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Parking Lot Mechanics

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Most Tuesdays I pickup donations at A Turning Point and deliver them to my friend Rachelle's house where they are sorted and distributed around the town to help the houseless community. Today all went according to plan until after we unloaded everything and I tried to leave only to discover Little Helper (our van) wouldn't start.

My friends Dawn and Shelbi were present and gave me a jump start but after a few minutes of idling while I looked at the map for a nearby part store to test the battery it died again. This sadly lead us to believe the issue was not with the battery but with the alternator so another jump start later and Shelbi and I caravanned West targeting an Auto Zone 5 minutes away. Unfortunately I only got a couple of blocks before the van died on me at the top of a blind hill. I called her to let her know because she was way ahead of me and didn't seem to notice. She said she would continue on to the store to see what they thought and come back to jump me again.

It took two more jump starts including one at a 4 way stop before we made it to the parking lot that would be my home for the next 7 hours. We had no tools with us and their loaners were lacking (basically a pile of loose one offs in a carboard box). Since the battery was dead they couldn't test it but Shelbi knew this trick where if you get it running and pull the positive terminal off and it dies immediately the issues is almost certainly with the alternator. Sadly the sizes we needed to accomplish this weren't in the hodgepodge box of tools they had so I purchased a pair of wrenches and a small socket set. The young man behind the counter told me I could even return them when I was done at least (they later reneged on that however).

Sure enough the engine died when the positive was removed so we set about to get access to the alternator borrowing a tool they did have to release tension on the drive belt. In the process we cracked the belt tensioner unfortunately and had to buy that too. at this point we were almost $300 invested and I was worried about draining our meager FHS savings account. I made a post on our group Facebook page to see if anyone would be willing to help cover the costs and went back to work on the van.

With the limited cheap tools we had and our meager experiences in this realm we made slow progress. At one point Shelbi was a little too eager and tried to use a flathead screw driver to remove the plugs from the back of the alternator while the battery was still connected creating a discharge that luckily only scared her and left a mark on the flathead. Following that we lost a bolt and nut that we had to try and replace but was unavailable at any of the stores near us so Shelbi went off to a hardware store while I continued in the parking lot.

Finally we got everything connected but heard a high pitch deafening whine sound while it was in run. We killed the engine and inspected each part to ensure the belt was on all of the pullies but found nothing out of the ordinary. At this point Shelbi had to run so I continued on my own having them charge the battery while I checked each component. Sadly I was unsuccessful so I had to call in the cavalry, my friend Brian. Working on locomotive engines and just about everything else you can imagine he is one of the most mechanically inclined people I know.

He gathered some tools and less than hour later was there quickly assessing the situation. In no time at all he found that the problem lied with the new belt tensioner. We removed it and took it into the shop to show them that it wasn't moving smoothly. We hunted down the old broken one (now in the trash) and discovered the new one had the roller put on backwards. We swapped that around and put everything back together then fired it up to hear a smooth running engine. Eureka!

We took the opportunity to refill the Freon, top off the antifreeze and wiper fluid before saying our goodbyes. I checked my phone and saw that not only had my friends come through and covered all the expenses but one put me in contact with the General Manager for the area Auto Zones. He offered to work with me in the future on parts for our service vehicles that support the houseless community. So although it was a very challenging day and I had to put in emergency PTO it turned out pretty positive.


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