Okay, so it was $3.76 after tax, but the part–the one itsy bitsy, tiny little part that made our whole engine run–was three dollars and forty-nine cents.
How long did it take us to figure that out? I’d like to say it was only three hours and forty-nine minutes. That would have been great, but it wasn’t. It took weeks ….
If you recall, we were having occasional trouble getting our engine to crank after we installed and began using the new flexible solar panels on the bimini.
Our “boat buddy focus group” surmised that perhaps the solar input from the panels was confusing the alternator and causing it not to re-charge the starting battery while we were motoring. For this reason, we installed two handy on/off switches in the aft berth locker to turn the panels off while we were motoring in (HIGH!) hopes it would prevent the alleged “alternator confusion.”
Apparently, though, our alternator isn’t the brightest part on the boat. Sometimes it was confused; sometimes it was not. The frustrating part was that the problem was intermittent. Sometimes the engine would crank fine, other times it would not–inexplicably. Like when you take your car to the shop so the mechanic can hear that ominous “clunking” sound and it won’t make it. Bullocks!
The next time we took the boat out (after the on/off switches were installed and after we had turned them “off” while we were motored), and the engine again would not crank to bring us home, the Captain decided he’d had enough. “We’re going to fix it today,” he said bright and early one Saturday morning, and I knew he wouldn’t stop until we had. We donned some cloaks and pipes and decided to really roll up our sleeves to solve this mystery.
What’s the best way to start troubleshooting?
Start taking crap apart!
We traced every wire from the:
1. Engine to the alternator,
2. The alternator to the combiner (the device that decides which batteries (the house bank or the starting battery) need and get a charge from the engine),
3. The combiner to the starting battery,
4. The starting battery to the battery switch plate (where we turn on the batteries we want to use — house, starting or both combined, which is what we had been required to do when the starting battery alone wouldn’t allow us to crank),
5. The switch plate to the starter.
Everything seemed to look good. None of the wires were corroded, split or compromised and the connections looked solid. We couldn’t understand why our seemingly “good” starting battery was not starting the engine. If it was the battery, that was going to be a couple hundred bucks to replace, which was a better prospect than the alternator. So, we decided to have the battery checked yet again. We disconnected it and hauled it to three different battery-check places (Auto Zone and the like), where every time a highly-qualified battery specialist would come out and hook his or her little gismo machine up to our battery to run the necessary gismo calculations.
I felt like I was watching Al from Quantum Leap bang around on his Ziggy handheld. Beep, bo-dum, boomp.
Each time, though (and three times total), the little Ziggy gismos came back showing our starting battery was good.
And, I’m not sure what “EXP DECISION” means exactly other than “Expert Decision.” I guess if they’re the alleged “experts,” (particularly when the consensus was the same among all of them), there’s really no reason to question it.
So, we hauled our alleged “good” battery back to the boat still stumped by our crank problem. We decided to replace the ring connectors on each end of the positive and negative wires to the battery just for good measure, and that’s when we discovered it.
When Phillip was putting the post terminal connector back on the negative post he noticed it was loose. No matter how hard he tried to tighten down on the nut, the connector couldn’t seem to achieve stable contact with the post.
Apparently, it had been so worn from age, jostling and electric current that the center of the ring had been (for lack of a better word) eroded out so that no matter how tight we cranked the nut down on the bolt, you still couldn’t get a good, solid connection, particularly when it was lowered onto the post one way as opposed to flipped over and put on the other way. By some stroke of luck, Phillip had put it back on the “other way” this time, which revealed the loose connection. That’s when we had our Aha! moment. We dropped everything and headed back to Auto Zone.
“One post terminal connection, please.”
Three dollars and forty-nine cents later, we were mounting a snug new connector on the negative post certain this was going to be the easiest and cheapest fix we could have imagined.
And, what happened next?
Mmmhhh-hmmm. A mighty fine crank indeed! We could tell instantly from the solid *CLICK* of the glow plugs that our starting battery was finally cranking out some solid juice. Our engine roared to life!
Now, why share this? A simple post terminal connector replacement? (Something we likely should have found pretty quickly.) Because sometimes you just can’t see the simple fix initially. With the new solar panels and the MPPT charge controllers, the new on/off switches and suspected alternator confusion, we were thinking the problem had to be more complicated. But, lesson learned. Most of the systems on the boat really are simple when you break them down and dissect them. You just have to remember to “think simply” when troubleshooting. I’ll never forget when we were trying to tell this ten-minute story to our buddy, Bottom-Job Brandon, and not three sentences in, he says:
“D’you check your post connectors?”
Sharp guy, that Brandon (but a total story killer!). Good thing I have a captive audience here! Ha!
In all, we were pleased with the simple $3.49 fix (not counting our “labor” which I felt we earned the “loss” on for having overlooked something so basic — a boat will humble you real quick). And, with the problem solved, the afternoon remaining and the wind picking up, we decided it was high time for a reward. A last-minute run to the beach that day offered up one of our best impromptu kite sessions of the year against one of the most exquisite sunsets I have ever seen.
That’s the thing about sailing, though, living near the water, which can be deadly one minute and overwhelmingly serene the next, and owning a boat. You can start the day out cramped, coated in gunk and sweat and cursing everything about your bleeping boat, but once the project is complete, the accomplishment of it serves as your unparalleled reward and wipes away all of your previous frustration. Suddenly the job is done and the day is still young. Suddenly, nothing can bother you. Life is still, and always will be, good.
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5 thoughts on “The $3.49 Fix”
One thing I noticed in your writing early on. You attitude. It is just awesome! You remind me of my wife when we were younger. At my urging, she became a very skilled advanced open water diver and underwater photog, learned to fly (I taught her!), learned to sail well enough I bought her a Westsail 32 that she coveted, learned to drive a race car and many other strange things most people would just say Hell NO. You should have a hell of a life. Good on you! Ken
Well good on me. Ha. Thanks Ken! I like your wife’s gumption. There are so many things I still want to learn and try and plenty I’m sure I’ll fail at but that won’t stop me either. (I have to say, though, you were pretty harsh about the aerial silks, yet race car driving is okay??). Thanks for the kind note. Glad you’re enjoying the reads!
Sorry for the new comment on an old post but I’m binge reading and had a question. Did you end up needing the disconnect switch at all or were the panels able to be left on while motoring after this fix?
Hey Eric. No worries at all. Binge away! That’s why I put the posts up, so anyone can check them out at anytime. I consider it an honor ; ). On this, no the cranking problem was definitely the $3.49 fix to get a better connection at the post. The engine will crank just fine with the solars on. However, we did find the solars just didn’t “play nicely” with our battery charger on shore power. I don’t know how to explain it other than if solar is coming in, it seems to want to “trump” the charger and take over, which if it’s just a light cloudy day is not enough). So, we are glad we put the switches in so we can turn the solar on and off. We always turn them off before connecting to shore power and then turn them on again when we’re done motoring. Hope this helps. Have fun binging!