“The winds of November are upon us.” That’s what the words of a song by Gordon Lightfoot said. He sang about the ships on our Great Lakes, saying, “When the gales of November come calling.” There’s a bite to the air in the morning and the promise of more cold is to come. Along with all that chill we can be sure there’s snow in our futures. There, I said it, now we can get past the surprise when it happens. Some of us have already seen some of those pesky white flakes, and a few of the really crazy ones are hoping for lots more.
Those crazy Canadians and a few from Minnesota wait all year for snow deep enough to run their sleds. I’m good if I never see that white stuff again, except maybe on a post card from the North Pole. Santa assures me he needs it to make his rounds next month. I have invited him and Mrs. Clause to Phoenix, AZ for the winter, so Christmas may be canceled this year. Last time we spoke, they were checking their schedules. The two of them were pretty sure they could make it after the first of January. Yea, me too. Guess I better call the folks at PCT (Pickett Custom Trucks) and see if they need some part time help again.
Back to November and more truck maintenance, or maybe I should call it emergency rescues. We have all been there – when you least expect some odd calamity to happen, it will. I spend most of my weekends wrenching on my old iron (I still don’t want any part of a new truck). First off, I don’t have the time to teach it to follow a wrecker back to our shop. Second, they are so complicated, the average driver can’t work on his own truck anymore. For those who do know how, they probably don’t have the proper test equipment to diagnose the troubles at home. Well, I know we don’t have that kind of tooling here on the homestead, so I better just keep patching up my old ride so I can go haul big iron next week.
A few weeks back, I had the need for one of those emergency rescues at about 4:00 AM. You know the story, you get up early and start your day full of ambition and promise, then… BANG! Your train (or truck in my case) runs off the rails. I was climbing Bundy Hill here in Michigan on US 12. Now, for those of you who run the Rockies, it’s not a mountain, just a quick grade with a gravel pit and an old-time restaurant at the top. I can normally crest the grade without dropping a gear. Note to self: today’s not your day, so deal with it!
My first sign that there might be a problem was a shutter in the driveline, then a strange moan (more like a deep growl), and then I lost power. This is a proper time to explain why my driver’s side window is always cracked open a couple inches. It’s so I can hear my truck talk. If I had been tooling through the countryside listening to the tunes on my radio cranked loud, I may have missed that moan and, the few seconds faster reaction time I saved by lifting my right foot, most likely saved the turbo impeller from exploding and sending fragments through the air intake.
In case you didn’t know, the turbo pushes a lot of wind, more commonly referred to as compressed air, through the charge air cooler, which is mounted in front of the radiator. It then is cooled by ambient air passing over the veins or fins that make up the cooler. Think of it as a radiator only with air in it instead of antifreeze. The object is to cool the air and thus, it becomes denser when under pressure, and allows us to jam more of it into the cylinders and, along with more fuel, we get more horsepower. Well, I didn’t save the turbo, but I did eliminate a bunch of potential problems because of my actions.
Nothing drives me crazy faster than an inattentive driver. They will pass me running wide open with tires flat or tires off the rims, and sometimes even dragging securement straps or chains. I once saw a “special driver” pass me in a construction zone with his trailer doors still open. Yes, sir, they were “just a swingin” and he was oblivious to the danger he represented to other drivers. Had he had his driver’s side window open it’s possible he could have heard the other drivers honking at him! I have asked a few of these drivers why they don’t open the window a little to listen to their truck, and their answer usually goes like this: “The noise from the wind hurts my ears,” or, “They are supposed to be closed for fuel economy.” Really, do you believe that? If so, I got a bridge in New York I will sell you, too.
Drivers, it doesn’t matter if you are driving your own truck or a company ride, spool that window down a little and just listen to the sound your vehicle makes. If you’re anything like me, your curiosity will leave you trying to explain any strange or new sounds. With some practice, anyone can single out the different noises and tell if they are “normal” or not. Just for the record, I don’t have air conditioning in my truck, so most of the time, from spring through early winter, my window is wide open. There are days when I look more like a motorcycle rider with all those bugs splattered on me than a trucker. I really don’t mind, though, as they say, “Bugs taste like chicken!” Not!!
There are many good reasons to listen when you’re driving. Not only can you hear what’s going on outside, but you will also be able to monitor smells, too. The burnt smell of oil, or the sweet smell of antifreeze, a tight brake drum on the truck that just passed you, or is that you? Maybe you should stop and check before you catch a brake on fire. I’m just saying, I see it every week – some yahoo passes me with smoke rollin’ out from under his equipment and he just turns up the radio and pretends not to notice. What is it that the Blue Collar Comedy Tour says… “Here’s your sign!”
That turbo I spoke of earlier had run its last mile. When they fail, there isn’t much warning, and outside of some oil seepage or weeping, I’m not sure what to tell you to watch for. Mine had been leaking a little oil past the seal on the cold side, or more technically, the compressor side. I have been watching it but didn’t notice any change until it let go. The signs were there for failure, I just didn’t know when, so I wasn’t all that surprised when it happened. Time is one of the leading causes of failure.
As Larry down at Superior Turbo and Injection Service told me, the life span of our turbos is measured in duty cycles. Each time we roll through the rpms and spool it up or build pressure, that counts as a duty cycle. For those of us who run short trips using the two lane roads or drive in city traffic, we will most likely make more gear changes than the drivers who run the interstate system. Many of the miles they cover are at a steady rpm rate, thus holding the boost at a consistent pressure. I would expect the life span of their turbos to far outpace ours when measured by the total number of miles run.
The timing of my roadside repair could have been better, not to cause so much trouble, that early in the morning. Thank goodness for faithful friends who will bail you out at a moment’s notice. This time the shout-out goes to Phil Knowlan, from Knowlan Trucking in Tekonsha, Michigan. He picked me up alongside the road and carried me to a place where my wife could catch the transfer and take me home. I made it back to my yard before 7:00 AM and started the search for replacement parts. By the time my ride arrived at the truck I had already removed the failed parts and had it ready to accept the new turbo. Yes, many of these repairs can be done using nothing but hand tools.
You may notice a common theme in many of my monthly articles. Do your homework and research the problem. If you don’t know how your turbo works or how to remove it, should you ever need to, Google it now, before you actually need to do it. And then, when you get the opportunity to do the work yourself, do it and save the money. The more you know about how your vehicle operates, the easier it will be to fix. I usually have spare parts on the shelf for these emergencies. I don’t always have an extra turbo, since they are a bit expensive, and there is an outlet here in town that can get one to me the same day. However, I have all the part numbers and size requirements for this engine. I got lucky when I called because they had one in stock with a wear mark from shipping. I’m not opposed to scratches when it saves me $500!
Finding a charge air cooler was much more difficult. The type I use comes from Louisville, Kentucky, and has a lead time of three or four days to get it shipped. Thanks to Old Dominion (the trucking company), they had to send five separate packages because of damage caused during shipping. It’s a good thing there was a factory takeoff in my shop, because it ended up being two weeks before I received one I could use (I didn’t want to reuse the old cooler since some small pieces of the turbo were missing when I inspected the compressor wheel). Most likely those small pieces are loose inside the tubing and there is a possibility those chips could pass through the intake and find their way into the head or the combustion chamber. I’m not willing to gamble a $50K engine on a thousand dollar charge air cooler. At a later date I will clean the old cooler and try to locate any chips before I place it back on the shelf for future use.
All things considered, I finished the day feeling confident I had served the company well. I broke down at 4:00 AM, 70 miles from my yard and 100 miles from our customer, loaded with tubing for a specific job. They needed the product I was bringing to satisfy their customer. And even with all the setbacks I encountered, I still rolled into their place of business by 4:00 PM the same day to complete the dispatch. In the words of a famous actor who played Grandpa McCoy on a television show when I was a kid, “No brag, just fact!” And that’s not a big winded story.
If I had to use a wrecker service and then wait for a service shop to fix me up, I might still be waiting for them to call me. As it was, I found all the right parts, collected them up, and then drove back to the little roadside rest where I had parked the truck. Aunt Barb and I mounted the new turbo and swapped out the charge air cooler with a used, but serviceable, one. No one said trucking was easy, but it’s amazing what can be done – all in a day’s work.
Just think, if I didn’t have my window down and had not been listening to my truck, I might not have heard the early signs of trouble. This could have been much worse and a more expensive repair than it was. Once again, I couldn’t do it by myself, but with a little help from my friends, I am invincible, 10-4!