Wednesday, August 17, 2016

An Onan Tale... In Two Part Harmony - Part 1

This is the tale of my Onan generator - the generator built into my RV. Onan is the name of the company that makes it - known fully as Cummins Onan. I will tell you right now that this is a long and harrowing tale.

It is a small generator (2800 watts) but it has enough power to run just about all of the 110 volt needs inside the RV, including the air condition - which is the most important thing to run on some hot nights inside the RV. The generator is underneath the rear of the van - between the bottom of the chassis and the road and it hangs down there exposed which is fine and as it is supposed to be. I shall share its saga here that starts a little more than two years ago - well we have to go back longer than that.

The generator is an gasoline motor. It gets its gasoline from the gas tank of the van. It also has motor oil running through it as all gasoline motors do. There are a specific number of hours that the generator may be run before it needs to have its oil changed. If those hours are not reached within a year, then the oil should be changed anyway. This is what we do. The oil is changed every year. The generator also must be run regularly - and the minimum running is two hours continuously every month with what is called "half load" being run by the generator. In our RV that "half load" is the air conditioner. In the winter it is an electric heater. (I am telling you all this so that the Onan tale will make sense.) Changing the oil is just like oil is changed on a vehicle engine. There is a screw in plug at the bottom of the oil pan and when that is removed all the old oil pours out. Then the plug is secured back in place and the new oil is added - in the case of my year and model Onan generator that is just one quart of motor oil of a specific weight. Now, for reasons unnecessary to specify here, I cannot go under the van and do the oil change myself. Many do. And no it is not that I am too fat to fit under the van - I can fit under the van easily. That is not the reason. And while Meryl can fit under the van and has been willing to do the oil change, I don't want her to have to do it. So, who does the oil changes? Since the first oil change the year after we got the RV, we have been traveling to the dealer/service where we bought the RV to have them change the oil. In the beginning, there have been other things for them to do also so it was OK to make the 150 mile trip each way with two bridge tolls and turnpike tolls, two states away. And up through 2014 they have done a good job. Our tale now starts at that 2015 oil change.

I had wondered when we were at the service desk and paying the bill why I was being charged for two quarts of oil. As I say, this generator has a one quart capacity for oil. They have always been nice and have always been honest with me so I did not question it - and we paid the bill and took the RV and went off. When we got home and then on a few trips after that the generator started having trouble. It would not start or it would start and then shut down. Sometimes it would run for five minutes and then shut down. This was not good. This was a problem - and I did not want to make a trip back two states to have them look at it. I searched for the local authorized Onan repair shop and found two that service RV generators. The rest service boat generators - when you live on an island boats are common - RVs are not. I called one the one that was closest and they told me that to diagnose the problem it would cost $400! OK. No, not OK. Was I stuck or was there an alternative?

I was at the car mechanic that works on our cars and also has done oil changes and tire rotations on the RV for me - mostly as a favor since he does not work on RVs. I told him about the problems I was having and he told me that his partner - both are great mechanics - likes to work on small engines and he will take a look at it for me. Great. He spent most of an afternoon looking at it as much as he could from the bottom of the van - taking this off the van is a big deal - and part of the reason for the $400 that the service center wanted. He was not finding anything. I stopped over while he was working and asked if he checked the oil - maybe there was a problem there? The generator is designed to stop running if the oil is low to prevent damaging the generator. He opened the oil cap and pulled up the little dip stick. He asked me how much oil should be in there. I told him one quart and he told me that there was a LOT more than that in there. Too much oil can be just as bad as too little oil. He drained the oil out until he reached the proper fill line on the oil stick. We then pushed the generator start button and it started to run. I said, great but wait five minutes to see if it shuts down. It just kept running. I turned on the air conditioner and it still kept running! Perfect. I thanked the man and paid him for his trouble doing this for me - as he could easily have said no.

I had no more problems starting the generator from then until the end of June 2016. It would run rough sometimes. It might take a few tries to start it, but it ran - and the air conditioner ran and the electric space heater in the winter ran - while the generator kept running.

And then it was time for another oil change.

I decided to have not only the oil changed but also the air filter which was not due for enough more hours of run time that it could have waited until next year - and also the fuel filter which is not to be changed for a good amount of time to come but since there had been some rough starts, I felt that this would be best changed now. There is no oil filter. Of course, I did not even think about going anywhere else to have this done - I went back to the RV dealer/service. In advance of my going - when I made the appointment I gave them a list of what I wanted done - and said very directly that the year before too much oil was put in and that it caused problems and to make a note that ONLY ONE QUART IS TO BE USED.

Now, just an aside before we move on with this tale. Why would they put in too much oil? I know why. My Onan is a Microlite 2800 KV - KV being the specific model Microlite that it is. It was manufactured and then installed in my RV in 2011. In 2012, Onan came out with a new version of the Microlite 2800 - no longer KV. This new model takes over 20 ounces of oil. Whoever put the oil in my generator did not look to see what model it is - they should know - and put oil in for the new model. This is no excuse. And no one has offered me this explanation for why too much oil was put in - but I can see why it could have happened. It could have cost me $400 to find out about their mistake.  By the kindness of my mechanic, it cost a lot less. Now back to our tale...

We got down to the RV dealer/service for our appointment and the lady that we have come to know well who runs the service desk was off for the day. Everyone is nice there so it did not matter. They knew we were coming and they had the parts for the job I had asked them in advance to do. I said again - and told the whole story why - that the generator ONLY TAKES ONE QUART OF OIL. We went off and wasted several hours walking to a nearby supermarket and Home Depot shopping center - as we generally do when we go down there - while they worked on the RV. When we went back to pick it up, we learned that they did not do the fuel filter change saying that it is in the back of the generator and can not be reached without taking the generator down off the van - and they did not do that. Had they asked if I wanted them to I would have likely said yes. BUT - in the back of my head I was sure that the generator manual said that this routine maintenance item was right in front of the generator right at the access door to the inside of the case. It was too late then to say - do it - and we took the RV with a generator with an oil change and a new air filter - and no new fuel filter. They did make an emphatic point to let me know that they only put ONE quart of oil in.

When we were home I checked the manual for where the fuel filter is - and yes, it is right in front. I even crawled under the van to look to see it - much to my regret going under the van which I should not do - and there it was just like in the picture in the manual. I sent an email to the woman that we know in service asking why they did not do the fuel filter as it is NOT in the back of the generator and that the manual says it is a simple replacement right in the front. The answer I got back was that they were concerned that they would not properly reach the connecting clamp at the bottom and that if they tried and did the replacement it might dangerously leak gasoline inside. OK - but this could have been said while I was there.  She suggested that I take it to an authorized Onan service center to have it changed.

When we were home it was time to do the monthly running of the generator for June. I went out and started the generator, waited the several minutes for it to warm up and then went to turn on the air conditioner. Nothing. The generator kept running. It was then that I noticed that the display panel on the microwave was not lit - this lights up when there is 110 volts running inside the RV. It was dark. I went in the house and came out with an outlet tester, plugged it in and there was no power in the electric outlets. This should not be - the generator was running!

A lot of panicked and fast research both on the internet and in the Onan manual and I discovered that inside the generator there is a circuit breaker that controls if the electric current that it puts out. If the circuit breaker is off there will be no power in the outlets from the generator. This time I asked Meryl to go under the van, reach in and feel - you can't see it lying under the van - to find out if the circuit breaker as off.  I showed her a picture - thanks to one of the good people on one of the groups I am on - of exactly where the circuit breaker is. The generator had been shut down, of course. She went under, and could not reach with her hand to get to the circuit breaker. OK - I got down on the ground, crawled under, reached in and it was off. I managed to get my finger under the switch and clicked it on. Again, to my shortly after regret of having gone down to do this. My Adrenalin was pumping and that was keeping me going. I went into the RV and turned on the generator. Immediately the microwave panel lit up. There was power coming through! The A/C started when I turned it on. It ran for two hours as it should before I turned it off. For the moment I was relieved. BUT how did the circuit breaker get put off to begin with. The circuit breaker is on the side of the section that the air filter goes into and right behind the fuel filter that did not get changed. Ah ha! Someone in there had to hit it while moving around and clicked it off. Certainly, it did not trip. There was nothing to trip it. And it was not tripping now - it was running.

The tale has only begun. There is a lot more and we will take up right here in Part 2 which will be right here - same time, same place in two weeks...

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