Choosing the Right Diesel Fuel for the Time of Year

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray

This blog post contains sufficient information for the reader to understand the sometimes confusing world of on-road and off-road diesel fuel. Here in the high country (elevation 9,800 feet), we actually have pretty mild winters with the temperatures only falling to single digit or minus degrees a few times a year.

Troubleshooting Common Problems with Diesel Tractor Engines

Diesel gelling. We never had a problem with diesel gelling in our old tractor, but for some unexplained reason this newer one seems to have that issue. With a small tractor that is used primarily to move the snow in the winter, we need it to start when needed. We average around 264 inches of snow a season and being able to keep it clear is vital to our survival.

Diesel gel color. When diesel fuel gels, it rarely gets warm enough, nor can we make it warm enough to run the tractor. I have always treated #2 diesel with anti-gel additive, in addition to what has been in it when purchased. When the diesel gels (turns a milky white), the solution is to drain the fuel from the tank and replace both in-line fuel filters.

Small tractors have tight spaces. Small diesel tractors are not designed for someone with large hands to easily remove and replace the fuel filters. One filter is underneath the tractor, so in the winter, I lay on the frozen snow-covered ground to remove it. The other filter is on the side of the engine, so all of the heavy front-end equipment has to be removed to access it. For someone who is 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds, that leaves very little room to work easily in tight spaces. The manufacturer designed our tractor with the underneath fuel filter partially under an impact plate to protect from damage, so there is only 4 to 5 inches to maneuver my hands when changing the bottom filter. Then, when the filter is disconnected, fuel spews out, so I’m temporarily drenched in smelly diesel fuel. In addition, the diesel makes tools, hands, hoses, and the plastic fuel filters very slippery. It is a miserable job for a person my size.

Owner’s manuals can be misleading. The owner’s manual  instruction for winter use is to use #1 diesel. When I went looking for it, I found that because this grade of diesel has high sulfur content, it is not allowed to be sold commercially by providers. After about the 4th time of having to change fuel filters and drain the fuel tank, I inquired of the dealer if there was something that I did not know or wasn’t being told. I buy my diesel at a station that sells large amounts of fuel; however, it still gels even with subsequent liberal anti-gel treatment. I’m repeatedly told to just use more anti-gel or get fresh fuel which has not worked.

Searching for good advice. In desperation, I called a local diesel mechanic who advised me I need to buy a “diesel blend” and affirms that #1 diesel by law is not sold in our state. Diesel blend is only available at my dealership, which makes me wonder why I was not told this so I could have avoided all the frustration of draining the tank and replacing filters.

Knowing what to Ask For

This started my education into the different terms and types of diesel fuel. Asking for #1 diesel like my owner’s manual suggested was a waste of time because of the EPA Clean Air Standards Act. Looking for ‘off road’ diesel was allusive because it is also known as diesel blend and also called non-road. Diesel blend is a mix of half kerosene and #2 diesel with anti-gel additives added. It is easy to identify once you are educated to ask for the right type because it is pink in color (see photo).

I now know to ask for off-road, non-road or winter blend. Whether it is guarding superior knowledge or assuming  the consumer comes with a complete understanding of the various grades, terms and types of diesel fuel, it is essential that we end users know specifically what to ask for especially if we live in a cold climate.

EPA standards for diesel. The Environmental Protection Agency has developed standards for diesel fuel and its use. Diesel is used in road vehicles, trains, boats, construction equipment, farm equipment, heating and a host of other types of equipment and it has to comply with certain EPA fuel standards. The emissions from burning diesel fuel can be very harmful to our lives and especially our respiratory systems so the EPA has developed strict guidelines regarding its use. Having had asthma almost my entire life I fully appreciate the efforts of the EPA in helping keep our air clean.

Winter blend/summer blend. The diesel fuel available at the pump is generally #2 diesel to which the dealer adds an anti-gel component for cold weather. There is a summer blend and winter blend of #2 diesel and most dealers don’t seem to actually know when the winter blend starts to be treated with anti-gel. It is simply supplied and put into the storage tank to mix with the summer blend. That is why it is important that we consumers add additional anti-gel additive. When the temperature drops to single digit or below zero the #2 tends to gel even though it has been pre-treated with anti-gel.

In essence, using the wrong type of diesel fuel at the wrong time of year can be costly and frustrating when the equipment will not run. Not everyone has a heated garage/barn to keep diesel equipment in to ensure it will start when needed.

We keep our diesel tractor under the front deck covered with a tarp to keep the snow off but that offers no protection against the cold temperatures. We have a block heater for the engine but not a heater for the gas tank and two filters. Our dealer suggested we purchase a ceramic heater ($2,000+) to keep the tractor warm. Perhaps some could run right down and buy such a heater, but that is beyond our means, as is building a separate building and heating it so the tractor can stay warm. We heat our home with a wood stove and we spend much of our time keeping ourselves and our fur family warm, so keeping our tractor warm is not practical for us.

It would have been nice if our dealer would have told us about diesel blend instead of just telling us to add more anti-gel, or if the owner’s manual could have been more accurate and descriptive. Regretfully, neither happened so we learned the hard way. It has been a lesson we will not forget easily.

References: EPA Diesel Standards 

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their mountain lifestyle go and Carol live at 9,800 feet elevation remotely in a small cabin in the Sangre de Christo mountains with their four German Shepherd Dogs. Read all of Bruce’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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