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Things Aren't Going as Smoothly as Planned


I always plan for things to go smoothly. I think my mother is responsible. She ingrained a persistent optimism that lives at the very base of my brain that won't go away. You would think it would be a blessing. Not necessarily. My optimism and best laid plans are persistently mocked by a reality with malicious  intent. Then, it's a drag as I constantly note this or that didn't go quite as planned. Gotta ditch the plan and handle reality.

Sometimes, I wonder if that "optimism" is really a rosy sense of entitlement. I wouldn't be surprised. I think you would have to see yourself objectively to know the difference. How many of us know our objective self? I'm guessing not many and how could you know someone you never met? The distinction between optimism and entitlement may be tough to parse.

I put my resume on Craigslist last week and might as well have posted a message saying, "SPAM ME!!!!!" Not one real inquiry but lots of "job offers" for a personal assistant asking me to submit gobs of personal information.

The Friday before last, I get a message on my vehicle's dash that the battery isn't charging. It finally lost all its juice Sunday as I pulled into my driveway. Thankfully I made it home. The two main possibilities are the battery and the alternator. Batteries are cheaper and mine might still be under warranty. For no apparent reason, I decided it was the battery. I do know why. It was the subconscious influence of psychotic optimism I blame on my mother. I confidently remove the battery and take it to Sam's Club where they're able to figure out that I bought it just under three years ago. It's still under warranty and they very courteously give me a free replacement!


Once home, I install the new battery and drive to the store. On my way there, the warning light comes back on. I make it home but it conks out just as I pulled into my driveway. I guess it wasn't the battery after all.

I probably got a free battery replacement I wasn't entitled to. Note to Sam's Club. You should probably test the batteries people return to be sure they're defective before you replace them. I'm not going to bring my new one back though. Someone will probably get in trouble, my old battery probably isn't there anymore, and there's a chance it was defective. A defective battery can ruin your alternator by making it work too hard. It was pretty good customer service anyway and I decide to leave it at that.

Now, I know for sure the battery is working. The problem must be with the alternator. It costs about $350 to get a new alternator installed. That's not an option for someone unemployed. I've never done any serious work on my car before but I'm about to.


On Monday, I buy a new alternator from Advance Auto Parts online. I get a 20% discount by using a discount code at checkout. It ended up costing me around $160 including tax. I drive up the street in my wife's car and pick it up. I figure I can find instructions or a video online that will tell me how to install it, but I don't. I have to go back and buy a manual.

I get started but soon find I need a serpentine belt tool that helps create slack so you can remove the serpentine belt. It's not much; about $20. I order it online and get my 20% off. Again, I'm off to Advance Auto Parts to pick it up. Once back home and I'm ready to continue. They would have lent me a belt tool for free if they had it in the back but someone else checked it out. I like those guys at Advance Auto Parts. They want to help.

I get the alternator on fairly smoothly. However, it didn't just slide effortlessly in place like the manual described. I have to work to get it in there. Finally, I'm all but finished. All I have to do is connect the negative battery cable to the battery. But, it won't reach. Maybe that's why the alternator didn't cooperate. I take everything apart again. When I do, I find out I screwed a wire onto the alternator in the wrong direction which took away some of the line leading to the battery. I unscrew the wire and screw it back on in the right direction this time.


I get the alternator back on, connect the negative battery cable, and am eager to take it for a test drive. No more charge failure light! However, now my vehicle stalls when idling. I look in the manual. It could be spark plugs, the fuel filter, or a leak in the vacuum line. I have 133,000 miles on my vehicle and haven't changed the spark plugs or fuel filter since I bought it. I also wonder if I caused a vacuum line to leak when I installed the alternator.

I've never worked on my vehicle before and was in a learning curve. A tight budget will make one take on challenges one wouldn't take on otherwise. Necessity leads us.

Monday morning, I take the old alternator back to Advance Auto Parts for a $10 refund. They can't find the paperwork, so they can't give me a refund. I have to return home to get my receipt. On the way, my car stalls again but starts right back up. I order spark plugs and anti seize compound online, getting 20% off again, and drive over to my good friends at Advance Auto Parts with my alternator receipt.

I get my $10 deposit, spark plugs, and anti seize goo. As soon as I get home, I get to work and replace all six spark plugs. I get into the car to run an errand and the darn thing is running rough; really rough. I wonder if I'll make it home. Once again, I do.


I have a pretty good idea what it is. I start the next morning after I collect enough patience to start over. Changing spark plugs isn't what it used to be. I remove the air intake cover, unscrew two clamps, remove two sensors, and remove the air intake resonator. You still can't see the spark plugs. Each one is under its own ignition coil and there is no distributor cap. The first ignition coil was blocked so that you can't pull it straight up to remove it. You also have to slip it back on at an angle. I'm guessing it didn't seat properly when I put it back on because it did not go on as smoothly as the rest of them.

I pry up the part that was blocking it, remove the ignition coil, and re-seat it going straight down this time. I put everything back together and start it up. It runs great! I take it for a test drive. However, the darn thing still stalls; the very I was trying to fix in the first place!

When I purchased the spark plugs, I checked the gap, in front of the sales guy, and looked at him and asked him, "Do you think that's close enough?" They were at .035 inch and it's supposed to be .042 inch on my vehicle. He didn't indicate that was a problem, so, I ended up installing the new plugs without gaping them to .042 inch. It turns out that a vehicle will stall if the spark plugs aren't gaped properly. So, I pick up a gap tool at Advance Auto Parts for under $2.00.

I remove the intake resonator, then, each coil and spark plug, one at a time, setting the gap at .042 inch. It was much faster this time. I knew by heart what to remove and the size of each bolt I had to remove making it easy to select the right socket. I put everything back together, screw the negative battery cable back on, and take it for a test drive. It drives smoother than ever. However, it still stalls and kind of lopes when it's idling, but not as bad.

I'm going to replace the fuel filter tomorrow since that's overdue. I need to buy a jack and jack stands because it's located next to the gas tank. The guy at Advance Auto Parts tells me they have them for $40. The fuel filter is about $18. I think I can get 20% off. If that fails to fix the stalling, I'm going to take to Upton Tire Pros to check for a vacuum hose leak.

You can learn a lot by fixing your car. Mainly, patience and perseverance. Then, following directions to avoid redoing something; like taking the spark plugs back out to gap them. Some mistakes are not avoidable. Nowhere did I find anything about putting that wire on the alternator in the correct direction. That's the messy part of life. Dealing with surprise non-obvious challenges. You can figure out some things as you go, but you'll miss something now and then along the way.

In the end, I found the whole experience satisfying and am going to continue. After I replace the fuel filter, I need to replace some cracked engine mounts, the serpentine belt, and I need new shocks in the front. I hear they're easy to replace yourself. I'll see.

Does anyone else out there wrestle with stuff like this? I wonder if my job search is destined to take a similar path? Somewhere in the back of my mind, something tells me that everything will go smoothly.

Alston, I just wanted you to know in detail why I missed the men's group last Friday when I said I was going to be there and I apologize.


Sign photo by Lt Commander Charles Fenno Jacobs, USN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photos of impaled vehicles by Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pit crew photo by Lowenburg at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

Demolition derby car photo by Philip (flip) Kromer from Austin, TX (Philip (flip) Kromer from Austin, TX) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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