How to explain the high cost of diesel maintenance to customers

Oct. 1, 2018
Diesel vehicles may not be cheap to look after anymore, but regular maintenance is still the best way to keep them running well. Here’s how to explain this new reality to your customer and maybe help lessen the financial pain involved.

Not terribly long ago, diesel vehicles were cheaper to run and maintain than their gasoline-powered equivalents – but that’s not always true anymore.

Thanks to the rising costs of (decent) diesel fuel and the high cost of (decent) diesel-specific replacement parts and fluids, modern diesel vehicles can actually end up being quite a bit more expensive to maintain than similar gasoline-powered vehicles. Ouch! And that’s without factoring in the costs of mistakes like putting diesel emission fluid (DEF) into the wrong tank or taking the Internet’s advice and putting crazy stuff into the fuel – just the cost of regular maintenance alone can be financially painful.

Maintaining a modern diesel vehicle can be very costly, but it needs to be done.

And the fact is, not spending the money to look after a diesel vehicle properly will almost certainly be much more expensive than paying for the high cost of diesel maintenance in the first place – but that’s not something most customers want to hear and usually not something that’s pleasant to explain.

In reality, it may take a few different approaches to explain the importance of regular maintenance to your diesel customer and to convince them that it’s a worthwhile expense.

Because it needs to be done.

However, if your customer gets upset or outraged at how much quality maintenance work on diesel vehicles costs, here are a few lessons, from experience, that may help convince them that it’s easier and cheaper to pay now rather than pay later. Because one way or another, they will indeed pay – it’s just how much and when.

Surprising reasons why maintenance is so critical
Along with the obvious reasons for properly and responsibly maintaining a diesel vehicle – such as keeping the vehicle running reliably and efficiently, and keeping the air we breathe nice and clean – there are a few other reasons to take good care of these units that may not seem obvious to your customer at first and which may help convince them that paying for maintenance is a wise investment.

For example, for some reason it seems to take especially long for special-order or back-ordered parts to arrive for diesel vehicles in particular – which means breaking down is best avoided if at all possible because it may take way longer than expected for the correct parts to arrive (the wrong parts are usually readily available – go figure).

I remember recently waiting over six months for a diesel exhaust system (with the emission reduction system included) to arrive for a newer Ford 4x4 F-550 truck and no amount of begging or pleading could get the parts to arrive any sooner. And worse, even though the exhaust system needed replacement because it was damaged when the customer ran over a rock (in other words, it was completely the customer’s fault) the customer wasn’t happy at all losing the truck for that long and it was tough to explain, repeatedly, that we were doing our best and we wanted the vehicle fixed and running just as much as they did (even more, actually).

Scrolling through the information settings on this Ford F-550 shows the diesel emission system monitors.

In other words, the reality for modern diesel vehicles is that if they break down they may be waiting for parts much longer than their gasoline counterparts would – so preventing problems before they occur is wise, indeed.

Additionally, many diesel vehicles are used as work trucks with specialty equipment or tools installed on them and renting a similar vehicle when their truck breaks down just isn’t possible – so if the truck can’t run, neither can the customer’s business which makes keeping the unit on the road absolutely critical, and provides quite an incentive to maintain the vehicle despite the high costs involved in doing so.

And finally, many of those diesel work trucks are branded with corporate names and logos and if they’re smoking, leaking, overly smelly or just generally misbehaving (or on a tow hook) there’s a good chance someone will put photos or videos of the offending unit on the Internet and embarrass the company – not good at all. So even though it’s not cheap to maintain a diesel vehicle, it really is worth the costs involved.

However, if your customer is still reluctant to pay the high cost of diesel maintenance, even after explaining these things, here are a few additional reasons to explain why they need to maintain their vehicles, and also how you can help convince them that it’s very much worth it.

There’s plenty of warning before a vehicle runs out of exhaust fluid – yet they still do, either because the warnings are ignored or because something goes wrong in the supply system.

Small details make a big difference
It may be worth pointing out to your customer that diesel vehicles are notoriously hard to start when the weather gets cold and therefore it’s worth inspecting the things that tend to cause no-start conditions and replace them before the cold weather arrives if they’re due for replacement.

In particular, on diesel vehicles, it’s worth inspecting batteries for weaknesses and inspecting block heater cords for high resistance. A battery measuring as little as .2 of a volt below manufacturer ‘s specification (not just reading almost “12-volts,” but the actual specification) can and has resulted in a scary-sounding banging noise when attempting to start a Ford F-550 truck. (Charging the battery got that vehicle to start without issue and replacing the battery fixed the problem completely – caused by a battery undercharged by .2 of a volt!) So it’s well worth quickly performing a battery test and seeing the component is up to the challenge in the cold months ahead.

It’s also worth quickly checking the block heater to ensure it’s operating normally. I’ve lost track of how many winter no-starts get towed in and are fixed by charging up the battery and then inspecting the block heater cord to verify high resistance affecting operation, and then finally replacing the faulty cord. It’s become winter routine.

Even a slight variation from manufacturer specifications can result in drivability problems – just because the battery measures “approximately 12.0 volts at the terminals” definitely doesn’t mean it’s OK

And really, the cost of replacing either of these items before they fail is much cheaper than paying the cost of a tow or service call, and then diagnosing and repairing the no-start. Plus, catching the problem in advance means the customer gets to choose a more convenient time to be without the vehicle, rather than hope the upcoming and inevitable no-start happens when they’re not doing much, their kids aren’t in the vehicle, the shop is still open, and parts and a technician are available right away to get them going – and there isn’t a long wait for a tow truck to show up.

Pointing out to the customer that a component is out of specification and should be replaced before it fails and strands the vehicle somewhere usually helps convince a customer to pay the cost of maintenance.

But if not, here a few more lessons that might help.

Frequent filters
Many customers are still surprised at how often filters need to be changed on a modern diesel vehicle, how even a seemingly slightly restricted air filter can (and has) caused big drivability problems – and also how much quality filters cost.

Not replacing the air filter on an inspection to save the customer money can result in a no-start – or worse if the restricted filter gets sucked into the intake and chewed by the components along the way. One advisor I worked with keeps a filter that actually caused drivability problems to show customers how little it takes to cause problems because show and tell works well with her customers. She also has a cheap brand of filter cut open to show the difference in quality inside the filter and persuades her customers to use quality parts. She says using the props really helps make the sale.

Even partially restricted filters can cause big drivability problems.

And while it’s also important to replace the fuel filter, because not replacing the fuel filter can also have severe consequences, it’s tough to keep a restricted fuel filter at hand because they’re often a messy, smelly hazard – but it’s very possible to show the size of the passages involved and relate the pressures involved to something commonly understood.

Fuel injectors and turbos also suffer when the vehicle isn’t maintained properly (or spends too much time idling)  but they’re both incredibly expensive and there’s usually a core charge on them, so keeping failed ones around isn’t usually possible or practical – but taking pictures of them can help. Showing customers photos of failed components can help convey what happens when maintenance is neglected – and so too can showing copies of previous invoices for repairing the problems on similar vehicles (with the names and identifying details blacked out, of course).

In other words, whenever it’s possible, using real examples to show customers can often help the customer understand why maintenance is so important and what happens when it’s neglected.

But yes, some people don’t learn. And in that case, it may take the reality of having the vehicle break down or fail to restart to convince them to spend money on maintenance – which is too bad because this situation can so often be prevented.

DEF lessons
Many customers are still surprised to learn that they need to top up the DEF often and regularly – because most vehicles will lose power and they all eventually won’t restart if the DEF runs out (the Environmental Protection Agency requires this strict consequence – no DEF, no driving).

So in addition to the typical components that need to be replaced regularly, modern diesel vehicles also have that emission control system that need to be maintained – because the vehicles simply won’t drive if they don’t.

There’s plenty of warning before this happens, but one advisor at a dealership I worked with says that’s still far and away the number one problem her diesel customers come in for – empty DEF containers and subsequent low power conditions. No matter what it says in the owners’ manual, mileage will vary and some units require DEF top ups more often than others which many people learn the hard way. And depending on the vehicle, the DEF system may need to be filled up completely, right to the top (not just topped up a tiny bit) before it starts again.

Most of this Ford F-550’s operating hours have been spent idling – common for working diesel vehicles and very hard on their emission systems.

To be fair, there are times when it’s not the customer’s fault that the unit ran out of fluid quickly, such as when the DEF freezes and blocks the flow of fluid, or when the pump or components are damaged by debris. But whatever the cause, the resulting low power or no re-start is always annoying and inconvenient. And the fact remains that a significant number of breakdowns and repairs can be prevented with simple maintenance.

So yes, keeping the DEF topped up is expensive but the alternative is much worse. It’s unfortunately one of the high costs of maintaining a modern diesel vehicle.

DPF filters
Also unfortunately, many customers are also shocked when they find out the cost of keeping their vehicle’s diesel particulate filter (DPF) clean – which often involves removing the filter and cleaning it manually (with mixed success) or replacing the extremely expensive part altogether. And it’s a fairly common problem.

It’s easy to tell when these filters go bad – the vehicle loses power and often won’t move at all, usually at an extremely inconvenient time. Or, in some cases, the filter’s monitor just says so.

And while DPF delete kits do exist and people do install them despite the associated risks, liability and potential fines (and also damage to the environment), from experience most customers do grudgingly pay to have their clogged or restricted filters cleaned or replaced to keep their vehicles running.

One dealer tech I know tries to soften the blow by explaining the cost of a new filter and also explaining the limited success rate involved with removing and cleaning the existing one to the customer and lets the customer make the choice whether to buy new or pay to remove the filter for a thorough cleaning. Unfortunately though, he’s found customers tend to resent it if the cleaning is unsuccessful and the whole process usually just delays the inevitable cost of replacing them so it’s often wise to just pay to fix it the first time. It is what it is.

And since it’s tough to keep a DPF close at hand to show customers (although some places do, or have cutaways) it helps to take photos of ones that have previously clogged to help customers who need convincing. Most manufacturers also have excellent images and explanations on their websites that may help explain and illustrate what’s going on. Again, using real-world examples to help the customer understand can be very effective.

It’s not something your customer may want to hear, but the DPF filter needs maintenance, it’s every expensive – and unfortunately that’s just the way it is. Hey, the bright side is that it’s nice to be able to breathe.

True, most diesel vehicles are fuel efficient which can be a significant savings over a gasoline vehicle – but the fact is that newer diesel vehicles need costly maintenance to keep them running, they tend to take longer than expected to repair when they do break down and they’re programmed to stop operating when their emission systems are neglected.

And despite all that, people still love them.

In many parts of the country a loaded 4x4 diesel truck with leather guts and a crew cab is considered to be fancier, showier daily vehicle than a gasoline-powered luxury car. And plenty of folks won’t tow a boat or trailer with anything but a diesel truck.

And with that said, the reality is that it takes a whole lot of money to keep a modern diesel truck running well and on the road and those costs simply can’t be (responsibly) avoided. True, maintaining diesel vehicles is expensive, but not maintaining them is much worse. And that’s the new reality of owning a diesel-powered vehicle – so enjoy the drive.

About the Author

Vanessa Attwell

Vanessa Attwell is a Master Technician for two major manufacturers and has also worked on the bench of an independent shop. She has developed and delivered training for both vehicle manufacturers and independents, and helped develop government training and regulations standards. She drinks too much coffee and spends her spare time sitting in traffic.

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