Thursday, April 30, 2009

Under the Hood - V6 Front Wheel Drive 1

In my Under the Hood series, I plan to photographically document the engine compartments from as many different vehicle types as possible.* I will then label the most common maintenance items and briefly explain the purpose of each component and system. My overall goal is to help those who do not know their way around an automobile's engine bay and may be intimidated by it.

* Engine bays are different between models of cars, however, most cars in the same class are similar enough that if you know your way around one you will be able to find your way around another.

This episode features two cars that share the same heritage and similar engines, a 2000 Ford Taurus and a 2007 Ford 500. Click on each photo for a higher resolution view.
Pictured above is the engine bay of a 2000 Ford Taurus with the 3.0L V6 engine.
  1. Engine Oil Cap
  2. Engine Oil Dipstick
  3. Upper Radiator Hose
  4. Engine Coolant Reservoir and Cooling System Cap
  5. Windshield Washer Reservoir
  6. Fuse/Relay Box
  7. Battery
  8. Air Filter Housing
  9. Mass Air Flow Sensor (MAF) location
  10. Brake Fluid Reservoir
  11. Power Steering Reservoir
  12. Spark Plugs (Front 3, Back 3 are under the Intake Manifold)
  13. Spark Plug Coil Pack
  14. Alternator
  15. Idle Air Control (IAC) Solenoid

Pictured above is the engine bay of a 2007 Ford Five Hundred with the 3.0L V6 engine.
  1. Engine Oil Cap
  2. Engine Oil Dipstick
  3. Engine Coolant Reservoir
  4. Engine Coolant/Radiator Cap
  5. Windshield Washer Reservoir
  6. Fuse/Relay Box
  7. Battery
  8. Air Filter Housing
  9. Mass Air Flow (MAF) Sensor
  10. Positive Crankcase Ventilation (PCV) Valve
  11. Brake Fluid Reservoir
  12. Power Steering Fluid Reservoir
  13. Coil-on-Spark Plugs (back three are underneath #14)
  14. Intake Manifold
  15. Upper Radiator Hose
In these two photos, you can see the basic maintenance items common to most cars. I will write a brief description of each component outlined in this episode and, if applicable, any quick and easy maintenance checks you can perform on the component.

Engine Oil Cap - Add oil here

Engine Oil Dipstick - Use to periodically check the oil level in your engine. To check, remove the dipstick, clean it with a rag, and fully reinsert it. Remove the dipstick again and note the level of oil. If the oil is in the cross hatched area it is ok. If it is below, slowly add oil through the Engine Oil Cap until the oil level is within the cross hatched area.

Radiator - The radiator works to keep the engine from overheating. You can visually check the bottom for leaking coolant.

Radiator Cap - If the car has been used recently be very careful removing the radiator cap because the system will still be pressurized and hot steam could scald you. When in doubt, listen for a hissing sound when you turn the cap. If you hear a hissing sound, do not remove the cap. Otherwise, remove the cap and look at the coolant inside the radiator. If it is discolored (there are lots of different colors of coolant, so you will have to know the original color in order to know if the coolant's color is different) you may need to flush the cooling system. Also, make sure the radiator is full of coolant.

Upper and Lower Radiator Hoses - Visually check the hose for any cracks, holes, deterioration or any other signs of leakage.

Engine Coolant Reservoir - Check the level of coolant and make sure it is not above the "COLD MAX" line on the exterior of the reservoir.

Windshield Washer Reservoir - Check the level of the fluid against the line on the exterior of the reservoir or keep at least half full.

Fuse/Relay Boxes - To check a fuse, remove it and look through its side. If the wire connects the two prongs, it is good. If the wire is broken, the fuse is bad and should be replaced with a fuse with the same number.

Battery - Most auto parts stores can test your battery for free. Make sure the battery posts and wire terminals are clean and do not have any built-up corrosion. Corrosion will look like white, clumpy powder. To clean the posts and terminals, remove the negative terminal first, then the positive. You can use a wire brush, scrub pad, commercial battery post cleaner, or a 3:1 baking soda/water paste to scrub the battery posts and wire terminals clean. If you used any method that involved liquid or paste cleaners, allow everything to thoroughly dry before reinstalling the terminals onto the posts. Always reinstall the positive wire first, then the negative. You can smear a little petroleum jelly over the posts to help prevent future corrosion. (Note: after uninstalling the battery, the car may run slightly more rough than before because the car's computer's memory will have been reset and it will take a few miles for it to relearn its previous settings).

Air Filter Housing - The air filter is located in here. To access the air filter you will have to remove some clamps or screws (depending on the car). Pull the air filter out and visually inspect it.

Mass Air Flow Sensor (MAF) location - Inside the air intake tube (after the air filter) is the MAF. There is no regular check you can do, but if you ever need to clean the MAF due to a rough running engine, you can spray electronic cleaner spray over the wire.

Brake Fluid Reservoir - Visually check to make sure the fluid is at the proper level.

Power Steering Reservoir - Visually check to make sure the fluid is at the proper level. Some systems use a dipstick method of checking the fluid level.

Spark Plugs - Spark plugs do not need to be checked very often, usually about 30,000 - 60,000 miles.

PCV Valve - Remove the valve and shake it. If it rattles then it is good, otherwise replace.

Alternator - Most auto parts stores can check your alternator for free. The alternator basically converts power generated by the engine to charge the battery and run the accessories, like lights and radio. When the engine is not running, the lights and radio run off the battery.

Accessory Belt - Some vehicles will have one serpentine belt, some have two belts - one that drives the Air Conditioning Compressor and one that drives the Alternator, Water Pump, and Power Steering. Visually check the belts for frays, cracks or missing chunks.

IAC Valve - If your engine in running erratically while idling, the problem may be a faulty or stuck IAC valve. To check, unplug the electrical wiring to the valve while the engine is running. If the engine's RPMs drop, the valve is working. If the engine shows no change then the IAC valve must be replaced.

Intake Manifold - This is the path the air takes to get to the engine.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tool Review: Chicago Electric 10" Compound Slide Miter Saw 90891

Occasionally I will write a review of a tool I have used. In no way do I pretend to be a professional, as this blog should show, but I also have found some of the most helpful reviews to be by "average joes" like me. All the tools I will review should be within the budget for most homeowners and weekend warriors.

Power miter saws make quick work out of cross cutting boards and, you guessed it, making miter cuts. In today's market you can find miter saws with many features that extend their capability far beyond simple miter cuts. The Chicago Electric 90891 is one such saw. It is a sliding compound miter saw, but what exactly does that mean?

Sliding miter saws have the blade assembly mounted on some form of sliding mechanism so that the blade can make broader cuts. In a way, this feature turns a miter saw into a miniature radial arm saw.

Compound miter saws let you adjust the bevel of the cut in addition to the miter angle.

So How Good is the Chicago Electric 10" Sliding Compound Miter Saw 90891?The Chicago Electric 10" Sliding Compound miter saw is priced right around where most non sliding, non compound miter saws from the major tool brands are. That can be expected since Chicago Electric is the name Harbor Freight puts on its power tools, and Harbor Freight generally imports the least expensive tools it can get from China. You will usually find people who either love the inexpensive prices at these stores or hate the generally poor quality of imported tools sold at Harbor Freight. But this is a review of the miter saw, not the store where it came from.

Brand new, this saw will cost $100-130. Used ones can be found at discounted prices; I found my near-new saw for a little more than half retail price. You definitely get a lot of saw for your buck, but what we need to determine is if the saw works well.

Ease of Use
Starting with the ergonomics and ease of use, this saw performs well. The vertical pistol grip handle of the saw is comfortable and I prefer this style of handle as opposed to a horizontally mounted handle. The "trigger" and the safety thumb trigger are spaced perfectly for my medium sized hands.

Changing the miter or bevel angle is easily accomplished by using the large plastic knobs. The included work clamp features the same type of plastic knob which makes it comfortable and easy to use.

The weight of the motor is not a real issue. The motor/blade unit smoothly pivot down, though the spring in the hinge area may be a bit stiff. I would prefer the spring to be a little softer so it would not take quite as much effort to lower the blade.

To use the slide feature of this saw you simply loosen a bolt (that has a comfortable plastic knob, like all the other adjuster bolts) and the whole saw's arm, hinge, and motor unit slides back and forth on two rails. It takes very little effort to slide the saw, which I like.When the saw is completely extended forward on its rails, the center of balance is a little too far forward for the saw's base to handle. If you are going to use the saw's sliding feature, you should bolt or clamp the saw down to a stable surface. What is nice about the base is that it includes pre-drilled holes to use to bolt it down.

The miter adjustment has positive stops at 0, 22 1/2, and 45 degrees. I really like this feature and wish all tools that have miter or bevel adjustments used accurate positive stops. Unfortunately, the bevel adjustment on this saw does not have positive stops, except at 0 and 45 degrees, which happen to be both the miter and bevel range of angles this saw is capable of cutting.

The included out-feed support rails are marginally useful, but the plastic stop is not. The amount of play in the stop is alarming, even when it is fully tightened down to the rail. That is not too much of a problem though since the out-feed rails are really too short to begin with. Like all miter saws, this can easily be remedied with the purchase or creation of a dedicated miter saw stand.

First of all, the 90891 has a strong enough motor to cut through any wood that will fit. No complaints there.

The blade leaves a clean cut almost all the way through the wood, but creates a lot of splinters and tear-out at the rear of the cut. I think most of this is caused by the large gap in the fence for the saw's clearance. Most of the tear-out can be eliminated with the use of a sacrificial auxiliary fence. I really would like to be able to completely eliminate all splintering, but I have not had any luck. Another factor may be the large opening in the lower blade insert. If this insert were narrower, the wood piece would have more support from underneath and would splinter less when cut.

The biggest criticism I have of this saw is the excessive play in the motor/blade unit's hinge. While lowering the blade to make a cut, I can wiggle the blade side-to-side about 1/16". Because the movement originates in the blade's pivot point, it can create a slightly angled cut.

What I Like
  1. Compound cutting capability
  2. Sliding feature
  3. Easy to use
  4. Inexpensive price

What I Dislike
  1. Free play creating non-square cuts
  2. Excessive tear-out and splintering
  3. Blade guard needed to be adjusted in order to correctly work

For the most part this is a good saw. The movement in the blade really keeps the Chicago Electric 10" Compound Slide Miter Saw 90891 from being an excellent saw. It works very well for making quick cuts where dead-on accuracy are not important or if you are going to true those cuts on a table saw or other tool. The compound angle cuts are also very useful when working with crown molding.

This Model's Rating
This is a good saw with some flaws. If it were 25% more expensive I would suggest passing on it, but since it is so competitively priced and has so many features, I think this saw could be an asset to any hobbyist or remodeler.

This Power Tool's Rating
Miter saws are great tools for the DIY and home renovator. All too often you find yourself needing to make a quick cut or two and you do not have the time to use a table saw or hand saw. The added bonus offered by compound miter saws really shine when working with a lot of molding and trim work. Properly cutting the difficult angles when working with crown molding is easy with a compound miter saw.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Lettuce, the Lead Vacuum

Lead is a soft metallic element that has long been popular in human history due to its easy malleability and low melting point. However, the relationship between humanity and lead is far from perfect. When inhaled or ingested, lead causes some serious health problems in humans. People most vulnerable are children, pregnant women, and women who are breastfeeding.

So What Does Lettuce Have to do With Lead?
Lead is a naturally occurring element that can be found all over. However, when concentrations of lead rise above natural levels, contamination has occurred. Lead contamination is mostly from lead paint used in old homes and automobile emissions. When chips from old paint, dust created by sanding or sawing wood painted with lead paint, or an excess amount of pollution is around, lead particles can settle in the soil. Have your soil tested if you think it may have a high concentration of lead.

This lead can then find its way into your body through consumption. If your garden soil has a lead problem, the highest risk of getting lead poisoning is through consuming the soil itself. Care must be taken with children (I have a nephew who absolutely loved to eat dirt as a baby, luckily he lives were the risk of lead or other human pollutants is extremely low) and if you are consuming food harvested from that soil, carefully wash it off.

Some of the lead can also be absorbed directly into the plants. Research suggests that if this is the case, the lead does not accumulate in the fruits of plants but in the leafy and rooty parts. If you want to grow a root or leafy vegetable, like carrots or lettuce, and think your soil may have a high concentration of lead, try growing lettuce. Grow a crop or two of lettuce, letting the plants get as large as they will, then dispose of the plants. If there was any lead in the soil that could have been absorbed by plants, those crops of lettuce would have sucked some of it out.

Another strategy you can use is to limit the absorption of lead by maintaining a soil pH above 6.5. Add lime to raise the pH.

If you think your soil is extremely contaminated by lead, dig it out and replace it with new top soil.

If you live near a major highway or other source of pollution, try surrounding your garden with hedges, shrubs, and trees. These plants will help filter out the lead particles in the air.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Replacing an AC Belt on an Altima

I recently had the pleasure of helping my brother replace the air conditioning belt on his 1999 Nissan Altima. Most vehicles sold today either have one serpentine belt that weaves its way around all the pulleys, or two separate belts. In the case of the Altima, the main belt drives the power steering, alternator, and water pump. A secondary belt drives the air conditioning compressor.

As a side note, reading the belt diagram or following the route of the belt is an easy way to identify these automotive components.

This diagram is general representation of a two belt system. The red line represents the main belt and the blue line represents the secondary belt.

Luckily for us, the AC belt was the outer-most belt. This meant we did not have to take the main belt off in order to change the secondary belt.

Whenever changing a belt, you will always have to relieve the belt tension. Some systems use a spring loaded automatically adjusting self tensioner that must be rotated to relieve the tension. On the Altima, the belt tension is manually adjusted by a bolt. The belt tensioner pulley is attached to a pin that can slide up or down in a bracket. Here are the steps taken to replace the belt:
  1. Remove the bolt and washer from the belt tensioner pulley (blue arrow)
  2. Remove the adjusting bolt (red arrow)
  3. Note how the pulley, pin, bracket, and adjusting bolt go together. Remove the pulley and inspect it. Lubricate or replace if needed.
  4. Remove the old belt while taking note of how it is routed.
  5. Reinstall the the pulley assembly but do not tighten the bolts yet. The pulley should freely slide up and down in the bracket.
  6. Install the new belt. Move the pulley to its highest point in order to get the belt on. It may still be a tight fit.
  7. Make sure the belt is properly seated in each of the pulleys - the crankcase (engine), AC compressor, and tensioner.
  8. Tighten the pulley bolt (blue arrow), then tighten the adjusting bolt to 26 ft. lbs.
  9. Check to make sure the belt is on tightly enough. To check, measure the amount the belt will deflect when you press against it at a point half way between two pulleys. The amount of deflection should be about 1/4" If it deflects more than that, tighten the adjusting bolt. If it does not deflect, then it is too tight and you need to loosen the adjusting bolt.
It is also a good idea to clean the the pulleys when you have the belt off. You should also check each pulley to make sure it spins freely (with the exception of the crankcase pulley). If any of the pulleys grind or resist spinning, try cleaning them or replacing them.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Extension Cord Reel

Here is a quick tip if you hate dealing with a tangled extension cord any time you try to do yard work with an electric tool: make yourself a cord reel.

We had an old garden hose reel which was being unused so I fed the female end of a 100' long extension cord through the reel's axle and wound the rest of the cord up. When the time comes to use our electric weed eater, it is simply a matter of unwinding the amount of cord we need. And the best part? When the job is finished all you have to do is reel the extension cord back in. That's it! No more extension cord tangle.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Changing Your Car's Air Filter

Changing your car's engine air filter is a quick and easy DIY maintenance job that will help your vehicle run better and more efficiently.

Check your owner's manual for the air filter change interval. A general rule of thumb is to change the filter every 30,000 miles. It is also a good idea to check the air filter every time you change the oil.

Follow the photos below to change the air filter
These photos were taken when I did the 30,000 mile maintenance tune up on our family sedan, a Ford Five Hundred. Most car's air filter housings will be similar to this, however, your vehicle's air filter housing may be slightly different. On the wife's old Malibu, the air filter housing was held closed by two screws instead of clasps like the Five Hundred. On my Ranger, the air filter housing is held together by a collar clamp (here is a video showing it on an Explorer which is the same procedure on my Ranger). In any case, it should not be difficult to open the air filter housing to change the air filter.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Remodeling the Kitchen - Part 4

In Part 1 of our kitchen remodeling adventure we saw what we had to work with.
In Part 2, we came up with a plan and started demolition.
In Part 3 we installed the sub floor and removed part of a wall.
In this Part we will prepare the sub floor for the tile by laying cement backerboard.

Here we have the Kitchen and Breakfast nook ready for tile, right? Not so fast! First we need something underneath the tile that support the tile better than plywood - backer board.

We purchased Hardibacker back board from our local Lowes. It came in 3'x5' sheets (you can see them stacked on the floor in the photo above) and we purchased enough to cover 300 sq. ft. (about 8% more than we needed). You will need to lay some sort of cement backerboard before laying tile if the tile will be over a wood or plywood subfloor. If you are laying tile over concrete, make sure the concrete is in good shape without any cracks, humps, or bowls.

Follow the manufacturer's instructions when laying the backerboard. This is how we did it:
  1. Mix some thin set mortar to peanut butter consistancy.
  2. Using a trowel with 1/4" notches, spread the thinset mortar on the subfloor. The "valleys" of mortar created by the notches should have just a thin coat of mortar covering the subfloor. Using the notched trowel will ensure a flat and even application of mortar.
  3. position the backerboard on the bed of mortar. Make sure there is an even bed of mortar underneath the board. Leave a 1/8" gap between boards - you can use tile spacers for this.
  4. Screw the board down while the mortar is still wet. The Hardibacker brand board we purchased already had the screw pattern embossed on one side. If yours does not, put screws evenly spaced about 6"-8" apart. One full sheet of 3'x5' board takes 54 screws. A note on screws: there is a certain type of screw that the manufacturer may recommend due to its self counter-sinking head that screws just under the surface of the board and its extra water resistance. I found regular 2" coarse thread drywall screws, which can be purchased much cheaper in bulk, worked just fine as long as you made sure the head of the screw was flush with the backerboard.
  5. Make sure the seams of the boards do not line up with each other, in other words, do not make a simple grid where four corners meet. Offset the pattern to where only two corners ever meet.
  6. If there are any low spots in the floor or if the floor is slightly out of level, you can use a bit extra mortar to even the surface out. You want as flat of a surface as possible, especially if you are laying large tile!
  7. Use special cement backboard tape (it looks like mesh or drywall tape) and tape and mortar the seams between boards.
I have some additional tips for laying the backerboard:
To cut the backerboard, use a carbide tipped knife to score the board. With the board well scored, snap it along the score. Traditional cement board can contain asbestos and even the newer types of backerboard that do not contain asbestos are still dangerous if you inhale dust particles. This is why you should cut the boards outside if possible and avoid using any cutting method that creates dust, like sawing. If you have to cut a lot of board, you can use a carbide blade in a circular saw but be sure to wear proper eye, ear, and respiratory protection! If you have never tiled before, working with the backerboard and mortar is good practice for the upcoming job!

Here is our kitchen and breakfast nook with the backerboard laid down and ready for the tile.

Our next installment of our kitchen renovation will be laying the tile. At this point of the project you should be excited about almost having the floor finished.!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Swapping a 2-Piece Drive Shaft for a 1-Piece in a 1983-1997 Ford Ranger

Extended cab Ford Rangers* up through the 1997 model year use a 2-piece drive shaft to connect the transmission to rear axle. In 1998, Ford replaced the 2-piece shaft with a single shaft of either steel or aluminum.

*1994 and newer Mazda B-Series trucks are mechanically identical to Ford Rangers, therefore driveshafts are interchangeable and the procedure would be the same.

Anatomy of a Drive Shaft
Before I get started, perhaps it would help if I did a quick explanation of the parts of the drive shaft.This diagram shows the drive shafts arranged so that the front is on the right and the rear of the shafts are on the left. The slip yoke slides into the transmission on two wheel drive vehicles. 4x4 vehicles have a flange that bolts onto the transfer case. The U-joints allow the drive shaft to flex and move as the vehicle's suspension travels up and down. The rear flange bolts onto the pinion flange which comes out of the rear differential (the large "pumpkin" shaped thing you see on the rear axles of trucks). The carrier bearing connects the front and aft shafts on 2-piece drive shafts.

Why and When Would You Want to Swap the Factory 2-Piece Drive Shaft for a 1-Piece?
In stock form, the 2-piece drive shaft functions without problem, however there is an extra u-joint and carrier bearing which adds to the drive line maintenance.

The 2-piece's main shortcoming is that it does not lend itself to non-stock suspension heights. Adding even a slight suspension lift kit or lowering the suspension will cause the drive shaft to vibrate at certain speeds which is not only incredibly annoying, it can also lead to premature u-joint and carrier bearing failure. This drawing I made illustrates the cause of the vibration:As you can see in the picture, in stock form, the line between the transmission and the rear differential (hidden behind the rear tire in the picture) is straight, as indicated by the red line. When the vehicle's suspension is raised, the transmission (large silver object in picture) and carrier bearing (light blue object that connects the fore shaft and rear shaft) are also raised because they are connected to the vehicle's frame. This takes the driveline out from the straight line and causes the u-joints on the drive shaft to operate at extreme angles. This in turn causes a vibration that usually occurs at very slow speeds and highway speeds.

There are two possible corrections for this problem.
1. Lower the carrier bearing. By dropping the carrier bearing, you can help restore the proper angle of the drive line. However, it is impossible to completely remove the vibration because the front and back of the 2-piece drive shaft will never be in phase with each other.
2. Replace the 2-piece drive shaft with a single piece. You have two options within this option: get a custom drive shaft made at high expense, or find a used drive shaft from a newer Ranger, usually at a very reasonable rate.

It may seem like #1 would be easier, but swapping out the entire drive shaft is no more work. I have done both with my truck and would highly recommend skipping the hassle you will face trying to fine tune the carrier bearing height and go straight for the drive shaft swap.

Which Drive Shaft Can I Use?
All 1998 and newer Rangers* with the extended cab (sometimes called supercab) come with a single piece driveshaft, however, you will need to get the right one. The easiest way is to match up the specifications of your truck with the donor truck. These criteria will need to be fulfilled in order to get a good match:
  • Same drive train: 4x4 or 4x2?
  • Same transmission type: Automatic transmission or manual?
If your truck is a 4x4, it will not matter what type of transmission the donor truck has because the driveshaft attaches to the transfer case.

Note: 1983-1989 Rangers use a smaller flange on the rear axle. You will need to swap the rear u-joint section with one from the front of the shaft.

Note: If you get a drive shaft from a 4x4 with the aluminum drive shaft, it will have a larger transfer case flange and you will either need to swap in a smaller u-joint unit from the rear of the shaft (the exact opposite of what you need to do in the 1983-1989 note) or swap the flange on the transfer case.

You may ask where you can find a suitable drive shaft for the swap. Your best bet is a junkyard. You may also have luck searching online used car part sites (e-junkyards), online auction sites, or classified sections of online Ranger forums (there are several good ones). I purchased mine off a fellow member of a Ranger forum at a decent price.

There are two types of drive shafts available: steel and aluminum. I first thought all the shafts from 4x4s were steel and all from 4x2s were aluminum, but that is not entirely true, some of the newer 4x4s have aluminum shafts and I have heard of a few rare instances of 4x2s with steel shafts. It really boils down to availability and personal preference.

What Else Will I Need To Swap Drive Shafts?
The only tool you will need to swap the drive shafts is a 12mm 12-point socket and ratchet. Unfortunately, that is not all that needs to be done. Remember that carrier bearing on your old drive shaft? It is attached to a frame cross member. That cross member must be removed too, and that is no easy task.
So, besides the socket for the drive shaft you will need an angle grinder with metal cutting/grinding wheel, a punch and heavy hammer.

Before You Remove the Drive Shaft
You will want to set the parking brake and block the wheels before removing the drive shaft. Having the transmission in Park will do nothing once the drive shaft is removed since the transmission will no longer be attached to the wheels.

Removing the Carrier Bearing Cross Member
The first step is perhaps the hardest: freeing the frame cross member that supports the carrier bearing. The cross member is held onto the frame with two large rivets on either end. In addition to the rivets, each end of the cross member has a tab that sticks through a small slot in the side of the frame.Here you see a cross section of the frame where the cross member is riveted on. The yellow piece is the frame rail, the green section is the cross member, and the red part is a rivet. The green arrow points to the cross member tab that sticks through a slot cut in the frame. The red arrow points out the head of the rivet.

Start by grinding the rivet head off. Hold the grinder so that the sparks fly away from the vehicle since the gas tank is nearby. If you need to, improvise a spark shield out of cardboard or some other suitable material to place between where you are grinding and the gas tank.

When the rivet head has been completely ground off you need to take your metal punch, a stout metal bar, or some other suitable tool and use a heavy hammer to punch the rivet up and out of the hole. Repeat for the second rivet on the side you are working on, then move to the other side of the cross member and remove those two rivets.

On 4x4 models, you will also need to remove the gas tank skid plate.

With the rivets removed, you will need to remove the tabs from the ends of the cross member. I used the grinder to remove as much of the metal as I could from end of the tab protruding through the frame, then used a chisel and hammer and pounded the rest of the tab back, bending it and getting it free from the slot in the frame rail. Alternatively, you could cut the cross member in two and then slide each end out.

When the cross member is free it should just be resting on the inside of the frame. Our attention now moves to the carrier bearing. It is mounted onto the cross member by two bolts. Remove those bolts.

Position a jack stand under the carrier bearing because once we remove the cross member, the bearing will not be supported. You will have to rotate the cross member in order to get it completely free and off the vehicle. Exhaust and fuel system components may be in the way. With a little work, the cross member should come out. With the cross member out, support the carrier bearing with the jack stand.

Note: This cross member's only function is to support the carrier bearing, therefore it is safe to completely remove the cross member and discard it.

Removing the Drive Shaft
The dive shaft is attached at the rear differential flange by bolts. You will need a 12-point 12mm socket or wrench to remove the bolts. Once all the bolts are removed, the rear of the driveshaft should come loose. If it is still stuck on the flange (which it very well might be), try giving it a few light blows with a rubber mallet. Just be careful to not damage the mounting surface on the differential side.

When the rear of the drive shaft is loose, slowly pull the front of the drive shaft (the slip yoke) out of the transmission (4x2 models) or unbolt the front flange from the transfer case (4x4 models). The old 2-piece drive shaft should now be free from the vehicle!

Installing the "New" Drive Shaft
Before you install the new shaft, lubricate the teeth in the slip yoke with a little grease. Also notice that there is one tooth missing, this is for indexing purposes. If you look at the transmission you will see how the slip yoke (front of the driveshaft) needs to be orientated to slip into the transmission. Now is also a good time to inspect the transmission seal and replace if needed (if it is leaking transmission fluid out of the output shaft - where you will be inserting the drive shaft).

Orientate the drive shaft slip yoke with the transmission and insert it. If it does not want to go in, slowly turn the slip yoke until the indexing teeth match up. Slide the drive shaft slip yoke in slowly until you can bring the rear of the drive shaft up and rest it against the differential flange.

With the rear flanges lined up, reinstall the 12mm 12-point bolts. Tighten the bolts a little at a time to even out the pressure, like when you tighten wheel lug nuts. Fully tighten them to 85 ft. lbs.

Release the parking brake and remove the wheel blocks.

And there you have it, a nice solid 1-piece drive shaft!

Some Additional Notes:
I got a lot of the information, especially concerning the 4x4 instructions, from this site. Many thanks to that article's author.

You can also see how I originally went about lowering the carrier bearing before I decided to simply swap drive shafts by reading this carrier bearing relocation article here.

I can also say that there were no clearance issues for me using an aluminum drive shaft in a 2wd truck. Some people say you may have to modify the floor boards or lower the transmission to accommodate the aluminum shaft's larger diameter, but that is not true.

Apart from removing the carrier bearing cross member, this was an easy and affordable swap that has completely eliminated the drive line vibrations I was having after lifting the truck.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Planting Fruit Trees

As Spring is quickly blossoming and memories of freezing temperatures are quickly fading, we decided it would be a good time to start planting.

One Saturday's project was to plant four dwarf fruit trees along the edge of our driveway. We do not have much land since we live near the middle of the city, so the trees we picked had to be small. We will still have to prune them to keep their size in check if they survive and grow past these next couple of years.

Here are the steps we took to plant our sapling trees:
  1. Carefully decided what types of trees we wanted and if the space we had to plant them was large enough, got the right amount of moisture, and had enough sun exposure.
  2. Spaced the trees 10'-15' apart.
  3. Dug a hole the depth of the tree's roots (the depth of the pot) and about 3 times the width; used a shovel to break up any large clumps of dirt.
  4. We added some Peat Moss and Cow Manure/Humus Mixture into the hole for fertilizer.
  5. Used a shovel to mix the peat moss and manure blend with the dirt.
  6. Placed the tree into the hole with the base of the trunk at ground level.
  7. Gently spread the roots out and loosened the root ball soil.
  8. Filled the hole up with dirt and stepped on it to compact it and remove any air pockets.
  9. Liberally watered the area around the tree. Placed more dirt around if necessary.
  10. We still need to add mulch around the base of the tree. The mulch should be 2"-3" thick but should not touch the tree bark.
The best time to plant trees is in the Spring or Fall. Try to plant them when it is overcast or either early or late in the day.
We were lucky as it rained all day long and was overcast the day after the trees were planted.

An Afternoon of Planting Dwarf Fruit Trees
We planted a peach, apricot (ours is supposed to only get about 10' tall, not like this apricot tree, the largest in Nevada), and two plum trees. The plum trees were slightly different varieties but were recommended for cross pollination. We both cannot wait until they start producing fruit! (It can take a couple of years before they will produce anything, but when they do, they will pay for themselves very quickly.)

Here are some photos of our afternoon of fun in the dirt.

Four trees, peat moss, and 200 lbs. of cow "moonure" & humus mixture ready to go.

Hopefully within a few years there will be four fruit producing trees along this fence.

Everything is set in place.

Digging the hole.

Adding the peat moss and manure/humus. Does this qualify as a dirty job?

Mixing the soil, peat moss, and manure/humus.

Tree in the hole!

Filling the hole with top soil.

This peach tree has a new home (I hope it likes it)

Here's how the row looks now (it's hard to see a difference since the trees are so small)

Looking down the row of trees. I can imagine when they are 10' tall and producing all kinds of delicious fruit!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tool Review: Firestorm FS200SD / Black & Decker BDTS200 10" Table Saw

Occasionally I will write a review of a tool I have used. In no way do I pretend to be a professional, as this blog should show, but I also have found some of the most helpful reviews to be by "average joes" like me. All the tools I will review should be within the budget for most homeowners and weekend warriors.

Table saws come in five basic designs:
  • Bench Top - Small and portable saws often sold as introductory table saws.
  • Contractor - Heavier duty motor and larger table than bench top. Motor usually drives a belt to turn the saw blade.
  • Hybrid - Motor from a contractor's saw with the design of cabinet saw
  • Cabinet - Large motor requiring 220 volt, 3 phase wiring (will not work with your standard household wiring). Has large table and is extremely heavy.
  • European - As large and expensive as a cabinet saw, these saws use a sliding table to move the work piece to the blade.
The Firestorm FS200SD and its identical twin, the Black & Decker BDTS200, are low-end budget bench top saws. The small table of this saw limits its use to small boards. You will not be able to rip full sized (4'x8') sheets of plywood on this saw without some serious modification or help. If you are planning on ripping long boards on this saw's scant table, I would suggest using an out-feed support jig. You can purchase one that is basically a roller mounted on an adjustable shaft, but a frugal alternative - which would probably be what you want if all you can afford is this table saw - would be to clamp an old paint roller to a saw horse.

Another quick and easy jig you can make for any table saw is a miter gauge extension. Simply take a straight board about 2"-4" tall and 8"-18" long and affix it to the front of your miter gauge so that one end protrudes past the blade. Then, with the blade set to its maximum height, run the miter gauge through so that the blade trims the wood extension. Now, when you place a board to cut on your table saw you can line up the cut mark with the edge of the miter gauge extension and you will know exactly where the cut will be made.

So How Good is the Firestorm FS200SD / Black & Decker BDTS200 Table Saw?As I mentioned before, this saw is priced as an introductory saw. At Lowes, it could be found for anywhere from $80-$130. That is very inexpensive for a table saw, but is it worth it to shell out that kind of money or are you better off if you save your pennies and put them towards a different table saw? Read on for more information that will help you make that decision.

The saw comes in a large box with the motor, blade assembly, and table pre-assembled. You have to assemble the stand with the provided hardware and instructions. It should take about half an hour; or, you can fore go the stand and clamp the saw on a workbench or table.

The table is made out of aluminum and, combined with the plastic housing, is very light. The stand also includes two wheels, so this is definitely back-friendly to move around the work shop.

Black & Decker included a rip fence that can be mounted in the integrated fence rail and can be adjusted to about 12" to the right side of the blade and 9" to the left. The fence locks in place by a cam lock activated by pushing the lever at the front of the fence down. With a bit of coaxing the fence can lock down square to the blade, but do not expect it to keep square. I was able to move the back end of the fence about 1/8" from side to side even after the fence was locked in place.

A miter gauge comes with the table saw as well. It fits into non-standard t-slots milled into the table top surface. You can adjust the miter gauge by loosening the bolt on top and rotating the gauge. There are no stops at common angles, so you will have to be very careful when setting the angle.

The saw blade that comes with the table saw is a generic carbide-tipped blade designed to be sufficient at most cuts. It actually leaves a smooth edge and performs better than I would expect with such an inexpensive saw. It can be easily changed to accept any blade up to 10" You can also use a stacked dado blade (up to 1/2" wide) with this saw, though you will have to make, buy, or remove a blade insert.

The controls for the saw on all on the front. The large, prominent wheel raises and lowers the blade. To tilt the blade (up to 45 degrees) you have to unlock the lever and then manually lift the blade assembly (using the blade height adjusting wheel as a handle helps) to the desired angle.
The on/off switch is a small toggle switch low on the base. I would much prefer a larger switch within easy reach. The small switch can cause a problem if you ever need to shut the saw off in an emergency.
Some other miscellaneous features and points about the Firestorm saw include a convenient miter gauge holder on the side of the saw. There are also threaded bolt holes on the right hand side of the table that you could use to build your own table extension. This tool comes with a dust collector bag which can help keep your work area clean, however sometimes I think the spinning blade actually sucks some of the dust out of the bag and spews it out into the air over the table saw. This saw seems to make a lot more dust than my other table saw.

What I Like
  1. Light weight and portable
  2. With some fine tuning you can get straight cuts
  3. 15 Amp motor has plenty of power
  4. Table top is true and flat
  5. Included blade works well

What I Dislike
  1. Fence does not stay straight
  2. Built-in rail system
  3. Non-standard t-slot miter slots
  4. Cheap miter gauge
  5. Plastic housing
  6. Small on/off switch located too far away from work area

Although the Firestorm FS200SD / Black & Decker can make a decent cut I think its small size and non-standard accessories severely limit its functionality. A good circular saw will be a much more useful tool for cutting large pieces of plywood and a good power miter saw will do just as good of a job cross cutting boards.

Woodworkers often say that the table saw is the center of the work shop. That may be true for the larger table saws, but this saw will probably be relegated to the side lines.

This Model's Rating
I will say this, if you need a small and simple table saw to make quick cuts on small boards, this table saw will be great if you can find it for about $50. If you need a table saw for jobs best suited for table saws, I would highly recommend saving your money and getting a contractor style saw.
With that being said, I think this saw does a satisfactory job at cutting wood - even thick wood, but due to non-standard miter slots and fence and rail system, there are no aftermarket accessories you can get for it. The non-standard miter slots really bother me because virtually every other table saw uses a standard 3/8" deep by 3/4" wide miter slot.

If you are looking for your first table saw, I would suggest browsing the used market. Free online classified websites, such as Craigslist, can have many table saws that offer so much more at similar prices. Or, if you want to buy new you can get some a decent entry level contractor's table saw in the $350 price range on sale. Yes, that is potentially more than twice the cost of the Firestorm saw, but if you buy the inexpensive Firestorm and out grow it within a year, you will be spending that money on a better saw anyway.

This Power Tool's Rating
Bench Top table saws are a niche product. They can be very useful filling this niche, but unfortunately they are also marketed towards novice weekend warriors and hobbyists who may not fully understand the tool's inherent strengths and weaknesses. I think the weekend warrior will be served by saving his or her money and completely skipping bench-top style table saws in favor of either a larger table saw or simply substituting a circular saw and miter saw.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Changing Your Car's Oil

Changing the oil in your vehicle is one of the best ways to keep it in good shape, in fact, when most people think of mechanics and car maintenance, I am willing to bet the first thing that pops into mind is an oil change. A whole industry has emerged promising quick, convenient, and cheap oil changes - the quick lube shops.

DIY oil changes are a great way to save money, make sure the job is done correctly, and get more familiar with your vehicle. It is not very hard and requires a minimal investment in tools.

The location of the oil filter is the only significant difference between car models when changing the oil, so these instructions should be helpful no matter what type of car you have.Today's oil change will feature the family sedan, a Ford Five Hundred.

Parts and Materials
From Left to Right
Top: Catch Pan, Rag, Jack (with Handle), Jack Stand
Bottom: Ratchet, Oil Filter Wrench, Socket Extension, Socket, Funnel, Oil Filter, Oil

The Jack and Jack Stand are optional. You may be able to use car ramps to gain clearance. If your vehicle sits high enough you will not need anything, just crawl under it. If you do use a jack, you will usually only need to jack one side up enough to gain a little clearance. Remember to always place a jack stand under a lifted vehicle for extra support. Never rely on the jack alone!

There are also several types of oil filter wrenches. I prefer the cup style wrench that fits onto your ratchet (pictured). There are also strap style wrenches and large pliers oil filter wrenches.Pictured above are a cup-style wrench (actually two stuck together) and a strap-style oil filter wrench. What I like about the orange cup wrench is that it will fit multiple sizes of oil filters.

To remove the drain plug, you will need a socket with ratchet or a box-end wrench. I do not recommend using an adjustable crescent wrench because there is a good chance you will round the edges of the bolt off. Every vehicle I have changed oil in so far requires either a 13mm, 14mm, or 15mm socket/wrench to remove the drain plug.

Make sure to purchase the correct oil filter. Any auto parts store will be able to get the correct filter for you. The brand of filter you get is entirely up to you. For what it is worth, I prefer Motorcraft and Wix and I avoid Fram.

When choosing oil, make sure you get the correct viscosity. The oil viscosity, represented by a number with a W, a dash, and a second number (i.e. 5W-30), is the thickness of the oil. The number with the W represents the oil's thickness when it is cold out (think Winter). The higher the number, the thicker the oil. The second number is the oil's thickness at normal or operating temperature.
So, if a car is going to be driven in the cold winter of a northern state, which oil should you use, a 10W-30 or a 5W-30? If you said 5W-30 you are correct. The oil will be thinner when it is cold so that when you start the car, the oil will flow more freely throughout the engine providing lubrication faster than a thicker oil.

You will also have to choose between three basic types of oil: conventional, synthetic blend, and synthetic. To make matters even more confusing is that there are many different selections within the basic type of oil, for example you can get conventional oil for high mileage vehicles, anti-sludge oil, oil specially formulated for trucks and SUVs, and so on.
Basically, the synthetic oils will last longer before you will need to change your oil again.
There is a lot of information, misinformation, and opinions on motor oils. If you would like to really get into it, I would suggest visiting this site.

To find what type of oil your car uses you can consult your owner's manual, the oil cap, research it online or ask the person working at an auto parts store.

It's Time For An Oil Change
Some people recommend changing the oil when the engine is still hot. I prefer an engine that has been driven a few hours ago, that way the oil or exhaust system which you may brush against while under the car are not hot enough to burn you, yet the oil is still warm and will flow freely when we drain it. So, without further adieu, here are the oil change instructions:

Step 1 - Blocking the Wheels and Setting the Parking Brake
Since I will be using a jack to lift one corner of the car, I need to first block the wheel caddy-corner to the corner I will be lifting. I will jack the front passenger side up, so I will block the rear driver's side wheel and apply the parking brake.
Step 2 - Jacking the Front End Up
Find the jacking location nearest the corner you want to lift. On most cars, the jacking location is a notch in the subframe behind the front wheel or in front of the rear wheel. Raise the vehicle high enough to get a jack stand underneath.
Step 3 - Loosening the Oil Fill Cap
Open the hood of the car and loosen the oil cap.
Step 4 - Locating the Drain Plug and Oil Filter
Search underneath the vehicle for the drain plug and oil filter. The drain plug will be on the oil pan. The oil pan will be a ribbed metal pan and is attached to the bottom of the engine. the drain plug may be on the bottom or one of the sides of the pan. Note: your car may also have a transmission drain plug. Look at where the engine is from above, in a front wheel drive vehicle (almost all cars sold today), the engine will be offset to one side or another. Use this as a guide to distinguishing between the oil pan and the transmission pan.You will also need to find the oil filter. The oil filter will be very close to the oil pan, but may be farther up (when laying on your back looking up) the engine. On my wife's old 2001 Chevrolet Malibu, the filter was located in front of the oil pan but a plastic splash shield had to first be removed from the vehicle in order to reach it. On my brother's 1999 Nissan Altima, the filter was located on the back side of the oil pan and was tucked away, partially blocked by other engine components. On my 1996 Ford Ranger, the oil filter hangs down right beside the oil pan. On the Five Hundred, the oil filter is in plain site and is easily accessible (it is the blue canister in the photo below).
Step 5 - Draining the Oil
Now that you know where the drain plug and filter are, you can proceed to drain the oil. Position the catch pan under the car within convenient reach. It does not have to be below the drain plug just yet. With your ratchet and socket or box-end wrench, loosen the drain plug.If the plug is too stubborn to get loose with just a wrench there are a couple of tricks you can try. First, you can slip a length of pipe over the handle of your wrench to increase the amount of leverage you have. The length of the pipe will be dictated on how much clearance you have to turn it under the car.
Another neat trick to use if there is enough room around the drain plug, is to clamp a large pair of vice grips on the other end of your wrench. With two handles you can apply more torque with the wrench to get the drain plug loose.
With the drain plug loose, put your wrench out of the way, get your rag by your side and slide the catch pan under the plug. Continue loosening the plug with your hand.You will know when it is almost ready to come out because a small trickle of oil will start falling into the catch pan. I try to push the plug against the hole while loosening it so that the drain plug does not fall into the catch pan and become lost in a sea of used motor oil. Pull the plug away from the drain when the last threads of the drain plug are free and watch the oil pour out. Use your rag to clean your hand (no matter how quickly you pull the plug away from the drain you will get some oil on you) and clean the plug. If the plug or plug gasket are damaged, get a new one from the auto parts store (I've never had to do this so I don't think it is very common).When all the oil has drained (a drip every few seconds), clean the drain surface with your rag and reinsert the drain plug. Tighten the plug with your hand as tight as you can get it, then use the wrench to tighten it a little more. It does not have to be extremely tight, just a good snug fit with a wrench will be sufficient.

Step 6 - Removing the Oil Filter
This step can potentially be the hardest depending on who installed the oil filter the last time. If it was installed correctly, the filter should not be too hard, but I have run into cases where the previous person over tightened the oil filter making it nearly impossible to remove it.

The first thing you will need to consider is how to get at the filter. In some cases it may be simple, in other cases you may have to remove parts that are in your way. Once you can get at the filter try to loosen it by twisting it counter clockwise. Try using an oil filter wrench if you cannot twist it with your hand (see the oil filter wrench section under Parts and Materials).
With the filter loose, position the catch pan underneath and make sure your head and body are as far away from the oil filter as possible in case it falls down and splashes oil everywhere. Use care when removing the oil filter because there may still be a lot of oil in the filter and it is often messy when the filter comes all the way off.
Place the old filter face down on the catch pan so the oil drains and take a rag to clean where the oil filter mates to the engine.
At this point you can remove the catch pan from underneath the car and place it out of the way.

Step 7 - Installing the New Oil Filter
Take your new oil filter out of its box and pour a dab of new motor oil on it. Use your finger to rub that little bit of oil onto the entire rubber gasket.
Next, screw the new filter on. It does not need to be on very tightly. Do not use an oil filter wrench to tighten it or you will never get it off the next time you change the oil. Tighten it by hand. The rubber gasket that you rubbed the oil on will expand once the car is driven so there should be no worry of it becoming loose.

Step 8 - Filling the Engine With New Oil
Before you pour the new oil in, double check to make sure the drain plug and oil filter are installed correctly. When you are sure both are on, remove the engine oil cap and slowly pour the new motor oil in. Using a funnel will help a lot. When the correct amount of oil has been poured into the engine, replace the oil cap.
Step 9 - Clean Up
I like to use the same funnel and place its neck into the now empty bottle(s) of motor oil. Drain the used motor oil from the catch pan back into the empty bottle(s).
Most auto part stores will take used motor oil; other places that may recycle oil could be local recycling centers, automotive shops, and some gas stations. Check to see if they take old oil filters as well. If you cannot find a place that will take used oil filters, leave the filter upside down on the catch pan (like in the first photo of this article - see the blue filter?) for a couple of days. It takes a while for the oil to fully drain out. After that time and can dispose of the old filter.

End Thoughts
There you have it, a fresh fill of clean oil! Your car will thank you as will your wallet. Getting a "cheap" oil change around here costs about $20-$25 and most places use bulk oil and cheap filters. Some places also do synthetic oil changes but charge $40-$55. Using conventional oil, your oil change should be about $15. Using synthetic oil will raise the price to about $25-$30. I use mostly synthetic or synthetic blend oil and good oil filters and pay anywhere from $15-$28. The $15 oil changes are using fully synthetic oil I got on sale; you can sometimes find great deals out there!

And to close, how often should you change your oil? Trust me, there is a LOT of debate about that, so I will offer my opinion as just that, another opinion.

If you use conventional oil, I would go about 3,000 to 4,000 miles between oil changes. With each oil change, check the old oil that is draining out. If you stick your finger or the end of your wrench into the stream of draining oil you can make it fan out into a thin sheet. This will allow you to see through the oil and better judge its state. Do not judge used oil by its color alone. Just because it is a deep black does not mean it is bad and needs to be changed (though it often does).

You really want to watch out for a milkshake consistency, chunkiness, or small metal shavings in the oil. These all point to potentially severe problems. A milkshake look means you have coolant or water leaking into the engine which means a blown gasket. Chunkiness indicates you have a sludge problem, and small metal debris can indicate a wide number of possible engine problems.

So checking the condition of the oil will help you decide how long you want to go between oil changes. This is especially true when it comes to synthetics. A conservative time table for synthetic oil change intervals would be 5,000 - 6,000 miles. It is possible to go twice that distance if the oil and filter are still in good shape, but the only way to truly know that is by getting it analyzed at an oil laboratory. If you are interested in finding more about oil analysis you can visit this site.
As for me? I do 5,000 mile oil change intervals on the Five Hundred using a synthetic blend oil and every 6 months on my Ranger using full synthetic oil.

So I leave you with that. Congratulations on your oil change!