Monday, September 18, 2017
Why Me? Yet Another Example of My Mechanical Dysfunction
If there's one thing I know (And yes, I've heard the whispered comments about me knowing one thing and one thing only!) it's that stuff breaks.
Which is why I take all the stuff out once a month and check it over. Air pressure in something like 34 tires we have around here is checked and adjusted, the on-demand water heater is flushed with vinegar, (We have really hard water yet don't like water-softeners.) the front gate is lubed and adjusted, (After a few years of opening and closing the damn thing by hand we got tired of that and installed an opener on it.) the air-conditioner/heater filters and coils are cleaned, the air-compressor is drained and oil checked, and the various engines around here are run.
Including the fire-pump. (OK, shooting a 75' stream of water is not normally an efficient way to fight fires, but with the winds today, if I tried to photograph the more usual, and effective, wide spray the camera was going to get a good soaking and I wasn't too keen on putting out it's fire!)
Only this month the fire pump refused to run. . .
I turned the key and nothing. And I mean nothing at all except a faint jingle from the tag hanging off the key.
The battery dead, according to my meter it was flat dead, as in not even a wiggle in the needle. (Which isn't actually true since the meter is digital but you get the gist of it.)
OK, not a huge deal. Batteries die, which is why I buy the $20 U1's from Walmart, although they usually give some sort of warning before turning into a $12 hunk of plastic-encased lead. ($12 is the current core-charge for the U1) But I don't need the battery to start the pump. Unlike The Wife who couldn't pull-start even the smallest engine if her life depended on it, I, with my manly bearing, wide shoulders, and superior upper-body strength, can. (Crap, even I didn't believe that one!)
Except that after 20 or more yanks on the pull-starter, (I sort of started blacked out there and lost count.) a near coronary, and a very noodley left arm that clearly needs more working out, the damn thing hadn't made the least little effort to run. It hadn't even come up with a decent burp!
While I, with deference to my mechanical ineptitude, am willing to let such behavior slide when it comes to some of the engines-of-convenience around here (Witness the Quad which has had a dead engine for years now waiting for the fairy-godmother mechanic to show up, repair the damage I've inflicted trying to fix it myself, and breath life back into it!) some things are too important for that sort of behavior. Such as the generator, and especially the fire pump.
The nearest town is 5 miles and a county-line away with a population of 200 (On a school day, maybe!) and has a volunteer fire department that consists of 2 Bubbas and a Leroy in a pickup truck with a couple fire extinguishers and an assortment of shovels and axes in the back.
So, with reluctance, pretending I know at least a little about those tricky and vindictive little monsters we call engines, I went to work.
I know it's getting gas because I could smell it coming out the Forest Service certified flame-arrester exhaust.
No, I wasn't huffing. I know that gas fumes are a gateway drug to full-blown hard-drug addiction because the self-serving DEA told me so, (De-criminalize marijuana! Hell no!! Pot accounts for 40 percent of what we do. Legalize it and how will we justify our bloated bureaucracy and the budget that goes with it?) It just so happens that somewhere between the 15th and 25th pull I sort of collapsed on top of the engine and my nose ended up next to that little screen that's supposed to stop stray sparks from making a bad situation worse.
And it must be getting air because that's what's blowing the gas-fumes out the exhaust.
From somewhere in the dim past, probably something I'd overheard once while hanging around like a third wheel, a broken third-wheel, in my brother-the-mechanic's shop, I knew the next thing to check for is spark. For that I'm supposed to have one of those fancy spark-testers with an easy-to-view window for observing the spark safely. Yeah right (He drawls sarcastically) You really think I'm going to have one of those laying around here??
Nope - around here we do it old school!!
Well, OK, somehow I doubt my grandfather would have bothered with shutting off the fuel petcock, draining the carb-bowl and yanking the starter cord several times to ensure an explosive mix wouldn't be blown out the plug-hole right across the exposed sparkplug creating one of those Wile E Coyote plan-gone-wrong moments, but I did.
After taking a water-break, and a short nap, to recover from that last bout of cord-yanking, I attempted to see if I was getting any spark, but the bright day combined with trying to hold the plug in place and keep my eye on the tiny gap while yanking on the starter cord, all conspired against me.
After another short nap I had the brilliant inspiration to get out the jumper-cables and The Wife's side-by-side.
Now that all I had to do to spin the engine was turn the key, it took mere seconds to determine that, as I expected, there was no spark. (Remember that "as I expected" part because that's going to come back and bite me on the ass!!)
I started the inevitable process of taking the damn pump apart until I could get down to the ignition coil where said spark was supposed to be coming from.
Because of my general ineptitude, each sub-assembly was carefully laid out in order on the bench as it was removed, along with all its associated hardware.
Because the loss of spark and the suddenly flat battery happened simultaneously, and being more comfortable with electrics than mechanics, I had this working theory that something had gone wrong with the wiring that a) drained the battery and b) was affecting the ignition circuit.
But I was willing to be flexible so you can imagine my delight when I ran across one of those cheap in-line fuse-holders tucked away behind the switch!!
But that delight lasted all of the 3 seconds it took me to open the holder and take a gander at the un-broken link inside the fuse. . .
Just in case this was one of those fuses that looks good but isn't (Hey! I've seen it happen!!) I slapped the meter on it.
Crap! Good fuse. . . No easy fix this time.
OK, admitting to the polyanic wistfulness of my original theory, time for a new one that doesn't involve a dead ignition coil, there at the green arrow, because a) I don't have a proper ignition coil tester (You didn't honestly think I would did you?) to know with 100% certainty that I had tracked down the culprit, b) I really don't want to have to pull the flywheel to get at the coil to remove the damn thing, and c) according to on-line parts stores that coil is around $100 bucks!!
So my new theory involves the shorting wire, that little black wire at the red arrow, that's used to stop the coil from doing it's thing (Otherwise it might be kind-a hard to stop the engine once it was running. Ahhh those were the good-ol' days when the engine actually ran. . .dammit greg! Focus!!)
So when I got this far in the disassembly process, I pried the little black wire off the terminal on the ignition coil,
kludged up a support for the key-switch, (so I could turn it with one hand while holding the sparkplug with the other, all without getting something caught up in the now exposed starter bendix.)
and added a couple jumper wires after I figured out that the key-switch needs to be grounded to do it's thing,
then checked for spark.
Fantastic!! I have spark! Who's the Man?!!
That little black wire must be shorted out somewhere.
Just to double check my brilliant troubleshooting I plugged the black wire back onto the ignition coil and tried again, knowing that now I wouldn't have spark anymore.
Oh Crap! I still have spark!!!
After another break for water and a short nap, I spent the next half hour tracing, inspecting and fiddling with wires looking for an intermittent short or break or anything, something!! But no luck. No matter what I did, I still had spark.
I started to suspect that because I was expecting no spark that first time I checked, I didn't see any spark. Friggin' expectations!!
The only sensible conclusion now was that my magical touch (Yeah, I've got one, at least according to The Wife. But then again she's easily impressed. . .) cleared up the problem and I was just going to have to live with the uneasy knowledge that it, whatever it was, could come back again at any time, but that's just the curse of living with a magical touch.
As long as I was at it, just to prove how good a mechanic I am, I went ahead and installed a new sparkplug then got some wild hair about putting fresh gas in the tank, even though the crude but nearly bullet-proof carb on this 9 horse Vanguard can suck the 1.5 gallon tank dry in just three of the monthly 30 minute test-runs so it's always somewhat fresh anyway.
I fished the only un-crushed plastic water bottle I could find out of the recycling trailer, removed the tank-line from the fuel shutoff valve and left the tank to drain into the bottle.
The results were, well, stunning!!! (Not to mention humiliating.)
But come to think of it, back when I was first attempting to pull-start the engine and inadvertently huffed the fumes emanating from the Forest Service certified flame-arrester exhaust, they did smell a little strange. Not as gassy as I would have expected, but I attributed that to the stabilizer I add to the fuel cans.
Which was probably right, just not right in the way I was thinking. Some of those chemicals in the stabilizer might be more, or at least just as, dense as water and had separated out from the gas right along with the water and thats probably what I had smelled.
I suppose if I had only been man enough I could have yanked the pull-starter long enough to pump the water right out of the tank and get down to the good gas, but that would have been one hell of a lot of pulling!!
The stunning part of seeing water in the bottle wasn't that there was water in the gas, not even that there was a lot of water in the gas, that happens sometimes. But not to the fire pump!! For 12 years this pump has sat out in the weather there beside the main barn, next to the dedicated 250 gallon mobile water tank, ready for action, and this has never happened before!
Which is why I next suspected that the watered gas came that way right from the gas-station, so I marched down to the tractor barn, where we keep all the fuel, picked up the can I had last filled the fire pump with, shook it up well, and dumped a sample into a rinsed and dried glass container.(According to the label it used to have olives in it, though I don't know why that is of any importance whatsoever.)
I gave the contents plenty of time to settle but they were as clean and innocent as a freshly bathed baby. Nothing but gasoline. Not even a hint of other contaminants.
Welllll Crap! This is going to call for a change in strategy here. Even though that pump has sat out in the weather for years, through deluges of a foot of rain in half a day, and this past month is naturally one of our dryer months with less than 2" of rain (The pump started normally last month so the water wasn't there then.) I can't risk a repeat of this, not with something as critical as this fire pump may be one day. So now I'm going to have to find a place for it inside the already crowed barn along with the workshop, storage, laundry room, computer area, generator, ladders, etc.
Oh yeah, but first I had to put the damn pump back together. Not just back together but back together properly, which in my experience is not a foregone conclusion!
And after draining all the offending fluid out of the tank that I could, I needed to swab up the leftovers until the tank was dry because this crap has already cost me a whole bunch of time I could have been doing something more productive. (Mmmm, a nap sound real good about now!)
Somehow I manged to get things right and, with a fresh load of water-free gas, the pump started up, (But not until after I scared the crap out of myself by cranking on it for 10 seconds before remembering to pull the choke!!!)
for it's monthly 30 minute run at 125 lbs of pressure.
Finally! That's done. Now where was I??