Sunday, June 23, 2013

A very stupid place to put an alternator

We've been busy around here. Earlier in the week we'd taken delivery of two hundred bales of Amish hay, as well as the last and final load of pig feed. The firewood was in and drying nicely. I'd gotten the extension project as far as I could without spending money we don't yet have on lumber.

But all good things come to an end. I got done with back-filling the foundation hole yesterday, had some lunch, took a short nap, and then, finally, had no remaining distractions or excuses not to start a job I'd most definitely not been looking forward to -- switching out the alternator on the old Nissan pick-em-up truck.

This truck is superannuated by now, having gone past it's 220,000 mile point. We long ago switched out the old rusted-out truck bed for a wooden flatbed -- which project, although I did it from necessity, to pass inspection, gave the truck a whole new lease of life and more usability, since the old 6-foot metal bed was not very good at carrying hay or plywood, two items we have frequently to carry around here.

I'm very happy with the "new" wooden bed, now three years or more old.

Since replacing the bed, we've used the truck for no more than two or three thousand miles a year, pretty much all of it load-carrying, except for a few miles in the deep snowdrifts each winter. I expect to kep it running as long as I possibly can, and have maintained the frame, suspension, and brakes accordingly, but one day a major engine problem will surface and that will be all she wrote. I could rebuild that engine, or even put a secondhand one in, but I'm not going to. Too much trouble. That will therefore be the point at which we scrap this old truck.

The plan is, one day, when this truck finally dies, to simply get a large trailer that the Land Rover can pull, and not need a pick-up truck at all. I fully expect to keep the Land Rover running until I die.

In the meantime, keeping the old truck running well is a fine art. In particular there's a small oil leak from somewhere or other, and a tiny coolant leak near number four spark plug, that shorts out the plug every three or four thousand miles, so you get a misfire, and then the plug has to be pulled and cleaned or replaced. One oxygen sensor is out on each side of the exhaust system. Both are essentially unreachable without some special tool. There's also a tiny brake fluid leak inside one of the wheel cylinders. I'm not sure which one, but whatever one it is, it's not sufficient to wet the drums or discs and reduce the braking power, so we just top off the fluid every two months or so. The wooden tailgate on the home-made bed is tricky and requires a secret special "thump" in just the right spot to get it to work well. And the whole under body gets a good thick coating of Fluid Film underseal every winter.

It was a bit of a setback, then, to have the alternator on this truck go out, just when we most needed the vehicle to run.

When the alternator light came on, I wasn't exactly sure what was happening, since the air bag and automatic transmission temperature lights also came on. I pulled the codes just to see if that told me anything, but the computer didn't say anything different about anything, except the stupid old oxygen sensors, so I bit the bullet and ordered a secondhand alternator from an online junkyard sales place. It cost only $95, and came quickly enough in three or so days, but I was still crunching to get the concrete work done with the rented cement mixer, and after that trying to finish out the joist structure, so I just set the new unit aside, for nearly a week, and made do as best I could. It slowly got buried under building materials in my workshop

In the meantime, I had to keep fetching such materials on almost a daily basis, so we either used the Land Rover to get things, if they would fit in a Land Rover, or we charged up the truck battery and hoped for the best.

I guess, also, I just wasn't looking forward to trading my clean light, breezy, airy workspace on top of the floor decking for the underside of a nasty greasy truck.

Finally, I knew I was getting serious when I pulled the Chilton's manual from the pile of automotive manuals we have in my workshop. That was Friday night. Saturday afternoon, I started the job.

I needed the manual because this particular alternator is not exactly visible from the top of the engine. I knew more or less where it was, but I didn't know how to get at it.

Usually alternators are easy to do. The Land Rover's alternator would probably take me less than four minutes to switch out. But the Nissan Frontier makes you jack up the vehicle, put it on jackstands, take off the sump plate, and then lay on your back with your arms at full stretch working on connections and bolts you can't see.

The whole underside was greasy due to the oil leak. My hands were stiff from building work, and kept getting cramps, while me poor old fingers had lost a lot of their mechanic's sensitivity as a result of working with rough boards and concrete.

To top it all, since I've been getting older my glasses have to be off for me to see close work, while I can't see that well with goggles on, and so grit kept falling in my eyes.

It wouldn't have mattered had I been made blind. You could only actually see the heads of a couple of the bolts, and none of the three wires. I needed to use a mirror to figure out how to dishook the final connection.

But eventually, after much ado and quite a bit of cursing, we got the alternator switched out. I tried a quick test start before putting the sump plate back on, and got a satisfying 14.25 volts at the battery. It took only two hours.

Considering that I'd just spent three weeks essentially in a hole in the ground sweating daily, I have to say I took it quite personally that my alternator went out at this particular time. And that it was such a nasty, hard job to replace it. I know it's character-forming to have to face adversity, and I know that long ago I made a lifestyle choice to be self-reliant and less dependent on the rest of society, but this particular job wore my patience, and my body, out pretty good.

Still, I expect it saved us at least $300.

After celebrating with a run to town for a milk shake, and to have the old alternator tested at the chain store auto parts place, just to make sure it was completely dead (it was -- diodes, field coil, and rotor were each burned out), I spent much of the rest of the day sleeping, and went to bed at 8.45 pm.

I plan to take it a little easier today.

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