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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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Saturday, February 2, 2008

Oil Service and Inspection

(Image: 2/6/2008 Blackstone Labs Oil Analysis Report)The car has been running beautifully the last couple of months so I haven't needed to do much to it, but this weekend I realized I was within a hundred miles of a scheduled oil service. I decided to do it early simply because I was presented with a sunny day and temperatures in the 40's. Well...that and the realization that we could be knee deep in snow by next weekend in spite of the fact I hedged against that possibility with the installation of snow tires this season.

This time around the INSPECTION indicator illuminated so since I've assumed responsibility for the inspection process and progressive maintenance schedule I felt the vehicle deserved some additional attention. I normally conduct a weekly inspection of the engine bay just to check for obvious problems (leaks, belt tension, fluids, etc.) but it's not every day I am able to get under the car and look around. These days I'm most concerned about the front end since all the parts have 100K or more on them, but amazingly the car doesn't seem to want anything. It drives almost perfectly and I'm hesitant to just throw money at the car for no good reason, particularly because I'm in no short supply of things that demand the attention of my wallet these days.

On the other hand, suspension parts are kind of tricky as they tend to wear so slowly that it's difficult to recognize how much ride quality has deteriorated unless new parts are installed. Given this and the fact that BMW puts a 100K life limit on the struts I have plans to do some suspension rework this year, but as a result of this inspection I don't think I'm under any time pressure to do it. All other things being equal, I suppose I'll wait until I can do the work in short sleeves.

The oil service went as expected and I took another sample that came back clean (ignore the comment about the engine being 2.5L...it is, in fact, a 2.8L M52). Blackstone doesn't apparently read the data I send in). Although I expect the engine will continue to run smoothly with no major work until at least 200K, at 155K miles I believe I have finally entered the "region of reversed command" as we pilots say. No matter how well I treat the thing, metals wear, seals dry out, and gaskets blow out. Anything is possible at this point. In my opinion 150K is a lot to expect of any engine, BMW or not. This M52 owes me nothing.

Dunlop Winter Sport M3 Review

After 2000 miles and a minor bout with the white stuff recently I figured I'd provide a review of the Winter Sport M3.

Overall rating: 9 out of 10. Definitely recommended.

Ten Years

This month the E36 is ten years old and I must admit that in what little idle time I've had lately I've been playing out "what if" scenarios.

What if the car got blasted in an accident? What if another deer attempted to mate with the car in a hormonally charged stupor of rutting season? Would I repair it? Answer: Probably not given that BMW will bring the 1 series to our shores in a few short months. There is just too much potential in the 135i to ignore it and there is a definite point at which putting money into an old car makes absolutely no sense for a daily driver because it's like driving without insurance. No insurance company will give me 15K of collision coverage on a car worth 5K...even if it takes a "mere" 10K to repair it. That's why they'll total an old car as easily as look at it with even the smallest of damage estimates.

What would I do if the engine blew up or I was forced to do some other major engine work? There is a new kit on the market that makes it almost a no-brainer to drop a LSx V8 crate engine in the car. Sounds like a crazy idea, I know, but the videos of this car are enough to make me giddy. On the other hand, it would be a lot easier (as well as more respectful to the BMW marque) to simply rebuild the M52 with forged internals and slap a twin screw supercharger on it. I guess it would all depend on how adventurous I felt at the time. I don't think I could go for any solution that would take the car off the road permanently courtesy of the frickin' smog nazis, but both options are doable as far as emissions are concerned if one lives anywhere but the Republik of Kalifornia.

A third and far more likely scenario begs to ask "What if I simply could no longer ignore the lure of the little 135i hotrod"? I refuse to own more than two "daily drivers", so in this case I would have to relegate the E36 to track duty or sell it. The problem, of course, with turning it into a track car is that it would at the very least involve swapping out most of the suspension for M3 parts and swapping the auto for a 6 speed. That's 10K easy, and assumes that I'd want to destroy the value inherent in an all-original BMW like this one. The problem with simply trading it for something new is that it would rob me of the fun I have and the knowledge I gain by fixing stuff that breaks on an old car. I mean, anybody can write a check for a car every month. Where the hell is the fun in that?

The day may come sooner than I'd like that I'll have to make a hard decision about my baby. For now, though, I'll celebrate the fact that the car I took a huge chance on ten years ago is still with me, eager to take me anywhere I want to go in style and performance that rivals many of its far younger brethren.

Mileage: 155471, Parts: $64, Parts Saved: $10, Labor Saved: $85

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Summer Rubber

As the calendar turned to April and the threat of winter weather here in New Jersey diminished I felt it was time to return to summer rubber. This would have been a simple 15 minute tire swap but I had some other plans (see below).

(Image: E36 up on 4 jacks for Brake Fluid Flush) The one thing I noticed in doing the tire swap is that the winter wheels came off the hubs very easily thanks to the anti-seize compound I put on the hub last time. Since the 18" CSL reps are machined to fit a bit tighter to the hub I made it a point to clean off the old compound before I applied a new coat. Guess I'll wait and see next fall if this will make my life easier. I expect it to.

Naturally, I used my air impact wrench to remove the lug bolts and that made very quick work of that task. When it came time to reinstall the bolts I started all five by hand and then used my air ratchet with a 3/8" to 1/2" adapter and the same 17 mm socket to get all the bolts within a few turns of final torque. Worked like a charm and saved me a couple minutes each wheel. I recommend this technique if you have the tools.

But whatever you do, don't use an impact wrench to tighten the lug bolts. That seems like a good idea and a real time saver...right up to the point that you bust a knuckle or two trying to use the OE tire iron to break the bolts free to swap on a spare out in the middle of nowhere. Always torque your lug bolts using a torque wrench.

Brake Fluid Flush

Although the brake fluid flush wasn't technically due until June I figured I'd take care of it myself while the wheels were off. This was my first time working with the critical brake hydraulics so long before I opened a single bleeder screw I did a ton of research on the usual BMW forums, bought the right tools, and confirmed the best practices with my technician. As a result, the flush went exactly as expected and only took me about 45 minutes.

Modern BMWs require DOT 4 brake fluid. Although any DOT 4 fluid will work for a street car, I picked up some good quality ATE TYP200 gold fluid from Steve at Ultimate Garage for the simple reason that his facilities are here in New Jersey and knew I could ship via ground to keep the cost down and yet get it delivered next day -- and that's exactly what happened.

This was also the first time I used all four jack stands to keep the car level during the flushing process. I jacked the front first with the rear wheels chocked and the parking brake applied, got the stands under the front stable, and then carefully jacked the rear before throwing the second set of stands under the rear jack points. This gave me the confidence I'll need to do transmission fluid flushes, among other work that necessitates all four corners up in the air.

Cost Analysis

The typical cost for this service at a BMW dealer is almost $200, so I saved about $170 in labor doing the job myself.

As far as tools and equipment are concerned, I bought the "Black Label" Motive Pressure Bleeder for about $60. I already had the 7mm and 9mm box end wrenches required to open the front and rear bleeder screws, respectively, so no direct costs there. The collection bottle was made from a spare water bottle and copper wire (no shortage around here since I'm an electrician), and some 1/4" I.D hose from Home Depot that cost less than $5. So the "real" savings is only about $90 this time around, but the effective savings will ultimately improve in future years as I take over yet another job I previously left to the dealer techs.

Mileage: 158457, Tools: $60, Parts: $20, Labor Saved: $170

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Valve Train Noise

As the odometer has crept over 159000 miles I've noticed slightly more valve train noise in the morning after start. It sounds like classic tappet noise and only a couple tappets appear to be making noise. It is nothing obvious or distracting -- just more noticeable until the car warms up...then it purrs like a kitten. Nothing I can really do about this as I understand it is normal for an engine of this age.

OBC Lamp Replacement

(Image: E36 OBC Removed, exposing bulb sockets) This week the bulb that backlights the clock LCD in the OBC failed. Rather than bug my technician for something so trivial I decided to pull out the OBC and fix it myself. In fact, it took me more time to adjust the camera to take the pictures for this log than it did to actually replace the bulb.

Last time I had a bulb failure in the OBC my technician took care of it while I was in the shop getting some other work done. Normally, technicians just replace all the bulbs because their labor is expensive relative to the parts and it's better from a customer relations perspective to replace all the bulbs rather than fix one bulb and force the customer return several times to replace the other bulbs as they fail, but since my labor is "free" and the bulbs cost almost $3 a piece, I felt there was no point in throwing $12 at a $3 problem.

Access to the latching mechanism is provided by a hole in the top of the tray beneath the OBC. To release the OBC I stuck my index finger in the hole and then pushed directly upward. At the same time, I managed to get my middle finger slightly behind the OBC while I used a screwdriver to carefully pull the top of the glasses tray down an 1/8" or so to help unlock the unit. With about 10 seconds of fiddling the OBC popped loose.

The bulbs are the same 1/4 turn type used on the back of the speedo / tach gauge cluster and required only a small screwdriver to remove and reinstall. The four OBC bulb sockets are highlighted in the photo with arrows. Mission accomplished.

Exterior Trim Restoration Experiment

Although I've been forced to replace the exterior side mouldings on this car more than once, the trim on the front and rear bumpers is original...and it shows. The plastic is faded and generally looks like crap even if I hit it with some 303 Aerospace Protectant. Replacement mouldings for the front and rear bumpers aren't terribly expensive, but I have other things on which to spend $200, so I decided to try an experiment before I ordered new trim.

(Image: Result of Leatherique Trim Restorer on E36 side mouldings)I read about various black trim restoration kits and settled on the Leatherique Rubber Black restorer ($25). Rather than sacrifice a piece of trim currently installed on the car and commit myself to a long job I decided to use some of the old rubber side mouldings I'd saved. The directions on the bottle indicated that I should use a poly brush to avoid brush marks. That struck me as odd because most dyes would not be affected by this, but as I opened the bottle it became clear that this is more of a paint than a dye. Don't get me wrong...it may have dye in it, and as as far as paints go it's fairly thin, but it's not the watery consistency of Rit or similar dyes. Since I did not have a poly brush handy and really didn't want to make a special trip to the home center to get one just to sacrifice for this experiment I used the only thing I had -- a spare paint roller with a 1/4" nap.

I shook the product for 10-15 seconds before I opened the container and poured a bit of it on the end of the roller. I then smoothly and carefully applied the product over the length of the trim, and let it dry about 30 seconds before wiping off the excess and taking care to avoid the combination of pressure and direction of travel that would tend to produce any "brush marks". The result is shown in the picture. If it's not obvious, the old, faded trim is on the left and the newly "restored" trim is on the right. Judge for yourself.

I'm not convinced this trim restorer product is the best solution available, but the improvement is notable in spite of the fact that some brush marks are visible in the finish. The overall tonal quality of the trim is more uniform and given a shot of Aerospace Protectant I'm sure it would look like new. Of course, the trim on which I experimented has a smooth finish while the front and rear trim I endeavor to restore has a grainy texture that may not take to this process as well...that is unless I were to apply it with an airbrush or similar. The product directions (such as they are) do suggest spraying it to avoid brush marks. Fortunately, I have a need for an airbrush to touch up some rivets on the airplane following some airframe repair work so I may buy one and use it for a second experiment on the remaining trim piece. Something tells me I'll wind up ordering new trim in any case, but at least I can order it with a clear conscience knowing that I made a best effort to repair it.

Mileage: 159000, Parts: $30

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Rear Trim Restoration

Following last weekend's experiment I decided to apply the Leatherique Rubber Black trim restorer to the rear bumper trim. I started the process yesterday and did everything necessary to clean and prep the trim to remove any wax or protectant left over from last year's detailing sessions. I applied the product and feathered it out for a uniform appearance as I did last weekend. The textured trim actually took the product better than the side mouldings. I let it dry overnight and was completely satisfied with the results, right up to the point that the product started to come off on my hands while reinstalling the parts this morning.

This confirmed my suspicion that Rubber Black is, in fact, a paint and not a dye. That's not to say that there is no dye whatsoever in the product and that the trim isn't permanently darker at this point, but seriously -- if I wanted a surface covering to mask the problem rather than a dye to penetrate the trim material I would have bought a can of Krylon.

I managed to cover the blotchiness now apparent in the trim with some 303 Aerospace Protectant, and expect to purchase new trim parts eventually. I already had plans to do this so as long as I can get the vendor to give me a credit for the Rubber Black product I'll just chalk it up to experience and remind myself once again that there is no free lunch in this world. You want to repair faded trim? Buy new trim. You want to keep the trim looking new from that point on? Regularly apply a protectant with UV protection like 303 Aerospace Protectant. Simple as that.

Aux Cooling Fan Bearing Failure

Some time ago I realized that one of the reasons my A/C compressor was making a lot of noise was because the aux fan wasn't running. That turned out to be caused by the failure of the low-speed fan relay. I commented at the time that I was happy to save the cost of a new aux fan because the OE part is surprisingly expensive, even by BMW standards. Even with the aux fan repaired at the time I still noticed a bit of noise coming from the compressor but it was far less noticeable than before.

Today while doing my weekly under-the-hood inspection I decided to run the A/C for the first time this season. The compressor exhibited the typical low-level rumbling (marbles in a foam lined can) sound I have come to accept from this 10 year old unit, but what I did not expect to hear was a short scraping / grinding noise that seemed to reoccur every 30 seconds or so. I kneeled in front of the car, peered through the grill and watched the aux fan start up normally and then generate the noise as it shut down abruptly. I know that the fan is supposed to cycle as needed, but it's supposed to coast to a stop -- not grind to a halt in little more than one second. I removed the cover on the top of the radiator to gain access to the fan, grabbed one of the blades and gave it a tug. That clearly demonstrated the source of the noise -- bad bearings. The motor is shot and needs to be replaced before it gets too hot or before I use the A/C.

I spent a good half hour searching various BMW parts houses online to find the best price. The OE part from Tischer is $515 with their usual awesome discount -- a good price for the OE part but still excessive for what is basically a two speed fan. Bavarian Auto advertised an aftermarket equivalent (possibly OEM but I'm not sure) for $320. I decided that it was worth going with an aftermarket part to save $200 but I nevertheless continued searching for other prices.

That's when Google stumbled on well-known BMW specialty house Koala Motorsport. I didn't even know they sold individual BMW parts (Brett, owner of Koala, is more known in the industry for his differentials) but was pleasantly surprised to find greater savings there. Brett's price? $250 including shipping, or about half the price of the OE part. The thing that convinced me to buy from Brett? Unlike most BMW parts houses that just say something stupid like "BMW fan assembly" in the part description field, Koala's product description included a reasonably sized picture so I could compare my part to theirs and a comment that could only come from an experienced BMW technician like Brett: "This assembly includes the main mounting shroud, which becomes brittle with age and may not survive the fan replacement process". That simple statement (plus another that confirmed what the specific part number included) made the sale.

I should have the fan assembly later this week and expect to do the installation next weekend. I pulled the TIS description for this work and it appears that I'll need to remove the bumper cover to get at it. Should be an interesting project.

Mileage: 159260

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Aux Cooling Fan Replacement

(Image: New E36 Electric Auxiliary Fan Installed) As expected the aux fan arrived from Koala Motorsport this week. I was so busy this weekend with more pressing regular life matters I almost didn't get the time to install the part, but I managed to get the other work done ahead of time and install the new fan.

While the BMW TIS suggests you need to remove the bumper cover to remove the fan and frame assembly, that is incorrect. I just removed a few protective panels attached to the bottom of the bumper cover and six screws on the fan assembly itself and the fan assembly slid right out the bottom of the car.

I stopped by the dealer earlier this week to get a quote on the work. It turned out that if I knew nothing about my car and just walked into the dealer to get this done my wallet would be lighter by a whopping $805 rather than the $250 it cost me to buy an aftermarket part and do the job myself. Unlike most jobs where labor dominates the cost the vast majority of this repair is sunk in the cost of the part, which is a staggering $642. That's just crazy. I see no reason to buy the OE part when the aftermarket part looks and appears to function identically to it.

I took apart the old fan to figure out what failed. The rotor (rotating assembly) of the electric motor was in good shape, but the permanent magnets that surrounded the rotor were broken in several places. Moving the rotor back and forth caused the magnet fragments to move around and bunch up with each other. This caused a lot of friction in the rotating assembly and frankly I'm surprised the motor actually worked in this condition. Hello, garbage man? I have a ten year old aux fan for ya...

Now for the fun part - cost analysis. Retail price for the OE fan is $642. I paid $240 and change + shipping, or $252 total. This is a savings of almost $400. The quote at the dealer for this job was $805. $805 - $642 = $163 in labor I saved by doing this job myself. The total savings is obviously $805 - $252 or $553. Not a bad payday for a few hours of research and wrenching, don't you think? DIY. It's the thing to do. Seriously.

Mileage: 159633, Parts: $252, Parts Saved: $390, Labor Saved: $163

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Oil Service, Fuel Filter

This week the car passed 160K miles and that prompted a check of my maintenance schedule. That revealed the need for an oil service, a fuel filter change, and a coolant flush. I knew the oil service would be easy enough, but the fuel filter and coolant flush would be firsts for me as DIY procedures.

(Image: Date in service written on fuel filter)After doing some research on the usual forums I realized that replacing the fuel filter would be a relatively simple process but I decided to wait on the coolant flush until I had received a clarification of one aspect of the procedure from a few other sources before tackling it. Better safe than sorry, especially when a $150 oxygen sensor is involved. Long story. I'll explain it when the time comes.

I expect to detail the fuel filter process in a DIY soon so I won't go into detail here but I will tell you that the way gasoline eats through polyisocyanurate insulation panels (you know, the stuff they put under residential siding and the very same panels I use to line the gravel driveway when I work outside under my car) is kind of cool. What's not cool is how the chemical reaction creates an evil goo that remains in molten form just long enough to find it's way into an unsuspecting DIY technician's hair.

Further, I learned that it is really hard to get the goo out of said technician's hair after the gasoline evaporates and the foam resolidifies unless one uses a solvent like, oh, say, gasoline applied to a blue shop towel to remove it. To borrow an old shampoo marketing slogan, "Gee, your hair smells like gasoline and polyisocyanurate foam". Oh well. If I get cancer, at least I'll know why. :-|

The labor rate at my dealer is now $110/hour so the labor savings from DIY oil services has risen as well. I now save about $90 in labor and $10 in parts doing this myself. The oil ran about $50 and the oil analysis remains about $20, so the basic cost for a DIY oil service and analysis at this point is $70 in parts.

The fuel filter was $30 and the labor to replace it at the dealer is $70. As usual the 7% sales tax largely offset the 10% CCA discount on the parts, so I saved $70 doing this myself.

Mileage: 160180, Parts: $100, Parts Saved: $10, Labor Saved: $160

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Fuel System Cleaner

(Image: Fuel filter cut open for inspection)As I mentioned in a prior blog entry BMW recently switched its recommended fuel system cleaner. I was told it had something to do with the change to ethanol based fuels but I don't know if that's true. What I do know is that the old stuff used to come in a small white translucent bottle like that depicted in my Fuel Pump DIY article and cost about $4. The new stuff comes in an opaque black bottle that looks suspiciously (read: exactly) like the one used for Techron sold in the aftermarket and costs $12.

I have long known that Techron sells for about $8 a bottle in the aftermarket so I felt I was getting a good deal buying BMW's fuel system cleaner for $4. Since that product is no longer available and I really didn't want to pay 50% more for what is very likely Techron relabled for BMW I decided to buy a bottle of Techron while at my local auto supply and drop it in the tank this week.

I still haven't figured out whether it makes sense to pay even $8 for what is largely Stoddard Solvent (a.k.a. mineral spirits, paint thinner, etc.), naphtha, and some xylene and benzene mixed in along with an almost insignificant amount of the proprietary detergent called Techron, but I suppose I'll figure it out when I have my fuel injectors flow balanced or pull the head off the engine.

This rebranding thing isn't new, incidentally. Auto manufacturers are in the business of building cars...not chemical engineering. What's new is that manufacturers aren't even bothering to rebrand certain parts. Case in point: while I was at the parts window I saw one of the techs fulfilling an order for the special 10W-60 oil required by the S54-equipped M3 and the only reference to BMW on the bottle was the part number in small letters on the back. The label looked like any other label you'd find on a bottle of Castrol sold in the aftermarket. The difference here being, of course, that you can't get this specific oil anywhere but a BMW dealer due to exclusivity agreements between Castrol and BMW.

Fuel Filter Inspection

Last week I set the fuel filter aside to drain and dry out because I knew I wanted to eventually cut it open to inspect the element. Today I used a metal bandsaw to cut off the ends of the filter and was pleasantly surprised to find the paper element completely clean and in one piece.

In fact it was so clean that if I knew for sure that the recommended replacement interval of 36K miles as specified in the TIS was based strictly on some statistical estimate of expected contamination I would gladly extend the interval to something more reasonable like 54K or 72K miles. However, since BMW tends to advocate less than proper maintenance these days I have to believe that the interval is based more on the integrity of the filter medium. For this reason and because the filters are relatively inexpensive and easy to replace I'll likely continue to use the 36K interval.

Oil Analysis

My last oil analysis showed up this week as well and fortunately there's nothing to report. Aside from the tester's comments it looked like a copy of the last analysis...which is exactly what I want to see. All of the wear metals are significantly below the statistical averages and no coolant or other contaminants were found. So the M52 appears to be holding up well passing 160K.

Coolant Flush Research

I've been trying to figure out how to (easily) do a coolant flush involving the block drain without removing the pre-cat O2 sensor that gets in the way of using a box wrench, so today I jacked up the front end to do some experimentation and figured out a few things:

More to follow on this procedure when I get around to doing it.

Mileage: 160250, Parts: $8, Parts Saved: $4

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Aux Fan Revisited

Yesterday while running a few errands during lunch I decided to use the air conditioning for the first time this season. Since I knew I had just repaired the aux fan I decided to flick the snowflake button on and walk out in front of the car to make sure the fan was working. To my surprise I found it at a dead stop. Since turning on the air conditioning turns on the aux fan I knew this was a problem, and sure enough I also found the compressor making noise indicative of higher than normal pressure in the system. I turned off the air conditioning to reduce stress on the compressor and pondered the cause while I went about my business and carefully watched the temperature gauge.

While doing the aux fan replacement I noticed the electrical plug fit tightly into the receptacle and required a lot of force to press together. In fact, I had to use a channel-lox pliers to press them together sufficiently for the plastic spring clips to grab properly. I was acutely aware at the time that the connectors might separate so I put a ty-wrap around the spring clips to lock the assembly in place. My first instinct in the troubleshooting process was that this connection had come apart.

Unfortunately, once I got home, put the car up ramps and managed to remove the panels I found the electrical plug in exactly the same condition I'd left it. The first troubleshooting step was to pull the plug to test for power with the engine running and the air conditioning turned on. Under these conditions I found 14 volts DC on one of the terminals (the low-speed side). This meant that the low speed fan relay and the associated fuse were in good shape, so the problem lay with either the fan motor or the electrical plug / receptacle assembly. I turned off the engine to reconnect the plug and then started the engine again to retest it. Thankfully, the fan turned on as expected, which eliminated the fan as the culprit. This little revelation caused me to breathe a sigh of relief because I'd just saved myself from the hassle of cross shipping the fan with a new unit.

Concerned that the poor connection might be due to oxidation on the older contacts of the plug I went over to my brother's electrical van to pull out out a tube of anti-oxidation paste (a conductive dark gray goo that we use whenever mating dissimilar metals like copper and aluminum to prevent corrosion). I used one of my picks (the same ones I use to remove snap rings or the o-ring on the oil filter cannister) to put a very small amount into each female conductor terminal located in the electrical plug. I inserted the connector into the receptacle several times before seating it for good and put a ty-wrap around the spring clips to lock it in place. I tested the fan one last time before I reinstalled the protective panels and called it a day.

I expect to replace this connector assembly with a new waterproof unit but that will have to wait until my schedule permits finding an appropriate part. The only thing that may make it difficult to find is the fact that it must support a minimum of 20 Amps DC continuous running load.

If I had brought this to the dealer they would have charged me a diagnostic charge of around $100 plus the labor to actually fix it, which could have been another hour, or $110. The total process, including searching for the anti-oxidation paste took me about 45 minutes, so I'll just conservatively call it $100 labor saved.

Mileage: 160680; Labor Saved: $100

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Aux Fan Connectors Replaced

A couple days after I "repaired" the aux fan's electrical connection I noticed, once again, that the aux fan would not run with the air conditioning turned on. Knowing full well that much warmer weather was forecast for later in the week and the aux fan would be called provide airflow through the coolant radiator as well as the condenser I decided to fix the problem by replacing the faulty connectors. The problem was identifying the type of replacement connector assembly appropriate for the application.

(Image: Original auxiliary fan electrical connectors detached)The primary criteria was current capacity. The aux fan is connected via 14 gauge stranded wire. In 110V AC circuits that's good for about 15 amps, but in 12V DC circuits the same wire size is rated for anywhere from 30-40 amps depending on the length of the wire. This is consistent with the 30 amp fuse used in the aux fan circuit. Further complicating the solution was the need for a sealed connector. The front of the car is regularly battered with water with the addition of salt spray in the winter. Salt and water are enemies of any good electrical connection so I considered a sealed connector essential to the solution.

In my search I stumbled on several connector types including Weatherpak (commonly used on GM products and good for 20 amps), Metri-Pak 280 (good for 30 amps) and Deutsche DTP connectors (25 amp). I gravitated toward the Deutsche connectors primarily because I found they were optionally available with solid contacts rather than the cheaper die stamped equivalents.

The problem? Not only are the Deutche connectors about twice the price of the Weatherpak units (sold as kits including the connector shells and contacts, the plug and receptacle are each about $14), the crimping tools for the solid terminals are ridiculously priced at $300 or more. I managed to find one for $150, but that was still out of the question because I would likely never use it more than once. I asked one supplier advertisting custom fabrication if they would build a connector assembly for me with pigtails so I could splice the assembly into the wiring and avoid the tool purchase. The quote for the completed assembly came in at $72. Expensive for a single connector, but far more reasonable than the nearly $200 I'd pay for the tool and the necessary components.

Unfortunately, by the time I'd gathered this information it was late in the week and I had to use the car in 95+ degree heat today so I managed to splice in some simple crimp-on male/female terminals I had in my spare parts bin. I took a few pictures of the wiring before I cut off the connectors and then reassembled the connectors and checked continuity to make sure the connector was wired as I expected. The resulting fix isn't particularly pretty looking, and even with some electrical tape tightly wrapped around the terminals I would hardly consider the connections sealed, but it should be satisfactory for now.

Later that evening I went to my brother's engagement party at a winery in town. After I pulled into the parking lot I opened the door and walked around to the front of the car to find the fan running as expected. I then reached back into the car and turned off the air conditioning. This time the fan continued to run, no doubt due to the fact that the coolant temperature had exceeded the low-speed theshold as I drove around slowly with little air flowing over the radiator looking for the place. I shut the engine down at that point confident that I'd fixed the problem, but I resolved to replace the terminals with a proper sealed connector as soon as my schedule permits.

Mileage: 161150

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Fuel System Treatment

I've settled on a 4500 mile interval for using fuel system cleaner and have scheduled it to coincide with the oil service so I put a bottle of Techron in the tank this week. I have noticed hard cold starts in the morning while using fuel with the Techron additive. Nothing much I can do about that aside from not using it, but I do believe fuel system cleaners serve an important role given that the detergency of gasoline has been reduced to the bare minimum levels required by law in an effort to add a few more billion in profit to the oil companys' bottom line.

Oil Service

The service indicator illuminated more or less on schedule this week so I dropped by the dealer today to pick up some 5W-30 and an oil filter kit in order to complete the oil service. I made quick work of the oil service and grounded pin 7 of the diagnostic connector for three seconds as required to clear the service indicator. While I was at it, I collected another oil sample and plan to send that out soon. I don't expect any change from the last report but I'll post the results here if there's something worth reporting.


I decided to use the opportunity afforded by the oil service to do a close inspection of the undercarriage. With my trusty (and extremely bright) 3 watt LED D-cell based mag light I got under the car and started my inspection.

Fortunately, a good look at the front suspension revealed little to complain about:

The rear of the car looked equally good. I paid extra attention to the rear suspension because I've been trying to track down an odd feeling the car has developed at speeds of 70 MPH or more that I can best describe as similar to the feeling experienced when the car buffets in strong crosswinds. The problem is only intermittent. I initially thought it might have been due to tires or play in the front suspension but the characteristics of the problem suggest it may, in fact, be caused by worn trailing arm bushings, which are still original. If these bushings flex too much it causes the rear alignment (toe, specifically) to change which can cause the rear to swing a bit. This can give the appearance of hysteresis or slop in the steering when there is in fact none at all. This is all very subtle, mind you, so most people would never notice it but, at usual, I do.

One other item I've been watching is the transmission. I now have about 40K miles on the remanufactured transmission and I think it's in need of an oil and filter change. I know a shop that has the fittings necessary to flush the transmission by disconnecting the transmission cooler so I plan to use that technique to replace all the fluid at once rather than dropping the pans several times. This will get at the oil that would otherwise remain in the torque converter and obviate the need to pull the smaller of the two pans when I change the filter. Now all I have to do is find the time to do that.

Record Keeping Note

For the purposes of documenting labor savings I figured I'd "charge" myself roughly an hour to do this inspection. I think that's more than fair because the dealer would charge a hell of a lot more than $100 to conduct either Inspection I or II, and I wouldn't expect an indy technician to do the job for free either. Hence the labor savings of roughly two hours or $220.

Mileage: 164850, Parts $65, Labor saved $220

Saturday, August 30, 2008

First Coolant Flush DIY

If I chose to follow the two year interval for coolant flushes as recommended on the E36 when it first came out (since changed to three years), I was due for a coolant flush in June. Due to my schedule and my desire to determine the proper method to flush the coolant I delayed the process...until yesterday when I completed my first DIY coolant flush.

I realize that certain purists may take issue with the method I used. Let me explain. A few months back while I was researching this task I discovered that in order to remove the block drain plug I would have to remove one of the pre-catalyst oxygen sensors. This is due to the use of the M3 headers on the M52 engine in 96-99 coupes. Since unscrewing the oxygen sensor would require me to repeat the process as documented in my Oxygen Sensor DIY article, I decided that I'd look for alternative methods and seek my technician's advice.

It's clear to me now that the dealer technicians do not remove the oxygen sensor and thus do what I choose to call an "abridged coolant flush". Just as an automatic transmission fluid change unavoidably leaves a good 30% of the fluid behind in the torque converter (unless, of course, you use a machine to cycle in new fluid as the transmission is running), the abridged coolant flush leaves about 50% of the coolant behind in the block.

The "abridged" technique is not as bad as it seems for one simple reason: the proof is in the pudding. My dealer flushed only half the fluid every other year and I managed to get 125K out of my radiator and 165K on the original heater core (knock on wood, of course), and I should mention that I replaced the radiator not because electrolysis had damaged the metal core, but because the plastic necks were about to fail. Fortunately, I won't bother to subject you to the sleep aid that would be a lecture on asymptotes as they apply to coolant flushes. Just trust in the knowledge that replacing half the fluid every year or two achieves the goal and protects the system.

The total cost for a coolant flush at the dealer is $220, $25 of which is for parts. Thus, I managed to save $195 by doing this job myself. It's not a ton of money, but as usual it's better in my pocket than anyone else's. Viva la DIY!

Mileage: 165115, Parts $25, Labor saved $195

Monday, September 1, 2008

Oil Analysis All Clear

(Image: Blackstone Labs oil analysis report, August 28, 2008)As expected, the oil analysis came back clear, and I'm beginning to think I could easily run this engine for another 100K miles provided I keep up with routine maintenance of the oil and coolant. The chief concern I have at this point is a failed head gasket, but they usually fail because people don't change the coolant, so I should be in good shape there. We'll see over the next few years I suppose.

Trip to HazMat

I couldn't quite believe that I had managed to collect almost 20 gallons of used motor oil, ATF, and coolant over the past year but that was the tally I gave to the HazMat facility when I made an appointment this morning. I asked the attendants why they were open on a holiday and they said that they were required to be open at any time the nearby landfill was open in case they had a spill over there and needed to clean it up.

I was originally under the impression that I could not throw BMW paper oil filters and oil soaked paper towels and rags into the household trash but the attendants told me that was okay and refused to take them. They did agree, however, to take a metal oil filter I removed from a John Deere tractor because they apparently recycle the metal. I told them I thought this was a bit strange since the paper oil filters can still hold a lot of oil that can leach into the groundwater but it was pretty clear they didn't make the rules.

Trivia for the day -- this one county facility collected over a million pounds of hazardous waste that was recycled or otherwise properly disposed of...and that's a million pounds that didn't wind up in the landfill contaminating our ground water.

Rear Swaybar Bushings and Endlinks

While normal people were out on their decks flipping burgers and dogs on the grill this fine Labor Day, crazy BMW owners like me were using this holiday as an opportunity to catch up on some work that got swept under the rug. Of course, I'm referring to my rear swaybar (ahem, "stabilizer bar") bushings and endlinks.

I bought the parts for this job last year when I did the front swaybar, but stories online of DIYers having problems with the press-fit endlinks scared me off at the time. The odd "loose" feeling in the rear end at high speed I've experienced recently prompted me to tackle this before I take the car in to see my technician for a test drive to get his opinion. I'm pretty sure the problem is bad trailing arm bushings, but I won't know until my technician uses his 30 years of experience, puts his ear to the road, so-to-speak, and gives me his diagnosis.

I gathered what information I could find from online resources as well as the TIS and started work around noon today. I expected to be done in around two hours but I ran into a snag. In short, I somehow managed to strip the threads on one of the new brackets used to connect the endlink to the upper control arm. I was not pleased.

I knew that the car was safe to drive in that condition because there was no way in hell that nut was going to pull out the remainder of the threads, but I'm never one to do things half-assed. So I cursed a few times and then attacked the nut with a reinforced cutting disk attached to my Dremel. In about 10 minutes I managed to cut the stripped nut off and remove the swaybar again. The original bracket was still in great shape so I cleaned it up and installed it on the new endlink, reinstalled the bar, torqued the fasteners as best I could and breathed another sigh...this time one of relief.

(Image: Stripped threads on a rear swaybar endlink bracket)The strange thing about stripping the nut is at no time did the fastener on the left side bracket "tighten up" as the bracket and control arm mated. I mean, this "tightening" is obvious when it occurs on the bushing brackets, for example, since you literally can't turn the fastener with the same torque anymore. But that didn't happen here, and the kicker is the VERY SAME THING started to happen with the old bracket I reinstalled on the left side to replace the damaged new bracket, but this time I didn't go so far as to pull out the threads. I simply stopped turning the fastener when I saw the anti-twist nub on the bracket appear in the adjacent hole in the control arm. Was the bracket fully mated with the control arm? I think so, but there was no way in hell I was going to destroy another bracket to test the theory. Frankly, I think the brackets are defective and should be made of a much harder steel so this doesn't happen, but I don't expect BMW to acknowledge that in my lifetime.

That little headache aside, the job went more or less as planned and the car seems to be a bit more "smooth" in the rear as a result. The effect so far appears quite subtle, much in the same way the front end quieted down when I replaced the front end links and bushings. The rubber bushings in the end links were definitely cracked, but still surprisingly flexible. The support bushings on the car were in pretty good shape too and were still quite pliable, though they were slightly worn and compressed a bit near the edges just like those I removed from the front swaybar. I'm not sure if the new parts will really make a difference, but if after some additional driving I can articulate the change(s), I'll document them here.

The best tip for this work came from my technician, who pointed out that if I couldn't get the car high enough off the ground to get the swaybar near vertical as required to snake it out from under the car, I'd need to remove the two rear rubber isolation muffler mounts from the body and pull the muffler down a few inches. He promised this would provide the clearance between the bar and pipes needed to minimize the angle at which one is required to rotate the bar to remove it. And sure enough, it worked exactly as he indicated. Have I said lately my tech is a cool guy?

Book labor for this task reportedly 1.5 hours, or about $180 with tax at my dealer, which means most master BMW techs could get it done in half that time. When I looked up at the clock as I began to put the tools away I realized nearly three hours had passed. Forty-five minutes of that time, however, was required to correct the stripped fastener and I spent at least 15 minutes cleaning up afterward, thus I wasn't far off from the book labor figure. I expect the "customer" will be pleased with my bill. :-) I'll call this job $65 in parts and Labor Saved of $180.

I'll be swamped with other things this week as I return to the salt mine, but I hope to update my existing Swaybar Service DIY with this new information as soon as I'm able. Look for that.

Mileage: 165200, Parts $65, Labor saved $180

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Swaybar Update

After driving for a week with the new rear swaybar endlinks and bushings I have to say that the car is much better behaved than I thought it would be, considering that the old parts didn't look that bad. The improvement is easily on a par with the results from the front sway bar service I conducted last year. The entire rear of the car seems "quieter" than before...and I mean that in a NVH (Noise, Vibration, Handling) sense, particularly at speed.

Turns at up to 80 MPH are definitely more predictable, particularly as I make the transition from braking before the turn entry to the throttle and quickly but smoothly steer into the turn to carry the car through the apex. At cruise, small bumps and cracks in the pavement don't transmit as readily to the seat of my pants, so the entire car feels smoother and more in control. That's probably why I had the confidence to bring the car up to 110 MPH on some smooth and straight road. I still find it truly amazing what this 11 year old car will do. It was designed in the early 90's and still blows the doors off of most of the new stuff out there today.

Surprise Brake Job

(Image: Gauge cluster annunication for brake pad wear)While driving to work earlier in the week I applied the brake pedal to slow down (believe it or not, I do slow down on occasion) and saw the red brake wear indicator illuminate. As I continued the drive to work I contemplated what could be wrong. The brakes weren't due for at least another 10K miles, so I initially assumed the indicator was in error. After I pulled into the parking lot at work I got out to inspect the brakes and much to my surprise found the pads worn down to a level that would trip the wear sensor. I immediately took this as a sign that I have been working too hard and I resolved to order the parts and do the job this weekend.

Later that night, following the usual check of realoem.com and the ETK for part numbers, I placed an order with Jason at Tischer BMW via mileoneparts. To the usual complement of pads, rotors, retaining screws and wear sensor I added two caliper guide bushing repair kits. Caliper guide bushings allow the caliper to slide smoothly, and worn (or greased) bushings can cause the caliper to bind up. Since it's hard to inspect the interior of the bushings I decided to file this under the heading of preventative maintenance. Needed or not, they would be replaced.

I completed the brake job this afternoon and found it went mostly as expected. The left front rotor didn't want to separate from the hub but a couple shots of WD-40 in the lug bolt holes, a 10 minute break, and some not-so-gentle persuasion with the dead blow hammer did the trick. Needless to say, I spent some extra time cleaning off the hub before wiping on a fresh coat of anti-seize in an effort to prevent this next time.

The only other snag came about when I tried to press the piston back into the caliper bore using my old woodworker's clamp. The right side eventually pressed in but the left side simply wouldn't budge. I didn't happen to have a c-clamp handy so I quickly changed clothes, hopped in the E46 and shot over to Home Depot to pick up a 4" c-clamp which ultimately worked like a charm. This task is all about leverage, and you need lots of it to work those pistons back in far enough so the thick new pads will fit over the rotors. Once I managed to push both pistons back into the calipers I checked the level of brake fluid in the reservoir to find it very close to the maximum level. As regular readers may recall, I intentionally left the fluid near the minimum level in anticipation of this during my recent brake fluid flush, so that worked out as expected. As we pilots say while training to fly in instrument conditions (in the clouds by reference to instruments only), the two most important things are the next two things. Translated: it pays to think ahead.

As for the shortened brake life, I think this is a simple consequence of running 18" wheels. It's not so much the weight as it is the mass farther away from the center of the wheel that places extra demands on the brakes. In that respect I will look forward to November when I plan to install my set of 16" winter wheels and tires.

Book labor on brake jobs are 2.0 hours per axle or $235 including tax at current dealer rates. Retail OE parts cost $278, but Tischer's discounts got that down to $221, or a savings of $57. I also bought a can of brake cleaner ($5), a pair of throw-away gloves ($2) and one tool (the c-clamp, $8) to complete the task. And for record keeping purposes, I also bought two jack pads for $21. They were not strictly needed for this task, so I'll file those under "extra parts". Total DIY savings: a bit under $300. Not bad.

I took some extra pictures this time around so expect an update to my Brake Job DIY soon.

Mileage: 165475, Parts $221, Extra Parts and Materials: $28, Tools: $8, Parts Saved: $62, Labor saved $235

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Worn Rear Tires + Wet, Off-Camber Corner = Uncommanded Oversteer

If you've read my Long Term Review of the E36, you may recall the following quote:

"...it's just cheaper and easier to put four new tires on the car when the rears are spent -- even if the fronts appear to have some life left in them. This costs money, yes, but your greatest enemy in any modern rear-wheel-drive sports car is worn tires. Don't scrimp on tires, or you'll wind up in the weeds."

(Image: Depiction of loss of control in turn)Little did I know that I'd have the opportunity to prove that theory correct recently. A few weeks ago I was on the way to my brother's house, following the same route I'd used for years. It had rained earlier that morning but the roads were mostly dry at this point. I was certainly in no particular rush to get to my destination and I wasn't hot dogging it as I had my mind on other things. However, as I managed to navigate one of the last curves on the route all hell broke loose.

Just as I passed the apex of the left turn and started to take out the steering input to straighten the car I felt the rear start to rotate out to the right as the tires lost traction. My instincts and training on the skidpad at the BMW Performance Center kicked in instantly and once I realized a small amount of counter-steering wouldn't bring the rear back in line I added more. And more. And the rear kept rotating. Everything felt like it was happening in slow motion, but it didn't take long before I was looking out the passenger window at the direction the car was traveling down the center of the road. The steering was at full opposite lock as the car crossed the double yellow line going sideways and continued to rotate past 90 degrees. At this point I knew I couldn't save the turn so I used the only tool I had left at my disposal -- I hit the brakes. Normally this wouldn't be a particularly smart move but shortly thereafter I felt the rear shudder and rotation start to slow down as the car approached the 180 degree point. Even as the rotation slowed the car's momentum was still carrying it sideways a bit so I came to rest with the car parallel to the road, in the opposite lane about two feet off the road into some grass and mud.

I took a few seconds to let out a few choice words before I carefully applied a little throttle to make sure I wouldn't dig myself a hole in the mud and quickly made the k-turn necessary to get back on my way. And that's when it dawned on me -- as I saw some traffic approaching I realized that I had just dodged a bullet. Not only did I manage to avoid hitting a nearby telephone pole and a residential mailbox in the vicinity but I was extremely fortunate that there was no traffic in the opposite lane approaching the turn. If that were the case I would have most certainly hit another car, lost my baby, and likely been charged with careless driving. My insurance would have gone through the roof and I would have received nothing for the car...because I had finally taken collision coverage off the car less than a month earlier because (get this) the economics no longer made sense. Talk about a Marty McFly moment.

When I got to my brother's house I took a close look at the passenger's side of the car and found only a bit of mud on the right rear wheel which I promptly washed off.

So here are the lessons learned:

  1. This is clearly the result of worn rear tires, a slightly wet road, and an off-camber corner. Re-read the quote above. There's nothing wrong with trying to stretch a set of tires but it's important to be aware of the effects worn tires have on the dynamics of the car. BMWs are famous for their 50/50 weight distribution. This is normally a perk as the car remains balanced through turns, favoring neither understeer nor oversteer (particularly with a "square" wheel/tire configuration like I choose to run) but when the car is near the limit of traction in wet conditions worn rear tires can shift the tendency toward oversteer...which is exactly what happened in this case.
  2. This serves as a practical example of the difference between the early ASC-based traction control on the E36 and the DSC traction control with its integral yaw-rate sensor installed on the E46 and later model BMWs. Had I been driving the E46 under the same conditions it's quite likely that DSC would have stopped the rotation before it developed by independently controlling the rear brakes. All the E36's traction control does is reduce throttle if it senses a 2 MPH or greater differential in the RPM of the front and rear wheels, but as it's theoretically possible to have the front and rear wheels traveling at more or less the same speed while traction is lost, ASC won't prevent or arrest the yaw if it develops. I should point out that ASC is present on E46 and later vehicles, but it's only one component of the traction control system known as DSC.
  3. Road designers in this country need to buy a clue from Germany, who actually know how to drain roads properly without using 40 degrees of crown. Got me?
  4. Off-camber corners suck.

I had plans to swap these tires with the snow tires on December 1st as I did last year but as a result of this incident I'm now planning to swap on November 1st. Even if we don't expect to see any snow until December or January, average temperatures should be well within the optimal operating range for the winter tires.


I had to take the E46 out on an errand and happened to pass by my dealer so I picked up a Microfilter for the E36 and and later installed it. The only interesting thing to report about this is that I can now do it in about 5 minutes. The dealers charge 0.6 for this job because the official instructions from BMW advocate removal of the glove box, but even if none of the techs do it that way they'll still charge you book labor. 0.6 * $110 + tax is $71 saved by doing it myself. I also saved 10% on the part but that was largely offset by the 7% SST so I wound up paying $38 for it.

Maintenance Schedule Sanity Check

Mileage: 166983, Parts: $38, Labor Saved: $71

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Power Window Motor and Regulator

A couple months ago I was getting out of my car with a a several bags of groceries in hand and suddenly realized that I'd forgotten to close the sunroof. Rather than set everything down and climb back into the car I decided to use a little-known feature of the E36 BMW -- convenience close. For whatever reason I've probably used this about four times since I've owned the car, but I figured I could use some "convenience" right about now and simply put the key in the door, turned it to lock the door, and then held it at the stop until the sunroof closed. Quick and easy.

(Image: Power window motor and regulator on door)The next morning when I got in the car I closed the door and quickly realized that I had failed to hear the familiar "joggle" the window does to accomodate mating of the frameless door with the car. Instinctively I tried to lower the window with the button and it failed to move. All I heard was a faint clicking sound coming from within the door panel. I figured at this point that the power window motor had failed, but since the window was fully up and I had to get to work I put things in perspective and went about my day.

The next morning I opened the door and to my amazement saw the window joggle occur. A quick check of the button demonstrated that the window motor still worked. As I had seen this very same behavior with the sunroof many years ago I figured that the convenience close feature had somehow confused the limits for the window and the window motor was, in fact, fine.

The window worked normally for several weeks...that is until last weekend when I closed the door again and realized that the window failed to "joggle". And sure enough the window buttons produced little more than clicks from within the door. "Not this crap, again", I thought to myself. "Okay, in spite of the fact that I just replaced this stupid window motor three years ago after one of the deer hits, I'll fix your little red wagon...and place an order with Tischer today".

Some research on Bimmerforums revealed a fairly detailed DIY thread and several helpful comments (as well as the typical flamethrower comments by some people who obviously know it all...but I digress). I used that and RealOEM to justify the purchase of the window motor and the regulator ("scissor arms") just in case they had bent or otherwise failed. The parts came in on time as usual (thanks again guys!) and I managed to fix the window today.

All I can say is that this is one of those jobs that I really would have preferred to pay someone else to do, but I decided to do it myself because I realized there was a sizeable DIY savings to be had here. My tech told me that book labor for a window motor replacement is 2.5 hours, or about $295 with tax at current dealer rates. When I combined that with the nearly $55 I'd save by sourcing the parts myself the decision was a no-brainer. The job took me exactly 2.5 hours, which I consider quite reasonable given some of the estimates first-timers have published online (4 hours seemed typical). And if I didn't stop to take pictures I probably could have done it in a little over 2 hours. Given that I typically have to "pay myself" $100 or more an hour to make this work worth my effort, I appear to have handily exceeded that benchmark in this case.

The job came out flawlessly and the window seems to ride noticeably smoother and quieter than it had in recent memory. Even the "joggle" is nearly silent now. Just like new. Well, except for the airbag light in the gauge cluster that I need to have cleared tomorrow. I won't go into much detail here but I will say that if you have side airbags and need to do this job, just expect to get an airbag light as a consequence of doing this safely. After all, it's better than having an explosive device six inches from your face while you're busy cursing at the window motor. No safety glasses will save your eyesight if it goes off, I'm afraid.

A DIY is on the way. Look for it soon.

Mileage: 167320, Parts: $270, Labor Saved: $295, Parts Saved: $55

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Back to Winter Rubber

(Image: Michelin Pilot Sport A/S 235/40/18 worn past wear bars)One day this week while at work I looked out the window to find the Earth under assault by countless white crystals falling menacingly from the sky. As I recalled that I not yet managed to swap my Pilot Sport all-season tires for something with actual tread on them (like my winter tire set) I defiantly mumbled to myself "if this stuff starts accumulating, I'm outta here". Fortunately, however, the flakes met their fate as they hurled into the relatively warm surface and I was saved the promise of another off-road excursion on the way home that day. The car was extremely tail-happy in the wet conditions and I considered myself thankful I don't suffer from photosensitive epilepsy as the traction control light flashed furiously in the dark cockpit the whole way home. Need. New. Tires. Now.

So I took care of that today. I pulled the set of 16" double-spokes equipped with Dunlop Winter Sport M3's out into the yard for a thorough cleaning before I pulled the E36 into the garage and jacked up each axle in turn. With the lugbolts removed the front wheels practically fell off the hubs because the anti-seize was still fresh from the recent brake job. The rears required a bit more coercion but they came off easily enough. Of course, like all good BMW technicians I cleaned the hubs of both the rotor and the mating surface of the wheels using some blue towels and brake cleaner before applying a thin coat of new anti-seize to the hubs and reinstalling the wheels.

My expected service interval for the Pilot Sport A/S was 25K miles and I managed to get within 500 miles of that goal but I had to go well below the tread wear indicators to do it...something I will try to avoid next time. The anticipated service interval of the Winter Sport M3 is only 12K miles as I expect to replace the tires when they reach the "snow handling wear bar" rather than the regular wear bar. That may seem crazy but I buy these tires to perform in snow and slush and if they don't do that they fail in their mission. At this point I believe they will be spent at the end of this winter season, but I shouldn't have to buy new tires until around this time next year. That flexibility is one of the perks of running separate summer and winter tires.

(Image: Dunlop Winter Sport M3 tires back on the car)And speaking of the all-season tires, I haven't yet decided what rubber will replace them. The driver in me wants Pilot Sport PS2s or maybe one of Goodyear's high-end maximum performance summer tires, but it has occurred to me that if I do that I won't be able to use the 18's on the E46 during the winter. Contrary to popular belief, I'm not wealthy enough to own a car that sits in the garage all winter. The E46 is my backup vehicle and as such it needs to be ready to move...even in winter conditions, and while the Pilot Sport A/S is not a true winter tire it does perform admirably in "reasonable" winter conditions. So while I'm not exactly keen on equipping the 18's with another set of Pilot Sport A/S's, that is the practical solution. If I do wind up going with the A/S, I'll need to buy them fairly soon. Of course, I still have to figure out the best way to jack up the E46 given that it lacks any safe central jack points that will work with my single jack, but I'll leave that discussion to the E46 blog.

I've never paid anyone including my dealer to simply install a set of tires (that is to say, without mounting new tires and balancing them) so I don't know exactly what it would cost, but I can't see the dealer charging any less than 0.2 hours or $22 a wheel to do that. After you figure in taxes, I think it's safe to say I would not have been able to get out of there for less than $100 so I'll use that for my records.

Blower Motor Noise

The last few mornings have been in the 40s and it's at these temperatures that old equipment typically shows its age. This week it happened to be the HVAC blower motor and its telltale "crickets" sound. The noise is intermittent and subtle enough that it is easily "fixed" with a slight reduction in the resistance of the stereo's potentiometer. Actually, that's an old joke and sadly inappropriate since the volume knob is, in fact, a digital encoder...but I'm afraid you'll have to permit me the occasional geekdom reference. :-)

Some research revealed that getting a new motor for the tidy sum of $360 (with Tischer discount) is definitely the easy part of this job. It's the labor that has me worried. It's a bitch, apparently...so much so that one guy on a popular BMW forum said that it took him the better part of 8 hours to complete (with lots of beer breaks...take that for what you will) and next time he has to do this he'd sooner turn it into a track car and pull all the HVAC stuff out of it or sell it. :-) Given my general aversion to cold and the prospect for a VERY long, multi-curse job I may just acquire the part, have my technician install it, and walk away glad that I at least managed to save some money on the part. On the other hand, I found only one DIY on this procedure online so I may do the community a service by writing up the DIY afterward. Guess I have some soul searching to do, but don't get pissed at me if my soul tells me to be lazy and give the part to my technician, okay?

Mileage: 167880, Labor Saved: $100

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Oil Service

I had originally planned to do some flying for the first time in two months today but the high winds combined with the after effects of a large snowfall and ice storm at my intended destination put the kibosh on those plans. I decided instead to sleep in, have a lazy winter breakfast consisting of some sweet pomegranate juice and incredibly fattening blueberry waffles topped with 100% maple syrup refined in our fine state of Vermont, and then venture out to the garage in the afternoon to tackle an oil service on the E36.

I usually try to do an oil service every 4500 miles but due to weather and my schedule I didn't get around to it this time until nearly 5000 miles had passed. No harm done, of course, as my oil analysis vendor has more than once indicated I could easily add 2000 miles or so to my standard interval before exceeding any statistical averages.

(Image: Closeup of clip on HVAC blower motor shaft)And speaking of oil analysis, given the quality of recent analysis reports and the ever pressing need to meet my savings targets I decided to skip the oil analysis this time. I'll do another analysis at the next oil service in March or so, but will likely continue to alternate from now on unless something out the ordinary develops.

The oil and filter parts came to $47. While I was at it I bought four bottles of the BMW windshield washer fluid concentrate for $2.60 per bottle ($11 total) to carry me through the season. Last season I used only two bottles for protection down to 0 degrees F but as it turned out the winter was mild and relatively snow-free. This year I expect to use a bit more because we've already had an extended period of cold temperatures, our first snow of the season, and tons of precipitation (virtually all of which has been in liquid form, fortunately).

Blower Motor Parts and Prep

As I indicated in an earlier blog entry the cabin air blower motor made a bit of noise last winter but this season the noise has been far more noticeable and persistent. While visiting my dealer last weekend I spoke to one of the regular techs (but not my usual guy) about the blower noise and he was quick to point out that what I am hearing might be the result of some foreign matter in the blower housing and NOT a failed blower. I told him that it typically happens only when cold and it really does sound like a bad bearing. He quickly retorted that if this is the case the motor could possibly run for years like that. And he's probably right.

But the noise is audible from outside as well and while I'm as environmentally conscious as the next guy, I don't want it to sound like I'm driving a hamster-powered hybrid. So I broke down and ordered a new blower from Tischer (getbmwparts.com) this week. The total cost of the blower was $353. I also bought a replacement mounting clip/bracket just-in-case for $4 and I paid $12 for shipping, for a grand total of $370. My local dealer wanted $487 with tax for the same parts so I'm ahead of the game at this point by $117.

If you're wondering why I'd spend big money on the OE unit when aftermarket units are available at considerable savings, look closely at the picture. That little silver clip in the center of the squirrel cage allows one to remove the cage from the armature, while the aftermarket units notoriously lack this feature. This is necessary because only a masochist would attempt to cram this rather large blower assembly into the incredibly small access hole BMW built into the vehicle structure. The solution, of course, is to disassemble the fan, insert the pieces into the access hole and reassemble it in place. So it's a matter of saving $150 and spending an extra three hours trying to fit the square peg in the round hole OR buying the OE unit that is designed to simplify the problem. Hmmm...tough choice. Not.

Incidentally, the tech I spoke to confirmed that when the dealer techs do this job they remove the wiper arm assembly as recommended in the TIS to provide additional clearance so I expect to do that as well. Book labor is 3.1 hours so I am expecting a fairly long and tedious job. Hopefully the results will be worth the effort.

Barring total failure of the fan I've scheduled the installation for the upcoming holiday break. I have enough Kerosene to run the heater in the garage for a few days, so I figure if I can't get the job done in that time I'll just bring it to the dealer with my tail between my legs. :-)

Mileage: 169803, Parts $428, Parts Saved: $117

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Yet Another Check Engine Light

I was on my way home from a family gathering Sunday night, with the temperature in the balmy 20's, when I noticed an annunicator illuminate on the dash. Now, I'm sure you're thinking it was the one that indicates I've just won a date with the woman of my dreams. And you'd be right, but only up the point that I woke up and was unceremoniously slapped in the face with the cold reality of yet-another-check-engine-light. Hmmm. Engine is running great but yet there's a really bright and undimmable light in the cluster destroying my night vision. Let me guess (*rolls dice for effect*), it's a cat efficiency warning.

Skip forward to this morning. I got up early to arrive at the dealer so that I could catch my technician before he managed to hatch any idea of skipping out early for the holidays. As I walked into the shop and spotted my technician with the usual line forming behind him, I managed to circumnavigate the table covered with tons of cookies, donuts, danishes, and other fattening holiday treats, intent to grab my place in line. A few minutes later I had explained the situation to my tech and had driven the car into the bay.

Looking for the familiar GT1, I quickly noticed the new diagnostic tablet computers gracing everyone's bays. Pointing at one example I asked my technician "so, that's the replacement for the GT1, eh?" He sort of rolled his eyes and responded with a half-hearted, "yea, that's it, but believe it or not, they didn't provide any manuals for it, so we've been totally on our own setting it up, and none of it really works yet". Ever the glutton for punishment, he nevertheless connected the new diagnostic head to the E36's under-hood 20 pin connector and tried to get the new tablet to talk to the car. After several failed attempts I capitulated "oh well, I guess these new fangled things don't recognize cars from the Jurassic period." "Wait a second while I go get something that will work..." my technician fretted as he started to walk away, only to return a few minutes later with a familiar GT1.

As we waited for the GT1 to pull the data from the car I reviewed one of the workbooks my technician brought back from a class covering the latest engines including the twin turbo N54. I'd managed to read only a few paragraphs of a section describing the variable flow oil pump that works to increase pressure only when required by the VANOS when I heard those familiar words "It's cat efficiency, cylinders 1-3". Then it got better. "And it looks like it's happened 11 times and it first occurred 78 hours ago." "Eleven times?", I queried in disbelief. "Well, this is a common problem during cold weather because the cats don't heat up fast enough.", he offered. "Ah, I guess I can see that....and I guess I'm finally buying a new midsection". "Yea," he agreed. "Looks like it."

I walked up to the parts window fully aware of Tischer's price for the mid-section and was pleasantly surprised when the parts guy told me he would be able to get the part to me for the same price as Tischer, to the dollar -- a full 20% off. Of course if I buy locally I'll have to pay sales tax but this will be offset by the high shipping charges I'd otherwise pay to Tischer and the fact that the dealer will warranty the part. Since book labor is only an hour to swap the mid-section I plan to have the dealer do it.

After saying thanks and wishing my technician a happy holiday I left with my gauge cluster dark and my sanity remarkably intact, all things considered. Since my schedule is fairly packed for the next few weeks my hope is that the CEL will remain dark until I can manage to order all the parts required to do the job properly around the first of the year, including post-cat O2 sensors, all new mounting hardware and exhaust mounts. Unless a miracle occurs, I'm expecting a bill in the vicinity of $2500.

Mileage: 170200