Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Troubleshooting on a Dark and Stormy Night...

It was a dark and stormy night. The sky was growing darker and lightening could be seen flashing in the distance. We were driving back to the campground hoping to beat the storm that was approaching. As we backed into our campsite and got out of the Roadtrek to hook up the electric and the cable for our last night of a five night and six day trip, it seemed like we had enough time to pull out the flag and stand that we put out in our site and get that put away while it was still dry. The forecast for the next day was for fair weather but that all depended on which weather service you looked at. National Weather Service was predicting more rain. Everyone else was going with fair. Get the flag in and then get the electric hooked up seemed like the best thing to do. As we got to pulling the electric cord out of the outside cabinet of the Roadtrek, we both felt a few drops of rain. Work faster. Don't stop to go back inside the Roadtrek and pull out the jackets, scarf, and rain hat. Get the cord out enough to reach the electric box. Plug the Roadtrek's plug into the socket of our power/surge protector, get that into the campsite's electric box and flip the 30 amp circuit breaker to put 120 volts of electricity into the Roadtrek. Always start with the circuit breaker off - what is it that men on death row say... "Its not the volts that will kill you, its the amps." As I was flipping the breaker the sky opened and it began to pour.

We both ran inside with the television cable still in Meryl's hand. That could wait. Not only was it raining but the humidity and remaining heat from the day would make the inside of the van very uncomfortable without the air conditioner. No 120 volts, no air conditioner. We were inside and dripping. If it let up we would go outside again and plug in the cable - if it didn't we had plenty to watch on DVDs and here at this campground we received a number of good channels with just the antenna still down on the roof. We were inside and drying off. I looked out the driver's window to see the lights on the power/surge protector go from red to green indicating all was well with the circuit and the power would be let through. It delays about three minutes and those three minutes were going by very slowly. Outside you hear a click and the lights change - all is well. Inside I kept watch through the window. Red to green. All is well.

Meryl was getting the jackets and rain gear to have if we were going out to plug in the cable. he rain seemed to be letting up and out we went, jackets on, scarf and rain hat on, cable in hand. Once outside, of course, the rain picked up and since we were then soaked we plugged in the cable anyway and headed back inside for the night. At least at that point, I thought it was for the night.

Now the lightening was flashing outside and the thunder was clapping loud. All seemed well inside and Meryl put a plastic sheet over the third seat and put two hooks on the wooden ledge above to hang the dripping jackets. The hat and scarf went into the sink. The jackets dripped down partly on the cover and partly into the door well. More lightening. More thunder. Meryl started to do what she does every night as we settle in for the night. She closed the curtains in the front windows and started to rotate the seats from driving position to lounge position - facing the rear of the van and the television. I put the TV on and the air condition was already on making the steamy inside bearable on this hot July night. There was a huge crack of thunder and the sky lit up, and then Meryl said, "What is that noise?" She was not talking about the thunder.

There was a whining noise. A motor noise coming from the front of the van. Was the van engine off? Of course, the engine was off. Where was the noise coming from. We started searching around. What might make such a noise - and it started with the clap of thunder! Was there a surge on the electric line? If there was the power/surge protector would have shut down all power. I pushed the window curtain out of the way and looked outside - the light on the unit was still green. The air conditioner was still working. The television was still working. And the high pitched noise continued. What else had a motor? I put my ear up to the refrigerator. The noise was not coming from there. The water heater was off. The water pump was on but did not seem to be running. Meryl went down into the cabinet where the water pump is located, which is below the bed, to see if the noise was coming from. No, it was silent. Did it work? Turned on the faucet, water came out, and the pump ran normally and shut off when the faucet was turned off. The whining noise still continued. What was wrong? Where was the noise coming from and we both knew that whatever it was, it was not good. What to do next? I shut off the TV - no change. I shut off the air conditioner. No change. I made sure the ceiling fan was off - it was. I turned on the furnace switch as that has a motor also and the noise was centered right around the inside furnace vent. No change in the noise. I turned the furnace off. The whining continued. We went around the inside of the van again and kept listening at the furnace vent as the location was just too close. Then suddenly it stopped and a second later it started again - higher pitched at first and then whirred on as it had been.

"OK", I said, "I am going outside!" I was going to see if I could find the location of the noise from outside. Meryl insisted on coming and the wet jackets went back on with the hat and the rain scarf. It was pouring. Outside we went all around - listening at all of the outside vents - nothing. We could barely hear the noise outside but it was not coming from the outside furnace vent, the refrigerator vent or the hot water heater vent. An ear up to each wet vent and there was nothing come from any of them. I told Meryl to go inside as there was no reason for both of us to be out in the downpour and I would shut down the electric box and eliminate that from the equation. Rather than pull the plug I clicked off the circuit breaker on the outside pedestal for the outlet we were plugged into. The power/surge protector unit shut down and I headed for the door to find out if the noise was still whining. It was. Could the noise be related to the inverter/converter/charger which hums and buzzes when the power is on as its cooling fan runs? No, the 120 volt power was off and the noise continued. Then with the 120 volts off, I shut off the 12 volt circuits by turning off the battery switch. The noise stopped and we were in the dark. Battery switch back on and the noise started again. Back out and the power was put back on. Inside there was no change and we waited another three minutes for the protector's delay to allow power through.

I was ready to give up. All was working normally except for the noise. Maybe we could just let it go and wait for the morning when we could try calling dealer service to ask and hopefully they would let us come over - we were about an hour and a half away from them. Meryl was reluctant to let it go on, but what were we going to do. This was definitely coming from something that ran on 12 volts but many of the systems and components inside run on 12 volts. I pulled the circuit breaker/fuse panel door off and looked at the fuses and the chart on the back of the door. Meryl said to try pulling the fuse for the furnace since that was were the noise was most located. I read down the labels - furnace - fuse number 7. I put my fingers on the fuse but it would not come out - it needs a fuse puller to get it out and back in again because of the small space the fuses sit in. Now there was a mad dash for the tool bag to find the fuse puller - we each thought it was in a different place and I found the main tool bag and got the fuse puller.

Clipping the fuse puller on the fuse, I pulled it out. The noise continued. So did the thunder outside. I managed to get the fuse out and we decided to go one by one. I clipped the fuse puller on fuse number 1 and pulled. The noise stopped. What was this fuse for? It is a 20 amp fuse - one of the largest. Oh boy - it was for the waste macerator pump! It also was the fuse that the new 12 volt outlet was connected to. Did dealer service cause a problem when they wired that outlet? It did not seem so as we had been out for more than ten days with no problems after the outlet was installed. But the worst thing was that this noise was the macerator running - and running dry which you are never, ever, ever and never supposed to do lest you burn out the motor and have no way to empty the black - or for those of you non-RVers - "doody" tank and after six days it was full. What was causing this pump to run? My hands were now shaking and it took me a bit to get the fuse back in somehow I hoped that something would have reset and the noise would be gone - but, of course, the noise started right up again. In a way this was a good sign as the motor had not burned out - yet.

The switch for the macerator pump is a push button switch - push and hold and it is on, take your finger off the switch and it stops. Could the switch have blown out? Could the switch be stuck? The switch is on a metal frame on the side of the driver's seat next to the door. I started to move the seat around and the seat would not move. There is a small folding table that is stored behind the seat but the seat cannot swivel with the table there so the table is moved out of the way. I pulled the table and the noise stopped. I looked at Meryl. The noise stopped. The table had caught between the driver's door and the seat in such a way that it pushed in the macerator pump's button.

Well, the mystery was solved and the noise was gone, but what damage had been done? We would not know for sure until the next morning. I had to know if the pump still worked and, of course, I reached around and pushed the button and let go right away - the noise started and stopped as soon as I let go and that seemed to indicate that we might be OK. The rest of the night was an anxious one, waiting for the next morning when we went out to empty the tank.

The next morning it was overcast, but dry. We went out to dump the waste tanks and I held my breath as I pushed the macerator button to empty the tanks. The motor whirred and whined and what needed to come out pumped out - normally - and the tanks emptied. We both breathed a sigh of relief - but had future problems been initiated?  Hopefully, not. 

A number of owners of Roadtreks have problems with the macerator. Some claim it is because they let the pump run dry when they were at the end of dumping a tank and let the macerator run on to take out the last few spurts. I am not sure how long it ran dry that night - maybe twenty minutes, maybe a half hour - it seemed like a lot longer. Maybe it was. I had visions of the compartment that the hose sits in having spewed its slop all over the inside of the compartment while it was running but the tank valves were closed and nothing should come out. The macerator is a good idea but it is a bad idea if it is the only way to empty the tanks other than a clean out port that when opened will drop the contents of the tank under the van with no way to direct it where to go. I had thoughts of where one could (would) even do such a thing? Where can you drop ten gallons of human waste just down onto the ground? Not in the campground. Not at home. Who would think of designing such a thing without a way to connect a hose to it? Most RVs have gravity dump waste systems. A hose is attached to a port to the tank and the other end of the hose is connected to the sewer hole at the campsite. The valve is opened and gravity does the rest. After that the tank can be flushed out with a garden hose attached to the end of the hose. This is a relatively fool proof system as long as you have gravity on your side. With the permanently attached macerator, if it does not work, you've got problems. And many have had those problems. So far we have been lucky. The unit's specs actually say that it can be run dry, but everyone using one says no. I certainly would not intentionally run it dry, but sh_t happens - and in this case that is more literal than when generally said.It has not happened for four years - until now - and now we know it is possible. I am thinking of creating a box-like cover for the button, perhaps held in place with magnets as there is metal all around the button. When I come up with something I will share it. Until then we are going to be very careful where that table gets placed when the driver's seat is turned.

What is gained from this experience that I wish we had never had was what to do when troubleshooting a problem - 'cause there is no instruction manual that tells you what to do when you hear a strange noise. There is no guide that says "Don't Panic!" on the cover - though sometimes one sure would come in handy. Some our our readers have complimented us on this website being just that for them - and if others can benefit from our experiences and problems, that is good. Though I would really like less problems to have to share and more dry days and nights. Keep in mind that "May you live in interesting times!" is an Oriental curse. Perhaps another RV Lifestyle verses Endurance Challenge moment... Anyway - So the next time you hear a strange noise, don't panic (as I was that night) and start troubleshooting - check for the location of the noise, turn things off, turn things on, and start pulling fuses or throwing circuit breakers. Sooner or later - if you are lucky - as we were - you will find the source and hopefully be able to deal with it simply by moving a folding table and hopefully not have had damage done in the interim. And should it be a dark and stormy night, always remember to have your towel...


1 comment:

  1. What a night Robert! Just like a pilot,you go down the list,and keep checking,looks like the storm was not the culprit,but added to the possibilities,good job.