Road repairs saved my trip across the country

Image for article titled Roadside Repairs Saved My Cross-Country Trip

Photo: Bradley Brownell

On the second day of a road trip across the country, the thing I dreaded happened. Ever since I bought this Ford E350 6-litre diesel-powered ambulance for long-haul work, I knew its Achilles’ heel would be its EGR system. It’s a well-documented problem, and I had intended to replace both the stock EGR valve and associated cooler, but it was out of sight and far from mind. The pickup had been very sound and sounded great, so if it is not broke, do not fix it. Well, it broke.

We were hauling ass through the open plains of Nebraska all day, and had climbed our way up to the eastern half of Wyoming, and found ourselves sitting in dead traffic between Cheyenne and Laramie, thanks to the diesel tank of a tractor-trailer which explodes and burns half of the highway. When we finally got to Laramie, my wife and I needed a break, so we stopped for a burrito lunch at the gas station and the sweet exit of a clean bathroom.

As we were leaving Laramie and preparing to re-enter I-80 westbound, my wife behind the wheel, the van decided it was done. Regardless of throttle position, mental state, economic incentive, or curse, the van coughed and stumbled and decided it wouldn’t go over 4 miles per hour. We were in the middle of an on-ramp, but we wouldn’t go up. It would be reckless, and possibly a death sentence do this. I climbed into the driver’s seat and pushed the van through the median between the off-ramp and on-ramp and back to the 76 parking lot around the corner.

The plan was for this van to be our home on the road for about three weeks. We were going from southwest Michigan to Reno, Nevada to pick up a load of supplies, rounding the corner from Phoenix, Arizona to visit friends, before continuing to Radwood Austin at the end of the month. By this time, my wife and I were parting ways, with her taking a flight and me continuing the journey to northern Michigan. This being the second day of our three-a week of racing meant the whole trip could have been scrapped.

My first thought went to my AAA membership and supplying a local diesel store to get us back on the road. It was Saturday and many stores were closed until Monday. We managed to find one to pick up the phone, but they didn’t have a technician available until Wednesday. Alright, so we’re alone. Either I fix this van or we’re stuck in Laramie for a few days. Even car and van rental places were closed until Monday, so there would be at least two days off, possibly up to a week.

Because I wasn’t sure the fault was in the EGR system, I wanted to get an OBD reader to confirm the symptoms. I found an open NAPA about a mile away and started walking. 30 minutes later I plugged in the reader and it confirmed what I feared. With a bit of forum research and a YouTube video or two to see what my next steps were, I felt confident enough that the engine wouldn’t blow up if I took it back to NAPA, so we snuck along. a side street walk pace and parked in the side parking lot of the store against the wall of the building to block the wind.

Image for article titled Roadside Repairs Saved My Cross-Country Trip

Photo: Bradley Brownell

NAPA didn’t have a new EGR valve in stock, so I grabbed a can of the strongest brake cleaner I could find, and about $200 worth of tools. The store would be closing in just an hour, and I didn’t want to be left without the tools I needed, so maybe I overdid it. I pulled from the shelf a set of basic sockets and ratchets, a pry bar, a big pair of water pump pliers and a set of screwdrivers, but in the end I only needed about five sockets, a screwdriver and the lever.

Image for article titled Roadside Repairs Saved My Cross-Country Trip

Photo: Bradley Brownell

Believe it or not, there aren’t many van-specific videos on YouTube for diesel repair, so I had to improvise a bit. In something like an F350 Super Duty, the EGR valve sits just above the engine without getting in the way. In a van, it’s a bit stuffy. The bracket for the power steering fluid reservoira boost pipe, two sections of charge pipe and a radiator pipe, all prevent even unplugging the EGR from the wiring harness. I knew I didn’t want to interrupt the cooling system, so I had to bypass the upper radiator hose, which probably added at least 45 minutes to my repair job.

Image for article titled Roadside Repairs Saved My Cross-Country Trip

Photo: Bradley Brownell

I started with the airbox, which was quite easy. Then came a long segment of charge pipe. The worst part of the job was removing the four bolts where the charge pipe connects to the front of the engine, it was tight and cramped, and the ratchet only moved a few clicks at a time, but it’s got out. By unbolting the foil-wrapped boost pipe and moving it with the oil filler pipe aside, I was finally able to reach the EGR. Unbuckle the harness, unlock the valve, then wiggle it to the side a bit until it can be lifted up and out of its hole, and Robert is your mother’s brother.

Image for article titled Roadside Repairs Saved My Cross-Country Trip

Photo: Bradley Brownell

Oh my god, the creature has been pulled out of its hole, and it’s worse than we could have imagined! Apparently that’s what 220,000 miles on the odometer and two years of inactivity will do to a bitch. I know it’s not a permanent fix, but I pressed most of a clean brake box on the damn thing and made sure the valve could move freely again, then started to reinstall it. At some point in the future I will purchase a brand new aftermarket EGR valve and cooler setup to install, but today is not that day.

Image for article titled Roadside Repairs Saved My Cross-Country Trip

Photo: Bradley Brownell

With a little work, it was as good as I could get the valve before putting it back in the engine. I had never worked on a diesel engine in my life before so this was all pretty new to me but with a little bit of confidence, some common sense and a degree in mechanics from YouTube college I got managed to get it done. I wasn’t very confident that this would be the solution I needed, so I was a bit more than cautiously optimistic as I put everything back together.

When I went for the first test drive after putting the pipes and airbox back in place, I was still quite nervous. It still idled fine, and I wouldn’t know it was actually fixed until I got the thing up above 5 mph. I guess we’ll try. I even left the niche out of the engine so I could hear any issues while traveling around the block. Damn, it’s that loud thing with the doghouse off.

In all, it was about 3 hours between the breakdown and the return to the road. I’ll call that one a success. We were supposed to stop in Salt Lake City for dinner and a quiet night, but we didn’t get there until about 10:30 p.m.. If that’s all that was lost by this roadside repair, I’ll consider it a win. At least we didn’t have to spend a week in Laramie.

Comments are closed.