Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Too cold at the hot site

We are in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana area. We are parked for the night at the American Red Cross "hot site" facility here, the location of which I can not disclose, as usual, for security reasons.

When we woke up this morning in Biloxi it was in the 30s and we ran our wonderful and toasty Webasto diesel-fired boiler to warm the bus up. We also used it to pre-heat the main engine for an easier start. As is our custom, we turned the system off after a while, and just before departure, set it on "engine heat" which is where the pump runs, but the boiler does not, in order to extract waste heat from the main engine to produce domestic heat and hot water.

All of that was working fine throughout our very pleasant drive along the gulf coast to Pass Christian, where we stopped at Wal-Mart for fuel. We drove up to the store first to charge up our "gift card" with $600, as using a Wal-Mart card at the pump gets you another three cents off per gallon. After Katrina, Wal-Mart rebuilt the store a good ways further inland and uphill from the original site, although the fuel station is still where it was, I presume due to the cost of moving the underground tanks.

In any case, between the store and the fuel station we were there for around 45 minutes; it takes half that long just to pump 200 gallons from a single automotive nozzle. In that time, with outside temperatures still in the 40s, the coolant dropped below the hydronic system's thermostat setting, and it shut off. We figured we'd have heat again fifteen minutes or so down the road.

When the heaters never came back on we knew we had a problem. I pulled over and stopped somewhere in Bay Saint Louis to have a look. It would appear that our circulating pump has failed; I can hear it spinning but it does not seem to be pumping fluid. These pumps do wear out, and after seven years and over 1,000 hours, I suppose I should not be too surprised.

Getting the pump out is a chore, and without opening it up it is hard to know if this problem can be fixed with a rebuild kit. I am probably going to order a new pump, which costs $425 and must come from Washington. If this one is rebuildable, I'll do that too and then we will have a spare. But until I can get a replacement pump, we have no hydronic heat or hot water.

Of course this would happen as we are on our way into one of the coldest climates we've ever traversed. The mercury is heading for the freezing mark even as I type, and it will just get colder as we get closer to Killeen. In Bay St. Louis we bridged the electric heaters over to the inverter, so we could run them from the big alternator as we drove. And then we started looking for power outlets.

One of Odyssey's greatest assets is independence from the grid, and having to live receptacle to receptacle is disheartening, to say the least. We did build quite a bit of redundancy in, so at least we have heat, in the form of three electric heaters (and electric hot water heater) and a generator. But having to run the generator at $3.75 per hour, or hunt for receptacles at $10-$40 per night compares very unfavorably with waste engine heat, which is free. Even running the boiler would cost just a half buck or so per hour.

So tonight's planned stop was somewhere perhaps an hour west of here, but the pump failure forced a change in plans. After our stay last night adjacent to the Isle Casino in Biloxi I got a friendly email from my buddy at corporate there reminding us that their property in Lake Charles has RV hookups for just $10 per night, which includes access to the resort's facilities. That was sounding mighty attractive after the pump failed, so even though Lake Charles is a full two hours further than I had hoped to drive today, we set that as our goal for the day.

Separately, we had already planned to make a stop here at the hot site. I even emailed HQ yesterday asking if they needed us to look in on anything here, but they said no. Nevertheless, we wanted to check the new location out, as the facility had to move here from its previous digs across town, where we've spent some four months or so on relief operations in the past.

From satellite imagery I knew the parking lot entrances were gated and locked, so I expected to park outside the gates and just take a quick walk around. When we arrived, however, we found one of the gates wide open, and drove on in to look around. When I spied a working power outlet outside the building I called HQ and asked if we could spend the night -- no problem. So here we are with a free 15 amps, enough to run the electric heaters and blanket for the night, and off the road a little ahead of our planned stop and a good couple of hours sooner than if we had to press on to Lake Charles.

We ended up working here a little anyway. After we'd been here for perhaps an hour, one of the local chapter folks showed up, responding to some kind of alarm from the air conditioning. These sorts of things happen routinely at these remotely monitored facilities. This fellow remembered us from a previous operation and asked if we wanted to have a look inside the building; lo and behold, the computers were powered off because workers waxing the floors had closed all their lids. When the computers are powered down they don't get their automatic updates, nor can they be remotely managed for routine maintenance, so we walked around and powered them all up, fixing a couple of power issues in the process.

After making a few funny faces in front of the security web cams, which are recorded, if not constantly monitored, in Austin we buttoned it all back up and retired to the bus for dinner. Our batteries let us draw considerably more than the 15 amps of input power when we need to, but we've spent the evening shuffling the limited power among the heaters, microwave, water heater, and miscellaneous items so that we can make it through the night without having to run the generator.

We've already asked our friends in Killeen if they can give us at least 15 amps while we are there, as there is no way I will be able to get and install a replacement pump before we fly to DC. Tomorrow I will order the replacement and have it sent to them as I did with the wiper motor, which I am told arrived today. With any luck I should be able to get it installed and running before we depart Killeen for points west.

Tomorrow we will head west into Texas, and should be in either Beaumont or Woodville by the end of the day, depending on the availability of our friends there. Due to our somewhat early stop tonight, I will need to drive an extra 45 minutes tomorrow.


  1. In very non-engineer terms...Bummer! Ha!!!

  2. Love the pictures of the animals ... sorry to hear about your Webasto. I never even knew about a Webasto until your blog. I think that just shows how electric dependent other rigs have become.

  3. could the blade be bad or the o rings broken? seems like you can fix it yourself, as you seem to be able to fix everything else.i know how it is as i ran out of propane in November in upstate ny, geni is propane and heat was a webasto at3500 and it will not work so i sent it to a buddy in Germany to fix it.

  4. @Anonymous: I am hoping that it is just bad O-rings. This is a centrifugal pump, and I think the impeller is bronze. Once I have the pump out I will open it up and see if it can be rebuilt.

    What I did not want to do, however, in this freezing weather, was spend an hour under the bus getting the pump out just to look at it, which would probably be another hour, and then have to reinstall it, still defunct, while we wait for the correct parts.

    By having a whole new pump sent, I can be sure the system will be working after only one miserable session under the bus. If the old one can be rebuilt, we'll have a spare, which after this incident does not seem like a bad idea.

    My bigger concern is why it failed. These pumps can not be run dry, and the original installers went through three pumps before they figured out how to get all the air out of the system. Even though the pump is at the lowest point, apparently once a large air bubble reaches it, it will destroy itself before pulling any more fluid into the impeller.

    Once I have the new pump in place I think I am going to drive a while before starting it up, to see if that will move any air I introduce back up to the top of the system.


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