Thursday, November 22, 2012

The cost of a Thanksgiving Turkey: The blood of heroes

Think about it for a moment. As I sit here in my jammies in a cushy house in suburban America, taking the day off from work like most and smelling the bird cook in the oven, I can't help but think of those brave men and women in Afghanistan and around the world that are sitting in fox holes or bunkers. They sit with M-16s in their hands, relying on them to keep them alive. And when I think of that scene, I all of sudden feel very lazy and ashamed.

I wish I had the guts, the honor, and the will to be a military man. And I guess maybe that is why I stand in awe of those who do have it. And why at almost every holiday I think about them, and what they do for us. And then I think of the fact that they rarely get thanks, they don't make a bunch of money, they just do it because they have a sense of duty.

And if you think they don't sacrifice, I implore you to click this link and see the emotion on the faces of those people as their soldiers come home. If you don't cry, you don't have a heart. This video and others like them will show you just exactly what kind of sacrifice is being made by these brave men and women.

And so I just want to remind you today as you hug loved ones not often seen, and eat and be merry, there are still men and women who are away from their families and loved ones. Say a prayer for them, ask God to protect them and keep them. And continue to give them the strength and courage to be the hero's they are.

And so I'll leave you with a quote from General George S. Patton, Jr "it is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived"

Be thankful for our troops! God Bless them all!!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Tips to keep you from getting stranded on the road

So as I troll the forums these days I see a lot of people buying used BMW's and then ending up stuck on the roadside with failures of all kinds. Not only are roadside failures dangerous, but they are also inconvenient and may force even a guy a like me to pay someone in the area to fix my car (since I don't always travel with my tools). That can be expensive! So here are some ways to make your BMW (and even inferior brands) road worthy.

1. Keep your engine tuned up. This means replacing things like air filters, fuel filters, spark plugs and PCV valves and 02 sensors while keeping your MAF, Throttle body and ICV (idle control valve) clean and working freely. While most of these parts won't leave you stranded, they can lead to larger problems that can. For instance, a clogged fuel filter will cause your fuel pump to work harder and like high blood pressure, it is a silent killer that can leave you stranded on the roadside.

2. Replace your cooling system. It's summer time and your cooling system is working as hard as it will all year long. You would be a fool not to replace your cooling system components. This means at a minimum your upper and lower radiator hoses, thermostat, water pump, fan clutch, expansion tank and cap, auto trans t-stat if you have an auto, and radiator. For other brands of cars, it is pretty much the same list. Case in point, my daughter just drove from Bham to Atlanta to go to Six Flags. She called me on the way home and her car was overheating and billowing steam. She was able to limp home adding water to her car every 100 miles or so. When she got home I found her radiator completely cracked and just spewing water. Could have been a lot worse. My motto for cooling systems is simple, when it doubt throw it out (in other words, replace it). And one last thing, don't throw away an old cooling hose or component. If they were working when you removed them, keep them in your emergency "kit" in your trunk (you do have one don't you?) for those "just in case" moments.

3. Belts, pulleys, and idlers oh my. This is another common area overlooked by the masses. Most cars, your BMW included, have a single belt that drives most of the accessories. Which means all of your proverbial eggs are in the single "serpentine belt" basket. If it breaks, you will be stranded. Additionally, a lot of people who replace the belt still forget to replace the tensioner and idler pulleys. They have bearings that wear out and when they fail, they lock up causing even a brand new belt to break and once again, you are stuck. Belts and pulleys are CHEAP and easy to replace, you are silly if you don't replace them.

4. Your fuel pump. This is more of a BMW issue than anything else. I have documented enough cases and gotten enough feedback from forums to know that if you own a BMW with 100k miles to 150k miles you need to proactively replace your fuel pump (and your fuel filter at the same time) or expect to be stranded sooner or later. No fuel = car won't go, PERIOD. Now you can try the old bang on the gas tank method and sometimes that'll get you home, but most times it won't. I take you back to Easter Sunday just this past year. I went to get milk that morning and didn't even bother to take my cell phone with me. After getting the milk I go to crank up the car and NADA, NOTHING. I knew immediately what had happened. After $3.00 in quarters and 30 minutes on a pay phone,  I finally got a tow truck to show up. Talk about mad! At least I wasn't on the interstate between the middle of nowhere and Scaryville though! Seriously, for the E46 the pump is $140 new, spend the money!

5. Without power, you ain't goin nowhere! Most of you know your car runs on 12 volts and you have a battery that puts out that amount. And we forget about them for the most part until it is too late. Ever get into your car, turn the key and hear "click, click, click". In the words of Homer Simpson "DOUGH!" And just as bad is if your alternator dies. If it can't charge your battery, your battery will die and you will be stuck. Autozone, Advance Auto Parts, Pep Boys, they all perform FREE battery and alternator testing. GO GET IT DONE! Batteries are under $100 in most cases and again, most auto parts stores will even install them for you at no charge. Alternators are also not too bad to replace or buy.

And there you have it. 5 ways to keep your car on the road and in good working order. I realize money doesn't grow on trees, and a lot of people don't replace this stuff because of cost and as a father of 4 with one income, I get that. But if you break it down into small pieces, it can be rather easy. For instance, a water pump on an E46 is only $60 and takes an average DIY'er less than 2 hours to replace. I am a firm believer in replacing parts on YOUR time, not when they fail. It is so much easier and less headache, not to mention safer.

So make a mental list (or better yet, write it down, or even better still, consult your maintenance log, you do have one right?) of what needs immediate attention and get cracking.

And remember, What One Man Can Do Another Can DO!!!!!!!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The day I found out I am stronger than my dad.......

Yea, so not really car related this time. But something profound happened to me a few weeks ago and I can't get this topic out of my head, so here goes.

My dad came to visit me the other day. He lives in Omaha, NE and I live in Bham, AL so we only see each other a few times a year. While visiting he always likes to help with jobs around the house and cars and such (he was a contractor for years and is very good at that stuff). While working in my sisters basement installing some pocket doors we both were tripping over my brother in laws weights. He had a curl bar loaded with about 95lbs on it. I decided to pick it up and do some reps, 4 of them to be exact. I didn't really struggle, but had I kept going I would have. I said to dad "throw up a few pops". He reluctantly grabbed the bar and began his attempt. Oh, he got it up, but just barely and there weren't any follow ups. It was at that moment, 33 years into my life, that I realized I was stronger than my father. My dad, somehow seemed smaller, weaker, and my world changed.

You see, all my life my father has been the embodiment of strength, coolness under pressure, stability, athleticism, and all things "MANLY" in my life. He is 6'1" and used to be about 200lbs, so not a small guy. Always towering over me throughout my life. I remember as a boy when he would build things how I would watch his hands. His hands seemed HUGE and like vice clamps. He was impervious to pain, somehow able to push through it without so much as a yelp. Kinda like the song by Joe Nichols entitled "Impossible".

It starts with:
"My dad chased monsters from the dark, checked underneath my bed
he could lift me with one arm, way up over top his head,
he could loosen rusty bolts with a quick turn of his wrench
he pulled splinters from his hands, and never even flinched"

Those lyrics probably hit home with most of you reading this. And for me it is no different. And so to realize that my father has aged to the point that I am now stronger than him was a scolding reminder that time is not a respecter of persons. I guess it is just something all men must go through. I am a lot different than I once was, I'm fatter, balder, and have some grey hairs coming in on the sides of my head. And so this thought has haunted me for a week or two now.

And today my 91 year old grandfather is coming to visit. Again, a man from my childhood who was a larger than life figure. He had a lake house and we learned to ski, fish, and knee board there. He always took us to lobster dinners and made the best breakfast in the world. He was a fighter pilot in WW2 and served in the European Theater. He did it all, had seen it all, and could make anyone laugh. Last year when I saw him I didn't expect him to make it to 91. But he is still alive and well. But he too is smaller, shorter, somehow not the man he once was.

So what is the point of my ramblings? I dunno really. Perhaps just to "talk" out my problems in print. To try and somehow organize my thoughts on this topic and work through them. Or maybe it is just because everyone I know is getting older and I still feel so young. I don't really fear death, but I fear not leaving the proper legacy for my children. I need more time, so do my dad and grandfather.

And so to end I just simply say to you, take every moment and live to the fullest. Tomorrow is not a guarantee and one day you will look back and wish you had done more. Perhaps this post can serve as a wake up call. Spend more time with your kids outside, spend more time with the TV's off and the board games on the table. Love more, laugh more, and don't get upset if somebody spills something. In the grand scheme of things, nothing much matters on this Earth. Family does, people do, and faith does. Beyond that, it is all destined to burn up anyways.

By the way, the next line of that Joe Nichols songs says:
"In thirteen years I'd never seen him cry, but the day that grandpa died, I realized...
Unsinkable ships, sink.
Unbreakable walls, break.
Sometimes the things you think would never happen, happen just like that.
Un-bendable steel bends, if the fury of the wind is unstoppable.
I've learned enough to never underestimate, the impossible. "

My "impossible" was being stronger than dad. And while that me be so physically, he will always be a better man than I am.

So take it for what its worth. I hope you find some meaning to these ramblings that helps you. And I promise, the next entry will get back to cars.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Something for real hardcore car guys........

Yesterday was one of those days where I was thankful to be in Alabama. If you follow me on twitter you saw the photo I tweeted that said "this is my office". What you see is blue sky with pillowy white clouds, an interstate, and mountains and trees everywhere (see pic). INVIGORATING! I had the sunroof open, the windows down, and Pink Floyd's "Leanring to Fly" blasting from the H/K sound system. As I soaked up the 68 degree winds, sun on my face, smiling, I looked down at my "cockpit". Black cube trim, black leather sport seats, alcantara accents, and a 6 speed manual gearbox, I was in the most purpose built drivers car BMW ever made short of an ///M car, and I was HAPPY. Does it get ANY BETTER THAN THAT? The answer is a resounding NO!

And so I spent the better part of 3 hours just driving. I found some old back roads I used to race as a kid and cruised them for a bit. Not trying to drive faster or harder, but rather going slower. In fact, had I had a Delorian I would have gone back in time. Back to the memories of my Mustang days, 5.0 liter engine screaming in the wind, tire smoke and black marks, jumping in the river to cool off, and skipping school to go rock climbing. Yes, it sounds like a country song doesn't it. I wish I could go back to those days and tell the young man I was to "slow down" and enjoy the moments as they came. Tell him to stop looking forward and live in the moment, knowing I never can and trying to remind myself of those words for the man I am now.

Perhaps only a true car guy can appreciate the scenario. The excitement, the freedom, the passion you get when behind the wheel of a car that you truly love. Looking for reasons to go somewhere, anywhere, and when finding none just go drive anyways. Back in the old days it was Fox Body Mustangs with Nitrous. Today it is the ultimate (non-M) 4 door saloon, the BMW E46 ZHP. Regardless of the car the feelings are very much the same as when I was 16. When I was 16 gas was $1.05 a gallon and it was common to spend $10 the following way : $7 gas, $2 for smokes, $1 for a coke. What that $10 bought me was memories and freedom I still remember to this day and likely the rest of my life. I dare say when I only have one or two marbles left rolling around my bald head, I won't remember my name but I'll remember those Mustangs!

Road trips were a common past time for my friends and I and, unfortunately for my studies, all too common during the school day. I'll never forget the time I went to another city to goof off and I pulled up at a red light next to my mom! You can't buy memories like that! But even that couldn't dampen the spirit of freedom and fun you get when taking your favorite car for a drive. I used to roll the windows down and turn on my favorite music (again, Pink Floyd, Metallica, Ratt or some other hair band) and just drive. I had no particular place to go, no reason to go there, and no real want to go back. It allowed me to escape. Much like alcohol or drugs are an escape, this is an escape that AWAKENS your senses instead of dulling them. It is the feeling of actually LIVING life. An old Garth Brooks song called Standing Outside the Fire has a verse that says "Life is not tried it is merely survived if you're standing outside the fire". The gist of the song is to live life to the fullest, and for me, behind the wheel of a car I could do that.

And so we move back into today. The young man described above is long gone. Lost to the worlds system, to a wife, to kids, to a mortgage and a job. He made his mistakes, lived his life and has become "a man". And yet, deep down, under the suits and ties, underneath the labels of "dad" or "honey", underneath the quota having business guy, beats the heart of a hardcore gear head. He craves only gasoline and the open road. He smiles when he sees a kid burn some rubber at a stoplight, he rolls his window down when next to a muscle car so he can hear it better, and he still looks at catalogs like Jegs and Summit Racing looking at parts for a Mustang he doesn't even own but hopes to again some day.

And during those moments when he can, rolls the windows down, cranks the music up, and lets the sunshine hit his face. And as he remembers his youth and those fast cars, he smiles and is truly happy.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

How many of you can say you own your "dream car"? I can!

So I know this is a little late but I finally found some time to write about my new BMW ZHP. So the title says "dream car" and some of you may say, "how in the world is a 2004 BMW 330i ZHP a dream car?" And on the surface I can understand your thought. I mean, most true dream cars are things like a Bugati Veyron, Ferrari Enzo, Porsche GTR3, or even a Ford GT. However the ZHP is still my dream car for a few reasons. 1. Unlike the above listed cars, I bought it for $10k, so I can actually own one. 2. You can drive it everyday and not need back surgery. 3. Every cop in town won't notice me 4. It pulls down 30mpg's on the highway.

The bottom line is I am having a blast in the vehicle. It isn't the most powerful car out there with only 235hp, and it's suspension is modest by comparison of some race tuned cars, but it is a complete package for those that want to DRIVE and enjoy every second.

I can't tell the you the sheer joy I get while burning up the curvy back roads by my home. Or the rush I get when I take an off ramp at double the posted speed. And all the while the car is very tame and very confident. You simply put it where you want it and go. BMW built a purposeful car with the ZHP, and I LOVE it!

And while future write-ups of things I will be doing are coming, for now just let me say if you don't have one, get one. It is a great car!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The loss of my best friend, Goodbye Bear Bear

Last night at midnight I sat on the tile area in our foyer and held the head of my beloved German Shepherd Baron as he died. He was regal and strong to the end, no whining, no whimpering, he simply met death with the no fear attitude he had in life. The hole in my heart as I write this I dare say will never be completely healed.

What is it about pets that make us love them so much? I realize they aren't people, but they sure do get to be like one of your own. I got Baron at 8 weeks old, just a few months before my first marriage completely fell apart. And through those rough times he was always there and never complained about the crappy little apartment he had to move to, or when my car was repossessed. He just wagged his tail and was always "ready to go" wherever that may have been.

He also is the reason my current wife and I are now married. She fell in love with Baron before she fell in love with me! I actually, in a way, owe my family to that dog. And he was great with the kids when they were born. Never once did he ever growl, bark or do anything to the babies as they were learning to walk and using him as a device to pull themselves up when they fell. Even if he was eating he would just sort of be like "no problem kid, keep trying". I never worried about a thing when he was around the kids. So many thought I was nuts, this big towering German Shepherd and two little babies, but I never even batted an eye. Bear Bear wrote the book on family dog behavior.

I honestly could write for hours on all the stuff he and I did together. All the memories, all the fun times. But I fear I don't have the emotional strength to do so. And I really am just writing this as "therapy" for myself. But I will so miss that big love of a dog. Wherever I was, he was in the same room. I will miss tripping over him, him waking me up at 3am to go take a dump (he was a nighttime pooper), and the way he thumped his tail when you said his name. But most of all, I'll miss my friend.

In the movie Forest Gump, Forest says to Jenny's grave "momma always said death is a part of life.........I sure wish it wasn't". Those words echo on my heart this morning. But I know it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all. And the love of a Shepherd is something you have to experience to truly understand.

I simply leave this entry with this, my pastor once preached about how on every tombstone there is a dash between the born date and died date. That dash is such a small amount of time in the scope of eternity. And his point was, what will the meaning of our dash be when we are gone? What did we do while we were here? Baron got me through a divorce, brought me to my wife, protected the kids, and was the best friend you could ever ask for. I can only pray my "dash" is as good as his.

Good night my ol boy, sleep well.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot.......FIX YOUR A/C

Well it is official, I walked outside at 8am this morning and I began to sweat before I reached the mailbox. Alabama is known for great football, paying players, and weather that can make the devil himself search for someplace cooler. And just like clockwork I get all sorts of inquiries and requests for service work on A/C platforms this time of year. I want to cover the fine points of A/C troubleshooting and things you can do to save HUGE dollars.

It is common for people to say "you have to have special tools to do A/C work so you just have to pay what a shop wants to charge". This is pretty far from the truth. I have fixed quite a few A/C units with little more than a $40 gauge and $7 R-134a filler hose. Nope, it ain't fancy, but it works. You simply have to understand the basics of air conditioning and how it works to diagnose and fix your car.

1. Compressor: this is the part everyone automatically thinks is the problem when A/C issues come up. And while they are the "heart" of the system and commonly fail, they aren't always the problem. The compressor moves the refrigerant through the system. It has a high side and a low side. It is turned by the engine and is engaged by a clutch at the front of the compressor housing which engages the compressor. Common symptoms of a bad compressor are:

  • No cold air. If the compressor dies, you are going to be hot.

  • No cold air at idle or sitting still, but gets colder when the engine RPM's go up. Typical sign the suction or low side of the compressor is bad.

  • Horrible noise when the A/C is engaged. Your compressor clutch is bad or going bad, your system might be low on refrigerant and/or oil (yes, there is lubricating oil in the system).

2. Condenser: It looks like a small radiator and is usually mounted in the front of the vehcile. It has small coils and serves to cool compressed air that goes through it and converts to a liquid under pressure. That may make no sense but keep in mind, A/C systems do not "make cold air" they remove heat from hot air and it is a chemical process. The bottom line, the condenser is under great pressures and can and does fail. I have seen holes get knocked in them from road debris, rust through over time, or the seals at the connection points go bad. Usually a leaky condenser is easily seen by injecting UV dye into the system and checking it for leaks with a UV light. You can also buy or rent a "sniffer" which is a tool that detects the R-134a gasses present at the leak site. Most often they are easy to replace and less than $300.

3. Evaporator: This is where the super cool gasses go through and air is passed across it by your blower motor to give you the ice cold air blowing on your face. It looks like a small radiator too and as the refrigerant leaves the evaporator it becomes liquid again. Evaporator problems are sometimes hard to diagnose due to the location. It is almost always behind the dash or firewall and difficult to get to. Labor charges to replace this part are often quite hefty as a result. Here are a couple symptoms to look for:

  • A/C blows cold if you add refrigerant, but it leaks out within a day or two and you can't find a leak anywhere.

  • You hear excessive hissing noises coming from your vents when you turn the car off.

  • You see UV dye around the under panels under your dash where the HVAC system is located.
4. Thermal Expansion Valve (aka Expansion Valve): This is what regulates the A/C temperature if you decide you don't want freezing cold air anymore. It helps regulate the air coming into the car. This little booger has caused more headaches and troubleshooting problems than most of the above parts combined. It just seems to get overlooked. Typically you will get whacky low pressure port readings if this part is bad and you will likely be getting some cold air, but not much. They are usually cheap and easy to replace so that is a positive.

5. Drier: Your compressor only compresses gas, so the drier is there to make sure no liquid makes it to the compressor. It also has a filter in it (some cars have what's called an "orifice tube" which is a small screen filter that is replaceable) that catches crap from the system as well. Not too much can go wrong with this part save for leaks at the connection points. It is a good idea to replace it whenever you open the system for optimum performance. They typically run less than $50.

Those are the main components of any automotive A/C system. Yours may have a few extra parts here or there, but all systems will have the above parts. Keep in mind A/C systems are under immense pressures. If you go loosening bolts on your A/C system and it has refrigerant in it, it will spew out and can be harmful if inhaled. It is also illegal to vent it into the atmosphere. I find that most shops will charge you a nominal fee to evacuate your system for you. Then you can go home and repair or replace parts on your own. All you really need to refill it is a vacuum pump and a manifold gauge kit or you can pay a shop to vacuum it for you before you add R-134a back to the system.

I should note pulling a vacuum is very important and serves a couple functions. Condensation and moisture get into the system when it is "open" so the refrigerant will hit that and freeze causing clogs. Under vacuum water boils at room temperature so the moisture will boil off leaving you with a clean system. A vacuum will also pinpont leaks because if you have one, it won't pull a good vacuum. And finally, after you pull a vacuum, turn the pump off after about 30 minutes and wait to make sure the vacuum holds, this also tells you if you have any leaks. This paves the way for final refilling.

There is no way I can address every concern, but I wanted to give you a few ideas and a synopsis of what is going on so you can make better decisions and even fix this stuff on your own. All auto shops take advantage of people who need A/C because it is a "specialized" area and they charge a premium for it. But if you spend $150 in tools, you can still save hundreds of dollars.

And of course, if you have an A/C problem, you can always contact me and I will do the best I can to help you.

Until next time........."What one man can do another can do!"