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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Catalytic Converter Replacement

While on my way to my uncle's house for Christmas dinner the CEL illuminated again. It didn't take long to realize a) what caused it, and b) that I would be spending a considerable sum of money in the very near future. Of course, the car didn't skip a beat and I completed the trip without incident.

The following day was a company holiday so I used the spare time to order the parts necessary for the repair. First on the agenda was a visit the dealer's parts department to order a new mid-section. At a discounted price of $1850 including tax the part wasn't exactly a bargain but the dealer made the purchase relatively painless by giving me Tischer's price -- a full 20% off the list. After briefly watching my technician trying to repair one of those stupidly complex panoramic sunroofs from an X5 I hopped in the car to do a few errands before arriving home to do a little parts surfing.

What parts, you ask? Whenever the exhaust is dismantled BMW recommends all new assembly hardware including special self-locking copper alloy nuts used to attach the midsection to the headers, header flange gaskets, and sealing rings that help bridge the gap between the mid-section and muffler section. In addition, common practice is to install new O2 sensors with new cats, but since I already replaced the pre-cat sensors a couple years ago I only had to grab two sensors to replace the post cat units.

(Image: Closeup of new catalytic converter installed on E36)While looking at my maintenance schedule worksheet I realized that the exhaust mounts were about 10K miles short of their 90K replacement interval. Since I was not interested in dragging two grand worth of exhaust on the ground I ordered two new rubber mounting rings as well as two new exhaust hangers and related hardware.

And just before I clicked the "Checkout" button I remembered that several months ago while I was under the car I noticed the black plastic raceway used to protect the post-cat O2 sensor wires had started to sag. I figured this was due to a failure of the raceway's integral mounting clips and decided that the $10 replacement cost for the raceway and cover was well within reason.

When it came to the installation I broke with tradition and decided to have my technician do the work, primarily to get the full two year parts and labor warranty. Sure, I could have screwed around in my bitterly-cold garage for the better part of an afternoon but for the two hours the dealer quoted to do this job it just wasn't worth it to me. So I arrived at the dealer this morning and checked in with my technician to let him know about the big bag o' parts in the car before jetting off in the loaner to get to work on time. I picked the car up in the evening and after a 15 minute drive home I got out and walked around the car with the engine idling. The first thing I noticed was that the occasional, very faint rattling noise coming from the cat heat shield was no more. The second thing I noticed quite by accident as I examined the muffler is that the exhaust actually smelled like, well, nothing. It was very dry and sooty, but did not smell like the exhaust output of the vehicle prior to the repair. Apparently these cats actually do something. :-)

Now for the fun part -- the cost analysis. Total of incidentals from Tischer was $456 including shipping and their discounts resulted in a $150 savings over list price. The cat normally retails for $2100, so including shipping I managed to save approximately $250 on that part by walking up to the parts desk and ordering it ahead of time. Had I simply walked in off the street and asked the service advisor to replace the cats I would have paid full list for that part. Installation labor was two hours at $120/hr plus SST, or $256. This brings the total for this repair to $2562.

Who says owning old BMWs ain't fun?

Mileage: 171000, Parts: $2306, Parts Saved: $400, Labor: $256

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Tire Repair

I was deep into an offramp during the commute home earlier this week and I felt the rear suddenly come loose. Judicious steering and brake inputs settled the car in short order but at the time it felt very strange...not anything like a typical oversteer condition I've experienced on the road or the track. The rear felt particularly unsettled throughout the recovery.

I initially suspected I hit an icy patch but the roads were dry and clear, if not a bit salty. On the next straight patch of road I performed a couple of quick lane-change maneuvers to see if I could duplicate the conditions but was unsuccessful. I drove the remainder of the way home thinking perhaps one of the (original) trailing arm bushings decided to give out at the ripe old age of 172K miles and that caused the arm to flop around a bit under load, affecting the rear alignment in the process. When I got home I walked around the car a bit but found nothing out of the ordinary aside from what I perceived to be a slightly greater bulge in the sidewall of the left rear tire. Given the effects of cold temperatures on tire pressures I didn't think much of it at the time.

This morning I decided to brave the 37 degree air and wash the car to rid it of the 60 pounds of salt it had collected over the past week. As I got around to cleaning the left rear rim I noticed that the bulge in the tire sidewall had grown. I knew full well what this meant and it didn't take me long to find the nail, which had been squarely driven into the tread of the tire about 2" from the sidewall. While some might interpret this as bad news I was actually relieved that the damage occurred where it did because it meant the tire could be salvaged with a plug patch and remain in service until the end of the season -- at which point I had plans to decommission the entire set anyway.

Of course, having discovered this on a Saturday at around Noon meant scrambling to find an open tire shop. To make a long story short, the third shop I tried agreed to patch the tire just before they closed for the day so I quickly got the car into the garage, put the rear up on jack stands, pulled the tire, and brought it over to the tire shop. Since I brought the tire to them "loose" and they didn't have to jack up the car or put it up on their lift they only charged me $15 for the fix. About an hour later I had managed to get the tire back on the car, all the tires brought up to my winter tire pressure of 33 pounds, and a short test drive completed successfully.

So what did I learn today?

Track junkies know full well that one way to increase an otherwise neutral car's tendency to oversteer is to decrease the tire pressure in the rear relative to the front, by a few PSI. My episode on the off ramp proves that this works. Incidentally, the effect of greater pressure in the rear is predictable -- less oversteer (or more understeer) -- and this is one of the main reasons why BMW now insists (to a fault, in my opinion) that tire pressure be as much as six PSI higher in the rear.

Mileage: 171600, Labor $15

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Thermostat and Housing

Several weeks ago the OBC alerted me to a low coolant level. I didn't think much of it at the time because these cars tend to lose coolant slowly over time and it had been six months since my most recent coolant flush, so I just filled it with some spare 50/50 mix of coolant and distilled water and went about my day.

(Image: Closeup of flange of BMW plastic thermostat housing with profile 
	    gasket installedA couple weeks ago, as I approached the car one Monday morning to go to work, I noticed some wetness on the ground under the car at a point just behind the front bumper. Since I had washed the car the prior afternoon I figured it was just some water that had made its way out of a drain hole somewhere, but the fact that the OBC reported a temperature of 24 degrees implied that the fluid was something other than water.

I got out of the car to do a simple "finger test" but couldn't smell any coolant. Not surprising...as my sniffer doesn't tend to work as well when it's frozen. I checked the coolant level and found it a bit lower than expected so I grabbed my LED mag light to take a closer look under the hood. Not 15 seconds into my examination I saw the problem -- coolant appeared to be very slowly leaking from the top of the thermostat housing and dripping down the front of the engine into the waiting puddle on the ground. I quickly concluded I would need to replace the thermostat housing and gaskets, and while was in the neighborhood, the thermostat as well.

BMW parts are generally of far better quality than what is available in the aftermarket, but the BMW cooling system components (thermostat housing, radiator, and water pump) are notoriously short-lived, largely due to their use of plastic rather than some form of metal. For this reason I decided to replace the plastic thermostat housing with an aluminum equivalent from Zionsville -- a vendor known for providing all-aluminum replacement radiators based on the OE parts. Before I ordered the part earlier this week I sent an email to confirm that the housing would ship with the gaskets required to do the job and they responded in the affirmative. I received the housing with what BMW refers to as the profile gasket...an oblong rubber piece that fits into a recess machined into the housing flange. I thought I was in good shape with the housing and stopped by the dealer to pick up a 92 degree thermostat and o-ring.

Before tackling the job I read a few DIY articles that involved the use of an aluminum housing. The bimmerdiy article piqued my interest as the author installed both the profile gasket and a second flat gasket that mirrors the shape of the flange. BMW used to provide a gasket like this but they later bonded a thin sealing material to the face of the plastic thermostat housing (check out the picture) so they no longer carry the gasket. That left me wondering if the aluminum thermostat housing would require both gaskets in addition to the o-ring for the thermostat to thoroughly seal the system. If I dared install it without all necessary gaskets I knew I'd have to do the job over again and I just didn't have the luxury of time to do that. I tried to call Zionsville to clarify the issue but they were closed, so I took the safest bet and picked up another OE thermostat housing at the dealer along with a gallon of coolant before heading back to the homestead to start the work.

Roughly two hours later I finished the job. I decided to do a coolant flush since I knew I had to drain most of the coolant anyway and that too went as planned. I found I had to remove the engine driven fan, and that in turn forced me to remove the front radiator cover and alternator cooling duct. I would have suffered fewer scrapes on my wrists had I chosen to remove the fan shroud from the radiator but that would have required removal of the expansion tank and thus the overflow hose that was secured to the radiator with an OE crimp-type clamp. I didn't know for sure whether I had the correct adjustable hose clamp in my ever-growing drawer of miscellaneous parts so I decided to avoid the extra work. The system took a exactly a gallon of 50/50 mixed coolant before coming up to the proper level and before long the test drive was complete with no leaks noted.

Later in the day I finally received some feedback from a question I posted on bimmerforums. I learned that most people install the aluminum housings with a small amount of O2 sensor safe RTV to prevent leaks and at least one person reported no leaks without the RTV. I don't like the idea of using RTV in this application because they make gaskets for a reason but at the same time I'm not sure using a silicone flat gasket would be smart unless it was very thin because it could interfere with proper sealing of the profile gasket. If I had an opportunity to install the aluminum housing again I'd probably wipe an extremely thin (barely-there) coating of RTV on the housing flange and hope for the best.

Book labor for a thermostat replacement is 1.5 hours, or $180 at current dealer rates. A coolant flush is 1 hour or $120. Parts at full retail for both jobs were an even $100, but I got them for $92 including tax with my discount level. This means I saved $300 in labor doing this work myself. Not a bad payday.

Mileage: 172220, Labor Saved: $300, Parts: $92, Parts Saved: $8

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Another Day, Another CEL

I gave the car a much needed bath on Sunday and then topped off the tank in prep for the work week. Not far from my home during the commute Monday morning the Check Engine Light (CEL) illuminated again. I think it was at this point I mumbled to myself that BMW should have named that light "Check Blood Pressure", because every time it illuminates it means money will exit my wallet faster than an afterburner burns jet fuel, and if it's anything that irritates me more in a trying economy it's spending extra money that I'd just as soon put into my savings account.

(Image: Scan of GT1 fuel tank leak fault code page) Always the DIYer, however, I quickly donned my troubleshooting cap and realized that while it could be something related to the catalytic converters (again), that was pretty unlikely. Even I'm not that skeptical. So I began to think -- what else could the OBD system complain about that would not cause any rough running. Hmmm....that charcoal canister (that filters fuel tank vapors) is getting up there in age and they most certainly don't last forever. Then I asked myself the same question I ask when debugging software -- what else has changed recently? And then the light bulb came on -- I refueled. Could this be something as simple as a loose fuel cap?

Intent on remedying this with as little pain and suffering as possible I pulled over to the side of the road, threw on the flashers and dodged the oncoming traffic while I made my way to the far side of the vehicle to check the cap. And sure enough, I found the cap fully tightened but half latched (meaning, one of the tabs that locks with the filler collar was outside the collar flange). Relieved, I quickly refastened the cap, cursed the intelligence of the particle physicist / gas station attendant that filled my tank and hopped back in the car. As I pulled away I then pondered the question of whether the CEL would extinguish on its own now that the problem was corrected -- as it is known to do for other faults including those related to the catalytic converters.

Rather than hold you in suspense I'll tell you the answer is NO. A fuel system leak fault is permanent and must be cleared with appropriate diagnostic equipment. And there is no threshold with this fault -- if it happens once it will illuminate the CEL. This morning I brought the car into the dealer to have my tech pull the codes and the result was what I expected (see picture). Best of all, it didn't cost me a thing, and I even got to chat with a cute girl in the showroom while I laid on the floor under a new M3 analyzing how easy it would be to work on. I think she thought I was a little crazy. She was probably right.

Moral of the story? If you are forced to tolerate full service gas stations or are simply one of those lazy people like me who've become used to full service stations and don't want to get out of the car, just take the 30 seconds required to check the cap yourself and avoid this headache.

Mileage: 173900

Saturday, March 21, 2009

(Image: Blackstone Labs Oil Analysis for 03/26/2009 Another DIY Oil Service

I performed another oil service today, this time about 150 miles or so ahead of schedule, because I knew my schedule next weekend might be a bit crazy and because I figured it would be hard to top today's beautiful weather. The task went as expected and I reset the oil service lights with my handy-dandy clip lead tool that I use to ground pin 7 of the 20 pin diagnostic connector for three seconds.

Since I skipped the oil analysis last time and I experienced a coolant leak last month (which turned out to be nothing more than a thermostat housing), I decided to do another oil analysis. This time around I was particularly interested to learn if coolant was leaking anywhere else and finding its way into the oil, but aside from the apparent inability of the vendor to get the size of the engine correct (my engine's displacement appears to be shrinking before my very eyes) there was nothing to report. All the numbers appear to be following trend and the trend is acceptable. Based on these numbers I'll likely skip the analysis next time.

I had a couple extra quarts of oil left over from past changes where I purchased 7 quarts rather than the 6 I normally use. That helped keep the parts costs down to $30 this time around. Combined with the $25 oil analysis the total for this service came to a mere $55. And, naturally, I saved labor costs of around $100 doing this job myself.

Undercarriage Inspection & Suspension Work Research

While I was under the car I did my usual undercarriage inspection and found everything in one piece. However, given recent experience with the vehicle it is clear that I'll need to bite the bullet and do some suspension work this year, preferably before the DMV inspection comes due in September. I don't think the condition of the suspension has progressed to the point that it would actually fail inspection but I assume if I postpone the work and it does fail I'll be under the gun to get the job done within 30 days and that may force me to pay someone else to do the work. And that could get rather expensive.

I confirmed that the inner ball joint retaining nuts for the front lower control arms are 22mm. I also figured out that my special 1/2" drive pivoting head ratchet will reach the notoriously inaccessible left side nut with ease. The problem is the right side nut is too close to the engine mount to allow use of the ratchet. In lieu of that I applied a 22 mm box end wrench but discovered that I'll need to remove the sway bar to provide the clearance to swing it. That's no big deal, really, since I have to disconnect the end links from the control arms to remove them anyway.

(Image: Exploded view of the E36 rear suspension) It is now painfully obvious that the (original!) forward bushings on the rear trailing arms (item 4 in the diagram) need to be done as the rear of the car is disturbingly loose over bumps in turns, and while the aging shocks may be contributing to this problem they are not the only cause because the car did not feel this way when the last set of shocks went to greener pastures. While replacement of the forward bushings can be difficult without special tools, that is not what concerns me. With the exception of the shocks and mounts the entire rear suspension and subframe assembly is all original. If the forward trailing arm bushings are gone the upper and lower control arm bushings / ball joints (items 2, 3, 6 and 8) can't be far behind. Doing those requires more expensive special tools. Again, not impossible...just expensive.

To add insult to injury, I've learned that at least one of the inner upper control arm retaining bolts cannot be removed without sliding the differential aft a bit. In other words, this could turn into a very big job, and possibly one too big for me to handle on my own. Could I do the RTABs and call it a day? Probably. But then I'd have to pull everything apart again in short order. If you've wondered why I've put off the suspension work for the better part of two years, this is why.

Oh, and did I mention I still have the ventilation blower to install and the driver's seat to rebuild? It's going to be a fun year, that's for sure.

Mileage: 174157, Parts: $55, Labor Saved: $100

Saturday, April 18, 2009

New Summer Shoes

Last year I managed to run my Pilot Sport A/S “summer” tires down to the wear bars so I knew I'd need a new set when it came time to swap out my winter set this spring. I wrestled with the decision to choose a new summer tire and briefly considered the maximum performance summer-only Pilot Sport PS2 but ultimately decided to go with another set of Pilot Sport A/S so this set could serve double duty on the E46 during the winter months. The fact that the Pilot Sport PS2 were $270 in the required fitment only served to reinforce the logic to stick with the A/S. The PS2 is a great tire and from what I've heard is well worth the money but there are more reasonable solutions for a daily driver that spends most of its time munching miles at high speed vs. carving corners at 0.8G.

(Image: Pilot Sport A/S Plus 235/40/18 prior to mounting)The only snag came when Tire Rack's site indicated that the original Pilot Sport A/S were no longer available because they had been updated to the “A/S Plus”. I had hoped to buy three tires and put the existing spare on the right rear to reduce the cost of this set but Tire Rack noted Michelin allowed mixing of the A/S and A/S Plus only if the A/S Plus were installed on the rear of the vehicle. This restriction, coupled with the relatively high road force number of the spare (meaning I couldn't put it on the front without possibly feeling it in the steering) forced me to leave the spare in its current role and buy four new A/S Plus.

Always accommodating, my dealer's parts department allowed me to drop ship the tires to them. I then arranged to bring the wheels to my technician loose (off the car) so he could get to them as his schedule permitted. I asked him to write the road force balancing numbers on the tires so I would be able to report them here as well as figure out where to best mount each tire and he agreed to do so.

The next evening I went to pick up the tires after work and took note of the numbers as I hauled each wheel into my brother's pickup truck: 3, 8, 15, and something that resembled either “21” or “12” with a backward “2”. I couldn't ask my technician to clarify it because he had left for the day so I figured I'd return the next day...particularly because I had to question the bill anyway.

Long time readers may note that I worked a deal with the service manager to mount and balance tires brought to them “loose” for $40 each. This is largely because I save the techs the labor to R&R the wheels on the car and save the shop from having to tie up a valuable service bay or provide a loaner car. I couldn't confirm the price with the service manager at the time I dropped off the wheels because he was stuck in a meeting so you might imagine my surprise when I was presented with the invoice and noticed I was charged $50 (!) per tire.

The service advisor told me that non-runflat tires were typically billed 0.5 hours ($60) and runflat 0.7 ($84) while 18” or larger non-runflat were billed 0.6 ($72) because they're almost as challenging as run-flat tires to mount. The increase in price reflected their recent increase in labor rate to $120 per hour. While I was still somewhat miffed that I had to pay more this time around, I didn't feel as bad when my technician separately revealed that they had to do some extra work to get the tires to balance properly.

A discussion with my technician revealed that the “21” was in fact “12”, so all tires balanced out below the BMW spec of 18 pounds. Interestingly, the tire that balanced with a mere 3 pounds first balanced at 30 pounds. They dismounted the tire, flipped it 180 degrees and it balanced almost perfectly. He also told me that the tire that balanced at 15 pounds originally balanced at 25 pounds. As he spun it up he noticed an eccentricity typical of the effects of an overly tight shipping strap and possibly the consequence of being at the bottom of a stack of tires. The solution was to mount the tire, over-inflate it to 55 PSI, leave it overnight at that pressure, and then take it through the balancing procedure again the next day. The result? The highest road force number of the lot, but still under BMW specs.

My technician summarized by saying road force balancing allows them to match the tire to the wheel in a way that traditional dynamic balancing cannot accomplish. So if I needed another reason to insist on and perhaps pay a bit more for road force balancing, this was it. If I ever open an indy shop or run into enough money that I can equip my own garage with the best equipment I'll be calling Hunter, that's for sure.

One great thing to come out of this balancing session is that the required weights were installed on the inner surface of the wheels just inside of the “spokes”. My technician indicated that this was due to a recent update to the balancing machine, but no matter...the perk for me is that the weights are not as easily visible from the outside. Some residual glue remained from the old weights but I managed to clean that off with some kerosene before I mounted the tires for the summer driving season.

As for the winter set, the rear tires are essentially at the snow traction wear bars (which are themselves almost 2mm above the standard traction wear bars) while the front tires are a good 1-2mm above the snow traction wear bars. While the fronts could probably serve another season, when I compare the tread with that of the still-new spare, it's no contest. I plan to replace the entire set as planned and may do it earlier in the year than usual to take advantage of off-season pricing, which currently stands at $30 per tire lower than I paid for the last set.

Four Pilot Sport A/S in 235/40/18 fitment cost $825 + $40 for shipping or $865 total. Mounting and balancing of the new tires and trashing the old tires cost $216. I did manage to save $92 in labor by negotiating with the service manager and installing the wheels myself. While this isn't exactly a great deal, in this economy I'll take all the discounts I can get.

Differential Oil Change

(Image: Gear oil draining from E36 differential While the gear oil in an open-differential doesn't take near the abuse of one equipped with a limited slip unit it's still important to change oil on an open differential at some regular interval. Of course, you'd never know this by listening to BMWs latest maintenance schedule, which insists that on all vehicles but the M cars (effectively all open differentials) the gear oil is a “lifetime fill”. Ask any differential rebuilder for the truth on the matter and you'll hear otherwise I can assure you. For this reason my maintenance schedule now includes a differential gear oil change every 36K miles, or every Inspection II.

The first differential oil change I performed after 125K miles revealed a relatively thin translucent brown fluid full of fine metallic particles that shimmered in the sunlight – a stark contrast to the transparent very light amber color of the new Mobil 1 75W-90 synthetic gear oil I used at the time. Roughly 40K miles later I managed to do my second DIY differential oil change. Given the relatively few miles on the oil as compared to the original fill I expected to find the oil in relatively good shape. However, what came out was a dark brown, opaque oil similar to used engine oil.

Not having much experience with differential oil it's hard to say whether this is normal or not but I can say with some confidence that it was in worse condition than the original fill. Whether that's a reflection of the oil itself being inferior to the OE fluid (unlikely) or the fact that something inside the differential is wearing at an accelerated rate (more likely) I don't know yet. In the interest of keeping an eye on things I plan to halve my differential oil change interval to 18K miles until I see an improvement in the condition of the oil or something fails and I wind up overhauling the differential -- whichever comes first.

Two quarts of Mobil 1 75W-90 gear oil cost $20. Book labor for a differential flush is 0.8 hours so I managed to save another $96 doing this myself.

Rear Drivetrain Noise

While I had the rear of the car jacked up I rotated the wheels to make sure all was well. As I rotated the right rear wheel clockwise (the same direction as forward travel of the car) I heard a strange noise similar to that I imagine would occur if sand were placed between two meshing metal surfaces. It was very faint, but seemed to come from the general vicinity of the right rear wheel. Initially I thought the wheel bearing might be on its way out but when I rotated the wheel in the opposite direction the noise moved to the left side of the car. When I rotated the left wheel the same thing happened.

I wish I could say I knew what is causing this but I have no clue. It may be related to the state of the differential fluid but appearances can be deceiving. All I can say is that this is something new and it's not normal. In fact, I think it represents another vote in favor of rebuilding the rear but I'll reserve that judgment until I have more information.

Mileage: 175300, Parts: $885, Labor: $216, Labor Saved: $188

Saturday, May 23, 2009

New wiper assemblies

Late one Saturday a few weeks ago I was in the process of installing new wiper blade inserts (just the rubber portion of the blade) when one of the clips that secure the wiper blade assembly to the wiper arm broke. The slap in the face was that it was supposed to rain the next day (a Sunday) so I knew I had no hope of acquiring the part(s) necessary to fix the problem. With no other option I used what remained of the broken clip and some electrical tape to secure the wiper assembly to the arm. Ghetto, for sure, but it worked.

A glance at the ETK later that evening did not reveal a part number for the clip so I assumed that they must be available only as part of the wiper blade assembly. On Monday my technician and the parts guys confirmed that so I ordered new blade assemblies and justified the cost (around $30 for the driver's side and $20 for the passenger side) by considering it part of my ongoing restoration process. The paint on the old wiper assemblies was still intact but quite faded, so they probably should have been replaced for cosmetic reasons anyway.

A few days later the electrical tape came off and the new assemblies went on. Fortunately, they came with fresh blades so all I had to do was mate the assemblies to the arms and get on with my day.

Transmission A/M Switch LED Conversion Experiment

Over the life of the car I've probably replaced the transmission mode switch / annunciator several times because the incandescent bulb that backlights the "A" character fails in as little as one or two years in service. In fact, I've replaced the switch so many times that when the present bulb failed a couple years ago I decided not to replace it until I could come up with a better solution involving LEDs.

(Image: Test of LED conversion of A/M switch)After several hours (!) of analysis, parts selection, and installation I successfully replaced the bulbs with LEDs as you can see in the photo. Unfortunately, what the picture doesn't show is that the replacement components don't fit perfectly in the connector body because it was specially designed keep the incandescent bulbs aligned with the amber-tinted light pipes and prevent some of the component leads from shorting out. Worse, the original circuit is not symmetrical (one side came with a dropping resistor, albeit one of a value inappropriate for LEDs) so one side of the connector body has a bit more wiggle room than the other.

When I tried to reinstall the PCB one of the LEDs routinely hit the side of the connector body, which pushed the LED out of alignment with the light pipe. Alignment of LEDS is critical because they are directional by nature and the parts I selected with a 20 degree dispersion angle even more so. My take at this point is that 3mm LEDs should solve the clearance issues but I'm not sure if I can get them with the same brightness specification. Time will tell.

If you're looking for some advice regarding the conversion it's "don't bother" -- unless you can spare the time, like fiddling with electronics, and have no illusions regarding the payback for this effort. I could buy a dozen switches for the time I've given to this project already. But then again, sometimes life is not about the numbers.

More Blower Motor Research

Some additional research on the blower motor has revealed that removal of the intake manifold on six cylinder engines may help provide additional clearance. Normally I'd try to work around that but it dawned on me that I need to do some preventative maintenance under the intake manifold anyway -- namely, replacement of the oil separator and idle control valve. Both of those jobs can technically be done without removing the intake manifold but the three tasks taken together represent the critical mass necessary to justify removal of the manifold. So guess what? The big job just got bigger.

Mileage: 176600, Parts: $55

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Flat Tire, Swap, and Repair

Last week at work I went outside during lunch for my daily dose of Vitamin D therapy. This naturally took me past the E36 in the parking lot. I didn't get closer than 100 feet before I realized something wasn't right. While it's difficult to notice any kind of bulge on low profile tires from a distance, this one stuck out like a sore thumb. The left rear was flat.

I examined the tire and found a small nail square in the center of the tread. Without thinking much about it I pulled the spare, the OE jack, and my set of small wheel chocks and got to work. About 15 minutes later I had swapped the tire. The advantages of a full size (and matching) spare soon became obvious, as I was not limited in any way on the drive home aside from the need to drive more carefully in any rain due to the directional tread being inappropriate for this side of the car. As I walked back to the office I cursed the idiots at BMW for removing this essential piece of safety equipment from its "modern" vehicles. Heck, even the E46 has a space saver spare, and the spare tire well is large enough to fit a full size spare. Guess what I'm yanking out of the spare tire well the second I replace the stock runflat garbage with some nice conventional PS2 rubber?

The next morning I dropped off the tire at a local tire dealer. Any company could have patched the tire but I selected this particular company because they were equipped with the same Hunter mounting and balancing equipment my dealer uses. so if it became necessary to remount and balance they could do the job properly. Fortunately, due to the nature of the defect a simple plug patch worked like a charm and they did not have to dismount or spin up the tire again. $10 and a mighty heave of the repaired tire into the trunk and I was off to work. Later that day during lunch I swapped the spare for the repaired tire and called it mission accomplished.

(Image: Testing the E36 blower motor before completing installation While changing a tire is a pretty simple affair, I'll use this time to point out something very important if you need to do an impromptu tire swap on the side of the road with the OE jack. Make sure you firmly apply the emergency brake and chock the wheels before you start jacking the car. The design of the OE jack is such that if the car moves even slightly (and it will as the car is raised, even if the road is nearly perfectly level) the jack may tip and cause the car to "fall off" the jack. If you don't have a set of small wheel chocks in your car, you should pick up a set. They may just save you a lot of hassle, and perhaps your life as well.

Labor: $10

HVAC Blower Replacement

If you've been reading this blog for the past 6+ months you already know that I've long loathed the thought of replacing the HVAC blower motor. Based on many of the comments made online about this job I fully expected it to be a royal pain in the ass. And as it turned out that wasn't far from the truth. At the end of the day, however, the biggest problem I had with the job was of its sheer tedium, rather than difficulty. It's not a hard job, but it does take time to do, and a certain amount of physical and mental stamina to do well. As I write this I have muscles aching in my body I never knew I had.

The good news is that I replaced the motor just in time. Not only were the bearings on the way out, I discovered much to my surprise that the brushes were almost shot. What this means is that these motors wear out regardless whether they are making noise and need to be replaced on a regular interval. For me that interval is now 175K miles and that will be reflected in my maintenance spreadsheet when I get around to updating it. Sadly, I doubt I'll own this car in another 11 years and 175K miles, but if I do I'll have no problem replacing the motor again.

I managed to complete the job in about four hours if I take into account the fact that I was sightseeing (taking pictures) and taking detailed notes for the upcoming DIY. Book labor for the job is 3.1 hours. The dealer's labor rate with tax is now $128, so that works out to a cool $397 labor savings. I bought the part last December for $370, a savings of $117 over the dealer's retail price. That brings the total DIY dividend for this job to a satisfying (if not astonishing) $514.

And speaking of the DIY, it may take some time to write. I have a lot of notes and over 150 detailed pictures to organize into something coherent. But bear with me...I think it will be worth the wait.

Mileage: 178550, [Parts Purchased 12/2008: $370, Parts Saved: $117], Labor savings: $397

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Oil Service

After the recent HVAC blower work I wasn't really in the mood for additional work but as I updated my maintenance schedule spreadsheet to reflect the blower replacement I realized I was due for yet another oil service. I accomplished the oil service today without any real issues, but realized I misplaced the socket adapter that allows me to use my 3/8" drive torque wrench with my 17mm 1/2" drive socket. Fortunately, I have a pretty good feel for 18 ft*lbs at this point so I tightened the drain bolt manually. Looks like I'll be buying another one of those on the next trip to the tools store.

The old oil was as black as usual but I decided to pass on an oil analysis. I may perform another analysis at the next oil service, which should be sometime in October.

Upcoming Work

Last week I purchased the parts required to swap out the idle control valve (ICV) and crankcase vent (CCV) and plan to do that work over the upcoming holiday weekend. After the comments I made regarding this work in an earlier post a reader emailed me to suggest that based on his experience I won't need to remove the intake manifold to do the work. A closer look at the job confirms that this should be the case, and frankly, after the blower motor I'm looking for something comparitively easy to do.

Mileage: 178669, Parts: $46, Labor savings $100

Saturday, July 4, 2009

CCV and ICV Preventative Maintenance

Today I decided to install the new oil separator (also known as the crankcase vent, or CCV), idle control valve (ICV) and, while I was at it, an intake air temperature sensor. The CCV was the original part with nearly 180K miles and the ICV was a couple thousand miles over my recommended interval of 108K miles, so they were both ready for replacement in my opinion.

(Image: Old idle control valve, crankcase vent and temperature sensor) I chose to do all of these parts at the same time because they share a lot of required labor to disassemble the intake air ductwork. While the parts were not cheap and some might question my sanity for replacing them in advance of a failure (in other words, as preventative maintenance) the failure modes for both the CCV and ICV are not pretty, so if I avoid the cost and inconvenience of a tow (or better yet, in the case of the CCV, engine damage) I'll consider it money very well spent. The intake air temperature sensor was admittedly an impulse buy, but at $20 who could blame me?

The job was straightforward and involved the removal of the entire intake ductwork from the airbox to the intake manifold. Fortunately, the work did not require removal of the intake manifold as I was originally led to believe. I bought new, somewhat pricey, rubber gaskets for the intake manifold just in case and they went unused, but the DIY dividend of this job more than paid for those. I also bought extra screws and washers to attach the separator (which also work for the idle control valve mounting bracket, as it turns out) and did not wind up using those either, but they were inexpensive so I don't feel any great loss there.

After about 3 hours of work I had managed to swap all the parts, reassemble everything, double check that all electrical connectors and vacuum-related lines were secure, and then turn the key. I was greeted with an instantaneous start and a smooth idle. I found this to be a notable change from the "stumble starts" I've been getting lately, where the first few cylinders misfire before the engine breaks into a sustainable idle less than a second later. In the past I've attributed this to ethanol contamination of our gasoline combined with higher temperatures this time of year, but I must admit when I heard the engine fire up and idle not only more smoothly, but a good 150-200 RPM higher than it had as of late I began to wonder whether this may have been due to a sticky or otherwise ailing idle control valve. Only time will tell of course.

I could best describe this job by the same name attributed by my high school chemistry teacher to our first lab that involved cutting and bending glass over Bunsen burners -- "cuts and burns". As I write this my hands and arms have their share of scrapes and cuts. Fortunately, the DIY dividend on these tasks is significant so I'll gladly apply bandaids for a couple days and consider myself lucky. Book labor for the ICV and CCV is 2.0 hours EACH, and as long-time readers know dealers do not "combine" jobs or provide any kind of labor discount for individual jobs that share labor costs. And yes, that's unfair, but that's the way it is. I did not price the air temperature sensor labor but I can't imagine it being less than an hour. I could include that as well but since it wasn't a "primary target" I think I'll kindly ignore the sensor and remain comfortable with the fact that I saved another four hours of book labor at $128/hr, or $512 today.

Mileage: 179022, Parts: $376, Labor savings $512

Saturday, September 19, 2009

State Inspection Passed

(Image: Stack of Dunlop Winter Sport M3 ready for installation)Earlier this year I briefly questioned my sanity for spending $2500 to replace the E36's catalytic converters and oxygen sensors. Today, however, I received vindication of that expense as the car sailed through the New Jersey state emissions inspection in less than 10 minutes. No CEL, no stored codes, nothing. Just a report with "All emissions equipment is functioning normally" and a new PASSED sticker on the windshield stamped with an expiration date of two years hence.

New Winter Tires

In a period of relative financial calm I decided this week to purchase a new set of winter tires to avoid the rush and predictable price gouging that occurs as the weather turns colder. Last December Dunlop SP Winter Sport M3 in 225/50/16 were $150 + shipping, but I just picked them up for $129 each, saving $21 per tire. The savings isn't huge, but it's better in my pocket. I also managed to negotiate a reduction in the price to mount and balance the tires at my dealer. Rather than the "new labor price" of $50/tire we agreed that $40/tire was more appropriate, particularly given that 16" wheels are easy to mount.

Usually I buy five tires and ask my technician to make a set of the best four but I didn't have that luxury this time around since my spare was still like new. When I picked up the tires I was eager to find out how he made out and I wasn't disappointed. The road force numbers were 16, 16, 11, and 7. Two of the tires were higher than I'd like but still under the BMW specification of 18 lbs. And for $129 a tire (nearly half the cost of my 18" Michelin Pilot Sport A/S), I couldn't complain. I won't know how they feel until I mount them in early November but since time is flying faster than ever it seems it won't be long until I get the chance.

When I got the newly mounted and balanced wheels home I used my polisher with some Menzerna Intensive Polish to clean up the clear and was amazed at how well they came out. The polish easily removed the dirt and fine scratches left behind by the old wheel weight locations and generally made them look like new. And that's saying a lot given that they've been in service a majority of the time I've owned the car.

Mileage: 182612, Parts: $555, Labor: $171

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Oil Service

(Image: Blackstone Labs oil analysis report from October 20, 2009)A couple weeks ago a review of my maintenance schedule spreadsheet indicated 4500 miles had passed and it was time for another oil change. Last weekend I accomplished the service with only one snag.

When I pulled the copper sealing ring from the filter kit packaging I noticed it was oblong rather than circular so I knew it wouldn't fit over the drain plug. This was obviously due to a manufacturing defect but not one important enough to cancel the oil service. The solution was easy enough -- reuse of the existing sealing ring along with judicious use of the torque wrench to achieve the usual 18 foot-pounds.

Last time I decided to skip the oil analysis so I took another sample this time around. As you can see, the report indicated slightly higher lead, which is found in bearings. That sounds bad, but I agree with the analysis. 3 PPM is in the noise, so to speak, and I consider this an uneventful report. However, as is normal practice with any oil analysis program, I do plan to follow up with another sample at the next oil service to put the issue to bed.

Mileage: 183183, Parts: $45, Labor Saved: $100


My spreadsheet also kindly informed me that the vehicle had not only passed the 30K interval recommended by BMW for the engine air filter but the 15K interval for the microfilter as well, so I picked up the $70 worth of parts from my local dealer earlier in the week and accomplished that work today.

The engine filter replacement has always been a no-brainer on this car so it's not really worth mentioning, except to say that if I had the dealer do it I would have likely spent another $36 in labor.

I have the procedure to replace the microfilter down to a science so it took only 10 minutes to complete, including a thorough cleaning / vacuuming of the airbox. Not a bad investment for a labor savings $72.

Mileage: 183475, Parts: $70, Labor Saved: $108

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How NOT to Fix a Flat

As you may recall, back in June I suffered a flat tire and had it repaired. Unfortunately, during my routine tire pressure check last Sunday, I found the very same tire down to 24 PSI. I carefully surveyed the tire and found no obvious damage so I quickly concluded that the patch was leaking.

Given that I hadn't checked pressures in a few weeks I figured it was a slow leak and I could save myself the trouble of an "in the field" tire swap and wait until after I installed the winter tires in a few weeks to bring the tire to the shop for repair. I pumped the tire up a few pounds over the norm for good measure, resolved to check it regularly and get on with my life. When I arrived at work the next morning I looked back at the car and quickly noticed a conspicuous bulge in the sidewall. I let out a choice word and then took a pressure reading of 19 PSI, or a drop of almost 20 PSI overnight. I didn't have a means to pump the tire up in the field so I resolved to swap the tire with the spare over lunch.

This morning I took the flat back to the same company that "fixed" it last time. The guy I spoke to took a defensive posture and attempted to convince me that they did not, in fact, fix the tire last time. After I told him I don't make a habit of going around to tire shops and requesting free services he relented, but only long enough to suggest that it might be due to the valve stem. I acknowledged that might be a possibility but suggested he dunk the tire in the tank so we could both stop guessing. He rolled the tire away only to come back a couple minutes later and admit that the patch was leaking. I asked him to fix it properly this time by dismounting the tire, applying a patch from the inside of the tire, and then remounting & balancing the tire on the road force balancing equipment. He agreed to have it done later in the morning and I left for work.

At this point you might be thinking, how does a plug patch leak? Well, this wasn't a plug patch. More precisely this was what they call in the industry a "gummy string" which is the easiest / quickest repair technique available because it doesn't require dismounting the tire. This explains why they charged me "only" $10. Some research online suggested that gummy strings work in general but the failure rate is high enough to question their use, particularly on a high performance car where a sudden loss of pressure or blowout in a high speed turn could very easily result in loss of the vehicle.

Later in the day I went back to pick up the repaired tire and figured the worst of the day was behind me. Wrong. As I picked up the tire to put it in the trunk I realized the the tire machine retainer clamp had gouged a circular scratch through the clear and into the base coat of the wheel a few inches from the hub. I'll spare you the details of the verbal exchange that followed, but it suffices to say that I have no intentions of doing further business with this facility.

So what have I learned? Plenty.

Mileage: 183525

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Winter Tires and Brake Fluid Flush

(Image: 18 month old brake fluid next to a pumpkin for color comparison) With high temperatures solidly in the upper 50's I figured it was time to install the winter tires I purchased earlier. While I could have jacked up each axle independently to swap tires I decided to jack up all four corners and conduct my second DIY brake fluid flush while the wheels were off.

The old brake fluid was somewhat lighter than the last time but this was expected given only 18 months had passed since the last flush. The lighter color of the fluid made the transition from old to new fluid more difficult to see in my clear bleeder hose but I compensated by flushing a little longer.. I paid particular attention to the rear wheels because they are farthest from the reservoir and hold a majority of the fluid in the system. When all was said and done I managed to use the vast majority of the 1 liter can of ATE TYP 200, one of several I bought a couple years back to save on shipping costs.

I also took the time to secure the master cylinder reservoir with some ty-wraps just to make sure that didn't pop out during the pressure bleed. I had some 10" tywraps on hand but those weren't long enough so I used two to achieve the required length. The end result was a lot less stress about that potentially messy and damaging failure mode.

As for the cost analysis, I paid $10 for the can of TYP 200 gold and used about $10 worth of miscellaneous parts and fluids (brake cleaner, etc.). Paying someone to mount the tires would have cost about a half hour of labor (at least) or $65 at the dealer with tax. Not surprisingly, the dealer now charges $200 with tax (up from $170) for a brake fluid flush. This brings the total labor savings to $265. Not a bad DIY dividend for three hours of my day.

On the Horizon

(Image: Two long safety straps around the master cylinder reservoir)The car is running fine as of late, but I still have several big tasks ahead of me:

I expect to tackle this stuff beginning in the new year unless, of course, the car has it's own ideas.

Mileage: 184265, Parts: $20, Labor Saved: $265

Thursday, December 31 , 2009

Windshield Washer System Leak

(Image: Simple test of windshield washer heating elements)While the E46 enjoys its winter comfortably stowed in the garage under some old bed linens the E36 braves virtually every day outside. And so it was a couple weeks ago when a considerable portion of the mid-atlantic and northeast states were subject to the barrage of a major winter storm. I awoke the next morning to find the car doing its impression of a snow ball -- so much so that it took the better part of a couple hours to liberate the vehicle. Fortunately, my efforts in combination with warmer temperatures on the back side of the storm served to melt the snow and ice remaining on the car before night and freezing temperatures returned.

As I headed out on errands the following morning I flipped the washers on to clean the windshield, only to receive a dribbling from the washer jets. It didn't take me long to speculate that the washer fluid had frozen in the lines or nozzles. This is normally the result of using insufficient antifreeze in the washer fluid. I knew I'd added a good amount of antifreeze because it was hard to ignore the pungent alcohol-like smell that would waft into the interior when I used the washers prior to the storm, but apparently it wasn't enough. Given that the car is equipped with heated washer nozzles a few minutes' time is usually all that is required to clear the jets. Unfortunately that wasn't the case this time. Only the driver's side jets eventually cleared sufficiently to spew washer fluid far enough to reach the windshield. The passenger side jets continued to dribble the fluid out uselessly over the hood. By the time I got home I realized something wasn't quite right and put on my troubleshooting cap.

Normal pressure on one side proved that the fluid was not frozen (or at least no longer frozen) and that the electric fluid pump was operational. There could only be one other explanation -- a leak that was the result of ice expanding and cracking either the body of the jet or the fluid line leading to the jet. Since the jets are behind the under-hood insulation cover I had to remove several plastic rivets (some of which stubbornly stripped out) to validate my theory. Sure enough, as I freed the bottom of the insulation panel and worked my hand up to meet the body of the jet I felt moisture on the top of the insulation panel (the side that faces the hood) and around the jet. Since there wasn't much I could do without parts I buttoned everything back up and went inside to create a parts list using my new parts spreadsheet.

I decided to use this opportunity to do a full overhaul of the windshield washer system including two new (heated) washer jets, some related plumbing (black flexible hose, white rigid tubing, check valves) and the thermostatic switch that automatically connects power to the nozzle heating elements when the air temperature drops to near freezing. I also bought extra small hose clamps to replace the crimped style I knew I'd have to cut off during disassembly. And while the washer fluid pump was operational I decided to buy a new one simply to have it in stock in case it failed. Knowing that the same part is used on the E46 made the decision to spend the extra $35 easier. I ordered the parts from Tischer and wound up saving about 17% off retail. Click on the spreadsheet picture to view an expanded screenshot with the full range of data.

(Image: Screenshot of windshield parts pricing spreadsheet)Today we had another light snowfall of about an inch so I went out to the car to test a theory. I needed to know whether both nozzle heating elements were inactive, which would most likely indicate a problem with the thermostatic switch, or whether the element on the leaking washer jet had failed, localizing the failure to that part. I pushed a bit of snow into the recesses where the jets poke out of the nozzle body, started the engine and waited a few minutes. As it turned out both nozzles melted the snow, meaning the heating elements and the thermostatic switch were operational. The leaking passenger side nozzle seemed to take a bit longer to melt the snow (perhaps twice as long) but it seemed to do its job. That convinced me that insufficient antifreeze in the washer fluid caused the water in the jet to freeze and crack the nozzle body.

So what does this all mean? The heated washer nozzles are designed to keep ice from sealing the ends of the jets but they will not make up for a lack of antifreeze in the washer fluid, which explains why it's critical to properly mix washer fluid for the temperatures at hand. In spite of the fact that the thermostatic switch and driver's side nozzle heating elements appear to be functioning normally I still intend to replace all of the parts (with the possible exception of the washer fluid pump) so I can return the windshield washing system to like-new form and move on with my life.

For record keeping purposes, I have not included the parts costs in this log entry because they have not yet arrived. This work will be expensed in 2010.

Year End Numbers and Notes

As the year comes to a close less than two months remain in my 11th year of BMW ownership. A quick tally of the numbers shows that I spent almost $5000 this year supporting the E36's maintenance habit. If I conveniently ignore the catalytic converter work that occurred in January total costs were $2400. That's higher than last year but it reflects the significant costs associated with two new sets of tires (winter and summer), HVAC blower motor, and some preventative maintenance.

The DIY dividend of $2500 continues to reflect the value in doing things myself so in spite of dwindling personal time I have every intention of continuing to learn about the car, get dirt under my fingernails (or what's left of them after biting them off in this trying economy -- no thanks to the parasites on Wall Street), and passing on what I've learned to an ever-increasing readership. And speaking of the readership, site bandwidth and unique visits are up 75% YOY with a good share of the traffic pointing at my DIY section. Bimmerforums.com continues to provide the most referrals.

Unless I am derailed by yet another surprise I expect to tackle the suspension overhaul sometime during the warmer months of 2010. My brother has started the planning work necessary to erect a building complete with a lift but even if the land-use Nazis approve the work I doubt it will be ready much before the end of the summer. I know I'll need to address the suspension as soon as practical so I expect to do that work with the car on jackstands. New exterior moulding, leather on the driver's seat, and some stereo upgrades remain on the To-Do list as well, but the mechanical work will, as always, take priority.

Safe driving to all in 2010.

Mileage: 186697