Working with Tier IV Engines

They’re here to stay, so it’s a must knowing how to maintain them.

By William Wagner

A rig that was originally delivered in the 1970s to a contractor in California, remanufactured and retrucked in-house in the mid 2000s, and is now mounted on a 2012 International all-wheel drive chassis to meet current California emissions standards. Photo courtesy Mike Meyer.

The future of big-rig horsepower is here. And it has been for a while.

We’re talking about the Tier IV engine, a power plant for heavy equipment that is the result of legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions. For both better and worse, the Tier IV has become the standard in the well drilling industry.

Tier IV regulations were rolled out nationally in two stages beginning about a decade ago. By 2015, the changeover basically was complete.

“The Tier IV [design] was the ideal way to get rid of a lot of greenhouse gases, and it’s basically accomplishing what they went after,” says Fred McAninch of The Rig Doctor’s in Indianapolis, Indiana. “If you buy anything new now, you’re stuck. That’s all there is to it. That’s what’s being made now.”

Not surprisingly, the Tier IV first took hold in the environmentally conscious state of California. Says Michael Meyer, the former president of the California Groundwater Association and now a consultant in the water well drilling industry: “In addition to being champions of clean groundwater, California has pivoted toward clean air. California has been leading the way in air-quality standards.”

Not all contractors, however, have found it easy to follow the leader. Everyone wants cleaner air—we have only one planet, after all—but the financial cost has been a challenge for some in the well drilling industry.

“To achieve the (emissions goals), it really has driven up the cost of an engine,” McAninch says. “You’re looking at a minimum of $20,000 or more for one. For example, I have a customer in Mojave, California. To get his drill rig up to Tier IV, it cost him close to $22,000. And that was just for the motor on the drill rig.”

Such hefty price tags have the potential to significantly impact the “mom and pop” drilling operations, the cornerstone of the water well business for decades upon decades.

“It’s been a mixed response in the industry,” says Meyer, who is located in Garden Grove, California. “You have some contractors who don’t do a large enough volume and are really having trouble with the cost of the rigs. Those are the types of contractors who dig, say, 10 water wells a year. On the other hand, contractors who have a good supply of municipal work or pretty much a full-time workload are better able to shoulder the equipment expenses.”

In some parts of the country, reasonable retrofitting regulations can ease the financial burden.

“Working with various government agencies, we get relief,” McAninch says. “We can run what we have as long as we maintain it and keep it up to snuff. I have a local customer who has a Caterpillar engine. The state of Indiana and the federal boys have said that as long as he maintains it in good operating condition, according to when it was bought, he can keep it. So he doesn’t have to ‘upgrade’ it.

“And if he changes engines—say, the engine were to go—he can replace it with an engine in kind and stay with what he has. He doesn’t have to have an emissions test. He just has to replace the engine with what the standard was when the truck was originally built.”

Things aren’t that simple everywhere, though. McAninch adds, “In California, it can be horrible because you have to convert to the Tier IV engine. If you’ve got an engine that’s so old that you can’t make it a Tier IV, you can drop thousands of dollars in a heartbeat.”

The good news is the worksite performance of the Tier IV is of high quality—it’s a relatively durable piece of equipment. The one major issue McAninch points to is the possibility of the exhaust system overheating.

“The only thing I’ve noticed is that in the brutal heat, they can be a little sensitive,” he says. “It’s due to the exhaust system. If you really understand exhaust systems, you know that they’re so different. There’s a lot in them that can build up heat. One thing that really hurts them is that when they’re running at full load, the rig is sitting still. There’s no flow of air, like when a vehicle is going down the highway.”

Nevertheless, there are ways for contractors to maximize their investment. Here are a few key tips courtesy of McAninch.

Tip #1: Don’t take maintenance shortcuts.

“The biggest thing I’ve run into—and I’m trying to get this across to the drillers—is that these engines take a specific maintenance program. You better follow it to the letter, or you can actually destroy an engine.

“I had a customer in New Jersey, and they didn’t follow it to the letter. Even though the engine was less than two years old, they had to eat the engine. It was horrible. I think it cost them around $30,000 all because they just went like they normally do (with non-Tier IV engines). You can’t do that.

“The maintenance is really not difficult. It’s just a matter of doing it. You have to understand that. The biggest thing (in that equation) is the truck dealer. He needs to get the customer to understand that this thing needs specific Tier IV maintenance and that you have to stick to it. It comes down to simple education. You just have to follow the instructions.”

Tip #2: Don’t skimp on fluids and lubricants.

“Whatever you do, make sure you put in the fluids and lubricants that are recommended by the manufacturer. Those old days of ‘It’s just as good as . . .’ aren’t going to cut it anymore.

“With fluids for the exhaust system and those kinds of things, you’ve got to use quality materials. It’s cheaper, believe me, by thousands of dollars in the long run. I tell customers to stick with Shell, Amoco—the top-of-the-line stuff. And get with the engine manufacturer and ask, ‘What do I put into this thing?’”

Tip #3: Let the pros turn the wrenches.

“Have the truck dealership where you purchased it do the work. That way, they can also keep the records up for when it needs to be serviced again and that kind of thing. It will also keep your warranty up to date, which will save you a lot of money and headaches in the long term.

“The Tier IV equipment is a lot of money, and I’d really hate to see some guy do the work on it himself. On top of that, the dealership can certify that it’s actually up to Tier IV standards.”


The moral of the story? “Walk gently with this stuff,” McAninch says. “If you pay attention to the maintenance, it will save you thousands of dollars in repairs and downtime. Downtime for these drilling rigs is a killer. It’s money not being generated—money right in the trash can.”

And like it or not, there’s no turning back to a bygone era.

“I think there’s a mentality that we’re going to have to learn how to operate the Tier IV engines,” Meyer says. “They’re here to stay, and they have benefits.”

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William Wagner is an award-wining writer, editor, and project manager for Wagner Communications. He has written for magazines, newspapers, books, and websites. He lives in the Chicago area and can be reached at