Only Mostly Dead

I have written about this subject before, but after an experience a few weeks ago I think another go-round is in order.

As my regular readers are aware, I like to work on cars. Even stronger than my love of turning a wrench (and the inevitable skinned knuckle that comes with the task), is my disdain for unnecessary expenditure of hard earned money. Even for those who know what they’re doing, working on a car and spending money are the closest of friends… splitting a double bottle of wine in 45 minutes kind of friends.

Since our move south six months ago, I have noticed some slightly different behavior from our three cars. This is mostly due to the fact that the air conditioning is running, pretty much constantly.

One Sunday as I plopped my aging butt into the driver’s seat following a slog through the grocery store, I turned the key and was presented with something I’d never seen before. In the display between the speedometer and tachometer was a picture of a thermometer floating on the ocean. I’d never seen this warning before, but I knew it wasn’t good.

As I grabbed my iPhone to try and figure out what my car was trying to tell me, I also noticed something else… the AC was blowing hot air.

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The warning that appeared on my dashboard.

Okay, so without boring you all with hundreds of car-techie words, here is what I discovered in the following 48 hours:

  • The problem was with the electrical fan that blows air over the radiator
  • Sometimes it would work, sometimes it would not
  • When the car’s computer noticed it not working, the AC would shut off to prevent overheating
  • This is a common problem with my engine, especially over 150K miles
  • The part at the dealer would be $700, and 3rd party it was going to be at least $300
  • It is super easy to swap out, two bolts and one connector – a 5 minute job
  • As long as the car was moving 35 mph, there was no threat of overheating, but when the fan wasn’t working, neither was the AC

The thing that kept nagging at me was the fact that some days everything worked fine. This was telling me the part was damaged, but not dead. As Billy Crystal said in The Princess Bride, “Well it just so happens that fan here is only ‘mostly dead.’ There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.'”

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The fan that had gone flaky.

I did my usual bit of Internet digging looking for a solution.

It turns out the problem is actually with the fan controller which is hidden behind a piece of blast-proof plastic on one end of the motor. I found a Youtube video of a guy tearing one of these fans apart revealing the problem.

On the circuit board there are four large pins that carry all the current to the motor. Over time, thermal stress causes one or more of the solder joints to fail, making the whole fan assembly inoperable.

Sure enough, once I got the plastic cap off using my heat gun and a putty knife, one of the four solder joints was cracked and decayed. I removed the bad solder, and re-flowed the joint with new solder. After reassembling the whole thing and putting it back into the car, it has worked flawlessly for three weeks so far.

$300 saved, and a moral victory savored!

The reason it worked some of the time is this… depending on the temperature, the solder in the bad joint was either making a connection or not based on the expansion or contraction of the cracks.

Now, I am well aware most people are not as intrepid as I am when it comes to car repairs, but that’s not the point. We have become a nation of “parts swappers” who simply yank out the section of something that isn’t working and replace it with a new one. Sometimes a wholesale part replacement is necessary, but most of the time it is not.

We live in an incredible time when nearly all the information in the world is available to us, instantly and for free, at all times.

So, when something in your world breaks take a few minutes to see if you can fix it yourself. Here is my process for doing so.

  • Sit down with a piece of paper (yes paper) and write down everything you know about the problem. This is to make sure you’re fixing the right thing. In the case of my car, the AC wasn’t working but that was a red herring, not the actual problem.
  • Get on the Internet and search the snot out of your problem. Unless you are incredibly unlucky, you are not the first person to have the issue
  • Involve your kids (or grandkids) – they are naturally curious, inquisitive and they know more about tech than you do. Better still, they have small fingers and great eyesight. You’re likely going to need both of those.
  • Once you’ve gathered all the information you can, try and fix the thing.

Most of the time you can execute a fix as effective as a new part. However, sometimes you can get away with what my father refers to as a “boo-boo creation.” Such a fix, would be referred to today as either a clever “hack” or (in the words of a teenager) “totally ratchet.”

Several weeks ago our kid car (a 12-year-old Volvo) started exhibiting an intermittent desire to also not blow cold air with the AC turned on. I went through my process above and concluded I had three choices:

  1. Replace the compressor – $700 and difficult
  2. Disassemble the compressor clutch and adjust some shims inside – free but also difficult
  3. Apply a fix that involved 6 zip-ties

Given the age of the car, I saw no reason to not give the zip-tie approach a try. Sure enough it took 15 minutes and has been working for two months now.

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My “totally rachet” fix for my kid’s AC

The moral of the story is simple… you can and you should fix things – not just swap parts.

Had I dropped $300 on a new radiator fan, things would have worked out, but the old fan would be sitting in a landfill and the $300 would be gone, unable to do other things in my life.

No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t be interested in a system that saves money and helps the environment.

So, next time something breaks, grab some paper, grab a kid and get your fix. After all, it’s probably only “mostly dead” and there’s a bit difference between mostly dead and all dead.

Copyright © 2017 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved

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