Update

OK, so I haven’t posted in a while because life has been…um…eventful.

Had another business trip to Seattle (someone was shot on the street just down from my hotel while I was there). After I got back from that, we packed up the camper and dogs, hooked up to the truck and headed out to The Estate.

So, we got there fine, but it had been raining for most of the week, so it was too wet and muddy to try to get the camper up there, so we found a KOA RV park to camp out in. The camper worked out great. Enough room for us to do our thing. Everything except the water heater worked as advertised, and I think the water heater was user error. What was happening is that the water heater was coming on OK, but the hot water was intermittent and coming out of whatever faucet it felt like, hot or cold. The only water that was consistently hot was the flush water for the toilet. We just shut it off and used the stove to heat water. Come to find out, there are bypass valves that basically connect both sides of the water heater to the entire plumbing system…this is for winterization to ensure that everything is equally winterized.

I didn’t know about that so I didn’t close those valves. I’m pretty sure that’s what the problem is. Anyway, everything else worked well. On the property, not so much. As I mentioned the ground was very wet and it continued to rain through the weekend. I didn’t want to take a chance so I decided to cancel my tractor rental that I’d reserved. I’ll do that at a later date. I did get a little more clearing done and I got the power company out there to take a look.

They said that the supply lines, transformer, pole, meter, etc all looked good. All I need to do is get wired up everything I need to get wired up, get it inspected and they can turn the power on. So, slow progress is better than no progress.

So, things got interesting on the way back home. One of the dogs had not been doing so well while we were there. She’s an older dog (about 12 we think) and in hindsight we think it was just the stress of the trip, but she wasn’t eating, was spending a lot of time just laying around and her stools were very runny.

After about a half hour on the road on the way home, she started whining. I looked for a place to pull over, but before too long, the smell started. She’d messed herself, her dog bed and the blanket that was on it. We pulled into a truck rest stop and cleaned everything up as best we could. Got back on the road and as I was accelerating into traffic there was a “bang” from the engine compartment and then a familiar “thump, thump, thump” sound.

I’d blown a spark plug. If you’re not familiar, most gasoline engines these days use aluminum cylinder heads. They’re lighter than steel and dissipate heat better, but aluminum is a relatively soft metal. The spark plug threads that screw into the head are steel. What can happen is if something goes wrong, the spark plug can start “working” in the threads and, over time, will basically wear down the aluminum threads to the point that, during the combustion cycle, especially under a heavy load, the threads in the head give way and the spark plug basically is ejected from the head. The coil pack usually keeps the spark plug from flying out, but it is generally destroyed in the process as well.

This has happened to me twice before. After the second one, the mechanic told me he thought the issue was my coil packs were all old and the boots were deteriorating, which was causing arcing, which was causing the spark plugs to start “working” in the head. I replaced all the spark plugs and coil packs a few years ago and hadn’t had a problem since. I don’t know specifically what caused it this time, but it happened.

When it does happen, the solution is to ream out the spark plug hole in the head, to a slightly larger size, tap it and thread in a helicoil that’s the right size for the spark plug to screw into. It’s labor intensive and takes a couple of special tools, but not overly complicated.

Luckily we weren’t too far from an exit so we pulled off into the town and found a gas station to pull into. We found a couple of mechanics, one said he couldn’t do it at all, another said he couldn’t get to it for several days, we finally found one who said they “might” be able to get to it the next day.

I sweet talked the manager of the gas station we were parked at (which was about 2 miles from the mechanic we found) and got her to allow me to push the camper back into the corner of the lot to keep until the truck was fixed. Drove the truck down to the mechanic and dropped it off.

Now, remember we had a sick dog and we were frankly very worried about her, we wanted to get her home and to the vet so we decided to rent a car for the Wife to drive her and the dogs home and I’d stay with the truck and camper. The problem is that she doesn’t have a major credit card. The other problem was that the rental agencies we normally deal with didn’t have any one way rentals so she would have to take the dogs home, drop them off with someone, get someone else to drive her car, drive both vehicles back so that she could drop the rental back off and then drive home again in her car.

We had pretty much resigned ourselves to this plan but I had to go pick up the rental car (since I had the credit card). I took a $140 cab ride (there was no uber or lyft drivers in the area we were at) to the airport which was on the same exit as the RV park we’d been staying at and had departed from just that morning, and went to the rental car area. Out of desperation, I checked with every rental agency there and, lo and behold, at the last one I checked, they had a one way car (actually mini-van) we could rent. I quickly canceled the other reservation and booked the mini-van. Drove it the 40 minutes back to where the truck was, transferred everything hey needed from the truck to the rental car, got the dogs settled and got the Wife on the way home.

I slept in the camper and then walked back to the mechanic the next morning.

Several times during the day, if I asked how things were going, they’d give me a song and dance about how they were putting me ahead of other customers and they were so busy and they were doing me such a big favor by fixing my car. I kept reassuring them that I wasn’t trying to rush or pressure them, just trying to keep up with what’s going on.

At about 3:00, they told me the truck was finished. When I went to pay them and sign the paperwork, something interesting happened. The day before, when I was messing around with the truck in the gas station parking lot, the spark plug still seemed to be threaded into the head but was just loose. I thought it couldn’t hurt to try putting in a new plug and coil pack and giving it a shot so I walked to a nearby O’reilly’s and bought the parts. Because the head was so bunged up, I couldn’t get the new spark plug to thread in, which is the point at which I decided we weren’t going anywhere for a while.

So, when I dropped the truck off at the mechanic, I told him I had a spark plug and coil pack but he told me “we don’t use customer provided parts”. I said that it was no problem, I could return them to O’Reilly’s for a refund.

The interesting thing is, the next day when I was paying for the repair, they told me that they’d used the spark plug and coil pack from O’Reilly’s…exactly what they told me they wouldn’t do the day before. They had me sign a waiver form saying they weren’t responsible for the quality of the parts they used since I provided them. I assumed that they’d done it to get me back on the road faster and I was appreciative. Anyway, I paid them, drove the truck back down to the gas station, hooked up the camper and was on my way.

For about another hour and a half. Right outside of Salem, VA, I again heard the all too familiar “Bang” followed by “thump, thump, thump”. Again, lucky to be close to a populated area, I pulled off. At that point it was too late to find a mechanic so I put “Walmart” in my GPS and by luck there was one right at the exit I was pulling off at. I parked the truck and camper in a corner of the lot, went in and verified with the manager that it was OK for me to leave it there, and settled in for another night. I did check the engine and realized it was the same spark plug that had blown and had just been repaired.

The next morning, I took the truck to the first of three mechanics in the same general area of town. They got me right in, but within a half hour had a verdict:

The mechanic who’d done the repair yesterday had screwed it up. They drilled the spark plug hole at an angle and then couldn’t get the helicoil to go back in right. They just sealed it up with JB weld as best they could and let it go.

No, I’m convinced the reason they used the parts I provided was as an excuse to have me sign that waiver. I haven’t spoken with them yet, but my guess is they’ll try to blame it on the parts instead of their mechanic. We’ll see when we get to that point.

At any rate, they gave me quotes for replacing the head and replacing the engine, the only two options left. I decided to get a second opinion so I took the truck to one of the other nearby shops. The second place specializes in trucks. Shockingly, they got me right in too, looked it over and came to the same basic conclusion as the last guy…the prior mechanic had screwed up the repair.

The second shop, however, said that they “might” be able to fix it without replacing the head. They said they have a kit that uses thicker helicoils so they may be able to redrill the spark plug hole even bigger and straighten it out, then use the thicker helicoil for a permanent fix. Unfortunately, they were too busy and the earliest they’d be able to get to trying that was on Monday (today). Because they had another option, I decided to leave the truck with them and let them give it a shot. If they can’t get the bigger helicoil to work, we’re back to a new head (about $3k) or new engine (about $5k)…I’ll probably just go with a new engine and be done with it.

At any rate, I still had to get my camper home, so I took an Uber (they did have Uber service in Salem) to the nearest U-haul place to rent a truck that could tow the camper. They went out of their way to help me. The only one way truck that could tow the camper was already reserved, but they called that customer and transferred the reservation to a different u-haul place so I wouldn’t have to take another uber to another location. Nice people.

Anyway, I rented the U-haul, went back and loaded it up with all the tools and stuff (including a 150+ pound generator) that I had in the back of the truck to use on the property, went back to walmart and hooked up the camper and finally, finally got on my way home.

So now the camper is back in the driveway at home (Side note: backing up a camper hooked to a box truck that you can’t see behind is an adventure in and of itself), the truck is still in Salem and I’m riding the motorcycle everywhere I go for the duration.

I hope to hear back from the mechanic in Salem today so I’ll at least know whether they’re going to be able to fix it or not without replacing the engine. After I find out exactly what the repair is going to take I’m going to call the first mechanic that screwed up the job, tell them I got opinions from two different mechanics that the problem was the work, not the parts and see what they’ll do to make it right. I’m not holding my breath. I’m not sure it would even be worth a lawsuit, but I suppose if they refuse to take responsibility, it never hurts to at least get a consultation with a lawyer.

So, to put it lightly, the past couple of weeks have been eventful. And expensive.

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3 thoughts on “Update

  1. When the head gets drilled out and threaded to accept the helicoil, where do the chips and filings go? Given the experience with Billy Bob The Master Mechanic the fresh engine might be a better bet long term.

    Can’t help much with that, but repairs close to home base are more controllable. Might pay to build a “resource directory” for competent and trusted critical suppliers near The Estate and the main route to/from (vehicle repair, auto parts, welder, machine shop, truck (and equipment) rental, concrete supplier, small animal vet, etc.), I’d bet you’ll have a use for a lot of those contacts during build and afterward. I’d think some credit card applications for spouse are next in line.

    Remember the local volunteer fire guys I mentioned some time back? I’d guess they might know those sort of people. You’ll still be “the outsider” (in some places you’re still an outsider through the first 10 or 12 generations…) but a reference from a local carries some weight.

    RE: hot water – one piece of our “camp out travel kit” is a 40 quart aluminum pot (came as part of a well-used turkey fryer from a thrift store). The pot gets packed with stuff (saves space) one of which is a rechargeable hand-held shower gizmo – drop the pickup in water, press the button, water flows. It ain’t what you have at home, but works for showers and dish washing. Keep it charged and take along a NiMH battery pack for recharging (if you find one that uses replaceable batteries instead of rchargeable that’s better). Stuck in the pot are lengths of 5/8″ rebar and a small coil of .062″ (1/16″) stainless safety lock wire to assemble a pot-supporting grate with (you could probably use rebar tying wire, but I keep (several diameters of) stainless safety wire on hand because I use it on everything). Find bricks/cinder blocks/rocks, make grate, find wood, make fire, fill pot, heat water. A 5 gallon bucket will fit inside the pot for travel (see below).

    When packing the pot, “modularization” helps, whether it’s quart/gallon freezer bags or other container, much easier to remove 8-10 bags from the pot instead of 50 small individual items. FYI, the rebar will chew holes in the freezer bags, so wrapping them in a towel is good.

    There’s also a Zodi (look it up) in either 1-burner or 2-burner version. A 5-gallon bucket or an old (non leaking) cooler works for the water, the bucket is handier because you can recirculate the Zodi output to get the temp you want and it’s easier to carry the bucket inside than a cooler or 40-qt pot. The Zodi burns propane from 1 lb cylinders, so don’t heat the water inside unless you really like CO, but the battery pack works to pump water whether the burner is on or off. If you have a “1 lb to 20 lb” adapter for a Big Buddy and a matching hose you can swap the 1 lb cylinders on the Zodi for (probably) whatever tank is on the camper.

    The folks who make stuff for camper conversion vans have a lot of handy stuff that runs on 12 volts and if you have a 2000 watt Honda it has a 12V 8A output (so does the EU3000i but a pair of 2000s is lighter, 2 is 1, 1 is none, and can be coupled together to produce 1K more watts than the 3000 for about the same total price and a little less fuel consumption if you don’t need the 4K watts.

  2. My generator is actually 5kw which is way overkill for the camper. I bought it as an emergency generator for weather related outages and I don’t see the value in spending another $500 or $600 on a generator specifically for the camper…especially since we expect to have power out there in the not too distant future anyway.

    I’m not sure exactly how they keep the metal from ending up in the engine, but I believe it some combination of vacuum, blowing it out with air, and borescoping to inspect and make sure they didn’t miss anything. As I said, I’ve had it done twice before (albeit by a local mechanic that I trust implicitly) with no bad aftereffects.

    The place that screwed up the work was not a fly by night place. They had a well set up shop with several garages and a nice waiting area, decent looking “uniforms”, seemed pretty well run. The head mechanic was the guy I talked to most of the time and he seemed to be competent and knowledgeable. I don’t know if they had some underling do the work and screw it up or what, but all appearances were that they were a quality place…the fact that they had to have known the work wasn’t done correctly and didn’t fess up to it immediately belies that impression though.

    A mechanic that will try to hide a screwup of that magnitude rather than just tell me that my truck was likely going to blow up again in a few miles isn’t anyone to trust.

    I called the garage in Salem a little bit ago and they said they’re working on the Truck right now. They should be calling me back with some news in a couple of hours. As soon as I have a definitive estimate from them, I’m going to call the garage that screwed up the initial work.

    As I said before, I’m not holding my breath, but if they refuse to do anything to make it right, the next step will be to start publishing my story, including the name of the shop, on any outlet that will give me a platform for it.

  3. It’s usually best to simply own up and pay up; no teveryone understands that, though.

    Useful lesson, at your expense, about warranty waivers; it never crossed my mind that someone would use such a waiver to duck responsibility. If I’m ever faced with that issue I’ll be sure to let them buy the parts.

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