R320: Why Buy a Mercedes?

This AWD minivan is our new efficient family hauler.

This AWD minivan is our new efficient family hauler.

I know, I know, it sounds crazy that the guy who used to be so practical-minded would buy a Mercedes, of all things. Please allow me to explain!

First, the Suburban was requiring too much attention. The diesel conversion in a vehicle that complex required constant attention. Further, being that the vehicle was an aging, poorly-designed K1500 model, I was never happy with the handling or the brakes (yes, these are common complaints with the stock vehicle, so my conversion wasn’t the culprit). My wife was never comfortable driving it, either. When one of the rod bearings started making banging noises, I already had my eyes on a somewhat smaller vehicle as a replacement, one that would achieve 90% of what the Suburban did in a ready-made, well-integrated package. I don’t think that doing the conversion was a mistake, and I learned a lot that can be applied to future vehicles, but I definitely want to stick to simpler, lighter-weight vehicles where such a conversion can really shine. Perhaps something like a diesel sandrail or one of those common VW-TDI-into-Suzuki-Samurai swaps. We’ll see where I go in the future on this front, but I really want to pursue something where the swap results in an improvement over stock performance and things are kept simple and inexpensive. The Suburban cost me about $16k to build, and with all the systems I needed to integrate to make everything functional, it took about 18 months of my “free time.”

For those who are new to this blog, I currently own four turbo diesel vehicles. Call me strange, but I love torque and I demand good efficiency in my vehicles. The result is that diesels make a lot of sense. People will point out a higher initial cost of these vehicles, but I never buy new vehicles and when you look at used machines the cost of a diesel, typically, is not much higher. Especially not when you take the longevity of these machines into account. Maintenance may be more expensive, but I do my own maintenance. My vehicles are my #1 hobby, so I enjoy maintaining them and I absolutely refuse to go into debt to buy a vehicle.

R320 Rear View

There are some cosmetic imperfections, but this vehicle is mechanically solid and has a lot of potential.

This post wouldn’t be complete without bringing up the current car market. Are you looking for a new car? I’m writing this in May of 2017, and Peter Schiff’s latest update included information about manufacturers seeing worse-than-expected demand for their new vehicles. This is especially notable when they were already expecting declining year-over-year sales figures. So, the decline is worse than they thought. Don’t let Janet Yellen or her minions at the Fed fool you: this economy is on the precipice and we are seeing cracks in our biggest three economic bubbles in the United States (homes, autos, and education). These guys are playing a con-game with our economy and their “data-driven” approach to managing the economy (something which Austrian Economics shows can’t be done) is creating a mess. Without going further into detail on Austrian Economics (see Mises.org, or Contra Krugman, if you’d like to learn more), the bottom line is that lots of dealers have inventory sitting on their lots and now is a great time to find a deal. Further, that fact also affects the used car market and many used cars are ridiculously inexpensive right now. Given that I’m a person who prefers to stay 100% debt-free (yeah, I have a mortgage, but I’m working on that), this makes the capability that can be found in a used car a completely amazing bang-to-buck ratio!

So, still, the question is why I would buy a Mercedes. The answer is in the specs for this Mercedes minivan:

  • Spacious room for six, even the third row will comfortably fit somebody over 6 feet tall (though nobody in my family comes anywhere close to 6′).
  • The same 3.0 OM642 V6 turbo diesel that is used in the Sprinters and a slew of other Mercedes-Benz vehicles. A common engine means that its strengths and shortcomings are well-known and parts won’t be too terribly rare.
  • More on the engine: 398 lb-ft of torque!
  • 4-matic. How many minivans have all-wheel drive systems?
  • Combining this with the same seven-speed automatic and transfer case that are used in a number of other models, including the R63 500+hp fire-breathing R-class, the drivetrain ought to be bulletproof.
  • The machine is EPA rated at 28 mpg highway.
  • Depending on where you can find the information, the towing capacity is between 3500 and 4600 lb.

Does that sound good enough? How about this: I found one with somewhat high mileage (145,000) for less than $7k. It has its scuffs, dings, and a number of issues that need attention, but this is an amazingly capable vehicle for the price. With classic Mercedes vehicles going 500,000 miles, I expect that this machine will also achieve a long life with some minor adjustments and modifications, along with proper maintenance.

That leaves one more question: What about maintenance? Given the time and capability I’ve shown in doing the Suburban modification, I believe I can do what’s needed on this vehicle, too. Further, I’ve already purchased a knock-off SD Connect multiplexer and software, giving me the code scanning, reset, and recoding capabilities that the dealers have. Perhaps more, as the system I have includes Xentry with development mode and something called Vediamo, which is a development suite.

So, that gives you a quick background on my latest project machine. I’ll follow this with posts about some of the work I’ve been doing.

Meanwhile: may the Lord bless you and keep you running on all cylinders!

Glow Plug Harness: Powerstroke Parts on a VW TDI

I’ve been enjoying my 2005 Passat Wagon TDI for nearly two years, now. Like my Jetta, it’s another little diesel in my fleet. The engine is the BHW code, making it a Pumpe Duse engine. It’s not as efficient as the Jetta’s ALH engine, but it still gets me into upper 30s, but with a more comfortable family machine with a leather interior. When I bought the car it had a dead automatic transmission, so I was able to get a deal on it. I dragged it home and got to work on swapping the transmission for a standard using used factory parts sourced from Dutch Auto Parts in the Netherlands. Today you wouldn’t know that it came with an automatic transmission in it, because it looks completely stock.

This is the inexpensive part I used to replace my worn-out glow plug harness on my Passat TDI.

This is the inexpensive part I used to replace my worn-out glow plug harness on my Passat TDI.

The car now has 200,000 miles on it and I started getting the dreaded “EMISSIONS WORKSHOP” messages every time I started the engine. Pulling the codes, I found out that I had an open circuit at one of my glow plugs. I checked the glow plug and found that it had good continuity, so I knew it was the harness. VW charges too much for glow plug harnesses, and I must say that I didn’t bother to price it this time around. I wrote up an article a while back showing how to use R/C bullet connectors to make a glow plug harness rather than spending $80 on a factory part. Some of you told me that you’ve used the Powerstroke 6.0 harnesses you’ve bought on eBay, so I decided to give this a try. I found this one on eBay for $19.99. In case that link is dead, the seller was calvinvo, and the title was “2004 – 2010 Ford 6.0L Powerstroke Diesel Glow Plug Harness Left Driver Side.”

It came fairly quickly after I ordered it. I got started by chopping off the connector and peeling back the convoluted tubing. THEN, I realized that I’d like to start blogging again and took a snapshot of it. I should have taken a snapshot first, but this still gives you an idea of what it looked like.

I checked the four wires with an ohmmeter to see which color went to which connector. Using the one closest to where the connector used to be for the #1 cylinder, the codes are yellow for #1, red for #2, white for #3, and blue for #4. I tried snapping one of them onto the #1 glow plug after I removed the original harness, seeing that the large plastic caps would allow the couplers to snap onto the glow plugs.

Note that the black coolant tube has dimples near the glow plugs to make room for the stock harness.

Note that the black coolant tube has dimples near the glow plugs to make room for the stock harness.

I made new solder connections and covered them in heat-shrink tubing. Then, I went to install the harness and found that #3 and #4 didn’t fit. I realized that a coolant tube runs quite close to the head on the BHW engine, keeping the large plastic connectors from sliding into place. To make room for the stock harness, I noticed that VW put dimples in this tube.  I wasn’t going to enlarge the dimples or relocate the tube, so I got out my rotary tool and used a cutting disk to remove material from the underside of the plastic connectors for glow plugs #3 and #4.

These plastic connectors have o-rings for the Powerstroke application that must be used to keep water from getting into the cavities where the glow plugs are on that engine. The VW TDI engines have glow plugs that are exposed to the air, so there’s no need for this much plastic. I trimmed them back until I could snap the connectors in place.

I trimmed the glow plug connectors on cylinders #1 and #2 so that they would fit alongside the coolant tube that runs past the BHW head.

I trimmed the glow plug connectors on cylinders #1 and #2 so that they would fit alongside the coolant tube that runs past the BHW head.

Success! I’ve been able to clear the code and I no longer create an embarrassing blue haze hanging in the air when I start the cold engine on a cold day!

Stringing With Lasers: Building and Calibrating a Better Tool

Taking Alignment Measurements

Once two parallel, vertical planes of light have been established, it is fairly easy to measure the distance from the rims to the light and determine the wheels’ angles.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but I thought I should share this useful information.

In a previous post I mentioned that “stringing” is the classic method for do-it-yourself wheel alignments.  By creating two parallel planes of laser light, one on each side of the car, one can easily take measurements from points on wheel rims to those planes.  Using those measurements and a bit of trigonometry, one can easily determine how the wheels are pointed and make adjustments.

The first time I mentioned stringing with lasers, I used laser levels with gratings that fan the laser light out across a plane.  The fact that these lasers were attached to levels was irrelevant, except that I had a pair of them in my workshop and they had 1/4″x20 threaded inserts that allow them to be mounted on tripods.  So, I mounted them on some small tripods and then went through the laborious process of adjusting the light planes to be vertical and parallel to each other.  It’s a great idea, and better than tripping over strings stretched between jack stands, but the alignment process is still quite a pain!

Lasers Mounted on a 2x4

I mounted my laser levels to a 2×4 in order to ensure that they would remain aligned relative to each other.

Shortly after I wrote that article, I got a crazy idea and bolted both laser levels to a 2×4.  This would ensure that they would only require, at most, very small adjustments in the future (due to warping wood, or getting bumped around in the shop).  However, this was still a huge improvement in shortening my setup time.  Note that the calibration process mentioned below would work for any material that one might choose to use.

Realizing that wood isn’t the most stable, sturdy platform in the world, I chose to make a new alignment device from pieces of steel.  I would gain more assurance that there would be no changes in the alignment between the lasers from one alignment session to the next.  I would still do a quick check, though, to be sure!

Tubing Welded Together

Two 4′ pieces of 1″ square tubing were welded to each other, in order to get an 8′ long piece. The angle iron reinforcement at the center was also used to mount the level.

I had two 1″ square pieces of steel tubing that were each 4′ long.  I really wanted an 8′ piece of tubing, so I butt-welded them together and reinforced the center where they met with a piece of angle iron.  The angle iron wrapped around the square tubing.  In addition to reinforcing the steel tubing, the angle iron gave me a convenient place to mount a level.  I didn’t worry about getting the tubing perfectly straight, or ensuring that the angle iron reinforcement would be perfectly parallel to the tubing.  All of this would come out in the wash when the lasers were adjusted and the setup was calibrated.  The important thing was that the connections were solid and weren’t going to move.

Feet Welded On

A foot was welded onto one end of the tubing. Also, 1/4″ holes were drilled in the tubing on both ends to mount the laser levels with 1/4-20 screws.

On both ends I drilled a 1/4″ hole at 1″ from the end.  These were to mount the laser levels.  Later I measured from one level to the other and found out that the actual distance between the lasers would be 93 15/16″  I made note of this for calibration purposes later.

Then, on one end I welded on a piece of metal that was cut so that it would touch the ground in two places.  This forms two feet of the tripod that  supports the device.  I angled these two feet so that the laser levels would actually point upwards a bit.  The laser fans are somewhat wasted when almost half the light is pointed into the ground.  More importantly, they might not be wide enough to take measurements at a car’s rear wheels if the device is set on the floor close to the rear of the car.

The Third (Adjustable) Foot

A third foot was made from all-thread. The pointed end goes toward the ground and it is adjustable to level the device.

On the other end I drilled a 10 mm hole inboard of where the laser level would mount.  I cut a piece of all-thread and ground one end to a point.  This point would be the third foot in my tripod.  By using this piece with a pair of nuts, I can adjust the entire device to be level when it is in use.

I strapped an inexpensive level to the angle iron and used this to level the device.

I bolted the levels onto the ends of the device and started calibrating the system.

First, I pointed the device at my garage door from a distance of 13 feet.  This should place two vertical lines on the garage door, but of course I could easily see that some adjustment would be required.  First, I adjusted the third foot, to ensure that the level at the center of the device showed it to be level.

Adjustable Beams

The gratings on these laser levels can be adjusted. I wanted to make these light planes perfectly vertical.  Note that the laser level is purposely pointed in an upward direction.

The grating on the lasers can be adjusted on these levels to get the desired angle.  I placed a long construction level upright on the ground against my garage door.  By inserting shims underneath its bottom, I was able to get it to stand perfectly vertical.  I adjusted the laser fan on that side such that the line went straight up the edge of the construction level.

Without moving the device, I moved the construction level to the other line on the garage door and did the same.  Now I had two vertical planes, but I had to confirm that they were parallel to each other.

Measuring Between the Planes

Now that the planes of laser light are both vertical, I measure between the two with the device at a distance of 13′ from the garage door.  Yellow stick-on rulers are stuck to the door in a horizontal line just below the bottom hinge.

When taking my wife to a fabric store, once, I found stick-on rulers that can be used for measuring lengths of fabric on a table.  I stuck these to my garage door, starting at zero at the door’s center and working outwards horizontally.  They come in one-foot lengths, so I used several of these in each direction.  I used another ruler to look along each sticker’s length to ensure that the measurements weren’t drifting from inaccurate placement.  I used these for other alignment approaches in the past, but today I could use them to measure the distance between my laser light planes.  Earlier, I had measured the center-to-center distance (same as the left-side to left-side distance) between the laser levels at the point where they mount to the square tubing.  Now I confirmed that the distance between the planes was the same at the garage door.  Obviously, I needed to make some adjustments.  Once I had the measurement within 1/16″ (at 13′, this corresponds to 2/100 of a degree), I tightened the screws used to mount the levels and checked it again.

Then, I got out the construction level and checked that the lines on the garage door were plumb, again.

Completed Device

Here my completed alignment device has been painted, reassembled, and recalibrated. It is shown in position for doing an alignment on “The Silver Standard,” my TDI.

Now I have two vertical, parallel planes of laser light that can be used to “string” a car for alignment.  I normally place the device behind the vehicle with the laser light planes extending forward.  I then align the system with the car by making the planes as parallel to the rear rims as I can get it.  Of course, this is a good approach for cars without independent rear suspension.  Some commercially-available systems use a third laser mounted in the middle to align the system with the car’s center line.

This system has been accurate enough that I’ve completed alignments and didn’t have to re-center the steering wheel when I was done.

One key when using a ruler to take measurements from the rim to the light:  Keeping the plane of the ruler vertical, swing the ruler forward and backward a bit, to find the smallest measurement — this ensures that you are taking measurements that are truly normal to the laser light planes and not succumbing to optical illusions.

–Keep it straight!

Jetta TDI: Head Gasket Replacement

TDI Timing Belt Removed

The timing belt was removed. Note the drill bit used to lock the injection pump into place.

In advance: I apologize for the blurry photos!  I need to replace my wife’s camera, so that I get my good one back.  I took these with my phone, and the quality is horrible!

In my commutes to and from Columbus from my home near Martinsville, Indiana, my 2001 Jetta TDI has been getting 47 mpg with 266,000+ miles showing on the odometer.  However, it started using coolant, and this needed to be addressed.

My own investigations found that the coolant wasn’t leaking onto my garage floor, so the usual suspects, including a bad water pump seal or a leaky hose, were immediately dismissed.  The coolant level might be OK for a week or so under normal driving conditions, but if I drove at elevated highway speeds or in a spirited fashion I would quickly get the low coolant alarm and need to top off the spherical tank under the hood.  I found that the coolant system was being pressurized under high boost conditions, creating gas bubbles and even pushing the coolant out of the water bottle.

A search around the excellent forums at TDI Club showed me that this was a known issue that occurs to the 1.9 liter ALH TDI engines.  It’s caused by a leaky head gasket.

The situation wasn’t too severe, yet, so I thought I’d try to increase the clamping force on the head.  The stock head bolts are of the stretch type that cannot be reused.  They also limit how much clamping force can be asserted.  I knew that ARP makes a stud kit for these heads, so I thought I’d give it a try.  I found out that DaveLinger on TDI Club had the same problem and was able to fix it by upgrading to the ARP studs.  I ordered them, did the upgrade, and found that it didn’t fix my problem.

So, I bit the bullet and ordered up about $400 worth of components from Kerma TDI.  I found that they had the best bottom-line total price, even though I still needed to pay some $21 in shipping.  Others had “free” shipping, but their total price was still higher.  I’m running a mild Kerma tune in my car, and know that Kerma specializes in TDIs and knows their business well.  I ordered a head gasket kit, a couple bottles of compatible coolant, a timing belt kit, and a replacement expansion tank (the old one was looking rough).  The timing belt kit was added because I already had 66,000 miles on the current belt and if I was removing the head, I might as well replace the belt early and be good for another 100,000 miles.  The kits were pretty deluxe and included stretch bolts, gaskets, seals, rollers, and other stuff that one isn’t likely to think of when doing this job.  It was about $400 in parts, but I know that this job would cost $1200+ for somebody else to do it.

When the parts came, I thought I could get this done in a weekend.  I work slowly, though, and it took two weekends to get everything back together and a third to get everything running correctly.

Homemade Camshaft lock

I locked the camshaft into position by removing the end bearing cap and using this piece of angle aluminum shimmed with some sheet metal.

I started by pulling out my Bentley Volkswagon Jetta, Golf, GTI 1999 to 2005 Service Manual and slowly worked my way through removing the timing belt process prior to switching to the head removal process. I should point out a couple cheapskate things I used for tools during this process.  The Bentley manual calls out some special VW tools, but there are workarounds.  Much of this came from checking out GallowayChicago’s YouTube video on the subject.  One is using a 15/64″ drill bit to lock the injection pump in place.  He also recommended removing the bearing cap on the end of the cam and using a saw blade to lock it into place using the groove built into it.  I took his advice, except that I used a piece of angle aluminum shimmed with some sheet metal I had laying around.  Further, rather than using some other fancy pin spanners on the tensioner, I found that the Park Tool SPA-1 had the right pin diameters when I found it on Amazon, so I tried it out and was pleased that it was exactly the right tool for the job.  It was only $10.

Homemade Sprocket Tool

This simple, homemade tool was used to counter torques when loosening the camshaft sprocket.

To counter torque when loosening the camshaft sprocket, it is very important that you don’t use your locking mechanism or you will likely twist the camshaft.  So, I simply used two pieces of angle iron with a bolt acting as a hinge and two other bolts at the end used to contact the sprocket and keep it from rotating.  It gives me plenty of leverage!

Parker Tool SPA-1

The Park Tool SPA-1, a pin spanner made by a company that specializes in bicycle tools, works perfectly for setting the tensioner on this engine.

When I was removing the head, I found that I’d forgotten to disconnect the oil line to the turbo.  This steel line was quickly messed up in the procedure and it looked like a real mess to reinstall an new one.  Bora Parts had the answer for me, that was about the same price as the best deal I could find for the OEM line: a braided stainless turbo line.  It was easy to route and install when everything was being reassembled.

When the head was removed, I cleaned up all of the surfaces with a gasket removing chemical and a plastic scraper.  I wouldn’t use metal to remove gaskets from an aluminum head, as you will certainly gouge the surface and screw up the ability to seal with the new head gasket!

Filthy Head During Cleaning

I used the Permatex gasket removing chemical that is applied with a brush to remove remaining gasket materials from the head and the engine block.

When I reassembled everything on the second weekend, I found that I couldn’t start the engine.  With my crazy work schedule, I had to hang it up until the next weekend.

I began looking through everything to see what I did wrong.  I found that my timing was off one tooth, which is apparently a common error that will happen when tension is applied to the belt.  However, correcting this still didn’t allow me to start the engine.

I had used a Mityvac to prime the injection pump before trying to start the engine, but it didn’t seem like it was getting any fuel.  I did a cold compression check, and knew I had good compression, so simple logic dictated that I wasn’t getting fuel into the chamber.

I searched through forums for “no start” conditions checked a number of things, including electrical connections going to the injection pump.  Everything looked OK.  Finally I stumbled across one person who mentioned priming the injectors and tubing that had been disconnected in the process.  I cracked them open, cranked the engine, and tightened them back down.  Now the engine started with no issues.  There must have been a bunch of air in those lines!

Injection Pump Timing Adjustment

Injection pump timing is adjusted by removing the upper timing belt cover and loosening the three bolts that are in slots on its sprocket. Then, the central bolt is rotated to adjust the timing and the bolts are retightened.

With the engine running, I pulled out my Ross-Tech VAG-Com and took measurements on the actual injection timing.  This tool allows me to look at, record, and adjust a large number of features and variables on my car.  There is an acceptable timing range for the injection event, and this tool gave me a graphical indication of where the event was taking place.

At first the injection was too far advanced, with the events being recorded above the visible range on the graph.  On my first tweak I moved it just below the acceptable range.  After a couple more small adjustments, I got the injection events timed on the advanced side of the acceptable range, but still within it.  This is a safe timing setup that will provide the best fuel economy.

VAG-Com Injection Timing Graph

The VAG-Com allowed me to mechanically adjust my timing until it was ideal. Advanced, but within the acceptable range.

I learned a lot of lessons in this process, and if I need to replace a belt or pull a head from one of these cars again, in the future, I’ll be able to do it much more quickly and easily.  In addition to the knowledge, I also have more of the tools for the job.

Putting the “engine” back in “engineering!”

TDI Clutch Time!

Jetta Clutch Maintenance

The Jetta needed some rare attention, and I replaced the clutch.

I recently found that my clutch was starting to slip in my daily driver, a 2001 Jetta TDI.  While doing this work I had to order some parts, unexpectedly, so I had to drive my Suburban for the week.  The good news is that my next fill up showed me to be getting almost 26 mpg.  The bad news is that this isn’t even close to the 45+ mpg my Jetta gives me, so I really needed to get this thing back on the road ASAP!

The Jetta currently has over 263,000 miles on the original clutch, so this wear item actually lasted quite a long time.  Of course diesels produce torque at low rpms, so clutch when starting from a stop is minimized and less wear is experienced.  I don’t let it slip at all when shifting between gears.

In addition to slipping, I had noticed that I had to push the clutch pedal to the floor completely to shift gears, and suspected that I might have a bent disengagement fork or need to replace some hydraulics.

Makeshift Spreading Tool

I built a makeshift spreading tool to push the engine forward, allowing the transmission to be removed.

I found a good deal on a clutch kit for the 228mm Luk clutch on Rock Auto.  The kit (clutch disk, throwout bearing, and pressure plate) was a good deal at $110, but it was shipped from overseas for another $50.  $160 was still a good deal, so I went with it.  Using National part number CK9683, I was making the assumption that my dual-mass flywheel was still OK.  I hadn’t had any problems or vibrations, so I expected this to be true.  I was proven wrong.

I finally got the transmission out, which is no small feat.  The Bentley shop manual I use recommends a special VW tool to push the engine forward.  Of course, this can only be done with the left-side mount disconnected and with an engine support holding the engine from above.  Without pushing the engine forward, the transmission can’t be removed.  I used some threaded rod with nuts, washers, and a custom piece of 2×4 that grabs onto the frame behind the engine.

Trashed Dual Mass Flywheel

The original dual mass flywheel needed to be replaced. Note that the bolt heads are only partially visible through the holes.

When the transmission was out, I compared the National clutch with the original Luk, and everything matched up perfectly.  I had checked the fit of the National clutch and was getting ready to start reassembling everything when I realized that I should take a close look at the dual mass flywheel to make sure it was OK.  It wasn’t.  I didn’t have any issues with vibration, or anything, but I noticed that the bolt heads weren’t aligned with the holes in the flywheel’s cover plate.  If the dampers were healthy, the bolts would align with the holes when the system is unloaded.

I had to order another clutch.  I quickly found out that the dual mass flywheels were over $400.  Even with $150 already sunk into the current clutch kit, it was a better deal to buy a kit to switch the system over to a conventional flywheel and clutch setup.  The kit from German Auto Parts cost $383 shipped, but came with the flywheel, clutch disk, pressure plate, throwout bearing, an alignment tool, and the necessary bolts to install it all.  It turns out that this is the setup used in the VR6 models, so this high-performance clutch should be more than adequate for my slightly-modified diesel.

New Conventional Clutch

Because the new flywheel didn’t have a damping system in it, the new clutch disk has to have springs.

So, I made the order and cut up the old flywheel so that I could access the bolts and remove it. The new parts arrived by the following weekend and installation went off without a hitch.

At first I thought I had made my hydraulic issue worse, because I had to pump the clutch up several times in the first few days.  After that, it bled itself and returned to normal.  It was actually better than before, as I didn’t have to push the pedal all the way to the floor, anymore.

The new clutch restored my car’s function and gave me the satisfaction of a job well done.  I won’t have to worry about this conventional clutch, and many people have had very real problems with the dual-mass flywheels.  It’s actually an improvement, and I’m back to using it as my daily driver.

By the way, on my last tank I got 46 mpg.

-Putting the engine back in engineering!

Stringing for alignment with lasers

Laser String Alignment

This weekend I used lasers to “string” my wife’s Liberty CRD and adjust its alignment.

I was recently looking at tools to improve the accuracy and the amount of time I spend doing my own wheel alignments in my workshop.  Like many other things, I believe that I can use some intelligence, ingenuity, and basic tools to do a better job than I would pay somebody else for.  Yes, it will take time, but I will know that the job is done right.

While looking at tools I stumbled across a great article on CircleTrack.com that discusses how to align vehicles the “old fashioned” way using strings stretched between jackstands.  I thought this was an instructive read, but I’d certainly trip over one of those carefully-aligned strings while making adjustments and have to start over.  Toward the end of the article, the author (Jeff Honeycutt) said that they rarely use strings anymore, as inexpensive lasers are actually easier to use.  Immediately this got my attention!

I knew that I had a pair of laser levels I used for my previous alignment efforts, and realized that they could be used this way, by lowering the included diffraction grating over the laser’s lens to spread the light out across a plane.  If this process worked well, I could save a bunch of money while doing a better job aligning my vehicles.

My previous alignment process used these same laser levels to check toe-in by attaching them to appropriate lengths of aluminum angle, laying them across the rims, and measuring the distance between the dots on my garage door with fabric store stick-on rulers that I’ve installed for this purpose.  By doing this at two measured distances from the garage door, I can determine the toe-in with some trigonometry.  I’ve set up a spreadsheet in my shop’s linux machine to do the math for me.  The problem with this approach is that I have to move the vehicle back and forth, hanging the laser levels and removing them again several times.  After I get the toe-in just right, I then have to adjust to center the steering wheel by trial-and-error.  If I’m stringing the vehicle, I’ll know when my wheels are pointed straight ahead (+/- some toe angle) and I can center the steering wheel without moving the vehicle.

So, I used this method with my wife’s Liberty CRD (yeah, it’s another diesel in the family!).  Pardon the crud on the vehicle, as winter refuses to release its grasp as of this past weekend.

First, I already know that the floor in part of my workshop happens to be almost perfectly level.  If the floor is not level side-to-side, you should look at using sheets of thin plywood, plexiglass (yes, I’ve used it that way before), or whatever you have laying around to get the vehicle level.  You can use a long length of clear tubing with water in it as a type of level to compare the positions of the hubs or the bottom or the top of the rim on both sides of the vehicle.

Checking Camber

I used this simple, inexpensive camber measurement device to ensure the camber was OK. Caster doesn’t tend to change much on its own.

Knowing that the vehicle was level, I pulled out a camber gauge that I purchased years ago from a forgotten source.  Racer Parts Warehouse sells a very similar one for $40, but I’m still not absolutely sure this is where I got it.  On this simple device, the standoffs are adjusted for the rim diameter and placed directly against the rim.  The knob, marked in 1/8 turn increments, is turned in order to bring the level’s bubble to the center.  A full turn is one degree, so the markings each represent 1/8 of a degree.  I found out that the Liberty’s camber was within spec, but that there was a little bit of asymmetry that I removed.  I don’t buy the arguments for asymmetry to counter crowned roads today, because we drive on such a wide variety of surfaces.  The vehicle should be set to drive straight on a more common uncrowned road.

Squaring the Plane of the Laser

The laser’s diffracted plane was adjusted to be vertical using a carpenter’s square.

Before starting on adjusting toe-in, I also checked to ensure that the steering wheel was in the straight, level position.  I would correct the front wheels’ position relative to the steering wheel, so that I wouldn’t have to mess with centering the wheel later.

Next, I put the laser levels onto some inexpensive tripods I picked up.  I might opt for some larger, heavier, more stable tripods later, but these worked well enough for now.  I set one up on the vehicle’s left side and used a carpenter’s square to check that the laser’s plane was at a right angle to the ground (yeah, I know the photo shows me doing this on the vehicle’s right side, which comes later).  I then rotated the tripod left and right with repeated measurements taken on the left rear wheel to ensure the plane was parallel to the wheel.  This is done by holding a ruler up at a right angle to the rim and seeing where the laser marks it.  By comparing the front and the rear of the rim at hub level, I was able to get the laser positioned properly.

Then, I set up the laser on a tripod on the other side of the vehicle and used the same carpenter’s square to adjust it to be vertical.  I measured the distance between the lines on the ground at the rear of the vehicle and at the front to see if they were parallel.  With some time, I was able to get them exactly parallel to eachother.  I then double-checked them with the carpenter’s square and knew that I could take good measurements.

Two Lasers Used for Alignment

Two lasers with diffraction gratings installed were used to make a pair of parallel planes that were at a right angle to the rear axle. Measurements for alignment were made from these two planes.

The Jeep Liberty takes very near zero toe (0.10 degree total toe), and that was what I targeted, with just a hair of toe-in.  Measurements are taken at hub level from the front and rear of the rim to the laser plane on both sides.  When you know the total toe spec, the difference between these measurements will be:

Delta = (distance across rim)*sin[(total toe degrees)*pi/180]/2

The pi/180 bit is there for spreadsheets that default to radians for trig functions.  The /2 bit allows for the fact that each side should cover half of the toe-in.  My calculation shows that the difference should only be some 1/100th of an inch, and so zero toe is a good target.  For applications where measurable toe-in is required, remember that the longer measurement should be at the front of the rim.

When I tweaked the adjustments I took the Liberty for a drive.  It tracked perfectly straight and the wheel was straight.  It wasn’t quite right before, but I was quite pleased with the results.

–Do it yourself, if you want it done right!




Are these the glow plugs used in NASCAR?

NASCAR Glow Plugs

Are these the actual glow plugs used by NASCAR? (Yes, I know better.)

Well, temperatures dropped, again, I had some smoky, rough starts on the TDI.  Voltage through my homemade harness looked great, but two of my plugs failed a quick continuity check using my multimeter — meaning that they were burnt out.  Hadn’t I checked this before?

So, I had to replace them yesterday.  I’d prefer the NGK glow plugs, but these are what I could get shipped from a local warehouse in one day.  As long as they aren’t too expensive and they get hot when voltage is applied, I’m not too concerned about the brand name.

However, check out the NASCAR branding on these Autolite glow plugs.  Are these the actual glow plugs used in NASCAR? 

Yeah, I’m being sarcastic.  I know, they aren’t really saying that these specific components (or any glow plugs at all) are used in NASCAR, but it’s still funny!

–We’ll see if this makes my 90 hp TDI any faster!  😉

$80 Glow Plug Harness?! Not on My TDI!

VW Glow Plug Harness

This is the original, poorly-built, overpriced piece-o-crap that VW sells.

It’s been a bit since I’ve last posted on this blog.  I’ve got some things going on that I’ve been hoping to share, but things haven’t panned out, yet.  I hope to make an announcement about some changes I’m making in life soon.  Soon!  Meanwhile, I’ll just say I’ve been quite busy on a project.

Additionally, my kids and I have also been working on a quadcopter, now that building a 3-axis stabilized platform is really pretty simple and inexpensive.  When we get it flying I’ll post a video and blog on that project.

We’ve had an unusually harsh winter here in Indiana, so I’ve been driving the diesel-converted Suburban [aka the Zombie Apocalypse Command Center (ZACC)] quite a bit.  When road conditions allow it, though, I save fuel by driving my 2001 Jetta TDI (ALH).  Sure, the Suburban gets reliable economy in the 20s, even in four wheel drive, but the VW moves me around with economy in the 40s.  Paying half as much to commute is a good thing, even if its in a beat-up little car with 260,000 miles on the odometer.

Because temperatures have been low, glow plug function has been important, and I recently noticed some issues with cold starts.  Making a cloud in a parking lot with a rough-sounding engine is embarrassing!  I often cycle the key on-off-on in order to increase glow plug heating before cranking the engine.  Recently it didn’t help, so I pulled the VW glow plug harness off and checked continuity for all four plugs.  Last year one of them died (no continuity) and replacing it made a huge difference.  All four plugs checked out OK, this time, so I figured my problem was another bad glow plug harness.

The glow plug harness on these vehicles is a poorly made plastic molding with only two conductors inside.  One conductor feeds the positive side of glow plugs #1 and #2, while the other takes care of #3 and #4.  Engine grounding completes the circuit for these plugs.  I’ve been reading a number of complaints about them going bad repeatedly because the actual connections get corroded at the glow plug terminal.  Bad design!  I’ve already replaced this part once.

Being a bad design is one thing.  Paying $80 per copy is another!  I hunted down the part number and searched all over the Web for a better deal.  Prices varied a bit, but they never went south of $50, so I decided that they were all horribly overpriced for a simple component that I could build myself.

I measured the connection on the dead glow plug from last year (not sure why I kept it, but it came in handy).  It came in at exactly 4mm and my recent multicopter work got me thinking about 4mm female bullet connectors.  I went onto eBay and bought a dozen sets of gold-plated male and female connectors for $5 delivered.

My Homemade Glow Plug Harness

This harness was made from 4mm female bullet connectors soldered onto 12ga wire with heat shrink (and some electrical tape–needed some larger heat shrink).

When they came in, I pulled off my VW plug harness to judge the needed wire lengths, soldered the 4mm female connectors onto the business ends of some wires spliced into a pair of Ys, covered everything in heat shrink (OK, yeah, some of it is actually electrical tape…for now), and spliced these assemblies into my wiring harness.  The bullet connectors were just a bit loose on the plugs, but I solved that by squeezing them ever so slightly with a crimper.  Now they fit onto the plug electrodes more tightly than the original harness does.

And, of course, my homemade harness works beautifully!

–No more embarrassing smoky, rough startups!

Diesel Suburban: New Leaf Springs

Leaf Spring Comparison

The new leaf spring assemblies (5+1) are much beefier than the ones they will replace (4+1).

The Diesel Suburban just got a new set of leaf springs.  I’ve been messing around with the suspension since the diesel was installed and running.  The vehicle has seriously handled like a pig — and it’s not just because of its size.  I’ve driven large vehicles that handled better than this one.

  • My first shot at improving handling was to replace all of my bushings with polyurethane.  It didn’t help.
  • I realized that because I’m using the Isuzu 4BD1T’s power steering pump, I no longer had speed-sensitive steering, so I increased caster to get more “feel.”  No improvement.  I may still consider a non-speed-sensitive steering box at another time.
  • I swapped torsion bars in the front end for a set that were a bit stiffer, and got some improvement.
  • I swapped tires, and got no improvement, except that the newer ones don’t follow grooves in concrete as much.
  • I put a larger rear sway bar in, but it didn’t help.
  • I put some air-pressurized shocks in the rear to stiffen things up, but I suspect that spring wrap was still occurring.
Spring Overlap

The new springs feature more overlap between the leaves, which will further stiffen the system.

As mentioned in the last item, I found out that some other large SUVs had problems from the factory, because they were shipped with light rear springs that allowed some rear steer which is caused by spring wrap.  These vehicles were fixed by adding radius arms, but they could have also been fixed with beefier springs.

Nobody complains about Suburban handling from the factory, except when they’ve run into issues with the speed-sensitive steering being out-of-whack.  Many bypass the feature to get predictable behavior.  A suburban with 170,000 miles and over 14 years on the road may have weak rear leaf springs and start behaving in a similar fashion.

I called around, and found Warner Spring in Indianapolis had the best deal on a pair of OEM-style leaf springs.  Some online locations might have saved me $20, after shipping costs were included, but the headaches of online returns when dealing with 200 lbs worth of springs helped me to go with a local shop.

Overload Leaf Comparison

The overload leaf on the new spring shown here is much beefier and longer than the other. This will allow more load-carrying capacity.

Though the springs from Warner were supposed to be a direct replacement, they are 5+1 springs, rather than the 4+1 springs my K1500 Suburban came with.  That’s OK, as I wanted them to be stiffer, and certainly feel that this Suburban was too lightly sprung from the factory.

When I got the springs home and removed the original springs from the Suburban, I set them down side-by-side and took a few photos.  The differences include:

  • A 5+1 setup, meaning that there are five primary leaves, plus a single overload leaf.  This overload leaf doesn’t engage until heavier-than-normal loads are placed in the rear of the vehicle.
  • Heavier leaf overlap.  The leaves on the original springs didn’t overlaps as much, meaning that there was a lot less spring at the ends.  The overlap on the new springs will add to the stiffness of the system.
  • Beefier overload spring.  The overload leaf on the new assemblies is much longer and thicker than on the originals.  This means that it will provide more load-carrying capacity for heavy loads.
New Leaf Springs Installed

The new leaf springs are installed. I still need to get the vehicle up to highway speeds to know if I’ve improved the handling.

I got everything installed on Saturday morning, but I haven’t had a chance to get the Suburban up to highway speeds.  I have some errands to run and a meeting to attend this evening, so I will report back on whether this finally fixes my handling problems.  I did notice that this lifted the rear end of the Suburban noticeably, and I may look at ways to counter that; including lowering shackles and cranking up the torsion bars a bit.

–Still learning things the hard way!

Generator Fun: Follow-Up

Kill-A-Watt at 60Hz

The generator needed to be adjusted to provide a correct 60Hz output. Here I’m observing the frequency as the furnace cycles, and only small changes are seen in the a/c frequency.

Early in the week I mentioned that I had some issues running my natural gas-fired furnace using my generator — which has been converted to run on natural gas as well.  Experimentation proved that there was something wrong with the power being provided by the generator.  My family was lucky that the lights came back on on Sunday night, as we’ve heard stories of people without power for up to 48 hours.  This is horrible when temperatures are in the negative teens and windchills are in the neighborhood of -30F (windchill will increase how much heat is lost through the walls of the house–by the same convective mechanism that affects your body).  I also talked with a few people who had power, but were still having issues with frozen pipes.

I thought about my technical problem during the week and considered my actions to determine the exact problem and make a correction.  First of all, I knew we needed more extension cords, so I stopped at a hardware store and picked some up, along with some cheap cord-wrap organizers and some water-tight cord connector covers — which were what we should have used for weather-exposed connections used to power heat lamps for chickens and rabbits. I picked up a heavy-duty 12-gauge cord long enough to reach from the generator to the furnace.

The generator had been left out and plugged into the natural gas line, in case we needed it again. Note that the ball valve before the quick-release was disconnected to avoid any natural gas leakage.  With my sled/shelter protecting it, I wasn’t worried about blowing snow or rain getting into the control unit or the gas metering system.  Because I live on a dead-end street in the boonies, only one (trustworthy) neighbor sees the side of the house where it was parked, so I wasn’t worried about theft.

On Saturday, when I had some time for experimentation, I fired up the generator and plugged my Kill A Watt meter into it.  The voltage was right at 120V, so that was OK.  I looked at the frequency of the alternating current, which should ideally be at 60 Hz.  I found that the output was actually at just over 63 Hz.  On a common, inexpensive, non-inverting generator like mine, the frequency is actually set by the speed that the engine is turning the generator head.

Engine Governor Adjustment

To get the alternating current’s frequency to the ideal 60 Hz, I had to adjust the governor on the engine, as shown here.

To adjust the frequency, I checked the throttle mechanism on the engine and found the governor.  This was easily adjusted with a Phillips head screwdriver.  The tip is to make adjustments while the engine is running.  On my generator’s Honda engine, turning the adjuster clockwise increased engine speed and A/C frequency.  I would expect other brands to be similar.  I slowly turned the adjuster counter-clockwise until the Kill A Watt indicated 60.0 Hz.  Then I observed it for about a minute.  Even unloaded, the frequency will wander +/- 0.5 Hz, and the key is to ensure that that the range centers on 60.0 Hz.  After a little more tweaking, I was ready to try running the furnace on the generator.

After letting my family know what I was doing (and waiting for a load of laundry in the washer to finish its cycle), I shut off all the power to the house using the master switch.  I wasn’t sure that other energy sources weren’t used for the thermostat or any other systems, so I decided to simulate (create) a full blackout.  I ran the cord into the furnace room, unplugged the furnace from the wall, and plugged it into the Kill A Watt meter which was plugged into the cord.  I was in contact with my son via walkie talkie, and asked him to turn up the temperature on the thermostat so that the furnace would kick in.

The furnace started right up with no complaints.  I heard the exhaust motor spool up first, followed by the ignition sequence and the main blower motor.  As the generator was loaded up, the A/C frequency stayed in the 59.5 – 60.5 Hz range.  I expected more fluctuation, and was favorably impressed with the result.  Further cycling showed that voltage was constant.

I’m satisfied that I’m ready for the next winter power outage.  I’d say “bring it on!” except that many others in the area aren’t prepared in this aspect and I’d like to see human suffering minimized.  The lesson I’ve learned is that a system with any level of complexity should be fully ops-checked before it is needed.  That’s obvious, but I hadn’t tried this out, and I wasn’t as ready as I thought I was.  Now my Kill A Watt meter will be kept with my generator supplies, in case further adjustments are needed.

-Be smart: Try not to learn things the hard way!