DEF Management 101

By Luke Van Wyk | February 10, 2017
MTT trailer and its 2-in-1 DEF system has allowed SiteWorx to handle DEF without worrying about contamination.

Diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) is not volatile—it’s noncombustible, nonhazardous and not a pollutant—but if contaminated or improperly managed, it can have significant consequences for engine emissions solutions that rely on selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology.

Some heavy equipment managers have been able to put off the acquisition of equipment with SCR technology by extending the service life of existing equipment. That strategy might be effective now, but much of the equipment being introduced today at 75 horsepower and above requires DEF. At the 2016 Integer Emissions Summit and DEF Forum held in Chicago, current projections put North American DEF consumption at more than 1 billion gallons by 2019 and almost 1.7 billion gallons by 2026. By way of comparison, it’s estimated that we’ll consume 617 million gallons in 2016. Much of this growth is being driven by the heavy equipment industry.

Managing and handling DEF should not, however, be viewed as a burden. The right combination of education and technology can take the risks out of DEF handling by the equipment owner. And as long as fluid is purchased from accredited sources and managed properly through the supply chain, it poses no risk to high-horsepower heavy equipment.

The silent threat

The catalyst found in SCR systems is made of rare metals such as tungsten, vanadium and zeolith. When DEF is injected into the exhaust stream, it converts to ammonia. The ammonia and exhaust enter the catalyst and produce a chemical reaction with nitrogen oxide (NOx), converting it to water and nitrogen (completely inert) before releasing it through the equipment’s exhaust pipe.

That ammonia is corrosive to contaminants such as aluminum, copper, chromium, iron and nickel. If there are trace elements of those contaminants in the fluid, they will be trapped inside the catalyst. As the DEF keeps coming in and the ammonia keeps entering the catalyst, those trapped minerals and the resulting corrosion will essentially cause the catalyst to rust from the inside out.

To use the human body as a comparison: If someone goes in for knee surgery tomorrow, and that scalpel isn’t clean and sterile, they may get an infection. That infection will grow over time until it makes them ill. The same thing can happen with the contamination and corrosion in the catalyst. Once that happens, it cannot be repaired—only replaced—and the catalyst can cost thousands of dollars as well as the downtime associated with repairing and replacing it.

Contaminants present in the DEF can also clog spray nozzles and plug up the pump and injection system over time, causing the system to not work properly and affect shelf life. 

How susceptible is DEF to contamination? Less than one teaspoon of many common elements is enough to bring an entire 5,000-gallon tank of DEF off-spec, according to the ISO 22241 standard. These contaminants include copper, zinc, chromium, nickel, iron, aluminum, phosphorous, magnesium, calcium, sodium and potassium. Even something as simple as tap water can bring DEF off-spec.

It is also important to avoid aldehyde. This is why automotive-grade urea is specified in the production of DEF. Automotive-grade urea does not include the same preservatives found in more traditional urea used in fertilizers. The presence of that preservative will gum up the catalyst. This, in part, is why DEF has a shelf life: The preservative has been removed.

So where do things go wrong? In a presentation by AMB International (a leading European manufacturer of DEF since 2003) at the 2016 Integer Emissions Summit and DEF Forum, causes of SCR system failures in equipment result from the following:

  • Equipment failure (15 percent)
  • DEF quality—production (5 percent)
  • DEF quality—logistics chain (10 percent)
  • DEF quality—customer handling (70 percent)

Three of those factors can be directly influenced by the fleet manager and how they choose to source, handle and dispense DEF.

Controlling DEF sourcing and acquisition

DEF that meets all required standards is always comprised of 67.5 percent deionized water and 32.5 percent automotive-grade urea.

Determining which DEF vendor to work with is as simple as checking labels and making sure you have the right type of container to put it in. DEF is commonly sold in jugs, 55-gallon drums, 275- or 330-gallon IBC totes, and in bulk via fluid-delivery services. Contractors should always make sure the fluid they are purchasing meets the ISO 22241 standard and is certified by the American Petroleum Institute (API). This ensures that the fluid the fleet manager is purchasing has been subject to strict monitoring and testing established by accredited agencies. 

Secondly, they should always use a container made specifically for DEF, constructed with materials approved in the ISO standard, and sterilized and sealed properly. A “sealed” container such as a jug that must be opened to dispense should never be reused. A “closed” system that relies on special dry-lock couplers to move fluid in and out without being exposed to the environment is preferred. We still see DEF for sale at truck stops and other locations in open, second-hand containers. The image shown nearby was taken just within the last year at a truck stop. Note the dirty reused containers and the contaminated funnel.

Storing and transporting

Once a trusted source of DEF is selected, fleet managers must determine how they will store and dispense DEF in their operation. This will be determined by the quantity of DEF demanded by the equipment fleet, and if that equipment is able to come to the source or if it must be delivered to the equipment in the field. 

Although the ISO standard allows for open systems for storing DEF, a number of OEMs and industry experts suggest that the closed-fluid-path solution is the most effective.

The challenge with open systems is that the container must be sterilized between each use, which is not practical or likely in construction environments. A closed system—where the DEF is never exposed to the elements until it’s pumped into the machine—ensures total fluid purity. These closed systems can be outfitted on more simple storage and handling solutions, such as an ISO-compliant 50-gallon DEF tote that can easily be placed stationary in a shop, or transported out to the field in the back of a pickup or service truck. There are also dedicated ISO-compliant DEF trailers, and DEF storage and pumping systems built into larger fuel and service trailers. For large fleets with centralized operations, large bulk tanks with various dispensing options are available that can fit in with, or next to, existing fuel islands.

Two-in-one pumping systems are available with these solutions that allow DEF to be seamlessly pumped into and out of containers without having to switch to another pump, which simplifies the footprint and hassle of these systems. The two-in-one pump also makes it easier to purge DEF out of the line and back into the tank to prevent freezing in colder climates.

There are some equipment owners who have built their own storage and dispensing systems. We don’t recommend this practice, but understand why people do it. We recently became acquainted with one heavy equipment owner who built their own DEF system and used fittings that contained copper, zinc, chromium and nickel—all known contaminants to DEF. Due to issues experienced with their DEF systems and this homemade container, the company eventually had to shut eight machines down for two days at the cost of $50,000 in lost revenue. All components of a DEF system should contain ISO-approved materials, such as stainless steel and high-density polyethylene (HDPE).

Dispensing DEF

As with other fluids, it’s important to keep the workspace, equipment and fill points clean. This is no small task on many construction sites, where dirt and dust are everywhere. Many of the closed DEF systems come with the same kind of dispensing nozzle as found on fuel pumps. This is superior to open systems that require the DEF to be poured out into a funnel inserted into the DEF tank. The use of that funnel provides greater opportunity for contaminants to enter the fluid and the SCR system, especially if it had been used for other service items and contains trace amounts of other fluids, etc.

Cold weather

Freezing does not have a negative effect on DEF itself, but there are risks to storage containers and pumping systems if the temperature drops too far. Heating elements can be added to DEF totes, trailers and bulk dispensing systems to prevent DEF from freezing when working in cold weather climates.

DEF freezes at 12 degrees Fahrenheit, so follow these guidelines in colder climates:

  • DEF expands by approximately 7 percent when frozen. Some containers are built for some expansion, and max fill lines should always be adhered to. Prevent fully filled, closed containers and pumping systems from freezing as this can cause damage. As mentioned earlier: DEF can be easily purged back into the tank after filling the machine using a two-in-one system.
  • Be sure DEF is completely thawed before use.
  • Do not use additives to prevent freezing, as this can lead to contamination.

Shelf life

As mentioned earlier, DEF does have a shelf life due to the absence of a preservative. It is generally, however, a lengthy shelf life as long as the fluid is stored properly. Prolonged exposure to direct sunlight and high temperatures will cause DEF to degrade. DEF retains its full quality for 36 months when stored at or under average temperatures of 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This reduces to 18 months at 77 degrees, 12 months at 86 degrees, and just six months for DEF that is consistently exposed to temperatures above 96 degrees.

Most fleet managers, especially with larger fleets where there is a consistent flow of equipment being serviced, will rarely encounter a situation where DEF is stored for periods longer than six to 12 months. Buying in bulk can provide cost advantages, and larger fleets can still process those greater quantities in a year’s time—and few storage environments feature consistent temperatures that high.

--Luke Van Wyk is owner and national sales manager for Thunder Creek Equipment.

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