Wednesday, June 29, 2011


We are still at the Choo-Choo Express Garage in Rossville, Georgia near Chattanooga, Tennessee. We are parked outside, just inches from the rolling door to one of the service bays, and we still have our 30-amp power connection. From the inside, all appears nearly normal and we can go about our lives mostly uninterrupted.

The fact is, however, that Odyssey normally has two internal combustion engines and three electrical generators, and at this moment, all of those are on the ground outside of the bus. The main engine and transmission are in the service bay, and the Kubota diesel generator is next to the bus under a sheet of plastic to keep it dry. The big 50DN 7kw main engine alternator is out at the alternator shop being serviced as a precaution, and the little 12-volt alternator from the generator set is in a baggie awaiting reinstallation.

I had hoped to post an update here much earlier than this, as it has now been more than a week. But I've been working more or less non-stop, starting around 7:30 each day and not quitting till dinner time. After dinner I collapse in a heap on the couch; this is the hardest I've worked since the first week of the Alabama tornado relief operation. I have managed to post a dozen or so times on the bus forum, mostly pleading for help, and I have tried to keep up with email.

We did have two days of "down time" after my last post. I put that in quotes because I used it up working on the projects I mentioned then. I spent most of Wednesday trying to get our Sunpentown Mr. Induction cooktop working. In part that's because I'm cheap and did not want to just spend the bucks to buy a replacement, in part it's because I detest throwing electronics into the landfill (the only option in most of the country), and in much larger part because our ancient model had a manual slider for temperature/cooking power that was essentially infinitely adjustable, whereas most of the newer models have strictly electronic touch pads and thus a fixed selection of a handful of temperature or power settings, as it is cheaper to make a touchpad than a slider.

Won't you take me to ... Sunpentown?

That proved to be a waste of time, as nothing I did would stop it from either blowing the thermal-magnetic breaker I wired in to the unit in place of the ceramic fuse, or tripping the inverter. The behavior was like a dead short, even though my meter clearly showed it was not shorted when it was powered down. Some sort of circuit failure that I can not diagnose must have been commanding the SCR to full "on" as soon as power was applied. Ultimately I salvaged a couple of parts and scrapped the whole thing, and we bought a new one on Amazon. The new models, at $70, cost only half what we paid seven years ago.

Choo-Choo just happened to have a brand new parking brake valve lying around, almost identical to ours. I needed to change just a single fitting, from 1/4" to 1/8" NPT, and by mid-morning Thursday I had the valve replaced. I was just about to start on the propane leak when the shop was ready to get to wok on Odyssey. Fortunately, I had already removed the rear bumper, including cutting out the failed trailer connection that had melted when our generator exhaust pipe had bent a bit too close to it. They had us back in to this exact spot, so we could remain comfortably outside while they had direct access to the engine bay.

Getting to all the connections to our engine required access through two squeaky hatches in the bedroom, and I needed to stay involved throughout the process just to get them past the weirdness that is Odyssey's mechanical layout. There is an old adage that the shop rate goes up if you watch, and it goes up even more if you help, and so I tried to strike a balance between being available to explain the weird bits, and staying out of the mechanic's way. Fortunately, Joel is cool, calm, and collected, and really knows his stuff when it comes to Detroit two-strokes.

When I was not helping Joel, I went back to working on the propane compartment. Wednesday I had made an adapter to put compressed air to the system and each of the hoses, and immediately discovered that the bulk of the leakage was in one of the pre-made hose assemblies that connects one of the cylinders to the regulator. There was also a smaller leak, albeit more difficult to correct, at the nipple connecting the regulator output to the rest of the piping.

There is a Camping World right across the freeway, and I picked up a replacement cylinder hose that afternoon, as it turns out, the very day our "club" membership there expired. I suppose that seven years is actually not a bad service life for a hose like this in a harsh environment; both hoses were stiff with age, and I would have replaced the other one as a precaution if they had carried that length, but they did not. A quick stop at Lowe's yielded a replacement nipple, and I was able to get the propane system back in working order by the end of the weekend.

Meanwhile, by late morning on Thursday I had exuberantly tweeted, complete with photo, that everything was disconnected and the engine was ready to come out. Joel set to work on the cradle bolts while I blithely worked on propane, or whatever. At some point early in the afternoon he grabbed me, pointed at the generator door and asked "What's in there?" I could see him visibly deflate when I said "generator" and opened the door to show him.

As it turns out, the nuts for the last three engine bolts were behind the sturdy, built-in, sound-proof generator enclosure. Three of us spent 20 minutes or so looking at the situation from every possible angle to see if there was a way to reach the bolts without removing the generator, including trying to bend part of the enclosure out of the way with a crowbar. Ultimately we decided the generator had to come out, and I knew from experience this was a ten hour job. I confess that this revelation was something of a low point in the project for me.

While Joel continued to work on other things, I started to disassemble the ductwork and shrouding over the generator. At some point we were both working on it side-by-side and the extra-charge-for-helping adage continued to haunt me. He was very congenial about it, though, and eventually we got to the point where we could get the cherry picker on it before calling it a day.

Friday morning we lifted the generator up and worried it out of the compartment, a process that involved both of us manhandling the unit around while it was swinging from the cherry picker. It has to rotate around a fixed upright nearly at its midpoint, a tight squeeze. Once the unit was out and on the ground, my project list expanded, as I could now tackle several items that needed access to the back of the unit, something that can only happen when it is out. When life throws you lemons, make lemonade, and this was the bright spot in having to remove a perfectly functional generator.

The dark side of the generator. That's the alternator on the ground to the left.

Removing three more sides of the enclosure to get to the engine bolts (we only removed the top and front to get the generator out) was a daunting task and we opted to simply cut an access hole in the enclosure. As it turned out, after removing the sound shield and back wall of the enclosure, there was another layer of aluminum and more insulation to be removed before the nuts were visible. Good thing we did not bash the enclosure out of the way, because we'd still have faced this hurdle anyway.

The missing nuts.

Once we had access to the nuts, and I note here that the ends of the bolts had been trimmed to length in order to cover them over with insulation, shop owner Don Bowen welded them in place with some stainless rod. If we ever need to remove the engine in the future, we should be able to withdraw the bolts without needing access to these nuts. That said, there were several times during the engine removal process when Joel needed to reach something on that side, and being able to squat in the now-empty generator compartment and lean over through an opening normally blocked by ductwork came in handy. The generator and its ductwork will stay out until we are done with the engine work.

When Don was ready to weld, I disconnected all the electrical devices on the bus that might be damaged should any current stray from the welder. The engine computer was, of course, already disconnected, but I did need to pull the connectors off the transmission computer. And we unplugged all the electronics before I disconnected the batteries to shut down the inverter. With the way things were going, it was only natural that when I went to reconnect the batteries, the negative stud came right off the number 1 battery when I torqued the ground cable.

Hard to see, but the stud has come right out of the lead.

Fortunately, the shop had a post adapter lying around and we were back in business.

Choo-Choo to the rescue.

In case I have not reiterated enough how weird our bus is, once all the bolts were loose and they were ready to support the engine from below, it was discovered that the shop's engine stand, already successfully used on hundreds of coaches, was about 4" too wide to fit between Odyssey's frame rails.

Engine ready to be lifted. Note stand is too wide.

Out came the welding rig once more, and they spent the next half hour or so modifying the stand so that it would fit. We ended the day and the week just at the precipice of pulling the beast out.

All the time I spent helping the shop crew meant that I did not make much progress on the project list. Even though I had purchased the parts for the propane project by Wednesday afternoon, I did not actually get the time to really work on it until the weekend. When I was not in the propane bay, I was on the roof, replacing the awning control unit that shorted out back in March. The good news is that the replacement awning hardware, while different from the original setup, is working flawlessly, and we once again have a working awning on the driver side of the coach.

While I put in a good amount of work over the weekend, we did manage to make it downtown, and we got to see the enormous tourist-trap complex that is the Chattanooga Choo Choo. We intended to eat there Saturday, at the Station House restaurant, but it was crowded and noisy and they had a 45-minute wait. We opted instead for a much quieter venue a few blocks away called Table 2.

Monday morning we got an early start on removing the engine. It did not go quietly. Among other things, decades of slamming the tail skids on the ground, often while turning, meant the bottoms were mushroomed and bent. Much time was spent with a torch and an engineer hammer moving bent metal out of the way. Lots of tight-fitting pipes and hoses and myriad P-clamps also interfered, and Joel would alternately appear in either the generator bay or the radiator bay to move something while I watched from above through the hatch. At one point Louise was stationed at the turbo hatch, I was stationed at the transmission hatch, and Mike observed through the generator compartment while Joel yanked on the engine with the forklift. It took all day but by dinner time the power train was safely in the shop.

Ahh, out at last. Shop owner Mr. Don Bowen in background.

Yesterday and today Joel was able to work quietly by himself, getting the engine and transmission split and taking the gear train off to access the end plate. At one point I needed to crank the engine around with a wrench while Joel observed the timing marks; I think we had to go around a dozen or so revolutions. The good news is that we have great compression in our engine, and the bad news is that means a 150-pound guy on the end of a two-foot wrench has to work really hard to turn it. I got my workout for the day yesterday, and I am still feeling it today.

Gear train exposed and ready to be aligned.

Mostly, though, I had two days to myself to work on other things. The generator needed more attention than I had thought. Way back in March of 2008 a Kubota dealer noticed the alternator was caddywumpus and causing excessive belt wear; in order to deal with the problem in tight quarters he removed the finger guard and clamped down on it with some extra nuts. I thought that I'd be able to retighten everything with the fingerguard back in place once the unit was out, but instead I discovered the real source of the problem: Over 20+ years and thousands of hours, the pivot hole through the aluminum casting had "wallered out" (that there's an engineering term) and was now oval. The alternator was once again sitting at a belt-eating angle, and the adjustment bracket was cracked.

Wallered-out pivot. I've been filing the worn face flat.

Matching wear on the alternator side. Too deep to file completely flat; I'll add washers.

Today's project was to drill out the main pivot hole one size larger and sleeve it with a length of 1/4" copper tubing, which just happens to be exactly the right size to fit the pivot bolt. I filled the remaining space of the "waller" with JB-Weld, and Don is going to weld up the crack in the adjuster for me. Tomorrow I should be able to bolt the alternator back up to the set. I also repaired a broken wire for the temperature gauge sender, which I had bypassed with an unsightly extra wire some time ago, and installed the remote-access dipstick adapter. The dipstick hole is on the far side of the unit and I've been having to reach around by feel to check the oil level. The remote tube needed some bending and coaxing in order to fit into our very low enclosure.

Once we had the engine out Monday evening, and mindful of how hard that was and what a tight fit it is in there, we did also spend a fair amount of time over the last two days looking into other power train options. Part of me has always regretted that we did not simply repower the coach with a more modern and efficient engine and transmission back when we did our first in-frame rebuild, and now that we've spent the money to get the thing out, it seemed prudent to check out the options.

After two days of back-and-forth on the bus board and calling around for prices on take-outs, we've concluded it makes little sense to change now. We have a low-mileage engine and transmission, even fewer miles on the rebuild, and there is no way we would recover the $20-$25,000 change-out cost in fuel and maintenance savings.

I expect the shop to have the engine back together again by tomorrow evening, and we should be sliding it back in on Friday. No telling yet whether we will be here through the weekend or not, but, if we are, I plan to spend it relaxing.

Apparently, I've been dirty, according to Louise. Oh, and I broke my glasses, hence the blue tape.


  1. What? No picture of the end plate gasket? We gotta have a picture of the end plate gasket!

  2. Wow, you have been busy. Interesting seeing it up close and personal without getting scraped knuckles

  3. Makes me a nervous wreck just thinking about all that going on in my bus!

  4. I've just gotta ask. Did you write up what was broken on these glasses when you "blue taped" them?

  5. Although it seems quite trivial after all of your bus trials, I DO applaud your attempts at not throwing away electronics. I recently had to replace our wall phone and when I did so in the catalog were "disposable phones". Are you kidding me?

    Also, very impressive photos...they look familiar... sort of like home-ha! (Just like Dad's shop)

  6. As the days passed with the increasingly ominous lack of a post, I began to suspect that the "goings on" were rather....intense?
    You certainly confirmed my suspicions.


    I'm surprised you didn't get dirtier!

    All I can say is. I'm just glad you found your nuts.

    That's my only attempt at levity.

  7. Wow...thanks for sharing all of this with us. We are brand new newbies and have a new to us rig. I wish I had the space and tools to check out several things in our rig but finding trusting mechanics will have the be the way to go. I only hope I'll be allowed to participate as you have with yours.

    Good luck with the rest of this - look forward to hearing how it turns out.


  8. Wow, when you say "powerless" there is no exageration whatsoever! Thank you for the in depth, and slightly painful (in the pocket book) post. This is a good read for anyone getting into a, let's say vintage, bus. At some point you will have a large monetary's not really if, but when. Will follow with great interest the resolution and completion of this project.


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