Sometimes things just work out well. But often that isn’t the case when you’d really like or you really need them to work out. Often they don’t work out under adverse conditions. Like when its very bloody cold outside. Today was one of those days when things just worked out about as well as they possibly could have. But first – as my neighbour Barry says – you need to know the back story.
Rewind to the winter of 2007-2008. We were spending our first fulltime bus winter in Florida, recovering from putting a new engine in the bus and trying to figure out what we were going to do with the stuff we hadn’t thrown out or given away. We had consolidated our possessions down to a greatly reduced amount but there was some stuff that we just couldn’t part with. That winter the surplus was living in our old barn courtesy of the agreement we had with the purchaser of our acreage but we knew that by the next summer we had to come up with a plan.
Initially I thought maybe we would buy an enclosed trailer so I was watching Kijiji, Craigslist, Autotrader – all the usual sources. Somehow I stumbled onto a diesel cubevan that was for sale in Saskatoon for $2,700. RJ was attending university in Saskatoon at the time so I got him to have a look at it, beat the seller down to $2,500 and mailed him a cheque. I knew the van was no virgin but it had a Powerstroke and I have a lot of faith in that engine. I figured “how bad can it be if I’ve only got $2,500 in it?” Well it turned out that how bad it could be cost me another $3,000 to get it running reliably. But in return for that it stored our stuff, hauled it all to BC and back and towed the trucklet to BC on the first trip. I figure that was pretty good value and by last spring I didn’t figure the old girl owed us anything.
Last spring we decided that we no longer really needed the van so I listed it on all those same free websites. I didn’t get a whole lot of calls but it only takes one and that one came from a guy in Yorkton who wanted to use it for a furniture moving business that he is trying to start. We settled on $2,500 but with a twist. He gave me $1,000 in the spring and wanted me to hold the van until he could come up with the balance owing. I didn’t figure I had much to lose – let’s be honest here – we figured the van was essentially worthless - so I held his money and we agreed he would pay the balance by Dec. 31. As winter approached I thought it was going to be a real fustercluck whenever he came up with the money. Most of the time when I actually gave it any thought, I thought he likely wouldn’t come up with the money and I would be back to trying to sell it again next spring. So you can imagine my surprise when he phoned me yesterday and wanted to come pick it up today.
First off I was intensely relieved because for the amount of money involved it wouldn’t have been worthwhile driving out here to help him pick it up if I had anything else going on. My concern however immediately turned to how to start a frozen diesel engine with summer fuel in the tank. I wasn’t even sure it had a block heater and when I discovered a cord hanging from the front of the van I had no assurance that it would actually warm the engine. I plugged it in anyway and thought I could hear a heater starting up but that was only part of my worry. Since it had summer fuel in the tank my biggest worry was that we would get it running, it would suck the filters dry and then die, never to start again until the weather warmed up. BTDT.
My old 930 Case used to be famous for that trick. I never used it enough to keep the fuel turned over so it had whatever it had when winter struck and then I would try to use it to feed the damn sheep. I kept it in the shop with the recirculating heater plugged in so it always started just fine. But then I’d get out in the yard pushing snow or feeding sheep and it would start to lose power as the fuel slowly gelled up. If I was lucky and noticed the power loss immediately I could usually limp it back to the shop and warm it up again. But if I missed the first signs of power loss or if it gelled up quickly, there I’d be, out in the yard, freezing my fingers on frozen fuel, trying to bleed the lines and get the miserable brute running again. There but for fuel treatment was where I was afraid we would go this morning.
So first thing after breakfast I headed into the Petrocan in Canora. They had some kind of emergency fuel conditioner that is designed to be dumped in the tank after it has already gelled up so that is what I bought. I figured the regular winter treatment that needs to be mixed with the fuel might not be much good if the tank and filters were already starting to gel up. I dumped that in the tank and then tried to start the old girl. I figured I would roll it over a few times to generate some heat in the block and then get serious about starting it. “Get serious” in this case means give it a shot of ether because that is the way we have had to start that engine literally since we brought it home. I don’t think it has ever started cold without ether. After it has run and warmed up you could shut it down to buy fuel or go shopping, come back to it and it would start without ether. But first thing in the AM, guaranteed it would need a little sniff of go-juice. So I deliberately didn’t give it any ether this morning, thinking that a bit of cranking would be good for it to get the oil circulating and generate some heat of compression in the block. The technical term for that is “heat soaking” and it is a common starting technique for the old 2-stroke diesels like the one we have in the frenchy-bus. Except that this time I hit the key and almost immediately the engine started firing.
And wonder of wonders it started. It ran rough for a few seconds until all the cylinders got used to firing and then settled into a typical cold Powerstroke clatter. Unbelievable.
Even though it was running I didn’t figure I was out of the woods until it had run for long enough to circulate the conditioner from the tank up into the filters so I left it idling while I texted SWMBO to tell her how happy I was. Half an hour later I thought it had stalled because there was no smoke coming from the exhaust & I couldn’t hear the famous clatter any longer but when I stuck my head out the door it was still running, just very quietly. The heater fan wasn’t working but I didn’t have to drive it to Yorkton so I didn’t stress about that too much. That’s not very nice of me I know but I figure starting it at minus 20 was enough contribution on my part – the new owner needs to kick in at least a little bit. So after all that I was kind of sad to see the old girl go down the road – she served us well.