6 October 2021

Temperature: maximum

When shit hits the fan, turn the fan off

It was 8:30 PM, and I found myself parked up on the curbside of a freeway off-ramp, an hour away from Brisbane city which was my intended destination for the night. Things were not going to plan.

10 minutes before this, I had noticed that something had shifted. I was 6 hours into this roadtrip from Gladstone — Brisbane and the scenery in front of me was different. It was the coolant temperature indicator on the car’s dashboard and the fact that it was reading off the scale, all the way to its maximum.

“Maybe the temperature sensor has finally given up,” I tried to reassure myself. Though, as I checked the rearview mirrors, the white smoke I was leaving behind me as a wake made it very, very difficult to have high conviction about this.

It was like a James Bond scene, except there was no command executed to smoke screen the cars that were trailing behind me.

“How much time have I got?” was the next question that came to mind. I knew that I had to take action urgently and that this was only going to be a very small window before things would go really wrong. As if on some mystical queue, the car’s “check engine” prompt appeared. The timing could not have been any better.

I first had to get the car off the fast flowing stream of the freeway, to find the next exit off-ramp in order to stop somewhere, anywhere, and figure out what the heck was going on.

I could sense that the car was starting to struggle, strange sounds were being produced from the engine bay and the throttle was reacting strangely. This was not a good place to be, for the car or my sanity.

I took the very first left turn that appeared and parked on the very first opening I could find on the left hand side of the road. As soon as the car had stopped, all the warning lights had beamed on the dash, almost like a final salute before the engine came to a rest.

“It is all happening now,” I muttered to myself.

As I got out of warmth and security of the car and stepped into the wind and the nondescript off-ramp, I was worried about what I was about to find next.

The Monkey Mind

True to its survival instinct, the mind started to manifest a million “what-if” scenarios.

  • What if it is catastrophic and it is the water pump that is leaking?
  • What if it is something else entirely and I cannot fix it?
  • What if the car is stranded here for the night?

During this time, I kept myself occupied by setting the car up for further inspection. I first collected some tools from the boot, then the bonnet was popped and lifted up, revealing a slightly sweet scented glycol coolant white mist that seemed to have materialise out of every nook and cranny.

At some point, I gently nudged the focus of the mind towards the mission of determining, first, ‘what is the problem?’

The self talk then became “Let’s figure out what the problem is first, before jumping right into the worst case scenarios, okay?” At this moment, I was able to regain a sense of calm and clarity about what I had to do next.

I have owned this particular car for 3 years and have spent countless hours learning about it through tinkering, mostly with the aim of replacing worn out or broken parts. But none of that prior experience was going to help me in speeding things up — this was a new problem I had not encountered before previously.

The first thing to do was to have a look and observe.

The top-down view from the engine bay did not have much information to offer, what was visible were some random globules of bright green coolant sprayed on some of the steering column components, but I would have to get underneath to get closer to where the source of the problem might be.

After jacking the car up, there was more information revealed:

  • Plastic covers around the engine were warped out of their normal spots, presumably from the overheating
  • No obvious leaks from the harmonic balancer, which I knew from prior engine inspections sits directly below the water pump (the belt driven device that circulates coolant fluid through the engine). This was a good sign, but the source of the globules remained unknown.

Next, I went up to the engine bay again to check the coolant fill cap and the hoses that lead to-and-from it. Usually, a good rule of thumb to check whether there is coolant flowing in the right places without opening the fill cap (which should not be done with a hot engine) is to squeeze these hoses and feel for their ‘fullness’. They came up empty.

“Ah. Could it really be such a simple error? That it was just a matter of running out of coolant?”

I then looked up where the nearest petrol station might be. It was late, and the go-to automotive shops would be closed at that time of the night. The search results returned 500m.

Without any coolant, I knew I could not push the car very far at all before overheating and having to turn off again.

I chose to wing it. The car sounded like it was on its last legs, feeling unresponsive and its random shuddering. The machine definitely was not happy that I was punishing it like that.

It never fails to amaze me how resilient and robust mechanical systems can be. There is always a margin to play with, a zone that lies beyond where you think the system can cope with, but it soldiers on nevertheless. I think that there is something beautiful and awe-inspiring in that.

The 500m drive was only a few minutes long, but was highly nerve racking. Eventually, the car and I arrived to the crisp, white ceiling lights of the busy petrol station.

“There was no way to hide my mistakes from the rest of the world now.”

I made a straight beeline for the station’s entrance and bought a 5 litre bottle of coolant for $40.

“Shit, that’s expensive. But what is more expensive? The coolant? Or a tow into Brisbane tomorrow morning after a rough sleep in the car in the middle of nowhere?” The choice was easy then.

The bonnet came up again, and the first streams of coolant that touched the engine evaporated almost instantly, billowing like a white volcano out of the filling port. After it settled, I kept pouring and pouring and pouring until the bottle was ran empty. All of the 5 litres was in, but the job was not yet finished.

Another $40 for 5 more litres. Between pours I kept a hawk’s eye on the underbelly of the engine, hoping for the best but expecting the worst — which would have been to see all of the green fluid I was pouring in leak its way through and onto the ground. But I had a little luck on my side, it was all holding in.

I ran the engine and continued to pour, the coolant temperature indicator needle was back to its normal position — a great sign. No leaks on the ground, and then the coolant reservoir was completely full. Okay. Progress.

I gently pull the car out of the petrol station and found my way back onto the fast flowing freeway.

The remainder of the drive towards my final destination for the night was uneventful for the car — the best possible scenario I could hope for. Whereas I was on edge the whole time, ready to pull another pit stop if need be.

We had finally arrived at the accommodation by 9:30PM and I was glad to find a resting place for the car for the night.

The root cause

The next day, I realised that there was something that continued to bug me about what had happened.

I had a feeling that the problem that led to the symptoms of no coolant/high engine temperature was still unresolved.

The original hypothesis that the coolant reservoir had evaporated to very low levels, since it has been awhile since the last service interval, is technically possible but the probability of it being completely empty struck as odd.

After opening up the fill cap, I noticed that the coolant levels had dropped slightly since last night. I ran the engine and checked for leaks again.

Then, there were more clues.

There was a slow drip of green fluid happening away from the water pump section of the engine. At least it was not the pump!

Eventually, after some more time spent looking and narrowing down on where the root cause might be, it turned out to be a small rip in a coolant hose.

This was how the car survived the hour-long drive on the previous night. The drip was probably not bad enough for the car to leak out the entire reservoir of coolant.

Knowing this, I drove the car to the nearest automotive store to get an off-the-shelf replacement hose for it and fitted it right in the public carpark where I had parked.

Problems as opportunities

In his book ’12 Rules for Life’, Jordan Peterson articulates about the underlying mechanisms behind the process of ‘seeing’ or ‘detecting’ problems.

We assume that we see objects or things when we look at the world, but that’s not really how it is. Our evolved perceptual systems transform the interconnected, complex multi-level world that we inhabit not so much into things per say as into useful things… this is the transformation of the near-infinite complexity of things through the narrow specification of our purpose…

We perceive not them, but their functional utility and in doing so, we make them sufficiently simple for sufficient understanding… Absent that, we drown in the complexity of the world.

- by Jordan Peterson in 12 Rules for Life

He explains that we humans do not really perceive material objects for what they are, as much as the utility or purpose that they serve for us.

A computer being a useful tool to connect to the internet and create blogs.

A car being a useful tool to transport ourselves from point A to B.

Our perception of an object gets tuned in on its ‘usefulness’ as opposed to being aware of the multiple moving parts that make up the object.

And then the day comes when the object no longer behaves as expected, when its utility, its efficacy in fulfilling our desires, stops working. It is within these moments of chaos that our perception is forced to zoom out and consider the whole reality of what is in front of us.

This happened for me at 8:30PM on that night when I found myself nearly stranded on that freeway off-ramp.

What was originally a crisis, of the machine not working as it should and not serving its purpose, evolved into an adventure of sorts. A mission to conquer, one small step at a time.

Source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/adventure

If you knew of all of what was going to happen, would it really be called an adventure?