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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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Friday, January 5, 2007

Body Shop Progress

Like most families, mine gathers to pig out on New Years Day (literally...we had ham AND turkey!) As luck would have it, the body shop I chose to do the work on the E36 (same one I used last year for the second deer hit) happens to be within about 20 minutes of my uncle's place and a BMW dealer. Since my brother and I were headed to the same place that day he offered to help me drop the car off at the shop so they could start the work necessary to repair the sidewipe damage first thing in the morning.

The shop is about 45 minutes away from my home and I normally wouldn't have been able to get up there to see the work in progress but my brother happened to be in the area yesterday and managed to take a few snaps I thought you might want to see. Like I've said before, body work is a messy business, which explains why I put the OE wheels back on the car. I think that makes a total of five (5) swaps of these wheels over the last month or so, but who's counting, right?

I decided to repaint only the driver's door and blend into the front and rear quarter panels, as well as replace the skirt and both side view mirror covers. The right side mirror cover was not involved in the incident, but it was never prepped properly by the original shop so its paint had started to flake off. Since it's a no-brainer to paint it while he has the paint mixed for this job, I decided to spring for it now. The right side door will, unfortunately, retain the blemishes of the first paint job, but repainting it would have cost another $1500 and that's money I'll need for more critical work (see below).

The last shop to work on the driver's door didn't take the time to remove the door handle trim, so they masked around it -- or I should say, they attempted to mask around it. Two corners were clearly painted over and it always irritated me that they didn't take the time to do the job right. This shop's owner knows me well enough that during the initial quote he assumed I'd want the trim removed and just asked if I wanted to replace it with a new piece. The trim's rubber gasket had a few cracks in it (a common problem on these cars as they age), so since it only cost $12 and would save me the hassle of doing it myself later I told him to go ahead with it.

Removal of this trim piece on the coupe requires removal of the door panel, since a small piece of metal blocks access to the "slider" release mechanism through the edge of the door, so I removed the door panel before dropping the car off at the shop. Normally, I'd let the shop take care of this, but I had to remove the door panel anyway to fix a few things. The annoying thing is that as careful as I tried to be, the upper door panel retainer pieces broke free from the door panel again so I have to reaffix them OR replace the door panel. And while I'd welcome the cosmetic enhancement of a new door panel (mine has more than a few scuffs on it), I'm not sure I am prepared to stomach the $500 bill for the new part.

Hopefully the vehicle will be ready for pickup sometime next week so I can get started on other work, like the Check Engine light diagnosis.

Check Engine Again

The day before I brought the car in the check engine light illuminated again and all I could think was "oh well, here we go again". The problem has clearly grown worse, so I probably do need new catalytic converters, but I'm planning to approach the solution slowly so I don't spend money needlessly.

I know all four oxygen sensors are original, and at 140K miles they should be replaced, however I don't want to bother installing oxygen sensors in the mid-section if I'm just going to pull it down later.. The first step, therefore, will be to replace the pre-cat sensors located in the headers. The connectors for those sensors are located under the engine covers and I'm planning to have the covers off to do other engine work, so I plan to do the oxygen sensors at that time.

There is no particularly inexpensive aftermarket alternative for the OE oxygen sensors so I'll likely pay around $150 each, or $300 now and $300 when I do the mid-section (which is $1500 in itself).

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Car Returns from Body Shop

Wednesday afternoon, or seven business days since I dropped the car off at the body shop, the owner called to let me know the car was done. My brother offered to make the 45 minute run to the shop late that night. Of course, the pickup wasn't without its snags.

First of all, I arrived to find the car filthy. Even in near pitch black conditions I could see dust over everything and a lot of fine scratches in the clear surrounding the repaired area. I assumed the car wasn't washed because after several weeks of well-above-average temperatures we had a 24 hour cold snap and it was near freezing the entire day. I also figured that some Menzerna finishing polish and my Porter Cable orbital polisher would be enough to remove the fine scratches, so I considered this a non-issue.

The shop owner noticed the Check Engine light and asked me if I wanted him to clear it using his diagnostic system, and I agreed, because I figured it would save me a trip to see my tech. Afer I turned the key and the warning lights in the gauge cluster went out I found the Check Engine light dark as expected, but I was surprised to find the airbag warning light glowing bright red in its place. I assume the warning was tripped because the shop may have had to disconnect the airbag to get the door panel insulation out of the way while R&R'ing the door handle trim.

Why, exactly, the shop's analyzer wasn't able to clear this code is beyond me, but it's true to say that unless you have a BMW OEM analyzer like the GT1 at your disposal, you're working with a reverse-engineered solution, and they never work exactly as expected. Fortunately, in this case the airbag warning is merely an indication that the system has been tampered with and does not mean that the system is disabled as a whole. Even with the airbag warning light illuminated, any airbags still connected and in good working order will fire if commanded. I had planned to take the car to my tech the following morning to clear the Check Engine light anyway, so I this really didn't change anything. I accepted the car.

My brother had brought his '01 E39 530 out for the trip, so when traffic permitted, we took the cars into their element. After nearly 45 minutes of driving on all types of roads, from local country twisties to high speed straights on the interstate, I came away convinced that the car drove better than it had in years. The results of the swaybar service weren't the product of my imagination after all.

Get by with a little help from the BMW GT1 Analyzer

When I arrived at my dealer the following morning, I found my technician working to repair the top of a new Imola Red MZ4 roadster -- the same model roadster I flogged at Spartanburg last year. Apparently it's top refused to lock properly and had blown open at speed. Not exactly a problem I'd care to have in a $50K+ car but these things happen in the first few years of a new model (which explains why I buy at the end of the model run, but that's neither here nor there).

While I waited for him to finish, I peered over his shoulder and watched in amazement as the GT1 diagnostics analyzer displayed the state of the top in real time as it went through its motions. I mean, damn. EVERYTHING on these cars is monitored by the computers, and those computers talk to the GT1 with a verbosity that makes aftermarket analyzers look like children's toys. There's no way in hell you'd get that kind of information from any aftermarket analyzer, simply because BMW considers anything beyond the standard OBD II interface proprietary.

"How much is a GT1?", I queried. He lamented, "about eleven grand, but you don't want this one...BMW is coming out with a new tablet system in about 18 months.", as if to imply that I could justify buying one. I mean, I do have a hand in maintaining three BMWs now, but something tells me I'd have to service a lot more to justify that cost. Maybe if I wind up opening a BMW / Porsche shop (that is to say, after I buy a Porsche) I can justify all the cool toys. :-)

In any case, I explained the fault light situation to my tech and he told me to bring the car around to the bay so he could clear the fault codes for me. About five minutes later, we disconnected the GT1 and the job was done. The gauge cluster was refreshingly free of warning indicators and I was quickly on my way to work. Sure beat having to go through the normal channels to have this minor issue cleared up. Have I said lately that my tech is a cool guy?

Working by the Warmth of a Kerosene Heater

That night, I decided to get the car back into form quickly and tackle several tasks:

(Image: Comparison of old and new E36 microfilter)I raced home as I watched the outside air temperature gauge creep toward the freezing mark because I knew that I needed to wash the car before I did anything else. After I finished flirting with frostbite, I pulled the car into the garage, fired up a kerosene heater I keep around for such occasions and got to work.

While polishing the vehicle I soon realized that some of the surface dust wasn't just dirt. It was overspray. And there was a LOT of it. In fact, while the finishing polish successfully removed the surface grit and fine scratches, some overspray remained. I attributed that to the fact that I was using a very fine finish polish and not a more aggressive cutting polish as normally specified for the task. This would do for now, I reasoned, so I applied some Menzerna FMJ to protect the finish and then took care of the other tasks. I finished around 11PM and slept the sleep of the victorious.

Microfilter Replacement

As the owner of any recent BMW should be aware, the cars come with a fine particulate interior air filter. These filters are fine enough that they need to be replaced on a regular basis. For the E36, BMW recommends every 15K miles, and that has proven to be a rational interval in my experience.

I originally planned to replace the microfilter during the holiday break, but soon realized it made little sense to do that and then contaminate the filter with body shop dust which smells like...well...a body shop, so I postponed the task -- until this morning.

Rather than spew about that here, I figured I'd write up a DIY article on it. What I will say is that I'm glad this job doesn't have to be done but once every 15K miles, because it's a royal pain in the ass. I can also say that I'm glad that BMW fixed this abortion of a design in the E46 -- it's microfilter is simple to replace by comparison. Look for the article soon.

Mileage: 137890, Parts: $27, Labor Saved: $50

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Tensioner Pulley Bearing Failure

Last Monday I started the car to go to work and I heard a muffled rattling noise from the front of the vehicle. I can best describe it as the sound that might be produced by a couple ball bearings rattling around in a foam-lined can. The sound was intermittent, but occurred often enough to allow me to localize the source to somewhere around the oil filter cannister. The first thing that ran through my mind was bad bearings of some sort, but I couldn't tell exactly what was causing it. Since it was raining, I turned on the lights before I pulled out of my driveway and I noticed the sound became more pronounced and nearly continuous. At that point I figured the alternator bearings were on the way out.

The engine was running smoothly and there were no warning lights illuminated on the dash, but I figured I'd play it safe and drop by the dealer to see my tech. He agreed to leave his nice, warm shop and brave the weather with a smile to help me isolate the problem. It didn't take long for his tuned ear to suggest "sounds like a problem with one of the belt pulleys". He then grabbed a can of brake cleaner and a long (12" shank) screwdriver and asked me to start the car and turn on the headlights and the A/C. Once again that made the sound much more obvious and nearly continuous. He sprayed the cleaner on a few of the larger pullies but that didn't do anything, so he grabbed the screwdriver, carefully laid the tip on a few of the engine parts and put the handle to his ear, thus creating a crude but effective technician's stethoscope.

(Image: Closeup of failed tensioner pulley)As he carefully routed the tip of the screwdriver onto the main drive belt tensioner it began to vibrate in concert with the offensive sound. He handed the handle of the screwdriver over to me and I felt the screwdriver jumping up and down as the tensioner bucked from the change in bearing load. Sure enough, the main belt tensioner pulley bearings were on their way out.

I breathed a sigh of relief at the prospect of an easy (read: inexpensive) repair, particularly since I knew I'd get the replacement part for free under warranty. I'd replaced this very pulley during the cooling system overhaul last year. My tech said he was booked for the day so if I wanted him to do the work I'd need to bring it back to him, but I offered that I'd try to do it myself and call him with any questions.

Fast forward to Saturday. I brought the car into the garage, fired up the kerosene heater again, and got to work. About an hour later, I had the new pulley back on and had run up the engine. It's completely silent now. On a scale of 1 to infinity, this is a one-curse job (I only let out one curse due to crampt space in which I had to work), so it's a pretty reasonable task for the DIYer. This job is identical to that required to replace the belts, so I'll document that later in a DIY article.

When I took a closer look at the old bearing there wasn't any obvious damage to the bearing races like bluing of the metal due to heat stress. In fact, there were only a few differences of note:

How long could I have run the bearing before it failed? I really don't know, but since a failure of this bearing might cause the belt to come off, and that could cause some real damage to stuff like my brand-new radiator, I wasn't about to test that boundary. For what it's worth, the sound did become noticeably worse over the course of the week, so I imagine this is a task best taken care of in that timeframe.

More Tools

I went to Eppys again today to pick up some tools.

Lesson learned: never put your mirror tool in the same toolkit with other loose tools. Fortunatley, the old one was actually a magnet / mirror combo, so it will live on as a magnet tool. I decided to buy a dedicated mirror tool since it was slightly cheaper and that's the one I used to do the pulley repair.

I have to admit that I take most of what my 30 year BMW technician says as the gospel, but I was always a bit skeptical of the technique he taught me to R&R the engine driven fan. Somehow just tapping on the end of a wrench didn't seem like the right thing to do, so I bought a $32 generic tool designed to hold the water pump steady by grabbing the bolts that hold the pulley on. I never took it out of the original packaging as my technician's technique worked. I plan to return the tool. Summary: all you need to R&R the engine driven fan is a large 32mm wrench...and it doesn't even need to be a "thin" wrench.

In prep for the valve cover work, which requires a very light torque, I decided to spring for the smallest torque wrench SK offers. I recently saw the result of an improperly-installed valve cover gasket on my brother's 530. It's a long story -- and no, I didn't have anything to do with it aside from getting my tech to fix it the right way -- but it was a $275 job. If I do the valve cover gasket myself, that job will pay for the torque wrench and then some.

Mileage: 138450, Parts: $0 ($45 part covered under warranty), Labor Saved: $110, Tools: $210

Monday, January 22, 2007

Spoke Too Soon -- Replaced the Tensioner

Remember yesterday when I told you that the pulley was "completely silent"? Well, I was wrong. The next morning I came out to start the car, and ran inside to get something I forgot. By the time I came back out five minutes later the noise had returned and it was worse than it was previously -- it was now continuous even without any appreciable electrical load. I quickly decided that the real cause of the noise was the tensioner itself. Some brief surfing on bimmerforums and e46fanatics confirmed the correct diagnosis. The only problem? If you want the tensioner, BMW only sells it with the pulley, so I now have a spare pulley.

(Image: Failed accessory belt tensioner) I picked up the tensioner at my dealer this morning and installed it tonight. After the first run through on Saturday, I found this procedure to be old hat and had the job done in 30 minutes including some searching for proper torque specs. And speaking of specs, I'll relate the fact that the two tensioner mounting bolts are cad plated (the TIS calls these "yellow" bolts) M8x35 8.8 hardness and the generic torque spec of 24 Nm or 17 ft-lbs applies. To gain access to the top tensioner mounting bolt I had to remove the offset pulley which shares a mounting bolt with the alternator. That's zinc plated ("silver"), M10x150, 8.8 hardness and should be 40 Nm or 30 ft-lbs. I've gained enough experience to recognize approximate torque values when I loosen things and these specs jived with the force required to loosen them. As with everything from this site, however, use them at your own risk. If you snap a bolt, don't blame me.

The one thing I hate about this job, incidentally, is having to deal with the main drive belt. I feel like a monkey f*cking a football trying to get that thing routed correctly and the tensioner hauled back enough to get the belt over the tensioner pulley, but that's why I pay myself the big bucks. I saved about $150 in labor doing this myself.

Parts Order

I placed an order with Jason @ Tischer BMW today for the power steering system overhaul, the right side exterior door handle trim (to match the left side put on by the body shop) and some miscellaneous hardware. I wanted to order the tensioner from Jason to save some coin but felt I should replace that ASAP. Fortunately, my dealer had it in stock so I picked it up there. With "urgent" repairs there's really no choice. I wasn't about to save $20 and put some very expensive components at risk.

Mileage: 138550, Parts: $80, Labor Saved: $150

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Emissions Woes

Last weekend I was on my way back from lunch when the Check Engine light illuminated again. I didn't need to connect the GT1 to know why. This car has had a long history of storing codes about the bank 2 (cylinders 4,5 and 6) catalyst efficiency, but it wasn't until last year that it started to trip the check engine light (CEL) on a steadily increasing basis. Last weekend's event was a mere three weeks from the last event, and I wasn't interested in dealing with the aggravation of running to my dealer and bugging my technician to clear the code every five minutes, so after my tech cleared the codes yet again Monday morning I committed myself to come up with a permanent solution for this problem -- a solution that would require a lot of research.

The post-1996 (OBD II) 328is exhaust system utilizes the tubular stainless steel headers and mid-section from the M3 to provide a dual exhaust configuration. Dual exhaust is great from a performance perspective because it lets the engine breathe, but it hurts the wallet when it comes time to replace emissions components because there's two of everything. Each pipe has an oxygen sensor positioned in the header that controls the fuel mixture, a catalytic converter that helps reduce harmful emissions, a second oxygen sensor to verify how well the catalyst is doing its job, and a resonator to reduce noise and tune the exhaust note. Only at the muffler are the exhaust gases recombined to reduce noise to conforming levels.

The catalyst efficiency code results when the second / downstream oxygen sensor reports the emissions are out of the acceptable range and thus the cat isn't doing its job. Failure of an oxygen sensor or its integral heater element triggers its own code, so I'm about 90% sure at this point that I need to replace the cats. They come as a unit with the mid-section, so I'm really looking at replacing a major exhaust component, the retail price for which is $2000. Fortunately, Jason at Tischer BMW quoted a far more reasonable price, but $1500 and change is a huge nut to crack.

There is a small chance that I may not need to replace the cats, however. The cat efficiency warning can be triggered if the engine is running rich enough that the cats can't keep up. I was once told that oxygen sensors either work or they don't, but further research revealed that as oxygen sensors age they effectively report a leaner mixture than is actually occurring. Since the BMW DME relies on the output of the pre-cat oxygen sensor, my theory is that by replacing the pre-cat oxygen sensors I can get the mixture back to spec again and reduce the amount of combustion byproducts that are plugging up the cats and causing the decrease in efficiency. It may be too little, too late, but it's worth a try since they're already 38K miles past their recommended service interval and need to be replaced anyway.

Oxygen Sensor Supply Chain

(Image: New BMW oxygen sensor)So when I began to look for new oxygen sensors I checked realoem.com for a part number and price. It turns out that until a build date of 4/98 (shortly after my car was produced) all four oxygen sensors are the same: BMW part number 11781427884. This part has the notation "SIEMENS/L=990" in the description. Siemens, of course, is the manufacturer of the part and research revealed that L means the length of the lead. 990mm is 38 inches, or a bit over three feet, which is clearly the length needed to reach from the top of the engine, near the fuel rail where the pre-cat sensor plugs are, to the headers. The obvious downside to the BMW part was the price -- $195 on a somewhat outdated realoem price book (the actual price is closer to $225 now), so I went in search for aftermarket sensors. This was an educational experience, let me tell you.

The first thing I learned is that there are two types of oxygen sensors available in the aftermarket. The type required by the Bosch DME is the titania sensor. So, if you do decide to buy aftermarket sensors or are intent on trying to fit a universal sensor to this car (that practice is actually discouraged by many DIYers), no matter what you buy, you must make sure they're of this type. If you don't, at the very least the car will run like crap and you'll be out the cost of the sensor.

The second thing I learned is that while Siemens or Bosch are technically listed as the parts supplier on BMW's ETK, the sensors are actually made by NTK -- a Japanese company. This is no surprise, really. Siemens and Bosch are smart enough to realize that they can't build everything themselves and they source parts from other manufacturers just like BMW does. The problem comes in when you add one or more tiers of profit margin onto an otherwise reasonably priced sensor -- it gets expensive very quickly.

NTK actually makes the sensor (NTK part number 25013) and sells it for about $80 in the aftermarket (courtesy of bimmerparts.com). They also sell the sensor to Siemens and Bosch (Bosch part number 13844), who then turn around and retail it for about $110 under their respective names (courtesy of bavauto.com). BMW contracts with Bosch to provide the BMW OE part with their logo stamped on it, but as all automotive companies do, they tack on about 100% margin. This results in the $225 retail price that you or I would pay at the dealer's parts desk.

At this point I wondered if I could really trust the NTK sensor to be identical in function to the Siemens / OE sensor so I went in search of user feedback. Sure enough, I found several reports of the NTK 25013 parts failing prematurely. Now, I know full well that the supply chain works in such a way that the parts that meet OE specs are sold to the OE, while parts that don't necessarily meet that spec but are otherwise marketable are sold in the aftermarket, so it wouldn't surprise me that NTK plays this game as well. But since a failed pre-cat sensor causes the engine to run rough and can damage the cats, while failed post-cat sensors simply trip codes, I didn't want to take a chance here. I ultimately decided to buy the OE sensors from Tischer (at $155 each) and see if they were stamped with NTK as some people said they were. The sensors arrived today and I hastily opened the box to find my new sensor that had the familar BMW logo stamped on it...right next to those of Siemens and NTK.

So, I think it's safe to say at this point that NTK is the sensor OEM and Siemens just reboxes them for BMW, but I'm not 100% confident that they are the same exact sensor made to the same quality standards. If you want to save $60 a sensor, you're welcome to test that theory, but for me, I'll stick with the OE sensor for the pre-cat application so I don't give BMW any excuses to deny warranty coverage for the new cat when or if it's installed. I am, however, more than likely to go for the NTK or Bosch branded parts for the post-cat units. I'll be pissed if they fail prematurely, that's for sure, but at least I won't be pissed that they destroyed my $1600 mid-section or left me on the side of the road with a rough running engine.

Mileage: 138800

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Power Steering Phantom Part Delays Overhaul

I set out to do the power steering system overhaul today but I received the wrong part. It's not that Tischer messed up -- in fact it appears they sent me the part number I requested. The problem is the part number I requested doesn't work on my car. I mean, it's not even close. The ETK screwed me again.

Falling back on my experience with other "phantom" parts, I got under the car and went in search of a part number on the hose itself. I was able to find a partial part number imprinted in one of the metal fittings that is similar to the wrong one, but when I prefixed that number with what I believe to be the correct parts category and section numbers my copy of the ETK didn't know anything about it. I checked realoem and came up with the same result. I even called the dealer's parts department and they weren't able to do anything with it either, but I discounted that because I knew he was looking at the same ETK software. It looks as though I'll need to bring it to them on Monday and have them call the BMW tech line. I'm convinced I can get the part -- I just need to get BMW to admit they put it on my car and they still stock it.

(Image: E36 oxygen sensor plugs on top of engine)Rather than replace one or two of the hoses and drain the system twice, I figured I'd wait until next weekend for this task. The leak appears to be a little "wetter" than it was a couple weeks ago, so this is definitely something I need to get done, but I expect it to be okay for the next couple of weeks. If it fails, screw it -- I tried.

Replaced Pre-Catalyst Oxygen Sensors

While I was under the car surveying the power steering issue, I also surveyed the task required to replace the pre-catalyst oxygen sensors I bought earlier this week.

It turned out that the little 3/8" drive breaker bar with pivoting head I bought to change the diff fluid worked perfectly with the 22mm crows foot oxygen sensor socket to remove the sensors. That's not to say it wasn't tight in there, but it was possible. I quickly realized that there was no way to get a torque wrench in there so I took special care in mentally gauging the force required to remove them so I could duplicate the force during reinstallation. I'll detail the replacement later in a DIY article, but it suffices to say there's not much to the task.

After I buttoned everything back up I took the car out to run it up to normal temperature in order to get the system into closed loop so I could determine if the new sensors were doing their job. There were no issues. The engine ran like a top with no misfires or rough running, and throttle response was normal. After three times around the block I figured the engine was up to normal operating temperature so I lit it up to test wide-open-throttle (WOT) and that was as pleasant as always. There is nothing quite like the howl of a BMW M52 on a chilly day as it translates that cold, dense air into raw horsepower.

The task took me (an untrained, inexperienced DIY newbie) a little over an hour to complete both sensors and about 15 minutes of that was spent playing with tools and developing my plan of attack. An experienced tech would probably be able to do it in less time. This is particularly striking because the dealer quotes a whopping $750 for this job. The sensors retail for about $450 and the rest is good 'ol book labor. For this reason, this fix was one of the most enjoyable I've done on the car. I saved myself an amazing $360 sourcing the parts and doing the job myself. Of course, I can't pat myself on the back too much. if this doesn't eliminate the catalytic converter efficiency warnings, I'll need that savings to help pay for the new cats....and as I've said before, they ain't cheap.

Mileage: 138900, Parts: $315, Parts cost saved: $135, Labor Saved: $225

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Oxygen Sensor Update

After two tanks of gas, the DME adaptation program appears to have recalibrated itself to the new oxygen sensors and the results are in: when I take the number of miles on the trip odometer and divide that by the number of gallons taken onboard from the same pump at the same gas station until the pump clicks off, I come up with some promising numbers. Fuel efficiency has increased exactly 2MPG.

(Image: Comparison of power steering hoses)It's not much, but it proves without a doubt that oxygen sensors do change as they age. The engine feels a bit peppier as well and it's not my imagination. Given that power output decreases with an overly rich mixture and the fact that the mixture is now closer to the stoichiometric ideal it's likely that the engine is indeed producing more power. Overall, I'd say that replacement of the O2 sensors was money well spent.

I spoke to my dealer about the labor cost to replace the cats if necessary and it turns out book labor is only 1.5 hours, or about $170 with tax and that includes the labor necessary to swap the O2 sensors from the old to the new midsection. For that price, this is one of those jobs better left to the pro with the lift and a transmission jack or two, and so it shall be....assuming I see the cat efficiency warning again. If I don't, the cat replacement project will remain on hold indefinitely.

Power Steering Overhaul

I called Tischer the Monday after I realized I had the wrong high pressure hose and Jason handled the return perfectly. I put the hose and some 24.0mm swaybar bushings I never used into the box and sent it back to him via USPS mail for $5. He got the package in two days and promptly credited my card for the full amount of the purchase. I couldn't have asked for better service. Way to go Jason.

To avoid getting the wrong hose again I decided to source the replacement high pressure hose from my local dealer. The parts guy was able to take the partial part number I obtained earlier from the hose and order what he believed to be the correct part. When it came in, it looked a lot like the hose on my car, but I couldn't be sure since I hadn't removed the hose for a direct comparison.

When I got the invoice I freaked. This hose retailed for $225, a full $100 more than the hose depicted in the ETK for this application. This was far more than I wanted to spend on this project, particularly because the high pressure hose wasn't in bad shape (or so it appeared...you really can't tell their condition from the outside), but I figured "in for a penny, in for a pound" and swiped the credit card. I was just happy to have the correct part....or so I thought.

I finally got around to doing the hose swap today. It took me 2 hours and 45 minutes to do the swap, take a short test drive, and bring the oil level in the reservoir up to the proper level. This turned out to be a three curse job. I cursed once when I realized that the hose my dealer provided was the wrong one....again. I cursed two more times dealing with the reservoir (read about it in the coming DIY). The leaks related to the rubber hose ends at both the reservoir and the pump appear to be fixed, so I consider this mission accomplished, in spite of the part snafu.. I plan to return the incorrect hose for credit and give them one more chance to source it correctly before I let my fingers do the walking.

(Image: Closeup of CDT 6x9 free air subwoofer)Book labor for this job is 3 hours or $330 (2.0 hours for the hoses and 1.0 for the fluid flush). And yes, that's ridiculous, but that's the problem with book labor. Not only is it usually double the actual time a good tech would take to do the job but they'll never combine labor on related jobs to save you money. The fact that a fluid flush is part of the hose swap and doesn't actually require any additional time is immaterial to them....which explains one of the many reasons I now try to do things myself whenever possible

Mileage: 139200, Parts $205, Parts cost saved: $75, Labor Saved: $330

More Stereo Upgrades

I've had plans to replace the rear speakers for some time but couldn't figure out what I wanted to use. I considered installing 8" subwoofers in place of the factory HK 6x9 units but the one installation option that appealed to me (JL Stealhboxes) were apparently discontinued for the E36 this month -- talk about timing. That's probably just as well, though, since they were very expensive and came equipped with a subwoofer I knew I wouldn't use. It was not possible to order the enclosures separately. That brought me back to 6x9s and the only real choice available at this point -- CDT 6x9 free-air subwoofers.

When I looked on CDT's site I found a dealer a couple of miles away from my mother's shore house. As luck would have it I had already planned to be down there last weekend to install a PC and internet access for the business, so I dropped by SoundsGreat to pick up a pair of the woofers and their 1" soft dome tweeters. I read on bimmerforums that the CDT 6x9 drivers will not fit the OE 6x9 adapters but the models offered by Bavarian SoundWerks would work, so I used a discount coupon I'd received over the holidays and ordered them with a slight discount.

If you're wondering why I couldn't just throw a set of coaxials in there it has to do with the fact that the HK amplifier contains the crossovers and does not send a full-range signal to the existing 6x9 drivers. You need components for this installation. And before anyone starts to compose an email to me about how the rear speakers should be low-end / fill only and putting tweeters in the back destroys the soundstage, stop right there. I know all about it, and I'm not necessarily planning to keep the tweeters installed if I replace the amplifier...I just don't know when I'll get around to that and the OE system has tweeters back there.

Total cost of the speakers and adapters was $250, but I'm not officially "booking" this expense until I replace the drivers. I have some other mechanical work to do before I tackle the speakers, so it may be a few months before that happens, but you'll read about it here when it does.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Power Steering System Update

I experienced an unintended consequence of the power steering system work. When I took the car out for the test drive on Saturday the steering felt fine, but that test drive only took about 5 minutes. Yesterday I took the car out to lunch and drove it for about 40 minutes. Near the end of that driving session I felt the steering become tight and with intermittent power assist. The more rapidly I tried to turn the wheel, the more the system fought me.

I initially thought it was a simple matter of bleeding the system because I'd just ridden over some rough pavement and figured I'd inadvertantly freed some trapped air that was causing the pump to cavitate. I also considered the possibility that my power steering system was behaving like so many old BMW transmissions do after fluid changes and the rack or the pump was slowly failing.

To get to the bottom of the problem I did the only thing I knew I could do...bleed the system again. I put the car back up on the stands and cycled the wheel lock to lock another 10 times. The fluid in the reservoir dropped a bit and I found many small bubbles in the top of the fluid which indicated that I did manage to free some air. The following test drive provided less than promising results. The symtoms were initially improved, but when it came time to take the last turn into my driveway at low speed and low engine rpm I turned the wheel rapidly it felt like I had no power assist whatsoever.

This morning I resolved to take the car to my tech to discuss the problem and have him fix whatever needed fixing as I couldn't risk driving the car with problematic steering. When I described the symptoms, his long experience suggested that it was a simple matter of the belt slipping because I accidentally contaminated it with ATF. He said it only takes a drop or two on the pulley to spread to the entire belt over time and a good shot of brake cleaner should take care of it. The dealer's parts department stocked BrakeKleen so I bought a can and watched as my tech hit both the power steering and water pump pulleys with the cleaner while the engine was off. He then asked me to start the engine while he sprayed a steady stream at the power steering pulley and belt to help dissolve the ATF. After 30 seconds, I was able to turn the steering wheel with one hand again and knew I'd just dodged another bullet.

So, the moral of the story is to keep ATF off the belts and have a full can of brake cleaner handy in case you mess up.

Mileage: 139285, Parts $5

Sunday, February 25, 2007

New Rear Speakers

Last year I replaced the front speaker components when the OE midranges began to crackle. Recently I'd noticed the rear speakers distorting a bit more on peaks so I took that as a sign that they needed to be replaced as well. I considered the installation of 8" round subwoofers rather than 6x9 drivers, but simplicity won out and I wound up buying the CDT 6x9 free air subwoofers and some 1" silk dome CDT tweeters. It appears that a lot of people don't recommend installation of tweeters in the rear speaker complement, but I'm used to hearing high frequencies from the rear so I figured I'd try them out and disconnect them later if they didn't work out.

While doing research for this project I read of one case where the owner of a '99 M3 attempted to replace the 6x9s and reported that the CDT units did not fit the OE adapters. This person was a BSW customer so the BSW rep recommended their 6x9 adapters. I took the hint and ordered a pair in advance of the work. They arrived this week. Last night I managed to get a bunch of work done early and had to screw my head onto something else or go crazy so I figured I'd tackle this project.

(Image: CDT 6x9 free air subwoofer mated to BMW mounting adapter)Not far into the process I realized that the OE adapters had one really nice feature applicable to my installation -- a perfect location for an aftermarket tweeter. This and the fact that the BSW adapters had no provision for tweeters (a fact that was not made entirely clear to me when I ordered them, sad to say). encouraged me to modify the OE adapters to fit the CDT 6x9's and put the BSW units back in the box. If you're wondering, the modifications amounted to elongation of the holes in the speaker mounting flanges and sanding down the standoffs on the adapter to compensate for the shallower mounting arrangement. Very simple, really.

I'm extremely happy with the results of the physical installation and I would recommend this solution to anyone who wishes to install tweeters on the rear deck and retain the factory wiring. I should point out, however, that if you don't intend to install tweeters then the BSW adapters will be the best solution. The adapters themselves appear well made and fit the CDT units quite well. The only thing I don't like about the BSW adapters is that they don't come with any adhesive-backed foam insulation as used on the OE adapters to help seal the adapter to the rear deck and prevent rattles -- and for $60 a pair, I think they should.

The end result is sonically promising, if not thoroughly pleasing. After about 15 minutes of listening I can say that the benefit of the CDT drivers, at least when driven by the OE amplifier, is that the low-end is more well defined and composed. They don't really add to the low end as much as they improve its clarity. That's not to say the upgrade doesn't make its presence known. I had to track down some heretofore unheard rattles on the rear deck due to the overall increase in sound pressure level at lower frequencies, so they're definitely doing their job better than the OE units.

The downside to the installation of the 6x9's is that their greater resolution and overall capability has made it very obvious that the OE amplifier is the weak link in the system. The amp lacks the power to drive the speakers effectively, the built-in crossovers are wrong, and the excessive filtering restricts the potential of the extremes of the frequency spectrum. In short, the amp is garbage and should be replaced. I'll likely replace the factory amp with a Zapco DC Reference 360.4 given its amazing featureset and great physical design, but that will have to wait until warmer weather as that's not a simple project. I'll have to take the car out of service for at least a weekend and I can't do that while my backup vehicle is equipped with tires that perform like racing slicks on ice when the weather takes a turn for the worse.

Total time for this project was 4 hours exclusive of a trip to Home Depot for some miscellaneous hardware and a hot-melt glue gun to replace the one that appears to be have been teleported to an alternate dimension. Installation labor at a local stereo shop is $40/hr and assuming they'd done this exact job before they would have likely charged me 2 or 3 hours labor. Was this worth my time to save maybe $120? Probably not, but at least I know the job was done right, and that -- as the commercial says -- is "priceless".

Mileage: 139990, Parts $290, Labor Saved: $120.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

New Valve Cover Gasket, Plugs and Boots

The odometer crept over 140K last week, so yesterday I did a bunch of work including spark plugs, coil boots and valve cover gaskets. I'm planning to write up a DIY or two on these processes, but as usual I'll point out the highlights here.

First of all, the plugs were in pretty good shape for being in service 72K miles. They probably could have stayed in the car another 15K miles or more, but my tech said he recommends replacement every 75K miles. I'd also noticed a bit of a roughness at idle lately that I figured was related to aging plugs so it seemed the wise thing to do now, especially considering the labor was shared among the other tasks I had planned.

(Image: Closeup of M52 valve train)The typical problem with the coil boots is that the rubber insulation hardens and cracks, causing arcing and misfires. After 140K miles in service the rubber insulation was definitely harder than the new parts, but aside from a little oxidation on the terminal ends they appeared to be in good shape. I considered this a preventative maintenance effort, and I expect the new parts to last the remaining life of the engine so I think it's money well spent.

The real eye-opener, however, involved replacement of the valve cover gasket, which is actually a kit of three gaskets -- two smaller gaskets that seal the plug holes and a larger gasket that seals the perimeter of the valve cover. The gaskets are typically replaced when oil is seen in the plug holes, but I found my plug holes dry as the Sahara.

Given the amount of work involved I briefly mulled over the idea of postponing this task. In retrospect, however, I'm glad I decided to go ahead with it because when I removed the old gaskets I found them so dry and brittle they snapped like thin, hard plastic. In light of this, I now believe valve cover gaskets should be replaced every 125K miles on the M52 (and presumably other BMW engines as well). Whatever you do, don't wait until you see oil in your plug holes before you replace the gaskets.

The most pleasant surprise of the day was the absolutely stunning condition in which I found the top of the engine. The exhaust cam showed practically no wear at all, and the overall color of the engine was good. I saw no sludge or other deposits. If I needed any more proof of how important it is to do oil changes at a higher frequency than BMW recommends, this was it. I couldn't believe I was looking at the top end of an engine with 140K miles on it. If you don't believe me, take a look at the picture.

Cost Analysis and Conclusion

The dealer charges $275 ($50 parts/supplies and $225 labor) to replace the valve cover gaskets on this engine, The labor to replace the plugs and coil boots is the same, though it's hard to say what the dealer would have charged me to do the plugs and boots at the same time. I'm fairly sure my technician would have swapped the plugs and boots for me because it wouldn't have cost him any additional time. Thus, the low-end estimate would be $275 + the cost of the plugs and boots ($180), or $455. On the other hand, given the fact that the dealer has never given me any kind of discount for combining tasks, it's very likely I would have paid for the additional labor of approximately 1.5 hours or $160. This brings the total to $610.

The work effort took me 3:45 to complete, but if I include the many short rest breaks and unrelated work (like breaking in my new compressor) the total time commitment was closer to 5 hours. I was definitely taking my time here, so I'm sure the next time I do this I could cut that time down significantly.

Mileage: 140650, Parts $202, Labor Saved: $408, Parts Saved: $50

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Spring Cleaning

I guess it's a sign of owning an older BMW that I consider three weeks a "long time" since I last logged anything, but following the recent valve cover gasket work the car has been running beautifully. That's not to say, of course, that I don't have work to do on it.

The next mechanical work I plan to do involves cleaning the idle control valve as preventative maintenance. When I perform a cold start the engine normally revs to around 1100 RPM and slowly works its way down to the normal idle speed of 600 RPM as the engine and exhaust temperatures rise. That transition is supposed to be smooth and gradual, but on a few of the colder mornings lately I've noticed the RPM move down in a stepped fashion. The effect is very subtle, to be sure. Most people wouldn't even notice it, but I do remember seeing that chracteristic years ago...right before my ICV got stuck and turned my throttle into a deadman's switch. As my technician told me recently when I queried him about this -- "they just get lots of carbon built up in them...it's not like the unit itself fails", so it seems to me a little TLC now in the form of a can of carb cleaner will do wonders.

I'm also planning to replace the secondary air pump check valve, again as preventative maintenance. The last one failed at roughly 60K miles in service and allowed exhaust gases to work their way back into the pump and destroy it. Since the air pump isn't exactly cheap, spending $70 on a check valve that's easy to replace seems like the right thing to do.

Oil Service with Oil Analysis

Things were so quiet with the car lately that I briefly lapsed into complacency. I was reviewing my maintenance schedule spreadsheet this week when I suddenly realized I'd accumulated over 4500 miles and it was time for another oil service. I picked up the parts at my local dealer Friday and performed the work this morning. Everything went as planned and I had it done in less than 30 minutes: 10 minutes to do the actual work and 20 minutes to let it drain. In other words, it was a pretty standard oil service.

Given that I passed 140K miles recently, however, I decided to do something a little less "standard" and put the engine on a oil analysis program. I'm looking for all the usual wear metals, but in particular I'm looking for coolant in the oil, as this would be a sign of a deteriorating head gasket. While this is the first time I've ever done an oil analysis on any car I've owned, I'm not new to oil analysis since I've used it in my aviation pursuits for years to make sure we recognize engine problems before they affect our operations. As we pilots say, the worst thing you can do is turn off the fan that keeps the pilot cool. Do so and watch him sweat!

As many proponents of oil analysis will tell you it's not so much the absolute values of the numbers in the report that are important in as much as the TREND of those numbers. In fact, it was the trend of certain higher wear metals over a couple samples on one of the airplanes I used to fly that pointed to defective rocker arm bushings. We pulled the rocker boxes off and found a couple bushings on a recently-replaced cylinder loose and wearing excessively. I don't really like to think what would have happend if we weren't doing oil analysis and had just continued to blindly turn the key every time we went flying, but the point is oil analysis isn't marketing -- it really works and is an important part of any preventative maintenance program. Automotive engines have become so reliable that I doubt there's much need for analysis in the first 75K miles, but it could be argued that the analysis is pretty cheap insurance, and the earlier you start the analysis the more trend data you have to diagnose potential issues later in the engine's life.

While I don't plan to do it on a regular basis I ordered a Total Base Number (TBN) test for an additional $10 (total of $30). This will tell me how much life the oil has left in it after running in my engine for 4700 miles and it should satisfy my curiosity as to how well BMW oil stacks up against other oils in terms of longevity. It will probably be a week or so before I get the report, but I'll post it here when I get it.

With a 10% CCA discount and state sales tax of 7% essentially erasing that, I paid $41 for 6 quarts of BMW 5W-30 Synthetic and the filter kit. The oil analysis is normally $20 and the TBN test is $10, or $30 total. My dealer gets 0.6 hours to do an oil service, which at current labor rates & tax amounts to a labor savings of $77. Not much, but better in my pocket than theirs.

Mileage: 142035, Parts (including oil analysis kit) $70, Labor Saved: $77

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Oil Analysis Results

(Image: April 12th BlackStone Labs Oil Analysis Report)Just as the vendor (BlackStone Labs) promised, they emailed me a copy of the report in advance of receipt of the paper copy. The results are pretty self explanatory and indicate that the engine is running like a top at 142K miles. All the wear metals are well within reason and the oil reportedly contained no coolant, so I'd say it's good to go.

I find it interesting that the analyst pointed out that the viscosity of the BMW 5W-30 oil is slightly high for a 30W oil. And that's because it's supposed to be. When oils are classified as a 30 weight, that actually refers to a range of viscosities, and BMW 5W-30 synthetic oil is known to be at the high end of the 30 weight range. In this way it behaves more like a light 40 weight oil than a 30 weight and it is this quality that allows it to meet BMW's own LL-01 specification. That's why you can't necessarily use any generic 5W-30 oil and expect the same results. Lighter oils are known, for example, to cause the vanos to chatter as well as other top-end noise. While I think BMW 5W-30 is a great oil at a great price, if you're hell bent on finding something cheaper, just make sure you buy something that's LL-01 approved. For reference, Mobil 0W-40 meets the LL-01 specification but its 5W-30 does not.

The TBN value doesn't surprise me. There's a reason why BMW thinks it can get away with 15K oil changes. The oil may reach the minimum TBN just as the oil reaches 15K miles in service. But of course oil serves many purposes and the TBN number does not indicate the oil's ability to hold particulates in suspension, for example. Keep your oil in service until the TBN number says it's finished and it's likely that oil has already contributed to a build-up of sludge in the engine.

The fact that there was no water found (or at least it was below their measurable threshold) is likely because I drive it every day, at highway speeds, and get it up to normal operating temperature sufficient to burn off any water that may find its way into the oil due to the normal process of combustion or via a form of condensate. This explains one of the reasons why cars that drive short distances actually need their oil changed more often than those run at highway speeds every day.

All in all, I think the analysis was worth it. I'm not sure if I'm going to do the analysis at every oil change (something tells me I'll do it every other change just to develop a trend), but I do know that I won't bother with the TBN test again unless I change oil brands (very unlikely) as the results prove the BMW 5W-30 oil holds up well in my application.

If you have any questions about oil analysis, check out the BlackStone Laboratories site.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Fuel Leak

As I often do, I filled up the tank on the way home yesterday. The attendant managed to top off the tank with a total of 13.5 gallons, or about a gallon higher than I expected, but it didn't surprise me since the guy did the classic "oversqueeze" at $39 and for some unexplained reason decided to proceed to $40 in spite of the fact that I was paying by credit card. Aside from pondering why the idiotic New Jersey state legislature considers it illegal for an average citizen to pump our own gas when virtually every other state in the union couldn't care less, I didn't think much of it and continued home.

I arrived at my car this morning to go to work and stopped just short of opening the door when I smelled the distinct aroma of gasoline. I did my best impression of a bloodhound and walked around the car, then around the garage, all in an effort to exonerate my baby. I quickly realized that the smell was indeed coming from the car and was strongest near the driver's door so I took a quick peek under the vehicle only to find the bottom of the fuel tank wet with gasoline. It wasn't a steady leak and a quick turn of the key in the ignition showed I still had a full tank, but given that I had no idea of the real extent of the leak or where it was coming from, and given its proximity to the exhaust, my piloting judgment kicked in and I stopped the "preflight" right there and declared the car "unairworthy". I didn't have a flashlight, tools, or the time to dink around with it so I ran back inside to get the keys to the E46, as I concluded I'd be driving that to work today. As I pulled the E46 out of its lair for the first time in a week or more, I looked back at my E36 and felt sorry for her. She was built to drive, but she was getting the day off whether she liked it or not.

I drove over to the dealer to talk with my tech. I found him with his head wedged under a mostly dismantled dashboard of a new 7 series. So as to not startle him, I gave him the usual, polite greeting "hey, quit laying down on the job, you slacker!" When I asked what he had gotten himself into he rolled his eyes and admitted "heater core". Hmmm. That looked familiar. Anyway, I told him what happened. When I told him that I had recently topped off the tank, he immediately said it likely had to do with the sealing ring around the suction unit. I related that I had replaced the pump, suction unit and sealing rings over a year ago and never had a problem before. But then I remembered....the attendant really oversqueezed this time...more than they usually do. Could it really be that I didn't tighten the locking ring enough to create a perfect seal? I'll save you the suspense. The answer is yes.

This evening I pulled the bottom seat cushion out of the car and removed the inspection plate over the suction unit to find an even stronger smell of gas. A bunch of dirt and leaves had collected in the center of the suction unit so I had to vacuum that out before I could see that the leak was in fact due to a poor seal between the tank and the unit's sealing gasket. I pulled a large flat-blade screwdriver out of my toolkit and rapidly and lightly tapped the locking ring clockwise. I was surprised that it rotated a solid half turn before snugging up nicely. It certainly wasn't loose like that when I installed it. I suppose it's possible that the "dryness" of the rubber prevented me from achieving the correct torque, but I'm not exactly sure what cause this to loosen up. All I can recommend is to use some fuel lube or other rubber-safe lubricant during assembly so the locking ring won't bind up and give the false appearance of being fully tightened.

I cleaned up the area adjacent to the locking ring and under the car as well and took the car out for a spirited drive to burn off some gas. When I returned home I grabbed my hideously bright white LED flashlight and my telescoping mirror to look for leaks, particularly around the hardlines where they convert to rubber fuel hose. The supply line is always under pressure, so a leak at the fittings would be most evident there, but everything appeared dry now. The hoses appeared to be in relatively good shape, but I've added replacement of those hoses to the plans for later this summer. Mike Miller of BMW CCA has advised more than one owner of a 10 year old BMW to replace the fuel hoses, so I don't think I'm overreacting when I say "it's time".

Mileage: 142850

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Door Pull Trim Replacement

When the car was in the body shop earlier this year I asked the shop to remove the driver's side door pull trim prior to painting the door so it wouldn't look like ass when it was done. Since it takes the same amount of effort to replace it, I asked the shop to buy a new trim and install it.

Several months back I ordered the door pull trim for the passenger side because the original rubber gasket was cracked and warped in several locations and generally looked like crap. The skies were relatively sunny and the temperatures tolerable yesterday so I figured I'd replace the trim.

I'll start by confirming that the E36 coupes indeed have a piece of metal built into the door structure that blocks access to the slider from the top edge of the door (under the rubber trim), so if you want to replace the door pull trim you definitely have to pull the door panel and peel back the vapor barrier to approach it from the inside. The bummer is, even if you do it this way, it's still a pain in the ass because the slider is located on the top of the door pull assembly and is not easily accessible. The rear vertical window slide rail, the door pull itself (the piece you grab and pull up to open the door) and lock assembly all conspire to make this harder than it should be.

The slider is a flat plate of metal about 1/2" tall that runs the length of the door pull assembly. It has a couple of notches cut into it that grab the pins moulded into the back of the trim piece. Various online references indicated that the slider had a hook at the rear (just above the lock assembly), but I couldn't find that. Granted, I was doing this all by feel since it's impossible to see what you're doing in there, but I just couldn't find it. However, I did manage to find a slot about 1/2" long by 1/8" wide at the opposite (front) edge of the slider into which I was able to insert a long (8" shank) flat blade screwdriver in order to gain the leverage required to move the slider. Keep in mind that you must keep a steady pressure on the new trim to keep it flush with the door as you move the slider rearward to lock the new trim in place, or the slider will bind.

Before you mate the trim piece with the door make sure you examine its rubber gasket and ensure that the lip of the gasket reaches around the sides of the plastic as intended. If the lip of the gasket remains behind the trim it will be possible to install the trim but it will not seat properly. If this occurs, the trim will sit high on the door and the door pull will appear recessed relative to the trim. I now see that the body shop didn't take care of this properly and the driver's side trim piece is incorrectly installed. This means that I'll need to pull the driver's door panel off again, but I have plans to replace the lock cylinder in a few months so I'll just fix it then. And if you're thinking "oh, I can just stick a micro screwdriver or maybe a feeler gauge in there and pull the gasket out from under", don't bother. If you do that you'll stretch the gasket, it will not reform to its original shape, and you'll need to buy another trim piece.

By the way, you would be well advised to wear old clothes when you do this and have some GooGone, WD-40, terpentine, or kerosene handy as you will need a solvent to clean up if you get any of the gooey vapor barrier sealant on anything. It's very tenacious stuff. I got a ton of it on my arm that did not come off with ANY of the various soaps (including citris-based cleaners) I tried.

I'm pleased with the end result, in spite of the fact that I had to repair the door panel for the third time (yea, that stupid upper plastic strip broke free of the door panel substrate again...errr). It was well worth doing myself as the dealer would have charged 0.8 in labor (about $90) for the job. As usual, that's better in my pocket than theirs.

Mileage: 143000, Parts $11, Labor Saved: $90.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Center Vent Replacement

The center vent controls the majority of the airflow into the interior of the vehicle, so you can imagine my frustration when I found the vent would bind when I'd try to redirect the airflow. In fact, the vent hasn't worked smoothly for many years, but I just lived with it. Until now.

I finally got around to ordering a new center vent from Tischer last week so I installed that today. There was some question initially as to how I'd gain access to the cable that connects the temperature control dial (blue / red) to the temperature control arm on the HVAC plenum, but as it turned out it was accessible by pulling off the driver's side lower dashboard panel and related parts. This is a pretty rare fix, apparently, as I found only one DIY on bimmerforums that referenced it, but for that very reason I decided to write up a center vent replacement DIY of my own.

One surprising revelvation came out of this work. The radio in these cars gets virtually red hot when in operation for a short while, so if you're considering cramming a bunch of wires behind the factory unit (as would be the case if you were to install, say, a DICE Ipod interface that connects directly to the back of the radio, you may be asking for problems. The reason I point this out is because I was seriously considering connecting the DICE unit to the radio rather than the CD changer wiring in the trunk for a variety of reasons, but this gave me pause. I may need to put a layer of fiberglass insulation between the radio and any stray wires to eliminate any chance of the insulation melting and causing a short -- or worse -- a fire.

Mileage: 144300, Parts (including shipping): $60, Parts saved: $15, Labor Saved: $110.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

It's been pretty quiet on the BMW front lately...and that's no surprise given the money I've thrown at the car in the last couple years. I expect the lull in scheduled maintenance to continue until the struts are due later this year. That's not to say I don't have a good share of cosmetic work still in the pipeline, but it's non-essential so it will get done when I have the time and money to spend on it.

Oil Service

The oil service indicator illuminated this week within a couple hundred miles of my estimated oil change interval, so I bought the supplies this week and changed the oil today after 4405 miles. Since Blackstone sent me a couple of sample kits shortly after my last analysis and I continue to save considerable money doing the work myself, I decided to do another oil sample. I found the oil in the drain pan pitch black as ever, but I should know the true state of the oil later in the week when the analysis results come in.

Carpet Cleaning

As surprising as it may sound, I've never cleaned my carpet. I have simply used floor mats to keep a bulk of the grunge off of them and used the vacuum on a regular basis. And truth be told, the carpets still look new. A few weeks ago, however, I discovered a Bissel carpet extraction machine in my brother's basement so I grabbed it to see if I could breathe some life into my old carpet.

I've become a fan of 303 Aerospace Protectant as a replacement for Armor All, so I bought a container of their concentrated carpet cleaning solution for this job. The recommended dilution is 10:1 but I diluted it to about 20:1 because extractor machines can cause foaming. I filled up the machine and within about 30 minutes had cleaned the entire carpet as well as my carpeted floor mats..

The general technique is to apply the solution with the extractor's wand, scrub it with a brush and then use the vacuum suction to pull the moisture back out of the carpet along with the dirt. However, under the best of circumstances, this process puts far more moisture into the carpet than it extracts, so I left the car out in direct sun on a hot day with the windows open.. When I came back a few hours later the carpets were perfectly dry as well as perceptably cleaner and fresher smelling -- so much so, in fact, that I've decided not to replace the carpet after all.

The extracted liquid was dark gray and disgusting enough that I felt the job was worth the effort, but I am planning to do this only on an as-needed basis rather than some set interval.

Mileage: 146440, Parts & Shipping: $65, Labor Saved: $80.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Oil Analysis Results

(Image: July 15th BlackStone Labs Oil Analysis Report)The oil analysis results pretty much speak for themselves. I'd like to get this engine to 250K before I retire it and if my only concern were simple wear metals I'd say this data indicates I have a shot at meeting that goal.

Of course, the whole point of starting oil analysis was to track fuel or coolant in the oil, which could indicate any number of problems that if left alone could cause catastrophic engine damage. The report again mentions the high viscosity of BMW oil, but as I've said earlier this is normal and expected as BMW 5W/30 is really closer to a 5W/40 by design.

When I get a few more samples under my belt, I plan to import this data into a spreadsheet I use for aircraft engines to track and graph the trends. I'll publish that spreadsheet if there's sufficient interest.

Faint Front Wheel Noises

A few times I've pulled out of the driveway recently I've noticed a very faint rhythmic growl coming from the front right corner of the vehicle when making gradual left turns at a relatively low speed (< 30MPH).. That could be a lot of things, but it's most likely the tire or the wheel bearing. Since the tires are only 6 months old and in pretty good shape, while the wheel bearings have almost 150K miles on them, I'm putting my money on the latter.

Replacement of the front wheel bearings costs about $500 a wheel at the dealer, so there's a lot of built-in motivation to do the work myself. The job is easily within the realm of a DIYer with my limited experience, but the task doesn't come without downsides. If everything goes as planned, I can do this job with little more than a breaker bar and a huge (46mm) socket. If things go awry, on the other hand, I'll need access to some specialized tools that are fairly pricey for the DIYer. Fortunately, I happen to know a cool technician that has offered to let me borrow whatever BMW tools I need.

Steering Wheel Noise

It's been faint for years, but now I have a pretty persistent, repeatable scraping noise coming from what appears to be the left side of the steering wheel. I've heard this can be the result of bearing wear in the steering column, but the sound happens at the same point in the arc as I turn the wheel. My technician hinted that this might be due to the wire spring (presumably in the slip ring component) that connects the airbag to the car's systems. Apparently, while the horn uses a circular contact and wiper arm / brush arrangement to maintain electrical contact when the wheel is turned, the airbag's wiring is more critical and is thus routed through a permanent connection in the form of a wire spring that winds up as the wheel is turned from the center position. As the tension in the spring increases, it can deflect and rub / scrape against something.

I believe the solution to the problem will be replacement of the slip ring. I believe you can order the slip ring assembly by itself, but I know that if you buy the wheel you get one by default. As I had plans to replace the wheel eventually due to some cosmetic damage to the leather (the result of nine+ years of normal and expected wear and tear), it makes sense to buy the wheel now. That, however, presents me with two options:

While airbags have no specified life limit that I'm aware of, I recall reading that when airbags where first conceived they were designed to last 10 years. Since I'm almost at that point, it seems foolish not to upgrade it so it actually does what it should do in the event of a crash (you'd be surprised at the number of airbags that simply don't deploy for one reason or another). On the other hand, I absolutely hate the idea of spending $1K on a freakin' steering wheel and airbag, but something tells me the sting of that expense won't seem as bad if I consider it an "upgrade" as well as a "fix". I have yet to decide what to do, but you'll see the results here, I can assure you.

Mileage: 446600

Saturday, August 16, 2007

BMW Special Wheel Bearing Tools

(Image: BMW Special Tool 312110) This week I acquired the first of several BMW special tools I'm ordering to do some upcoming work on the car. Although my technician has graciously offered to loan me pretty much any BMW special tool in the shop, I have this thing about owning the tools I use. Yes, it's a disease, but I figure that I may not have access to my technician or this dealership forever, so I might as well prepare to maintain my cars in the coming years. And while the tools aren't exactly cheap, some of them are not much more expensive than aftermarket tools -- assuming aftermarket equivalents are available in the first place.

This first tool is used to align and press front wheel bearing assemblies onto the car. There is no equivalent aftermarket tool to do this job, and while it's possible to install wheel bearing assemblies without it, you do risk damaging the assembly if you don't install it correctly. Given how much the assemblies cost, I view the purchase of the tool as reasonably cheap insurance, with the added perk that I can rent it to other DIYers to help offset the cost. I haven't figured out the rental terms yet, but will draw them up if there's interest.

The next tool I'm planning to purchase is actually a set of three tools that is used to remove the inner bearing race from the spindle. While most bearings come off without leaving the race behind if you give it just the right touch, it's a total show-stopper if it doesn't come off and you don't have the tools to remove it. Some people use a cutoff tool (the truly masochistic use a Dremel), but that puts the spindle at risk, and replacement of that part is FAR more costly than the special tool(s).

Steering Wheel and Airbag Replacement

(Image: New 3 Spoke Steering Wheel Installed)Over the last few weeks the scraping / rubbing sound coming from the steering wheel had worsened so I decided to fix that ahead of some other work I had planned. I wasn't looking forward to this fix due to the cost of parts, but since this involved replacement of the steering wheel and I've had that job on the back burner for several years (for strictly cosmetic reasons), I figured it was time to pull the trigger.

As you may recall in my last report I outlined the options regarding replacement of the steering wheel. I ultimately decided to swap the four spoke wheel with the M-branded three spoke. This is the same wheel that came on the M3 from 96-99 as well as the 328 from build date 3/98 until the end of production. This required the purchase of a wheel ($270) and a costly airbag ($700), but the results are amazing.

The wheel changes the entire feel of the car. The nine and three resting positions are a bit lower than the four spoke and I find that to be a bit more comfortable in my normal (BMW-recommended) driving position. The wheel is slightly smaller in circumference and the grips are slightly thicker (the positioning bumps notwithstanding), which lends itself to a more sporting feel a la the E46. I should note, however, that the grip is closer to the original wheel than it is to the E46. I'm simply pointing out that it "feels" a lot thicker than it appears.

While ordering parts for the wheel swap I also ordered the upper bearing that centers the steering shaft in the column as well as some parts related to its replacement. Unlike the lower bearing at the opposite end of the column, the upper bearing is plastic. My technician said he had never seen one of those fail, but when I pulled off the wheel I saw little bits of black plastic bearing all over the place. Needless to say, I was glad I preordered those parts, or I would have had to pull the wheel off again to do it later. My advice is to plan to do the bearing when you do the wheel if you have more than 100K on the clock.

I had to buy a T30 torx socket to do this work, but since the price of an individual socket was $10 while that of a twelve piece set was only $35 + tax, I figured I'd splurge and buy the set.

A DIY with lots of pictures is in the works. Look for it soon.

New Door / Ignition Key

Over the last year or so I'd noticed my driver's door lock and ignition were "catching" a bit as I inserted the key and turned the lock. I attributed this to normal and expected wear of the lock assemblies, but I decided to have BMW cut a new key for me to see if that would help.

All ignition parts for BMWs must be ordered through local dealers by the vehicle owner in person as BMW has a strict policy to require the dealer to confirm the identity of the person buying the parts. My dealer's parts department made a photocopy of my driver's license and vehicle registration and sent it to BMW along with the order. Less than a week later, I picked up the new key.

My technician was hanging out looking up some tech documents while I waited for the key so I asked him whether I would have to do anything special to have the key recognized by the vehicle's EWS system. He said that at most I would have to insert the key, turn it to the "start" position, and hold it there for up to 10 seconds until the car recognized the key and enabled the starter. Fortunately, the new key functioned just like my original key and enabled the starter immediately. Talk about plug-and-play.

The pleasant surprise of the day was the price -- a mere $38 with my discount. Given that the keys for newer vehicles (including the E46) with built-in keyless entry transmitters are well in excess of $100, I considered myself lucky.

Mileage: 147954, Parts: $1050, Tools: $190, Labor Saved: $350

Friday, September 7, 2007

Hood Hydraulic Lift Cylinder Replacement

(Image: New hood hydraulic lift cylinder installed) I opened the hood to check fluids last weekend when I realized the hood wouldn't stay up on its own. It didn't fall quickly under its own weight so I knew that only one of the lift cylinders had failed, but given their age I decided to replace both. The units cost $34 each + $6 shipping from Tischer and arrived in a day. Can't beat that service.

Installation was simple. First I had to figure out a way to prop up the hood while I worked on the lift cylinders. A broom wasn't high enough when put on the floor so I used one of my ramps (about 6" high) along with an inverted oil drain pan (about 4") to elevate the bottom of the broom to the needed height.

To remove the old cylinders I had to unlock the clips holding each end of the cylinder to its respective mounting point. The outer edge of the mounting clips digs into a recess into the mounting rod to lock the cylinder to the car, so I used two small flat-blade screwdrivers to slide the clip up just enough to get it out of the way. With both upper and lower clips loosened, I gave the cylinder a good tug and promptly removed it.

When I removed the right cylinder I found it covered in oil and without any compression. The other cylinder seemed to have pretty good compression, but it wasn't as firm as the new cylinders, so I'd say it was a good call to replace both at this time. Incidentally, the new cylinders came with new mounting clips so there was no need to preserve the old clips but it's important to keep an eye on them because the clips can fall off and wind up wedged in one of the many hard-to-reach areas in the engine bay.

To prep the new cylinders I simply positioned the clips such that the mounting holes were unobscured and then pressed the cylinder onto the car. I twisted the cylinder accordingly to put the "open" end of the clip toward the end of each mounting rod (see the picture for the correct fit on the upper mounting point...the lower mounting point is installed in the opposite direction). This is so the extension on the clip digs into a recess in the rod and locks the cylinder to the car. I pressed the units on and the clips snapped in place. I then tugged a bit on the mounting points to make sure they were tight.

The hood now opens with a vengeance I haven't seen in years and takes quite a bit more force to close. To clean things up I used some fabric tape (similar to that used when the car was new) to secure the wires to the lift cylinder and punched out on that job. The bonus? I saved about $30 sourcing the parts from Tischer and saved $75 in labor doing the job myself.

New Battery

The weather Labor Day weekend was easily the best I'd seen all year. Perfect temperature and humidity, calm winds and clear skies. I had plans to fly the Skyhawk to New Hampshire and even had a friend drive over an hour to join me. When the battery failed a preflight check, I became irritated because we're fastidious about maintenance and rarely have to cancel a flight for a "squawk" (pilot lingo for a maintenance discrepancy). But the preflight runup is designed to provide the pilot with the information he needs to make the critical go/no-go decision and last weekend was a no-go whether I liked it or not.

That adventure served to remind me that it had been over five years since I last replaced the battery in the E36. Because BMW puts the battery in the trunk away from the destructive heat of the engine bay it's fairly common to get 5-7 (or more) years out of the OE batteries, but that's not to say a five year old battery is the same as a new one if it gleefully turns over your engine every morning, however.

First of all, all batteries lose ampacity over time due to normal and unavoidable chemical processes, so older batteries simply don't provide the same energy storage as new units. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, individual cells within the battery can weaken to the point that the battery will no longer take a full charge. If this occurs, the vehicle's charging system will overcharge the battery and hasten its demise while at the same time it places an unnecessary load on the vehicle's alternator. Given the cost of parts and labor to replace an alternator and the potential for physical damage to the car as a result of battery leakage (just because it's "sealed" doesn't mean it will always be so), it's generally better to replace the battery before trouble sets in.

(Image: New battery installed in trunk)The E36 takes a Group 92 battery but very few aftermarket manufacturers make or stock Group 92 batteries (or so I found). The E36 body can also accept a smaller Group 48 or 91 battery (originally specified for 318's) but those smaller batteries usually sacrifice some ampacity. Since I doubt BMW put a larger battery in the 328 just for fun, I decided to go with a Group 92. That meant buying another OE battery.

I emailed Jason at Tischer and found that they consider even AGM (so called "starved cell") batteries HazMat, so they could not ship one to me. I placed calls to my local dealers and found widely varying prices. Circle BMW in West Long Branch, NJ gave me the best quote so they earned my business. As luck would have it, they are located a couple miles from my office, so I went over at lunch yesterday and picked up the new unit. When I got home, I took the Battery Tender off of the E46 and put it on the new battery to top it off overnight so as not to put a heavy load on the charging system when using it to start the car the first time.

To remove the old battery I removed the vent tube from the front side of the battery and set it aside. Then I followed the same technique recommended to disconnect the battery for any electrical system maintenance -- I removed the negative cable (black) first, followed by the positive (red) using a 13mm socket. After I hauled the heavy battery out of its compartment and set it aside, I decided to clean up the area first with some moistened paper towels to remove the dust that had accumulated over the last 10 years. Then to ward off any corrosion I sprayed the floor compartment with a couple light squeezes of WD-40 and wiped up the excess with a paper towel.

To install the new battery I secured it with the clamp and then replaced the vent tube, followed by the positive and negative cables (in that order). When I reattached the negative cable and heard the CD player start to cycle through the discs, I knew I was in good shape. After the battery was reconnected I entered the unique security code into the radio as well as the time and date into the OBC, and reset the one-touch up power window sensors by pressing and holding each window up button for approximately a second after the window fully closed.

Shopping around and leveraging my BMWCCA discount saved $50 in parts while doing the job myself saved $75 in labor.

Mileage: 149000, Parts: $190, Parts Saved: $80, Labor Saved: $150

Thursday, September 13, 2007

New Windshield, Take Three

One of the things I love about summer is that when driving home westbound (late in the day as usual), the sun is typically high enough in the sky that it's above the top of the windshield and out of my line of sight. Unfortunately, since we passed the summer solstice some three months ago the days have become shorter and my drive home of late has forced me to contend with a very bright sun low on the horizon.

Most of the time there is at least some high cirriform clouds that tone down the glare, but last week while I drove home with beautifully clear skies I found myself absolutely blinded by the sun. I was wearing sunglasses at the time but they had little effect. I tried refocusing my eyes and shifting my head left and right in a futile attempt to obtain better vision but realized that four years of sandblasting of the windshield on the daily commute had taken its toll. I quickly concluded that it was time to give my insurance company a call and get the window replaced again.

The installation crew from DuRite Auto Glass showed up today around mid-morning and managed to replace the glass in about an hour. I didn't bother to take any pictures because I already covered the subject in detail not once, but twice. About the only thing that's changed in the procedure was replacement of the manually-operated caulk gun with a motorized unit very similar in appearance to a battery powered drill. The tech can use the variable speed of the unit to change the flow rate of the sealant so they can fine tune the size of the bead or the speed at which they glide over the window frame. Very slick tool.

Many months back I replaced the air inlet cover at the base of the windshield but forgot to install the four clips in the center of the piece that keeps it snug up against the windshield. Since the crew had to remove the cover to replace the windshield I took advantage of the situation and replaced the clips. I figure that's one less job to consume my ever-decreasing free time.

While I had the tech on hand, I asked him whether it would be possible to replace the dried and cracking trim kit surrounding the rear window without actually replacing the window and he told me it wasn't possible because the trim typically bonds with the sealant applied at the factory. I'm not sure if I want to spend any money replacing that window, but the trim does look like garbage. Perhaps next year after more pressing issues are addressed.

Since the car couldn't be driven for a couple hours after the window replacement I pulled the E46 out of its lair on this beautiful early fall day and headed off to the salt mine.

My comprehensive deductible is still $100 (yea, I pay extra for that, but it's paid for itself several times over) so that's what the job cost me.

Delayed Cold Start

The BMW M52 engine has always been reliable and smooth-running. The one thing that I could always count on was the engine firing on the first couple of cylinders. A quick flick of the ignition key was all that was necessary to bring the engine to life. Unfortunately, around the time our corrupt government mandated the contamination of our fuels with the corporate welfare to ADM otherwise known as Ethanol, the engine started to take longer to fire and then it would tend to stumble for the first few seconds before stabilizing into its characteristically smooth idle.

Lately, as the weather has turned slightly cooler in the mornings I've noticed that the engine now turns over but doesn't fire until I run the starter for about 2-3 seconds. I was overdue for a can of "fix-it" so I went to my dealer to get a bottle of fuel system treatment and chat with my technician. He told me that the old treatment (translucent white bottle) has been replaced with a black plastic bottle closely resembling the retail packaging of Techron. This new stuff is made by the same company and it's supposedly "compatible" with E10 fuels.

Earlier this week I ran the gas gauge down to the red zone and then dumped a bottle of the cleaner in before fueling. The next morning the starting problem was worse, not better. Of course, I'm not talking about a real "hard starting" problem like some people seem to have with these cars in that I don't have to crank for 5-10 seconds or crank multiple times to get the engine to start, but it's just not running the way it did a couple years ago. And yes, I know the engine has almost 150K miles on it and I shouldn't expect it to run like it was new, but I just hate beating on my starter and battery for any longer than strictly necessary.

For now I'm still in the dark as to what's causing the problem but I have my theories and they will be explored over the coming months.

Mileage: 149151, Labor: $100

Thursday, September 20, 2007


The inspection sticker on the E36 was slated to expire this month so I decided to get up early and get the vehicle inspected today to avoid the typical end-of-month lines. I stopped by the dealer first to ask my technician to connect the GT1 and check for codes, just in case it had stored a code and not tripped the check engine light...as it had when it complained about catalyst efficiency late last year.

(Image: NJ State Inspection Report for 2007)The goal in this case was to eliminate any possible reason for the state computer-based inspection process to fail me, as I don't know what the state computers consider a "passable fault" and a "failure fault". My technician suggested that the way OBD works is if the check engine light is not illuminated the car will pass inspection. I felt bad adding yet another item to his "run-queue" (the man runs around like the proverbial headless chicken in the morning, let me tell you) but five short minutes later I had my report -- no faults stored.

I threw my tech a tip to say thanks and headed off to the inspection facility where it passed with flying colors. The only notable difference between this and every other inspection the car has received was the compliment from the inspector about how clean the car looked. I guess they don't see too many of these older BMWs in the same condition.

Cold Start Issue Persists

While talking with my tech today I asked whether they had seen any recent flareups in problems relating to cold starts. He said he had seen quite a few cases caused by a failing check valve in the fuel pump (apparently they're susceptible to the alcohol in the new E10 contaminated fuels), but that was about it.

Not five seconds after my tech finished his sentence one of the other techs came up to discuss an '02 3 series that had been sent in for the same problem except the owner reported the engine wouldn't fire until he had cranked it for at least 25 seconds. BMWs solution to that problem was wiring related and from the looks of the service bulletin totally unrelated to my issue...especially considering my car starts just fine....it just takes a couple seconds of cranking during a cold start vs. immediate warm starts.

My tech suggested that it could be the check valve in the pump. I told him I'd already considered that and had tried to use the ignition key "trick" (to no avail) to make sure the fuel rail was pressurized. I cycled the key three times with about 5 seconds spent in position 2 each time, but he pointed out that one cycle of the key might not be enough to fully repressurize the rail and I'd have to wait about 2 minutes between key cycles in order to make the pump turn on again...otherwise cycling the key would have no effect on the pump and the pressure might still be too low.

To figure out if fuel pressure is the problem, I need to attach a fuel pressure gauge to the schrader valve on the end of the fuel rail, measure the pressure immediately following shutdown and then again after the car has sat overnight. If the pressure is noticeably lower, it's very likely either the check valve or a leak in a hoses somewhere. Which brings me to say that many techs, including Mike Miller of BMWCCA recommend wholesale replacement of BMW fuel lines every 10 years...and that wisdom was based on many years of running pure gasoline...not the alcohol blended fuels we run today. One of the reasons why alcohol is prohibited for use in standard certified aircraft is its deleterious effects on rubber, so the bottom line is that until all fuel lines in the BMW are swapped out with alcohol-compatible lines (assuming such alcohol-friendly rubber even exists), they are suspect.

For now the problem isn't enough of one to warrant a tizzy but I do plan to pick up an inexpensive fuel pressure gauge and figure out the extent of the job necessary to replace all rubber fuel line components.

Mileage: 149440

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Oil Service and Analysis

(Image: 11/1 Blackstone Labs Oil Analysis Report)After 4600 miles I performed another DIY oil service and analysis. When I went to pick up the oil and filter at the dealer the parts guys asked where I'd been lately, so I told them the truth: the car has been performing beautifully and I was enjoying the "time off".

The report shows that Zinc, Phosphorus, and Calcium are all higher than the previous two reports, but those are detergents / dispersants added to the oil, and more is usually better. Lead, Tin, and Copper (bushings / bearings) are higher, but still below the universal averages. All in all, a great report. At this rate, I'm doing an oil service every three months, so the next one should occur early next year...probably mid-late January because of all the traveling around the holidays.

Engine Air Filter

My handy maintenance schedule also pointed out that it had been 30K miles since I last replaced the engine air filter, so I picked up another OE unit and installed it. I should point out that I usually pull the filter at every oil service (4500 miles) and tap it on a rigid (and clean) surface to free the bulk of the dirt and sand that finds its way into the filter. If you've never done that before you might be surprised at how much debris the OE engine filters trap.

Many people discount the importance of an air filter and install free-flowing units (K&N or equivalent) in a quest for more horsepower but not only do the oil-based filters cause issues with the mass air flow sensor, but a free-flowing air filter is free-flowing for a reason -- it doesn't filter as well as the OE paper filter.

I recently read an account online of a guy who started doing analysis following an engine conversion on a Z3 and he noticed a spike in silicon in the analysis after switching to a K&N unit. High silicon in an oil analysis means that fine grains of sand are getting past the filter and being ingested by the engine. Silicon is a strong abrasive so needless to say its presence can significantly increase engine wear. Is a couple horsepower worth the extra wear and tear on the engine? I think not.

Cold Start Issue Update

In the last maintenance update I mentioned I was still experiencing the cold start issue. A bit over a month later I can say that the problem comes and goes, and it's mostly gone at the moment. It was a bit worse when burning through the tank with the fuel system treatment, but it's better now. Not only does the car start a bit more easily but it seems to be a bit more fuel efficient as well.

(Image: Special Strut Tool)This car has averaged 24.3 MPG from when it was new and so I consider that the benchmark. Mileage had dropped to 23.8 after I put the 18" wheels on the car, but in the few tanks since I added the fuel system treatment it's climbed to 24.8. If we were still burning MTBE laced fuels I'd attribute this increase to the change to the removal of MTBE around this time of year, but the oil companies don't change the E10 formulation with the seasons...or so we're told. If the fuel formulation is the same, then the increase is due to the fuel system treatment.

This experience lends credibility to the belief that fuel injectors need to be cleaned periodically. I may still pull the fuel injectors and have them professionally cleaned and flow balanced, but I need to find the time to do that.

Incidentally, I never did bother to get pressure readings on the fuel rail because I logically concluded that the cold starting was not caused by fuel pressure. A fuel leak would not fix itself.

Tools In Advance

The front struts are approaching 100K miles in service so they'll likely be replaced soon. While researching the subject I found out that one of the trickier parts of the job is keeping the strut rod from spinning while removing the top nut that secures the top bearing plate. It turns out that BMW has a special tool for this, but there is an equivalent in the aftermarket. It looks like a standard six point socket but its construction is such that it allows you to hold the rod while you rotate the nut. Some people use impact wrenches to work on the nut but I've been told by other people that doing that may damage the strut. I'm not going to take a chance with such an expensive part, so I consider $27 (or roughly $13 per strut) a small price to pay to save hundreds in labor.

(Image: Motive Black Label Bleeder) I finally decided to buy a brake bleeder so I could take over this relatively simple task and pocket the $200 or so the dealer now charges. The best way to bleed brakes is to enlist the aid of a helper to push the brake pedal, but if you have to bleed solo you really only have two options -- pressure and vacuum bleeders. I chose a pressure bleeder because I read too many stories online of how vacuum bleeders can leak around the bleeder fitting and introduce bubbles into the line going to the waste bottle. This makes it difficult to determine whether the air is coming from the system (and thus a successful bleeding process) or from the leaking fitting. The dealer techs all seem to use a vacuum bleeder so I'm going against the grain here, but whatever -- I'll do what works for me.

Modern pressure bleeders are little more than a plastic spray can with a pressure gauge and some special adapter fittings. While it's possible to make one up from scratch I knew that wouldn't be an effective use of my time, so I ordered a commercial unit. The $45 Motive "Euro" bleeder would have worked, but I decided to spend $20 more and get the "Black Label" bleeder because it comes with a machined aluminum cap that be less likely to crack as well as a swivel fitting that will prevent the hose from winding up or kinking as it is installed or removed from the reservoir.

Both of these tools are now featured in my tools article.

Mileage: 151076, Tools: $105, Parts (including Oil Analysis): $80

Sunday, November 18, 2007

New Fog Lights

(Image: Using screwdriver to release fog light assembly)A couple weeks ago I was washing the car when I realized that my left fog light was cracked. At first I was miffed because I knew this meant an unscheduled expense, but as I looked more closely at the glass of both fog lamps I realized that they had been sandblasted by the high-speed commute and were in need of replacement anyway.

I did my usual research on the parts, starting with realoem and the ETK for the part numbers, followed by Tischer for the price. It turns out that the fog lamp glass assembly is available separately, or as part of a three piece kit that includes the halogen bulb and mounting bracket. Since I expected to replace the bulbs as well as the glass, the kit was the best deal.

There are two original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for the E36 foglamps: Hella and ZKW. For whatever reason, realoem indicated that the Hella part number had been superceded by the ZKW part. While reading bimmerforums.com I found this thread which offered a great price on a pair of OEM ZKW foglamp kits. The vendor accepted credit cards, was located here in NJ, and I couldn't beat the price anywhere, so I placed the order. A couple days later the foglamps arrived on schedule. The words "Made in Austria" were stamped on the inside of the glass and I found a ZKW label on the side, so I knew I'd received the real deal and not some cheap ripoff made in China.

(Image: Old foglights, one with cracked glass)I managed to summon the time to install the new foglamps today. Replacement of the glass assembly is easy and only involves use of a screwdriver to depress the locking tab on the bracket that is attached to the bumper cover. Access to the locking tab is through the upper of the two holes cut in the bumper cover just inward of the fog lamp assembly.

Once I released the tab the glass unit popped out a bit on one side. I then tugged it out further and then pulled the entire unit out of the recess in the bumper. A weatherproof plug with twin release clips provides power to the back of the assembly, so I detached that before I removed the entire unit and swapped it out with the new assembly.

I didn't replace the brackets because the existing units appeared to be in good shape. And truth be told, I was not motivated to replace them for good measure because it appears that it is next to impossible to remove the screws that attach the bracket to the bumper cover without removing the cover itself because the brake cooling ductwork gets in the way. While removal of the bumper cover is a straightforward job, it was not something I wanted to tackle on a cold day unless absolutely necessary.

Although the bumper cover has been replaced recently, the grill in the lower center of the cover is original -- and it shows. Just as the daily sandblasting has taken its toll on the paint, that and the smaller rock hits have really done a number on the grill. For that reason I may wind up removing the bumper cover to replace the grill next spring, and if that happens I'll use that time to replace the fog light brackets. Until then, they'll remain on my shelf with the spare bulb and glass assembly I saved from the other side.

(Image: New fog light assemblies installed and operational The two fog light kits retail for $220 from BMW. Tischer had them for $176 plus shipping (figure $185 total), but my alternate source really came through with a price of $110 shipped with tax (!). This is a savings of $110 over the retail price or a $80 relative to Tischer's otherwise favorable pricing. Although I would normally not make a comparison between a BMW part and an "aftermarket" part, these ZKW units are for all intents and purposes the BMW part without the BMW label, so I feel this is a fair, apples-to-apples, comparison.

As far as labor is concerned, BMW apparently gets almost a half hour of book labor to replace these lights, which I think is overkill, unless you have to replace the brackets as well. Last time my technician replaced the units for free, but for something this simple I didn't have the heart to bug him. Given the savings in both parts and labor, I think this was time well spent.

Mileage: 152000, Parts: $110, Parts Saved: $110, Labor Saved: $100

Thursday, November 22, 2007


(Image: Closeup of microfilter removed in November 2007 
	after 14K miles) As I got up this morning I looked over at my outside temperature gauge and was surprised to see it hovering in the low 60's. I took this as a sign that I needed to wash and prep the car for winter so I went outside to do exactly that. I did some essential detailing, including applying touch up paint to some chips on the front of the hood and bumper, polishing in selected areas to remove some water spots, and then applying a full coat of Menzerna FMJ sealant to protect the finish during the upcoming crappy weather.

I also decided to replace the microfilter today, about 1000 miles ahead of schedule, because of the nice weather. I mean, why do the job when it's 20 degrees outside when you can do it in short sleeves?

Last time I did this (also the first time I did it as a DIY) I obtained access to the microfilter through the footwell rather than pulling the glove box as the TIS and other more "official" instructions dictate. So this time I figured I'd try to do it via the glove box route, if for no other reason than to document it. Unfortunately, I couldn't get past step 1: removing the glovebox. It takes six screws and I removed them all -- to no avail. The glovebox appeared loose, but would not disconnect from the dash no matter what I did. This may have something to do with the fact that it's only been removed once in the 10 years I've had the car, but I think it had more to do with the fact that there is no real convenient way to get a firm hold on the thing. You can only tug on the door so much before you risk breaking the hinges.

So, the downside is that I didn't manage to get the pictures I was hoping for, but the upside is that I finally learned how to disconnect the wiring harness block necessary to clear a path for removal and reinsertion of the microfilter. As none of the instructions I read (including the TIS) indicated precisely how to disconnect the harness block in question, I made a point of taking pictures of this. My Microfilter DIY article has been updated accordingly. The end result of this newfound knowledge is twofold: I can now replace the microfilter in about the same time as it takes my technician (10 minutes or so) and I now have proof that accessing the microfilter by removing the glovebox and such is a total waste of time.

Incidentally, I found the microfilter a bit cleaner than last time, but I attributed that to the fact that the car hadn't visited any body shops during the service interval. Body shops are extremely dusty and dirty places, and turning on the ventilation system in the shop is a sure way to contaminate the filter. In fact, if you have to bring your car to a body shop, I would consider it essential that you replace the microfilters once the car is back in your possession. They do serve a purpose, but they can't it very effectively if they're clogged with sanding dust.

The microfilters retail for $36 and are best purchased online. This filter was an "impulse" buy at my local dealer while purchasing some other stuff, so I only got 10% off and had to pay the state their unfair share. So I saved only about $5 on it, but that's better in my pocket than anyone else's. As far as labor is concerned this is still a 0.6 job, due mostly to the fact that BMW's own instructions advocate doing it the hard way even though no technicians I know do it that way. Doing this job oneself therefore saves about $80 in labor. Hmmm. $80 + $5 savings for 10 minutes of my day and the satisfaction that I did it myself. Is it worth it? Survey says "YES"!

Winter Tires

Recently I've been throwing around the idea of putting my old 16" wheels back into service cladded with winter rubber. I have a few reasons for this:

  1. I have six wheels doing nothing right now. My technician told me one of them is bent and I think it is the spare, but spinning them all up would clearly identify it. This would allow me to toss it and reduce clutter in the garage. The cosmetic quality of all the wheels leaves something to be desired, which is why I bought the CSLs in the first place, but in winter service who cares what they look like?
  2. The Pilot Sport A/S tires are great in snow when new at least, but they are a compromise in dry weather vs. a true summer tire like the Pilot Sport PS2. Here in NJ we typically have only 3-4 months where snow is a possibility, so for a majority of the year I'm sacrificing performance.
  3. I presently have no snow-worthy tires for the E46. If I put the 16" wheels back on the E36 for the winter, I can put the CSLs with still viable Pilot Sport A/S rubber on the E46 in case the E36 goes down for maintenance unexpectedly and the white stuff is everywhere. Of course, this was one of the reasons I used to justify the CSL wheels in the first place -- they will work on both cars.
  4. After hauling the original 16" wheels out for a thorough cleaning, I realized that I should have been removing the wheels and cleaning them annually all along. One of the wheels is newer than the others and it cleaned up nicely, but the paint on the interior of the original wheels is stained badly from nine years of road grime. Swapping wheels every winter would provide the opportunity to keep all of my wheels clean and thus preserve my investment.

I haven't figured out if I'm going to go through with this but if I do I'll have to pull the trigger by next month or risk losing stock on the needed tire sizes. It's only late November and Tire Rack is already sold out on one of the few tires available in the needed size.

Mileage: 152170, Parts: $30, Parts Saved: $5, Labor Saved: $80

Saturday, December 8, 2007

New Winter Tires

This week I decided to go ahead with the purchase of winter tires and eventually settled on the Dunlop Winter Sport M3 in 225/50 fitment. Tire Rack categorizes these as "Performance Winter" tires. This category is positioned squarely between "All Season" and the more aggressive "Winter" tires like the well-known Blizzak. Considering I live in New Jersey, where we typically get 4 or 5 "snow days", rather than the continuous blizzard otherwise known as Buffalo, I figured I'd be realistic about my needs and expectations. I wanted a tire that would give me better performance in winter conditions but not sacrifice the performance I've come to demand from the car the other 98% of the time I planned to use it. The Dunlop Winter Sport M3 fit the bill and was reasonably priced and well reviewed to boot. Sold!

(Image: Closeup of tread on newly installed dunlop winter sport m3) Tire Rack won the bid again, so that meant I needed to talk to my dealer about mounting and balancing. While they still charge $75(!) to mount and balance a tire, I asked the service manager to honor the price I negotiated last year for $40 per tire and he agreed. Since Tire Rack shipped the tires from the Delaware warehouse, they showed up at my dealer's parts department in 24 hours. Can't beat that service.

Today I picked up the newly mounted tires and installed them on the car. My technician kindly marked the tires with the road force numbers as requested and confirmed that I had not one, but two bent wheels (not exactly a surprise). The worst wheel of the two was discarded and the other was configured as the new spare. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the road force numbers were 4, 5, 11, and 13 lbs -- far better than I expected from a Dunlop tire. Anything below 18 lbs is acceptable to BMW, so I consider myself lucky. I installed the 11 and 13 on the rear axle while the 4 & 5 went on the front where tire eccentricity is most critical.

The only snag in the process of swapping wheels came after I removed the bolts and tried to pull the CSL wheels off; I found them quite firmly stuck to the hubs! I alternately pounded on all sides of the tire until they broke free. I have to admit I saw this coming because I forgot to put anti-seize on the face of the hubs when I installed them but I never did get around to fixing the oversight. Before I mounted wheels this time I made sure to put a thin coat of anti-seize on the hub. I think I put on enough to get the job done but I guess I'll find out April when the CSL wheels return to the car. The moral of the story? Never underestimate the bonding power of dissimilar metal corrosion.

This wheel conversion provided the opportunity to leverage my new compressor and air wrench, which really made this job so much faster and easier. I can't say enough about the practicality of air tools for the DIY technician. They might seem like overkill...until you use them. If you can afford the investment, I highly recommend them.

Mileage: 152888, Parts: $630, Parts Saved: $100, Labor: $160