Wheel Bearings…

Trouble in Oregon…
(Note to my readers: Normally I would have pictures of this whole series of events but this time I dropped the ball. Every time I decided to take a picture the camera was locked up in the rig and in the shop, when I’d remember the camera, there was nothing of interest to shoot. Oh, well).

————–May, 2007—————————

I left my brothers in Rosamond, California and headed up I-5 toward Portland. The trip was uneventful but as I approached Wilsonville, south of Portland a few miles, I began to hear a strange noise from the RV that I hadn’t heard before. It got loud enough that I could hear it over the radio. It seemed to be coming from the back of the RV and it was louder if I opened the driver’s window. I got to a rest stop, parked, and walked around the rig feeling the hub caps. The drivers side rear was very hot, and I could smell burned oil nearby. I grabbed a gallon of water and poured it between the two wheels to help it cool down faster. This is not a smart thing to do, but I was actually worried about something catching fire…because of the strong odor of hot oil.

After an hour, it was cool enough that I felt I could drive the rig. I suspected a bad bearing since the symptom of overheating with grinding noises is common with that sort of failure. And then I’d called a nearby shop and described what was happening and they felt a bad bearing might be the problem.

I took a chance and drove the rest of the way into east Portland hoping I could find a repair place along the way. I didn’t. Meanwhile, I called Jackie and met her for a beer just a couple blocks off the freeway. The entire trip into Portland I kept my speed down below 40 and since it was almost rush hour the traffic was already going near that speed. The noise didn’t get any louder but for sure the problem wasn’t going to go away by itself. I visited with Jackie and Jeff and then spent the night on the street outside of Jackie’s house. Next morning at 6, I drove out to the WalMart in Troutdale and parked. Got the computer up and running on a nearby WiFi connection and cruised the net looking for a shop. Finally found one out in Boring, Oregon who could get me in that day. When I got there, I discovered one of my son’s childhood friends worked there as the service coordinator. He immediately offered a 10% discount, which I gratefully accepted.

The symptoms were of a bad bearing and as the techs pulled off the rear wheels, we found that the spindle was cracked on the drivers side. And the brake pad was ruined (when soaked with oil, the pad will crumble). So, I needed new bearings, new brake pads, and a new spindle. Over $2,000 in repairs.

The shop had electric so I parked in their lot for the night. Next morning was Friday and their shop doesn’t stay open on weekends yet so they got as much done as they could. The spindle repair was scheduled for the following Tuesday. There is a mobile service that is called and given the measurements of the bad spindle. They create a new spindle then come to the RV or bus or truck, saw off the old spindle and weld on the new one. I was quoted $1200 just for that.

So Friday afternoon, we had come up with a plan whereby I could drive my rig around on the new bearings and the bad spindle so I wouldn’t have to stay on their property…since it’s locked up all weekend it would have been a hassle for me, I’d have been locked in behind a fence. All that would happen if I drove the rig is lose a little oil. Naturally, I was suppose to miss potholes and keep my speed down. That gave me a weekend to hang out in my favorite bar and reconnect to old friends.

But before I left the shop, I’d asked that my transmission be flushed and refilled with Transynd synthetic transmission fluid. This stuff is great for tranni’s and gives them extra life and cooler operation but it’s expensive. Like $7.50 per quart, and I needed 20-30 quarts. Anyway, I ordered the flush, and they assigned a guy that wasn’t that experienced. He was using two Crescent wrenches while trying to break a nut loose so he could attach the machine to my tranni system, wrong tools for that job. One thing led to another and he twisted one of my pipes, which caused a break in the pipe and a leak. By now it was late Friday afternoon and everyone wanted to get out of there so he patched the leak with epoxy of some kind and let me drive off. I got a mile away and discovered I was leaving a trail of oil like a slug. I drove back to the shop and caught a couple techs just leaving. They made a call or two to the service manager and coordinator and made arrangements to work on the rig Saturday. So I backed out of the shop and spent the night there again.

Next morning the tech that caused the problem and the service manager arrived, got a torch, heated, then used the proper tools to disconnect the rust covered compression nuts and remove the bad pipe. Then they spent an hour on the phone trying to find a high pressure hydraulic hose to replace it. Eventually, they found a mobile service to come out 45 miles or so to Boring from Vancouver, Washington, and build a hose on site. When that was done they finally did a tranni flush not once but three times to get everything out of there. The reason for that was that their tech could have ruined my transmission by twisting the pipe to begin with and letting me drive off with a bad patch. And the last 25 feet I drove it, there was very little oil in the tranni since the fluid was being pumped out under pressure. I ended up paying for just the tranni fluid. The new hose and the labor were all free. That hose had to have cost them a couple hundred.

Saturday afternoon, late, I’m back on the road and head for my favorite bar. (Two weeks later, while I’m heading for Alaska, I get the word from several friends that the place burned to the ground. No more LT’s Tavern. Don’t know where those people will hang out now. And I don’t have anyplace to park for the night in that area anymore. Bummer).

Anyway, on Monday afternoon, I’m heading to Walmart in Troutdale and notice that my engine is overheating. It’s a cool day, so that gets my attention. When I park and take a look, I find the belt hanging down below the engine, broken in half. So I call the shop and they send out a tech with a new belt. We get it installed and he leaves. When I restart the engine, it starts squealing. I guess that the belt idler is bad, or something? Next day, when I’m at the shop, I have a new one put on. Then I drive it for four miles or so. Starts squealing again. The problem was not the idler. Just bought a part I didn’t need. The shop tech takes a look and determines it’s a bad alternator. Funny, I just put a new one on in November. Anyway, I let him replace it. By now, the new spindle has been replaced, I’ve ordered extra belts, got a new idler and a new alternator and I get the bill. It’s $3100. Even after the discount, and the free labor and hose for the tranni. Ouch. These big rigs are expensive!

I pay the bill and head out the door. Next morning I’m on the road up to a racetrack outside of Seattle. But there is one more thing. I’d called around looking for new tires for the front of my rig and since the rear tires had been so good, I thought I’d get more Bridgestone tires. The only place that had my size was up in Washington, right near the freeway, so I got new front tires for $514. Ouch. After the Memorial Day races, I should be on my way to Alaska, this trip is a test of all the repairs I’ve had done. So, the day after I get there at the racetrack, I start up the engine, and it immediately starts squealing. Damn. Pretty loud too. I screw around a bit and the squeal goes away. Can’t tell if it’s something I did or just dumb luck. So for the next couple days I mess around with things trying to figure out why it’s squealing.

I was dry camping and figured that perhaps the squeal was nothing more than a little oil on the new belt and the alternator slowing down when it got a big load…like trying to charge all three of my batteries (12V starting, 2-6V deep cycle house). When you’re just sitting without shore power, you are using battery power to run things in the house, and there is always a draw. So when the engine is started, the control circuitry will allow the alternator to charge the starting battery for several seconds then it will switch on a cross over relay which allows the alternator to charge the house batteries. The load of all three batteries could cause the alternator to slow down and any oil on the belt could cause the squeal to start.

When the races ended, I headed to the freeway trying to make up my mind about whether or not I should head back to the shop, or continue on to Alaska. I actually headed back to the shop but after 10 miles, changed my mind and turned around and headed to Alaska. I’ll take my chances. An so far, 2330 miles later, I haven’t had any charging problems and no more squealing. But I haven’t done much dry camping either.

Update: After a couple weeks of just sitting here at a camp ground, connected to shore power, I started up the engine and drove over to the dump station. After dumping and restarting, the rig started squealing again. I’ve got no idea why it’s bugging me this way. But it’s pissing me off. Pretty certain that I didn’t need that new alternator after all.

Update: It turned out that the squeal was nothing more than a indication of the starting battery going bad. It would discharge far deeper when starting the rig than a good battery would, and that would cause the alternator to be difficult to turn as it tried to provide lots of current to charge up the battery. This extra drag by the alternator would cause the belt to squeal.

The cure, initially, was to use the AUX button (aka Emergency Start Button) on the dash when starting. This closes a relay that jumpers the house batteries with the starting battery…giving more ompf. That kept the starting battery from discharging too much during the starting cycle.

Once I’d figured out that it was a battery going bad, I was able to limp along with the problem for several years before I finally got around to buying a new battery. This because I’d wasted a bit of money at shops that misdiagnosed the issue and sold me stuff I didn’t need, like new belts, new alternator, and the labor to replace them and I wanted to get my money back out somehow. So eventually, I had 10 years on the starting battery before replacing it…not too bad.

My work-around method was to press and hold the AUX button while starting. Then I’d keep that switch depressed while monitoring the battery voltage gauge on the dash, while driving down the road, until it advanced a tic. I could see it jump a little. This told me that the alternator had charged up the house batteries enough that the starting battery would now take a charge and I could let go of the button.  Of course this method was a hassle, but it worked and I limped along for years doing it that way.

Packing the front wheel bearings…Feb. 2010 – Mazatlan, Mexico

When I got in Mazatlan, I needed a mechanic to check and pack my front wheel bearings. Because of the topes (speed bumps) all over Mexico, and because I’d hit some of them at relatively  high speed I figured I’d better have my bearings checked. The rears were replaced a couple years before so I wasn’t worried about them. Plus I’d always been able to slow down a bunch before the rears went over the topes. Asking around at the RV park, my neighbor introduced me to his favorite mechanic and gave me plenty of reasons to hire him  so I scheduled him to inspect and pack my front wheel bearings and to fix my plastic front fender which was starting to come loose from the front chassis.

Ready to remove wheel.

First problem he had was he lacked the tools to remove the lug nuts from the passenger side wheel. He had had his truck stolen a couple months before and he only had the barest of tools replaced. The nuts were torqued on at 475 ft-lbs and would require proper tools. I had a lug wrench the right size, 1 & 1/2 inch, but lacked a breaker bar for it. The mechanic borrowed several tools from friends and soon had a wheel off. The picture above shows the only tire tool I got with the RV, that black bar there leaning up on the wheel. It’s an extension. One end fits on the lug nut, 1.25″, then the other end is a square 1″ socket for a breaker bar. Then the other tool was borrowed by my mechanic from a friend of his. It was hardened and looked like it was hand made at a forge to both make the right angle and hammered at one end to fit a 1″ socket. Which it did well.

Then I have a pipe that the mechanic used to give himself enough leverage to get the lug nuts off then back on when we finished. I liked that tool enough that I bought it from his friend for $400 pesos ($32 US). After removing the passengers side wheel, we notice the brake pads were really close to scraping on metal. After pulling the pads off that wheel assembly, off we go to find replacements. We have to go to five auto parts outlets to find the right pads. He has me pay for them so I know exactly how much they cost. I tell him it’s normal for a mechanic to tack a little onto the price of a part to pay for his time and wear and tear on his vehicle. He doesn’t think he can do that and make a living from tourists. I didn’t think that was right and hand him $100 pesos ($7.75 US) for gas when we stop at a station. After we get back to the park with the new pads, he starts to remove the wheel from the drivers side. I happen to walk over there while he’s jumping on the breaker bar…turning the nut the wrong way…this rig has left hand thread on the drivers side. So it’s ‘righty loosey, lefty tighty’ on the drivers side of my rig. After I inform him of that little fact, it only takes a couple minutes to get the wheel off. Thanks to fate he didn’t break off a lug.

Then he spends quite a while cleaning, inspecting, testing, and re-greasing the bearings. I remember Dad and myself doing that job when I was a teenager, that’s how long it’s been since I’ve done that, so I was happy to let him handle the decision process. Turns out, he says, they are fine! No rough  or flat spots in the bearings or metal fillings in the grease at all. What a relief. I’ve already had to replace one spindle on this rig for around $2500 and certainly didn’t want that expense this time. Saving big money on new bearings or a new spindle makes me happy. Saving money on a brake job makes me happy too.

After the brakes were replaced and the bearings checked and re-greased, I had him reconnect the plastic wrap around bumper. The lower end of the plastic cover shown in the above photo had shaken itself loose from the rusted brackets made to hold it in place. There were plenty of other screws holding it in place so there was no danger of it falling off the rig for a while but I didn’t like the thing vibrating in the road wind.

On to the drivers side. Just getting set up.

See the plastic wheel surround above? That’s the piece, there are two, one on each side, both were loose near the bottom where the support metal had rusted out. The road wind would vibrate it rapidly and over time shake it loose from the frame.

He had a friend bend up some thick sheet metal into U channels and force fit them onto what was left of the original metal framing, over lapping by several inches where appropriate. Then when the plastic panels were screwed back on, they had plenty of metal to hold onto. Problem solved.

After all that work, the cost was only $1100 pesos ($88 US). Then the parts cost was $825 pesos ($64 US) for a total of $152 US. Not bad for a brake job, front wheel bearing inspection and re-packing, and body work that probably would have cost me over $1,000 in the US.

My new favorite Mexican mechanico…

I did provide so many necessary items to help the job along that he designated me an honorary Mexican mechanic. Someone who can do anything with nothing.