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Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Days off are nice

What a wasted day. I got enough done, but I could have done more. Here I am, nice day, good weather, and I'm moping around the house eating peanut butter on crackers because I haven't been able to find my wallet since Sunday afternoon.

The Lovely One asked if I had looked in the dirty clothes basket. No, don't be silly, it couldn't be in there.

It was in there. Then I felt better. Stopped eating peanut butter, grabbed my tools, and went over to Mom & Dad's to do some car repairs.

Voltage regulator has been acting up in the Tercel for several days. At first I thought it was a bad battery, but a change of batteries (a scrounged one, fortunately) fixed nothing. Oh right. you're wondering what a voltage regulator is. I'll tell you in a second.

Like most modern cars, the Tercel's regulator is integrated into the alternator package. Fortunately, you can still buy it separately from the alternator. Which is good, because the alternator would have cost $160, while the regulator cost $30. The regulator itself is immensely unimpressive. It's a small amount of power circuitry encased in epoxy and covered by a fairly big heat sink. It sits on the back of the alternator, and has two jobs in life: rectify the AC current from the alternator into DC current as used by the rest of the car's electrical system, and prevent the alternator from overcharging the battery.

Modern alternators are wonderful things, capable of producing solid voltages and good power even at low engine speeds. Older generator-based electrical systems were simpler (because generators put out DC power) but less effective (ask an EE why).

At anything above idle, though, an alternator can pump out 20 volts or more to your battery, grossly overcharging it. Normal car batteries react well to charging voltages in the 13-15 volt range (this for a nominally 12-volt electrical system, which is probably what your current car has, but an imminent change to 42-volt systems for most cars is expected).

Anyways, overcharging is bad for your battery, and also effectively tries to run everything in your car at excessive voltage. This makes all your lights look really bright, which in turn makes them burn out fast (interestingly, in some non-automotive cases this turns out to be a reasonable trade, because "overvolted" lights produce more light for a given amount of power).

Enough electrical education, as it appears that I triumphed. Being able to make an educated guess about the malady thanks to some observations and a multimeter, combined with a couple of hours of grunting and prodding with tools (including a tasty dinner break; thanks mom!) saved me probably a few hundred dollars in parts and labour.

For anyone with more time than money, doing your own auto mechanics is definitely the way to go. Next weekend is transmission fluid change, which unfortunately will probably only save me about $50 over a fluid flush at a garage. Oil changes are so cheap I can't be bothered. You're paying for something like 10 minutes of labour, and they do a free diagnosis of basic car maladies (besides catching the dirty transmission fluid, the shop guy also pointed out a dirty air filter. I'm cheap, so I declined his offer to change it for $28 and picked one up at the local parts shop for $20. Installation took about 2 minutes).

Getting the transmission fixed made me feel better. Maybe I'll take the mountain bike to the trials park this evening and mess around.

PS: if you're wondering where I'll be Sunday morning, I'll be in Langley, racing like a madman. Be there at 10:30 to see me suffer like a dog!

Ash Wednesday tomorrow. Don't forget your sackcloth.

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