Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The airport car strikes back! (The Fifth Gear Chronicles, part 2)

After all of the excitement in the last episode, I needed a little time to get around to this installment (okay, I had to go back to work). Those of you who think you want to be professional writers ought to first try keeping a blog. Even done semi-regularly like this one, it's a lot more work than it seems like it would be. When I left off, the Jetta was immobilized, waiting for parts, the Clarkat was smoothly rolling on its new front tires, and I was driving Dick's 'new' airport car.

The next morning, I went out to run some errands and found that the airport car wouldn't start - not even a click - the dash warning lights just went out and stayed out when I turned the key. Flashback to the previous day, when Dick had loaned me the car along with a wrench to disconnect the battery. The other electrical quirk he mentioned was that the voltmeter sometimes went full scale, indicating around 18 volts. Oh, and he didn't think the headlights worked. While I had been chasing the parts for the VW, I stopped at a parts place that does battery and charging system testing. When I opened the hood in preparation for the guy to come out with the equipment, I heard a motor running. As the car was off and the key in my hand, this didn't seem right. Some of today's cars have electric radiator cooling fans that can keep running even when the car is shut off, but this Caprice isn't one of them (for what it's worth, the Jetta is). Poking around, I thought it might be the air conditioner blower motor, but I unplugged it with no effect. But I was in the right area - the noise was definitely in the vicinity of the HVAC unit on the firewall. The tester guy hadn't showed yet, so I poked around a little bit more, unplugging and replugging convenient electrical connectors. One of them did the trick - the noise stopped. I didn't know what it was, but I suspected that I had found the source of the battery drain.

According to the tester guy, the battery and charging system passed the test with no problems. I had observed that for the duration of the test, the car's voltmeter indicated exactly where it ought to, in the 12 - 14 volt range - naturally. As I drove away from the parts store, the needle went all the up to 18 again. No problems - yeah. Mindful of Dick's warning about the headlights, I made sure to be home before it was absolutely dark. Thinking that my unidentified connector had solved the battery drain problem, I left the battery connected when I parked the car for the night.

As I mentioned, the next morning the car showed no desire to start. Apparently my mystery plug wasn't all that was wrong. I had considered this possibility the night before, and so I brought home from the hangar what I call my 'jump box' - commonly known as a booster battery - a self-contained battery with built-in jumper cables. I hooked this up only to discover that it didn't have enough oomph to crank the Chevy's carbureted (!) V-8 long enough to get it started (yeah, that was a shocker - I never would've believed that a 1990 car with California emissions would be equipped with a carburetor).

Dead battery, dead jump box. Hmmm. Oookay, now what? I know - I'll jump it off the motorhome . . . I hope I've got a set of cables in the motorhome! Sure enough, I found a set. Hooked them up to the motorhome battery and the car, and . . . nothing. You gotta be kidding me - the motorhome battery's dead too?! The full moon's still a day or two away - What's going on here?!

Putting the car on hold for the moment, I tried to start the engine in the motorhome (another carbureted Chevy V-8, but even bigger). Nada. The motorhome's been plugged into shore power for months now; why is this battery dead? Because the shore power keeps the motorhome's house batteries charged, but not the engine battery - that's why. However, one nifty feature that this motorhome has is an Auxiliary Start switch, which is essentially a built-in jump start feature that lets you start the engine using power from the house batteries. Finally - got something started! Being in the mood to start things, I also fired up the motorhome's generator to let it get some exercise. The cats hated all this, as the noise and vibration of the engines running made them sure that we were about to hit the road; thus they were all hiding in and under the bed. Meanwhile the commotion got my next door neighbor out of bed, where I guess he'd been hoping to sleep in past eight in the morning. No such luck - my generator is about 18 inches from the side of his motorhome.

Now that the motorhome was running, I made another attempt at jumping the car. This worked better - the car cranked for a few seconds before I saw a spark and a puff of smoke from one of the battery terminals. I got out and checked everything, fearing that I had hooked something up wrong. But no, red was positive and black was negative at both ends. Nonetheless, the car wouldn't crank again.

Now those of you who've experience with Lucas electrics already know what's wrong here: I let the smoke out. I don't care what all the scientists and engineers say about electrons, protons, neutrons, positrons, gravitrons, magnetrons, and all the rest; the principal of electricity is quite simple: Electrical systems work on smoke - If you let the smoke out, they quit working. The funny part about this whole story is that Anglophile that I am, there's not a single piece of British equipment involved.

By now, I'd made several attempts to call Dick, whose drive to the airport would take him right by me. No early riser he, I'd left a message around 9:30 and kept working on the no-start situation. Continuing on, this time I hooked the jumper cables up to the motorhome house batteries. I know those work . . . well, they did. But not on the car - still nothing. I took a break to consider my position. The car battery is dead, as is the jump box (whose charger I thoughtfully left in the hangar). The motorhome battery won't fit in the car, nor vice versa, thanks to the car's use of those stupid GM side terminals (I hate those, by the way). I went and fiddled with the jumper cables one more time, and noticed that I wasn't even getting a spark when I made the connections. So I tried shorting the clamps together - still no spark, and there sure should've been. Close examination of the clamps revealed that the spark and puff of smoke that I'd seen earlier was one of the cables burning through at the connection to the clamp - there was a good quarter-inch gap between the end of the wire and the place where the terminal had been. No wonder!

Finally, having run out of better ideas, I got out the bike and put on my backpack. I figured I'd ride over to the hangar, where I had a couple of battery chargers, the charger for the jump box, and another set of jumper cables. On the way out the front gate, I realized that the bike's rear tire was low. Not again! I returned home and got out the bike pump that I'd bought after the last flat. Time for it to stop taking up space on the counter and earn its keep. Having pumped up the tire, I figured I might as well mount the pump on the bike where it belonged. No big deal, all I needed was a metric allen wrench - which, amazingly, I already had on hand. As I was attaching the pump to its bracket, the phone rang. Yes, Dick could stop by, and yes, he had another set of jumper cables. Being it was his car, naturally it started right up once we'd hooked up his cables. He followed me over the hangar, where I put it on the battery charger.

So much for Part Two. I hadn't meant for this tale to become a trilogy, but I guess the Star Wars thing rubbed off on me. Of course, Douglas Adams managed to make trilogy into five parts . . .

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