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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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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 following parts from Tischer and wound up saving about 17% off retail:

Part Number Description
61668376011 Heated spray nozzle
61661378617 Y-tube
61661389040 Check valve (optional)
16131379229 8-9.5mm hose clamp
61131378641 Expanding rivet
61661365848 Reservoir strainer
61661357388 Hose line
67128362154 Washer fluid pump
61661365657 Gasket to mate pump to fluid reservoir
61318357632 Thermostatic switch

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