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We bench-test diesel EGR Cooler cleaning solutions

Soak-and-Rinse Shootout

Bruce W. Smith
Jun 27, 2016
Photographers: Bruce W. Smith
Plugged exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) coolers are the bane of every diesel pickup owner. These radiators plumbed into the intake system do their job at keeping the air we breathe healthier by cooling and recirculating unburned gases back through the combustion process.
But, in doing their job, the tubes and passages carrying exhaust gases eventually clog up and put a big dent in our wallets when the coolers have to be replaced—which is all too often in many owners’ opinion.
Costly Maintenance
Replacing EGR coolers isn’t cheap. We talked to a number of diesel repair shops and found prices vary from around $500 for the least-expensive removal and replacement to more than $1,600, depending on make and model of the pickup being serviced.
Mark Gotchall at Oregon Fuel Injection in Eugene, says it takes about 8 hours to replace the twin coolers on Ford 6.4L engines, while swapping the single on a 6.7L Ford takes half that time, with a new cooler costing about $300. Mark says OFI cleans Cummins 6.7L EGR coolers whenever they can, which takes about 8.5 hours labor for the removal, cleaning, and reinstallation.
Foy Anderson at Texas Diesel Injection in San Antonio and Michael Dunks at Dunks Performance in Eugene, Oregon, say although exchanging GM and Ram trucks’ EGR coolers is easy from a time standpoint, the cost of some replacement coolers can be an eye-opener for a diesel owner who hasn’t had such work done before.
For example, Cummins’ 6.7L EGR coolers are like gold, costing upward of $1,500 from a Chrysler dealer, while some 6.6L Duramax coolers fetch more than $600 from GM. (Shopping from online sources can cut those prices, but they are still a hit on the wallet.)
Cheaper Alternative
When DIY owners are faced with such parts costs, some start thinking about cleaning as an alternative. That’s a reasonable idea; EGR coolers are like radiators, only they use water to cool hot exhaust gases, instead of air to lower the hot water’s temperature. That means they can be cleaned like a radiator.
The difference—and it’s a big one—is radiators flow water through the vanes while EGR coolers flow exhaust gas carrying carbon and residuals of diesel fuel that’s gone through the combustion process.
Diesel exhaust is nasty stuff, and if the cleaning job isn’t thorough, any crud left behind in the process will speed up the blocking of the EGR cooler passages, bringing you right back to the same dilemma.
The best way to clean an EGR cooler is using ultrasonic cleaning technology offered by some radiator and other specialty repair shops around the country. It’s not that expensive, costing around $125, but not a service you’ll find in every town.
Another alternative, and the one we are exploring here, is cleaning the cooler the old-fashioned way: filling it with a cleaning solution, letting it sit for several hours, periodically shaking during the soak, and rinsing it out. If the water runs clear, that’s as good a job your liquid cleaner is going to do.
But the big question remains: What did the cleaning solution actually do inside the cooler? That’s what we wanted to find out with a test of our own.
Cleaners and Degreasers
There are dozens of cleaners, degreasers, and specialty solvents. We chose the five products used in our bench test based on input from contacts at different diesel shops and DIYers whom we’ve spoken with about cleaning EGR coolers.
Here are the products we purchased for the test:
Clean-Rite’s Purple Power is a purple liquid with the primary ingredient being diethylene glycol monobutyl ether. It’s a biodegradable, nonabrasive, nonflammable, phosphate-free, industrial-strength cleaner/degreaser. Price: Approximately $5/gallon.
NAPA’s MAC’s 6402 Carburetor Cleaner is a pale-yellow liquid that’s a mixture of petroleum products including 2-butoxyethanol and naphthalene, so it’s very flammable and toxic. Price: Approximately $25/gallon.
Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner is a nontoxic, noncorrosive, biodegradable product with a green hue. Primarily, it’s water with ethoxylated alcohol and a little citric acid and sodium citrate as main ingredients. Price: Approximately $17/gallon.
Mopar EGR System Cleaner is a concentrated solvent with isotridecanol, ethoxylated 9043-30-5, 2-propanol, and other ingredients. Recommended dilution with water is 1:4. Price: $25/liter.
Orison Marketing’s Piston Kleen is a hazy-clear, water-based cleaner designed to remove baked-on carbon, oils, and greases. It’s nonflammable, non-VOC, nontoxic, and biodegradable. Price: Approximately $15/gallon.
Bench Test
We decided the best way to see what was happening inside an EGR cooler was to have a little fun and do our own shade-tree test using these five cooler-cleaner contenders.
We took a plugged EGR cooler from a 6.7L Ford Power Stroke, sliced it into 1-inch-thick sections, and immersed each in one of the five different cleaning solutions for two hours. We used the products full-strength except for Mopar’s EGR system cleaner, which has to be diluted 1:4 with water.
Each cross section was immersed so the top two rows were sitting above the solution, which allowed us to compare cleaning effectiveness. The test was done on a warm, 75-degree day in direct sun.
At the end of the 120-minute soak, we pulled the test sections out, rinsed them under running water from a garden hose, and compared the results. What we discovered was surprising.
The Results
One conclusion from this little backyard pour-off is that the price of a cleaning solution doesn’t necessarily reflect its effectiveness. For example, the most expensive product we tested, Mopar EGR System Cleaner, barely made a dent in removing the oily residue and soot, performing only marginally better than industrial-strength carburetor cleaner.
Simple Green, which one shop says they use mixed 50/50 with hot water to clean EGR coolers and valves, was the worst performer in our evaluation, barely removing any exhaust residue and carbon buildup.
The big surprise is the least-expensive cleaner/degreaser we tested, Purple Power. It started eating away at the diesel crud the moment we dropped the test section into the bowl. Purple Power is going to be our go-to cleaner if we only have a few hours to spend on flushing out a plugged EGR cooler.
Piston Kleen was a very close second, showing it dissolves carbon and black crud right down to the bare metal. It appears to work a little slower than Purple Power, and we suspect it will remove all the crud in an EGR cooler if it’s left soaking overnight. We’re also putting the jug on our solvent shelf right next to Purple Power.
Our impromptu bench test showed either of these two products will do the job for a DIYer as an alternative to throwing a plugged-up EGR cooler in the scrap pile.
Photo 2/14   |   002 EGR Cooler Ford 6 7L Plugged
This plugged-up 6.7L Ford Power Stroke EGR cooler was retrieved from a diesel service shop’s scrap pile for use as our test subject.
Photo 3/14   |   003 EGR Cleaners Group BWS 3830
Our five contenders, left to right: Purple Power, Simple Green, Piston Kleen, Mopar EGR System Cleaner, and Carburetor Cleaner.
Photo 4/14   |   004 EGR Cooler Cleaner Bench Test
Here is the shade-tree bench test, with sliced sections of the EGR cooler and glass bowls at the ready. Jackstands are there to hold the PVC pipe that suspends the sections in the solutions.
Photo 5/14   |   005 EGR Cooler Cross Section
Lance Deal, a friend who cut the EGR cooler into sections for us, shows off his handiwork. A power hacksaw sure beats doing this by hand!
Photo 6/14   |   006 EGR Coolers In Solution
Splash down! Within a minute of the cooler slices being dunked, each of the liquids starts turning darker in color as they eat away at the crud and carbon, some more so than the others.
Photo 7/14   |   007 EGR Coolers Water Flush
We emulated water going through a cooler core by flushing each section with only the power of a garden hose after the two-hour soak.
Photo 8/14   |   008 EGR Coolers Purple Power Section
Purple Power was able to remove nearly all the carbon and gunk from the cooler core in two hours. The plugged sections (bottom two rows in photo) were not immersed in solution. Also note the slivers from the hacksaw may make some of the tubes appear partially blocked.
Photo 9/14   |   009 EGR Coolers Piston Kleen Section
Piston Kleen’s instructions say to soak the parts from 2 to 24 hours. We did the minimum, yet results show how effective this cleaning solution is for removing carbon and residue from diesel exhaust gas.
Photo 10/14   |   010 EGR Coolers Mopar Cleaner Section
Mopar EGR System Cleaner requires a 1:4 dilution in water. Results of our two-hour soak test show it’s not very effective if used for this type of cleaning, leaving a lot of residue in the EGR cooler cross section
Photo 11/14   |   011 EGR Coolers Carb Cleaner Section
Even though the carburetor cleaner is potent, it just didn’t seem to cut through the soot and gunk, giving results that are very similar to the Mopar product.
Photo 12/14   |   012 EGR Coolers Simple Green Section
Simple Green easily handles a lot of different cleaning jobs around the shop. However, it didn’t make much of a dent on this cross section of the EGR cooler when used in its concentrated form.
Photo 13/14   |   013 EGR Cleaners Purple Power Cross Section
And the winner is…Purple Power! It’s the least expensive of the five products we tried, yet it seems to have an affinity for attacking and breaking down the crud that plugs EGR coolers.
Photo 14/14   |   014 EGR Cleaners Purple Power Winner
Orison Marketing’s Piston Kleen and Clean-Rite’s Purple Power seem to be strong choices for those who want to clean their diesel pickup’s EGR cooler instead of replacing it. At least that’s what our little backyard pour-off revealed. Your results may vary.

Sources

Simple Green
www.simplegreen.com
Purple Power
http://clean-rite.com/
Mopar Parts & Accessories
mopar.com
Napa Chemicals MAC’s
800-538-6272
napaonline.com
Piston Kleen/Orison Marketing
800-460-2403
orisonmarketing.com

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