Automotive Saturday

January 5th, 2008

I spent all day working on our van today.

It’s been a while since I spent the whole day working on a vehicle and I really can’t say I missed it much. I like cars and I like working on them, but I don’t like the way “simple” things end up taking all day.

I also don’t like the way the cost of anything related to cars has gone up in price. Yesterday I bought two gallons of coolant, a five quart jug of oil and a filter. The cost was about thirty dollars. Of course, the expensive part was $9.99 apiece for two gallons of coolant. The oil wasn’t quite as much at $8.99 for five quarts, but I only needed one. The filter was less than four bucks because after getting wiped out by the antifreeze, I went with the store brand. Besides, I figure if the oil I am replacing is as black and overdue for change as the stuff I replaced, there’s not much point spending extra on a high-dollar filter. Especially when I bought the cheap oil, too.

I figured today I would change the oil, clean all the bright green corrosion off the battery terminals, and flush the radiator. I actually did accomplish all of these things (if you allow me a generous interpretation of the word flush), but it took me far longer than I expected it would.

The first delay was when I discovered that my oil change container was full. That meant I had to take it to the parts store and empty it out. I know a guy who used to live in the midst of the Saguaro National Forest in Tucson, Arizona. He used to talk about how when he changed the oil in his car, he’d take the old oil and pour it at the base of the largest and oldest, most majestic looking saguaro cactus he could find. I’m pretty sure he was joking, but there aren’t any cactus around here so I had to blow twenty more minutes.

The oil change and cleaning the battery terminals went smoothly with nothing unexpected. In fact, they both went very pleasingly with no oil spilled on the driveway at all. This alone is an unusual delight, but it was coupled with the pleasing feel of removing a perfectly finger tightened oil filter- also without spilling a drop.

The delight ended there, of course.

The radiator thing turned out to be a bit of an extended fiasco, though I finally beat it (mostly) in the end. I felt it was necessary to flush the radiator since, though the engine temperature was OK according to the gauge on the dash board, the heater hasn’t been working properly for a while. Sometimes the heater would work normally, sometimes it would never work, other times it would work only when the engine was under load. Additionally, the overflow tank was almost empty.

Theoretically, flushing an automotive cooling system is simple. Open the petcock at the bottom of the radiator to let the coolant out of it, fill the overflow tank with plain water, and run the engine till the stuff running out of the bottom of the radiator is clear indicating that the fresh water is cycling through the system and all the old stuff that is gong to come out is out.

Things went “pear shaped” as our British friends might say from step one. I have no idea who came up with the idea of making plastic radiators, but such mighty brain work is the kind of thing that makes me think water-boarding should perhaps be permissible in some cases. Not only is the radiator in my van plastic, so is the petcock, which makes me very nervous about putting a big pair of channel-lock pliers on it to get it to turn, but that was what I had to do. Well, that and removing the air box to be able to reach down to it from above when I had turned the petcock as far as I could from below long before it was open. I have no idea why it was so hard to turn, but some liquid was trickling out and the petcock had been turned till it most definitely was not going any further.

The irritating thing was it never did anything other than half-heartedly trickle. I added water to the overflow tank and started the engine and let it run till the engine achieved operating temperature. The coolant was still only casually moseying out of the radiator into the plastic tub below it on the ground. Concerned about this lack of apparent progress, I called my dad who is a car guy from way on back. I was describing the situation to him on the cordless fone as I went back outside and had a look at the engine temperature.

The engine temperature gauge needle was now pegging the red end of the scale. With this added information Dad suggested I have a look at the thermostat. This made a lot of sense as we discussed it further and I determined to make it my next course of action. Battling the petcock closed seemed to be much easier than opening it had been and a trip to the parts store (2nd for the day) yielded a what I needed- including a gasket for another dollar and a half which I didn’t appreciate, but I guess that’s life in 2008.

I burned my finger taking the thermostat housing off because I didn’t want to wait, and I had to take the headlight assembly off the van because I dropped one of the thermostat housing bolts behind it, and I am one ten millimeter poorer since it dropped down in a place where there is little chance I’ll every get it out, and scraping the old gasket off the engine block and thermostat housing was a serious drag (especially since when I had the bright idead to try to used my dremel tool with either a wire brush attachment or a sanding drum attachment to accelerate the process of removing the old gasket material, I broke the clear plastic cover on the top of the carrying case rendering the case pretty much useless now), but the petcock was even easier to turn now though I still needed to use the pliers.

When I tried going back to my standard flushing procedure, I had no more success at getting the coolant to come out of the radiator petcock. I then employed a thought I had based on a comment the guy at the parts store had made. I re-removed the upper radiator hose from the thermostat housing and ran the hose into it until it was flowing back out the top of the engine through the thermostat.

When I put the hose back on and started the engine, the coolant would still not come out of the bottom of the radiator any faster than a tired drip, but the heater was working perfectly. This was encouraging, but wanted to replace the coolant and I was getting tired of fooling around.

I closed the petcock (I was getting to be an old pro at it) and removed the top radiator hose (this was aslo a somewhat irritating task that I was getting better at with each incident since it was not a screw-type hose clamp, but one of those powerful spring kinds that takes the ol’ channel-locks again and some careful action to not do a painful number on a finger in the wrong place), then placed the drip pan under the other side of the radiator and removed the bottom radiator hose from the engine.

There was a nice, big, heart warming gush of coolant from out of the engine. I then reconnected the bottom hose and poured one of my new ten dollar gallons of coolant into the top radiator hose. I was reassured when the overflow tank made gurgling noises and it’s level rose as the coolant bubbled down through the radiator. I followed the gallon of coolant with a gallon of water and figured they could mix inside the system.

With the top hose back on, I took the car for a test drive and it seemed to be fully straightened out. A check underneath after I pulled back in the driveway showed no leaks or drips so I called it finished. All tolled, I had harvested about two gallons of old coolant and replaced it with about two gallons of 50/50 coolant mixture so I considered my mission accomplished. I was tired and dirty and it had taken far longer than would ever have imagined, but I was done.

And I was done in time to take a shower and change clothes in time to not miss any of Ask This Old House.