Thursday, November 3, 2011

Easy on the Gas!

About two months ago I got a new daily driver -- a 2001 BMW 325Xi wagon. I bought the car from a small dealer who flipped cars out of his house. He'd bought it at auction, so there were no repair records. However, the price was right, the car had 144k and zero rust and seemed in excellent shape. As soon as I got it, I changed the fluids. And there are a lot -- oil, brakes, gear box, transfer case, front and rear diff.

The next level of preventative maintenance was to do the troika of cooling system, oil separator, and VANOS seals, all of which I will write about in an upcoming Roundel article. Doing this made me feel nearly invincible in the car, which is what I needed, since I'm about to take my youngest boy Aaron on six college visits over the next two weekends.

But one obvious preventative maintenance item remained -- the fuel filter. Suspecting you're driving around with a ten year old fuel filter with 144k worth of crud in it does not exactly inspire confidence on long drives. So I ordered one, which is a pricey little item (about $45, for a fuel filter) because it has the fuel pressure regulator built in.

The night before taking Aaron for a college visit in NYC, I thought I'd install it.

As you may know, I have a mid-rise scissors lift. In a perfect world I'd have a post lift, but I don't have the ceiling height to support it. The mid-rise is a compromise. It can pick the car up four feet, which is high enough to sit, butt on the floor, upright beneath the car. For an old guy with a bad back, this is bliss.

But the body of the mid-rise lift is in the way of the underside of the car. Usually this isn't a big deal, as most of the things you wind up doing are in the front, the back, or at the wheels. Even pulling a transmission or a driveshaft isn't as problematic as you'd think because they're right in the middle up under the tunnel, which gives added space.

No, the only problem for the mid-rise has been... these modern BMW fuel filters that are mounted beneath the car, about under the driver's seat. This puts them directly above the body of the lift. It's not that you have no room; you have perhaps eight inches.

But I put the car up on the lift, pulled the center under-cover, pulled the fuel filter cover -- which clearly had never been removed -- and there was the fuel filter.

Now, I know fuel filters. I don't need to consult a repair manual or an on-line DIY guide to change a freaking fuel filter. And yet, this one had two hoses feeding it at the back end and one at the front end. And each hose was perhaps a two-inch stub section, itself hose-clamped to a plastic line.

Still, this ain't rocket science. Undo the hose clamps, yank out the old, stick in the new. Do it quickly to minimize fuel spillage.

And, immediately, I was stymied. The galvanization of body panels, the use of undercoating, and the use of plastic liners and undercovers has dramatically reduced under-body rust, but all the ancillary metal under-components still oxidize. Neither screwdriver nor small socket could free any of the hose clamps.

I stopped.

I've long been an adherent to the "look the beast in the eye" philosophy. If you don't want to battle it to the death, back slowly out of the cave. I realized none of these hose clamps would come off without a fight. Normally I'd use a Dremel tool and a cutting wheel, but you don't want to do that in close proximity to gas because of the danger of sparks. I thought... no, I don't need to change this fuel filter right now, and I DO need to use the car to drive to NYC tomorrow. Stop. Just stop.

I began to put the covers back on.

And then I stopped again.

Jesus, Siegel, they're hose clamps. You're not going to be stymied by hose clamps, are you, mister you-call-yourself Hack Mechanic?

No indeed.

A Vice Grip placed on the screw part of the hose clamp wouldn't loosen it, but it did a nice job of twisting and snapping the banding material of all six clamps.

I took a disposable aluminum roasting pan and put it beneath the filter to catch the gas that certainly would flow when I started pulling the lines off. Problem was, the height of the pan about used up the clearance between the lift and the body of the car, leaving little room to pull the hoses off with my hands. The rubber stub hoses all seemed flexible and reusable, but one just wouldn't pull off the filter. I took an X-Acto knife and tried to cut the hose. Because of the lack of access, I cut into the hose all right, but couldn't sever it cleanly. Gas started flowing out. I thought I'd wait it out, just wanted for the gas to stop.

I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Obviously it was gravity-feeding gas from the tank. I was in danger of filling up the roasting pan.

I opened both doors to the garage and grabbed a fire extinguisher.

I tried to stop the flow of gas with a needle-nosed vise grip, but the cut I'd make in the rubber hose was too close to the plastic end of the line. I pulled the pan away so I'd have clearance and let the gas flow onto the floor while I cut all the way through the hose. I grabbed a 1/4" extension to shove it into the end of the hose and stop it up, but, again, I'd accidentally made the cut in the hose so close to the plastic end of the line that I couldn't stop up the rubber end.

I took a second aluminum roasting pan, swapped it with the nearly overflowing first one, cut a fresh section of 2" rubber hose, jammed the 1/4" extension in the end, then pulled the pan away so I'd have clearance. I used the X-Acto knife to cut the hose completely off the plastic end. Finally I could jam on the stub hose with the plugged end.

The flow of gas stopped.

Now I could prepare three stub hoses, install them all onto the filter, hose-clamp them in place, and have three hose clamps at the ready for the other ends of the hoses. This let me pull the plug off the gas line and slip the new filter line over it with a minimum of spilled gas.

When I was done, I took the gas-soaked greasy jeans and t-shirt I was wearing and threw them in the garbage. I think that, had I walked into the house wearing these rags and someone flicked a light switch or changed the channel on the television, the fumes might have turned me into The Human Torch.

On the one hand, if you're not going to change a fuel filter yourself, what are you going to fix? But on the other, having my hands drenched in gas and having it run down my arm into my armpit is an experience best left behind with my 20s. Next time I have to do one of these, I'll make a cleaner cut with the X-Acto knife, I'll do it closer to the filter to leave some hose to pinch, and I'll have a variety of plugging mechanisms at the ready.

But I am glad I got the filter changed. Cooper Union here we come!

The Cat is Down One Life

Although my family had dogs growing up, for many years Maire Anne and I have both been cat people. My standard line with the kids was always "when I have a farm, you can have a dog." Truth be told, they never really wanted a dog, and I never really wanted a farm anyway, so this arrangement seemed to work out well for everyone.

Maire Anne and I had a long history with cats. When we moved back to Boston from Austin in 1984, we took three cats with us -- quite an experience on a long trip, especially when Phoebe, drugged and leashed, tried to jump out the window. But that's another story.

The kids grew up with cats. We had a spectacular black cat, Seamus, for many years. We'd let him out during the day but tried to keep him in at night. One night he failed to come home. We suspect the Newton coyotes got him.

We were cat-less for a few years until last New Years. We began The Great Kitten Hunt, wherein we visited probably fifteen animal shelters within a radius of 50 miles of Boston, looking for the right pair of kittens. We wanted bright. We wanted engaging. We wanted a little rascally. We didn't want "a lap cat." Boring boring boring.. The amount of information these shelters asked for, you'd think we were adopting children. One place literally wanted a copy of our mortgage statement. We declined.

But our diligence paid off when, New Years Day 2011, we went to the Pat Brody shelter in Lunenburg, and saw a cage in which there were three small black kittens, short haired with some sort of Asian lineage. I opened the door and kitten cat ran out, ran up my chest, and perched on my shoulder. Clearly that one (Seymour) was a keeper. The second one, Franny, was almost as engaging. The third (Zooey) one was bit smaller and more timid. I tried to coax her out; she was interested but wouldn't commit. Until we were about to leave with the other two. Then she realized that she was about to blow the deal. "Meeeeeew. MEEEEEEEEEEEEWWWWWW!" she howled plaintively. 

"What do you want to do? You want to take these two or all three?" the woman running the shelter asked. "Well," I said, "we can't take three, but gee I hate to break up the set."

"Tell you what," she said, "if you take all three, I'll only charge you for two."

"Oh... damn it!. Sure."

So we went home that New Years Day with three black kittens. They rapidly became an inextricable part of the family, as if we'd always had them. Three is so more more than just one greater than two. Three is nearly a herd. They swarm you.

Seymour is trouble incarnate, but very sweet and interesting. Zooey continues to be needy and whiny, but is very little trouble. And Franny, the prettiest of the bunch, is a bit more inscrutable.

But she is trouble. She likes to eat things. She'll hork up some disgusting mess which I will need to inspect, only to find SHE'S EATEN PACKING MATERIAL. One soggy lump was clearly a Styrofoam peanut.

Anyway, about a week ago, Franny started puking up. Frequently. Then she stopped eating and drinking. She'd just sit inside her basket. We'd put food and water in front of her and she wouldn't take it. She just sat, listless. Knowing her predilection for eating things that aren't food, we tried to wait it out, but after four days we needed to intervene.

So last Saturday I took her to our vet at Kindness Animal Hospital. He examined her and noted she was dehydrated. The symptoms pointed to her having eaten something and either still had it in her or reacted very badly to it. He did x-rays, but all that shows is that she didn't eat a rock or a ball bearing. If she ate string, or a piece of plastic (both of which we've seen her pulling out of the trash), it wouldn't show up in an x-ray. He recommended ultrasound, but they didn't have an ultrasound machine.

He recommended we take her to the Vescone 24 hour emergency animal center where they could admit her, hydrate her, have an ultrasound, and can do surgery, but cautioned that, especially on a weekend, it would get very expensive very quickly -- just to walk in and out the door was probably a thousand dollars. I asked why he couldn't hydrate her, and he said that 1) that would be treatment without diagnosis, 2) he could hydrate her subcutaneously (shooting fluid under the skin) whereas the emergency center would do an intravenous hydration, 3) whatever was wrong with Zooey had gone on long enough that a higher level of intervention than just outpatient hydration was probably appropriate, and 4) unlike the emergency center, his office wasn't open 24 hours and wasn't open on Sunday.

I'm not a vet. I don't know what an appropriate course of treatment is. I tend to take recommendations of people who know more about something than I do. So I paid the vet the $208 bill and, as per his recommendation, took Franny to the Vescone 24 hour emergency animal center. They examined her and wrote up a low and a high estimate. The low estimate was for a one-day stay, blood work, and hydration, and came to slightly over $1000. The two-day estimate added a second day including ultrasound, and came to $2300. Neither included the cost of any surgery; I was told we'd get that estimate if and when this was a recommended course of action.

I gulped, and signed an authorization to hydrate her.

Then I called back our vet and asked what the cost would be if THEY did surgery (if it turned out to be required to remove a foreign object). They estimated the cost at about $2500, and advised that was "much cheaper" than the cost would be at the 24 hour center. But they didn't have an ultrasound.

So, we risked getting sucked into a very high bill by degrees. IF the cat needed surgery, it was looking like the cost-managed approach was going to be two days at the 24 hour clinic followed by surgery at the vet, for a total of nearly five grand. It would be far higher still if the surgery was done at the clinic.

I presented all this to Maire Anne, and we talked. 

She said "I'm not sure how we assign a value to the cat's life."

I said "Oh, I know how we do it. We can do this right now. Watch. Would you pay fifteen grand to save the cat's life?

"No. Of course not. I mean, she's very sweet, but we have kids in college, and two other cats."

"Good. Neither would I. How about ten? Would you pay ten grand to save Franny's life?"


"Good. Neither would I."

We continued this process downward until we arrived at a number we were both were comfortable with, somewhere in the two to three thousand dollar range, representing what we both were willing to spend (if the outcome had a high probability of success). Unfortunately, this number did not encompass surgery. And if we weren't willing to pay for surgery, why have the ultrasound? And if there's no ultrasound, why authorize another day of treatment in the 24 hour center?

That evening, the doctor from Vescone called me to tell me the results of the blood work (no obvious infection, liver functioning normally) and that Franny was responding well to the hydration. She offered me two courses of treatment. One was to do an ultrasound that evening. The other was to continue the hydration through until morning. I explained that not only did we want the latter course, we had talked about it and, because of cost, regardless of the outcome of the hydration, were prepared to check Franny out in the morning and take her home.

The next morning, Vescone reported that Franny was doing extremely well. They hydration, apparently, was very effective. I went to pick her up and found a bright-eyed responsive playful cat. I paid the $1100 bill, for a total of $1300.

We're glad to have her back -- she is very sweet -- but it was a very eye-opening experience.

Lessons learned:

--Emergency animal clinics can be VERY expensive.

--While it was reasonable to give the cat time for the problem to resolve itself, had we taken her to the vet a day earlier, we wouldn't have been faced with the "vet closed on Sunday and 24 hour clinic is very expensive on weekends" scenario.

--You can wade into a very large bill by degrees.

--You are not a bad person if you decide how much you want to spend, and stick to it.

--If I had to do it again, I might tell our vet "I want you to hydrate her" as a responsible intermediate cost-effective course of treatment that is more than doing nothing and less than the thousand dollar ante-on-the-table at the 24 hour clinic.

So, Franny, I love you, but you're down one life. Use the remaining eight wisely.