Time for an overhaul

Max Kvidera | November 02, 2010

Oil analysis and other information can help you determine if an engine’s ripe for rebuilding. The same diagnoses might postpone an overhaul or eliminate engine failure.


Owner-operators Don Chadwick and Wes Whitehead pull “Rocky Mountain doubles,” 40-42-foot trailers and pup trailers for Overland Petroleum in Hurricane, Utah. Their loads, delivered across eight mountainous states, frequently range more than 100,000 pounds.

Depending on what your shop finds, replacement of selective worn parts might be a better option than an engine overhaul costing $20,000 or more.

The men, leased to MST Trucking, sustained similar roadside breakdowns caused by components being propelled through their engine blocks. Both had to be towed long distances and ended up replacing their engines. Their experiences show the difficulty of determining when to overhaul and how far you can prolong an engine’s life with overhauls.

Chadwick’s 2001 Peterbilt 379’s original engine had about 600,000 miles when it began gulping oil at about a gallon every 800 miles, he says. The engine was overhauled and lasted about 200,000 miles before it blew.

“I was driving down the freeway and could smell burning oil,” says Chadwick, an owner-operator for seven years. “When I popped the hood, there was oil running on the ground and along the side of the truck. There was a hole just behind the starter about the size of your thumbnail and oil was leaking out. They figured an aluminum piece from a piston came apart and was shoved out the side of the block.”

Whitehead had had two overhauls on his 2002 Peterbilt 379’s engine when he began hearing noises and thought he might have faulty injectors or actuators. He dropped his trailers and was heading to his repair shop in Utah, where MTS is based, when the crankshaft blew through the block.

“It had to be towed 260 miles, and the bill was just short of $3,000,” Whitehead says. He ended up paying $42,000 on that most recent rebuild, which included replacing the engine, transmission and wiring.

“People ask, ‘Why spend that?’ but I don’t want to get into a new truck,” Whitehead says. “I’ve watched the newer trucks and I don’t know if it’s worth it to get into one of them with all the emissions stuff.”

Petroleum hauler Wes Whitehead is running on the second engine in his 2002 Peterbilt 379, after having a previous engine overhauled.

Distrust of post-2007 engine technology, combined with tough economic conditions and higher engine prices, has increased the demand for overhauls, the granddaddy of truck repairs. Given typical costs of $20,000 and more, it’s critical to make wise decisions about them.

Mileage alone doesn’t say much about the need for an overhaul, although engines with 750,000-800,000 miles should start getting closer scrutiny. Consistently pulling heavy loads, driving through mountains or running short haul with a lot of starts and stops will put greater stress on your engine than if you usually haul loads under 80,000 pounds cross-country. Whether the stress accumulates slowly or quickly, knowing when it’s time for an overhaul isn’t always clear-cut.

“There’s just not one thing you point to,” says Brad Williamson, project marking manager at Daimler Trucks North America. “If you feel like your truck’s just not performing like it used to in terms of power or fuel economy, it may be time.”

Two of the most effective ways to determine if the time has come are oil analysis and crankcase blow-by testing.

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