Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Getting a collector car ready for winter storage

It’s late November, time for collector cars to be put in storage all over New England.  These are some thoughts from my 25 years doing this job here at Robison Service . . . 

We start by opening the hood and having a look at the fluids.   There are differing opinions on oil, but my preference is to change dirty oil in the fall, rather than leaving it to rot the engine all winter.

I feel the same way about other fluids.  If they are dirty, I suggest they be changed.

We use test strips to check antifreeze for pH balance and freeze protection.  If the coolant fails or even looks marginal, we change it.

We check the battery and cables.  If the car is going to sit in storage, and it predates the computer era, I suggest disconnecting the battery.  If the car has computers that need to be kept alive, I suggest fitting a trickle charger and a timer to make sure it keeps the battery up without boiling it away.

Some people are concerned about rust in the combustion chambers.  If you have this worry, get a couple cans of marine engine winterizer spray.  Disconnect the ignition, and crank the engine over while spraying the winterizer into the intake.  That will coat the inside of the motor with oil and it will last a year or more, until it’s started again.

Of course, if you do this, the car must be pushed or towed into its storage spot.

Next we inflate the tires.  My big concern is that tires develop flat spots when the car sits still on its tires for months at a time.  You can minimize that by inflating to the maximum pressure shown on the sidewall.  You can eliminate flat spots by storing your car on blocks, so the wheels are actually slightly off the ground.

Most classic cars have steel fuel tanks that are vented to the air.  When temps rise and fall moisture can condense on the inside surfaces of the tank just as it forms a mist on the exterior metal surfaces.   That “fog” ends up in the gas and causes all sorts of trouble.

You can minimize that problem by keeping your car filled with fuel.  You can also minimize the problem by protecting your car from dramatic temperature swings wherever it is stored.

The next area of concern is the fuel itself.  Gasoline degrades as it sits in storage, and today’s pump fuels start out marginal for use in older cars.  For that reason, I suggest you fill your car with premium fuel, and add fuel stabilizer to slow its deterioration. 

If you are near an airport, and they will sell you fuel in gas cans, your car will run better on Avgas 100.  However, it is costly and not every airport will dispense the stuff into containers.  It’s illegal for road use in the USA despite its functional superiority.

I like to put cars up on the left and spray penetrating oil into all the linkages and moving parts. That reduces the chance things will freeze up or rust over the winter.

Finally, we get to the interior.  I have had enough trouble with rodents that I now leave mouse baits on the floor in hopes that will reduce or eliminate infestations.  I also leave an air freshener inside, and choose a dry location for storage.  

If you are in a cold climate the best storage garage is one with radiant heat pipes in the floor.  A heated floor will keep moisture away and keep your vehicles at a more constant temperature.  It's more costly to build in radiant heat, but it actually costs less to heat a space this way than through a conventional heater.

Unheated storage is more common.  Many times unheated garage storage means the car will be exposed to daily temperature cycles as the sun warms the building and it cools at night.  This is harder on woodwork (if your car has woodwork) but it's not a big deal otherwise provided the air is dry and the car has antifreeze protection.

Barns are the worst places to store cars because they tend to be full of rodents and they often have dirt floors that wick moisture up into your chassis, rusting frames and brakes and anything else. 

Some people like to store cars under a cover; others prefer to leave them open.  I like covers because they protect you from scratches if cats jump on the cars or things brush against them.

If you do this work yourself, plan on spending a few hours putting the car to rest.  If you pay someone to do it for you, expect a bill for several hundred dollars of labor plus fuel, coolant, or other fluids

Whatever you choose, I wish you luck this winter season.

And remember . . . an apple a day will keep anyone away, as long as it's thrown hard enough.

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, independent restoration and Bosch Authorized Car Service specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Land Rover, Porsche, and Rolls Royce Owner's Clubs, and he’s owned and restored many of these fine vehicles.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How long do tires last?

How long do tires last? 

If you have a collectible car, the tires may look new, yet be falling apart inside.  The culprit is dry rot, which destroys tires from within.  Dry rot causes the rubber to break down, become weak, and eventually fail.  Usually without warning.

Dry rot is the visible manifestation of the natural process of rubber breaking down.  It’s accelerated by a number of factors including:
  • Ozone exposure;
  • Exposure to bright sun and heat;
  • UV exposure;
  • Use of certain tire dressings and chemicals;
  • Underinflation.  

Dry rot is a bigger problem in the south because it’s hotter and the sun is brighter.  It’s a problem at high altitude because the sun is more intense and there is more UV exposure.

Some people say tires need to be replaced every five years in the tropics.  Others say tires should be replaced every ten years, wherever they are.  Then there are those who say you don’t need to do anything unless you can see dry rot attacking the tires.  I think that last opinion is probably closest to the truth, because I see cars that are stored indoors all the time, and the tires look perfect after ten years, but other cars that are parked outside in the sun every day show dry rot damage in three years.

That leads to a question – how do you know the age of a tire?

Tires that were made after January 1, 2000 have a code stamped on the inner sidewall that begins with DOT and ends with four digits molded into the tire.  The four digits indicate the week (1-52) and the year (00 for 2000) that the tire was made.

Here’s an example

This tire was made in week 43 of 2002.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rolls Royce and Bentley seat memory batteries

In my last story I described replacement of the backup batteries in the Rolls-Bentley alarm controller under the dash.  This story sort of builds on that one . . . This time I’d like to look at changing the batteries in the memory seat units.

Each front seat has its own memory unit.  They are located under the seats.  Depending on the age of your car they may take one of several forms.  These pictures show the controllers found in the mid-1990s.

To get at them, you remove the lower cushion, unscrew the memory unit, and withdraw it to the front.  It comes out dragging a large tangle of wire as you can see.  The controller is the box on the floor, just to the right of the Fluke test meter.  I've removed the cover in that photo.

Looking at the cover you see these memory units are something of a homemade affair.  The label is something I could have made up on my own printer!  Looking inside you can see the single battery.  In this car, the battery is not corroded badly but in older cars it will leak and the acid eats away the circuit board, leading to failures.

In the photo above I point out the battery that we are about to change.  The new one will look different, but as long as we match the voltage and technology (don't mix ni-cad and lithium ion) we will be all set.  This particular battery is 3.6 volts.  The original one has a 100MA rating; we will fit a slightly bigger one because that's what they sell today.

These seat memory units cost $2,500 when they were available, and there are none left.  Consequently, we have a lot of incentive to preserve the ones we have.  Changing the batteries before they leak is the best way for you to do that.

We unsolder the battery from the board and remove it.

Then we fit a new battery.  This one is a 3.6 volt battery for a pet collar.  I found it at Radio Shack.  It’s a perfect functional replacement for $20.  It’s a snap to solder in place but you should note that the original battery had two positive wires and I had to add a jumper to replace that missing second positive lead.

The photo below shows the jumper I had to add

What to do when you tangle your loader in the electric lines

This past weekend we had unprecedented damage from an early snowstorm.  Trees were down across all the roads in town, and many took powerlines down with them.  I had to clear a dozen or more large trees just to reach the highway, less than half a mile from my house.

I used the front end loader on my tractor to break up the tree jams, and pick up the brush and move it aside so cars could pass.  Anyone who’s ever run a loader knows that’s heavy and dangerous work as the trees bend and snap.  You’re glad to be in a roll cage enclosed cab with some of those limbs come back to whack you in the face!

To clearing the road I’d scoop under a load of tree debris, lift it high, and dump it in the woods.  That process went along uneventfully until I picked up a load of brush that was tangled with bare electric power lines.  There are lots of stories online telling you to stay away from power lines.  There are very few stories that talk about what you should do if you get up close and engaged with them.  Today, I’d like to share my thoughts with you.

The conventional wisdom says that it’s fatal to contact live electrical power lines.  That is certainly the case much of the time, but not always.  The key is not making your body a path from electricity to ground.  The voltage at a wall outlet (120v) will knock you down and can kill you.  The voltage on the poles at the street is at minimum 10-20 times higher, and it WILL kill you if that happens.

That said, if you hit live power lines with a loader, backhoe, or crane, and you are inside an enclosed cab on the machine, you can probably emerge unscathed, provided you keep your wits about you and follow these steps. 

When your machine touches the line, it immediately becomes energized to the voltage in the wires.   If you are sitting in the cab, you get energized too.  You don’t actually feel anything but a tingle, as no current is flowing through you, but you are suddenly in a very dicey position.

As long as you remain in the cab, the wires can’t touch you, and the current flows through the metal of the machine.   If you get out of the cab, or a wire gets in, all that changes.   If you touch anything outside the cab, the power line current will flow from the cab frame, into you, and out of you into whatever you touch.  That's almost always lethal.

Touching a tree or anything outside your machine while in the cab will kill you.  Touching the ground in an attempt to escape the cab will kill you too.  So stay inside, windows shut.

That’s how most people who have accidents on construction equipment get killed.  They hit a line, and then jump off the machine.  That’s usually a fatal error.  The ground under the machine is energized as the current flows through the wire, into the machine, and into the surrounding earth.  The dirt within five to ten feet of the machine is going to be energized to a dangerous level.  So you can be safe in the cab, but dead if you jump on the ground.

The wires present another danger.  If the wire is outside, touching your loader frame, you are safe.  If the wire gets inside, or touches you, you are toast.  So don’t open the windows or doors.

If anyone sees you in this fix, wave them away, but do not open the doors.  If they approach you, they are likely to be electrocuted by the field you are currently immersed in.  Hopefully, no one else is around you.

The final danger is that the energy in the wire will disable the machine, leaving you unable to escape.  When the energy flows into the machine’s steel frame, it has to go somewhere.  That somewhere is ground, through the steel tracks or rubber tires that the machine sits on.  That point of contact with the ground becomes a hot spot, both figuratively and literally.  A tracked machine, sitting on steel tracks, could have the grease in the tracks burst into flame.  A wheeled loader will have smoke coming from the tires as they begin to melt.  Both situations call for fast action.

Disengage the machine from the wires, look around for other hazards, and back away.  If the machine’s arms are tangled, remember the rig has enough power to break the wires, but you have to make sure you back clear, wherever they land.  That is absolutely vital.  Wires may be dark, and hard to see against downed trees or a dark roadway.  It’s essential that you back at least twenty feet away from them before exiting the cab.  If the ground is wet, back farther.

If for some reason you cannot back away, remain in the cab and use a cell phone or radio to call for help.  When seeking help, the only thing someone can do is cut the power remotely.  Any attempts to approach your energized machine will be lethal to potential rescuers.   It’s far better and safer to get your machine out of danger under its own power.

Hopefully, you will never encounter powerlines in a construction machine.  If you do, just remember.  Stay inside.  Keep your head. Disengage and back clear.

Once clear, flag the area as dangerous from a safe distance.  When walking near downed wires it’s possible to step from an area with no charge to a lethally charged area with no visible indication of what is about to happen.  In that sense, downed lines are more dangerous than the deadliest snake, because they do not even have to touch you to kill you.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Replacing the alarm batteries in a 1990s Rolls or Bentley

I get quite a few calls asking about battery replacement in the security and memory seat modules of Rolls Royce and Bentley cars.  In this article I'd like to show how we address that issue here at Robison Service.

The car shown in a 1996 Bentley Turbo but the job essentially the same in any Crewe Rolls Royce or Bentley car from 1990 to 1998

We start by unlocking the doors, rolling down the windows, and disconnecting the battery.  We open doors and windows to protect us from being locked out if the controller does anything funny.  Disconnecting the battery is important because the vehicle should be powered off for removal and refit.  Switching off the battery switch does not switch off the alarm in many later cars.

Now it's time for removing the dash top.  That exposes the metal understructure, the wiring, and the modules.  To remove the top, you first remove the wood fascia.  The lower dash panels also come off.  With those out of the way, you can access the screws holding the top cover in place.

The wiring is all neatly bundled together, and there's a lot of it!  There are many different modules under the dash in these cars.  Luckily, the folks at Crewe labeled each one with real human-readable tags and not just part numbers.

The alarm or security controller (labels vary) is usually located in the middle of the dash, above the radio.

The next view shows the area where it may be found > > >

Here is a security controller removed:

Unplug the controller from the car and take it out.  When the brackets are removed you can take the case apart and remove the circuit boards.  They unfold to reveal something like this.  The batteries are in the center and lower right in this image.  One is white; the other is blue.

In this closeup you can see the corrosion, but in the earlier photo you can also see that the corrosion is not so bad that the whole circuit board is eaten up.  That's why it's so important to change these now, before they fail.  If you get a failure there is a good chance your circuits are too eaten up to be fixed by a simple battery change.

A look at the battery give us the information we need to find a replacement.  I don't know where to find identical replacements; indeed I doubt they exist today.  But that's okay; we can get functional equivalents.  Reading the label, we see that this battery is 6 volts, 280 milliamp hours, and it's a nickel cadmium (ni-cd) type.  

In the USA we head for Radio Shack, where they sell a wide variety of replacement batteries for cordless phones and other devices.  We find a battery that has the same voltage, similar amp-hour rating, and the same technology.  Note that you need an exact match for technology and volts, but amp-hour rating is flexible.  

If you fit a lithium ion battery in place of a nickel cadmium unit, the charge rate will be wrong, and it will soon burn up.  If you install a battery of the wrong voltage, the system won't work, and may be damaged. We remove the old batteries and solder the new ones in place.  We tape them or glue them down, because they have a different shape from the originals.

The result should look something like this:

 Now we're ready for the final step.  We put the electronics back in the case, and plug the whole thing into the car.  We hook up the battery, and give it a try.  This one worked.

If you have a working module in your car now, and you change the batteries as a preventative step, you are virtually assured of success (provided you do it right.)

Battery replacement and circuit board cleanup as a repair procedure is a lot more chancy.  I don't know the success rate but I do know it's chancy enough that we don't do these repairs unless we have the car here, so we can test our work and perhaps even go in for further repairs if we do not get success the first time.

Luckily, this controller worked right off, and we put the car back together.

This Bentley should be all set for another ten years or so.

I'm sorry to say this