Vehicles – almost an expensive lesson learned

So my wife’s car has been making some grinding noise for some time now, a couple months maybe? I had isolated it to the water pump, but figured so long as the water pump was working no big deal right? Eventually I knew it’d seize up and then I’d be forced to replace it, but in the meantime it was working just dandy. A week or two ago I was out with my son and we were killing some time at home depot. When we were done we still had about 10 minutes left so I started the car and he played some candy crush. We hadn’t been inside too long so the engine was still a bit warm. After 5 minutes or so the engine was up to temperature, but no heat was blowing. Fearing the worst I start poking around in the engine compartment. The water pump is still spinning, nothing too out of the ordinary, but I did notice some red liquid that had obviously been slung in a few areas. It was a bit oily feeling, but not like a real oil. I had no idea what it would have been, particularly over in that area of the engine. Engine oil, definitely no, that is a real oil and would have been black. Brake fluid, no, wrong location and not oily enough. Transmission fluid, same deal. A/C? Maybe, not likely, but there is a thin oil in the AC fluid, but I still didn’t think it was likely. I asked my dad, he thought there were some fancy coolants that might be red. I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t too concerned about that because the engine wasn’t overheating.

So time comes to pick up my wife so we left, now the heat was working. I thought to myself “duh, its cold out, I just didn’t let the engine warm up ENOUGH and at idle it just didn’t have enough heat”. I’ve experienced something like this in my old car, when I’d come to a stop for more than a few seconds I’d rob the coolant of the heat, the heat would start blowing cold unless I revved the engine a bit to circulate the coolant faster. This is particularly true when it is REALLY cold (though it wasn’t that cold this day). Fast forward to a couple nights ago and driving the car and the heat was not blowing even while driving. It was blowing, it just wasn’t warm at all. Now, I was taking my wife’s word for it, but not necessarily believing her 100%. But, I was swapping cars with her and the heat was working (as always, it started working right before I saw her, I experienced the same thing with electronics when I was a kid!). But, on the drive the heat stopped and I saw the engine temp start to go up just a bit. The heat came back on, the temp came back down. AHA!

This confirmed a couple things to me. My dad was right, the red fluid was engine coolant (I looked up what coolant this vehicle used and it was indeed red vs what I was used to with orange or chartreuse (a color I only know due to fishing). I did some more research, and it turns out when the bearings go on the water pump the seals can also go, which then lets the coolant go through the bearings and leak out. Now it all makes sense. When the engine was cool I checked the radiator and sure enough it was quite low. So what was happening was enough coolant had leaked out slowly (I never noticed any puddles) that it was low. So that meant as the engine ran the coolant couldn’t really circulate, there wasn’t enough volume. As things warmed up and expanded now it’d start to flow again, and the heat would come on. Then some more would be lost through the bearings.

Fortunately this all happened during winter so we could tell what was going on by how the heat was acting. Otherwise, I would have ignored the problem long enough that the engine would have over heated (as I am sure my wife would not have noticed the temp gauge going up right away), then I’d have blown a head gasket and I would have had an expensive mess on my hands. As it happens, we figured out the problemĀ in time and I was able to change the water pump out. $20 for parts, another $14 for a jug of coolant (which I had to add 2-3 quarts out of the 8 or 9 quarts total capacity!), an hour or two of time and now I am up and running. Youtube videos gave me the confidence to know it should be a pretty easy job, and it was. As always, things popped up that slowed me down (had trouble getting the pullet off, dropped a screw, etc), so if it were perfect it would be a 15 minute job but it actually took me 1-2 hours. That is still not bad since a shop would have charged $100-200 for the same job; so I came out way ahead even figuring the value of my time. As Red Green says, “if the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy”.

Over the years I have saved thousands wrenching it myself changing an alternator (est savings $50-100), brakes (est savings over $100 each time, times 5 or 6 instances), struts (est savings $200), control arm bushings (though that was a pain! Still, it could be easier if you buy the WHOLE control arm for $100 vs the bushing for $20, and you’ll still come out ahead), wheel bearings (I took the knuckle off and had the parts store swap them for $20 labor). I don’t even drive super old cars! Most of this was on my 2007 ford focus or 2006 buick rendezvous a few years ago, so they weren’t super old. Compare that to people we know that had just put a couple thousand dollars of work into a car worth maybe $5000. I’m not sure what was done to get to $2000, but it wouldn’t take a ton. It adds up quick when you are paying somebody else to do the work. Most repairs start close to $300 (they say parts are $150, but when you buy yourself you magically find you can buy for half of that), so it doesn’t take many instances to add up to a thousand dollars. If you don’t DIY, I can see why people wouldn’t drive cars older than 5 years old (though they have issues too!).

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