Simple Auto Repair

With that in mind, it might be a good time to ask yourself if that situation would panic you. If not, then congratulations because that’s one less thing you have to worry about. For those who just broke out into a cold sweat at the thought of being stuck on the side of the road, it might be a good time to take the Tool Man’s crash course on how to be your own roadside assistance.

Let me get rid of any illusions you might have about modern vehicles, they’re simple and easy to diagnose if you have some basic tools. Once you’ve made the diagnosis then all that is left is to determine the best course of action to get you out of the situation. I’m not talking about running concerns or a complex emissions problem. Deal with issues like that in a better working environment, not the side of a busy road. This article is not about rebuilding your engine; it’s about getting you off the side of the road and to the safety of the nearest town where there are parts stores and supplies. What I am talking about is the basic no crank-no start condition.

The first thing to do before heading out on the road is get yourself a decent tool set. It doesn't have to be fancy and it doesn't need to cost a fortune but it does need to have the basics like sockets and wrenches. Without these tools, all you can do is look under the hood and worry.

There’s a myth that dealers and repair shops like to spread around. They encourage the story that modern vehicles are so complicated that they are beyond the scope of the home mechanic. In some areas, they certainly are, but in the basic functions, when you strip away the electronics and all the bells and whistles, not much has changed. The reality is that electronic modules are rarely at fault in a no crank-no start condition and one must to return to basic automotive theory in order to solve it.

You’ve pulled over because the vehicle stopped or you go to start it after it’s been sitting for a while and won’t crank.

If it starts and runs rough, check the temperature gauge and if it’s not over on the right then keep driving and worry about the rest of it when you’re safe somewhere. If it’s running hot then you have a water leak somewhere. Fill up the radiator while it’s running, find the leak by getting under there, following the trail of water, wrap it in good quality duct tape, and hurry to your destination. If it won’t turn over, then it’s time to do some detective work.

A gasoline engine requires three things to run and three things only: compression, fuel, and spark (electrical). The simplest is electrical and that begins at the battery. Check the terminals for corrosion and make sure they are not loose. If they are then clean or tighten as necessary and you should be on your way. If the battery itself is dead flag down somebody, get a boost and figure it out later.

If the battery is good and but the vehicle won’t turn over then the next step is to check for spark. With modern cars, there is no distributor or other central point of failure. The computer controls ignition spark and the signal is sent out to the plugs via coil packs. Visually trace the plug wires up from the engine and you’ll see where they connect to the coil pack. When a coil pack fails (and they do), it usually happens one at a time so the engine will still start but it runs rough. Carefully pull a wire from a plug, and holding it with a pair of insulated pliers, position it somewhere that you can see and try to start the car. If you see the spark jump from the tip of the wire then you can eliminate that from your list. If there is no spark from any of the wires then there is a deeper problem. Find the fuse box; check your fuses and circuit breakers using your owner’s manual as a guide.

Next on the list is fuel. Pull the fuse to the fuel pump and crank the car a few times to release the pressure built up in the line. Replace the fuse and use a find a fuel line somewhere on the vehicle that has a clamp removable with a screwdriver. Take the line off at that point and crank the car. If fuel comes out then the pump is working so replace the line and move on. If it’s not then once again, check fuses and check to see if your vehicle has an emergency shut off hidden somewhere to isolate the system in the event of a collision. Your owner’s manual will explain how to fix that problem. Correct fuel pressure is critical on modern vehicles and certainly can cause drivability issues but if fuel is present in the combustion chamber, even if the pressure is low, it will ignite and start the engine.

If fuel is getting into the cylinder head and everything else checks out okay then it’s time to verify that the engine has compression. In simple terms, when the spark from the plug ignites the fuel, it causes a small explosion that pushes the piston down. One piston goes down and its neighbor goes up, putting it in position for the next explosion and compressing the fuel in the process to make the explosion more directed and effective. When this happens repeatedly in quick succession, the motor runs. For the fuel to ignite properly in the first place, it requires a sealed system that allows for regulation of the fuel and air mixture.

With a sealed system, a certain amount of pressure is present on the upstroke of the piston. In a shop, you measure the compression with a specialized gauge and then compare it to the manufacturer's specifications for that particular engine. On the side of the road, for a quick and dirty compression check, pull out a plug and place your thumb over the hole. Make sure you pull the coil wire for safety then have someone turn the car over. If there’s compression, you’ll feel pressure on your thumb. Absence of compression would suggest a head gasket or similar internal engine failure. There isn’t much you can do in that situation except arrange a tow to the nearest town where you can properly assess the situation.

Before any of this happens, the smartest thing to do would be to hunt up a repair manual and spend some time reading it so you know where everything is on under the hood. Use your senses, do you smell fuel or is there something hanging down that looks odd. Remember, the solution is probably a simple one like a bad fuse or loose wire so if you follow a logical troubleshooting path then you’ll be back on the road. It really is that simple.

The other roadside emergencies that you may encounter from time to time are tire issues. Most motorhomes have dual rear tires and for the average motorist who has always owned a car, that’s not something that they’ve encountered before. It’s important to check them on a regular basis because an inside dual flat is not something that is always immediately obvious as you walk past and glance down. The reason it’s important, apart from the expense and inconvenience factor of having two wheels to repair instead of one, is that it can be very dangerous. Although one tire on the rear can usually support the weight of the vehicle until you can limp into the next town, it’s a good idea to pull over and change it if possible. There’s not a lot of clearance there to begin with and if the inside tire is flat, it can start to rub and the resulting friction can start a tire fire. A motorhome can catch on fire and burn out very easily so that’s not something you want to take a chance with, especially in an area of the vehicle that is not visible when you’re driving.

An under inflated tire can cause similar problems and you want to be able to check them. Commercial truck drivers use a tire thumper that is a miniature version of a wooden baseball bat that you can buy at any truck stop. They walk around and thump those big trailer tires every chance they get, at every fuel stop, and any time they park for a few minutes. Inspecting the tires is a good habit for the RV owner as well and you should get in the habit of doing a visual check before you head out in the morning.

To check the tire pressure, a special gauge is required. It’s a dual chuck gauge and is in the tire and tool section of Walmart, Kmart or any truck stop. It’s similar to the ones you use on car tires but it’s a bigger and longer. The head is double-sided and specially designed to attach to the valve on the inside tire. Get yourself one, and use it frequently.

Last word on dual wheels, before you head out on the road make sure you take the time to align the rims and you’ll save yourself a whole bunch of headaches. The people at the tire places tend to throw the wheels on however they pick them up off the ground. They’ll go together any way you want to install them but if you don’t make the effort to make sure the inner valve is accessible from the outside then you’ll be cursing every time you go to check the tire pressure. Many times on a motorhome, you’ll find the outside wheel is blocking any attempt to find a clear path to the back. It’s worth the few minutes it takes to loosen a few lug nuts and to make sure that there’s adequate clearance for a gauge to fit.

When you buy the tire gauge, if you don’t already have one then pick up a hydraulic bottle jack. You’ll need one rated for at least six ton or otherwise not only will you be straining the outer limits of the jack to raise the vehicle, chances are that it just won’t have the reach in the first place. Find a few flat, solid pieces of wood and keep them with the jack so that you can use them as a base on uneven or sandy ground and for the times when you just need that extra few inches of height. Also, grab a lug nut wrench that’s wide enough to get some advantage on. The little ones designed for car use will not cut it on an RV. A simpler solution, and often a better one, is to use a half-inch socket attached to a breaker bar that’s at least eighteen inches long. Make sure it’s a good quality one. It’ll last for many years of service, and making your life a lot easier along the way.

The last thing on the list is a portable air compressor, one of the small ones that you see for sale everywhere. Ideally, it’ll be one marked for SUV or pickup truck use but even the little ones will work in a pinch. The advantage of the bigger size is that will be quicker to inflate the light truck tires found on an RV and of course, will last longer as it doesn’t have to work as hard to do its job. The small compressors run very hot and the heat causes premature failure.
As for the tires themselves, it’s inevitable that you’ll find yourself in a situation one day of running over a nail, screw or some other sharp object. Fixing a puncture is relatively easy and done, in most cases, without removing the wheel. Pick up a tire repair kit at any auto or big box store and learn how to use it. If the tire is completely flat, start the vehicle and very slowly inch forward until you can see the puncture, then use the tools in the kit to plug the tire.

The best position is to have hole facing the front of the vehicle so that you can sit down beside it and go to work. If the tire is still partially inflated then slide your jack under the axle and lift it up just enough so that it just sits snugly enough to take the load of the vehicle off the tire. All you want to do is support the wheel with the jack, not lift it up off the ground. That way you can avoid any damage to the seal between the tire and the rim when you deflate the tire. Next step is to let the remaining air out of the tire by pressing in the valve until it stops hissing. Many people like to speed up the process by simply removing the valve using the valve tool supplied in the kit. If it didn’t come with one then you can pick one up for a few dollars anywhere you find tire repair kits. Using this method can be dangerous because that little valve with a bit of compressed air behind it can shoot out with the speed of a bullet. Back out the valve slowly and keep forward pressure on it until it all the air is gone. Once the tire is empty, then you can go ahead and make the repair.

Room in an RV is a precious commodity and sometimes we are tempted to leave out things that we don’t think we will need but it’s very important to carry the basics of auto repair, especially if the funds are limited. A tire repair kit, a small air compressor, jumper cables, and a toolbox with some sockets, wrenches and other hand tools will fulfill most of your needs when you're stuck on the side of the road. The peace of mind is worth the little loss of space.