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Equipment Hub: To chip or not to chip

Andrew Overbay for Progressive Forage Published on 28 March 2018

Talk to any high school-aged male while standing beside your diesel pickup, and sooner or later the question will arise, “Is that thing chipped?” Diesel performance chips are electronic devices that intercept and modify engine management signals to increase the power output of the engine.

Some companies may call it a chip or module, a piggyback ECU or tuning box, but regardless of the nomenclature they use, they all claim their modification is superior.

Whatever they are called and whatever method they claim to use, chips (the name I will use the rest of the way here for simplicity’s sake) all pretty much do the same thing. They dump more fuel into the engine to generate more power and increase performance.

As much as I enjoy seeing a diesel rip and roar, I don’t feel the need to personally own such a beast for one simple reason: There is no such thing as a free lunch. Anything mechanical is designed with a purpose and a level of performance acceptable to complete that purpose. With that in mind, any design of a diesel engine (or any other component, for that matter) is a compromise. Change one variable, and you affect every other variable from that point on.

When a manufacturer (any manufacturer) designs and builds a motor, there are limits set by performance, price, time, weight and availability of parts (just to name a few) that factor into their design determinations. Ultimately, compromises arise among performance, fuel efficiency, engine and drivetrain life or durability, and emissions.

These compromises are understood clearly by the manufacturer – but not readily shared with us as the end users. What we do not know can end up being very expensive.

To increase power via a diesel performance chip requires the other parameters to be compromised. It is not a case that manufacturers aren’t skilled enough to design an engine with more power. They have (or should have) more resources and better knowledge of the engine than any third-party accessory vendor would. We do know one thing can be made better only through sacrificing others.

How much is engine life and drivetrain life compromised when a third-party performance chip is installed in an engine? It’s very difficult to say. How can it be proven an engine that lasted 200,000 miles with a performance chip would have lasted 300,000 miles without? It’s pretty difficult to do.

For sure, there is a trade-off involved in increasing engine power, and the engine manufacturers are not willing to tolerate it. If it was possible, don’t you think they would try it or offer an upgrade? Look at any advertising for a diesel pickup. Horsepower and torque … torque and horsepower. They understand what we are looking for in these vehicles.

I am sure there are after-market chips that claim to keep the engine within a manufacturer’s specifications and tolerances, but ultimate engine failure is not something the manufacturer guarantees or puts limits on to begin with. The point of failure is determined by the end user and how the motor is used and maintained. Diesel engines perform by burning fuel to produce power.

That process results in heat and pressure. Heat and pressure in any metal produces stress, and stress results in more wear and tear … no matter what.

If you trace back the origin of a power increase, it comes down to more torque at the driveshaft, which can only be obtained through more heat, more pressure and more force, which is more stress. The diesel performance chip puts more fuel into the engine, and you get more power. Then the only way to get that extra power to the wheels is by transferring it through the rest of the drivetrain, increasing stress on your clutch, gearbox, shafts, joints, differential, axles and on down the line.

From personal experience in the farm shop over my 50-plus years, the tractors that saw the most downtime were our smaller ones. Our smaller tractors were pushed more toward the upper end of their limits than our larger tractors even dreamed of seeing. The results were: The smaller tractors had a significantly higher component failure rate.

As I used to say, the problem with tractor X was: “It was big enough to get into trouble and too little to get out of it.” At that point, the smaller tractor did not and would not benefit from being modified; it needed to be replaced with a tractor big enough to do the job.

Another example of wear and tear is right under your truck’s tires: the pavement. Over-the-road truck drivers pay road taxes every year because heavier loads do more damage to the road than a normal car or light truck. Look at the off-ramp at a truck stop or any place a cement truck regularly turns. The pavement there shows the signs of increased wear and tear, heat and pressure.

Now that we have chased the rabbit around the tree, I am sure many of you reading this have had or will have your truck “chipped.” My goal is not to get you to conclude enhancing the performance of your truck is not your goal. Rather, I endeavor to share some of what I feel to be two immutable truths: More power equals more wear and tear, and extra power cannot be obtained risk-free.

If you require a vehicle with ultimate performance, buy a vehicle designed to produce that level of performance outright. What I think you will find is: Along with that stronger engine, you will also inherit a stronger driveline, more powerful brakes and heavier axle ratings. That way, when you do get sticky situations that push your vehicle to its limits, it is big enough to drive away from any troubles.  end mark

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

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