The Alternator Adventure

Let me take you back, if I may, to a place called San Diego, a gray, cloudy cool place that seems in the distant past. As I mentioned, the diesel needed some TLC, and on the Friday three days before leaving on the Baja Haha the parts I ordered for it arrived. One of the items I needed to install was a new fuel lift pump, as the other one was seeping diesel around the gasket.

Removal of the old and installation of the new went fairly well, other than dropping a part I didn’t know existed into the pan under the engine, where I had to fish for it in the diesel that had been leaking out, and the coolant fluid from taking off the hose I was also replacing. But as I replaced the metal fuel hose to the pump, which required a just so manipulation, I managed to bump it into a positive terminal on the starting solenoid. After a brief shower of sparks, I surmised nothing had caught fire or appeared to have melted, so I completed the installation, put on the new cooling hose, and started it up.

Everything seemed okay, the engine was running, nothing appeared to be leaking, and my biggest concern, having introduced an air bubble into the fuel system while working on it and causing the engine to die and need bleeding didn’t materialize. I went to check the gauges, and observed they were acting a bit erratically. Suddenly the tachometer started swinging wildly, jumped to 4000 RPMs, and stopped there. The engine, however, continued to run at a consistent RPM. There is no way this could be a good thing. Some testing on my part put my suspicion squarely on the alternator, as it didn’t appear there was any current being generated. A couple phone calls to mechanically inclined friends also pointed towards the alternator, probably a blown diode.

Saturday morning, we were up early, and armed with cell phones, car GPS a distinct lack of local knowledge, and our rental car we set off to resolve the problem. Of course, our cell phones hadn’t charged over night and the 12 Volt adapters in our spacious Kia Rio weren’t working. A quick stop by the rental car agency yielded a Ford Focus with working adapters, and a major upgrade in the sound system. Back on the road, trying to charge two dead phones with a car charger that only worked if it was plugged in just so, we headed for National city. One auto parts store tested it and said it was fine, putting out 65 amps, which was a bit curious for a 55 amp alternator. Another call to David, who had the plausible theory if the diode was blown more amperage could be flowing out as the diode reduced some of the electricity while converting the AC power to DC. More searching around at auto parts stores for a place that could test for AC power coming out of alternator.

As we entered the 4th (or so, it gets blurry) auto parts store, all the time fighting with dying cell phones which were are primary source of information, I saw him, the older guy behind the parts counter that would know the place we needed. We stopped to wait for him to finish with another customer, a well intentioned young man asked if he could help us. “No,” I inwardly sighed, but we asked our questions. Of course, he didn’t have the right answers, but the one, our guy, cut in. I was holding the alternator, and he asked “Is that off a boat?” Yes! He suggested a place, gave us an address and phone number, and we were back out to the car, calling the place as our GPS was already directing us to it. We asked if they could test the alternator for ripple (AC power production instead of DC, causing most auto shops to respond with a “huh?”). “Sure, no problem” they responded. We arrived in short order, and I knew we had found the place I was looking for. No big fancy sign, alternator parts strewn all over the back shop area, and a small counter facing the parking lot, eschewing any sort of front office for customers.

The guy at the counter was kind of an older surfer dude looking sort, and took the alternator with my testing request. “Sure we can test it, we have a $5000 tester.” A couple minutes later we received the news we expected, the diodes were not working. After some discussion of options and trying to make some parts they had work, a rebuild was the best option. I had already expressed some urgency in getting a working alternator in short order (yes, not always the wisest thing to say to a repair shop), and was told they could have it rebuilt later today for about $150. They closed at 1:00 pm, just a few hours away.

Back to the boat, we loaded Minion into a carrier and headed to the vet to get a health certificate for bringing a cat into Mexico. Jenn stayed there with Minion, and I headed to pick up the other Jen and her traveling companion Chris at the airport. Back to the vet, then off to the alternator repair place with a Ford Focus full of four people and one black cat. We arrived with a bit of time to spare, and I handed surfer dude $160 dollars cash for a now black alternator with still wet paint. I’m not sure why they spray painted it black when it was red when I brought it in, but if it worked I didn’t care. The surfer dude wandered to the cash register, asked how much he had quoted me, and when I told him $150 he handed me back a $20 and said “140, I don’t have change.” There was a brief urge to give it back with thanks for the quick turn around, but the cruiser budget kicked in and I thanked him and headed for the car.

Once again, back to the boat where we unloaded luggage and the black cat and black alternator. I pulled the toolbox out and got to work. Chris jumped in with some help, as he has more than a little experience with boats. All hooked up according to my drawing and numbered tape tags on the wiring, and I hit the start button. Nothing. This was worse than when I began, at least it would start with the blown alternator before. A closer inspection revealed a broken wiring ring terminal on the back, so off the alternator and managed to get the wiring issue solved. Reassembly went quickly, as I was getting experienced at installing and removing the alternator. Breath held, I hit the start button, and she fired up. But of course, the alternator didn’t seem to be putting out any power. Sigh… The surfer dude had given me an external voltage regulator since mine might be blown. After a few minutes of looking I found the one on my engine, and of course the wiring plug and wire colors were different. But what was this near the voltage regulator, a fuse holder I had not noticed yesterday? And what did it contain, but a blow fuse? Of course it was a 25 amp fuse and all I had was a 5 amp, but I tossed it in, tested some contacts with the multimeter and was getting the expected trickle of energy I had not been getting. Once again, I started the engine, and what to my wondering eyes did appear but a working tachometer, and voltage flowing into my batteries! Sadly, what did not appear was a working temperature gauge, but it wasn’t all that accurate anyway and because of the overheating issues we were used to checking the temperature manually on a regular basis. So we are living without it for now, although it would be nice to have an accurate one installed at some point.

While I had some other boat projects planed for Saturday, I was pretty happy to have the alternator back up and running with a day to spare before we were leaving. So happy, I gave into temptation, and after cleaning up we all headed out to Bali Hai for there famous Mai Tais. On the way we texted Lightspeed and Deep Playa’s crews, and everything came together to all meet up. An $8 mai tai didn’t seem that bad for a drink that did not contain any ingredient that wasn’t an alcohol. After drinking 1.5, I can say if you are ever in San Diego, go get one. They are amazingly tasty, and not watered down. We then all walked to a little hole in the wall Mexican place Jenn and I had found the day before, but finding it closed settled on a more traditional Mexican place a block away. We had a great time all hanging out with the anticipation of the Haha starting on Monday, and even the in depth discussion of marine heads and their use didn’t dampen our enthusiasm.

Next stop, the Baja Haha. Sadly we didn’t make it to the San Diego zoo, which we had really wanted to visit, and we may have enjoyed on of the cloudiest, coolest weeks in San Diego. But we did get our last minute outfitting done, managed a meal at In n Out Burger, and finally met Leif and Jackie from Dodger Too who had advised us during our trip down the coast.

Jumping ahead, we are currently in Cabo, and I’ll update the the trip down as soon as I can!

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