Sunday, January 22, 2012

Musings on automotive diagnostics

Part of owning a car, and for me, part of having owned a LOT of cars, is dealing with a lot of problems. I've never had the money for a new car, and have thus never had a car in for warranty service. Why is this worth mentioning? Well, the long and the short of it is that any problem that crops up with the car is ultimately my responsibility.

Early on, this meant making a dreaded trip to the mechanic when some part or other would fail. Eventually, I started doing my own work, bit by bit. At this point, I haven't taken one of my own cars to a mechanic in about five years. Keep in mind I drive 25,000 miles a year or so, and have plenty that needs to be fixed on a regular basis.

Of course, before I can fix something, I need to determine what the problem is. Some things are obvious. Failed brakes spring to mind. As does worn-out suspension. But, when the car doesn't start, or doesn't run just right, I need to get into detective mode.

I had to do quite a bit of this last year, especially with the Vanagon and the 220D. The van had one problem after another until the engine failed on me in October. Even if I had been a bit quicker with my diagnostics, I wouldn't have been able to save it. The engine was just tired. As for the 220D, once I decided I needed to get it out of storage, I went through a lot of troubleshooting before the engine actually started for me.

With both of those cars, the thinking was all on me. I'd have to pay attention to what each car was (or wasn't doing) and use my best reasoning skills to figure out what the problem was. For the record, I did get the 220D to start and sold it running a little over a month ago.

Fast forward to this past week. The Legacy is my only running car at the moment, and takes me 45 miles each way in and out of work. If something breaks or otherwise malfunctions, I need to figure it out and fix it quickly. This past week, I was in exactly that situation.

On Tuesday, I was on my way home from work. It was wet and freezing, and I was on the highway. I was only a few miles into my journey when for no explicable reason, the "check engine" light, also known as a CEL or MIL (malfunction indicator light) came on. For me this was a new experience, as the 1995 Legacy I bought last year is the first car I've owned with a modern diagnostics system. This system, known officially as OBDII (on-board diagnostics 2) allows you to plug a scanner into the car and learn what the problem is.

I digress. I pulled off the road to check the car over. Nothing obvious was wrong. The car still seemed to have all its power and wasn't running any different. I opted to continue on my journey. When I got close to home, I stopped at the local Autozone. For those that don't know, Autozone will hook up a scanner and pull the trouble codes for you. This is convenient for me, as I don't own an OBDII scanner yet.

The clerk scanned the car and came up with a single trouble code - P0420 - Catalyst efficiency below threshold - bank 1. Long story short, this likely indicates a problem with an oxygen sensor or catalytic converter. I did some checking, and for my car the most likely candidate was the front oxygen sensor. Still, I decided to reset my engine computer and see if the code came back.

A little later in the week, I disconnected the car's battery while I was at work. As of today, several hundred miles later, the check engine light has not come back on again. Long story short, it looks like I got lucky, and the original "problem" was probably just a momentary sensor glitch, due to the cold, wet weather I was driving in on my way home.

So, the OBD codes aren't definitive, but they do help narrow down potential problems. As for me, I'm happy with the system. I'd much rather have a false alarm than have a sudden failure without any advance warning at all.



Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Winter projects

Traditionally, I've taken the winter off from my projects. I live in the northeast. It gets cold.

Damn cold.

I don't care for the cold.

In general, if something breaks during the cold season, I'll fix it. But, in the past, I've never been one to look for MORE work to occupy my time when it's freezing. When it's cold out, I prefer to stay inside, order a pizza, and let my feet NOT turn to ice cubes.

This all changed last winter. I refer you to the tale of the Volkswagen that tried to murder me:

I ended up working on that car all winter last year, outside, in the snow and ice. Granted, it was by necessity, not by choice. But, it showed me that keeping a project going in the winter isn't an insurmountable task. As such, I was originally planning to finish up the 220D this winter, but as you know, I had to sell it last month. Right now, the plan is to pick up another fixer-upper Subaru. Aside from rusty bolts, they're pretty easy to work on, and the extra car would come in handy.

But, until that happens, I've dusted off one of my reserve projects. Thankfully (?), I have so many little projects piled up that I always have something to keep me occupied. So, until another car needs my attention, I've started work on my Dahon folding bike rebuild:


Parts 1 and 2 from this past weekend:

This isn't a big project, and obviously won't take long. But, it's something to keep me busy in the immediate future.

Monday, January 2, 2012

My hopes and plans for 2012... in automotive terms

Well... it's 2012 now. It's that time of year when we talk about our plans and resolutions for the coming year. Although some people think that the whole idea of New Year's Resolutions is a bit disingenuous. After all, why take a seemingly arbitrary point on the calendar to think about improving oneself, rather than keeping true to that ideal year-round?

I, on the other hand, like the idea of NYRs. Although I fail at some of them like anyone else, I certainly do try to come up with a strategy to improve my life at this time of year. I feel that without NYRs, I, and probably most people, would be less likely to make a self-improvement effort at all. The new year, symbolically, is about new beginnings, and getting another chance to start from scratch.

As such, here are my New Year's Resolutions (well, the ones that relate to my cars, anyway) for 2012, in no particular order of importance:

1) First and foremost, I'd like to keep this blog a little more active for those of you that may be reading. I video pretty much my whole automotive life for Youtube, but I'm putting far less content up here on Blogger. This is particularly disturbing to me, as I consider myself to be a writer more than anything else.

2) Make a real attempt to repair my Dahon folding bike. True, it's not a car, but if I can get it roadworthy again, it becomes a source of backup transportation that I can take on the train and/or throw in the trunk of my car.

3) In reference to my first resolution, I'd like to get another 200-300 videos up on Youtube this year. But, the challenge is to make sure they're all relevant, or at least entertaining, and not simply me jabbering on for the camera. Obviously, I'm referencing my automotive videos.

4) This is the big one... If possible, I'd like to be able to save enough money to be able to start repairing the Vanagon before 2013. The van's in storage now while I save to put in a Subaru engine. I just sold the Mercedes 220D to make room to store the van.

5) As the Mercedes is gone, and the van is not driveable, I'd like to find another Subaru to add to the stable. This will be the source of a lot of my videos for a while. Once it's ready, it'll become my wife's daily driver, and I'll retire her old car to serve as backup transportation for us.

Have a good 2012, everyone. As always, make your time count - you don't get a lot of it.