Sunday, June 19, 2011

We now return to our regularly scheduled program

That program, of course, is never-ending bus maintenance. It has been a long day, but we are now well-parked at the Elks lodge in Anniston, Alabama (map), with 30 amps of power, so we are cool, and I have a glass of wine next to me.

As I wrote on Wednesday, Louise had given her notice for Saturday so that we could possibly make it to our conference in Charlotte when it starts this Wednesday. She was actually all wrapped up before noon, and the nice young woman who had taken the kitten that Louise rescued came by around 11:30 to drop off the pet carrier we loaned her. I had Odyssey all prepped for departure, complete with filling the water tank, and we were rolling by 1pm, giving us plenty of time to make our planned fuel and dump stops en route to Birmingham.

We put 125 gallons of diesel in at $3.64 per gallon, a record low of late, at the Spaceway Truck Plaza in Meridian, the very same place I had been fueling the rental car on my few visits. Alabama has free dump stations at their rest areas and we took care of that chore at about mile 40. We rolled into downtown Birmingham right around 6 and parked just down the block from our club there, so we could catch a nice Saturday evening dinner. By 9 or so, we were parked for the night at the Wal-Mart just a few miles east (map). That's when the trouble began.

As Louise wrote while en route to Jackson, the house batteries have been acting up, not holding a charge. We've been presuming that they are simply at end-of-life, as they are now four years and over 2,000 cycles old, about the life expectancy of a set under our usage conditions. We had lots of trouble keeping the air conditioning running while we drove across Mississippi, and, at some point, we detected a burnt smell coming from the battery/inverter tunnel. The ammeter that shows current running between the chassis system, where the alternator is, and the house system, where the large battery bank as well as the inverter and air conditioners live, was also jumping all over the place. Perhaps, we thought, there is something more going on here, such as a loose connection in the battery bank someplace.

At the end of a long hot day, with outside temps still in the mid-90's, and the tunnel well past the century mark from the inverter working hard, was not the time to be monkeying around in the tunnel looking for battery problems. We set the electrical system up to run the rear A/C from the inverter and then autostart the generator as needed so we could at least be a bit comfortable while we slept. We had left everything off except the fans while we were at dinner, as the pets actually enjoy it a bit warm.

The A/C would only run ten minutes or so before the generator started (it is designed to go eight full hours), then the generator would only run ten minutes or so before deciding the batteries were full. Hmm. We changed the absorption timer to an hour and went back to bed, but, ultimately, we ended up running the generator most of the night. At one point, the battery voltage dropped so low that the inverter shut down and lost all its programming.

This morning we pulled everything out of the tunnel and I spent most of the day crouched inside working on the problem. As it turned out, the 400-amp battery disconnect switch had gone bad -- I discovered the problem because it was too hot to even touch. The heat generated by the bad switch connection melted the heat-shrink and some of the slit loom on the main battery and load cables, and fused the switch contacts together so that when I operated the lever to the "off" position, the switch was still "on." That forced me to disconnect a whole lot more pieces in order to remove the switch.

Unfortunately, the switch is a one-piece unit of riveted construction, so even looking inside to see if I could fix it would have been a challenge. I will eventually drill out the rivets to see just what happened, but in the meantime, I needed the switch intact so I could use one of the enormous terminal posts as a junction point to get everything reconnected. Some kind folks on the bus conversion board pointed me to suppliers for replacements, and it looks like I can order a new one for $145 or so. Of course, I'll have to go through the same shenanigans once again when the time comes to make the swap.

In the meantime, bypassing the switch seems to have cured most of our electrical/battery ills. The batteries are still four years and 2,000 cycles old, and won't hold nearly the charge they used to, but it is no longer critical. We were able to run one A/C for an hour and a half on the batteries today with an unknown charge state. After we give them a good soak tonight on shore power, we will see how well they do.

Sad to say, however, that our problems did not end there. Right after we got parked, I noticed the left front air bag was way up, and now from experience I know this is a leaking check valve. Too hot and tired to deal with yet another problem last night, we just dumped all the air from the system and spent the night down on the stops; fortunately we had a mostly level spot. Today around 2 or so, after I finished the battery project that I started at 7:30am, I crawled into the wheel well to rebuild the check valve yet again. One of these days, I need to convert that air line to SAE fittings so I can just replace the fancy, unobtainium German valve with a $15 item from a truck parts joint.

To top it all off, right after I noticed the air bag issue, I also found a pool of oil under the engine. The other issues are just minor annoyances in the scheme of things, but this can be a show-stopper. We've been dripping oil for a good 3,000 miles, and way back in March, we had the drip looked at in Bakersfield, at Delaney & Ahlf. They seemed to think it was coming from the end-plate gasket, and even suggested removing the alternator and tightening the bolts back there to maybe slow it a bit (though they did not have the time to do the work for us).

Back then, the leak was leaving maybe a silver-dollar sized stain on the ground at every stop. What I saw last night was much larger than that, and today while I was running the engine I counted two or three drops per second, whereas when I last checked it was more like one or two drops per minute. At this rate, we'll be going through a gallon every couple hundred miles or so. This could, in fact, be a leaking end gasket getting worse, but I am actually hoping that this increased flow really means the leak is somewhere else, such as in the crossover pipe, or the blower supply line.

Realistically, this is not something I can work on myself. Even finding the leak will require a pit or a lift, and taking oily bits off the engine is frowned upon in most parking lots. We need a shop. Right now, the big question looming for us is whether to divert north from here to Chattanooga, where we know of a good two-stroke shop with a decent shop rate, or continue on to Charlotte, attend our meeting, and deal with it later. I am sure this will occupy our dinner conversation; we'll be heading out shortly to one of the places about a half mile walk from here.

Gratuitous kitten photo by Louise. Kitten video coming soon!


  1. I'm just going to bypass all the mechanical woes, since I have absolutely nothing to offer, and simply ask, Did someone photo shop those ears on that kitten?? Wowsers! Is there some sonar involved there?
    Seriously, big ears!
    As in, if the wind picks up, keep the kitten indoors, kind of thing.

  2. Thinking of you...that is all pretty tough stuff to deal with, but smart cookies like you can "sail" right through it I'm sure.
    Best of luck,

  3. @Bob: That's just the way kittens come out of the mold. We got the two cats we have now as kittens, and their ears looked just as big. They grow into them, though -- their ears look normal-sized now, and this little guy's ears will better fit his head when he grows up.

    @Judy: Thanks for the note.


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