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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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June 16, 2006

Ah, Mr. Murphy. Why do you trouble me so?

Today had to be one of the best weather days we've had yet this spring. Beautifully sunny skies, a few puffy clouds, great visibility and pleasantly warm temperatures in the mid 80's. And more of the same promised for the weekend. I arrived at work this fine Friday morning to find a skeleton crew. Apparently everyone thought it was pretty nice outside too, since they didn't bother to show up. I managed to put nearly a full day in until I was the second to last person there and heard the little voice in me whining "weekend is here, your work is (mostly) done, now go home". As I crossed the threshold of the company door, I thought I was home free. Beautiful weekend, here I come.

I have two primary routes home, one of which incorporates a short haul on a highway while the other involves back roads. The highway is usually faster, but not today. Within a 1000 feet of merging with the highway, it became clear that there was some kind of traffic problem ahead, so I made a quick dash for the nearest exit, which conveniently put me right on my alternate route home. I patted myself on the back for my quick thinking and thought the stars had aligned for me.

I then got a phone call -- it was my brother telling me that he had left for Ohio to see my cousin and was stuck in construction traffic somewhere in central PA. I told him I'd feed his cats and hung up. About that time, traffic here in NJ started to slow down a mile or so in advance of a major intersection. In about 10 minutes I managed to get within a few hundred feet of the intersection when the unthinkable happened.

I heard a loud "pop", the engine started making very unpleasant noises, steam started pouring out from under the hood and the interior vents, and the smell of coolant filled the air. God DAMMIT. The first thing that ran through my mind is that the A/C compressor seized, the belt snapped, and caused the very same catastrophic damage I'd hoped to avoid with the recent cooling system overhaul. I immediately turned the A/C compressor off, but that didn't solve anything. Probably because of my aircraft training, the thought of an engine fire ran through my mind at this point so I figured I needed to get the car off the road and get the hell out of it...quickly. In a strange twist of luck, I happened to be 10 feet from the entrance to a gas station, so I pulled in there. Fearing an overheat, a warped head, and a VERY big repair bill, I turned the car off immediately -- an "emergency procedure" my tech and I had discussed a week ago.

(Image: Blown Expansion Tank)I got out of the car and walked around to the front to watch a river of coolant draining from the car. I waited for a bulk of the steam to stop and opened the hood. I looked for the obvious stuff and found nothing wrong. The brand new belts, hoses, water pump, fan and radiator appeared intact. So where the hell was all of this coolant coming from? And then I saw it. The one thing I didn't replace failed. The expansion bottle had cracked vertically down its rear and that drained at least half of the coolant from the system in no time flat.

Fortunately, I had the number of the local towing company handy in my bag from when I did the fuel pump test run so I called them. They showed up in about an hour and for the third time in eight years saw my car towed to the dealer. I arrived at my dealer after most everyone but the sales staff had left for the day. I'd normally call my brother to come pick me up, but he was somewhere in Ohio by now and that was out of the question, so I kindly asked one of sales staff to take me the rest of the way home. They volunteered the services of one of the techs who was staying late to do a PDI for a customer delivery, so we grabbed an E90 and flogged it on the way home. With tongue in cheek, I made what little light I could of the incident and joked "aw, this sucks...I have to go home and drive the E46 for the next few days." But seriously -- this is precisely why I believe in having a second car.

I plan to see my tech first thing Monday morning to discuss the fix, but unless Murphy is still hanging around I expect it to be pretty simple -- a new expansion bottle and some anti-freeze. At this point I'm considering replacing the A/C compressor as well to prevent the scenario I envisioned from becoming reality, as the mere thought of paying for another radiator right now would drive me to drink.

Expect an update early next week. In the meantime, if you have over 100K miles on your car and haven't touched the cooling system, I'd strongly recommend you schedule the work soon. It's going to be a hot summer.