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Clean diesel technology has been making its way off the highways and into farms and fields and other off-road uses since the 1990s. For growers, this has translated into more expensive and sophisticated tractors and diesel engine-driven equipment, but they will become even more so when the last tier of federal emission standards for off-road diesel engines takes effect next year.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published the first set (Tier 1) of emission standards for off-highway uses in 1996. Since then, emission regulations have progressively tightened, lowering the allowable levels of particulate matter and nitrogen oxide with each tier. Compliance dates for the tiers were based on engine size (in horsepower and kilowatt-hour). The smaller engine sizes (less than 25 hp) had to meet emission standards in 2008, with engine sizes of 25 hp and above being in full compliance during 2012 to 2014.

Few growers have paid attention to Tier 4, says equipment manufacturer and dealer Gregg Marrs. “Many don’t have a clue what is coming at the end of the year and don’t realize that Tier 4 affects nearly everything run by a diesel engine,” he said during an interview with the Good Fruit Grower. “It’s going to be a big deal for some.”

Growers recently buying new tractors and equipment have already moved into technology that meets Tier 3 or interim Tier 4 standards, and have no doubt noticed the higher cost and more complex engine systems. Marrs, of Blueline Equipment Manufacturing in Moxee, Washington, predicts that Tier 4 tractors that come out later this year and next will cost five to eight percent more than current tractors. Increased prices will reflect the costs of lowering emissions.

“These new tractors are becoming like today’s cars—you can barely do maintenance on your own car any more because it’s so complicated under the hood,” he said. Operating the more complex engine technology also will require additional training to understand the electronics and control panel.

An example of the sophisticated technology is the filtration system in some of the new line of tractors. Marrs said his service department had to visit a farmer recently because the tractor stopped running in the middle of the field. It turns out that certain filters had not been cleaned and ­serviced and the tractor driver ignored several dashboard warnings.

Worn out

For orchardists needing to expand or replace their tractor fleet in the near future, he says it might be difficult to avoid buying a Tier 4 tractor because there are so few good used tractors available. “The problem is there just aren’t many used orchard tractors out there that haven’t been run until they are completely worn out.”

Major U.S. tractor and equipment manufacturers have been developing new technology in the last decade and are well positioned to meet EPA’s stringent standards. However, because it is an EPA standard, European manufacturers are not required to meet the Tier 4 emission levels.

But don’t think you can buy an imported new tractor to avoid Tier 4, says Marrs. All imported equipment is inspected before entry into the United States to ensure it meets EPA standards, he said, adding that he had a container of Italian tractors sit at a port for weeks, waiting to clear up a missing Tier 3 sticker on the engines.

Another fallout from Tier 4 compliance might be disappearance of some equipment lines. Marrs thinks that certain equipment and tractor models with a small market niche may go away because manufacturers won’t be able to justify the cost of the clean diesel engine technology.

Although Tier 4 gave manufacturers flexibility with an interim step, the final Tier 4, which becomes effective in 2014, includes additional emission reductions. Tier 4 requires manufacturers to reduce allowable levels of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides from 50 to 96 percent lower than the existing generation of diesel engines.

To put things in perspective, a fact sheet compiled by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, describes a Tier 0 engine as one that is basically unregulated and has no modern emission controls. Each successive tier (1, 2, 3, and 4) has progressively lower emissions and more advanced technology than the previous generation.

Tier 4 standards apply to only new products and not retroactively to existing machines or equipment. Both EPA and California adopted the same standards, so there are no unique Tier 4 diesel emissions standards that apply in California, according to the equipment manufacturers ­association.

After January 1, manufacturers can only produce Tier 4 engines, but dealers will be able to sell existing inventories of engines from the ­previous generations.