I checked out of the motel in San Jose, drove to Fremont and got a haircut from my old barber there, then set off for home, via Altamont Pass and Sacramento. I didn't make it to Sacramento. I almost didn't make it anywhere at all.
Just before Noon, approaching Lathrop on northbound I-5, the engine began to scream like it was tearing itself apart and the alternator light came on. I took the next exit, quickly looking for a place I could take refuge for a while, and spotted an O'Reilly Auto Parts store just off the freeway. What luck! I pulled into their back parking lot and stopped the van, knowing that it might be a while before it started again.
I saw smoke coming from under the hood. I popped the hood as quickly as I could (not easily; the spring is worn out and it's difficult to get the latch to open. To my horror, I saw flames flickering out of the top of the alternator! I tried to blow them out, but they popped back up right away. No, I didn't take pictures of this one; there was no time for it. I ran around to the front of the store, announced that my alternator was on fire and did they have an fire extinguisher, quickly, please? One of the staff handed me a car fire extinguisher from the shelf. I said, "I'll be right back to pay for this!" and dashed back around to my van, hoping that the fire hadn't spread. It had not. It was still just some little flames dancing out of the top of the alternator. I hit the fire with the extinguisher several times until the fire looked like it was well and truly out.
I found out later that it was in the store staff's best interest to help me, because they all park in the back, so I was parked right among their vehicles, and had mine gone up in flames, it might have taken theirs with it. As it was, I might have picked a better spot with more room to get my doors open for ease of working, not to mention not being in direct sunlight, but under the circumstances, I didn't really have time to take those factors into account.
Now I had time to take a picture, albeit not a very good one because it's quite difficult to use the camera-phone in full sunlight. Here's the burnt-up alternator covered in sodium bicarbonate fire extinguisher solution. I left the engine to cool off and went back up front to pay for the fire extinguisher and to buy a new alternator if the had one for my van. Fortunately, they did. Even more fortunately, they have tools to loan, because for whatever reason, the only tools I seemed to have on board this trip were ASE and most of the fasteners on my 1987 Chevrolet Astro are metric.
It took nearly two hours (some of which was simply waiting for the vehicle to be cool enough to work on) to finally free the old alternator. There are three bolts and two electrical connections. I'm glad I got out the Chilton manual on the van that I carry, because it reminded me to disconnect a wire from the battery on account of working on the electrical system. Unfortunately, only the positive terminal is within easy reach of the tools. That's dangerous because you can end up shorting the battery with the socket wrench if it touches the frame of the car. (I was wearing gloves, so it would be harder to short via me, thank goodness.) I did however get the thing disconnected without blowing the battery (and me) up.
The only way I could get at the rear screws and the electrical connectors was to remove the center console and the "doghouse" cover. Here's the engine from the inside, looking somewhat snowy covered in bicarb. I was worried a bit about all of that covering the engine, but it's apparently mostly harmless, although a lot of it would get into my eyes today, which is rather unpleasant.
After much working on bolts and undoing electrical connectors, I managed to get the old alternator out. Here is is at left side by side with the brand new alternator. (I elected to buy a new one rather than a rebuilt one.) The screaming sound I heard back on the road was the alternator having seized and the belt trying to turn anyway. As I pulled up to the auto parts store, the screaming stopped, because the serpentine (uni-belt) broke. I bought a new uni-belt as well.
More time passed as I struggled to install the new alternator. It really should have been simple, as it's exactly the same part and I'd been trying to pay close attention while taking out the old one. However, it was a lot of work to get all of the bolts and connectors to match up. Even with the doghouse off, getting at the relevant pieces is a struggle. At one point, I found that I simply couldn't turn the bolt without removing the long oil filler neck. This would come back to haunt me later.
About 3:15, I finally had the new alternator in place. Now came the really tricky part: installing the serpentine belt, which has to go in a particular pattern around six different pulleys, particularly the spring-loaded tension pulley that holds everything in place. I was able to get the tensioner to move by hanging a socket wrench on it, but I found myself needing more than two hands. If I pulled hard enough with my right hand to get enough slack to slip the uni-belt over it, I could not get leverage with my left hand to push the belt into place. I couldn't pull hard enough on the socket wrench with my left hand to use my right hand to push the belt.
While struggling with the pulley and the belt, I had a very painful mishap. I very nearly got the belt into place, but then the pulley slipped and trapped the meaty part below my left thumb between the pulley and the belt, and it took me several very painful and anxious moments to get the pulley levered out of the way again and my hand freed. In the process, the belt slipped free again.
I took a few breaks along the way. I had to. It was hot, the sun was beating down on me, and I was sweating profusely. Periodically I would walk next door to the mini-market, use their restroom, and buy another liter of water. I went through about five liters of water this afternoon, and it might not have been enough. But as long as I kept sweating, I figured I was avoiding heat-stroke.
Around 4 PM, I tired mightily of the battle of the Serpentine and went back into O'Reilly. "You're still here?" one of the people asked incredulously. "Yep," I said. "I'm not going anywhere until I've got that alternator installed. Do you have a tool that would help me lever the serpentine tensioner into place?" As it happened, they did, also among their other loaner tools. It's really just a long lever with different sockets that fit onto it (the Astro takes an 18mm socket, as it happens), and I wish I'd known they had this up front, because it would have saved me more than an hour of work and my slightly-mangled left hand.
About 4:45, I got the belt into place and seated properly on all six pulleys. I re-attached the battery (again being careful not to short it against the frame). It was time for the Moment of Truth. I climbed into the front seat and started the engine. Vroom! It started right up. I had to quickly exit the vehicle, though, as the doghouse cover was still off and the engine sprayed bicarb dust in all directions. After reassuring myself that everything was turning correctly, I shut the engine back off.
In the process of putting things back together again, I discovered that I couldn't figure out how the oil filler neck stays in place. There appears to be a bracket attached to it that should hold it to some other piece of the engine, but the only likely-looking piece (a metal pipe) wouldn't accept the connection and I didn't want to try and force it. As a temporary fix, I took the oil pipe cover off and installed it directly on the oil pan cover. This works, but it makes it impossible to put oil in the van without removing the doghouse cover. Lisa and I will need to revisit this and figure out where the filler neck actually goes.
Now the rest should have been simple: reinstalling the doghouse cover. But it wasn't. I couldn't get the thing to seat correctly. It took me another 90 minutes before I finally coaxed the doghouse to engage with the connections on the frame and screwed everything back into place.
While I was working on the doghouse, a Lathrop fire truck came along. They parked nearby so the crew could go in to get some snacks from the mini-market. I told them, "You're six hours too late! My car fire was at noon!." They came over and had a look as I explained about the small fire I put out myself and we had a bit of a laugh over it.
Sometime after 6 PM, I finally got the final connection in the doghouse cover and the glove compartment (which fits over the doghouse) reattached, and the work was finished. I cleaned up the tools, put mine back in the van, put O'Reilly's back in their cart, and took the burned-out alternator back up front to recover the $10 core charge and to thank them for the use of their tools. (One of the staff then came out the back door and retrieved their tool cart.)
I called Lisa and filled her in on how exciting my day had been. She was impressed with my having managed to replace the alternator myself. I said I wish she had been there; I'm sure the two of us together could have done it faster, particularly the parts that would have worked better with more than two hands. She told me to find a hotel as soon as I could and to get some rest, and that seemed like a good idea to me, too. Unfortunately, every Holiday Inn Express from Lathrop to Auburn was full tonight. I don't know if there is some special event or just plenty of people traveling this weekend. I promised Lisa that I'd find a hotel as soon as possible and rang off. The hotels at the Lathrop exit were all full, so I headed for Stockton.
In Stockton, I tried the Quality Inn. They were almost full, but had a few rooms, and the rate wasn't too bad, either. I handed over my credit card and after moving in, let Lisa know that I'd found a refuge. After going next door to the mini-market for some food (a burrito from the taco truck parked there), I came back and ate, then took a hot shower to wash the grime away. The Quality Inn is less expensive than a Holiday Inn Express would have been, but doesn't have a hot tub; I would have welcomed that as well.
At Lisa's advice, I iced down my bruised hand for a while. I have other bruises up and down my arms from working on the van all day. I reckon that I will hurt even more tomorrow morning. I am also sunburned all over my face an neck, including, for some reason, my left eyelid but not my right. Hat or no, I was in the sun a lot today.
So taking stock of today's adventure, I note that things could have been much worse. The alternator seized up at a point where I could get off the freeway and drive into an auto parts store parking lot before it gave up completely. O'Reilly loans out tools as a matter of policy and doesn't shoo people way working on vehicles in their parking lot. I had enough money to buy the necessary parts. I can manage the extra hotel night. And of course, the van didn't turn into a Car-B-Que.
Thus ends the seventh night of what was supposed to be a five-night stay in California. I really hope tomorrow is less intense. I still have to visit my sister in Sacramento, and then go home and get ready to go back to work on Monday morning, thankfully from my living room home office.