When bigger is better

Max Heine

With all the hubbub regarding emissions technology in recent years, the focus has been on engine change. During that same period, something else of note has involved not changing: Owner-operators seem to have lost their lust for ever-bigger engines. That’s not to say heavier iron hasn’t been introduced. Caterpillar, for example, offers up to 625 hp with its 15.2-liter C15, and some newer engines, such as the Mack MP10, have 16 liters.

“We’ll see 16 liters as a cap for quite a while,” says Jim Tipka, vice president of engineering for the American Trucking Associations. Unless, Tipka says, laws change to allow heavier loads, possibly in response to concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, 16 liters is plenty to handle 80,000 pounds over any terrain.

The trend of owner-operators continually upsizing their engines began to level off after 2000, according to the 2008 Overdrive Owner-Operator Market Behavior Report. So bigger isn’t necessarily better. But is it better for you? Consider these costs before spec’ing an
engine or buying a used truck.

OWNER SHIP COSTS. This involves the cost of the truck and its resale value. It’s no secret that the bigger the engine, the better the resale value for owneroperator-spec’d trucks.

Balance that with the premium paid for the bigger engine. “There’s easily a $5,000 swing between an 11- and a 12- or 14-liter,” says Eddie Walker, president of the Used Truck Association and owner of Best Used Trucks in Fort Worth, Texas.

“In a road tractor, if you’re talking aboutan owner-operator piece of equipment, it’s as much as $10,000.”

OPER ATING COSTS. Given rising fuel prices, “I think fleets are trying to find efficiencies wherever they can, which is driving horsepower down,” says Tim Blubaugh, executive vice president of the Engine Manufacturers Association.

Years ago, with mechanical engines, a noticeable gap existed between the fuel economy of small and large heavy-duty engines, says Chris Brady, head of Commercial Motor Vehicle Consulting, who authored the Overdrive report. “That gap has definitely decreased with electronics,” he says.

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Furthermore, notes Tipka, “Overtaxed smaller engines use more fuel than larger engines.” So depending upon application, a large engine can be the most fuel-efficient choice.

Unfortunately, because so many variables affect fuel efficiency, manufacturers don’t provide data that would allow direct comparison.

As for maintenance costs, heavier engines may have an advantage, Brady says. “An oversize engine in relationship to the operating environment reduces engine stress, and thereby the risk of engine failure,” he says.

This factor also plays a role in business risk. A large carrier can tolerate a reasonable
number of breakdowns because it can always call another truck to cover a load. The single-truck owner-operator has no such luxury. For the independent with no backup plan, a serious breakdown could jeopardize a coveted shipper relationship.

“Differences in estimation of business risk with respect to engine durability and reliability generally cause owner-operators to purchase trucks equipped with larger engines than medium and large fleets,” Brady says. “An oversize engine also provides owner-operators with the flexibility of switching applications without increasing business risk.”

The bottom line is there are good reasons to go jumbo in picking an engine for a long-haul operation. Just make sure satisfying your ego isn’t one of them, and count the costs – operational and ownership – closely.

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