Thursday, February 1, 2007

February failure

The winter of 2004 wasn't unusually cold, nor was it particularly snowy. It was, however, my first winter with the bus. I hadn't driven an older (20+ year old) car in a long time, so I'd forgotten that as the weather gets colder, the fragile parts start to fail.

I'd decided to take it a little easier on Hapy and I got a Tri-Met bus pass. I thought it would be a good thing if I only drove the bus as far as the commuter terminal. Since I could feel the wind blowing through the doors and windows when I drove on the Interstate, I had a little personal reason for this too. Well, my first part failure happened in November. I remember hearing a slight "pop" as I turned into the parking lot, and smelling a light scent of electrical smoke, but I didn't think too much of it. I popped the engine hatch and there was nothing interesting going on (read: no fire), so I hopped the bus and presently forgot about it.

After a typical office-workday, I returned home on the Metrobus and started Hapy in the usual way. I noticed that the ALT light stayed on after I got him running and that freaked me a bit. I remembered reading that if the light comes on like that, it could be a really bad thing for your electrical system and you should shutdown immediately. I did, and I went to look through my books. Something was wrong with the electrical system, but if the bus started and ran, I figured it couldn't be that bad. Realizing that I was taking a calculated risk, I started Hapy and drove the 2.5 miles home. Could I have fried my electrical system by doing that? Well, sure, I suppose. In retrospect, "no" because the broken part wouldn't have done that.

I got home after dark, and brought my books (Muir & Bentley) inside. I tested the internet resources for a clear direction for what was wrong, but the answers I got were not consistent. So, I started replacing parts and taking 2 Metrobuses to work - one local and one express - extending my commute by an hour each way.

First I replaced the Voltage Regulator. This is the part that most often fails in situations like this, and if it had been the bad part, my drive home would have caused lots of electrical problems. Now I carry a spare, since the original part was fine.

Next, I replaced the battery and cables. This seemed like an easy thing to try (and it was), but it didn't fix the problem. I did get a nice battery out of the deal, and the old one was probably going anyway. I figured the cold-cranking in the dead of winter would be a little better after this. It was, but Hapy still wouldn't start.

Last, I pulled the alternator to have it tested. This turned out to be the problem. Lots of water had gotten into the engine compartment from the heavy rains, and a puddle of water sloshed into the alternator, frying it. Or, at least, that's what i think happened. Now, if you've never pulled an alternator from a 72-79 VW bus, its not like pulling one from a mid 70's GM or Ford. There is a big gray thing on the back (closest to the rear bumper) of the engine called a fan shroud that holds the alternator and directs the air moved by the engine fan. There is a smaller plate in front of the fan shroud that actually holds the ALT. There is a long bolt in the upper left-hand corner that holds the smaller plate and the ALT in place. I won't go into the removal/replacement details here, but in the dark in the rain and in the street this is not an easy job. I finally pulled the old one out and had it tested at Beaverton Auto Parts. "Dis things dead an' I check'd it twice", he said. "Git you a new un in 'bout a week er so. $125". "#$%^," I said. "I'll get back to ya." BusDepot had one to me in 3 days for closer to $85.

Hapy drove well the rest of the winter very well. I had more adventures before Christmas, but that can wait for another day.

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