Showing posts with label lowerCostTowVehicle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label lowerCostTowVehicle. Show all posts

Monday, February 1, 2016

Can Retro-grouchery Get You a Better Truck?

It's Super Bowl season. What would the ancient Greeks think of the NFL player who dances in the end zone after scoring a touchdown? No matter how proud a modern secularist and rationalist is about their superiority to superstition, don't we still believe in hubris? We start to get nervous about feeling too pleased with ourselves, and especially, if we show it in public.

For instance my van (tow vehicle) recently passed the 250,000 mile mark. At first I thought about celebrating this achievement by posting about it. Then I decided to keep my big trap shut, lest I jinx myself.

But by now, the gods have probably moved on to other things, and they won't notice if I do a little dancing in the end-zone about this.  Of course, when a person considers a new vehicle, all they can really do is stack the odds in their favor with statistically-valid generalizations. It still comes down to one lucky or unlucky specimen in a general category. But it is still worth mentioning my good luck with this Ford Econoline 250 van (1995), just as an illustration.

Why not choose a new van or truck with the same mindset as before? Why mess with success? But this should not be interpreted to mean 'Stick with Ford.' The more modern Ford engines are not similar to the engine in my old Ford van. But some of the semi-modern GM engines are!

By 'success' I meant sticking with tried and true and hopefully more durable technology, rather than getting suckered into more complex engines that only get 20% better fuel economy. Trucks and vans get lousy fuel economy because they weigh almost 3 tons, have a frontal profile the size of a barn, and are non-aerodynamic. It is a fool's game to keep adding complexity to engines to improve the fuel economy by 1.5 mpg. We are already past the point of diminishing returns. But Congress likes to write laws that try to enact popular environmental sentimentalisms, the entire culture is disconnected from physical reality, and career bureaucrats at the EPA need something to do, so we get modern engines with:
  1. Overhead cam engines, higher rpm, timing belts with expensive replacement, or timing chains with plastic tensioners, four valves per cylinder, and four camshafts instead of one.
  2. Variable valve timing.
  3. Cylinder deactivation. A V8 collapses to a V4 under low-load conditions. Why doesn't vibration tear the engine apart?
  4. Two turbo-chargers. Oh goodie, vrrooom vroom! Thousands of dollars to repair.
  5. Fuel injectors inside the combustion chamber!
  6. Fuel injectors upstream as well as in the combustion chambers.
  7. Active (closing, sliding) shutters in front of the radiator that make things a little more aerodynamic.
  8. Plastic air dams on the front bumper, which smash into the ground.
  9. Automatic engine shutdown when you are idling at stop lights, guaranteeing an earlier demise of the starter motor.
  10. Active suspension that jacks up or lowers the body, depending on your driving conditions.
  11. Aluminum pop can bodies. Bet those will really hold up to getting dinged in the parking lot by the adjacent car.
  12. Electrically heated transmission lubricant, for the first three minutes of a drive.
  13. A toy-like spare tire. 
  14. Future technologies? How about new improved outside mirrors? They could rotate at highway speeds to become more aerodynamic and improve your overall fuel economy by 0.12 mpg. When combined with new mandatory anti-collision cameras, they would retract the mirrors in parking lots so the battleship-on-wheels actually fits in the parking space. Furthermore, the side-view cameras would automatically turn off when a law enforcement officer approaches your side window. 
It's not that any of these items is intrinsically bad. But they will cost you when you buy the vehicle, and they give Murphy's Law many more opportunities for making your life miserable. 

But let's be fair: EPA requirements haven't yet forced automakers to use hollow plastic crankshafts, made from recycled grocery bags.
It is a good idea to avoid getting a vehicle the first year or two that is has been redesigned. Of course, that is just the time when the hottest "spokesperson" at the Detroit Auto Show will demonstrate getting in and out of the car, while wearing a tight mini-skirt and stiletto heels; and the year that the vehicle qualifies to win the Motor Trend Truck of the Year; and the year that its commercial is chosen Favorite Super Bowl commercial.

Soon the hot new vehicle might have a recall.  Fan-boys will be bitter and disappointed. But a new model has a lot of wrinkles to iron out. When are people going to learn not to be an early adopter!? 

That certainly wasn't the case with my 1995 Ford Econoline van. Even better, it was just a year or two before Ford switched to the overhead cam Triton engines. (Recall their exploding spark plugs.) My van had ye olde "pushrod" design, with a camshaft in the engine block itself, and no vulnerable timing belt or long timing chain to worry about. If you want a pushrod design now, you must go with a GM "small block" engine. (Or a Chrysler Hemi.)

I am leaning in the direction of a 2008-2013 Chevy Silverado (or its GMC doppelgänger), with a (Fourth generation) 4.8 liter V8 Vortec engine. Unlike the 5.3 liter engine, the 4.8 eschews cylinder de-activation. (But I think it does have variable valve timing.) Also, the 4.8 liter engine is usually paired with the old-fashioned four speed transmission. The newer transmission with 6 gears might be desirable, but only if they don't have "double clutch" designs; these lack (fluidic) torque converters.

(As an added plus, it is fairly common for the GM trucks to have a locking rear differential. The RPO code in the glove box is G80. This is a good way to obviate the need for a four wheel drive tow vehicle.)

In 2014 GM went over to their Eco-tec engines with fuel injectors inside the combustion chambers, fed by high pressure fuel pumps. (I don't even want to think about it...)

I am not an automotive engineer, a good auto mechanic, or a "car nut". So don't be bashful about pointing out errors in this write-up. I'll quickly edit your corrections into the post.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Beating the Over-priced Pickup Cap Syndrome

Every now and then I like to give the readers a good laugh as I scheme against the pickup truck bubble. If it weren't for the weaknesses of the newer vans [1], I wouldn't even be tempted to think about pickup trucks as tow vehicles for (non-fifth-wheel) travel trailers.

We are probably down to the last couple years of availability of basic, regular cab, low trim level pickups, aimed at farmers, ranchers, or the city water department. I want to avail myself of that opportunity before it disappears from the automobile industry, as so many other choices have disappeared.

One of the great weaknesses of the pickup truck as a tow vehicle for a full-time RVer is that the silly thing is semi-useless unless you put a cap/topper/shell on it. [2] The typical installed price of a fiberglass cap is well over $2000. Even worse, it is 75% glass. [3]

A semi-tall driver who likes to store his bicycle inside will not enjoy getting into the back of the pickup truck, compared to a van. The van is three times more convenient. The best you can do with a pickup cap is get one that is tall or flared at the back of the truck. Now we are talking a $3000 installed price.

I am open to the idea of building a home-made cap out of plywood and wood/aluminum framing. But today, let's consider another possibility: a simple wooden spacer between the pickup's bed rails and an inexpensive cap, perhaps purchased used, from Craigslist or the local newspaper.

Here is an example seen on the streets of Moab, where you should see many good ideas for vehicles that actually get used outdoors. (Oddly, you mostly just see standard vehicles with bicycles dangling away on external racks.)

The pickup cap in the photo is just a standard, potentially low cost cap, from the used marketplace. But it sits on a 2X8 or 2X6 wood spacer. There are no fancy angles or cuts in this wooden spacer; everything is 90 degrees. I would use lighter wood, such as 1X6 or 2X2.

This design is not perfect, but it would get a person on the road in a hurry. Eventually you could add some kind of aerodynamic wedge at the top-front of the cap, to smooth out the air flow. Also, this fellow did not close off the 8" gap between the top of the tailgate and the rear door/window of the cap. I would probably do so by getting rid of the glass rear door/window, by replacing it with a plywood one that extends down to the top of the tailgate.

The result might be a not-so-great-looking, inexpensive pickup cap that can be finished quickly, and which lets you store tall things without ducking and groveling.

[1] Higher prices, few used ones available, fewer options with four wheel drive or locking differentials, tighter wheel-wells and smaller tires, uni-body frames that can't twist, cramped engine compartments, and low ground clearance. 

[2] We are not talking about slide-in campers.

[3]  Lots of glass might be desirable to people who take the cap off when they don't need it, and who never get used to driving with the outside mirrors alone. But a full-time RVer or a long-term driver of a cargo van is used to driving with the outside mirrors.  

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Part 2, Better Traction on the Tow Vehicle of a Travel Trailer

Since the internet primarily offers infomercials and entertainment, it is difficult to find helpful information about four-wheel-drive and better traction. I had almost given up before finally bumping into this article, which serves as a primer.

Today's post is aimed at finding shrewd low-cost methods of getting better traction without being suckered into a high-cost pickup truck. Automobile manufacturers use the marketing gimmick of "bundling," and the weaknesses of the male ego, to raise the cost of a pickup truck into the stratosphere. 

This post is not aimed at:

1. A pickup pulling a fifth wheel trailer, which then is empty when you unhitch, meaning little weight on the rear tires.

2. A pickup used in town for getting groceries or hauling kids to school, and therefore has no weight on the rear axle.

3. Lowering a boat trailer down a boat ramp until the rear wheels of the pickup are sitting on ooze, algae, or moss.

4. Snow or dune buggy terrains.

5. Doing sharp turns on mountain switchbacks, a terrain best handled by 4WD with open differentials or by all-wheel-drive.

That is a lot of 'nots'! What it does pertain to is RV camping on (3 or 4 digit) dirt/gravel roads on BLM and national forest lands, with a pickup or van pulling a conventional "bumper pull" travel trailer. Here you have plenty of weight over the rear axle of the tow vehicle, including drinking water, tools, books, and the weight of the cap for a pickup truck. Therefore a rear wheel drive pickup truck won't get stuck on wet grass, as is true of the suburban driveway queens.

Traction problems are of two independent kinds, with only one of them benefiting from 4 wheel drive.

A) Front to back. This can only be solved by getting a 4WD or all-wheel-drive.

B) Left wheel to right wheel, on a given axle. Best addressed by a differential locker.

Example B) is what this post is aiming at. The typical situation on banked or crowned dirt roads, during the monsoon season, is loose mud on the right hand side ("starboard") of the tow vehicle, since that is where the ditch is. Meanwhile the left side ("port") is high and dry, with good traction.

Another typical situation is a muddy two-track which has random puddles here and there. Only one wheel slips at a time.

The last typical traction problem is the loose gravel coming out of an arroyo crossing. Admittedly this case may be more of a front/back traction problem, which is best for 4WD.

When your dominant traction problem is one wheel on any given axle, 4WD will not help much. What you need is a differential locker. They completely lock the differential, even if one wheel is up in the air! (Limited slip differentials are different than a differential locker.)

Alternative 1) Did you know that you can add the (electrical) eLocker differential locker by Eaton on a low trim level (work truck) F-150 pickup? The differential is "open" until you push a switch, at low speeds, to make it lock. You can also find low trim level Chevy Silverado work trucks that have a different differential locker, also made by Eaton. These are low cost ($400) options, as is the towing package. Why doesn't every half-ton pickup customer choose them? We know the reason: they think the half-ton pickup is just a passenger car that looks cool and macho. They are not interested in actually using it as a truck.

Generally manufacturers try to make you believe that you need the expensive premium off-road package, with all the trimmings, to get differential lockers. That way you will buy a $50000 pickup truck instead of putting a $400 option on a low trim level ($25000) pickup.

Alternative 2) The other way to address bad traction on one wheel is to use the traction control systems that are now standard on virtually all vehicles. They use the information from the wheel speed sensors to detect slippage in one of the wheels, and then apply brake pressure to it. They also back off the throttle. If such systems got good enough, differential lockers would be unnecessary for many customers, and campers like me might be the beneficiaries. I'm not sure that they are good enough yet, particularly after getting stuck. I would be interested in pertinent anecdotes from the reader.

There is almost a conspiracy of silence over this issue, since the automobile industry doesn't want people escaping their $50,000 driveway queens. But I finally found one good article by a Chrysler engineer about Jeep's traction control system. Presumably their system is even better on a new vehicle.

Alternative 3) Aftermarket lockers. Someone recently told me about how pleased he was with a low cost ($350 plus two hours installation) aftermarket differential locker called the True Lock. He added it to his 4WD Jeep and saw a day versus night improvement. But his Jeep was old enough to lack a modern traction control system. Would the latter get confused by the True Lock? Compatibility with modern control systems is essential for any aftermarket locker. Here again, the internet is too busy with infomercial and entertainment to explain this issue well.

Let's assume that compatibility exists. Where can you get an aftermarket locker installed? Presumably I wouldn't want to go to one of the upgrader/modifier businesses that caters to the hard core "enthusiast" crowd, at astronomical prices. What I need is a good mechanic who has experience with frugal traction-oriented customers.

You cannot expect miracles in all situations from this scheme of saving money with a differential locker on a 2WD truck: it won't help if the left rear tire and right rear tire have equally bad traction, or if you are slipping on a steep switchback, where a differential locker would keep you from turning sharply enough.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Part 1: Improving Traction in the Tow Vehicle of a Trailer

Rewrite: good grief, I started off on how-to trivia before I discussed the 'why' of getting better traction: it will give you more freedom in choosing campsites and provide a higher quality experience. 

But I have gotten-by just fine at dispersed camping without making a big or expensive project out of better traction. My rig was nothing special, traction-wise: a two-wheel-drive van pulling a 4000 lb (loaded) travel trailer. It had the standard open differential and lacked an electronic traction control system which is standard on newer vehicles. 

But remember that an "equipment X worked well enough for me" type argument is a circular argument. You know the limitations of your equipment, and compensate for them by restricting your campground choices. That is what I want to rise above. (Circular arguments like this eat up enormous amounts of time and space on public discussion forums.)

'So what?' if you get stuck every couple years? Be a good sport about it. See it as an adventure. If nothing else, you will leave feeling pretty good about the human race when a passing motorist stops by to be the hero, probably in less than 30 minutes. Then he will not even want to accept a few bucks from you as a token of gratitude, despite having just saved you towing charges and hours of waiting for it.

Work it out in advance so that the hero's time is not wasted: get a piece of chain, a couple quick links, and a nylon tow rope. Find the right spot on the frame to hook to. You might even want to mount a hook or eye-bolt to the frame.

Don't worry, I don't plan on becoming a recreational four wheel drive (4WD) off-roader. But the 4WD sub-cult supports an industry and products that can also help the general public (of non-enthusiasts) get better traction in their tow vehicle.

Recall that somebody (like me) who gets a higher clearance and lightweight trailer needs to finish the job by improving their traction (and possibly clearance) in their tow vehicle.

The Yuma 4WD mafia has already provided some useful advice to me. A business who helps the sub-cult modify their jeeps was clear about where I should start: get the tire inflator needed to "air-up" the tires after you are done with the backcountry road. More on that in a minute.

1) But step one is to use all-terrain tires with more aggressive tread. That is such an obvious thing, but it is hard for a cheapskate not to go looking for the least expensive pavement-oriented tires at one of the big tire outlets. Knobbier tires will probably cost and weigh a little more and take a little off your fuel economy. But if you are serious about getting better traction, you must give in on something!

2) He recommended dropping the tire pressure to 18 psi during off-pavement use. Of course, he was referring to a light jeep, not to a heavier pickup or van. Besides a more comfortable ride, the lower pressure gets you better traction in soft sand and mud since it results in a bigger contact patch ("flat spot") at the bottom of the tire. 

Once again, this is an obvious idea, but it is hard to overcome one's timidity in lowering the pressure to the 20 psi area. 

So why don't we do it? Because it is a hassle to put the air back in, that's why! And you must do so before driving at high speed on the pavement. Say what we will, something must be convenient or we won't do it. Some four wheel guys use pressurized tanks (like little scuba tanks.) Some install on-board compressors. 

3) But the least expensive way to air-up is to use a portable tire inflator. Your mind should turn red with rage over your past experiences with these. You probably bought a cheap piece of crap for $30. In the past I got better results with a screw-on brass tire inflator tip, rather than those hateful lever style inflator tips. Of course, you can get lucky and get a good lever style tip -- one that leaks air slower than the rate of pumping it in -- but over time the rubber ages, or gets too hot or cold, etc. 

4) But there is still a problem if the inflator is powered through the cigarette lighter. These connections are limited to about 9 amps DC; they are also unreliable. There are heavier duty inflators available that clamp right onto the battery posts. Both Viair and Slime make this kind. It permits raising the amperage to 15--30 amps DC. Excellent!

5) What about "getting unstuck" products like "Portable tow truck" and their competitors? (Search traction pad, traction mats, getting unstuck in mud, etc.) These are corrugated mats or boards, usually of tough plastic, that can be jammed in front of the drive wheels when they are stuck. Does anyone have any experience with these?

6) There are tire chains of course. Like most people I have never had these because of cost, weight, noise, and the inconvenience of installing them. Perhaps this last issue is 50% psychological? But you can't install tire chains after you have gotten stuck. 

Ahh but wait, yes you can. There are temporary chains for short distance travel at low speeds that can be installed after getting stuck. They are metal chains that are completed with a nylon strap and buckle -- you just insert the nylon straps through the holes in the rim, if you have them. Perhaps I could overcome my reluctance to bring chains if the cost and weight were low enough.

Next episode I will discuss possible ways to get better traction without getting stuck in the trap of overpaying for a four wheel drive, over-sized pickup truck.