Thursday, July 27, 2006

Free at last...

We finally finished with the Pennsylvania flood relief operation Tuesday morning. Things wound down slowly through Friday, and we closed headquarters Saturday afternoon. It took all four of us to bring down all the wiring and the satellite dish, and get all the computers and phones packed. We wrapped up close to 9pm, and had a final dinner together. Sunday morning, the rest of the crew went home, and it was down to just the two of us, just as it had been at the very beginning of the job over three weeks earlier.

We took most of Sunday off, and the operation itself was closed. We did some final packing and cable cleanup, then packed up Odyssey and went out for generator fuel. With a single tank, of course, fuel is fuel, however, the Red Cross reimburses our travel expense on a per-mile basis, while the fuel we burned just sitting for four weeks is "lodging" expense, and we needed a receipt to turn in before we left the job. For the curious, we ran the genny about 75 hours in four weeks, burning about 82 gallons. At $3.10 per gallon, our lodging expense worked out to just under $11 per day, a figure the Red Cross was more than happy to pay (most volunteers are housed in hotel rooms costing 6-12 times that much).

We spent Monday setting up a handful of workstations in a conference room at the local chapter for the small group of folks staying behind to finish up the casework, and getting the rest of our gear inventoried and onto the FedEx truck. Monday night we celebrated, and Tuesday morning we turned our rental car in and hit the road.

We are now at U.S. Coach Repair, in Berlin, NJ (map), where we've been for two nights. Owner Luke Bonagura and his team here have an excellent reputation in the converted coach community, and we had a good list of maintenance items that needed to be done. So far, they have done the normal service such as change the engine oil and filters, replace the fuel and transmission filters, and top off the transmission fluid level. They have also replaced three of our old and seeping coolant hoses, replaced the two fan belts, and changed the engine coolant. This should improve our cooling system performance as well as reduce the amount of coolant we are having to add between services.

We also asked them to look into an exhaust rattle that has plagued us for quite some time, and they found and replaced two broken mounting bolts on the muffler. Their opinion on our front-end shimmy and abnormal tire wear is that our front end is slightly toed-out, and they will correct the alignment before we leave. More importantly, they think we should replace the tie-rod ends, an issue we knew we would have to deal with at some point. For reasons no one can explain, our tie-rod ends have no grease fittings, and so can not be lubricated. The rubber dust boots disintegrated long ago, and the rod ends are stiff and difficult to move, a sign that corrosion is taking its toll on the joints. We've inspected them at every service, getting more nervous each time. We don't want to take any chances with such a safety-critical component, so they are trying to find us some replacements -- a tall order, given our weird German running gear.

One of the biggest outstanding checklist items has been to service the Bendix air dryer. We're pretty sure it's never been serviced in the whole 17 years it's been there, and it has probably been responsible for a good bit of our cold-weather air loss. Getting to the dryer requires a pit, and few of the shops we visit have both a pit and the air dryer parts and skills -- we're happy to finally have this taken care of. No abnormal play was found in the wheel hubs, but the shocks are shot and need replacing, so they are trying to track some down along with the tie rod parts.

Lastly, we asked Mike-the-parts-guy if he could find a source for the Bilstein tag-axle steering damper. We replaced one already, at $530 from Neopart (whereupon we discovered the Bilstein label and part number), and now the other side needs to be replaced to even out the pressure. Mike found a source at $185, which will be a bargain even with the overnight shipping to get it here tomorrow. We'll be here at least one more night, waiting for the damper, and maybe more if tie rod and shock parts are further out.

My folks came out yesterday for a visit, and we had a nice dinner at a local strip-mall Italian joint. They spent the night at a nearby motel, and we had breakfast together this morning. They helped us run a few errands before heading off just a short while ago. It was a nice visit, and they seem to be doing well.

While we've been over the pit, I took the opportunity to troubleshoot the right front leveler control. The actuator has been moving up and down fine, but I lost the position feedback quite some time ago. Consequently, every time we use that leveler, I need to "guesstimate" where center-travel is when we are ready to head back onto the road. Not a crisis, but a pain in the butt nevertheless. A quick metering of the unit, while still installed, revealed that voltage was going into the potentiometer, but nothing was coming back out. The pot is internal to the actuator, so I had to pull the actuator off the coach, making me very glad for the pit.

It turned out that the pot itself was shot. From the looks of things, water managed to ingress into the unit (even though it is nominally a sealed unit for wet environments), corroding the pot internally. Fortunately, I had a spare pot, inside the carcass of what used to be the rear leveler, replaced some time ago due to one of the motor leads shearing off. De-soldering and re-soldering the corroded wires proved to be a bit challenging, but the surgery was successful, and the leveler is now fully operational after I reinstalled it. It took a couple hours to complete the project, but there's not much else for us to do while we're sitting around here anyway.

From here we will head southwest along I-295 and into Delaware, where we will bail off onto US-40. We'll stop first in Carney's Point, NJ for fuel -- the cheapest diesel in the US right at the moment. We're heading to Falls Church, Virginia, where our friends Don and CC are staying. We'll likely spend a few days being canonical DC tourists, and having a peek at the Red Cross' two Operations Centers that we call so often while we're working a disaster.

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