Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The CNG Project: Tank Install

Because life is so crazy I have not had as much time for fun projects. A while back I wrote about the beginning of just such a fun project, the conversion of one of my vehicles to run on natural gas. Recently I have made a bit of progress on the CNG conversion and this happening just in time. Gas prices are going up and will most likely be above $4.00 a gallon where I live sometime this summer. The cost of CNG for vehicles in my town is currently $1.50 per gallon, or GGE. I am happy to report that the new CNG fuel tank is now finally installed.

Several considerations had to be mulled over before I could get the tank installed in the trunk of my 1997 Lexus ES300. One of the issues was related to the fact that the spare tire mounts in the trunk below the floor in a manner that is typical of most sedans. Because of this, a bracket had to be made to span the opening so that the tank straps would have something to bolt to. Fabrication of a bracket is no big deal but since the bracket mounts across the opening there was an issue in being able to remove the spare tire.

The spare tire that came with the car was full sized, and not one of the donut types that are usually the standard. I thought that maybe this was not the original spare that came with the car but it just so happens that I had another Lexus ES300 laying around the shop, and this second car also had a full size spare. After doing some measuring and some checking around I determined that if the spare tire was a donut style then it would fit down in the well, clearing the bracket nicely, and I would be able to take it out as needed.

The bracket is made from 1/4 inch steel. It's easy to see that there would be
some interference for spare tire fit.
I also considered building another bracket to mount the spare tire to that would allow it to stand up in the trunk in the part of the well that would not be covered by the tank. Keeping a full size spare is not a bad thing but for as little as the spare tire is needed, I would rather find a donut that will fit the car, and fit down in the well, and save some trunk space. The CNG tank that I am using takes up about one half to two thirds of the trunk as it is. So I went with a simple bracket design to span the spare tire well, and I am going to get a donut type spare tire.

The other thing I did was build a new floor for the trunk. The old spare tire cover that goes on top of the spare and under the carpet like covering on the floor of the trunk had to be rebuilt to suit my needs. The fiberboard floor would have to split along the lines of the support bracket that would span the spare tire well. I also took the carpet like material that came in the trunk out, and cut it to fit around the tank brackets.

Mounting hole drilled through the trunk floor.
The bolt holes for the brackets were drilled right through the floor of the trunk and luckily the spots where the bolts needed to go did not interfere with anything under the car. Things such as the exhaust pipes or the subframe and suspension linkages are all over the place back there but the bolts line up just right so nothing is in the way. I did have to drop the exhaust down out of the way temporarily but once the bolts were installed the exhaust went back in nicely with no interference. The bolt holes also had to be sealed with a silicone sealant because bare metal was exposed when the holes were drilled and water getting into the trunk could also be an issue. With properly applied sealant these things are no problem.

All along I have suspected that the most difficult part of installing the CNG conversion equipment on the vehicle would be designing and fabricating brackets and things to hold the components. The trick is to make it safe and secure, and make it according to safety standards designed for high pressure fuel systems, all the while making it look nice, as if it was meant to be there.

The tank installed. This is without the second floor cover and the carpet.
The next part will be building brackets for the high pressure regulator and the injectors. I suspect that this will be even more difficult, but still not as difficult as designing the filler neck location for the CNG. This could be easily done by putting it under the hood of the car but then you would have to pop the hood every time you fuel up with CNG. I don’t like that idea but the only other thing that could be done would involve cutting into the body. This is something that I will be thinking about next. Hopefully it won't take me another six months to get these things done.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Random YouTube Moment

When a runaway tire politely exits the track

This is one of my favorite auto related videos on YouTube. As you know the world of auto racing can be crazy at times. Just when you think that you have seen it all, something else comes along that can leave you scratching your head. Considering how dangerous any mechanical breakdown can be it’s nice to see one occur that leaves you laughing.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Ingenuity of a Master Craftsman

When it comes to auto repair there is a right way and there is a wrong way and there is the cheap yet still effective way. The right way is indisputable, not really subject to debate. If the cylinder head gasket is blown then the proper way to repair it is to replace the gasket. If all of the tread is worn off of the tire, the tire must be replaced. The proper way to handle these situations are absolute.

This level of repair while desirable, but is quite often cost prohibitive. The following are some crazy examples of repair jobs that people have tried. These are things just pulled randomly off of the web. Some of them are wrong but probably work just fine and some of them are crazy dangerous. Despite the fact that these repair jobs are not by the book, you have to admire the ingenuity on a few of them.

Oh the skills of a master carpenter. Turning raw materials such wood, nails, screws and other bits of hardware into anything in the world you might need. This is actually a great job of reinventing the old woodies of the 1940's, and honestly the fit and finish doesn't look much worse than the original steel trunk lid that this Oldsmopile came with from the factory. Just think how good this would look in mahogany with a nice dark stain and a lacquer finish. Four hinges make it sturdy while opening and closing and it even has a lock on it to protect the valuable things that typically go in the trunk. 

If this guy had a saw and a hammer maybe he could have done as well as the guy above did. Not only does the cardboard not fit very well but it won't hold up to the weather and there are no hinges that allow for easy open and easy close. Actually the hinges are still there but they are just sticking uselessly into the air.

When you go rolling down the city streets in your Mercedes-Benz you need to represent. If the hood ornament is broken off of your ride then you might look like tool. No problem. Just take take a wire coat hanger and fashion a new one. You can tell people it was sculpted by Salvador Dali. They won't know who he was but they will appreciate the artistic accents of your and they will think that you are truly part of the upper crust.

So you drive a 1989 Volkswagen Jetta that doesn't have an USB port for your iPod, and it doesn't even have a CD player. You don't need to spend a pile of Benjamins on a new deck. Just find an old CD ROM drive that will play MP3 discs and wire it in to the dash. These usually run off of 12 volts D/C anyway so everything you need to make this thing play the latest hits from Adele is right there in the dash. 

Windshield wipers are a must have on every vehicle unless you live in a place like Las Vegas or Phoenix where rain storms are few and far between. If the wiper motor burns up it's okay. All that you need to do is get two pieces of rope and tie them both to your wiper arms or arm as the case may be. Then stick one rope into an open driver side window and one rope into an open passenger side window. Then all you have to do is pull one rope, and pull the other rope, then repeat over and over again until it stops raining. This might make it difficult to drive but it can't be any more difficult than texting while driving and that always works out just fine when you do that. Also, make sure that as you are driving and pulling the ropes back and forth that you keep your speed up so that less rain can blow into your open side windows. You wouldn't want your phone to get wet while you are texting.

In most small fender benders, you know, the kind where the vehicle only gets a little banged up and is by no means disabled. The part of the car that is still very susceptible to damage are things like the headlights and taillights. The problem with a broken headlight is that the bulb will usually still come on, but as soon as it gets wet it will burn out. This can be easily solved mounting a mason jar or some glass bottle sideways with the bottom pointing forward to direct the light. The bulb can be put inside the jar and the opening taped off. This will provide excellent lighting for all of your nighttime motoring needs, and it's much cheaper than taking it to the body shop.

The controls for the heater are extremely important. Even if you don't mind freezing a bit as you drive around in your car, you must have functional heater controls in order to have a windshield defroster. These controls help to route hot coolant through the heater core under the dash. where the blower can blow the heated air onto the windshield. Since hot coolant is a lot like hot water forget about getting the factory heater control parts, those are of course, too expensive. Just get the cheapest faucet that you can find at home depot and attach the heater hoses to it. You will have all the temperature control that you need.

Duct tape is the answer to most of life's quandaries. Anything in the world can be fashioned from duct tape including a new car door release strap. The outside door handle is just a lever that lifts a rod connected to the latch down inside the door. If the handle breaks off just make a strap from some duct tape and...oh, I don't know, a stick, and you are back in business.

When you need some new tires, or when you have some sweet five spoke alloys that you want to use to add some bling to your ride, there is always a way to make it happen. Today oversize wheels are very popular but if they don't clear the fender then all you have to do is some trimming here and there and they will look sick. A good pair of aviation shears can make short work of your fenders, a reciprocating saw can also be very effective for all manner of auto customization and repair, including the facilitation of proper tire fitment. 

Speaking of sick tire and wheel combinations. If you don't have oversized wheels but you still want to look cool you can put very low profile tires on your rims. These tires can be expensive so it might be cheaper for you to get an old garden hose and wrap it around the rim enough times so the hose will touch the ground. Most of those low profile tires are just like rubber bands stretched around the rim anyway so using an old garden hose should do the trick. If you are lucky your will be able to find four old hoses that are the same color so that all of your wheels will look cool. Either way, when people look at your car they will know that it's cool.

The Subaru Outback is a rugged, outdoorsy wagon for people that love being outdoors, love mother nature, and love all things biodegradable. A good idea is to remove the rear bumper and send it to the recycler because that plastic might hurt a landfill somewhere if you just throw it away. Then steal some felled timber and a few chains from some lumber jacks that your are protesting against and fashion your self a new bumper that not only looks rugged and natural, but is biodegradable and helps the car blend in much more easily with the forest. This can help you to be good friends with the squirrels.

It's a rear view mirror. Everyone knows that a hand held mirror like this is often used for viewing rears, therefore it should work good as a replacement for the rear view mirror on your car. I wonder if objects in this kind of mirror appear closer than they are.

This Chevy/Geo Metro is a one of a kind thanks to the creativity and resorsfulness of one individual. With escalating gas prices it may only be a matter time before people are selling their big pickup trucks so that they can get something like this that offers the best of both worlds. The fuel economy of a a sub compact, with cargo hauling capacity of...a...well, a subcompact with a wooden box on the back. At least it has four doors so that you can still take a few kids along when you go to buy a load of bricks for the retaining wall that you are building in your back yard.  

An exhaust leak is something that can happen on any car, and it can make itself known rather suddenly. As it turns out, Red Bulls gives you exhaust repair. actually you could use any aluminum or steel can as a repair sleeve to put the two broken pipe ends into. Make sure you use a couple of radiator hose clamps to seal the deal. The other advantage to aluminum cans is that they don't rust, and it reduces the overall weight of the vehicle which can actually make the car faster. 

A broken control arm can be a real problem. The last thing you need while your are driving down the road is for one of your wheels to suddenly flop over sideways. Maintaining the directional stability of the vehicle in this type of situation becomes considerably difficult. Many different things can actually be used to put the two halves of this important bit of suspension linkage back together. The safety minded individual who owns this car used the three best things (after duct tape) that can be used to repair anything. Radiator hose clamps are very sturdy and completely adjustable. Not only do they work for clamping tin cans onto your exhaust pipe but they can also hold a control arm together. The old leather belt that you used to use to hold up your pants up should also be able to hold up that back tire as it keeps that broken control arm from falling apart. Finally, the zip tie. Made from space age polymers, zip ties are are super tough, very high tech, and adjust to the shape of anything. The vehicle in this picture will be safe for many miles to come because of the careful repair performed by a true craftsman.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Something You Can Rely On

J.D. Power lists Lexus as the most reliable brand.

To say the automobile has changed substantially over the last century is something of an understatement. Obviously these vehicles that we all love and rely on so much have changed in many ways, but something that has changed within the last 5 or 10 years represents something that has never been seen before. Cars today are so reliable. This has not always been the case but it is safe to say that cars today are far more reliable than they have ever been.

When your grandpa talked about his trusty old Buick or Chrysler  that he had as a young man back in the 50’s or 60’s he is either lying, or he doesn’t know what he is talking about. The fact of the matter is that cars from the past had far more problems than the cars of today, and really we only need to back 10 years or so to see this. Those who love the classics often argue that the old cars are better because there was so much less that could go wrong with them. The statement that they had less to go wrong with them is true, but the few things that were potential problems on the old cars were not really potential problems, they were guaranteed problems. If it could go bad it did, over and over again.

The marketing research firm J.D. Power and Associates has become one of the leading companies for tracking vehicle reliability. Some of their methods seem simplistic, and the fact they only count complaints without giving any weight to what the complaint is doesn’t seem as helpful. The other problem is that only track complaints with vehicles that are just two or three years old. If they wanted to make their information especially useful they would track which vehicles have the most problems after several years or even 100k miles.

Testing methods aside, the most recent J.D. Power and Associates survey of owners of 2009 model year cars and trucks shows an average of 132 complaints per 100 vehicles. This is the lowest number of complaints ever and is part of a trend towards fewer and fewer complaints. The company with the fewest problems reported is Lexus with just 86 complaints per 100 vehicles. The most complaints came from Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep with 192 problems per 100 vehicles. These numbers don’t tell all, but they do indicate that problems are not as common as they used to be. The other thing that is interesting is that the number one complaints across all makes and models are excessive wind noise and noisy brakes. Both of these problems are not even legitimate problems in many ways and if these are the most common issues then reliability of cars and trucks looks good and the chance of being broken down on the side of the road are lower than they have ever been.
1982 Toyota Corolla. Not much to look
at but much more reliable than other
cars from the period.

Back in the old days cars only had 5 digits on the odometer because if your vehicle made it past 100k it was some kind of miracle. We can thank the Japanese for the 6 digit odometers and for the overall reliability that is found in most cars and trucks today. Old Japanese cars like the Early Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics set a new standard for reliability. Some say that the old Volkswagens of the 60’s and 70’s were also instrumental in showing the car buying public how reliability can be engineered into inexpensive cars. This might be true up to a point but nothing comes close the solid build of the Japanese cars that started to become common on American highways in the early 80s.
1983 Honda Civic

This reliability on the part of the Asians has done more for the industry than anything else. The competition became steep as all manufacturers have paid more attention to reliability. This has been a win for the consumers. Not only do vehicles last longer but they require far less maintenance then what they used to. In the old days you had to adjust your points every month or two just to keep the car running halfway decent. The points had to be replaced a couple times a year because they quickly wore out. The spark plugs had to be replaced every year or so because they didn’t last very long either. Other things like spark plug wires, distributor cap and rotor, and of course the carburetor, were constantly being replaced or adjusted. The common “tune up” was indeed very common.
Ignition points in a distributor. These used to require constant attention.
Not only points replaced decades ago but cars haven't even had distributors
for the last 10 or 15 years.
Today the tune up doesn’t really exist anymore. Parts that were adjusted as part of an old car tune up no longer need to be adjusted, and most of the parts that were replaced as part of the tune up, don’t even exist on modern vehicles. Spark plugs remain but most of the time those now last anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 miles before they wear out.

Part of the reason for the new unfailing ways of the modern automobile is that nearly everything on the vehicle is computer controlled. If an adjustment needs to be made, the computer can do it. If something needs to be monitored, the computer can do it. If something requires immediate service, the computer can alert the driver. Some might think that adding complex computer controls only increases the potential for failure, this is not exactly true. The thing about computer control circuits is that they don’t have much in the way of moving parts and it’s the mechanical movement of parts that wears them out more than anything else.

This dependability is unheard of in any other industry that resembles the world of cars and trucks. Heavy-duty trucks, buses, heavy equipment, or anything else that can be driven or operated by a single person, is not going to be this reliable. For the average consumer, end reliability will affect the buying decision and which companies they are loyal to more than anything else. In similar decisions affecting transportation industries, such as the purchase of buses for a municipal transportation service, or buying earth moving equipment for a mining operation, the party that makes the purchase might make the decision based on politics, volume discounts, or the fact that only one company builds the machine that they are looking for, rather than personal experience with dependability. In the world of cars and trucks for the masses, the competition is steeper because every individual looking to buy your product must be sold on your product, or they will go elsewhere.

Considering what a car has to do and how far it must go to do it, a case can be made for the modern car to be considered the most reliable machine ever crafted by the hand of man. Despite the fact that it may not seem so on that morning when you are left stranded by the side of the freeway on your way to work. No car is perfect and even the most reliable car can suffer from catastrophic failure, but without a doubt fewer cars are having fewer catastrophic failures. That's good for all of us.