Sunday, December 20, 2009

And Then Came Saturday

And Sunday too.

Saturday began with a bang when everyone in the whole world decided to get in the car with their dog and do some seriously witless driving, on account of there being two flakes of snow per cubic metre falling from the sky. This meant that the world was about to end and everyone knows you can't meet the end of the world without a cellar full of canned food (if you can get it, the early birds being up and about very early this morning). I wanted to go out to get my shirts from the dry cleaners and the part for the washing machine that stops it winding the legs of jeans and apron strings around the agitator drive shaft, so I was part of the fun whether I wanted to be or not.

Such was the chaos that it took me about four times longer to get my stuff from the cleaners as it usually does. The drive down to Sid's Appliance Parts and Ammo Shoppe was even more annoying and took so long, what with people forgetting how traffic lights work and deciding on novel interpretations of the lane markings that have only been on these roads for about thirty bleeping years, that it was snowing for real by the time I entered Sid's door.

Sid didn't have the part, either.

I returned home and, aided by Mrs Stevie, wrestled the electric Christmas bush o' merriment from it's storage niche in the garage and took it inside the house so Mrs Stevie could erect it and festoon it with crap. It was now mid-day and I already felt like I had gone eight hours with a tax inspector. But things were about to get worse. Immeasurably worse.

No sooner had Mrs Stevie deployed the first stage of the tree1 than she found that a grand total of zero lights were working on it and demanded I fix them tootsweet, and my spirits, already low, sank south of utter depression.

The tree's lower stage has two strings, each running about halfway round the tree. I found a broken bulb, replaced it from a set of coloured lights I had bought years ago just for replacement bulbs (it's about a zillion times cheaper to do this than buy replacement bulbs in three packs) and half the bush sprang into glorious coloured illumination. The second string was to prove more of a pain in the ass challenge.

To find the blown bulb in a string, I normally remove one of the good bulbs from a similar set that is working and test each of the bulbs from the unlit string by plugging it into the working string, and this is what I did with the tree. At first I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Every bulb I tested in this fashion allowed the string to light but wouldn't light up itself. This is how Christmas lights are supposed to work these days, but who has ever seen it work properly? The mechanism is simple: the filament holds apart two spring-loaded contacts that slam together when the filament wire breaks.


I think everyone has had experience with how well this works in real life, which is to say usually not at all. I'd put the ratio at one bulb that shorts itself when it blows for every three hundred that somehow still manage to take out the entire string. I had assumed this to be the case with the tree, but in fact I was seeing a textbook case of what happens when the mechanism does work but the bad bulb is not noticed.

Each bulb consumes some of the total electric power coming out of the wall. If one blows, each of the other bulbs gets a little more juice than it was intended to cope with, shortening their lifetimes. The next bulb blows, and the situation for the survivors gets that much worse, making for an even shorter time to failure for the survivors. Given enough time in service, it is possible for the shear amount of electricity coursing through the bulbs to cause a cascade of failures, each one quicker than the last until either the whole string is dead or one bulb fails in the more usual string-killing manner and puts a stop to the avalanche of popping bulbs.

I found myself hoping for this string-killing behaviour in one of the bulbs before I got through the entire string, but in fact I was 2/3 of the way round the tree and had replaced all but one bulb before the dead string of lights burst into glorious multi-hued splendour. I immediately unplugged them of course, because I noticed that the other 1/3 of the string was still un-illuminated and that that could only be because every single bulb from that point on was dead! Had I left the string plugged in, each bulb lit would have been overpowered by about 25 volts and I would be likely to see first hand the Wonder of the Popping Bulbs.

In all I changed over three dozen bulbs from that string. Only two bulbs from the originals were still working from the entire string of lights. And that was my Saturday shot to hellanback. By the time I was done it was after six and the snow was coming down hard.

Sunday dawned and I leapt from the marriage bed before Mrs Stevie could wake up and complicate matters and ran to the front door. Then I remembered the conversation with officer McDermot and went back for some clothes, then opened the door to survey the problem.

Snow was still falling, just, and had piled up in front of the storm door. I pushed it open and discovered I could get it to open enough for me to squeeze out with a snow shovel (unlike the year before last when I had to remove the glass from the storm door and climb out through it). We'd had about 15 inches of snow, which had drifted to several times that level in places, notably around the Steviemobile which had so much snow piled around it the hood (UK Bonnet) was below ground level.

I dug for about thirty minutes, opening up the deck, steps and front path, then waded through the knee-deep snow in the driveway to the garage. It was time to once again deploy the mighty Troll, The Snowblower Of Supreme Spiffiness.

Troll has a maw on it that is 27" wide and about 20" tall. Today, the snow was just the right sort for maximum fun - not too dry, not to wet, and so deep that Troll was tunneling for some of the time requiring second and third passes over the same terrain. How the early morning idiots attempting to drive on the roads marveled at the graceful arc of snow, twigs, small rocks and fragments of frozen turf that flew from Troll's ejection chute to a height of perhaps thirty feet before falling all over their vehicles2. How they screamed their own enjoyment of the snow-clearance process to me as I in turn howled in the sheer primal joy of my manly domination over the mounds of soft, frozen inconvenience lying about the place.

I did our driveway, the sidewalk in front of my house and that of Mr Singh the next-door neighbour, Mr Singh's drive, because Mr Singh has rescued my bins from the road and cleaned out the leaves from the property boundary which was half my job and I like him. I was just mulling over whether I had enough gas to go and clear Mike's driveway when Troll mutinied and refused to move any more.

Once my brain was clear of endorphins, which it was quite soon after the manliness factor evaporated, I realized something serious had gone wrong with my beloved snowblower. The self-propulsion drive was inoperative probably due to the malign influence of the dread anti-handyman demons, which had been quiet - too quiet - of late. I dragged Troll back to the garage and located the manual for it which for once I had not put in a Safe Place and therefore rendered un-findable until the snowblower was but a dim memory. It looked like the problem could be one of two things: a) the drive belt could be broken, or 2) the drive wheel could be damaged.

The transmission on these devices is fairly straightforward. The engine spins a shaft, which drives two belts, one for the self-propulsion drive and one for the augur (the thing that munches the snow, then throws it over Mr Singh's garden wall). The self-propulsion belt drives a wheel oriented vertically across the width of the machine. A second wheel, much smaller and with a rubber rim, can be brought into contact with this spinning wheel to transfer the motion to the wheels via a chain-and-cog reduction gear. Why so convoluted? Because you derive the speeds by moving the small wheel across the diameter of the larger spinning wheel with the "gear shift" lever. In near the middle of the spinning wheel gives you a slow speed, out near the rim gives you a much faster one3 and across the center and over to the other side a bit gives you reverse. Simple and fairly robust, but a bugger to service because it means pulling the snowblower apart.

I removed the cab, which was heavy and made tipping Troll up on her scoop almost impossible. Fortunately, the manufacturer foresaw the need to occasionally be cabless and it is a matter of undoing two ripstock nylon belts and removing two cotter pins to get the cab off. Finding somewhere to leave the cab while you work is another matter, but I managed to find somewhere that wouldn't result in a damaged window. Then I upended Troll and removed the steel plate covering her underside to reveal the works. Turns out it was in fact option þ) that was broken. The final chain-driven cog that turns the roadwheels is mounted to the axle with a bolt. This bolt had broken. I thought it might be a shear-pin (something that is designed to break to prevent something much more expensive being broken) but I wasn't sure and it would be an odd place to put one. I couldn't get to any local Sears likely to stock the part (and I doubt that any Sears stocks the part anyway) so I nipped down to Arse Hardware where they very kindly sold me a suitable bolt and nylock nut. It was a very pleasant shopping experience, which if it hadn't involved driving on the same roads as the other idiots out doing Xmas shopping and trying to get ice-melt at this late stage in the game would have been idyllic. Said idiots included a number of teen and twentysomething morons on quads racing around at far above the speed limits, ignoring the everyday restrictions on overtaking, traffic light precedence and so forth and posing a threat to life and limb. One, for example, blew through a red light on a main road and came this close to going under a car that was spinning its wheels, and which made contact with tar and catapulted forward - with a green light - almost hitting the berk on the quad, who had the nerve to look surprised. It's bad enough when these quad and skidoo morons come out on the roads late at night when there's little to no traffic, but to do it on a main road in busy traffic? Idiocy of the first order. While I was ploughing out the drive I saw a couple of quads come screaming up behind a convoy of slow-moving cars (the road was still snow-covered at that point) and the quads pulled out into the oncoming traffic's lane and hit the gas. I was absolutely flabbergasted that people could be so monumentally suicidal. Bear in mind that these vehicles are not legal on the roads and therefore their drivers carry no insurance. The threat they pose to children playing in the snow - themselves not noted for common sense when the whit stuff is abounding - is terrifying.

Anyway, I bought the bolts and some snow-melt on account of mine had migrated from the place I put it at the front of the garage in July to Places Unknown4 and returned to Chateau Stevie to fix Troll.

I'm well aware that replacing what might be a shear pin with an ordinary bolt is a) asking for trouble, 2) an enormous and potentially costly gamble and ♥) akin to replacing a troublesome fuse with a coin, but there may be another dose of this white stuff coming our way and a buggeréd snowblower beats a buggeréd heart any day of the week.

I tested everything worked, put all the bits I took off Troll back on, pumped up the tires which I noticed during the drag back from Mr Singh's driveway were flat for some reason and, infused with sheer manly fixiness turned my attention to the matter of the Steviemobile's blown headlamp.

The drivers' side headlamp has been dead since at least the time I last loaned the car to Mrs Stevie (I only say that because that's the first time in ages I've seen the car at night from the outside, not to infer that Mrs Stevie somehow broke the lamp - though I wouldn't put it past the woman). I bought a new bulb, anticipating the same job that I had when I replaced the other one. Remove the bayonet fitting dirt cover, undo the clips unplug the bulb, put in the new one and do everything else in the reverse order you did to get the old bulb out. Easy.

The drivers' side one is a tad more involved. Following a design ethic that I haven't yet fathomed, the Elantra design crew called for the drivers' side headlamp to be entombed in front of the battery, itself fastened down with a clamp and then obscured by a plastic cover bolted to the engine with a bolt and to the front metalwork of the car with Phillips head screws. No problem then. Out comes my TR6-era Hilka socket set, lovingly brought from England and now showing signs of rust since someone left it near the garage door during a storm and water splashed all over it in such profusion it got into the closed steel case. Where was I? Oh right.

The bolt came out no problem, but two of the three screws simply turned without unscrewing, while the third locked tight and then the screwdriver slot chewed up since the screw was made of soft engineering plastic. If I was going to pick an unfeasible material to fabricate screws from I'd go with poster-putty, then ice, then this engineering plastic, though it would be a close thing between the three materials as to which was the most ridiculous choice. The spinning without coming out behavior was simple to divine. It was caused by the fact that the screws did not screw into a threaded hole in the steel, but into a rawlplug-like device similar to those things you put in plasterboard to hold shelf brackets on with. The plastic plug swells up (in this case deploying four stubby "wings") to lock it in place while providing a surface for the screw thread to bite into. My best guess is that mechanics simply cut these off and replace them in the shop when they need to get the battery out.

Exhaustive study showed no other obvious way of replacing the bulb, though I did try to remove the headlamp module and work on it while it hung off the car. I failed to find the hidden third bolt securing the damned headlamp module to the car after a half hour of looking, and so was reduced to deploying some class three words of power and resigning myself to getting the job done when the next service comes due.

I went out to a Pep Boys, a sort of American version of Halfords crossed with Clutch Brake Autospares, with a view to obtaining the Haynes Manual for the vehicle, to see how the trick was done.

Now Haynes Manuals got off to a running start when they published their first book, the one on the early minis. This book was a diamond in the rough and an indispensable piece of any mini-owner's arsenal as it gave incredibly practical advice on how to do literally everything to a mini, from changing the wiper blades to rebuilding the gearbox. It scored over the Austin/Morris (later Leyland) workshop manual on just about every job, not the least because the tools required were described and, where possible, improvised rather than the Morris standard Service Tool 18G-something5

It might have been expected that every Haynes manual would be so complete and well thought out, but in fact that was not the case. Indeed, judging from my own experience and that of people I've spoken to on the subject, none of the other Haynes manuals achieve the clarity and error-free procedure schedules of the Mini manual, and there's a good reason for that. The reason is that the compiler of that first manual was Paddy Hopkirk, who rallied Minis in the late 60s and early 70s and who developed a series of radical procedures for quickly servicing these cars6 and therefore not only knew every shortcut and trick in the book, invented the tricks and wrote the book. The man was a genius. Not so the man who oversaw the Vaxhaul Viva manual, and who miscounted - low - the number of bolts holding the water pump to the engine block, or the nitwit who advised me to undo the eight bolts holding the prop shaft on my TR6 to the rest of the drive train and simply lower it to the floor and forgot that on a real car there was an exhaust system in the way.

With this in mind, I decided to read the bit on the headlamps before I bought the Haynes Hyundai Elantra manual. Good thing too, because the instructions read: remove the dust cover, undo the clips, remove the bulb and unplug the wires. To install a new bulb, reverse the procedure. I'm paraphrasing, but my version is not that far from the Haynes one and the salient point is that there is no acknowledgement whatsoever that there might be a bit of a problem when it comes to doing the driver side bulb because some fat-head put a battery and a big plastic cover in the way. No sale there then.

So, as of today I still have only one headlamp because I could not get the battery cover off no matter how much I swore. I mean, is it really necessary in this day and age, when buying a car to have to ask the salesman "can I change the headlamp bulbs without substantially dismantling the vehicle"? So I'll just have to give the mechanic at the dealership the bulb and ask them to fit it for me.

At a standard rate of 80 bux per hour or part thereof.

  1. There are three, rather like a Saturn 5 moon rocket except greener, needley instead of frosty and each stage has umpteen strings of lights pre-strung on it instead of being filled with cryogenic rocket fuel. The first stage has two, the second four or more. The third only one, I think. It's pretty right up to the time they don't work.
  2. Troll is very loud - and therefore very manly - and I can't hear motorists approaching even when they sound their horns almost continuously and scream through their open windows so it is sometimes the case that a foolish driver, more intent of getting to their destination than pulling up until I'm done with that bit, will be forced to drive through the ejecta plume. This is very unwise, but then again, so was driving on the roads that day.
  3. If you don't get this point, pop the lid on your CD player and look at the rate at which the outside of a spun disc zooms along compared with the middle for the same rate of spin (rpm). If you steal your final speed from the disc you should see that it matters where on the disc you steal it from
  4. Stuff migrates in my garage, especially during bike-riding weather, without my touching it. This means something.
  5. every tool in the official workshop manual was referred to not by common name but by an alphanumeric identifier that started with 18G-. Something that was described as Service Tool 18G-451-763B might be better known as a hammer for example, yet the workshop manual eschewed such pedestrian terms.
  6. Which were so small and light you have to wonder why no-one else thought to just turn them on their sides instead of jacking them to change the wheels and look at the underside gubbins

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