Want better fuel economy from your truck? More pulling power for heavy loads? Faster acceleration? That's what handheld control modules, power programmers, performance chips and engine customizers claim to do.
In simple terms, these programmers, available for gas or diesel engines, override the factory settings of a vehicle's onboard computer system, which are set for average operating conditions. By readjusting air and fuel ratios and resetting spark timing and transmission shift points, the programmers seek to extract unused power and performance available from your engine and drivetrain.
Programmers like the Bully Dog Triple Dog Power Pup override a vehicle's computer system to extract unused power and performance.
Installation is simple and usually takes 30 minutes or less. The Fast-Flash Power Programmer for gas engines, for example, requires that you plug it into the diagnostic port under the dash of your truck and answer a few yes or no questions. The programmer reads the vehicle identification number to identify and store your truck's factory settings.
Push it up. Once the Fast-Flash Power Programmer is installed, you can opt for one of three modes: performance, towing or economy.
If you select the performance mode, the programmer advances engine ignition timing 10% so it burns more fuel and air for maximum horsepower. The programmer also removes original equipment manufacture (OEM) torque management to give maximum transmission engagement on full-throttle gear shifts. Finally, it increases the shift points by 4 mph to keep the engine's revolutions per minute (rpm) up for fast acceleration.
For towing, the programmer advances ignition timing by 10% for extra torque and modifies OEM torque management settings to protect the transmission from damage. It increases shift points by 2 mph to help with pulling heavy loads.
In the economy mode, the programmer retards engine timing by 5% so the engine has to work less. That saves fuel and may enable operation with lower-octane fuel. It sets shift points 2 mph lower, keeping engine rpm lower for more efficient fuel consumption.
The Hypertech Max Energy Power Programmer features three-stage tuning for diesel-powered vehicles.
Chris Crecelius, national sales manager for Hypertech, says Max Energy adjusts injector timing to add more fuel to the cylinders when it is needed and when there is capacity for sufficient airflow to burn the extra fuel efficiently and increase horsepower.
"By optimizing fuel burn, we gain more torque at the rear wheels to increase towing capacity, picking up more horsepower in the process," he says. "
The Max Energy Power Programmer's Stage 3 setting provides the highest torque and horsepower gain and is safe for towing the vehicle's maximum gross combined weight rating. Stages 1 and 2 typically provide better fuel economy with lighter loads.
Crecelius says Hypertech tests the tuning to ensure power gains are at safe levels and do not build up excessive heat in the engine and transmission. The manufacturer claims average gains of 100 hp and 180 ft.-lb. of torque.
Improved fuel economy with performance chips ranges from 1 to 6 miles per gallon (mpg), based largely on customer testimonials. Manufacturers of the Bully Dog Triple Dog Power Pup Downloader claim dynamometer testing shows up to 24 hp and 30 ft.-lb. torque increases on the rear wheels. Increased horsepower claims for diesel programmers range as high as 300 hp.
How trustworthy are these products? Tiger Garcia, owner of Big Truck Performance in Ventura, Calif., has experience with installation of a variety of programmers in trucks.
"Most of them are reliable," Garcia says. "Diesel models give a significant boost in horsepower and about a 3- to 4-mpg increase in fuel efficiency. With gas engine models, expect about a 25-hp increase.
"The more you know about programmers and vehicles, the better," Garcia cautions. He notes that some models are notorious for blowing head gaskets.
Garcia says transmissions are designed to handle more torque output than factory settings require. He has not observed any extra wear in vehicles that have been equipped with programmers. However, he recommends that those who consistently pull heavy loads include a torque converter when installing a programmer.
But installing a programmer could void the factory warranty on your engine and transmission, Garcia warns. If you blow your engine or transmission, return the vehicle's computer system to OEM settings and unplug the programmer before returning to the dealer for any warranty work or emission testing.