Saturday, January 29, 2011

Weathering Another Winter (Or: Wishing for Sunshine and Finally Buying a Generator)

Last year, we had an awful winter in the D.C. area, with not only one massive "Snowmageddon" but a second "Snowpocalypse" dumping over two feet of snow apiece on us.  Somehow, we made it through both without losing power, though during the second storm, Beth and I seriously considered a generator as tens of thousands of people in the area suffered outages. Though this year we've managed to avoid snowfall totals like those, what we've ended up with has been bad enough: heavy, wet snow and ice which has struck hard at our new plants and those still recovering from last winter.

This most recent storm had been projected to be a heavy bout of rain up until about two or three days out, when the computer models all began to converge upon a significant snow event.  Even then, many remained doubtful we'd be hit hard (a sentiment which carried over into the actual storm even as it slammed areas to the immediate west).  Local schools made the right call and cancelled the day before, when we'd only had a dusting of precipitation.  Unfortunately, the Office of Personnel Management for the feds decided only to dismiss two hours early--putting tens of thousands of federal employees and contractors on the roads right as the storm arrived.

As I left the office, it was raining, but by the time I got out of the parking garage, the precipitation had changed over to sleet.  When I got to Fairfax Circle--about halfway home along my commute--we'd already gotten over an inch of snow.  The sheer energy of the storm created thunder and lightning--an eerie, almost frightening event known as "thundersnow" which though fairly rare I've now experienced three times in the past year.  Visibility fell to a couple dozen feet, and even jam-packed with an early rush hour's traffic, the roads quickly accumulated several inches of snow.  The last mile or so of my commute was a nightmare, thanks to the elements and drivers who had no business being on the roads: folks with no headlights on (!); people who drove in the middle of the road even with oncoming traffic; cars like the Mitsubishi Eclipse I saw spinning out trying to make it up a fairly gentle hill or even the SUVs whose owners seemed to think 4WD gave them license to drive like fools; and, worst of all, those bad drivers who made things worse by abandoning their cars in the middle of the highway.  During the hour and a half it took me to go seven miles--and in that I was lucky; some folks had 10-13 hour commutes in what has come to be known as "carmageddon"--we got over three inches of snow.  Finally home for the evening, I settled in with Beth and the Pupsters.

Our oriole feeder after a January ice storm
Sure, it's pretty for a few hours, but when the weather is bringing down trees all around the neighborhood, it's not fun anymore.  Nor is it fun to see the gardens over which you've toiled long spring and summer hours over  demolished by the elements: last year, we lost an American holly in the front yard when the snow snapped it in half (we've since resurrected the stump, which put out new growth over the year), and our inkberries and several other plants sustained heavy damage and many broken branches.  "Here we go again," I thought as snow came down at up to two inches an hour.

Even venturing out into the snow three times during the storm, Beth and I were hard-pressed to protect our plants.  We gently brushed and knocked the dense, thick snow from limbs and foliage and hoped for the best.  The new American holly out front, along with an English holly that made it through last winter intact, both had been weighed down so badly they risked snapping their trunks in half, and our scraggly, barely-recovered inkberries had been splayed to the ground.  Our red-twig dogwoods--species well-adapted to snow, being native well into Canada--for the first time had broken limbs, too.  Evergreens of any sort had been crushed by the snow.  Worst, every one of our river birches were bent completely to the ground, sustaining several snapped branches.

"Ms. Kooki, perhaps you're unaware it's snowing and that we want to play outside?"
Despite all the plant damage and several times when our power flickered off for a second or two, it seemed like we'd make it through the evening without losing our electricity.  The snow finally let up around 10:30pm, having dumped a layer of sleet topped by about eight inches of snow on us.  As I mentioned earlier, we'd considered a generator last winter but managed not to need one, and then missed out on the sales-tax holiday on them in May (for hurricane preparedness).  We were not to be so lucky this time around.

Shortly before midnight, the power went out and stayed out.  We discovered the next morning that a huge tree had come down near the entrance of our neighborhood, blocking the road and snapping several lines--not to mention a half dozen more minor breaks just in our immediate area.  Given the extent of the damage, we'd likely be without power for days--Dominion's Web site (which doesn't work with Chrome, making it impossible to report an outage from my phone) estimated they'd have it back up the next night, but I knew from experience they were being incredibly optimistic.  The house had held heat fairly well thanks to all the energy improvements we'd made--after a night of 20-degree temperatures, we were only down to 63 degrees inside from 69 the evening before--but it was only going to get colder.

So Beth and I headed to Costco before they opened on Thursday and lined up outside the entrance along with a dozen or so others--about half of us with flatbed carts and clearly intent upon the same thing: generators.  Within five minutes of the doors opening, Costco had sold out!  Several customers helped each other load the heavy boxes onto each others' carts, and after picking up a few other necessities, we headed home with our new generator and six gallons of gas to fuel it.

We had to shovel a path and dig out an area where we could run the generator, then assembly took some time out in the cold, snowy yard: I had to put together the generator's frame and wheels,  fill its oil reservoir and attach exhaust components, connect the battery, and drive and wire ground stake.  By the time I had everything set up, I had to go into the office, as the OPM had not closed the federal government despite the weather and widespread power outages, and the facility I work at was open.

Dominion's estimated time to get our power back up came and went as expected. I unfortunately let Beth talk me out of wiring up the furnace blower motor to the generator, instead using it to power just our fridge, a lamp, and an electric space heater we set up in the living room.  We spent the evening playing cards and listening to music on my iPod, then bundled up for a chilly night ahead: a day and a half into the blackout and temperatures inside had fallen to 54 degrees.  Multiple blankets, thermal underclothes, and even a true three dog night as all the Pupsters piled onto the futon with us... but it was not a comfortable night, as I had to get up several times to tend to the generator outside.

During the "break in" period for a new engine, you have to change the oil after about five hours of use--and check the oil level repeatedly.  And of course, you have to top off the gas so that it doesn't run dry.  Each of these operations requires disconnecting the appliances et al being powered, shutting off the generator, then powering it back up and reconnecting things afterwards.  I also was hesitant to run the generator basically non-stop for more than seven or eight hours, particularly given how it was brand new.

Friday morning meant another day at the office, a shower by flaslight first, and on the way out of the neighborhood I saw that Dominion had yet to even attempt to move the giant tree which the storm had brought down.  Worse, one of our neighbor's trees had dropped a limb onto our power lines, though it hadn't actually snapped them.

I left the office early, came home, and decided enough was enough with the upstairs temperatures down to 50 degrees and the basement pipes likely in danger of freezing up.  I finally had time to re-wire the furnace blower to run off of the generator.  Though I didn't feel like investing in a $280 transfer switch at Home Depot, I did completely disconnect the furnace from the power mains so I could just plug the furnace into the generator and not worry about overloading the generator or damaging the home's wiring.  Some people do that--plugging a generator into an outlet with a double-ended cord may be convenient, but that's a mistake and a fire hazard.

You know, gas heat works really well when you have electricity to blow the hot air around--within hours, the house was back to livable conditions.  (This of course ensured Dominion would have the power back on within another five hours or so, about two and a half days of blackout.)  After we got back from dinner with some friends, Dominion had finally come and cut away the branches on our lines, too.

I can only hope we're done with winter--Punxsutawney Phil be damned. But we're ready for the next bout of winter if it comes, shiny new generator and all.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Magical Effects of a Power Steering Flush (DIY for $7 or Less)

My car is getting old, and an older car means more maintenance. Worse, it's a turbocharged import, meaning work on it isn't cheap--my last major scheduled maintenance cost over $2000. So the fact my car had started having a few issues and my desire to put another 82,000 miles on it before even considering a newer model has driven me (no pun intended) to teach myself some basic and not-so-basic maintenance. The first success: flushing the power steering system--a task easier than changing the oil yet which had a big payoff!

Winter weather is rough on cars, and I'd been prepared to dismiss the slightly-jerky steering on my way to work each morning as a side-effect of the chilly temperatures. My car had also started idling a bit roughly, but hey, it was after all seven years and 82,000 miles old. Oh, and that vibration in the steering wheel around 45 mph? Probably tire wear or alignment, right? And the shops I took the car to checked all the fluids, didn't they?

Yet when working on a completely separate issue (more on that later), I noticed the power steering fluid was a yellow-orange color, when everything I'd read had stated the Forester's fluid should be red. Hmmm...

Jiffy Lube wanted $100+ to tackle the flush-and-fill on the power steering system. I can only imagine what a dealership would have charged! (The average price seems to run around $100, from what I can tell, with a range between $80 and $150.)  Enter a trip to my service manual and the Googles.

Confusingly enough (though stated so in the owner's manual and on the power steering fluid tank), the 2004 Subaru Forester XT's power steering system takes Dexron III automatic transmission fluid--not power steering fluid! I'd been considering flushing the system myself for a couple of weeks when I finally stopped at an auto parts store on the way home from work one day and picked up a couple of quarts of the stuff at a total cost of under $7.  Obviously, it pays to use what the manual actually calls for and not just look at the shelves and labels!

Though the full flush procedure involves a somewhat-tedious process (not one I expect the big-brand service centers actually complete, mind you--there's no way they do so along with everything else in a 20-minute service), there's a simple trick that does the job almost as well and with a fraction of the effort. Here's what you do:

  1. Drive the car a bit to warm things up, then park on a reasonably level surface and shut off the engine.
  2. Siphon out the existing power steering fluid straight from the reservoir (you could drain it by removing a hose, too). I used an all-purpose siphon hose, but a lot of DIY'ers claim a turkey baster from the dollar store works well, too.
  3. Fill the power steering reservoir to the appropriate level (should be marked on the reservoir) with new lubricant.
  4. Start the car, then turn the steering wheel all the way to the right and then all the way to the left several times.  This will help circulate the new fluid and remove air from the system.
  5. Stop the car, and repeat steps 2-4 several more times.

The first time I flushed the system out, the fluid was a dark orange.  It wasn't gunky or burnt, but it certainly wasn't right, either.  After one flushing, the fluid still came out orange, even though what I'd poured in was deep red.  I repeated twice more, with each change of fluid coming out more and more red.  Overall, I didn't even use a full quart of fluid in this process.  You may need to repeat the process weekly if your power steering system is really dirty--after a week, though, my fluid is still nice and red.

No, it's not a true, full flush of the power steering system, but I can guarantee the typical big-brand service center doesn't do that, either, in the 20 minutes of "while you wait" work, either.  It got the job done for me, though.

What's amazing is that this simple bit of work, accounting for perhaps 10 minutes of this car maintenance novice's time, has had a huge impact on my car!  Gone is the jerkiness in the steering in the morning.  Better yet, gone is the rough idling: I suppose the fluid was dirty enough it was causing the power steering pump to strain a bit.  (Now, whether or not that means I have to change the whole pump out sometime in the not-distant future is an open question; if my fluid was bad enough to cause that much strain on the pump, might it not have done damage to it, too?)

I didn't even use the second bottle of Dexron III yet, so my real cost was $3.50.  That's a savings of at least $96.50 over what I'd have paid someone else to do it, and the process required no tools (well, the siphon, though I could have gotten by with a $1 turkey baster) and 10 minutes or less of my time.  And it had a noticeable effect on my car's everyday driving--nice!

After such a simple fix as my improvised power steering fluid flush, I feel empowered over my car, no longer in thrall to the mechanic's shop for anything short of a total engine overhaul.  Yes, I know my accomplishment was nearly effortless (an oil change would be more work, actually), but baby steps, baby steps!

Next up is a barely-more-challenging task: I'm replacing the stock intercooler hoses on my car with some fancy silicone ones from Samco.  No, I'm not out to make my car over into some modded race machine; I simply noticed the stock hose was a bit scruffy and ragged looking when under the hood. Wouldn't do to have the hose that delivers hot air from the turbo to the intercooler to split... and why pay over $100 for the cheap plastic and rubber OEM hoses when a similar outlay gets something much more temperature-resistant and with improved airflow (read: more horsepower)?  More on this next weekend when I should have the parts on hand.  (Way) further down the road will be disassembly of the intake manifold, as I need to pull it to get at the source of a minor fuel leak (again noticeable only on freezing-cold mornings like the power steering issue was), which most likely lies in the lines supplying the injectors or in the injector O-rings given everything else I've checked.

Obvious disclaimers: I can't be responsible for any damage you do to your car or yourself or others if you work on your own car. I simply want to share the simple process which worked for me! Be safe, and do your homework before attempting any maintenance on your vehicle.