Monday, March 05, 2018

Bogus Fuse Attack

Bogus Fuse Attack

It was a moonless dark and lonely on the road that night, as I was driving along a country road far from city lights. I was pulling a small trailer behind me, and I was the only car on the winding road. It had just gotten dark and I had switched on my lights.

Then I started smelling something. It was the unmistakable smell of burnt plastic. From time to time I had smelled that smell before, and had been thinking it was coming from outside my car. Then, after I smelled that same burning plastic smell a few weeks before, and had pulled into a gas station to take a look around.

I was concerned about melting wires. I looked around and found nothing wrong. Now here was that smell again! Then it happened. My taillights wend out!

Oh goodness, here I was driving along an unlit country road with no taillights! I pulled into a church parking lot where there was a streetlight and got out to see if the trailer taillights were also out. They were.

Home was more than an hour away, and this meant that I would have to risk driving with no taillights. My mind raced. What about cops? I would have to drive right through a heavily patrolled city on my way home. Surely a cop would se that I had no taillights and I would get a ticket.

What about the risk of someone coming up from behind and running into me? Sure, the trailer had reflectors on it, but was it worth the risk?

Maybe it was just a blown fuse? Luckily I had a test light in the console and could easily determine if a fuse had blown. Holding a penlight in my teeth, I systematically touched the two test terminals on the top of each fuse. They all checked out! My heart sank.

This would mean that the problem had to be in the wiring somewhere. I knew that I had been pulling this very same trailer for over a decade, and it couldn’t be something new like a bad splice. There must have been a wire that rubbed through and shorted to ground somewhere.

But where? And how was I going to get home? I remembered the 4-way emergency flashers. Would they still work? I switched them on and Walla! They worked! I could safely drive home with the 4-way’s going and not get a ticket! That’s all that I would need to avoid the cops and not risk having a rear-end crash.

The next day I decided to tackle the problem. Starting at the connector for the trailer, I began tracking down the problem. Hmmm. There was no power at the flat-four trailer connector. There was no power in the wire where it went up to the fuse box. Hmmm.

I could picture the scenario which I’ve seen time and time again where the wire connector going into the fuse box itself would melt. That would explain the burnt plastic smell!

But before I detached the fuse box assembly, I decided to locate the fuse for the taillights and remove it. That way I could narrow down the problem to the wire feeding the fuse or the wire leading away from the fuse. I popped of the cover from the fuse box and something fell out.

I bent down to pick it up, and it was a blob of yellowish colored plastic. What’s this? How strange! Does this melted blob of plastic have something to do with the burned plastic smell? I examined the fuse panel and located the fuse for the taillights. It looked strange—there was no plastic on the fuse!

I extracted the remains of the fuse, and to my surprise, the fusible link was still intact. But there was clearly visible a charred mark on one of the legs of the fuse.

“This fuse got really hot, so hot that it melted its plastic casing—but it didn’t blow!” I reasoned.

Suddenly I remembered reading how there were bogus fuses flooding the market, fuses made in China. And the article said to beware, that these cheap copy-cat fuses didn’t provide any protection for the circuit like they were supposed to. The article had said that the fuse wouldn’t blow at the rating which they were marked.

Somewhere, sometime in the past someone had installed a cheap Chinese-made fuse in this slot on the panel. And since I wasn’t the original owner of this car, I would never know who had gone cheap and bought this fuse from a discount store.
I pulled the rest of the fuses from the fuse box and discovered another 20-Amp bogus fuse. I found a 20-Amp Buss and a 20-Amp Littlefuse for comparison. The difference was quite apparent.
That cheap fuse would could have caused an electrical fire.
Lessons learned:
1. Start troubleshooting an electrical problem at the fuses.
2. Never use off-name brand (Chinese) fuses.

Pat's Perspective - Techs, real or not (#4)

Friday, February 02, 2018

Carpet Bagger

Way before my time there were these people who went around the country selling their wares, kind of like the predecessors of traveling salesmen. The only thing was they sold elixirs, tonics, and all kinds of snake oil. They were flim-flam artists and they carried their booty in satchels made from pieces of carpet folded up and tied to a piece of rope. Hence the name “Carpet Bagger.”

While they are no longer around, their successors are still on the planet and they still sell snake oil—only in a modern form. As a mechanic I have seen many, many con artists pushing their wares on unsuspecting motorists. Everything from green gas pills you drop in the tank to a device that is supposed to introduce liquid platinum into the engine. I never could figure out how they made platinum—an inert metal—into a liquid.
And over the years I have witnessed countless versions of the fuel-line magnets. It seems that every time the price of fuel jumps up, another version of the fuel-line magnet hits the market. The whole principle of the magnet is bogus. You attach a magnet to the fuel line or install a pipe containing a magnet to fuel line. The magnet is supposed to give the fuel a charge and the magnetically charged-up fuel is supposed to vaporize more efficiently. Right!
Probably my first experience with a bogus sham was when a guy showed up at my shop with plans he had bought for a 200 miles-per-gallon carburetor. He saw an ad in the back of a magazine for this amazing patented idea that would make your car get 200 miles per gallon. The poor fool had actually paid $100 for the plans to build it and wanted me to install it in his car.
I looked at the plans and it was total nonsense—tomfoolery at best. The principle was to preheat the gasoline so that it would be able to vaporize more efficiently. The plans instructed you to construct a heat exchanger from a coil of metal tubing placed inside a metal container. The container was connected to a heat stove from the exhaust pipe and was supposed to preheat the gasoline.
In reality all this would do is make the gasoline in the tube to turn into bubbles, thereby causing the engine to vapor lock. Anyone who drag races knows that the exact opposite is what is sought after for improved performance. Some performance drivers actually run the fuel line through a bucket of ice to cool off the gasoline and make it more dense—not less. Higher density provides more fuel and improved power. Mercedes-Benz at one time had a setup where they used the cold created by Freon in a small heat exchanger in order to cool the fuel.
Then there was the “Ring of Fire” spark plug. This looked like a decent concept, but the problem was in the execution. Instead of just having one ground electrode extending out from the shell of the plug, it had four. The idea was to provide four different ground electrodes for the spark to arc to instead of just one, guaranteeing a much more robust spark. The problem was the metal used to construct the center electrode was too soft and the plugs only lasted a short while.
Speaking of hotter spark, over the years I have seen a number of different companies market devices to “improve combustion” by making a hotter spark. The claims were always the same—more power, faster starting, and better gas mileage. But they were all just variations of the same theme. Increase the gap required for the spark to jump, and Viola—you have a hotter spark.
Some of them were devices that you put on top of the spark plug. Cut one open and all you’ll find inside is an air gap between the input and output connectors. Some were spark plugs that contained an internal air gap. They are all bogus.
Then there were zero resistance spark plug wires. Anyone who’s into racing knows that solid-core spark plug wires deliver more spark energy into the spark plugs, so the snake oil salesmen were on the right track.  The problem is that normal spark plug wires have a certain amount of resistance in order to reduce AM radio interference. If you install them on your normal street car, though, you’ll get terrible interference.  So, low resistance wires are only for race cars.
And then along came Doctor Jacobs and his “Energy Team” spark plug wires and ignition system. The wires were low resistance, but not enough to cause radio interference. But, like so many other newfangled things, they weren’t adequately tested and would barely make it for 50,000 miles before burning up on one end.
Oh yes, they did come with a lifetime guarantee. And yes, they were happy to exchange the burnt wire for a new one. Only you had to pay shipping and the replacement distributor cap was on your nickel. Then Dr. Jacobs retired and sold the company. The new owner would no longer honor the guarantee, and that expensive lifetime guarantee got relegated to the circular file. Can you say “Flim-Flam Man”?
Two customers recently asked me to install Andy Granatelli brand Spark Plug Wires in their cars. The first one was a Buick and then a few months later another customer had me install a set on a Jeep Cherokee. The principle was the same as the Jacobs wires, only these wires had zero resistance. They were solid-core wires just like you install on race cars.
But what about the radio interference? Well, these wires had some kind of special magnetic ring that slipped over each end of the wires. The installer was to make sure that one ring is installed near the beginning of the wire and the other ring near the end of the wire. At first I was skeptical, but apparently it worked. The wires caused no problems with radio reception. And the owner of the Buick reported an increase of 2 miles per gallon.
Not a week after I installed the second set on the Jeep Cherokee, the owner called me up and said his transmission refused to shift. Then he coasted over to the side of the road and called a tow truck. By the time the tow truck arrived, the transmission miraculously fixed itself. He wanted me to look it over to see if I could find a loose connection of something.
While I was test driving the Jeep, the transmission went into limp-home— stuck in second gear. Remembering the “miracle cure” that happened to the customer, I cycled the key to off, waited a few minutes, and it started up and shifted fine. Something was making the powertrain control module go into limp-mode. Just for grins, I threw a stock set of spark plug wires back on the engine and the problem never occurred again.
When the Buick owner called to tell me his transmission was shifting funny, I was immediately suspicious. Funny, he had driven the car for almost 8,000 miles before its transmission started acting up. And again I installed a stock set of spark plug wires and the transmission shifted normally again. But I wasn’t done with the owner of the Buick and its problems. There were some serious repercussions.
The Buick owner was meticulous with his car’s service and told me that the transmission started shifting a little funny when he was several thousand miles from home—and that he had to drive it home as the problem got worse and worse. By the time he dropped the car off at my shop, the transmission was banging into gear and shifting into the next higher gear at less than 1,000 RPM. It truly looked like a transmission problem.
Apparently those Andy Granatelli wires had lost their ability to quell the electromagnetic interference they created and somehow were confusing the computer. And the thing that made it even stranger was that it took almost 8,000 miles for the problem to rear its ugly head. And if it hadn’t been for my previous experience with the Jeep, I might have mistakenly had the transmission rebuilt only to find out the problem was still there!
As I said, this guy is a stickler for proper maintenance. For example, he sampled his motor oil at every oil change so he could send it off to be analyzed. Well, he was very upset when the oil analysis reports subsequent to the Andy Granatelli bugaboo showed engine bearing wear. Apparently the misfire, lugging, and banging into gear beat up the main bearings in his engine. But that’s not the end of it.
A few months later he was once again several thousand miles away when the check engine light started flashing and the Buick had to be towed to a garage. This time it cost him an overnight stay at a local motel, the cost of the tow, and a new coil pack. Apparently those Andy Granatelli “hotter” spark plug wires stressed one of the coils—the one with the shortest wires connected to it—and fried it.
Just last week, another customer came in with this diesel fuel additive that’s supposed to increase engine lubricity and make it get 30% better fuel mileage. Give me a break!
The Lessons of this story
§ If it’s not broke—don’t fix it.
§ There is no such thing as a free lunch.
§ If it sounds too good to be true, It probably is.
§ If it has a magnet in it, don’t be attracted by it.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Killer Lifts

’ve been working around repair shop lifts most of my adult life and I still have a healthy respect for them. Just the thought of the car above suddenly falling and crushing me makes me cringe and sends shivers down my spine. 

While working at Don Lyon’s Custom Auto Restoration Shop in Lutz, Florida early in my career, I had a frightening experience with a rickety old hydraulic lift. Don, bless his soul –he drank himself to death, was too lazy (or drunk) to fix the hydraulic leak in the lift that caused it to run low on hydraulic fluid.
I’m not sure exactly sure how a lift works, but somehow air pressure forces hydraulic fluid into the huge piston that pushes the lift along with the car up into the air. The hydraulic leak somehow left a void in the system, a void that must have filled up with compressed air instead of hydraulic fluid.
Anyone knows that fluids, unlike air, can’t be compressed. And the compressed air void would make my lift suddenly drop two or three feet downward without warning. And I mean suddenly! Can you imagine how scary that was? That dropping lift—car and all—would clunk me on the head so hard that it would knock me to the ground and leave a big knot on my head!
Right away I got into the habit of propping up the lift with an old driveshaft. However, that didn’t stop the darn thing from shooting right up into the air. Nope! You see, when I would lower a car, I would first have to toggle the raise-lower control valve to raise the lift back up some. That’s how I was able to get the driveshaft out. Then I could lower the lift.
Sometimes when the lift was going upward, it would act as there was no air pressure. I mean, nothing would happen as I held the control valve in the UP position. I could hear the air hissing through the pipe but the lift wouldn’t budge.
Then, all of a sudden, the lift would shoot upward and make a loud bang as it reached the end of its travel. This upward force was so abrupt that it would actually launch the vehicle that was sitting atop of it into the air. You could see daylight between the vehicle and the arms of the lift.
Now THAT was really scary! Then the vehicle would drop back onto the lift with a loud thud. I would just cringe and grimace at the thought of the car bouncing off the lift and onto me! But, glory be, I never did see a vehicle fall off that lift. I nicknamed it “The Killer Lift.”
About a year later, I got a job as a Mercedes Benz tech working for Precision Motor Cars in Tampa. There were maybe 15 of us working there and we each had our own lift. I gotta say, there were some pretty strange politics going on behind the scenes and they hired and fired techs on a regular basis.
I was the new kid on the block—so to speak—and I did everything to mind my P’s and Q’s. I took my time and didn’t rush though any job, being extra careful not to leave any grease prints and to make sure the customer would be happy with the work I had done.
Since I was new to working at a dealership, I took many of my cues from the other techs by watching what they did. I also asked a lot of questions. To this day I can remember this one tech, Gary, who had curly blond hair and blue eyes and was probably the friendliest tech of the bunch.
Gary’s lift had a fault with it. It would slowly bleed down. Not fast like the ones at Don Lyons, but slow enough so that if you left a car up in the air on the lift overnight, it would be sitting on the shop floor by the next morning.
Gary knew about this problem, but he sometimes got distracted and forgot. He was installing an exhaust system on a sky-blue Mercedes 450 SEL. He placed a support stand under the rear muffler in order to hold it in place while he installed and aligned the rest of the exhaust system.
Gary somehow forgot about the lift’s problem and went home leaving the car up in the air with the stand still there under the rear. And as you would expect, the lift slowly bled down overnight. This ended up in having the rear of the car held up in the air by the stand while the front end of the car came down with the weight of the car crushing the front bumper against the concrete floor.
And that’s exactly how it looked when we walked into the shop the next morning. There, in all its glory, was that beautiful 450 almost standing on its nose. What a horrifying sight! As each of us showed up for work and walked in the back door of the shop, our jaws dropped and we just stood there and stared in horror and disbelief.
Apparently the management had a wild hair up their you-know-what about Gary as an employee. As I said before—some kind of politics was going on. When they saw the 450 on its nose, they suspected Gary had purposely done this. And, boy-oh-boy they were lying in wait to fire him as soon as he walked in.
We were all standing at our work benches and staring at the back door waiting for Gary to appear. Would he have a smirk on his face? Would he be angry? Or was it just an honest mistake? We watched intently to catch a look at his expression as he walked in the door.
Gary came in the door with two other techs. They all appeared to be in a jovial mood and were laughing about some kind of joke that one of them had been telling. Then, as they entered deeper into the shop, they froze in their steps. Their faces clearly showed the horror of what they saw—especially Gary’s face.
Needless to say, despite his protests that he didn’t intentionally leave the car to fall on its nose, he was fired on the spot. And, to this day, I still don’t understand how the management of that dealership could blame the tech on a problem with their own lift—especially when they knew full well about its tendency to leak down.
Years later while working at Jim Loose Imports in Silicone Valley, I did see a vehicle actually fall off a lift. It fell off the lift in the far corner of the shop. And that lift even had lifting arms with locking pins that held the arms in place under the car.
The techs working at Jim Loose would get lazy and not bother to set the pin to lock the lift’s swing arms in place. Well, I’m here to tell you that one day it caught up with them.
I was standing halfway across the shop when the car fell. I watched in horror as a Fiat 124 convertible fell right off the lift. It all happened like it was in slow motion. The swing arm that was holding up the right front of the car suddenly sprang loose from where it had been under the car and shot outward leaving the car with only three arms under it.
The swing arm made a loud bang when it hit the end of its outward travel, and the 124 started doing a slow roll over to the right. The right front wheel tucked under and the car rolled completely over in the air as it plummeted toward the floor—all in slow motion!
By the time it hit the concrete floor it had flipped completely over and landed on its convertible top. There was a deafening crash and I remember smoke coming out from under it. But it didn’t catch fire. It just lay there dead on the floor with its wheels sticking up in the air. Then there was a deafening silence.
Ever since then I have had a healthy respect for the safety devices built into the lifts. If the lift’s hydraulics were to fail, like those lifts at Don Lyons did, there are mechanical locking catches that will prevent the lift from coming down.
But then there is still the possibility of having a vehicle slip and fall off the lift. Last winter that’s exactly what happened. One of the repair shops in town didn’t have much work with the snow and all, and a buddy of the owner used the shop lift to work on his own vehicle.
Well, they were friends and, you know you sometimes bend the rules for your friends. The only problem was the vehicle wasn’t a car or truck that the lift is designed for. It was a Bobcat loader. You know the kind, it’s a little fella with just enough room inside for one person.
Well, they somehow managed to get the darn thing up onto the lift. I dunno how they did it. It must have been a real chore to get it up onto the lift because those Bobcats are so low to the ground. And then there are those tiny tires on them. Well, they somehow got the lift under it and the Bobcat was hoisted up in the air. The tech was under it, working on it when suddenly the Bobcat shifted and slid off the lift and fell right onto the tech crushing him. He was  killed instantly.
Last spring, it happened again. A tech was working under the front of a car at a Mobil Gas station in Warwick RI while another tech was rotating the rear tires. The car was about five feet up in the air when it started rocking on the lift after the tech at the back of the car removed a tire.
Seeing the car starting to seesaw, the tech at the back yelled at the other tech in the front of the car but it was too late. The car slipped forward off the lift and crushed the tech standing in front. Police investigators said the car had not been properly secured to the lift. Wrong. The car was set on the lift with too much weight toward the front of the lift.
These stories illustrate what I call being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And not only that, these are encounters with what I call “Killer Lifts.”

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Mechanics nightmares-Old Lady crashing

 Working inside a repair shop is kind of a sanctuary. The customers are supposed to stay away from us because they distract you from what you’re doing and wind up wasting time that should be spent fixing cars. Take the example of what happens when a good-looking chick comes into the shop to retrieve something she forgot from her car.
All work comes to a stand still. And even after she leaves, the guys are still milling around extolling the virtues of her good looks. And in the warmer weather we get to keep the doors open, and hopefully catch a glimpse of some babe walking by on her way to retrieve her car.
But during the cold months, the shop is kept shut up in order to keep the heat inside. This is when you have to mess around with those exhaust hoses. What a hassle they are. I sometimes forget to remove the hose and get yelled at from the other guys when I go to back up off my rack.
I also get yelled at when I run an engine and forget to put a hose on the car. “Hey, put a hose on it!” Nowadays, the exhaust smell isn’t so bad as it used to be when they didn’t have catalytic converters. But sometimes a cat can stink pretty bad too. That awful sulfur smell.
Anyway, as I was saying, working inside a shop is kind of like a recluse. With all the doors closed, you’re sheltered from what is going on in the world around you. If it weren’t for the blaring boob box radio on my workbench, I’d have no idea of what is going on in the world outside.
Then there was that day the door crashed in. It was just before lunchtime, and my thoughts were on food as I was working in a shop in Muncie, Indiana. It was very cold outside on that February day and all the doors were closed.

Suddenly there was this horrific crashing noise. My first thought was that a car had accelerated off a lift and surged forward. As I looked up I saw this white car coming right through the wall and into the work bays.
A car had come crashing into the work bays from the outside, going at such a high speed that it crashed through the wall between the roll-up doors and had pinned my buddy against the back wall.
When I realized what was happening, I heard my buddy calling for help and started yelling “Someone call 911!
Fortunately for my buddy there was a lot of equipment and toolboxes that took up most of the impact of the car and my buddy wasn’t killed. But he did suffer from a couple of broken ribs. Now THAT was a miracle!
Now that it’s over and the cops told us what had happened, I am amazed at the whole thing. It was like a movie in slow motion. Apparently, the lady was coming from a beauty salon where she had just gotten a manicure.
The cops said that she had lost control of her car while trying to avoid slamming into another car. She planted her foot firmly on the gas pedal instead of the brakes and kept it there the whole time—even after she rammed through the wall.
Anyway, according to the cops, she ran up over a curb, sped across our parking lot and picked up a lot of speed before slamming into the shop. She hit the building with such force that her car – which was NOT a Toyota – kept on going right into the service bays.
Even after the car was stopped by the toolboxes, one wheel kept spinning and the tire started smoking. The shop security camera was running and captured a good shot of her car slamming in through the wall. Then she gets out of the car and is looking around, apparently dazed from the crash and airbag going off in her face.
I’m amazed the roof didn’t come crashing down when she took out that wall. The cops wanted to evacuate the shop and condemn the building, but  the owner talked them out of it.
By the way, I think that all senior drivers should have to pass some kind of panic reaction exam just to see if they are hitting on all cylinders. It seems like more and more older drivers don’t know how to react in an emergency situation. They lose it when they panic and wind up hitting the gas pedal instead of the brake.