When looking to dial in to an engine’s capabilities, your first thought is a tuner upgrade, right? Maybe, not. Recently, we began seeking out advice from industry pros on the best tuners available for diesel platforms. And we felt that with names like Edge and BullyDog on our minds, we were off to a good start. But as we dug around with a few sources, we were surprised by our findings. A programmer suits the needs of a wide demographic but isn’t everyone’s first choice when it comes to making power.
As a refresher, programmers tap into a vehicle’s on board computer—the Engine Control Module, or ECM—to upload the engine management system to a more aggressive tune. Using programmers is immensely popular and one of the oldest tricks in the book when looking for more power. What’s more, when you compare the results between diesel and gas engines that have been subjected to tuning, the gains on diesel engines are typically subjected to twice the power gains over gas. So, the question remains: Why would a diesel owner ever avoid a tuner?
More Power = More Stress
The cost of programmers can’t really be offered as a practical reason to push enthusiasts into the arms of mechanical over electronic upgrades. Programmers offered by Hypertech and Edge typically run around the $300-$500 range. When compared with other upgrades like bigger injectors, turbos, and even studs, the investment is actually quite small. However, if the tuner isn’t used as intended, or those little driver alerts are ignored, you can be looking at some SERIOUS damage and repair bills.
Diesel engines make a ton of power to begin with, and the stock intervals have to handle it. DEBOSS GARAGE, a custom car build show on Youtube, offers an informative video that breaks down one opinion on diesel tuners. In it, host Rich Bosch is working on a truck that was paired with a tuner without reinforcing the engine.
Bosch says “The engines are designed to handle a certain amount of pressure, torque, PSI… and a tuner allows you to bypass that and give it more. I think this owner is gonna regret putting a tuner on this one, because leaving it with stock bolts and not putting studs in the head—it’s an expensive repair bill.”
His argument is that since diesel engines already make a lot of power, increasing it with a tuner only makes it a danger to itself. And if that tuner is installed improperly, it can cause damage that will most likely not be covered by a warranty.
Warranty Claims Can Be a Nightmare
For some, the potential for voiding a warranty isn’t a deal breaker. And there are other protections in place to help drivers who enjoy power modifications. The Federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act ensures that unless a dealer can prove that it was the aftermarket parts that caused the failure, your warranty cannot be voided for installing non-OEM parts. In fact, Superchips offers a really comprehensive explanation of your rights here on its website.
But some people aren’t willing to take the gamble on a programmer. Improper installation or a poorly-constructed/faulty product can mean costly repairs or fighting with a dealership. And for someone just looking to boost power, nothing insane, this may be enough to turn them away. Diesel engines are very responsive to modifications. So, opting to only upgrade things like the intake and exhaust, may meet their desires without unnecessary anxiety.
There Are Other Options
We mentioned that diesel engines are very reactive to upgrades. So, let’s explore that comment a little further. Take, for example, the time that PowerDrivenDiesel, an online retailer of diesel performance and replacement parts, paired up with Diesel Tech Magazine to work on a completely stock 1995 Dodge 12v Cummins. The dyno test in the video shows that they were able to double the horsepower and nearly triple the torque.
How did they do it?
They modified the fuel system and injection timing. Interestingly, though, they also used what is called an AFC Live Mechanical Tuner Kit. It doesn’t function like other tuners on the market, although that’s what it is. Installation is more complicated than the average tuner, but AFC Live allows users to dial in the total amount of fuel available for various uses like street driving, towing, drag racing, etc.
Beware of Quick Fixes
Here’s what it boils down to: any modified engine will likely rely on some sort of tuner. But it’s often only one part of the whole, as other modifications generally contribute to the upgrade. Simply adding in a performance tune without addressing how the engine will sustain those power gains, may land you in a position like the truck owner in the DEBOSS video.
Additionally, there is no one-size-fits-all programmer. The kind used really depends on the build. For example, light, modified trucks that use a tuner, cold air intake, and exhaust mods, will rely more on a programmer to make power than anything else. Heavily modified trucks will use tuners to stabilize power output. They also manage the engine as it works with other mods—but the power is really being made by other upgrades.
So, perhaps it isn’t fair to say coal rollers are headed in one direction over the other. Tuner, programmer, mechanical—maybe the diesel community is just growing larger, and with more people comes more diversity. Let us know what you think in the comments section below!