21 October 2004

Getting Started

This is a follow-up to yesterday's post. In it, I mentioned that my snowthrower wouldn't start. It was basically my own fault because I left it outside since the last time I used it and didn't do anything to prepare it for storage other than drain the gas out of it, which turned out to be the culprit. Cuttin' to the chase, it started, finally, but it wouldn't have without my years of experience as a mechanic, although, actually, any kid in Auto Shop class could have got it going. So I thought I'd share the story and maybe save you some grief and money in the process. Small engine mechanics will have a contract out on me in ten minutes, but I am fearless when it comes to educating the masses (all five of you).

Even after my power came back on, the machine still wouldn't start. Being a trained, experienced mechanic (I hate the word 'technician'. It took me years to become a mechanic and I am proud of that title) I knew, or at least suspected, that something was wrong. I went from being a guy with a snow removal problem to being a wrench in a twinkling and started in on it.

There are three requirements that need to be met before a four-stroke, internal combustion, gasoline engine will run. It makes no difference to the cosmos whether it's a 3hp Briggs & Stratton lawnmower mill or a 3000hp Pratt & Whitney Cyclone aircraft engine. Simplified a little bit, they are: Compression, spark, and fuel. It is best to check them in that order, but a lot of people don't. They are the ones who cause themselves a lot of extra work, which is OK unless they are charging you for it. When you find problems with any one of these, you must correct it before you move on to the next one.

Compression: Basically, the engine's ability to wad up the fuel-air mixture so it will burn rapidly. A useful by-product is keeping oil from running out of your tailpipe and $2.50 per gallon gas out of your crankcase. You can check it with fancy gadgets like a compression tester or a leak-down tester, but I used the fanciest gadget of all on my snowthrower: the same finger I am typing with right now. After unscrewing the spark plug , I did the first two checks simultaneously, being multi-tasking capable. I put my finger in the spark plug hole and hit the starter. Pfft! Blew my finger loose from the hole. Compression.

Spark: Ignites the now-compressed fuel, causing the whole mess to want to do it again. Again, you can use fancy gadgets but what works best is to put the plug wire on the plug, lay the plug on a good ground (not THE ground. That would take extra plug wire and wouldn't work anyway), hit the starter and see if the plug fires. On the snowthrower, it did not. The electrode end of the thing was dark and slightly wet, indicating a fouled plug. Cleaned the plug, re-tested. Spark. Goody!

Re-inserted plug. Still no start. Drat! On to step three.

Fuel: Gas, dummy. I just wanted to keep to my format. I knew it had new gas, as opposed to last years paint brush cleaner because I put it in myself. After removing a cover designed to keep snowballs and ice cubes out of the engine, I squirted some gas into the carburetor. The engine started and ran. It would only run for a second or two using this technique and I decided it would be too much trouble to keep doing this as I have a big driveway, so I kept looking for the problem.

It appeared as if no fuel was getting to the engine. Note: 'fuel' and 'gas' are words used interchangeably, but they are not the same: 'gas', more properly called 'gasoline', is the liquid component of 'fuel' which is the gas-air mixture that reaches the engine. The carburetor is the Mixmaster that accomplishes this miracle of chemistry.

But, but, but...the spark plug had been wet. What on Earth is going on here? Lights on in yer head, dipshit! Water!! Water will wet a plug just fine, but the engine won't run on it. Good thing, too, or the oceans would be vast wastelands and there'd be piles of salt everywhere. But I digress. It may have been condensation formed out of the air, or maybe it was rainwater from being parked under the eaves, but somehow a tiny bit of water had gotten into my float bowl. It doesn't take much. I drained the float bowl by means of a spring-loaded little drain whoozy (technical term) and Voila! the engine, she fire right up!

A little reassembly, a little fine tuning, and my machine was ready for the task at hand. Which was to see if the rest of the damn snowthrower worked, but that's another story.

Now, I know that I'm not the only guy whose snowthrower (aka Driveway Grooming Machine) didn't work yesterday and I also know that not everyone can fix it themselves and had to take it to the Small Engine Emporium. The job took me a lot less time than writing this post, probably thirty minutes if you don't count my looking around for stuff and brain fade, but it cost those guys a pile, probably $30-$50, maybe more, and you just know those mechanics are gonna find something else wrong in the process that will ultimately cost even more. Unless it was a Honda. Those things are insufferably reliable.

One of the reasons I learned to do this mechanical stuff was because I couldn't afford to pay somebody to do it for me. I still can't bear to pay for something I can do myself, and this has carried over into my prowess as a homeowner: Maybe I can't build a house or bike, but I can damn sure figure out how it works and fix it.

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