Strolling Amok

Pops goes on tour.

The Carefree Mobile Life!

Toss a hundred nickels under the hood and, at best, maybe three will make it to the pavement.

Toss a hundred nickels under the hood and, at best, maybe three will make it to the pavement.

The contemplative life offered by solitary travel into unfamiliar places is quite a treat, but it does have its greasy underbelly. Free of rent, mortgages, property taxes and the like, one is free to wander and perhaps gain a new perspective. But some issues aren’t left behind, because you take them with you in order to get to the next place.

Once your mode of travel begins to age, it’s invariably gonna start eating parts and fluids. You have a free and open choice of whether to try to stay ahead of the curve with scheduled maintenance, or wait for the crisis or crises resulting from neglect. But some parts are best left alone until they have expended themselves. Vehicles made within the last twenty years are so much better at delaying the inevitable that even age and wear-related parts can have commendable lifespans. When a component lasts two or three times longer than it once did, that’s money left in the bank. Your bank. Kind of. Okay, sometimes, not so much.

Ever had a radiator hose start leaking because heat, pressure and time got to it? Sure you have. Perhaps you took it in, or perhaps you
stopped at the auto parts store to pick up a replacement to slap on in twenty minutes. Undo the two worm or squeeze clamps and yank the hose off, spewing a gallon or two of coolant all over, so you can kill your grass or poison your dog. Slip on the new hose, tighten the clamps, and add enough coolant to replenish the system. Done. The new hose, a combination of fabric wrapped in thick rubber, should last awhile. In the ancient days, you’d likely be replacing your radiator before that second hose gave out. That’s not so much a commendation of the second hose as it is an indictment of the radiator.

Well, I had the F-250’s cooling system flushed back in Illinois last summer, on schedule. Given the twin turbochargers on this thing, its cooling system is pretty extensive, with several different materials involved. Repair-wise, about the last thing you want to do is to ignore such a system and not change coolant, etc. Should something clog or corrode, it can take out some very expensive machinery.

When I later noticed that it was losing a very small amount of coolant on the return trip to Arizona, I figured that the dealer had not reattached or closed something properly. Over the next few months, the leakage pace picked up until it couldn’t be ignored. Though it was dripping from the front of the engine, there was no way to tell just where it was coming from. There are so many different devices packed tightly under the hood that seeing – let alone working on – anything is nearly impossible. Checking all fluid levels has been made a cinch, with everything right on top. Beyond that, it’s a veiled mystery. So when it began to leak in quantity in the Home Depot parking lot in Yuma, I headed over to Alexander Ford a few miles away.

Not that they could do anything about it at one in the afternoon, with idle diesel mechanics just sitting around waiting for a rube to show up. I went over to add water to the system, but more importantly, to size up the dealership. Did they offer diesel pickups on the sales lot, and were they staffed and equipped to handle them? It’s a sizable investment that only some dealers are willing to make. The payback is very good because Ford sells a heap of diesels to businesses and fleets, but if you, as a dealer, are in a small town and have been selling only gas pickups until now, you’re relying on chance drivebys for a return on your investment. Much to my relief, this dealer had a ton of pickups, maybe a third of them F-250s or above, half of those being diesel.

Their service entry is Scottsdale-style. Comparatively posh and expansive. In place of an ugly lifting door in one corner of the building, placed so that entry with a large vehicle is an ordeal, this one had a curbed two-lane expanse passing next to the glassy showroom. With roof overhead to provide shade and cool, a service advisor, looking for all the world like a valet with a clipboard, stepped from a computer workstation and approached, smiling. After I explained my situation, he briefly looked the engine bay over, ignoring the coolant slowly gathering on his nice, clean and sealed driveway. “We can’t do anything with it today,” young Jimmy Davy told me, “But if you bring it in tomorrow morning, early, we can work on it then.” I was pleasantly surprised, since “tomorrow” has never been an option before. And the head count of diesel mechanics? “Six,” he said. That’s a lot. The outfit I bought it from in Illinois was so proud to have two. So proud.

“How early is early?” I asked.

“We open at 7 AM,” he said, “And the earlier you’re in line, the sooner we can get to it.” Seeming to take in my general appearance (and correctly), he offered, “If you can’t get here by around then, come in when you can and we’ll do what we can. I will just take longer.” Very astute. I haven’t been dressed and somewhere else by 7 AM for quite awhile now. As my daughter used to joke, “Oh, I’m up by the crack of eleven!” I assured him that I’d do a passable job of heroically getting in early. He then had me maneuver the Ford to the back of a quick service bay on the other side of the drive, and filled the coolant reservoir. I was then able to complete my various errands and get back to camp just before sunset.

The next morning, I was there by 7:15, having not really appreciated the extra miles involved to get to that location, and I think my GPS lied about the shortest route. Mine was like the fifth vehicle in line. It was a long but cushy wait in their lounge, interrupted by Jimmy with the status update that the upper radiator hose was the culprit, and that the fix would cost $300. Ack. Mind you, I’m still operating in 1972 dollars, where going to a movie cost $1.25 and having a car’s clutch replaced cost about $250. But I’ve become immune to such things now, probably pushed along by $400-a-month grocery bills and by seeing that my savings account earned a vibrant 0.1% interest last year. My sense of alarm and indignation has passed from shock into coma some time ago. I decided to avoid subjecting Jimmy to the usual theatrical, geriatric shock-and-awe performance. It is absurdly expensive. I accept that. “Make it so,” I told him authoritatively.

When it was done, Jimmy cautioned me that the post-op inspection revealed that the air filter needed changing (after some 70,000 miles, much of that in desert dust), and that the coolant in the system was the wrong type for the 6.4-liter Navistar. The air filter was believable, since the Ford has a vacuum indicator right at the housing that measures how open or choked off the airflow is. If it gets bad enough to compromise drivability, it then throws a dashboard light.

But the wrong coolant? I had mentioned to him that I’d had the system flushed just six months ago, so that might possibly affect where they’d look first for the leak. He asked where the service had been performed, since I was not in their system. Ford dealer in my prior hometown, where I’d bought the truck new. “The coolant is green,” he said, “And I’m told by the technician that your engine requires Premium Gold, which is a yellow color. It can affect corrosion and clogging of the various parts of the cooling system, and he recommends that you have it replaced as soon as you can.”

Damn. That’s $150 a throw (at 7.5 gallons capacity, half of which is coolant)! Oil changes are $100 a throw (for 15 quarts and a proprietary filter system) at a dealership, though it’s noteworthy that trustworthy indy repair places don’t cost any less. But hold on a second. Was this color thing a come-on? Ford dealerships should not be using non-Ford coolant, so had I gotten some other equivalent Ford coolant, or Lin Kow Recycling’s finest? Or maybe this Yuma dealership was making mountains out of molehills? I’d have to research this back at the ranch.

But where did that $300 go, fer cry-eye? I popped the hood. It took a few moments to move around and locate the replaced part, a task made immensely easier by it being the only dust-free component in the puzzle. Holy mackerel. This thing was about as close to a radiator hose as an automotive airbag is to a Jiffy Pop popcorn pan. No rubber hose with worm clamps here. Just plastic polymer and aluminum tube over some kinda inner core, with a mystery collar at the radiator end and who knows what at the engine end. A Reflectix-type wrap shields the lower portion from heat. That end is badly shrouded in by other equipment, and not visible or accessible. Surely they had to come up with some way of making it simply insert (and remove) reliably without clamps, because signs of removal on all the plumbing around it were sparse. Doesn’t look like it has any flex built into it, but it must.

Technically, the original lasted 7.5 years, and the replacement part costs $100. Given that an original equipment replacement cigarette lighter costs $10, it looks a $100 radiator hose. $171 to get the old one out and the new one in. Even with a paved driveway, manual, proper tools, and a much healthier vocabulary of curses, I’d never be able to replace the thing. At least it’s back to being leak-free again, and one less thing to keep an eye on.

But what about that coolant? Surely the “green” vs “yellow” thing is a minor issue, a subtle ploy used by Ford and other manufacturers to plant red herrings and keep you from straying off the ranch. It’s like pushing Motorcraft batteries and other service parts, when upscale aftermarket parts can actually be better quality and last longer. Car manufacturers these days outsource most of their original parts to outside suppliers anyway, to spec. Who cares what the coolant is, as long as the dilution with water is correct?

Well, if you’re going to change coolant at a Ford shop, they will use Motorcraft fluids unless you are out of warranty and insist on something else for good reason. It’s kind of an expectation, legal or otherwise, that if you go to a Ford dealer, you will receive Ford or Ford-approved parts. If Ford has not approved the part, it becomes a potential issue of violating the conditions of the warranty, and for a Ford dealer to do that would be foolhardy. Ford Motor Company designs a vehicle, they engineer it, build it, test it and sell it with a warranty that it will perform properly while meeting stiff Federal requirements. They do not require that their coolant or oil be used, but only that whatever you do use meets the same SAE specs as theirs does. They do not test it with Uncle Joe’s Organic Molasses-Based Coolant DeLuxe, or hop-up parts, so if you “save” $5 and lock up your engine with the stuff, you’re on your own.

As it turns out, much to my surprise, that the coolant color thing is a genuine issue rather than marketing hype. The recommended Motorcraft Premium Gold engine coolant is designed for use in Ford/Navistar’s 6.0 & 6.4-liter diesels. Ford’s own 6.7L diesel of more recent years uses Motorcraft’s Orange coolant that is almost equally long-lived but has a different composition that is more time-sensitive. Nitrite and silicate levels must be maintained on emissions-era Ford diesels to avoid corrosion, sludge and clogging in aluminum oil and EGR coolers, and to discourage air bubbles from forming on cylinder walls, which encourages localized stress and general overheating. Both coolants are capable of reaching 100,000 miles in normal service in their respective engines. In my type of usage, 60,000 miles is the limit for Premium Gold.

What the offending dealer apparently did was dump in Motorcraft Green coolant, as used in Navistar’s good old 7.3-liter smoker. I smell either an old-school “always been good enough for me” diesel mechanic, or a manager too cheap to put in two bulk storage tanks. In normal service, Green coolant must be replaced every 15,000 miles, and is not designed for the materials in a 6.4L powerplant. Green can and has been replaced with Premium Gold as delivered new in a 7.3, but you can’t go the other way around and swap Gold for Green in a 6.4L. So I gots me a cooling system full of coolant guaranteed to cause some rather expensive issues on a vehicle that needs to be kept in use for as long as possible.

My first thought was to pay $150 here in Yuma to have the bad coolant swapped out a second time, but then I thought, why not impress upon my Illinois dealer that they are making a mistake, and need to correct it in my vehicle? After all, I bought it there when they acquired the place and had one salesman, and have had 100% of my non-emergency work done there since the start. Why not save the second $150 and offer them the opportunity to make it right? I suspect I can get away with delaying another four or five months to get the truck up there, since the existing coolant is six months old. But I would not look forward to such a delay.

A Side-Note on Diesel Engines

Your first thought may be, “Hey, why go through this? Get a gas-engined pickup!” There’s a lot of sense to this if you don’t regularly tow anything heavy, do stay on relatively flat roads, and/or will probably be trading it in on a new vehicle in a few years. In these cases, the initial high cost of upgrading to a diesel engine and the high cost of regular maintenance would be a waste. It would also be a waste of money to pay for a diesel engine and then ignore maintenance. Me, I’ve been spoiled by the huge difference in low-RPM grunt for towing applications, and nearly doubling the fuel mileage when towing moderate weight trailers. It has the capability to last much longer too, if you are willing to keep its filters and fluids fresh. Not being forced to rebuild or replace the vehicle is where the main payback comes, so if you don’t plan to hang onto the pickup truck, you probably won’t get your money back. The ultra-high compression, force, and heat of diesels dirties and depletes engine oil, and stresses parts enough that a relatively pristine environment needs to be maintained inside them. If that is done, the possibilities are relatively impressive.

But like I say, I’ve been spoiled and would only return to gas engines if left with no choice (like being unable to afford the upcharge). I’ve found towing in hilly country with V8 gas engine pickups stressful, arriving anything but relaxed. The lack of low-end power made for a very sloppy speed control, the cruise system giving up and shutting off on every hillclimb, while the engine kicked down a couple gears and wailed away as if it was going to bust a gut. The only way to come close to holding speed was to time for failure. Leave the cruise off, give it full throttle before the incline, and stay on it all the way up. Near the top, start letting up even if it still lost speed, since now the downhill charge is about to start. Get ready to brake, as needed. The higher the speed, the more of an ordeal this is. Leaving it one gear down all the time helps, but some automatic transmission shifters don’t allow this.

The procedure with the V8 diesel is a little different. Set the speed control to whatever you want to hold. If it’s available, push the tow/load button on the shifter stalk once to set the trans into a more aggressive mode. Then steer. Turn on the radio, if you like. No need to turn up the volume. The trans might downshift once on steeper uphills if your speed is set near a normal shift point, but no matter what, it will hold speed without theatrics, despite the trailer’s weight and drag. On really steep grades, this can actually be an unnerving sensation until you get used to it, which can take awhile. Likewise, it will automatically take care of most downhills too, downshifting to use engine compression to hold back speed. Unless I’ve frightened myself with what some 650 foot-pounds of torque can do when the wick turns up, I end the day no more worn than I’d be in a decent car. Just don’t forget the trailer is back there, and pay attention to any wet or slippery pavement.

The difference in feel is difficult to relate unless you’ve driven both underpowered old sedans, and 1950s or 1960s big V8 sedans. The first doesn’t respond without an insistent stab and hold at the gas pedal, and can only labor ahead once the engine is churning away near the top of its horsepower curve. It’s very obvious that the engine is straining, and the whole thing feels very spongy, regardless of how much power the engine puts out once it gets rolling. The latter feels as though the gas pedal is connected directly to the speedometer. Push a little more, and you feel a brief shove back into the seat while the speedometer’s needle slides up to match. No drama, no thrashing.

The gas versus diesel driving perceptions are particularly unexpected because (at least up to this point in time),  a gas vehicle will win a drag race against an equivalent diesel every time. The victory is largely the ability to take much better advantage of the mechanical leverage that lower gears offer. If traction is available, all cars will accelerate most rapidly in their first gear. Every upshift gains speed, but that rate of gain in speed tapers off. The acceleration may snap your neck off the line and for the first few seconds, but by 80 MPH, that speedometer needle is creeping upward instead of surging. The engine’s leverage on the rear wheel rotation has nearly evaporated, and wind resistance is making things much worse, too.

Imagine two cars that are identically equipped, the only difference being that one is able to spin its engine twice as fast as the other without damaging itself, and that the faster it spins, the more power it produces. Imagine that we are having a drag race with them. Since the transmission’s lowest gears offer the engine much greater leverage in trying to push the car faster down the track, the car that can stay in first gear for 500 feet out instead of 250 feet before having to upshift will have a big mechanical advantage in hustling down the track. The one that is forced to upshift sooner is suddenly at a disadvantage, pushing a taller gear that makes acceleration more difficult. So by the time both cars hit 300 feet from the starting line, the low-rev car is beginning to lag behind the high-rev car that’s still honking along in its strongest gear. The farther down the track they go, the greater the handicap suffered by the low-rev car.

As currently manufactured, diesels are low-rev engines. Their internal components have to be beefier to withstand the immense forces involved, and that makes them heavier. Adding rotating and cycling weight chops down RPM capability, forcing “early” shifts. So the generous horsepower and torque diesels produce is sabotaged by the need for early gearshifts during acceleration. They lose the drag race.

But towing big trailers or carrying heavy cargo is not an acceleration contest. It’s simply a test to hold road speed steady while ascending a hill. This is comparatively easy for a diesel to do, since its maximum available power is lumped into an RPM range not far below typical highway cruising speeds. You simply tip in a little more throttle to get it up the hill, and its far greater low-RPM torque will make that easy. Since the gas engine is usually designed to develop its power at high engine speeds, a stout hill will mean that a downshift or two is required in order to get the engine into its powerband. It has to rely on horsepower, which is a product of torque and RPM. It will take a lot of thrashing to get up the hill.

These are generalities, of course. Some large truck gas engines have been made along the way with their maximum torque not too far from idle speed. Ford has begun stuffing sophisticated turbochargers into smaller gas-engine F-150 pickups to improve and redistribute where power is produced, making them better suited overall to occasional towing than traditional big-displacement gas engines. Prolific engineer Gale Banks has been on a quest to get a diesel engine into gas-engine RPM territory without sacrificing durability. But the next time you see some ad on TV with different-brand pickups drag racing with boat trailers behind, keep in mind that the guy who wins that little contest will very likely arrive at the lake the most frazzled by the drive there, and having burned the most gas. Those ad guys are counting on you to assume that top fuel drag racers would make fabulous trailer-towing vehicles as well, and that the solution for one situation must inherently be the best solution for another because, well, power is power, right? Sure.

In Summary

So, how will The Great Coolant Incident end? Beats me, and for the purposes of this rambling account, it hardly matters. I’ll find out in a few days, and stumble on accordingly.

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5 thoughts on “The Carefree Mobile Life!

  1. I bought a 1999 Diesel pusher. I have never owned a diesel brfore.

    • If it was given reasonable care, you should do very well, JR. Especially being 1999, which is way before emissions regs were tightened.

      • Thanks for the encouraging words.

      • James Brown on said:

        I bought my 5.9 Cummins in ’06 specifically to avoid the new emissions regulations. I’m glad I did and reading your maintenance posts remind me of how lucky (blind squirrel) the choice was. I’m still able to do all my own repairs and maintenance and doubt, in my new found austerity, that I could afford a dealer maintained vehicle. Without a home base I’d be at their mercy anyway.

        • Yep, James, how to gather 8 gallons of coolant in the field and dispose of it properly would be a trick. Most items on this thing are topside, like air and fuel filters etc, making user service easy. But I’ve had enough little unusual things stop the show over the years that, without a driveway, second vehicle, and good parts source close by, I will not now break into any system that incapacitates the vehicle. And won’t store and haul the tools needed any more, oil drain jugs or pans, and so on. Paying spectator.

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