In the last few weeks several RV publications have run stories about the current state of DEF (diesel exhaust fluid) supply in the U.S. Some have been downright alarmist, suggesting fulltime RVers may find themselves stuck and unable to move due to lack of DEF. Are DEF shortages about to throw a major crimp in your travel plans?
Mamma mia, less urea!
If you drive a diesel rig, DEF likely is part of your purchase routine. The fluid is mandated for use in many diesels to aid in the reduction of nitrous oxides, an unhealthy exhaust byproduct. If your engine requires it and you don’t pump it into your rig, you will see serious trouble, like having your speed reduced to 5 miles per hour. Simply put, you can’t get along without it.
DEF is largely water, the balance of about a third is urea. That’s an organic chemical compound that, long before DEF was even dreamed of, was a major player in fertilizer. And that’s part of what’s causing the alarm about potential DEF shortages. China, the second-largest world exporter of urea, is having issues with an increased in-country demand for fertilizer. In the first quarter of this year, its exports had dropped nearly a third. The first largest exporter of urea is none other than Russia. Certain issues between Russia and Ukraine have led to economic constraints and export restrictions.
The U.S. does produce its own urea. In 2019, the country produced more than six million metric tons—an impressive amount. At the same time, the nation still imported almost five million tons. Since then, the demand for urea has increased, as more fertilizer and more DEF are in demand. The U.S. is still in a better position in having its needs met. In Korea, the price for the equivalent “box” (two-and-a-half gallons) of DEF runs $48.42. In the U.S., a box of brand-name DEF is currently around $28, while “house brands” are pegged at about $17.
Trouble at the truck stop?
But not everyone buys DEF in a box. Many RVers take advantage of DEF at truck stop pumps. Pilot Flying J stations are major suppliers to both RVers and the commercial trucking industry. What really set many pundits to screaming was testimony given by Pilot Flying J’s CEO Shameek Konar to the Surface Transportation Board near the end of April.
Konar brought the board up to speed, explaining that his company sells huge amounts of DEF across the nation. The commodity is shipped to Pilot via railroad tanker cars using Union Pacific rail lines. Konar told the board that the railroad was having logistical issues and demanded Pilot reduce its DEF deliveries by half, or face a total embargo.
Visions of truckloads of food and other material being sidelined by a DEF shortage bubbled in the heads of many media outlets. As mentioned, several RV sources have picked up the story, making it appear that DEF could become unavailable.
This week, we contacted Pilot Flying J to ask for an update. “Due to productive conversations with Union Pacific we are able to continue to utilize their rail services to supply our customers and guests,” wrote Billy Leach, a company media representative. “We look forward to maintaining this relationship to ensure that America’s over-the-road commercial trucking remains strong.” Let out your breath. In terms of DEF shortages at one of America’s major truckstops due to transportation issues, it isn’t happening. At least, not at this time.
Still hitting the wallet
That doesn’t mean that the DEF scene is all smooth sailing. The constriction of urea is still having an effect and, like motor fuel, prices are reflecting the problem. Prior to the COVID outbreak, you could walk into any Walmart and buy two-and-a-half gallons of Walmart-branded DEF for $6.97. Today you’ll spend $11.38 for the same box—a 63% increase. In comparison, diesel fuel prices have gone up 79% in the same time frame.
Is the leap in the price of DEF related to the availability of urea? It seems likely. But be happy that the increase in urea prices aren’t mirrored, point by point, in the price of DEF. Back in 2019, urea prices ran $245 per metric ton. Today, the price is just a tiny bit south of $1,000 a metric ton—a whopping 308% increase. If DEF had gone up proportionally, you’d be asked to pay $28.43 for that same box—or more than $11.00 a gallon.
Save DEF for a rainy day?
What’s to be done about the nasty rise in DEF? If there were to be DEF shortages, one can easily see even higher prices. Stockpiling DEF could be one thought. But DEF has a limited shelf life. When DEF goes bad, bad things can happen. You may see your engine use more of the stuff. Your monitoring system may spot bad DEF and derate (slow down) your rig. Worse, you could potentially damage your dosing pump and diesel particulate filter. Inconvenience plus financial hurt equals trouble all around.
DEF’s typical shelf life is about a year from manufacture. If you can decipher the date code on the package, you’ll have the date. From there, storage is important. Ideally, DEF should be stored between 12 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Yes, it will freeze at low temperatures, but once thawed, DEF is fine. But stored above 86 degrees, DEF begins to degrade and lose effectiveness. And no, contrary to urban legend, whizzing in your DEF tank won’t work. Urine doesn’t contain the right amount of urea, and it does have other components that could do major hurt to your DEF system.
Just what the future holds for DEF users isn’t completely clear. Hopefully DEF shortages won’t manifest themselves in a cost-prohibitive way. Set aside extra bucks in your fuel budget and hang on for the ride.