Monday, August 20, 2007

I'm An Alternator Hater!

Last month the van died right before we went camping. I thought the problem was caused by corroded leads to the battery but I was wrong. That would have been far too easy.

The day after the van died I bought a new battery because ours was 7 years old and it couldn't hurt to replace it, just in case. I noticed that the voltage indicator in the van was still sometimes below the 14V we should be seeing if the alternator is working correctly but I also found that if I revved the engine nice and high the alternator would kick in and we would be fine.

So we managed to get to and from camping without any problems but the day after we got back I went golfing with a friend and the voltage indicator dropped right down to nothing while we were driving to the golf course. We pulled into a parking space and I turned off the van, almost positive that it wasn't going to start again. Not wanting to ruin a round of golf I didn't even try it. It could wait until we were finished.

We played our round and then loaded up the van with our clubs and hopped inside. Now for the moment of truth. The van started up and the voltage showed somewhere in the 11-12V range. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Not great but good enough.

The next day the whole family went grocery shopping. We loaded the van up with our food and headed next door so Jules could get some candy at the Dollarama. While we were waiting in the van I watched in horror as the voltage indicator dropped like a rock. The van died. Turn the key and nothing happens. Luckily a guy pulled up right in front of us and gave us a boost. The van started up and as soon as we removed the jumper cables the van died again. This was a familiar situation.

Eventually the van started up and we were on a mad dash to get home. We made a good attempt but it was to no avail. On the way the van died and wouldn't start again. Great! We were on the side of a busy road with nothing around, all three kids in the van as well as a shit load of groceries and no cell phone. It took a good 20 minutes before someone stopped and let us user their cell.

I called a cab to come pick us and our groceries up and drop us all at home. Once at home I called CAA to get a free tow.

That night I checked the ground of the new starter on the advice of the cab driver. It seemed OK. I charged up the battery and started the van up. The voltage wasn't where it should have been. Just for kicks I tried tapping the alternator with a wrench. When I did the motor revved down slightly. I checked the voltage indicator and, lo and behold, it was now showing 14V.

So it is the Alternator!

On the positive side, we were now safe from unexpected van death. As long as we tapped the alternator when we started the van it would run just fine until it needed to be started again. With this system we could at least make sure the battery stayed charged until we could get the alternator fixed.

Jules started calling around to find out how much this repair was going to cost us. She was consistently quoted a cost of $400-$500. HOLY SHIT!

The whole deal with tapping the alternator to make it work made me think that it would just need brushes and bearings but none of the shops were interested in doing that. They wanted to sell us a new or rebuilt alternator for around $300.

Eventually Jules tracked down a shop that was only 3 blocks away from our house that would do a rebuild for us. The only problem was I had to take the alternator out and put it back in.

I hate doing car work because a lot of the time I end up bleeding, not to mention something else always ends up getting broken. In the end the potential saving made it worth a potential blood letting.

Deciding on when to get the work done took some serious planning because we had to get the work done on a weekday when Jules didn't have to go to work. This turned out to be last Friday.
Just to make sure the plan was going to come off without a hitch, Jules checked to see how long the repair would be. The lady at he shop assured her that if the alternator was brought in before 9am, it would be ready to pick up before the end of the day.

Alright! So I had to take it out on Thursday night after work. Take it to the shop Friday morning and put it back in Friday night. Then Jules would be good to take the van to work Saturday morning at 11am. No problem.

As soon as I got home from work Thursday I changed my clothes and head out to get this done, saying, "I'd better start as soon as possible. Who knows what problems might come up?"

I must be a prophet!

I thought the toughest part was going to be removing the serpentine belt. This turned out to be the easiest part of the job. The first unknown problem was the fact that I not only had to remove the alternator but I also had remove all sorts of 'stuff' from around the alternator.

Once I had the alternator removed from the mounts I then had to disconnect the wires. This step should have been easy. Easy for a person who has a metric socket set, that is. Unfortunately, I'm not one of those people. I tried everything I could think of but there was just no way around using that stupid metric socket set.

I took a quick bike ride to work in search of some sockets, or at the very least a pair of needle-nose pliers but had no luck. I then called my sister. Her husband had metric sockets! I hopped back on my bike and headed over.

Once I had the right tools the wiring came off quite easily.

Now I just had to lift the alternator out. Which brings me to yet another problem. There was not enough space to pull the alternator out of the place where it lives. I had to remove the power steering reservoir, a mount that held some 'things' to the side of the engine compartment and some other unidentified rectangular object that was mounted to the firewall (as you can see my automotive knowledge is quite extensive).

Anyway, once I had everything in the entire area removed I was finally able to squeeze that bastard out. Just before the sun went down I finally had the alternator sitting on the kitchen counter. Only 3.5 hours! I closed the hood, hoping that I would remember how it all fit back together again.

The next morning I dropped it off to be repaired. The guy says, "I'll try to have something for you by Monday."


Right away I predicted that Jules would not be happy about this and I was correct, she was not. See I really am a prophet. She called and bitched at the guy and the end result was that it was going to be ready by 9:30am on Saturday.

Saturday morning at 9:30 I hopped on my bike and went to pick up the alternator, fully expecting to have something else go wrong. But nothing did. It was ready and the bill came to $94. That beats $500 any day!

I got it home and went straight to work. I wouldn't exactly say that everything went smoothly but it went a hell of a lot better that it did on the extraction. At 10:50 I finally reconnected the battery and jumped in to give it a try.

"Please start. Please start. Please start."

I turned the key and it started. The voltage jumped up higher than it had been in weeks and for the first time since the middle of July the Check Engine light wasn't on.

It's been a couple of days now and everything is still A-OK.


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