Access to Power (and Achilles seal- a bad pun)

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Access to Power (and Achilles seal- a bad pun)

This is not really a coaching blog entry. Or is it? You get to decide.

Those who know me well understand that since 2005 I have been doing strange things with old Vegetable Oil.

I have been steeped in the science of climate change and greenhouse gas impacts for a long time courtesy of my father – Graham Goodeve – a geomorphologist by trade who, whilst I was growing up, fed my curiosity about the physical processes at work in the world around me and the timescales over which geology happens. I don’t know of many other kids who got exposed to both the processes of weather in-the-moment (often from the receiving end – there is a family myth that my father could find water ANYWHERE – airborne or underfoot – when we went on a family outing), and the in-depth lectures of what happens when weather happens and when climate happens, ice sheets melt, ocean currents change etc…

In 2005 I became interested in what I could do to personally reduce my carbon footprint. The result of this investigation was that running my family’s transport needs on recycled vegetable oil was a viable option. I started looking for a suitable diesel vehicle (a rare beast in North America) and studying the alchemy of turning smelly used cooking oil into pristine fuel. In the process I wrote a couple of articles, and got onto local TV driving a VW Passat running on recycled vegetable oil. I became a full-fledged bucket chemist and developed some techniques of my own that made the production of usable fuel from base fat a more rapid process. I found out first hand (as did my family) exactly how good a paint-stripper Biodiesel (chemically cracked vegetable oil) is as it proceeded to remove the covering from our garage floor. Old clothing became de-rigeur as I perfected the process and dedicated a few hours a week to brewing the weeks’ transport energy needs. I became intimately familiar with energy in the form of fuel. It was no longer an abstract experience where I connect a ‘pump’ to my car and hear the gurgling as numbers change on a display. I knew what it smelt like, how much it weighed. I developed a feel for the whole process. And of course I had an experience of self-righteousness as I drove with a miniscule carbon footprint.

One of the parts of the process I ‘felt out’ during this era was, as well as being a paint stripper par-excellence – how aggressive Biodiesel is on normal (EDPM) rubber compounds. Basically they do not survive. They swell and weaken and start to become way too soft. I started carrying a length of replacement rubber hose to use to replace the injector return hoses on the VW as they inevitably after 2-3 months lost their fight with the Biodiesel. I did not find any alternative hose that would stand up to the ravages. Also there was some work to do changing fuel filters as the Biodiesel paint-stripper also cleaned all the gunk out of the fuel tank and system and dutifully deposited it in the fuel filter, in time clogging it. Once the fuel system was thoroughly cleaned – problem solved.

However the Passat was not a great choice. The vehicle had spent time in Alberta in the ravages of winter, salt and grit and it started failing ancillary components such as the power steering and water pumps. After a short while I came to the conclusion it was time to trade up. The problem was however that on my budget there were few diesel vehicles in reach.

And then a friend got me interested in Japanese right-hand drive imports – notably the Mitsubishi Delica. There is a ready export market of these vehicles from Japan – and they have proved very popular in Canada with their combination of ruggedness, spaciousness and efficiency. The ideal vehicle for my family and with the ability to carry Dog, Kids and relations on both local and extended trips. I found a 1993 vehicle with reasonable mileage (110,000km) and in great mechanical shape. I bought the vehicle, got it home, realized that the glow plugs were all toast – replaced them and there began 5 years of largely trouble-free motoring on Biodiesel punctuated only by replacing an Alternator, servicing brakes and regular oil changes. It loved winter and off-roading, the 4-wheel drive making a piece of cake of even very challenging driving conditions. The machine loved Biodiesel – got good mileage and successfully lugged a huge amount of stuff around – including Biodiesel, waste Vegetable Oil etc… It was quite simply an awesome machine – christened ‘Beastie’. It carried my family on multiple road trips down to Seattle and across BC.

And it gave its life heroically.

In the winter of 2012 a friend asked if he could borrow Beastie for a family trip across BC to Fairmont Hot Springs. My family was going to be away in Europe – so the timing seemed pretty good. We set off for Europe – he set off on his family road-trip. On his return leg across BC the weather conditions were poor; deciding too late that it would be time for 4-wheel drive, my friend ended up skidding the vehicle across 3 lanes of traffic in wet snow to end up in the ditch on the opposite carriage-way. No one was hurt; 6 people walked away shaken but not injured – however Beastie was bent beyond repair. The good news; I only lost $1,000 on the insurance pay-out versus what I had paid for the vehicle 5 years before. They are good quality machines as reflected in the market value.

And so I made the choice to attempt to replace Beastie. With the help of a friend and some long-distance contacts we located a newer-model Delica (with a  more powerful 2.8L intercooled turbo-diesel engine) at auction in Japan for $1,500CAD. A few weeks and several thousand dollars later we picked up the vehicle at a freight-handler’s in Delta, BC – the vehicle having been unpacked from its trans-pacific container. After an hour recharging the battery we got the vehicle running, picked up the necessary insurance to drive it to a garage that could do the inspection work and drove it home. A few days later the vehicle had a new VIN number and was fully insured and ready to run on BCs roads.

Driving a right-hand drive vehicle in North America is not problematic with the one exception of turning right. Then you need to exercise your core muscles to look ahead of and behind the passenger-side door pillar to ensure nothing is hiding in that blind-spot. Other than that the Delica has excellent visibility, including a cunningly-placed reversing mirror that shows you precisely the position of your rear bumper relative to whatever is behind. I could parallel park that vehicle in some very tight spots – and would, as a point of pride, park in ‘Small Vehicle’ parking spots, ensuring the accusatory words remained visible behind the precisely parked ‘small’ versatile switchable 4-wheel drive Van.

And as final praise for the awesome engineering work – the design on the older-style (L300) and newer (L400) Delicas includes armoring for the underside of the engine and transmission and excellent driving clearance. BC Logging roads hold no horrors – we got to some great places –in comfort – with no concerns…

So it seemed my new driving experience was complete – new vehicle, more powerful than the old, slightly more space. As capable on the highway as on back roads. I could even fold down the seats in the back into a perfectly serviceable double bed along with factory-fitted curtains as well as transporting 7 people in comfort…

Then the problems began.

The first was a stuck exhaust-gas recirculation valve. When this stuck, I would have no power and a cloud of black sooty smoke. A visit to a local garage with some expertise resolved this issue, and then we were back in action.

Then something really annoying started happening.

When I started the vehicle, it would run poorly for a minute or two before settling down into good running order. Having recently separated and being close to divorce, I was being very careful with finances and decided to see how it would go and do my own research to attempt to resolve the issue. Over a few months the issue steadily got worse until the point that the vehicle would suddenly loose power on the highway, leading me to pull off and nurse the engine back into life before joining the stream of traffic again. I replaced the fuel and air filters to no effect. I figured that the problem was something to do with fuel pressure and so I put a boost pump in line with the fuel fiter to ensure the fuel injector system was not getting starved. This helped but did not resolve the issues. I also backed off from running Biodiesel in the vehicle and stepped back onto the gas station forecourt for the first time in years, to put the fruits of ancient global warming into the tank. It did not help.

I talked to everyone I knew who had knowledge about Diesels and Delicas. The best information came from a local parts supplier who suggested the problem was the drive-end seal in the Injector Pump. He suggested a local garage I talk to. I took the vehicle there, and they decided the problem was the fuel injector system was not clean, and proceeded to charge me several hundred dollars to clean an already clean fuel system and not solve the problem.

Then I found a garage that did understand the problem. They stripped the injector pump off of the engine, replaced the drive-end seal and – hey presto problem solved! With my bank account considerably lighter, I had a vehicle working properly again! That was at the end of January 2015.

Then, in August 2015 the problem came back. Same symptoms – poor starting. Unwilling to keep running. Occasional stalls during running. Then I had the vehicle stall four times on me on the way between Brentwood and Victoria; some 22km trip. I revised my research and looked into the replacement seal that fixed the problem before – there is only one source I could find and that anyone I talked to knew about. The seal that separates the engine oil / air filled crankcase from the fuel-filled injector pump. If there is an air-bubble in the injector pump, it cannot generate the pressures needed to get fuel into the cylinders and the engine runs poorly or stops until those air-bubbles have been flushed. And it was happening again. My conclusion is that seal and Biodiesel do not mix. The eroded seal allows air bubbles from the crank-case to invade the injector pump leading to poor or no running. Biodiesel erodes the seal, which in time will fail and requires the same maintenance again – about every 8 months. And each time for about $700-800 of labour to replace an $18 part. My sad conclusion – the L400 engine with this seal is not Biodiesel compatible.

From what I understand, the L300 engine uses the same seal however it is externally mounted, meaning it is not subject to the ravages of rubber-corrosive fuel – and hence 5 years of issue free motoring with my old Delica was possible.

And so time for a choice.

I am determined to not be part of the fossil-fuel economy to the degree I am able. I currently rent a suite with oil-fired central heating, and with a wood stove. I kept that stove running all last winter and intend to pull the same trick this year. Carbon-neutral and supporting my local economy that sources the locally-cut-and-split firewood.  I am also wanting to spend more of my time focusing on where I can have an impact. Talking and writing about this stuff – not necessarily lugging around vegetable oil.

And so after delivering the Delica to a specialist garage (who have since done the needed servicing and bought the L400 Delica from me) I test-drove an all-electric Nissan Leaf, fell in Love, arranged financing and bought it. It is called ‘sparky’, has an on-paper range of 150km, a network of charging places available locally and an 8-year, 160,000km warrantee on the battery and a solid 5 years on the drive-train, which is simplicity itself. The only other warrantee-preserving maintenance requires is an annual brake check, tire rotation and little more. There is nothing else to go wrong. 2,000 moving parts in an average internal-combustion engine car down to about 60.

I am now taking on a new adventure in transportation – making use of Canada’s abundant renewable energy to experience a new era of very-low-carbon transport. In a way, reclaiming my power and my choices around where my energy comes from. In turn I am also choosing to turn towards the culture and the provision of Electricity. With Biodiesel, I could live in an illusion of independence where I was making my own fuel goddamn it! There is a beauty to this, and also it does belie the truth that the waste vegetable oil is only there at the end of a very long supply chain. Electricity is no different. Electricity is however one hell of a lot simpler!

There is more to be said – this is part I in a new journey. The next part involves fixing my own energy leaks and simplifying the overly-complicated life I have created and been living in these last few years; reclaiming my own power, replacing my own leaky seals – a potentially dangerous metaphor – and falling back in love with my life and what I am creating. There is more power to be had – and a greater life to be living. And – it is more fun driving an electric car – just sayin’!

More to follow – watch this space…


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About the Author:

Don is a father, engineer, entrepreneur and life coach. Passionate about connection, creating relationships that are authentic, deep and rewarding. Don is 47 and lives in Brentwood Bay, British Columbia, Canada. He has two fast growing Sons, a Dog and a fantastic view from the deck. He recently got back into the Pilot seat (literally) and also enjoys running, swimming and camping when the Pacific Northwest weather is amenable...

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