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Adventures of a Shadetree Mechanic
tbutler posted a blog entry in Tom and Louise on Tour in North AmericaOur travel schedule for this summer is taking shape. We have a short trip coming up in two weeks so it is time to get the motor home road-ready. I took it out for a short drive several weeks ago and had it safety inspected for the Texas license renewal. Lights, wipers and horn all work. A brief look a the tires and a check of the current registration and insurance papers, verify the VIN and I'm good to go. On that drive I was reminded of a recurrent problem we've had. Our alternator has been slow to kick in, sometimes taking 5 or 10 minutes to start producing current. Once it gets going, it is good and has never failed us completely. I've taken it to a shop and they've checked it and found it working properly. Of course the problem is that it is thoroughly warmed up when I arrive at the shop. The problem shows up when we've been parked for several days or longer. I talked to a friend who has the same model and year coach as ours. He had his alternator rebuilt at a local repair shop, Ernie's Service. He is a NASCAR fan and has done some racing so he knows engines and engine service. I'm not a mechanic, I don't even play one on TV. I've done shade tree mechanic things like oil changes and simple replacement of parts of varying kinds. Using his information I tackled the removal of the alternator. Our motor home is a diesel pusher. The engine is mounted backward with the "front" of the engine facing the opening at the rear of the coach. With a side radiator arrangement, the engine compartment looks like there is plenty of room to work until you get yourself into that space. I've got a hose clamp strap end poking me in the chest and the oil dip stick digging into my shoulder. My feet are planted on the engine mounting frame and I'm leaning over trying to reach the wires which are located on the back side of the alternator as I'm looking at it. Not only are they on the other side of alternator, they are at the bottom of the alternator. So I'm hunched over the engine, my back is against the top of the compartment, I've got a trouble light to illuminate the area but nowhere to place it that will allow it to stay as I struggle with wrenches and stretch to get a better view. With my head now down behind the alternator, my glasses start slipping up onto my forehead. Whenever I tackle a job like this I always develop an appreciation for those who go to work every day to face challenges like this. There are five wires, the two main lines and three small sensor lines attached to our Leece-Neville alternator. I had been cautioned that one of the lines was hot even when everything in the coach was shut off. I did unplug, shut off the auto generator start, shut down that inverter/charger and then shut off the battery disconnect switches for both the house batteries and the chassis batteries. I checked voltage on each line and found only one of the sensor lines with an active current. I disconnected all the other wires and then the live sensor line. I had no problem, no spark so that seemed to be the solution. I covered the end of each wire with electrical tape to avoid inadvertent contact and sparking. Each wire had to be labeled to be certain that they were re-attached to the correct terminal. I used colored electrical tape to identify the wires and photographed the terminals on alternator to help me remember exactly where each should go. There were two terminals that had no wires attached. The next challenge was removing the serpentine belt. I understood the nature of the tensioner but didn't know exactly how to release the tension. Checking with my friend, I got the low-down on the relatively simple procedure. I hadn't even noticed the square indention in the arm of the tensioner. That indentation serves as an attachment point for a 1/2 inch socket driver. Use the breaker bar as a lever and pull the tensioner just enough to release the tension on the belt and slip if off the alternator. Louise provided the third hand that I needed as an awkward position and ability to release the tensioner required two hands on the breaker bar. Louise was able to easily slip the belt off the pulley on the alternator. The final challenge was to remove the mounting bolts. The top one was easy, the nut came off without a fight. The second bolt, on the bottom and more exposed to the spray from the rear wheels was stuck tight. Of course the only place I could get any torque on that bolt was on my back under the motor home. I sprayed a little Liquid Wrench on the bolt and gave it a few minutes and it finally came loose. Once broken loose, I could remove it working from above. I slipped the top bolt out of its collar and the alternator was free. Now I had to lift it free of the mounting and out of the coach. I had to stop several times to re-grip, the pulley doesn't make a very good hand grip! An alternator is filled with copper wiring and is quite heavy. Working in an awkward position with limited space to move makes lifting something much more difficult than just picking it up. Getting the alternator around the mounting points and clear of the wires and other obstructions was something like solving one of those puzzles with two pieces of wire linked together. Once out I placed the alternator in a plastic pan lined with cardboard for it's trip to the repair shop. I didn't want it rolling around in the car. I couldn't find Ernie's Service on my first try. It is located at the intersection of two interstate highways, I-69 and I-2 in Pharr, Texas. It is difficult to explore the access road in the area so I started to make a second try. As I circled back toward the area where I though the shop was located I spotted an auto repair shop. I stopped and asked directions. The mechanic in the shop knew right away where the shop was and how to get there. I was two minutes away and had been looking in the wrong place. Pulling into Ernie's Service, I assessed it to be a pretty simple operation and I was correct. They work on generators, starters and alternators. Walking into the shop I find myself among a sea of scrapped electrical equipment. Ernie is definitely waiting for the price of Copper to rise. I told him I needed an alternator repaired. He asked what kind of vehicle it came from. I replied "a motor home", expecting a groan of some kind from Ernie. But that isn't what I got. He turned to his assistant and said, "probably a 2825." I went to the car to retrieve the alternator and sure enough, there on the label was "Sales No. 2825LC." I thought, "OK, this guy knows this alternator, this is good." Re-entering the shop a woman who had been standing next to Ernie met me in front of the counter and took the alternator off my hands. She took it to Ernie, he looked it over commenting on the condition as he turned it over. He was pleased it wasn't corroded, my work with the wire brush had paid off. He said they would put it on the test stand, "no charge." They hooked it up, their electric motor spun the alternator, faster and faster and still the needle on the gauge didn't budge. They hooked up a battery and still no current could be detected. Ernie agreed with my assessment of the problem, brushes might be the problem. He would fix it if he could. He muttered something about possible other problems, electronics, etc. He said they would replace the brushes and bushings. The charge would be for parts and labor, labor being $40.00 per hour. Then he said, "11." I'm thinking "11, 11 what, 11 hundred, as in dollars?" He meant 11:00 a.m. tomorrow. I was stunned, it was 4:00 p.m. and he was going to have it done tomorrow morning. Our trip is coming up in two weeks and I was just hoping I'd be able to get it back several days before then. His assistant assured me they had the parts in stock. He called about 10:30 the next morning to let me know that the alternator was ready. When I picked up the alternator, Ernie showed me the brushes. They were little stubs about the size of a pencil eraser. New ones are over an inch long. There was hardly anything left of them. Ernie said they were stuck in the channel that holds them, he had to force them out of the holder. That would explain why they weren't making contact until things warmed up. We were lucky they hadn't failed in some remote location like the roads we traveled last fall in Labrador! The bill for the repair was less than $80.00. I was amazed. If I had gone to a shop and had the alternator removed and a rebuilt one installed in it's place, the bill likely would have been more like $800, I know because I've had it done several times. Of course that would have involved someone else doing the removal and re-installation. So I was well paid for my mechanical adventure. Re-installing the alternator was easier and faster than the removal process. I didn't even drop any of the tiny nuts or washers. An inventory of tools used and putting everything away finished the process this morning. If you are in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and need starter or alternator service, Ernie's Service is the place to go! The shop looks humble but the service is fantastic and prices are really reasonable. Even if you have someone remove the part for you, take it to Ernie, you won't be disappointed. Next on my list of things to get road-ready is the water system. Louise wants to do some cleaning and has informed me that she needs to have the water on. Each day will bring another task, loading clothes, food, tools and other supplies. Tires are on the last thing on the list. I'll adjust the pressure when we're ready to leave. The Pressure Pro sensors indicate the tires have held their pressure during the winter. I've got a set of tires waiting at a shop on the way to our destination for this first trip. With the new set of tires we should be ready for a good summer of travel.