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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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November 11, 2006

Meow. Meow.

I left work a few minutes earlier than usual on the evening of election day to make sure I got to the polls before they closed. I was about 10 minutes into my trip, doing about 75MPH, when the "cockpit" was suddenly illuminated by a bright "Check Engine" light (CEL) in the gauge cluster. The car continued to run fine so I maintained speed and issued a request to pull my BMW troubleshooting mental subroutine from main memory and execute it. Fortunately, I'd used it recently so I got a cache hit and it loaded far faster than I expected (hey, I work with computers all day...why should this process be any different?)

At first, I considered the very real possibility that the incumbents had tampered with my vehicle so I wouldn't make it to my polling location in time to send them packing, but I ruled that out because I realized they lacked the intelligence required to sabotage anything but the federal budget and foreign policy. After I caught that exception and dismissed it, it didn't take much additional processing for the routine to spit out the most likely cause -- something to do with the catalytic converters or the post-cat oxygen sensors that measure cat efficiency. My technician had pulled that code a few times before, but the most recent state emissions tests demonstrated that the Cats are doing their job -- very well, in fact. There wasn't much I could do about the problem that evening, so I decided to continue on to the polls, do my part to save our democracy, and then head home.

The next morning I went to the dealer to find my technician away at school. Some other helpful techs pulled the codes and confirmed the CEL was flagged as a result of "Low Catalytic Converter Efficiency". Damn, I'm getting good at this stuff! They cleared the codes on my request to extinguish the annoying idiot light and told me my tech would be back the next day. Roughly 24 hours later, I showed up to give my tech the rundown and get his opinion.

I speculated aloud that the reason the code generated a CEL this time was because I did the oil change last time and the car simply hadn't been in his bay in a while. You see, although checking and clearing codes is not officially part of an oil service, my tech usually takes care of that because he likes to be thorough and notify customers of potential problems. This is important, because as I've pointed out before, many errors reported by the OBD / DME / TCM have thresholds, and will not necessarily trip a CEL if they occur. It may take two or more occurrences to trip the light. Since my technician didn't have an opportunity to clear any codes recently, there was probably an older code in the system and the election day event sent it over the threshold and triggered the light.

When I asked whether this was typically an oxygen sensor problem or really a Cat issue, he said with 135K miles on the clock, it was most likely a failing Cat. He also said that if I did need a new Cat, I'd be well advised to buy OE. With a knowing look on his face he warned me "...aftermarket cats just don't work on BMWs. I've pulled a lot of aftermarket junk off these cars." While I'm not looking forward to spending $1500, I am fortunate in that the 328is has the Cats in the mid-section of the exhaust rather than the headers, so replacing the Cats is as easy as dropping the exhaust from the headers back. My tech mentioned that the job is pretty straightforward and he recommended that if I decided to do it myself that I don't bother with disconnecting the rear and mid-sections of the exhaust -- just disconnect from the headers and drop the entire assembly down -- because it's a lot easier to deal with the bolts that connect the rear and mid-sections when they're out from under the car. Good news for when (not if) I need to do that.

It's been a few days since that problem and I haven't seen the CEL again. However, while driving today I managed to trigger another warning I'd expected to see several months ago -- the brake lining warning finally tripped after 48K miles on the fronts and a whopping 73K miles on the rear. It's very likely the front sensor tripped the warning, but I'm planning to do all four corners. If all goes as planned, I'll do the brake job tomorrow and get the car back on the road for my commute on Monday.

Technical Management

The past week brought some surprising news at my dealer. I'd known that my techician was expecting to retire from the business entirely in a few years, but he pulled me aside and told me that around the first of the year he'll be hanging up his torque wrenches and assuming his role as shop foreman exclusively. He said that in most BMW shops the foreman doesn't "work the line" as we pilots say, so this is really "the way things are(tm)".

After he got up off the floor and finished massaging his sore jaw, :-) I asked him "well, if you're not going to work on my car anymore, who do you recommend here? Obviously...I want someone who knows his trade like you do and can read between the lines of diagnostic codes on the GT1 for the best solutions to my problems." He quickly pointed someone out and in doing so named his successor.

I then pointed over at my tech's gigantic tool chest and the thousands of dollars worth of tools contained therein. "Hey, can I have those? I mean, you won't be needing them anymore, right?" His response was predictable. "Uh, I don't think so...I'll be using them soon enough if this management gig doesn't work out." Oh well. I tried. So it appears I'll be making a few more trips to Eppys after all.

Mileage: 135200.

November 12, 2006

First DIY Brake Job

I finally managed to assemble all of the parts, tools, and shop equipment I'd been amassing the last six months and tackle the brakes. Rather than detail the process here, I wrote up a separate DIY article you may find helpful. Bottom line, brake jobs on BMWs are very straightforward if you have a modicum of patience and mechanical ability.

Let's review the costs. As much as I've bitched about book labor, my dealer has never given me any discount on labor. Since book labor on a brake job is 2 hours per axle, at $102/hr we're looking at $408 in labor alone. I have traditionally received a discount on parts only when I walk up to the parts counter and buy them myself (very strange, but true), so when I consider a retail parts cost of $477, I arrive at a dealer cost of $910. Because I was able to do the job myself, I paid no labor charges per se, and I also managed to get a $135 discount on parts courtesy of Tischer BMW and my BMWCCA membership. $910 - $340 results in a net savings of roughly $570.

Now, I won't kid you -- I had to buy some tools to do this job, and my time isn't exactly worthless these days, so the real world savings is lower than that, but when I consider what a great learning experience and confidence builder this has been, the effective worth is much higher than the raw numbers suggest.

Mileage: 135225, Parts: $340, Parts Discount $135, Labor Saved: $433, Total DIY savings: $570.

November 23, 2006

Happy Turkey Day to all! Since I have the day off today and some time this morning before I binge on the culinary pleasures associated with this fine non-denominational holiday, I figured I'd update some of the background work I've been doing.

Inspections In Lieu

One of the reasons I was glad to pay my technician big bucks to do oil changes is that he would put the car on the lift and give it a mini-inspection of sorts. If anything was amiss, he'd let me know before things went wrong. Since I've been doing my own maintenance lately, however, I've been the one having to do those inspections. The recent brake job is a case in point. While I had the wheels off I got to take a close look at the underside of the vehicle, and this prompted some additional maintenance I plan to do over the coming months.

(Image: Closeup of front right stabilizer (sway) bar link) The belly of this car is remarkably clean given it's 8+ years old, but still dirtier than I need it to be in order to do a proper inspection to spot leaks, cracks and other problems. I think the best solution will be some degreasing agent delivered via compressed air wand. Eppy's is having an after-Thanksgiving sale tomorrow, so you know where I'll be.

The rear subframe of the vehicle is rusting at the welds. It appears to be a surface phenomenon and nothing to be concerned about, but I just hate seeing my baby rust. Unfortunately, removing the subframe for a proper stripping and paint job is a non-trivial task in that it requires complete removal of the rear suspension including differential. If were to do that, I'd be hard pressed not to do several other things while I'm in there:

Needless to say, that's a very slippery (and costly) slope, so the quick fix may be attacking the problem with strategic use of a wire wheel, masking, and a rattle can.

Front and rear swaybar links are showing their age and must be replaced. The links are nothing more than a bar with small rubber bushing in each end. The front link bushings appear to have partially separated from the inner surface of the link ends. While this isn't a wholesale failure of the part, the "slop" in the parts may account for what I believe to be an odd feedback I get through the steering wheel during aggressive, bumpy turns on some of our older highway exit ramps.The rear link bushings appear intact, but the rubber is clearly dry rotted, so I think I'll do those too. The rubber bushings that mount the bar to the body appear to be okay, but replacing them is easy enough while I'm under the car. Tischer will soon get the order for those so I can do them the same afternoon I swap in the new tires (see below).

Next spring I will likely do the front lower control arms in order to replace the ball joints and the rear trailing arm bushings to tighten up the rear. The vehicle still handles like a BMW, but it's definitely not as tight as the E46 -- even taking into account the fact that it's NOT an E46. I've read many a case of people having to replace these components at a far lower mileage than I have on my odometer, so I've either been blessed with perfect parts that are still in good shape (unlikely), I baby the car (most of the time, yes, but not always), or the changes in handling have been so subtle that I haven't noticed how bad things really are (bingo!) Those will be costly upgrades, but straightforward DIY projects that should save a couple thousand in labor.

(Image: E36 BMW Glovebox Convenience Flashlight) New glovebox flashlight

I've only used the integrated rechargeable flashlight from the glovebox of my E36 a few times, but it has come in very handy at those times. I'd noticed that it wasn't holding a charge anymore, so I considered replacing the batteries, soldering in new units as necessary. Unfortunately, upon disassembly I found the unit contains a set of batteries welded together and I could not find an equivalent set of batteries (solder tabs or not) to replace them. At that point I just decided to buy a new one.

My local dealer ordered the replacement, but the flashlight that arrived was a different type and did not fit in my car. When prompted about the discrepancy, the parts guy kind of shook his head, raised his shoulders and said "that's the only part available from BMW". Never one to take no for an answer, I emailed Jason at Tischer BMW in Silver Spring and he said he would be able to get it for me. I placed the order and received it a few days later. If you're wondering, the light I received is BMW part number 82119413147, and it works!


I wasn't scheduled to replace the microfilter for a few thousand miles (read: a few months) but I figured I'd leverage the shipping cost associated with the flashlight order as well as the Tischer discount and pick one up. Installing microfilters in an E36 is a royal pain the arse, but I consider it a rite of passage in DIY maintenance. There are those who have not (shouted explicatives) and those who will. I hope to document this process a bit better in a future update. Wish me luck. :-)

Tire Status

When the "tire noise" turned out to be a wheel bearing, I merely postponed the inevitable purchase of new tires. The rear tires are still above the tread wear indicators at nearly 20K miles, but are now slick in rain. So slick, in fact, that my recent driver training on the skidpad has come in VERY handy. The fronts naturally have more tread than the rears, but are badly cupped. Simply to ensure I have good rubber on the car during our upcoming snowy season (January through March), I'm planning to call Tire Rack the first week in December.

I've settled on buying four Pilot Sport A/S in 235/40/18 fitment and a single Pirelli pZero Nero M&S for the spare. Why? Two reasons. First, I don't want to spend the extra $70 on a tire that will be used very infrequently, if at all. And second, the spare needs to be able to go on either side of the car and the Pirelli, unlike the Pilot Sport, is a non-directional tire.

Mileage: 135860, Parts $23 (not counting the microfilter, which will be accounted for in a later update).