Zen and the art of electric vehicle maintenance

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, February 24, 2021, 6:00 PM | comments: 0

The craziest thing about 1994 was that my understanding of auto maintenance went from zero to changing an entire engine in about a month, and not by choice.

I was a late bloomer, and didn't get my driver's license until the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, 1993. It was my college advisor that found this absurd, and since I had a lot of time that summer, he helped me get there. Then, toward the end of my junior year, I got my first commercial radio job, an hour away from home, so bumming rides for work was out of the question. My dad found me a beater of a 1987 Ford Escort, and with an unsecured loan of $1,200, the rusty mess became my first car.

I promptly drove it to Windsor, Ontario, for a beer run, ignored the oil warning light (because I just had an oil change), and the engine threw a rod on the Ohio Turnpike. It still ranks as one of the most stressful things I've ever endured.

I give Dad a lot of credit here, because he very matter-of-factly said I had to get a new engine and we would swap it out. I had a little money left over from the loan, so I was able to find an engine at a junk yard (an hour away, of course) for $125. The car was dropped by AAA in a K-Mart parking lot in Norwalk, and two days later, I strapped it to a rental trailer and towed it home with my parents' van. The car ran enough (spewing oil out of the hole in the side) to get it up on to the trailer, fortunately, because the only help I had was my mom.

Dad went over the basics of how a combustion engine worked, and how there were a bunch of plugs into with sensors that the computer used to optimize operation. Each one had a different kind of plug that went in one way, so we couldn't easily screw that up. So I rented a lift, and we wrestled the broken engine out of the car. Of course, because it was Ford, you needed a special wrench to get the belt pulley off or it wouldn't come out. I couldn't believe we got it out, because it was a tight fit. When we got the new engine in, I remember we took the head off, put in a new head gasket and cleaned up the valves and stuff. I don't recall how we got the timing belt right. At some point though, before all the plugs were reconnected, Dad left and encouraged me to put the rest back together.

So that's what I did. I got to the point of putting in the new air filter, and I was annoyed that I seemed to have misplaced the wing nut that secured the cover. I connected the battery, attempted to start it, and to my utter amazement, the car came to life. I tried to back it out, but the accelerator wouldn't go very far so it barely moved. I knew where the other end of the cable attached, near the intake, so I started looking around at how it worked. I pulled off the air filter and looked down into the intake, where I found the missing wing nut wedged into the valve. Had it found its way into the manifold, yikes, that would have been bad for the valves.

In the next week, I would endeavor to optimize some other things, including replacement front brakes, which I'll never do again because the car almost got away from me as the initial pressure was not adequate (fortunately I was in reverse and the hand brake worked). I leaked transmission fluid constantly, and eventually figured out the gasket on the pan had blown, so I replaced that. A year later, it was leaking gasoline pretty badly after a shop replaced the fuel pump (which died at 70 mph on the freeway, when we didn't have cell phones). The installation was fine, it was just the tank was so rusty that it was decaying. Lots of epoxy patched the leaks "enough." The car ran pretty well otherwise, getting almost 40 mpg most of the time. Finally, about 20 months in, it started leaking coolant from the heat exchanger behind the glove box, leaving a fragrant green puddle in the passenger foot well. That was it. I just started to work full-time at my second radio gig and did what every college grad does in their first job, and leased a Toyota Corolla for $223.25 a month.

With future cars, I changed my own oil when it was convenient until maybe 2006, but by that time, I felt like my time was worth more, I was too lazy to bring the used oil to recycling, and I kind of quit. In between, I recall replacing a radiator on Steph's Dodge Neon, and an a starter on a friend's car. I felt pretty good about all of that for a guy who was almost 20 when he got his license.

In 2014 we bought our first EV, and in 2015 our second, and we haven't had a gas car since. Maintenance has consisted of wiper replacement and adding wiper fluid, plus tire rotation now and then. There really isn't anything to maintain in electric cars. There are way fewer things to break. Oh, I had a 12V battery die in our Model 3 last summer, because Florida and non-use are still not good for those (it's ridiculous that any car is still using that ancient technology). Yesterday I rotated the tires on the 3, and after 22k miles and three year, the brakes are essentially like new because of the regenerative braking. The day before I replaced the cabin air filters and the wiper blades.

I was never a car guy. I bought a Toyota Camry when I booked my first contract gig for $52/hour, and only kept it two years in favor of my third Corolla, for better mileage and lower cost. After that, I had a couple of Prii, which are comfortable and practical, but not "car guy" cars. Then I was so enamored with the Tesla Model S that I was willing to spend four times as much on a car just to be part of this magical space car movement. That was cosmically stupid, but I don't regret it. The Model 3 was mercifully cheaper, and the Model Y was the same but better with more options and space. For six years now, we've had cars that have "full tanks" every morning and require no real maintenance. And they're among the safest cars in the world. They're getting cheaper, too.

Still not a car guy, but I've legitimately enjoyed driving the last few years as an activity that was more than just a practical thing.


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