Jeep Needs a Neutral Safety Switch

Oh I love it.

After hitting a deer, doing the spark plugs, fixing a coolant leak and the suspension, the neutral safety switch goes on the jeep. Of course it’s not an easy fix, I was really hoping it was the starter relay. I was at autozone at 8am this morning buying a new relay and they sold me the wrong one (for $6 I am not even going to bother returning it) and then when I got to wawa to fix the jeep it passed the voltage test on the battery, which was the other quick fix I was hoping for. I ended up opening the engine electrical panel to see it was corroded as hell, so that’s another fun possibility but I was able to swap the relays from the fuel system to the ignition system and I still couldn’t get the starter to move. I considered jumping the battery to the starter but could I replace the starter in the wawa parking lot? Nope. I figured it was easier to call AAA and get it towed home.

The neutral safety switch on a jeep is a piece of work. Rather than KISS it together with a contact which is made when you’re in the proper gear (Toyota) on the shifter itself, Chrysler saw fit to put a gear in the shifter which moves a linkage which sweeps a rotor to the proper set of contacts. Of course the gear gets worn out, or the rotor wears down, or the contacts get corroded because the car is a rust bucket and you really start to question your sanity for trusting automatic transmissions or Chrysler to build anything right. Replacing it involves not only getting the part for $400 but then dicking with it endlessly to ensure the contacts line up and the travel is correct. Apparently there’s a third party one for $120 which “doesn’t require alignment!” but I’m guessing it simply feeds the correct signal to the harness rather than doing any real work.

After putting all the various relays and wires back into the correct positions, I started googling and found out that this affects the entire line of jeeps from 1991 to 1998. It’s a known problem.

Thankfully, someone helpfully posted the neutral safety switch schematic to the internet. While they didn’t tell you that the diagnostic port for this is next to the oil filter, you’re pretty much led to look there. The insinuation is to jumper the pins and forget about it. Now the bad part – unlike real service manuals which indicate the binary “connected”, “do not connect” and “doesn’t care”, I don’t see any “do not connects” marked in that diagram. Anyone know if it’s bad to leave this jumpered?

Diesel is Wrong, Solar is Right for Backup Power

I’ve been on my emergency preparedness kick recently, and that includes power since the storms this last year have been a real pisser. Nothing like being without power for three days in the home you just bought.

I was previously looking at military surplus diesel generators. Aside of my friends stabbing me in the neck over and over again for me asking them to help me get it on and off the truck, I’m not too huge on the idea of having Yet Another Engine to take care of. On the other hand, that particular model is so popular that theres an entire MEP-004A forum dedicated to it. And, there’s the fact that I have 250 gallons of diesel sitting in a tank in my basement labeled “home heating oil – NOT APPROVED FOR ROAD USE”.

Now, assuming that the generator goes for the nominal price of $500 to $1000 (they’re getting really popular in the post-Katrina marketplace), maybe I could do better with something else. It’s not just buying the generator – it’s buying the generator, the engine rebuild kit (if required), the wiring, and doing the conversion. Military power is usually 208v rather than 120v or 240v because it’s easy to step up/down or DC to AC convert. The other side of the coin is moving parts are the enemy. Parts which don’t move tend to want to stay that way which is why I try to start the MR2 once a month or so in winter. (I’m probably being paranoid). I don’t want to deal with that in a generator. After mulling it over quite a bit I decided to investigate various things like water service powered sump pumps (dumb), power-from-phone/coax, etc. None of these seemed well thought out. Dumping more water in your yard for the sake of pumping out water from your well is stupid. If the power lines are down, phone and cable likely is too. It was tough getting away from the idea of a diesel generator or making my own nuclear reactor. While legal, your neighbors tend to frown upon it.

Finally after a bunch of surfing around on various industrial equipment liquidation sites there was another answer: solar. Solar panels, for whatever strange reason, are dirt freaking cheap. A solar battery charger might be $20. A solar panel alone, for $20 buys you a pretty big panel. So now we have ideas, the question is how does it compare to our diesel generator at 15KW and how expensive is it? There’s a few options. I tend to shy away from the battery chargers since they are rated to charge one battery. They’re cheaply built and they assume you’re also charging one battery. Putting it under load isn’t going to happen. On the other hand I could buy the end-of-the-world version. But as everyone knows if it costs $1800 online on your end of the world site you can build it for about 10% of the price.

Lets put that idea to the test. High end rectifier: $30 from Rat Shack. Low end inverter: $71 for 1.5KW.  Why a low end inverter? I want to use cheap batteries and I suspect the rectifier puts out fairly dirty power. Expect to replace this every few years if you’re using it intermittently but more on the point you might also want to buy a much bigger, nicer unit. So for $100 we’ve got the power path from the panel to the wall socket. How much are batteries? $20 a brick. Keep in mind battery acid is now a federally controlled substance and requires you sign for it, you can get it if you ask. So you can refurb those batteries if you’re not buying sealed cell. And finally how much is a fairly large solar cell? $500 new for a high end one, but since we’re buying junkyard batteries, $100 for a new, fairly nice one or $130 on ebay for enough of them to carpet the entire roof. Since the solar cells do eventually go bad, I tend to like the ebay solution of buying the rejects in bulk so I can simply replace them as the apple tree turns them into broken glass.

Now why does this system work better than the diesel? For one, I can charge the batteries off the existing grid (when it works). I can even charge them from a generator. I can charge them from a car. I can charge them from solar. I could probably even ride a bike connected to an alternator (another $20 junkyard part) and charge them. Car batteries grow on trees. In fact there’s 1.4 of them for every breathing American at the moment and they’re only going to get cheaper as Priuses start showing up in the junkyard. For two I can charge my MR2 and the lawnmower from the solar setup here. There’s no reason why you can’t just put jumper cables from the MR2 or the tractor to the batteries. For three, most of the parts are cheap or free once you buy into the rectifier and inverter. You’re looking at $200 for the whole setup, or $300 to make it nicer. If you want to go seriously high end you can spend $600 for a 6KW, 12KW peak 50A power inverter. I’m sure you can find it cheaper on ebay.

How much do you really need? The government guessdimates that you need 14.5KW a day in summertime (about 600W an hour). Doing the math you can see our low end inverter there (1.5KW sized for a reason) will run about 20 hours running full tilt assuming the batteries aren’t total crap and you have more than one. I used five of them for my math and the health of the battery is frankly a crapshoot.

Now, there’s a choice, and I’m hoping the more electrically inclined readers caught this. You could just unplug the fridge from the wall, plug it in here and forget about it. You could plug the oil burner in here and forget about it. It would probably work great for these two and it give you two more plugs for lamps. In fact that’s probably the safest way to do this. If you want to drive the house off it, you could use the incredibly dangerous male-to-male extension cord and plug it into the wall socket once you disconnect yourself from the grid. However this plan was never designed to run through the house wiring. If you do try it, you’re on your own and you’re strongly advised to buy the proper phase-matching circuits. These are spendy which is why they’re not represented here – I’m not trying to build a solar power plant. If you skip it and wire it directly anyway, you’ll blow a breaker if you’re lucky, if you’re unlucky you’ll set the wiring on fire, and if you’re REALLY unlucky you’ll be on the grid when the power comes back on and you’ll have phase mismatch and your power company will beat the living hell out of you if you live through the resulting explosion. Don’t do it. If you’re really interested, grid-tie starts at $1000.

Speaking of wiring: hows the wiring done? The batteries are dead simple and wired in parallel. You can’t possibly screw it up. You wire all the same poles together, put the charger on one side of the rail and the inverter on the other side of the rail keeping positive to positive and negative to negative and you win. You could stack a thousand batteries like this and you still win. The rub is on the solar panel side. You need, on a cloudy day, to generate a minimum of power to get the rectifier to turn on. On a sunny day this means you’ll be generating far too much power. Solar panels, therefor, are a game of wiring things in both series (to hit the minimum voltage) and parallel (to hit the minimum amps). The longer the parallel run, the more current it produces. The longer the serial run, the more volts it produces. The rectifier will turn on at a minimum of voltage and do it’s thing until you hit a maximal of voltage. In our case, that particular Sunforce product I linked to accepts up to 100 watts @ 7 amps by 12 volts. The voltage on solar panels is the game to play. Since that rectifier will only accept up to 12 volts, you wire the individual cells in series (postive-to-negative) until you hit 12 volts at sunrise. Once you’ve got a few of those, you wire the assembly in parallel (positive to positive) to the rectifier, trying not to exceed 7 amps. For whatever strange reason people seem to just make these huge strips of cells. The problem is that by doing this you waste any excess power you make – it gets converted to heat. Since we’re dealing with DC, we don’t need to worry about phase matching, but if you buy 10,000 individual cells like some of these idiots suggest, you’ll explode something in short order.

Oh, you could just skip all the solar stuff and charge the batteries from the wall socket. PECO price caps and all that.

GM Closes Hummer, Greenfags Rejoice

I’ve been watching GM wind down with some passive interest. I’m into cars and I have fond memories of the Chevy Corsica I used to own. Buicks are generally junk and the Lumina my wife (then girlfriend) owned was beat, but GM (like most automakers) was doing The Right Thing back in the early 1990s.

GM was trying to sell it’s brands around. Koenigsegg was going to buy SAAB (fell through) and Spyker was going to buy Saturn (fell through). Some company in China was going to buy Hummer. Now, the problem with China is that they copy everything. GM (and others) had to sue Lifan (and others) over literally stealing the look and feel of GM products and making them out of crap parts. The copies are so good that motorcycle forums were discussing buying lifan knockoffs and putting actual parts on them for Yamahas, etc.

Anyway, GM brands do badly so they shut them down. This isn’t any great loss to GM because Pontiac parts fit Saturns and Chevies just alike. They build one engine and frame and electrical system and dress it up 100 different ways to sell it to you. Toyota does this to the extreme with scion. The part I find lolzy is that green groups are lauding the demise of hummer. A few finer points for readers not buying the hype. Hummers, as sold to the military, are HMMVs and entirely different than the hummer you’re buying in the store. The military hummer needs to work with the stockpile of military parts. The hummer you’re buying from the hummer lot is actually a GM pickup with different trim. I guess if your goal is to save the planet by making it look better, getting big boxy trucks off the road is a win. In terms of actually changing anything – nothings really been accomplished. That engine in the H1/2/3 is the same engine in every junkyard GM truck out there.

Snowblower:1 Joshua:0

I got a free snowblower, but the stipulation was that it wasn’t running.

Figuring it’s just a small engine I thought it would be a slam dunk. So far I’ve done a weedwacker, a lawn tractor and a chainsaw and I haven’t had any problems.

The difference here is that all the previous stuff was craftsman, this is a yard machines blower with a tecumseh engine. Read: Cheap chinese crap.

GOOD LORD THIS THING IS LAID OUT LIKE CRAP.

I mean, it’s a small engine, it’s a snowblower. There is no reason, whatsoever, to run a fuel line between the crank flywheel and the block. And guess which line has holes in it?

Now, I probably shouldn’t bitch because free is free, but if you happen across a tecumseh powered product, keep in mind they do terrible, terrible things with the engine. To add insult to injury, this blower was originally purchased from WALMART under the Yard Machines brand. WALMART doesn’t sell parts. Home Depot has their brand, also a tecumseh engine, and so does lowes (Toro brand and something else). Neither one of these sell parts. The fuel line I can get at pep boys, but getting the carb is not going to be fun.

Fixing a Chainsaw

Continuing my DIY streak of buying broken stuff on ebay and fixing it – last weeks purchase was a craftsman gasoline powered chainsaw. Total price? $30.

Stuff I generally look for on ebay when I’m buying something used: Does it have all it’s parts? Does it run? Does it look abused? The number one killer of two strokes by far is running straight gas in them. This causes the rings to fail and whatnot and you end up with a motor with no power if you can get it to run at all. The second biggest killer is carbon buildup. Fortunately carbon just requires cleaning.

The chainsaw was the latter. It was listed as “starts but won’t run”. You’ve got two options basically for fixing this condition – run straight gas (see original paragraph) or clean the carbon out. Or check the air filter! Oh, there’s no air filter on a chainsaw – this is probably where all the carbon comes from. Sawdust. Being sucked straight into the carb. WHO DESIGNS THIS CRAP?

Back on topic – this was a dead easy fix. I keep a ton of WD40 around. It’s really useful, and it also loosens up carbon and gets rust off stuff (sometimes). In a two stroke engine it’s golden because the carbon is usually layers of gunk with oil in between. Find something to thin out that oil and you win. What’s thinner than gasoline? WD40. I had a spare plug. I pulled the old plug (nasty and fouled) and filled the cylinder with WD40. I put the old plug back in and filled the intake with WD40 with a piece of tape over it. Finally, I filled the gas tank with… WD40. I forgot about it until after dinner (about four hours). I considered dumping the WD40 back into the can but after seeing how much gunk it had in it I decided to throw it in the oil disposal bottles.

I didn’t really bother to measure out the proper oil/gas ratio, generally if you put one capfull of oil in the saw and then fill the gas tank and shake it you’ll do OK. Remember – it doesn’t have to be 100%, especially if you’re letting the saw warm up and not chainsawing stuff in the middle of winter, but you can’t run straight gas and expect your gaskets and rings to live forever either. If you’re seeing blue smoke come out the exhaust when you start it, it’s about the right ratio, since this indicates the oil isn’t being completely consumed (and thus some still is in the cylinder to lube it up). For bar oil, bar oil is SAE30, which means any 30 weight oil will work. Note that your car is 10w30, which means it’s 10 weight oil. If you’re going to use automotive oil (and I suggest you do since it’s literally a 10th of the price), then buy a few quarts of honest 30 weight oil. 10w30 simply means it’s 10 weight oil which has 30 weight when it’s cold. Again, unless you’re using the saw in the dead of winter, that oil is 10 weight.

I changed the plug and filled up the tanks with the appropriate fluids. I forgot about the stupid choke and tried starting it several times without the choke and ended up looking up the manual online. Go me – best laid plans and all that. Finally texted my brother and he reminded me the choke lever (which is blue of all things…) needs to be set. Pull the choke, hit it until it tries to run, then push the choke and give it a yank. Yay, it started right up (and put a layer of oil all over everything in my workshop). I let it idle long enough to send my brother a hilarious video of this thing dancing it’s way across the floor and called it a success.

Line Trimmer from Hell

We call them weed whackers here in the northeast. One of my pet peeves is two stroke engines. Whoever invented the two stroke engine should be drug out into the street and shot with an axe.

Somewhere along the way I bought a weed eater from Craigslist. The guy sold it to me for $20, and the stipulation was “It’s hard to get running”. But he proved to me it ran by firing it up. There was hope. I got it home, started it up again, and it would stall whenever it hit the weeds. A weedeater which only idles doesn’t eat much weeds. Since I had plenty of other homeowners projects to do I hung it up in the garage with a note on it what was wrong and what my thoughts were and completely forgot about it for the last month.

Now, my flower beds became overgrown and my sidewalks desperately needed edging. My buddy had gotten it started (but again, only to idle) at the house party messing around. I figured it was a good time to try again. I got it started, and the same thing, it wouldn’t hold an idle. Or a stickynote, I have no idea where that went. Just on a lark I decided to try it without the air filter and using WD40 as starter fluid. Unlike ether, the WD40 lubricates and has a higher flashpoint, making it safe(r) to use in two strokes. Ether would just work it’s way into the crank case and blow us all to hell since the crank is lubricated by the gas on two stroke engines.

Barring getting blown to hell, I decided to muck around with it for a bit. Things we know: It will start with some WD40. It will start with the air filter off. It’s not really making power. I decided the thing to do was to add some fresh gasoline to it (not oil mixed), give it a squirt of WD40 in the gas tank just to pretend it’s close to the correct ratio, and change the spark plug and air filter. The spark plug is a pretty standard Home Depot affair. Since this thing is old, it was cheap at $1.50. The air filter? Impossible to get. It’s a strip of foam and they apparently don’t even make this model, so I decided the best way to handle this was to completely ignore the air filter. If we ignore the problem it goes away, right?

In my case, yes. The spark plug and fuel combination proved to be The Right Thing to get it working. In fact it worked so well that if I took the air filter off completely I had to run the engine at half choke or it got wildly hot from leaning out. Note to self: Air filter = 1 choke setting. They basically designed it to starve for air through the filter.

No rest for the wicked, my next project is picking up this freezer I found on AIDSLIST for a third of list.