Tuesday, March 29, 2005

We are at Les Schwab in Livermore, California (map).

No, you have not accidentally loaded a post from three days ago, or a week ago, for that matter. Instead, you have entered the alternate universe that is our life, life on a 20-year-old German-built bus....

You may recall that, just this morning, we were at Laguna Seca in Monterey, on our way down the coast to San Luise Obispo. You may also recall that we had the wheels aligned yesterday morning in San Jose. And you may further recall that Les Schwab installed a dry polymer balancing product called Equal in our tires when they were mounted a week ago.

So here is what happened: When Les Schwab installed the wheels with the Equal dry polymer in them, they were supposed to replace the valve cores with the special cores provided with the Equal product. The special cores have little screens in them, to keep the powder from blowing back out the valve stem when air is released. The valve stems that came pre-installed on the Alcoa wheels have a slight bend to them, to position them at a better angle for checking pressures or adding air, and the special cores would not go into the valve stems -- they jammed at the bend and broke. The Les Schwab folks, in the mistaken belief that the little screens were for keeping airborne moisture and contaminants out of the tire, decided to simply omit the special cores and keep the regular cores in the valves. They told me that this would be OK, since they had a good dryer on their air system, and instructed me to make sure that only dry air was ever added to the tires. I seriously doubted this, but the tires had already been mounted and aired up long before we even arrived. Consequently, I made them give me several of the correct valve cores with the screens, in case I needed them later.

Les Schwab set the tire pressures to our required value of 100 PSI when the tires were mounted. Adjusting the pressure, of course, requires some air to be let out of the tires. This was not a problem, because the Equal powder comes in a paper-like bag, and the bag is put in the tire whole. The bag itself disintegrates as the tire is driven over the first 50 or so miles. So the pressures were originally adjusted while the Equal was still in its bags.

Yesterday, when we had the wheels aligned, the alignment shop checked the pressure, and finding it to be only 100 PSI, aired the two front tires up to 120 PSI as indicated on the sidewalls (maximum pressure). They told me this was standard procedure for alignment, and they further recommended that I run all the tires at their rated sidewall maximum pressures. When we left the shop, we kept the 120 PSI in the two front tires while we mulled over this new recommendation. Last night, I did some more research and decided that the 100 PSI recommendation, which we took directly from the load tables provided by Bridgestone for our specific axle loads, was the correct value to use.

So this morning, I went out with pressure gauge in hand to drop the front tires from 120 PSI back down to 100 PSI. The first thing I did was to check the pressure on one of the tires with the gauge. The instant I removed the gauge from the valve stem, air commenced rushing out of the tire. I knew instantly what had happened: Equal consists essentially of sub-miniature balls -- like plastic ball-bearings, but only micrometers across. When I pressed the gauge against the valve, a tiny amount of air came out, and with it, some of the little beads. One or more of the beads lodged in the valve seat, preventing the valve from re-sealing. And this, folks, is the fundamental reason why the little screens need to be in the valves.

So there I was, at Laguna Seca, with air rushing out of my brand new tire. I very quickly screwed the valve cap back on, with some degree of difficulty due to 110++ PSI air rushing out of the valve. Once I dogged the cap back down, the leakage stopped -- Alcoa had supplied quality metal valve caps of the sealing type. I immediately called Les Schwab and explained the situation, and they promised to get back to me. I'm sure they called the Equal people who probably read them the riot act about the screens. In any case, they called me back with the news that they would get replacement valve stems for the wheels that would accept the correct cores, and would have them by this afternoon. We would just need to come back to the shop.

Considering that replacing the valve stems would require removing each wheel, de-mounting the tire, changing the stem, replacing any lost Equal, re-mounting the tire, and replacing the wheel, mercenary interest prevailed over my pressing desire to keep heading south to the coast, and we returned here. I could have had this problem fixed somewhere further south, but at my own expense, whereas Les Schwab here is really on the hook to just make this right. So here we are.

The story does not end there, of course. The replacement valve stems that Schwab had rushed in to fix this turned out to be the wrong item for our weird wheels. So the day ended without resolution to the problem. Calls have been made, and sometime tomorrow morning we will know if the stems are available locally. If we can't get the right stems, we have a back-up plan to get us back on the road, but it will then require another visit to a Les Schwab at a later date for the correct resolution. So here we are camped overnight in the Les Schwab lot, even though the city of Livermore has forced the neighboring Wal-Mart to post "No Overnight Parking" signs throughout their lot.

Luckily, we do not really need to be in San Luis until Friday, and, although I was looking forward to spending a couple of quiet nights on the coast at Kirk Creek State Park, one of our favorite camp spots, it really does make sense to just get this fixed.

We are fond, by the way, of pronouncing "Les Schwab" as if it was French (Canadian French, to be specific), where we imagine it means "the Q-tips."

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