By Mitch Schneider
I call them “Brunswick Days.” You know, those days where accomplishing anything feels as if it would be easier to go to the local bowling alley, pick out a ball, tuck it under your arm, head for the closest hardware store, pick up a 25’ roll of garden hose, head back to the shop and then proceed to blow the ball through the hose until it exits at the other end.
If that sounds impossible, I would suggest it’s no more difficult than getting through the day at your shop or mine perhaps it’s even easier! This is especially true when the fates conspire against you and you find yourself with your lips pressed against three or four garden hoses simultaneously; each hose a different length, each hose with a different size ball stuck in it someplace.
We have days like that too many of them at times. And, it’s particularly distressing when they start to stitch themselves together into a week of bowling balls and garden hoses, or worse yet, a month of them!
To tell you the truth, I’m not sure when I picked up the first ball last month or even how big it might have been, but, I’ll try. I’ll try to give you a look at what just a couple of those days looked like, and I’ll bet you’ve had a few just like them yourself.
It may have started with my niece’s vehicle. She’s not really my niece, but she practically grew up in my house. She is the daughter of one of my closest friends and has been hanging out with my son since they were both two years old. She’s married now, and driving one of my friend’s hand-me-down vehicles. Now, he is an aerospace engineer and meticulous about everything he does everything. Vehicle maintenance is no exception. His vehicles are in for service every 3,000 miles with military precision and I don’t think he’s ever missed a service.
Consequently, his vehicles run forever and he keeps them forever. He keeps them, or they slide down the supply chain from kid to kid.This particular vehicle was a 1995 Altima with just over 140,000 miles on it. It ran magnificently for what it is, and his daughter was glad to have it. Soon after the acquisition of this vehicle, another one of dad’s cars found its way into their lives and the Altima went from the daughter to the son-in-law. While not as faithful to the father’s aggressive service schedule, the kids still brought the vehicles in for service on a regular basis just not as regular.
The Altima hadn’t been in for awhile and the list of recommended services represented the time and mileage that had slipped by between services. There were a number of things that needed attention. With a two year old and one on the way, a new car was out of the question for this couple, and there were no well-maintained used cars left in the “fleet.” That meant returning this vehicle to a baseline of performance that included eliminating some pretty serious oil leaks at both the front seal and the seal between the block and the timing chain cover, as well as a number of normal maintenance items like brakes and engine tune.
It was a nice ticket with enough different kinds of work to ensure there was always something to do on the vehicle until the work was completed. Everything went well and our technician shattered book time on the job. We finished the work well before the promised time and were feeling pretty good about things in general. We started the vehicle only to find the engine oil pressure warning lamp on: low or no oil pressure.
The technician removed the oil pressure switch, installed a mechanical gauge and you could see the result in his body language. If you have ever attempted to remove the front cover on that 2.4L engine, you know what a delight it is. The leak was gone, but, there was still no oil pressure. Time to head for the bowling alley… (OK, I know you Nissan guys already know what the problem is, but we hadn’t gotten there yet so don’t tell anyone. At least not yet!)
We opened up the vehicle again, and started to look for anything that might be a problem. We checked everything, including pressurizing the pickup tube to find a leak. Everything looked great!
While both the rod and the main bearings showed the signs of 141,000 miles of driving, they were still within acceptable limits and so were the measured clearances at the oil pump. Nothing out of the ordinary. We put it back together and started it, and the same ugly red engine oil pressure warning came on, only this time it was accompanied by an obvious engine noise.
Inhale… Blow! Inhale… Blow! Inhale… Blow HARDER!
It came apart and went back together again, only this time with new rod and main bearings and a new oil pump. If nothing else, we would know the engine was capable of creating and maintaining pressure. I don’t know how we would know that … especially with the warning lamp on again.
Someone just switched bowling balls from a 12-pounder to a 15-pounder!
I got personally involved somewhere between the second or third disassembly and this last attempt to restore oil pressure. It’s hard not to get involved when you feel yourself bleeding to death! I kept going over everything we had done in my head wondering what could have changed; where the failure could have occurred.
By this time, my lead driveability guy and I had both been under the vehicle getting dirty. We were inspecting things and taking them apart, and then inspecting them again after we put them back together. That’s where and when the vehicle starts to talk to you, tries to tell you what the problem is.
I went home that night and frankly, I didn’t get much sleep. I continued working this job over in head until it hurt (both the job and my head). I went in the next morning and went online to see if there was anything anyone else had ever run into that even remotely looked or felt like what we were going through. I found the vehicle and engine oil pressure symptoms on iATN, and as I started to read the first or second response to a post, I noticed that something was eerily similar. They were telling me they had experienced an irregularity on the lower pan surface: a divot or depression on the pan.
I never finished reading the rest of the responses, not then. After we finished the job, I went back to learn that 18 out of the 22 responses pointed to the lower pan and clearance at the pick-up as the problem.
The pan is ribbed making it almost impossible to see an irregularity so slight. You have to feel it or know what to look for. The clearance between the oil pick-up orifice and the bottom of the lower pan is so tight that if it moves even slightly, you’re pretty much toast!
Was it that way before? I don’t know and neither does my tech. Did he do anything to cause the problem? He tells me he didn’t. He supported the engine from above and had no reason to push up on the bottom of the pan with a jack or a jack stand. Did they hit something on the road before coming in? Who knows? According to the depression on the pan, I’d say, no. I think the new gasket on the pickup moved it deeper into the pan ever so slightly. I think the silicone sealer on the lower pan was thin enough to bring the pan up slightly. I also believe something hit the bottom of the pan at some time, but I have no idea what it could have been or when it happened. All I know is that we were the first ones to experience the ultimate result of that depression, and let me tell you it was depressing.
We removed the lower pan, beat it flat, re-installed it and watched the oil pressure rocket to 60 lbs. per square inch the moment the engine began to spin. It started and ran perfectly and all it took was 30 or 40 hours to make it so!
That and that alone would have been enough to drive any normal person over the edge. But, you tell me: when was there ever just one event like that going on in your shop? In the middle of that we were dealing with one lunatic at the counter who insisted on an estimate to repair his vehicle well enough (and just well enough) to pass emissions testing without the necessary inspection and testing required to diagnose the vehicle in order to create that estimate. We kept telling him that we needed inspect the vehicle in order to estimate it. He kept telling us that we needed to tell him what it would cost to fix before we even looked at it.
While that ring of our little circus was filled, we were dealing with still another crisis in the last bay that had to do with a customer who just couldn’t understand how he was contributing to the problem of getting his vehicle completed on time.
Three cars, three crises, three different-sized bowling balls, three different lengths of garden hose. And, know what? I’m not even sure this was an unusual week! How sick is that?