a engine makers priorities these days is meeting emissions. The whole torque and horsepower are secondary. The trouble is that eventually newer engines will limit the amount of tweaking that can be done by outside sources. The problem is things like DEF injection and added emission controls simply will make it harder for this tweaking.
    I see a day and it may be already here that these latest emission trucks will be worth very little on the market and the ones that everyone will want will be the older engines with no emissions. The EPA thinks its saving the world, but in reality its creating a underground of people willing to spend money to get around all those devices that hurt performance and power.

  • Empty Pockets

    All this publicity on this subject matter will eventually draw the attention of the EPA which in turn cause some type of over-regulation pertaining to this. This is a subject matter that needs to quietly go about its business. Unless you want to pay some outrageous fee to get your emission sticker in order to be able to register your truck like they do cars in a lot of cities/states around the country.

  • Patrick

    I see all of the cautionary statements by the manufactures as propaganda, to sell new trucks, As for the engine and drivetrain damage, and engine and drivetrain can be damaged by improper driving technique or inexperienced operators, This country needs trucks, rail service has been decimated and no longer can goods be delivered directly from rail to retailer or even distribution centers. Impose the regulations on the auto industry there are a hell of a lot more cars doing nothing but carrying Mom Pop and the kids to some outing… Leave the Trucks alone..

  • TWade

    “It’s been a night and day difference with fuel economy and power,” Backlund says. But then says that he hasn’t tracked the fuel mileage, if he hasn’t track the fuel economy how can he make this statement? 150 more horses but how will this increase profit or is it just for bragging rights and to say I got to the top of the hill first?

  • Pingback: ECM recalibration - Diesel Bombers

  • Thewiredmechanic

    You hit the nail on the head. KW is now offering glidders.

  • Thewiredmechanic

    gliders silly me.

  • les

    need someone to fix my mack emc email me please

  • Rawze

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    ‘Big-Boy’ ECM Tunes are BAD,… VERY BAD,…

    Throughout this document I refer often to ‘Big-Boy’ Tunes. These are ‘ECM Tunes’, supposedly from ‘ECM Tnner’ companies that claim to specialize in ISX engines. Any time you see me refer to a ‘Big-Boy’ tune, I am actually referring to all the ECM Tuner companies you see advertise on the Internet. They are companies like PDI, J-Ball, Diesel-Spec, Bully-Dog, Pittsburgh Power, Delta Force,. Etc. etc. etc,… the list is actually long,… why?,… THEY COPY EACH OTHER’S BAD, BUTCHERED METHODS!!!!!>. That being said,…

    Lastly, there is the Racing and/or Off-Road Industry. Performing a ‘delete’ is a first step in custom tuning, and/or performing other competition ‘mods’ to these engines. The ‘Big-Name’ companies (Think companies similar to PDI, DieselSpec, J-ball, BullyDog, etc…) out there that specialize in this are doing these things, to put it bluntly,… incorrectly for this particular model engine. I have never seen such kindergarten type of butchery inside an ECM, now that I can see and understand what they do. It is obvious that these so-called ‘Super Tuner’ shops are completely clueless when it comes these newer, more complex engine systems. Looking at their work,… for me,… is like watching someone bash the engine with a sledge-hammer to try and beat it into submission. It certainly does not make them run much better.

    Once you open an ECM they have supposedly ‘Tuned’, or ‘Deleted’, It is just sickening to observe. You will see hundreds, if not thousands of parameters that have been blindly bashed, beating the engine into submission, it is now riding the edge of its tolerances, struggling to run without something burning up, or blowing out. It baffles me as to WHY such big-name multi million-dollar companies do such horrible work. C’mon,… these are the same guys you see on ESPN!,.. On TV!,.. at the Drag-Racing competitions and such!,…You would think they could afford to actually hire someone who knows how a diesel engine actually works!,…That is why I made this document,… To Open the people’s eyes who legitimately need this info!!!

    OK Mr. Smart-ass,… What is so wrong with the ‘Other Guy’s Tunes?,…

    I really could care less who’s ‘Method’ of Tune, or Delete is better or worse, as long as the goals are met in accomplishing what someone wants from their motor. That being said, when I ask most truck owners that are already shopping around for a ‘Delete’, they say that they are looking to pay someone to get rid of all the headaches, errors, problems, and tens of thousands in lost revenue their emissions systems has caused them by simply removing it. They also expect, as a result, the engine to be more fuel efficient and reliable.

    Well,… the ‘Big-Boy’ Delete companies are certainly able to remove those systems, they have their ways,… But it is the second part of that goal that has always been the problem for the ISX. The argument comes in the form of what someone would consider ‘Fuel efficient’ or ‘reliable’… What is your definition of it?,…

    When it comes to reliability and fuel efficiency, the act of removing a clogged up DOC/DPF, turning off that Doser injector, keeping it from spraying fuel into the exhaust pipe, and switching off the EGR, allowing the engine to operate on clean, oxygen-rich air, will definitely improve the engines fuel efficiency all on its own. It does not matter how good or bad of a job they did to achieve this, there is ALWAYS SOME SLIGHT GAIN!. So whats the problem?,.. it IS more efficient,…, but that in itself IS the problem. It masks the fact that those same ‘Big-Boy’ Tunes are now completely unstable AND that they are no where near as efficient as they should be. What you end up with is poor combustion, excess charge pressures (over-boosting), tons of excess heat loss, an engine that can eat VG turbo’s like candy, and because of over-boosting, the risk of dropping a valve and cracking the head is highly increased. Their attempt of adjusting the timing is done so poorly, that the pistons are hammering down onto the crank, and there is now a constant risk of excess cylinder pressures, just waiting for that hot, dry, summer day to cause a head or engine block to crack and fail.

    At this point, these are just a bunch of hollow words to most people, and since this document is all about the technical details of these same things,… lets take a look at the last ‘Big-Boy’ Tune I encountered, shall we?…

    I will call this guy Tom,… Tom’s truck is a 2009 Pete 387 with the 475 CM871 ISX. He told them he wanted a delete, but keep his existing turbo. When they were done, it still had the VG turbo, along with all the hardware on the engine, they installed a couple of blocking-plates, and the DPF/DOC was hollowed out by the shop that did his delete. He knew his truck well, and after the delete, he knew it didn’t sound quite right when idling, and it overheated easily when climbing mountains. At idle, he described it sounding almost like a ‘Leaf Blower’ at the exhaust compared to before,… He could tell that it definitely had much more air/exhaust running through it. They told him it was because the DPF was hollow and it had better exhaust flow. The reality of it was that the turbo was out of control, and providing boost at idle. Except in the extreme cold to pre-load the engine to create excess heat, DIESEL ENGINES DO NOT NEED BOOST WHEN NOT UNDER A TORQUE LOAD, ESPECAILLY NOT AT IDLE !!! . Soon after the delete, the turbo failed due to over-heating and over-spin.

    Here are some things they changed on Tom’s truck. It was Supposedly (I was not there) a PDI-sponsored shop that butchered his ECM,…AND they charged him $8,000 dollars,… He actually thought that if he paid Big Bucks to a Big-Boy shop, they would absolutely do it right… Even I would have thought they were better than this…

    Here are some of the parameters they set, and their values…
    Name From To Comment
    C_Turbo_Speed_Sensor_Installed 1 0 When 0, disables the tubro speed (sensor) processing
    C_TurbochargerSpdEnable 1 0 Indicates to the tool whether the Turbocharger Speed Sensor is enabled in the ECM.
    C_VGT_Enable 1 0 Flag for enabling VGT commands.
    C_VGA_DL_StatusLB_Fault_Enable B9FF 0000 Bit mapped parameter used to enable faults from J39_VGT_Status.
    C_VGA_DL_StatusUB_Fault_Enable FFFF 0000 Bit mapped parameter used to enable faults from VGT_Actuator_Status.
    C_AIP_CompInTmptrLLim 23 0 The lower limit of the raw value for the compressor inlet temperature sensor before a fault has occurred
    C_AIP_CompInTmptrULim 1015 9000 The lower limit of the raw value for the compressor inlet temperature sensor before a fault has occurred
    T_AIP_CompInTmptr_Ovrd_En 0 1 This enable allows the global value of Compressor_Inlet_Tmptr to be set to C_AIP_CompInTmptr_Ovrd_Val.
    C_AIP_CompInTmptr_Count_Incrt 4 1 The increment step for compressor Inlet temperature oor error counter

    The result of this is that now, even though he still has his VG turbo, and told them he wanted to keep it, they switched it off completely along with any sensors that would give an alarm if it were to over-spin or over-boost. As well, the turbo is now unstable, and is moving to random positions each time the truck is cranked. The engine also cannot determine if the Turbo is overheating,… bad enough,… But also, that the engine can no longer determine charge inlet temp into the engine. This not only effects combustion efficiency, but ALSO sets up dangerous conditions for the motor, as well as producing the excess heat Tom was seeing when climbing mountains. The ECM can no longer compensate for changes in cylinder pressure based on how how/cold the air is, nor control the charge pressure. The ‘BOFORE TOP DEAD CENTER’ (BTDC) Cylinder pressures can vary by hundreds if not thousands of PSI based on these intake temps. It is a disaster waiting to happen on a very hot summer day, but even in cooler weather, the engine is internally fighting with itself to overcome this. The result is excess temps under high engine load, and 8 – 15 Horse-Power of internal engine load at idle.

    OK, maybe they made a mistake,… Maybe they thought they could sell him their after-market turbo?,… They did tell Tom, that he would be back in short order when his turbo failed to get their so-called ‘Superior’ after-market fixed-vein turbo. They told Tom things like,… “Yup,.. they all do it”,… “they all fail”,… “Holsets are junk turbo’s”… “We see it over and over”…

    They also tried to convince him that it is the only way to do a delete on an ISX, and it run right afterwards. They told him Holsets were poorly designed and that they couldn’t handle a delete. Of course IN REALITY, they failed to tell him that they themselves were the ones that caused this. WHY DO THEY DO THIS TO THEIR CUSTOMERS!!!??? … THEY DO THIS VERY VERY OFTEN!!!!… I HAVE SEEN THE BIG-BOY TUNER SHOPS DO THIS OVER AND OVER!!!,… AND, THEY ARE COPYING EACH OTHERS BAD, BUTCHERED WORK!!!. THESE BAD TUNES AND DELETES SPREAD LIKE A VIRUS amongst the ECM Tuner crowd.

    Another thing that I see them do, and was done to Tom’s truck, is they heavily screw with the engine timing tables. This would not be so bad, but it is clear that they do not know what they are doing. I was asked recently by someone why ISX engine blocks fail after a Big-Boy Delete. This was roughly, my response…

    Most blocks that I have seen fail, do so in the area just below where the ECM is mounted. Every one I have personally seen do this tho, had a bad delete in them. Any more than about 1 – 1.5 degrees overall shift in the factory timing tables can easily start to cause problems. The ‘Big Boy’ Delete companies, for some unknown reason, perhaps out of sheer ignorance always butcher the timing maps in the ECM. In the last several ‘Big Boy’ (think PDI), Tunes that I have had to correct, they blindly altered ALL the timing maps by a full 5 degrees across the board,… and for all engine modes. I will assume that they perhaps used a Dyno to come up with this,.. giving them the benefit of the argument,… but it must have been done in Northern Canada, on a damned cold, winter day, when they got these numbers,… who knows,… All the Dyno testing in the world will not compensate for ignorance I guess…

    This is also a clear indication that absolutely NO consideration was made for the fact that the engine’s optimum timing and fueling runs on a logarithmic curve,… AND,… there is NO compensation for excess charge pressure or intake temp variations. These guys seriously ARE clueless,… The pistons are now hammering the cam as it is, the excess boost they stuff in by an over-spinning, now unstable turbo causes extreme cylinder pressures, even before the TDC is reached, and the fuel starts to ignite too early on. This is bad enough in cold, or cool weather, operating limits are reached, but get the truck out in a hot desert on a 110-degree day,… add the fact that the turbo is starting to overheat from excess spin,…. or just simply a slightly dirty CAC,… that increase in intake air temp can easily add an additional 300, but more likely 700 – 1000 more PSI in the cylinder(s) as they approach TDC,… engine already under high limit strain because of bad timing, and BOOM!!!!,… that nice window in the side of the block is the result. Altering the timing tables directly, also results in the ECM calculating these same cylinder pressures incorrectly. The ECM now has no clue the engine is about to be destroyed.

    Most of these same styles of deletes also disable the air Altitude, Ambient and Inlet temp sensor too. This results in the ECM not being able to compensate, nor calculate cylinder pressures very well at all. It has no clue any more if you are in hot or cold weather, so cylinder pressure can rise or fall by hundreds, or even thousands of PSI…. nothing controlling it any more. Some could argue that it is part of an attempt to increase Horse-Power, and maybe that is what they did, but I can tell you first hand, that the same, or more, HP has been achieved with far less damaging results.

    – Sooo,… that is why I cringe so badly when I see or hear a Delete Shop bragging that they edit the timing tables on these motors. There are many other compensations that must be taken to maintain stability so that the engine operates safely, and to get the ECM to calculate cylinder pressures correctly again. They do get away with such kindergarten hack-job offsets most of the time, but I haven’t met one yet, that could do it right.

  • AutoECMs

    Great article on ECM reprogramming.

  • MercenaryMan

    Modifying Data profiles for more Torque or Horsepower or fuel mileage isnt all bad, if you drive the engine in its powerband and dont exceed the RPMs or Torque power settings this should offer up considerable savings and driveability, But yes you can crank that thing through the roof and ruin the engine in wear and tear in short order. Ive used the Bully Dog systems and for Mountain driving or Heavy haul its a great product that yields better driving and with a good foot, and technique you still have all the durability and dependability.

  • DPF

    So what is the correct way to delete the DPF, and more importantly can you recommend a shop that can do it? I can be reached at strives to maintain an open forum for reader opinions. Click here to read our comment policy.