Monday, January 7, 2008

How Big is Your Oil Pan?

Today when my oldest got home from work we met at the door and moved the cars around. Then he reminded me that we were going to check his oil - something new for him.

Now our red '94 Dodge Caravan burns and leaks oil at every opportunity, and it hadn't had the oil level checked since I got the tires replaced and oil changed over five months ago. Oldest son only drives it to a park and ride lot three times a week, and to church, so I didn't think we were in dangerous territory, but I had been concerned.

So we checked. There was a little clear oil residue on the dipstick, but no telltale dark zone. I had him check several times, and then I did it too. I had half feared we were off the bottom of the stick, so now I fully expected we'd have to add two quarts.

So we did. And rechecked. And that's when I realized that the little bit of clear oil on the stick WAS the oil level. Then I checked the mileage on the sticker in the windshield, and the car HAD been driven 1800 miles - surely enough to seriously darken the oil... but apparently it hadn't.

So we popped inside to look up what exactly happens if you run the engine with too much oil (I suspected pressure would be too great and it would be forced through seals, etc.) Three words and Google gave us the link we needed ON TOP (love that tool, and getting the words just right to get what I need). Yep - just what I thought and some other interesting predicted disasters. No choice but to drain the van and start over.

Well getting it into a good spot on the garage floor was another new adventure involving son backing up with me showing with my hands how much further to go before hitting MY car. Then I had to find the oil pan drain nut - not a pleasant experience (remember, the van leaks oil and the pan is the bottom of everything). Then there was an interesting conversation about the metric vs. American gauge ratchet sockets for the nut. (Oldest son, "You mean there are different size wrenches depending on what country built the car?!" Me, "No, just two - the rest of the whole world and us. We're the only place left not using metric.") This also led to an interesting conversation about the American made Dodge Caravan with the completely Japanese Isuzu engine inside...

It's been a long time since I worked on my engines - about the last time I rebuilt a butterfly valve carburetor - but I still guessed by feel that it was a 17 mm socket. Right the first time! Then there was getting under the van. There is so little room you can look at what you are doing OR you can reach in and do it, but not really both at the same time. Then the wrench got stuck, and as I pulled it off the socket stayed on the nut. Of course it stayed ONLY long enough to fall off as soon as it was no longer connected to the handle. The oh so familiar sound of a socket landing on concrete (no other sound quite like it), which made my interior cuss track start to build up a head of steam (the particular word order in my cuss track was programmed while working on cars with MY father, who learned the family cuss track from HIS father...) was followed, after the perfect comic pause, by the sound of the socket rolling away from me under the van. In the next half instant, as I realized there was not room for my head to turn so I could see where it went, I collapsed back on the concrete shaking with uncontrollable laughter. It turned out the socket had only rolled four inches, exactly long enough to make the needed sound and wash the cussing away before I'd said the first word out loud. I laughed at that, too.

The nut was not something I could loosen at the impossible angle presented with the car on the garage floor. In professional shops they lift the whole car, or the mechanic can get down in a pit below, and there is all kinds of room. In shops they use a big pneumatic wrench to loosen AND tighten the nut - which is why, though it is arguably the best lubricated part on the entire automobile, I couldn't loosen it with a twist of my wrist (the only part of me with room to move under there). So much of my experience with engines has involved trips to stores for some odd tool to loosen some stubborn fastener or other. My tool box can be read like a series of chapters about corroded or fused metal. By way of a mental break I told Kiddo about my last adventure trying to remove an oil pan (to clear the last part of the system on a car that had intermittent blockages). After removing all but two of twelve nuts, the last two would only come part way off. Nothing else I did for two days could get them any further. Then I gave up and I couldn't get those same nuts to tighten all the way...

I crawled out from under the van, got the old vacuum cleaner wand that my youngest son keeps in his toy bin, and we used it as an extension for my ratchet handle. With a long enough lever you can move the Earth. After loosening the nut, we got the oil flowing into the drain pan (which needed quite the cleaning out beforehand, since it had been stored in the crawl space, unused for over ten years). Using a tundish (yeah, my son didn't know what I meant either - a funnel - though tundish is more appropriately used to describe funnels used in molten metal casting) we then measured the oil using the oil bottle we'd poured from when we started the entire fiasco. We had, indeed, over filled it by about a quart. So my mistake was not checking BETWEEN the two quarts I had been so certain we needed. Oy.

We filled her up, bottled the excess for use the next time, and went in to clean up.

Inside the house it was guy's night to eat dinner alone (ladies out at driver's ed and birthday shopping). I was in an expansive mood after the misadventure, so as we warmed up leftovers (don't get the wrong idea - I cooked those leftovers the first time around, too) we three guys talked animatedly about cars, car repairs, a mutual fund annual report that was lying on the kitchen table, long term performance of the stock market and retirement investing patterns (again, don't get the wrong idea - I don't make much on the market), the stock market in an on-line world my oldest son plays (he is diversified across the entire market and makes more fake money that way than anything else he's ever done there), the differences he's noticed between the simulated world market and the real market, cornering markets ("...he once cornered corn and that ain't hay!" - Kiss Me Kate), the difference between cornering and monopolies, the way the market economy self adjusts in times of shortages (using a paper shortage example from the nineties - including rising stock prices, increased capital as a result, investment in more paper production capacity to make more money, increased supply, resulting reduced prices, reducing stock price, and the company bigger and more modern at the end of the cycle), comparing this to centralized economies like communist Russia, the % of GDP in Russia that went to military spending, the reason Russia's spending pattern contributed to the fall of communism there, what makes a missile interballistic, how so many of those missiles are now destroyed, whether you could shoot down a missile once it was launched, and I don't know what else.

These conversations are just as likely to happen with the ladies here, by the way - maybe minus the car repairs and interballistic missiles...

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