Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Annual Gasoline Engine Maintenance Party. . .

Or maybe, it’s just an annual ‘pity party’ as the only one usually invited… is me.

Now I know I should start, and run all of my various gasoline powered pieces of lawn and garden equipment once a month or so… fire them up, and then let them run 15 or 20 minutes each.

Then, depending on who you ask, you should either let them run out of fuel (or close the fuel shutoff and wait for the engine to die), or, place some fresh ‘stabilized’ fuel in the tank.

So, depending on my mood, or the particular piece of equipment, I’ve done both.

It doesn’t seem to make much of a difference… eventually; one or more pieces will refuse to start, especially if I’ve neglected to give them their monthly ‘attention’.

I suppose it’s because of my upbringing. A time when gas, fresh from the pump was already ‘stable’, or as stable as a highly volatile liquid ever is, and didn’t turn into some sort of sludge resembling dried varnish, in as little as 30 days.

Maybe it’s because I have ‘too much’ gasoline powered equipment… Naaa, that can not possibly be it!!

I have fond memories of firing up the tiller in the spring, burning a tank or two of fuel tilling the gardens and then returning the tiller to the shed until it was used once more to turn the garden in late fall. Between those two uses, it sat, quietly in the back of the shed, having just been shut off and wheeled there.

No ceremony, no ritual, just hit the kill switch and roll it into the shed until you needed it the next time. It was always ready the next time, one or two pulls and it would be ready to go to work again.

The same was true for everything, the mower(s), chain saw, snow blower, tractor and every other piece of gasoline powered equipment I’ve owned. Despite not being used for close to a year, they'd always, or almost always, start on the second or third pull.

These days, despite using a fuel stabilizer and following the aforementioned ‘rituals’, I’ve discovered it’s still about a 50/50 shot as to whether any one piece of equipment will start, or not.

All the small engine shops tell me it’s the gas, and that I must use a fuel stabilizer (I do) and follow the procedures (I do)… and make sure to run each piece of equipment at least once a month for 15 or 20 minutes (I don’t)…

So, each fall I spend at least one day (this particular day actually) trying to start everything that hasn’t been used, and fixing the ones that refuse to start.

Normally I wait until a bit later in the fall, but, as I have a fellow who’d like to trade me a plasma cutter for my wood splitter (I know I’d use a plasma cutter far more than I do the splitter) I decided to fire everything up this weekend, including the splitter.

As expected some didn’t start, namely the splitter, the push mower and the generator. Fortunately, these little one or two cylinder gas engines are pretty simple.. no real complicated electronics… they need three things, fuel, air and a spark at the proper moment.

I eliminate the fuel question by placing a small amount of fuel directly into the carb (you should never use “starting fluid” especially with two stroke engines) and attempting to start it, if it fires, and quickly dies… there’s definitely a ‘gas shortage’. If it still doesn’t fire I replace the spark plug, if there’s still no response if heads to the small engine shop.

I used to be intimidated by the carburetors on small engines… yep, me… a guy who could pretty much rebuild a Holley with my eyes closed… I was once baffled by the little carburetor on a small engine.

No more though…

I owe it all to a fellow who was a co-worker of mine. He’d been given an older John Deere riding lawn mower, and while short of money he needed to mow his lawn and was offering beer in exchange for my help. In those days the lure of a cold beer would get me almost anywhere!

You see I was the only ‘gear head’ he knew and he was counting on my help. I wasn’t about to confess my inhibitions with respect to small engines… so I sucked up my fears and told him I’d be glad to help.

It turned out that they’re extremely simple, one ‘jet’ and one fuel passage… if the jet and the fuel passage are clear, they’ll work… if not, they don’t. I took his new prize apart in his driveway discovered the ‘blockage’, cleared it, reassembled it and the little mower roared back to life.

I also discovered that day, that unlike the big Holley’s I knew so well, I didn’t, and don’t, have drill bits small enough to use for cleaning… instead I’ve taken to using strands of small copper electrical wire.

Cheap, and something I always have handy in the shop, a couple strands of fine copper wire works wonders. Soft enough it won’t damage the passageways, strong enough to clean things up nicely.

I’m done with my annual ritual, all the equipment is running… and I only had to replace one fuel line. Yep one of the fuel lines was actually turning into ‘goo’ from contact with what passes today for gasoline.

I don’t remember ever having to replace fuel lines before… except when they became so old and cracked they’d began to look like they might start leaking. These days though, the fuel we’re being sold is eating up parts. I know it’s not just me, as I helped a friend fix a mower a while back and at the root of his problem was a rubber ‘seat’ on the float valve… it had been entirely dissolved by the fuel.

You’d think that with the price of fuel, and technology, what it is… we’d have better, not worse, fuel today than we did 20 years ago. The sad fact is, we don’t.

Each year, around this time I begin to question my addiction to all things powered by internal combustion engines… but, as each of those little marvels roars back to life, I’m reminded of ‘why’ I’m so addicted. For anyone who has brought one ‘back to life’, that feeling needs no explanation… to the uninitiated though, I don’t know if I can actually describe it, except to suggest that you think back on any profound feeling of accomplishment you’ve ever had, and then you’ll have a sense, a taste, of how I feel when ever I bring something mechanical ‘to life’.

Despite hating the ‘ritual’… I love the end result.

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Lorna said...

In my life, that end result was called birth.

Beth said...

Bill, we have so many problems with things starting right up. My weed whacker, my lawn mower, my snow blower. I do run them for at least 20 minutes and I run them completely empty to put them up for a season, but I had no idea today's "gas" was wreaking this much havoc. Very informative!

Kim said...

preventive maintenance? You mean things can actually work more than once?