Thursday, March 29, 2012

Failed Coil Pack, or How to Make a BMW V8 Run Like a Worn Out 4 Banger

Recently my BMW 540i decided that it wanted to run the garbage. I was heading home accelerating hard onto I494 (you know merging into traffic at highway speed) when the car started running really bad. It was definitely misfiring on at least one cylinder possibly more as it seemed to really lack power, it seemed to have the same power as my old Bronco II. So I parked it and didn't want to deal with it right away because I was pissed and didn't want to get more pissed at the moment if I found out I blew the head gasket or cracked the block or head or some other expensive to fix issue. So the next day (Monday) I stopped on my way home from work at  O'reilly Auto Parts to borrow their scan tool to see what codes are being thrown. I pulled the codes and got P0300 (random misfire), P0307 (misfire cylinder #7), and P0420 (catalytic system below threshold bank 1). So what do these codes mean, well P0300 is kind of meaningless as there it means there isn't a consistent misfire so it will usually get set first then when a complete failure happens then another P030X code specific to the problem cylinder will get set. Once a code is set it will remain until erased by a scan tool so seeing both P0300 and P0307 shouldn't be unexpected.  The P0420 makes sense as I was dumping raw un-burned fuel from cylinder 7 into the exhaust and catalytic converter (drivers side which is bank 1).

So now armed with this info the possible causes could be:

  • failed spark plug, cylinder #7
  • failed spark plug boot,  cylinder #7  (this car uses a coil on plug setup so it doesn't have plug wires)
  • failed ignition coil, cylinder #7
  • Failed fuel injector, cylinder #7 (stuck open or leaks like a sieve)
  • Failed head gasket at cylinder #7
  • Burned exhaust valve on cylinder #7
  • Cracked head on cylinder #7
  • Cracked block on cylinder #7
At this point in my head I start fearing that it is a failed head gasket as I am a pessimist and the failure happened when I was accelerating hard (blocks and heads don't tend to crack any more unless you are doing really stupid stuff). So now to start trying to better diagnose the problem. Always start with the easiest things so I played musical coil packs and switched the one on cylinder 7 with the one on cylinder 6. No I turned the key to the run position (everything has power but the car isn't running) and used the scan tool to clear all the codes. I am really hoping to see a P0306, but a P0307 wouldn't necessarily be bad at this point either. So I start the car and let it run and then press the re-scan button. Low and behold I get only 2 codes, P0420, and P0306. Now this could have been better as now I know I need to replace the coil pack that is now on cylinder #6 as the car is now shooting cylinder #7. At this point I can pretty much rule out everything else as the misfire moved with the coil pack. Granted coil packs are more expensive than spark plug boots and spark plugs but are cheaper than a head gasket replacement, valve replacement, head replacement, or engine replacement. They are also a lot easier to replace than fuel injectors even if the cost is about the same.

I went and talked with my mechanic neighbor and he suggested replacing all the coils as well as boots and plugs since I am in there anyway and the Bosch coil packs aren't exactly know for their reliability so might as well do all of them instead of potentially having this problem in the future again. This is what I as planning on doing anyway as once you are in there might as well do everything so you don't have future problems. This is still cheaper than any of the catastrophic failures, and the remaining 7 reasonably good coils can be kept as spares in case one of the new ones fail some time down the road, I do the same thing with belts too. 

Also for piece of mind (that OCD thing I got going on) I also did the following:
  • checked to see if the oil was milky. It will look like chocolate milk if you get coolant in your oil and they get hot and mixed up real good. This is a sign of a problem with the head or block, usually a head gasket.
  • Checked to see if there was an oil film in the coolant, oil leaking into the coolant.  This is a sign of a problem with the head or block, usually a head gasket.
  • Checked to see if there were bubbles in the coolant, combustion gases in the coolant.  This is a sign of a problem with the head or block, usually a head gasket.
  • Checked the oil filler cap for moisture, some cars like my wife's VW have a problem with this but my BMW doesn't so I didn't want to see any. Often this is a PCV problem but it could also be a small bit of coolant mixing with the oil, evaporating, and then condensing on the oil filler cap. Might be a sing of a small head gasket leak.
  • Did a compression test on cylinder #7. This rules out cracks in heads, cracks blocks, head gasket failures, and burned valves.
As all of these checks passed so it is definitely not one of the catastrophic failures which is good. So now I was just waiting for my parts that were on order from the auto parts store. Once received I went and change out the old spark plugs, spark plug boots and coil packs. I cleared the codes and the car fired right up and the sluggishness and misfire has gone away. It was a good idea to also change out the plugs as all but the one from cylinder #7 showed signs of lean burning. This wasn't really a surprise as the emissions system detected unburden fuel (the misfire) and to try to correct it leaned out the fuel air mixture. So with new plugs, boots and coils the care is running great again.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Used Car Buying Guide

One thing people frequently ask me about is advice on buying a used car. I would like to think it is in part because I know a lot about vehicles and also it doesn't hurt that I have bought good used vehicles. Below is what I do when buying a vehicle and what I look at.
  1. Don't plan on buying a specific vehicle and then try to find one that you can afford instead figure out what you want to spend and then find the best vehicle that meets your needs in that price range. This opens up a larger selection of vehicles and when you get it narrowed down to a few you like then you can pick the one you want based off of model or type. Almost always I have a few choices and personally I have a preference for BMWs so once narrowed down to a few choices I tend to pick those.
  2. Have realistic expectations for your price range. The general rules I follow for what to expect from a vehicle are:
    1. $500 or less - If it moves under it's own power it is a good deal
    2. $500-$1,000 - Decent engine, decent transmission (still not great) but expect a lot of other issues some may be major
    3. $1,000-5,000 - Good engine and transmission, expect a number of minor issues but there shouldn't be any major issues
    4. 5,000-10,000 - There should only be minor issues, no major ones. Mileage should be around the average of 12,000 per year. Reasonably new vehicle.
    5. More than $10,000 - It should run great, no major issues, few if any minor issues, mileage should be around the average of 12,000 per year.  Reasonably new vehicle.
  3. Find out what you need. Too many times to I see people buy cars they don't like because they thought they wanted/needed something else. If you just need to transport people and have never driven a truck or SUV then don't buy a SUV to haul people around because you probably won't like how it drives (this happened to my sister). 
  4. See what is available. Go get a news paper or better yet go online and use sites like,,, or any number of other vehicle sites. Select the style of vehicle you are interested in, set your price range (be reasonable), and set your search area. Now you have a list of potential vehicles so start deciding what ones might be worth going to see.
  5. Determining the actual cost of a vehicle. Private sellers have a tendency to either undervalue or over value their vehicles while dealerships will generally be more correct. Good sources for info on this would be sites like or as these can give you a ballpark idea of what a vehicle should cost. Remember just because someone else paid too much or threw too much money into a vehicle doesn't mean you have to. Why should you care what they paid or how much they spent on fixing it.
  6. You should now have narrowed down the vehicles to a few that would be worth going to see and drive. The inspection and test drive are probably the greatest indicators of quality. I check the following:
    1. The dipstick - It shouldn't be varnished or covered in soot, also the oil level should be correct
    2. The oil - If they haven't just changed it it shouldn't smell burned and defiantly should never have metal shavings in it
    3. The coolant - shouldn't have any oil film on top, if you have a coolant gravity tester check the quality
    4. Check the fuel filter - If it looks cleaner than the rest of parts around it it has been changed
    5. squeeze the hoses - they should be somewhat firm and shouldn't show surface cracks
    6. Check the automatic transmission fluid - It should be at the proper level and bright red and shouldn't smell burned
    7. drive the car - Take it out on the highway and when going down the on ramp run it through its paces hard. Problems will show up first at the extremes any noises, misses, hesitation or other abnormal things are an indicator of problems as are long or incompetent shifts in an automatic transmission. 
    8. take it into a parking lot and do a couple of tight circles listen for creaks, squeals, grinding noises, or clunks.
    9. Check the power steering fluid - If it uses regular power steering fluid it should be clear, if it uses ATF it should be bright red
    10. On a manual see that it shifts smoothly and that the clutch holds when accelerating hard
    11. Make sure that the car drives straight.
    12. when going over bumps listen for clunks or other noise from the suspension.
    13. make sure that all 4 tires match
    14. check for even tread wear
    15. Find out common problems on the vehicle you are looking to buy and check for those as well
    16. Check in the wheel wells and door seams for signs of rust
    17. If you are really motivated and buying form a dealership see if you can get them to put the car up on the lift and check it out. I have only managed to get one dealership to do this and that was the one where I bought my current BMW from. Here you can check a lot of the suspension and drive train stuff like axles, suspension, wheel bearings, tie rods, drive shaft, and a bunch of other stuff 
    18. Turn the steering wheel to see if there is excessive play in the suspension, then turn it to the extremes to make sure that the power steering pump isn't making tons of noise. It will make some but shouldn't get really loud
    19. If you don't want to do this get a mechanic you know to check it out, there is a charge for this but it will give you piece of mind.
  7. Never buy the vehicle the day you first look at it. Go home find out specific things to look at more closely, and common problems. Sleep on it and then go checkout the vehicle again and take it for another test drive. If you still like it then buy it, otherwise walk away.
I have used this method for every vehicle I have ever owned and haven't been let down, even with the beater vehicles I have bought that were well under $500.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Google Knows How to Fix Your Car

As I have gotten more experienced working on vehicles I have been tackling more difficult jobs. For a lot of these jobs something like the Chilton or Haynes manuals are great but frequently I find them to have poor images (why do they take black and white pictures of gray and black stuff in poor lighting instead) tiny diagrams, and sometimes are too general and don't cover the topic I am interested in. Also they don't have the best diagnostics section. When you start to run into these limitations you basically have 3 options:

  • Official Factory Service Manual
  • Random people on the internet
Factory Service manuals are great (I have the one for my MG Midget that I got from a friend) but they can be on the spendy side (start at about $100 and go up from there) but they will tell you everything you need to know to fix your problem. Problem is you either need to order them online or buy them from the dealership, online is cheaper but still don't expect to be paying less than $100 and you have to wait at least a day for it so show up.

For those of you who don't know ALLDATA is an online resource that covers all makes and models of vehicles and basically has all the info in the respective factory service manuals. This is a pay service but if you are lucky enough that your local library has access (I think most in Minnesota do, and I know the Dakota County ones all do) so you can go use it there. If you wanted access from home it gets pretty spendy (currently $26.95 per year for the first vehicle) but might be worth it if you have a car that needs lots of repairs. Typically this is the service that professional mechanics use.

This leaves the 3rd option of people on the internet. Now this may not sound like a very good option but it has worked really well for me in the past. Most of the time you are not the first person to try and do something and there are others like me who are really into their vehicles. As such these people tend to post DIYs online with some really good large color pictures and write-ups. Frequently there are entire sites designated towards a specificy vehicle that have lots of info on them. Add in message boards and there is probably more info online for free than there is in ALLDATA for your vehicle. The hard part is finding it and knowing what to put into Google. So how do you find the data:
  1. Go to a search engine like google, yahoo, ask, ...
  2. Enter some basic info but don't be too specific as maybe no one made reference to a green 2003 version of your vehicle. 
    1. make
    2. model
    3. problem or question
  3. check out the results, if you have a lot of results for different vintages of your vehicle you may want to try and trim them by being a bit more specific. With BMWs you can usually eliminate stuff not relevant to your vehicle by putting in the engine type (M62) or body type (e39). I haven't done it with my jeep yet but then I haven't had to search for much. If you don't know these values I might suggest checking out Wikipedia for your vehicle make and model as there you can probably find these values.
For example in the past I have used these sites for various vehicle info:
  • - Ford Ranger/Bronco II site. This page is the technical section for the site and has lots of detailed fixes and modifications
  • - BMW 3 series hatch back (my previous BMW)
  • - BMW 7series site that has a BMW e39 section since a lot of things are shared between those vehicles
  • - A BMW message board covering all models
  • - This specific page has a whole ton of e39 BMW DIYs linked from across the web in one spot. The site covers all BMW models.
  • - This page has details on replacing the valley pan on a BMW M62 engine.  The site covers all BMW models.
There are a number of additional sites I have gone to but those are just some of the gems I have found but searching the internet. The other nice thing is that if you want to do some vehicle modifications again you probably aren't the first one to want to do that so you can find all sorts of info and see where others have had issues or know what you are getting your self into. Sometimes you never find what you are looking for and have to settle for what info you can find. Personally I think I am the first person who want to have a supercharged alcohol burning MG Midget. I can find some info on converting a vehicle to run on alcohol but most of the info on doing that is from really goofy alternative energy people who basically just want to make moon shine and aren't doing it right (they don't even bother to adjust the fuel air ratio) but I have had some luck in poking around on the various sprint car, and midget racing (not the MG kind) as those cars are all alcohol burners and they actually know what they are doing. The supercharging part is easy as there is a kit for the A-series engine, as well as an optional high boost kit for the supercharger.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Morrie's Kia Sucks, Buy Pissed Off

I have been meaning to do this post for a while so here it goes. Last summer I purchased my 96 Jeep Cherokee. I bought it from Morrie's Kia which is right near my work. For those of you who don't know they have the "Buy Happy Promises". I only decided to go in there since ti was next to my work and thought since it was so close it would be worth checking out the very high mileage Jeep Cherokee they had (it was purchased with 368,XXX mile on it) so I had some base line to judge other Jeeps against. The vehicle was in their public before wholesale lot, so if someone didn't buy it they were going to send it off to the scrap yard basically, so I was told up front that it wasn't covered by lots of the benefits like lifetime oil changes or their warranty. Ok so that isn't a problem. My beef is with their crummy customer service and their supposed no pressure sales people. So here is how it went:

On my lunch break I decide to stop over and check out the 1996 Jeep Cherokee that has 368,XXX miles and the manual transmission. I went in and started talking to one of the sales guys about it and he mentioned that it was a good runner. Ok so normal BS from a sales person who probably doesn't know much about the internals of vehicles or what to look for. He goes and gets the keys and takes me out to it. It has some rust but nothing too bad, I go through my usual checks and so far so good. We go and start it up and the engine sounds good and it isn't smoking. We go and take it out for a test drive and it seems like it only has a few minor issues (2 of the wheels were out of balance). While talking on the test drive I state several times that I am not buying today and will be taking at least a day to decide. The test drive ends and he takes me back in to do some paper work. It turns out that the stupid sales person doesn't understand what I am not buying it today means and I need to restate it to him.

That night I went home and asked my one of my next door neighbors about what to look for on old Jeeps with the inline 6 4.0L engine as well a a guy down the street who has a Jeep Cherokee as well as an old CJ-5 or CJ-7 Jeep for off roading to gather more info on what to look for as well as checking the internet for common issues.

The next day over my lunch armed with my new knowledge and some simple tools and a flash light I go back to Morrie's Kia to have another look at the Jeep to see if it has any of the potential problems and take it for a second test drive to see if I am still as impressed with its performance. It checks out good no major issues and I still like it. We go inside and I don't have my check book so but can put a deposit on it ($100) so they will hold it until I can get a check to them for an additional $900 down (total down $1,000) and in 7-10 days I would bring in the difference as I would need to pull some money out of investments I do the paper work and and wander off thinking that everything is good

Day 3 I go in with my $900 check and the idiot sales person and used car sales manager gets uppidy with me because apparently they were too stupid to understand what I will be in tomorrow with a check for $900 means as they thought I was going to bring it in that night when I had told the sales person that I was going to bring it in the next day since I live in Apple Valley and it takes at least half an hour to get out there yet I work 2 minutes from the dealership. The used car sales manager also starts demanding the remaining $1000 or so (I think it was $995 or something stupid like that) because he doesn't understand what 7-10 day means either. For the record the money was coming from selling some of my company stock which is traded on the German Stock Exchange and was held in a Swiss account so it takes a bit to actually sell the stock get the money into the Swiss bank account and then get it transferred into my US account. No I am not dodging US taxes I paid my capital gains tax on it and have the 1099-b form to prove it. So I reexplain it to him that I will have the difference to him in 7-10 days.

2 days later I get a call from them wondering when I am going to pick up the car because they want it off the lot. Now I scramble to get things sorted out as the only place I have that kind of money available is on my credit card so the next day I go in with my card and put the difference on it. The used car manager thought that I was going to come in the day after I put down the previous $900 because he really was too stupid to realize what 7-10 days means. I then get a sob story about how then need to close their books for the month, guess what that isn't my effing my problem and I don't give a crap about your book keeping. I never took the car off the lot even though I had over 50% down on the stupid thing which is more than probably most of their customers have who get those stupid 0% interest rates. My 3 year old son seems to have a better grasp of time than these people do.

So in summary they don't have "no pressure sales people and they also don't seem to understand basic English. I would never buy a vehicle from Morrie's Kia again after that experience. I know that sales people are worthless when it comes to telling you about cars but the incompetence there just runs rampant. How hard is to to understand simple concepts like:

  • I am not going to buy the vehicle today
  • I can bring you a check for $900 tomorrow
  • I will bring you the difference in 7-10 days but I am not taking delivery of the vehicle until then.
  • Good customer service
  • What no pressure sales people actually means
When compared to the previous time I bought a vehicle from a dealership this was downright awful. The previous time was when I bought my BMW 540i from Sears Import autos (the BMW side is now BMW of Minnetonka) where everything was smooth as silk I went in with a car in mind saw it, drove it (the sales guy let me take it unsupervised) told him I was interested and would be back the next day to look at it again and I would make my decision then so he held it for free. I went in the next day checked it out with more knowledge drove it again unsupervised and told him I wanted to purchase it. There again I needed to get some money so it would be a few days so we went and did up the contract and because it was such a short amount of time I drove it off the lot that day with nothing down even though that vehicle cost 5 times as much as the Jeep. Three days later I brought in the cashiers check after getting money and handed it off to the sales person (John Buyer) and was done. That is how car sales should work. I still have to stop into BMW of Minnetonka if I need a part today and they give great service and will wash my car for free and even shine up your shoes (boots in my case). Night and day difference in the quality of service.

If you are Morrie's Kia don't bother contacting me I won't set foot in your dealership ever again and won't respond to you if you try to comment. If you post  I will just delete your posts. Also if you try to sue me for slander or defamation for this post remember the truth is a defense. Your service sucks Morie's Kia, "buy pissed off".

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Alternative Energy

With gas prices spiking again it there has been talk of how to bring them down. If you follow politics (I do as the government has a much bigger impact on my life than most things) then you may have heard of President Obama's suggestion to create fuel from algae. Now true to form the Republicans started bashing President Obama on this supposedly stupid idea claiming it won't work and won't make a difference. The truth is it would work and would make a difference. Now this isn't' the only idea out there on how to fuel our future but is the most recent. So with this topic I decided to cover some of the ideas that are out that since oil is a finite resource  despite what one party would suggest and we will eventually run out. This way people can have a good understanding of what the options are and have reasonable knowledge about them. Side not I once asked an oil geologist about how much oil the earth ever had and got the following about 15 years ago so the values may be different now and I don't know if these include non traditional sources like tar sands and shale:

  • Approximately 6 trillion total barrels of oil existed
  • Approximately  3 trillion of that 6 trillion are recoverable with current technology
  • We have consumed  approximately  1 trillion in the last 200 years, most in the last 50 years at an ever increasing rate.
  • OPEC lies about their reserves.
The battery powered car
First off this means nothing. A battery powered car is really only as clean as the source that provides your electricity. Granted coal, and natural gas power plants are a whole lot more efficient than your small internal combustion engine in your vehicle so even powering an electric car with electricity from a coal plan would probably be much cleaner. This is most because a really good running vehicle engine is capable of a max 30% or so efficiency. This means that you use at most 30% of the total energy in the fuel for useful work. The large stationary engines used in power plants are about twice as efficient meaning they get twice the usable energy from from the same amount of fuel. Also handling pollution from one stationary large source is much easier than from many small moving sources. Right now the biggest obstacle for electric cars are range and recharge time. The best ones now claim 100 miles on a charge that takes 8 or so hours from a special outlet. Granted this does cover most people's daily driving habits. Also this wouldn't require additional power plants as most people would be charging their vehicles at off peak times (at night when power demand is low and generators that can be stopped are) when there is extra generation capacity.

There are 2 primary forms of solar energy photoelecrtic and solar thermal. Both can be used to produce electricity to do useful things with like power a car with a rechargeable battery. I have head lots of people complain that there is no way we could ever get enough power from these to power our planet. These people are wrong. The truth is if 1% of the entire planet was covered with 1% efficient solar panels would would be able to meet all of our current power needs. This isn't a number I just made up but is are real figure from NASA where they state that we receive 10,000 times the energy from the sun than we actually use. Now given that most solar solutions are more efficient that 1% (really good solar cells are about 40% efficient and cheap crappy ones are usually at least 5% efficient) we could easily meet all of our power needs. Solar thermal can be used to generate power even when the sun goes down as they use molten salt to store the heat so solar can work even when it is dark out. The setup for this is the solar power tower where mirror focus light onto a tower. 

Good idea in theory when you do it like the Brazilians do but when you do it like we do in the US and make it from corn it is one of the dumbest things government has ever done. I plan on writing a couple of articles specifically on ethanol eventually where I will really go into detail on it as it is the favorite bio fuel.

Bio oils
There are a number of things that can be lumped under this heading such as the bio diesel made from used vegetable oil (or straight vegetable oil), bio diesel made from soy beans, and bio oil. that is refined into fuels. They are all chemically very similar. This is where President Obama's plan to make fuel from algae falls. This group would be the least painless for most people as it requires no change to our current infrastructure. You can refine bio oil into the correct type of fuel to use in your vehicle or what ever. So lets look at a few select options in the category (I can't include all of the different options there are too many):
  • Algae - This shows some promise for making bio oil even in crappy climates like Minnesota. Granted it would work better in warmer sunnier climates like Florida or California. Basically what is done here is algae is grown in enclosed vats  of water. When the vat is full the algae is scraped off  and pressed to get the oil out of it. The left over bits of algae can the go off and be used either as a fertilizer or feed into some other processes or disposed of in some appropriate manner.
  • Thermal Depolymerization - This is another promising solution as it would work with just about any organic material. You can use things garbage, bits left over from animal processing plants, saw dust, tree trimmings, leaves, switch grass, or basically anything made from carbon. Under high heat and pressure (add in some water if your source material doesn't have enough) you turn carbon based things into oil. This oil can then be sent off to be refined into the same things we make from crude oil from the ground like fuels, plastics, fertilizers, industrial chemicals. 
  • Fischer-Tropsch Process - This is a similar process to thermal depolymerization and is part of the gas to liquids process to produce liquid fuels and other hydrocarbons from organic material. It is a process that works as the Germans used in during WWII on an industrial scale to fuel their war machine. They were using coal as the source material but you could feed it any carbon based material and get the same results.
  • Vegetable Oil - I think this is great using wast veggie oil to power a diesel vehicle. Here you basically get used fryer oil from restaurants (they may give it to you free since they have to pay to dispose of it) and you go an burn it in your diesel vehicle. It seems like a good use of something that was just going to be thrown away. If you are interested in doing this just do a Google search and you will get more info that you need to get started. It probably wouldn't work to fuel every diesel vehicle as there just isn't enough wast vegetable oil but it would cut demand for diesel.
If you think this is going to happen you are kidding your self, and no I don't mean because of the Hindenburg. The biggest problem is hydrogen is that it doesn't exist in a free state on our planet. You need to make it from something and you will never get the energy out of it that you put into making it. Lots of people think that this is the water powered car, if you are one of them you have been fooled, this won't work because of the Laws of Thermodynamics (I should do a post on this myth some day). Basically there are 2 ways to make hydrogen either use natural gas and do some steam reformation on it or use massive amount of electricity to do electrolysis on water, either of these options takes way more energy than you will ever get back out of the fuel so why not just have natural gas or electric vehicles instead and cut out all the losses of making hydrogen. Other than the energy loss (hydrogen is really a poor carrier) hydrogen is a pain to transport. Again here I am not talking about explosions but it has this nasty ability to cause embrittlement in all sorts of metals, and we currently don't have a distribution network for it like we already do for the things required to make it (natural gas, or electricity). So can we just say this was a stupid idea and quit wasting resources on it.

Non-Traditional Oil
This is probably the worst solution as we could go after more shale oil, tar sands or just convert coal to liquid fuels. It would work until it becomes too expensive to do but it would buy some more time to get better solutions working.