If you're new to owning a diesel, there are a lot of maintenance items you should be aware of. Diesel engines, while extremely powerful, are also somewhat fragile if not maintained properly. In fact, failing to complete any one of these basic maintenance tasks could result in your diesel breaking down. But if you properly care for your diesel, you'll have an engine that generates tons of torque, accelerates any big load, and offers you the kind of fuel efficiency that you would expect from a much smaller motor. Diesel's many benefits even have some people predicting that one day in the future all people will own diesel engine vehicles instead of gasoline -- so these maintenance tips might be very important to you down the road.
In all likelihood your diesel has a turbo-charger. The turbo-charger, much like a jet engine, has compressor blades inside it that spin at 20k or 30k rpm. These blades force clean outside air into the engine, thereby increasing engine efficiency and performance. However, because the turbo-charger is like a jet engine, great care must be taken to make sure the air entering the turbo is clean and clear of debris. For instance, if a small piece of debris were to enter the turbo as it was spinning at max speed it's possible one of the compressor blades would shatter as it struck the debris. These shattered pieces would then strike other blades, shattering them, until the time when the entire turbo has been destroyed. That's why it's incredibly important that the air filter on your diesel engine is clean and properly installed. To help you, most vehicle manufacturers equip their vehicles with an electronic sensor that will tell you when to check your air filter. Additionally, nearly all turbo-diesels have air-filter restriction gauges. This restriction gauge will tell you if your air filter has become too clogged to protect your turbo. If the gauge indicates a new filter is needed, you should replace it immediately. For all these reasons, I suggest you keep a spare filter in your vehicle just in case.
Even without the turbo-charger, diesel engines have lots of maintenance items that are especially important. Fuel filters are extremely important for proper performance because diesel fuel, unlike gasoline, contains a relatively large amount of impurities. For example, the typical gasoline fuel filter might only need replacement once every 30,000 miles. Yet many manufacturers suggest diesel fuel filters be replaced in as little as 10k miles (depending upon driving conditions). Make sure to check your owner's manual to find out what your manufacturer suggests. Also, use the same service station every time you refuel if possible. If you're favorite service station has bad fuel, you'll find out relatively quickly and you can save yourself money by finding a new fuel source.
Here's some shocking news for new diesel owners -- in addition to being less pure than gasoline, diesel fuel also contains water. Even though small amounts of water will not hurt your diesel engine, nearly all modern diesels are equipped with water separators. Depending upon your vehicle, you may need to purge the water from your diesel's fuel system manually. Check your owner's manual for instructions on how to do this and to find out how often it should be done. If you fail to purge the water from your diesel's fuel system, you could experience poor performance and/or fuel economy. The good news is that many service facilities will perform this task for you at little or no charge (as well as the dispose of the water/fuel mixture in an environmentally friendly way).
Colloquially, diesels are sometimes called "oil burners". That's because diesels, unlike gasoline engines, typically burn some of the engine's lubricating oil during normal use. Obviously, if your engine is burning oil on a regular basis it's extremely important to check the oil level between oil changes. When checking the oil, make sure the engine has cooled for at least 30 minutes and that the vehicle is level -- that way, you know all the oil has had time to drain out of the top of the engine. Once you've pulled the dipstick, your owner's manual will explain when you should add oil based on the dipstick reading. Remember - if you don't check the engine's oil levels between changes, you could permanently damage your motor.
Diesel engines don't like cold temperatures. At temperatures below zero, diesel fuel may "gel" (turn from a liquid to a semi-solid). Below freezing, diesel engines tend to start harshly and warm-up very slowly. At extremely low temperatures (below -10 F) normal diesel engine oil does not protect the engine from friction. Therefore, it's very important to remember to use your diesel's block heater if outside temps ever dip below zero. If you can afford the electricity, I recommend you plug-in your block heater any time the outside temperature dips below freezing. This will protect your engine, keep your fuel warm and gel free, make for quick and smooth start-ups, and it will help your engine warm-up quickly. Check your owners manual, but usually your block heater plug-in is wire-tied to a harness behind and underneath the bumper.
While all new engines have a short break-in period, new diesel engines usually have a break-in period that lasts 500 or 1000 miles (check your manual to find out). Usually, the manufacturer recommends that you avoid driving at sustained speeds (i.e. long trips on the highway) during this period. Additionally, most manufacturers suggest you not tow or haul anything during this period as well. Once the initial break-in is over, it's not uncommon for your diesel to continue to improve in power and efficiency for the first 20k or 30k miles. Unlike gas motors, which often stop improving in power and efficiency after 3k to 5k miles, diesels need lots of time and use to reach their peak efficiency and performance. In fact, most long-time diesel owners will tell you that their engine didn't really start to truly perform until a year or two after they bought it.
To summarize, it's very important that new or first-time diesel owners review their engine manual. In addition to normal vehicle maintenance, diesel owners should keep a close eye on their air filter restriction gauge, change the fuel filter often, always check engine oil between oil changes, purge water from the fuel system as required, and remember to plug-in the block heater any time outside temperatures drop below zero degrees Fahrenheit. When you do all these extra tasks, your diesel engine will reward you with 200,000+ miles of good service.
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Author Jason Lancaster operates TundraHeadquarters.com, a website for Toyota Tundra owners. For anyone interested in a diesel truck, TundraHeadquarters.com recently uncovered evidence of a diesel Toyota Tundra in development.
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