Monday, October 12, 2009

It's a process, not an event

I'm in the middle of a major project on the van. It's not a project, really, in the sense that it has a well-defined end or finish point. It's more a process than an event. I'm getting all Zen on ya here, but that's what it is.

It started out as a project to find the leak. I had what I thought was a massive leak coming from somewhere in my engine, and it seemed like fuel, or oil, I couldn't tell which. I knew for sure that the fuel/water separator valve was leaking, but beyond that, I didn't know.

So first step was, a month or so ago, cleaning off the filth under the van, trying to find out where the leak was coming from. I'll write more about my friend's method for cleaning a van without messing anything up or leaving a huge mess on the street-- indeed without leaving any mess at all-- which is very time consuming but it works. I found that there were several leaks of varying different fluids. I decided to start with fixing the fuel leak, which was probably caused by O-rings failing from being exposed to biodiesel.

I was expecting a big project, but nothing like what happened. I settled into a safe parking place in a suburban area near public transportation, and got to work.

First I took the fuel bowl out. It was a huge hassle. Then I started cleaning up the mess in there. Even huger hassle. Turns out my fuel bowl O-rings were in fact shot, and the two rubber fuel return hoses from the heads to the bowl had been destroyed by exposure to biodiesel, and had liquefied. They left a gooey mess all over the engine. In order to get to the hoses, I had to remove the serpentine drive belt, vacuum pump, A/C compressor, large bracket for both of those (including power steering pump), and alternator. I had to go to the Ford dealer, who had to order the new hoses, which cost $80 and took a day.

I rebuilt the fuel bowl using Viton o-rings. I made two dumb mistakes though: I accidentally laquer-thinnered off the Teflon coating from the fuel pressure regulator O-rings, and didn't have Viton replacements handy. So I'll have to replace those. I also forgot to apply Vaseline to the fuel heater O-ring, and tore it when forcing it in. I ordered a replacement.

The main mistake I made was in not being patient enough, and trying to do the fuel bowl rebuild in a hurry while I wasn't done dismantling or finding all the problems with the rest of the system. Rushing things is never a good idea. I was trying to do a detailed job which required focus, while still not finished cleaning off the engine or even dismantling the stuff I needed to get to the return lines, or even finding the horizon of how much work was going to be required. I ended up doing the fuel bowl rebuild again-- this time much more slowly and carefully-- before putting it back in. While in there, I put in new biodiesel-rated 3/8" and 5/16" fuel supply and drain hoses.

Put everything back together again. This entire job took 12 days, during which time my vehicle was taken apart, parked in the same spot. At one point I had to rent a car for a day ($50) just to go get parts and to get to a work obligation that required driving. You can bet I was very glad to be back on the road.

It still leaked. Not as much, and from different places. And here is where I realized: this isn't an event. It isn't about finding and fixing "the" leak. There are many leaks. This will be a never-ending process of identifying and fixing leaks. Some will be massive projects. That's just the way it is. I cleaned some more. Lots of cleaning.

The vehicle runs poorly though. Loss of power. Then I remember that I forgot to re-attach the air temperature sensor. I re-attach it, and my van runs like a dream, tons of power, smooth, good mileage.

While I was dismantling pretty much the whole vehicle, I noticed new bolts on the A/C compressor, alternator, and water pump, and what looks like new RTV goop over-applied to the water pump and the sheild covering the High Pressure Oil Pump main drive bolt. So, I can guess that maybe the original fleet owner of the vehicle replaced the HPOP, water pump, and alternator. Good things to know.

The next leak looked like oil, maybe, down the passenger side of the oil pan. I found some videos on fixing a PowerStroke, which said maybe my dipstick fill tube O-ring was leaking. Also said that Ford didn't put enough bolts there, didn't even put a gasket between the oil pan and the block (it's just RTV goop), and those bolts need tightening periodically. I got under the thing and tightened the oil pan bolts. They each were a half-a-turn loose. The leak from the passenger side stopped. So I'm guessing that was oil. But the leak behind the oil pan got worse. Oh well, at least I'm mobile again.

I noticed my fuel filter was caked with reddish goop. Rust? Maybe my tank is rusting? It is a steel tank, and I'm using biodiesel which eats steel, and is hygroscopic which means water and rust. I run down to a boneyard to buy a plastic tank. It doesn't fit my vehicle, but I can maybe make it fit. I have a box van with an aft-of-axle fuel tank. The plastic one is midship. I'd rather have a midship tank than aft-of-axle, for weight distribution. I'll have to come up with custom mounting hardware for it. But at least it's the correct material for the fuel I'm using.

Back to the engine. I still can't figure out what substance is leaking. It's oil or fuel, but seems more like oily fuel or fuely oil. It's now on the underside of the back of the block, near the top. Weird. Probably multiple leaks still. Tightening the oil pan bolts on the back makes it slightly less leaky.

I decide to take off the bellhousing/flywheel sheild and look inside. The gasket on that has totally crumbled, and the flywheel is spewing that leaking substance all over, making it harder to trace. I don't have a replacement gasket, so I put the old one back on and torque it down. Leak has moved: it's now coming from the drain hole at the bottom of the sheild instead of spraying out the sides or top of it. This is progress, sort of.

While I'm scoping out locations for the new fuel tank, I notice my transmission seal has failed, and is spraying gear oil all over the underside of the floor of my box. Also, the rear differential seal has failed, and is seeping gear oil also. I don't have the time to clean it off enough to see how much and how recently it is leaking. But at least I know the tranny and diff leaks can't be blamed on biodiesel.

Back to the biodiesel again. I clean the outside of the steel tank, undo the sender, and look inside. The sender is 6" diameter: plenty of room to look in there, even to get a hand and tools in there if needed. The tank is galvanized. The sides don't look corroded, but water is heavier than biodiesel, so the rust would be at the bottom if it were there. I can't see what's going on down there. Biodiesel eats zinc, so I can't guarantee it's not rusted. I buy a tote of clean fuel, and set out to drain the fuel tank. I buy a 12v universal pump intending to use it to suck out the old fuel. While under it, I notice a 3/8" square fill plug. A socket extension fits it. I drain it that way instead, 3.5 gallons of $3.87/gal biodiesel goes to the dump. I'm in a hurry to get this work done before the rains start, so I miss a huge opportunity to look into the tank while it's empty and see what's going on in there, or to get in there with a wire brush and try to remove the rust. But I have a good idea what's wrong. The drain plug is magnetic, and a cylinder of about 3/4" of black rust came out along with it. Ugh. The zinc coating is gone, and my tank is rusting. I rush to Loctite the plug and return it. I put in 5 gallons of clean fuel. The van loses power and runs poorly now. I can only hope it's because of air in the fuel lines. Also possible is that I kicked up a ton of rust and plugged up my filter. I will find out next time I drain the tank, which I'm sure I will do again, perhaps once these 5 gallons are used up. Or maybe I'll get an aluminum tank to replace this one, if I can't quickly come up with a mounting strategy for the plastic tank.

Back to the leak in the front again. I smell unburnt fuel, but not as much as I used to. It also could be oil with fuel in it. It's possible that my fuel pump is leaking, but I can't see it with the turbo in place. It's possible that a pool of old fuel is still down in the back of the V from the previous leak, but I can't see it with the turbo in the way either. It's also possible that the turbo o-rings or the turbo itself is leaking oil, again, next project will be to remove the turbo and exhaust and see what's going on in there. I'm waiting for Viton O-rings for the turbo to arrive in the mail, and to locate replacement exhaust up-pipe bolts in case I have to destroy these in order to remove them. I will also buy a spare fuel pump, just to have it. In fact, a spare fuel, water, and power-steering pump are good travel companions for an old Ford diesel van.

But I'm taking a break for a few days while a big storm is on its way. No wrenching in the rain, if I can avoid it. When dry ground returns, I'm also going to crawl around underneath and replace that gasket on the bellhousing sheild, and see if that helps me narrow down the leaks (there are definitely more than one). While I'm down there, I'll put on the new starter I bought almost 2 years ago, and haven't put on yet. A new starter will make winter more pleasant.

I'm now three weeks into this, possibly a hundred or more hours of work. I've been waking up early and going to bed late, putting in 12 or 18 hour days in addition to my other responsibilities. And I still don't see an end point, and that's OK. There isn't one. You see, it's a process, not an event. The goal isn't to fix one thing and "be done with it". There isn't a specific project. The goal is to find things that need fixing, and fix them. There are many of them, which I've neglected for several years, and which the previous owners neglected for many more.

It's an endless project-- a continuous process. The price of an old vehicle is continual maintenance. And the price of running an unusual fuel is having unusual problems. The difference in my attitude is: I'm fine with that. It's not necessarily fun, but I'm OK with it; I accept it.

It's costly-- I'm maybe $500 in so far-- but much less costly than if I'd sent the work to a shop. Plus, I'm learning, and I know exactly what I've got under me when I'm driving.

I'm in the suburbs now, away from freeways and noise, and it is lovely to have quiet at last. I have had many restless nights, and long days.

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