Thursday, December 6, 2007

Blog readers to the rescue!

We are at a highway rest area at MM63 on I-5 in Oregon (map). The steering is working, mostly, and the good news is we did not blow up the engine.

Apparently, my timing last night was perfect, or the stars aligned somehow, but after yesterday's post, I got two direct emails first thing this morning, and a comment on the blog later in the day, suggesting that the fluid might be leaking past the pump seal and into the engine, rather than someplace external. Clearly, some folks who read the blog have some experience with this, and, I have to confess, it is a possibility that I did not know about. (Thanks, Mark, Leland, and Ron!) It's likely we would have run another couple hundred miles before we figured this out, possibly catastrophically.

The good news is that I got two of these messages before we hit the road this morning. A quick check of the engine oil dipstick confirmed that this was, indeed, exactly what was happening -- we were reading a couple gallons high. The bad news is that, by the time I got the emails, I had already put six more quarts of ATF in the reservoir, as I wanted some fluid in the pump when I aired up the bags, which I did first thing in order to squeeze under the coach looking for leaks. I did find seepage from a fitting near the steering box, and I did my best to tighten it with the only wrench that fit -- a 12" Crescent. And I noted some fluid around the tranny, which is under the steering pump. But no evidence of a major leak.

In hindsight, I should have known something more serious was amiss. When we left the Morongo Casino, I noticed some oil spotting on the rear of the coach during my pre-trip inspection. That's usually a sign of an overfilled sump, and I attributed it to having just put a gallon in, back at the Santa Clarita Elks, when a routine check found it low. (The steering reservoir sight glass, at that same check at the Elks, showed full.) I also started noticing some white smoke later that same day, as we pulled in to Palm Desert, and again when we were on 138 west of Palmdale (but before I noticed the steering go out). White smoke would be what you'd get from burning ATF, which easily slips past the rings on the big Detroit.

So there we were this morning, with 2+ gallons of ATF mixed into our engine oil, and realizing we had just driven something more than 300 miles that way. So I called the first person I could think of who could tell me how bad it was: Virgil Cooley, of PEDCO. PEDCO has already rebuilt our engine twice, and if I toasted it again this time, there's no question I would take it right back to them a third time. Fortunately, Virgil felt that if the oil pressure was still north of 40psi, we were probably OK. We'd been running at least 50psi at road speed, so I was a bit relieved.

When asked if we could somehow nurse it to Portland, or if we were dead in the water until we got the pump fixed, Virgil suggested that, at the rate the ATF was going in, we might be OK if we changed the oil every 200 miles, and made sure the pressure stayed above 40psi.

Well, I can't imagine how we'd manage to get to Portland if we had to find someplace to change the oil every 200 miles. Finding any shop at all that (1) has a pit and (2) will work on a bus is a challenge to begin with, and almost none of them stocks 40 weight. So I opted for plan "B": we stopped putting ATF in the steering reservoir, and started putting 15W-40 motor oil in instead. At least, this way, motor oil would be going into the engine sump, and not tranny fluid. So we proceeded carefully the 70 miles to Los Banos, where I cleaned out Wal-Mart's supply of DelVac 15W-40 (which is CF-2 rated -- rare for a multi-weight), and also stocked up on PowerTech 15W-40, because I knew the four gallons of DelVac was not going to be enough. The 15W-40 is rated by Allison as C-4, for use in their transmissions, and I figured if it could substitute for ATF in a tranny, it was probably fine in the steering system. In fact, I have no specs on our steering system at all, although many such systems run on 15w-40 by design. Lastly, the pump seal was already toast, so I figured we did not have much to lose.

The next priority was finding a lube shop to change the oil, which was, by now, way too thin as well as nearly four gallons or so overfull. We finally found ProFleet in Lodi, who was happy to do it, but, unsurprisingly, did not stock 40-weight. We opted to have them refill with DelVac 15W-40, which should be fine for the 600 miles or so that it will be in there. We also had them change the filter, since who knows what kind of crud the ATF was cleaning out of the motor. When I asked him how it looked coming out, he said I probably had the cleanest engine in town -- it was that thin. I have my fingers crossed that we did not do too much damage to the bearings. (As a side note, this episode completely ruined any possibility of getting meaningful results from an oil sample, and this oil was the first post-break-in batch since the last rebuild. We'll have to start over after we get the pump rebuilt.)

I had them put only a hair over six gallons in, knowing the steering pump would continue to dump into the engine sump. We immediately picked up a few PSI on our oil pressure, which was a welcome sight. I have no idea how much ATF is still left in the steering system, since I don't know the total capacity. But, by now, the percentage must be very low, and I am pretty confident that the engine oil viscosity will stay where we need it all the way to Portland. Now that it's running on mostly 15W-40, the steering system does not seem to be suffering any ill effects, although it transmits a bit more vibration from the engine than before.

We should be on the job by mid-day tomorrow. We had hoped to be a bit further north tonight, but the last-minute scramble this morning kept us off the road until past 10, and the stops at Wal-Mart, ProFleet, and to add fluid to the steering every hundred miles or so ate into our progress. Later in the week, I will start making calls about getting the pump repaired, preferably someplace close to Portland.


  1. If you cannot find a rebuilder in the Portland area I would contact a company called Straightline Steering. They are out of San Jose. their phone number is 800-832-2800. I am a part manager of a Freightliner dealership in Oxnard, and I have used them over the years for power steering pumps and gears. They do good work

  2. Sean ... if you are still at your map location (last post) South Oregan Diesel is right around there and they work on Busses. Good luck.


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