By Russ and Tiña De Maris
For Robin and Ken, it was the trip of their dreams. Leave Florida in their motorhome, take four months, sightsee the Midwest, then on into Yellowstone National Park. Less than 100 miles into their dream trip they got a “check engine light.” Their motorhome’s DEF (diesel exhaust fluid) system tossed a code that could have “derated” their rig – meaning, don’t drive too far, and don’t drive faster than five miles per hour. They turned around and headed home. Their rig’s DEF head (sensor) put their plans on hold.
Problems keep getting bigger
In the last few days we’ve received e-mails from other motorhome owners with similar complaints. It’s bad enough for a DEF head to go on the blink, but it seems the problem gets MUCH bigger when you try to replace it. Chris has his own story: His rig’s DEF head has given up the ghost twice. “In the middle-of-nowhere Washington,” 250 miles from home, he too got “the dreaded check engine light.” Driving through triple-digit temperatures, he wasn’t sure what to do – but he knew he didn’t want to get stuck. He took his chances and managed to get safely home. The chassis’ builder dealer, International, told him the bad news: It’ll be a while before they can get a replacement DEF head.
How long is “a while”? Depends on who you ask. T.W. said his dealer first told him it could be three weeks before they can get another DEF head. Then they told him, at least another two weeks. Every week, says T.W., he gets an e-mail update from the dealer. Every week they tell him another date. Other owners say they’re being told it could be as late as August, even September, before the DEF head they need is delivered to the dealer. Then the clock starts for waiting for a technician to install the replacement.
More than an inconvenience
For Robin and Ken, it’s more than just an inconvenience. If you have already made reservations along with your plans, the cost of “cancellations” can ring up an additional financial burden. “We have cancelled an extensive range of reservations up through July 23,” they tell us. “If the part comes by next week we can take a more direct route to Minnesota and continue our trip as planned from there. If not, I’ll be making more calls to cancel reservations and we will lose more deposit money. We have lost about $150 so far and stand to lose as much as $1000 if we must cancel the entire trip, as some reservations at popular areas are non-refundable or require significant deposits.”
What is it with the long wait for DEF heads? We contacted Cummins, the engine manufacturer for the rigs we’ve heard the most about. They were quick to tell us that Cummins isn’t responsible for the DEF heads – the chassis manufacturers procure and install their own DEF heads.
Spartan, a manufacturer of a huge number of chassis we’ve heard about, has published its own explanation. “As a result of the global shortage of semi-conductors currently impacting all major vehicle manufacturers, Spartan RV is experiencing long lead times for some parts and accessories, including DEF sensors that play a role in controlling vehicle emissions.
“Due to this shortage, we have worked diligently with our supplier to secure a finite allotment of DEF sensors to meet the needs of customers who are experiencing failures. If your DEF sensor order was recently denied because your coach was not down/out-of-service during transit, our team will be reaching out to you to assist with getting service scheduled. We are committed to doing everything in our power to keep our customers on the road and are working diligently to return to normal inventory levels.”
Supply chain issues are top issues for many manufacturers today. But what’s the cause of these DEF head issues to begin with? Chris, who we mentioned earlier, said his first DEF head failure came with just 6,000 miles on the odometer. The next one failed at 14,000 miles. Just 2,000 miles later, he’s still waiting for the third replacement.
No voodoo, or violations of federal laws
We’ve asked Spartan to tell us the reasons behind the failures, and just what RVers can do to perhaps ward off the problems, short of employing voodoo or some method that will violate federal Clean Air Emissions laws. Some “enterprising,” or is it “questionable,” suggestions have been made on how to work around the problem. One frequently floated idea is to simply disconnect the rig’s speedometer and duck the “engine derating” problem. Not such a good idea. Some who’ve tried it report their transmissions have refused to shift, and in some cases, the engines have shut down altogether.
Others are suggesting another DEF head failure workaround. Investing in an advanced code-reader. Using the tool, they suggest that “clearing” the DEF system codes might allow an owner to continue on their way without the dreaded derating problem. We’re not sure how well it works – some worry the code will simply come back repeatedly. We’ll keep you informed.
In the meanwhile, we’d like to hear from anyone who’s suffered the dreaded DEF system problem. Has your DEF head died? Are you on a waiting list for a replacement? While the large number of folks we’ve heard from have been owners of motorhomes with secondary market chassis, we know of at least one instance where a Dodge Ram pickup truck owner likewise was cursed with the DEF head problem. We need to hear from anyone with a DEF head problem, regardless of what kind of rig. Please drop us a line, Russ@rvtravel.com.
We’ll keep the fire lit under the chassis manufacturers, and see if there any practical workarounds for this paralyzing problem.