Tuesday, March 3, 2020

A Rare Misdiagnosis

It wasn’t a fuel line problem.

The Guppy’s behavior certainly resembled that of a beast starved for sustenance. It stalled out going up hills, which definitely made it seem like gas wasn’t making it from the fuel tank located toward the rear of the vehicle to the engine. So when we limped into Brownwood, Texas, and the S.O. and Billy Cook conferred, they decided the first step was to change the fuel filter.

Mooch docking in Brownwood
Which they did. Then they ran the Guppy for awhile – problem seemed to be solved. We’d had a good time in Brownwood, been lucky enough to meet a really nice person who let us mooch dock in her yard while the guys engaged in male bonding over the Guppy, but the filter was changed, Guppy was running, time to move on down the road.

I think we made it 36 miles west of Brownwood before the Guppy let out an asthmatic sigh and coasted to the side of the road. So we turned around and headed back to Carol’s yard. The filter obviously was not the problem. It must be the fuel pump.

There was a time where when a vehicle’s fuel pump died, you knew it immediately. There was no doubt about it. The device was purely mechanical, and when it quit, it quit. Now, thanks to the incessant need of engineers to make everything ever more complicated and the prevalence of various electronics in a vehicle’s various systems, it is possible for a fuel pump to go through long, complicated death throes that an amateur actor chewing up the scenery in a Shakespearean tragedy (or a Mel Brooks farce) would envy. There was also the question of “How many fuel pumps does the Guppy have?”
Mistletoe. A couple trees in Carol's yard were loaded with it. 

This would seem to be a simple question to answer. It wasn’t. The S.O. and Billy tossed the question around a lot. Is there a fuel pump in the gas tank? What if it’s the one that is dying? Asking the experts at the auto parts store didn’t help. Neither did Googling information about the Ford engine that powers the Guppy. That particular model year it appeared that some E-350s rolling off the assembly line did indeed have two fuel pumps. Some did not. If there was a pump in the tank and it was bad, the only way to replace it would be to drop the fuel tank. This was not a pleasant thought when it’s a fairly large tank (30 or so gallons), the tank was full when the Guppy left Brownwood, and even with the shit fuel economy RVs get a round trip of less than 80 miles wouldn’t have burned off much.
In the end, they decided to change the fuel pump they could get at and hope that solved the problem. So they did, and it seemed to work. The S.O. ran the Guppy in place for about an hour. No problems, other than the cat being annoyed he had to sit in his carrier outside so he wouldn’t end up asphyxiated. Then the guys took the Guppy for a test drive. They were gone over half an hour, took the Guppy up some long grades, and again, no problems. Great. Problem solved. Nice though Carol’s yard was, after a week in Brownwood we were about to be on our way.
Carol and Billy hoping they're about to see the last of us. 

So how far did we get, inquiring minds want to know, before it became depressingly clear it hadn’t been the fuel pump at all? About 100 miles.

The Guppy started stalling at about the 70 mile mark and flat out quit just south of San Angelo. We have AAA Plus, which includes RVs, so we called for a tow truck. After sitting by the side of the highway for what seemed like forever, a truck from Southern Industrial Towing arrived. The driver said their shop worked on RVs on a regular basis.

This was remarkably good news on an otherwise depressing day. It can be unbelievably difficult to find a shop that works on RVs. The dealers for the mechanical part (the Ford engine and chassis, for example) don’t want to touch RVs. RV dealers don’t want to deal with the mechanical part – they’ll fix a leak in the roof but avoid changing spark plugs. Garages that service large trucks usually have so much business with commercial trucks that they aren’t interested in repairing motorhomes. In short, there was going to be no debate about where the Guppy was going for diagnosis and repair: it was going to where the tow truck lived.

While SIE worked on the Guppy, we wandered around San Angelo, which is how we stumbled across Fort Concho. Quite a bit of it is a reconstruction, although it's all very nicely done. 
The driver dragged the Guppy to a safe spot for us to boondock for the night and pointed out where the business was located just down the road. Based on the way the Guppy had been behaving. The S.O. was sure that once everything cooled off, he’d be able to restart the Guppy and drive it that last half mile. In the morning, that’s what we did. Drove the Guppy to Southern Industrial Towing/Southern Industrial Engines and described the problem.

I have no idea what this building in San Angelo is, but it had one of the oddest roof-lines I've seen in a long time. 
The shop owner/manager then said the phrase I think the S.O. kind of dreaded hearing: you’ve got a plugged catalytic converter.

This was a problem the S.O. and Billy Cook had considered and rejected. The S.O. managed to talk himself out of it. He had even contemplated out loud while we were in Brownwood the idea of crawling under the Guppy, dropping the exhaust system, and rodding the converter – shoving a large pipe into the device to punch a hole through it so exhaust would have a straight shot out instead of being channeled through the honeycomb. He’s usually so good at figuring out what’s wrong with our vehicles when they malfunction that I didn’t push it. So we both screwed up. In retrospect, I should have nagged and urged him to do it while we were in Carol’s yard. After all, even if it wasn’t the problem it wouldn’t have hurt.

It was an expensive mistake on both our parts. Paying for repairs you know you could have avoided always hurts. I will say I have no complaints about Southern Industrial Engines. They prioritized getting the Guppy back on the road and did good work. The price of a new converter definitely made me flinch, but I’d Googled prices for catalytic converters and knew it was going to be painful. 

Now I’m waiting to see if AAA comes through on paying for trip interruption expenses. Supposedly they’ll reimburse up to $1,000 for things like hotel rooms, meals, and a rental car if your travel is interrupted due to accidents, theft, or mechanical failures. We did have to stay in a hotel one night while the Guppy was in the shop, and we did eat at a Texas Roadhouse, so I submitted a claim. The hotel was not cheap. We managed to be in San Angelo during the annual stock show and rodeo, an event that apparently draws a gazillion people from around the state, because simply finding a hotel room was a challenge. To say prices were a tad jacked up is an understatement. AAA had better come through on the reimbursement because it was more painful to pay an astronomical sum for a room at a Day’s Inn than it was to pay for the work on the Guppy. At least with the latter, I know the charges were honest. (I can understand why businesses take advantage of those rare occasions when demand  exceeds supply, but that doesn't mean I like it.) 

For what it’s worth, if we drive the Guppy enough miles, the replacement converter will pay for itself. The S.O. is fairly sure the fuel economy has improved significantly. The Guppy has never seen a gas station it didn’t want to pull into so even if we’ve just gone from getting ~7 mpg to ~8 mpg, that’s a 14% improvement. (And, yes, the mileage on motorhomes really is that bad, especially the older ones. This is why they always say that if a person asks about fuel economy when shopping for an RV, they really can’t afford to own one.)