Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Endless Car Troubles

Hello, my name is Emily and I'm a new(ish) research assistant in Serena. I have been out here for almost three months and have yet to post to this blog – sorry about that. I think it would be crazy to try and recap my first three months here so I will just dive into what happened last night. Somehow a biology degree has not completely prepared me for work in the mara. I should have double majored in auto mechanics. 

This is KAL.

KAL doesn't like to start sometimes. My first week here Julia, Lily and I were stuck at a den one morning for hours waiting for the mechanics to come and give us a jump. Three months later, the starting problem has yet to be fixed. The immediate cause of KAL's not starting in every single case has been a low battery. We have had all the connections leading to the battery cleaned, fully charged the batteries, replaced one of the battery wires and then re-did the wiring, and rewelded the battery holders. Our mechanics suggested that the two batteries in KAL were just naturally going bad (though one was leaking some due to it's holder not being securely welded). This didn't sound right to us though because both batteries were less than a year old. Finally we gave in and bought a new battery hoping that this would either fix the problem definitely rule out a problem with “old” batteries. The cruiser worked fine with the new battery for all of two weeks before dying two days ago. This time the mechanic decided it was the starter (despite the fact that jumping the car got us back to camp) and we were hoping that it was the starter and getting that cleaned would do the trick. Lily and I didn't really think it was going to be this simple since this has been going on for months but the starter was cleaned and the car turned on, so we were happy. We tested the Cruiser a few times, turning it off on a hill and each time we were able to start her up! Woo! Maybe cleaning the starter finally did the trick!

Wrong. Last night we were at a hyena den during evening obs and after only having the lights on for 10min with the engine off we were unable to start the car. We waited a half hour with everything turned off and tried again. (When a battery is only slightly low turning a car off and letting it sit for 30min or even overnight can allow the battery to collect enough charge to start again. So next time you leave your headlights on, try waiting 30 min. before calling AAA). After 30min, still nothing, we had a very dead Cruiser. Our normal mechanic wasn't in town, Chris and Amanda (the Mara River researchers) were not in town, Chelle (Balloon pilot) wasn't around and Langot, our other mechanic, didn't have a vehicle. After calling around another balloon pilot was able to ask his balloon crew to come and jump us. An hour or so later, maybe 9:30pm, three members of the balloon crew showed up and jumped the cruiser. Everything was running and we were happy to get home and get some dinner. We thanked the crew over and over and were just happy to have a running Cruiser.

Maybe a half a mile down the road something was wrong. The fuel gauge read empty! I couldn't believe it, weren't we over a quarter tank when we left? How did that drop so fast? Soon the Cruiser was out of gas and we were once again stuck! Lily and I couldn't believe how stupid we were! Ugh! How could we not have enough diesel to make it back to camp! Stupid, stupid mzungus! Now, the maruti (our other research vehicle) has a very finicky fuel guage and a half tank sometimes means empty in that car, but KAL traditionally has a very reliable fuel guage and a quarter tank should last at least a day, including morning and evening observations, and we had over a quarter tank. We embarrassingly called the balloon crew back and asked for a second rescue. I think something was lost in translation because 30min later we were still stranded. After another embarrassing phone call to make sure the crew understood that we were stuck, again, they said they would send someone out so we didn't have to spend the night in the Cruiser.

At some point we called back to camp to let Jorgi and Moses know why we were so late. After we were rescued by the balloon crew (for the 2nd time) we were driving down the low road feeling pretty stupid. Soon, we see a car driving slowly towards us, which was pretty unusual considering how late it was. It was Moses and Jorgi coming to rescue us in the maruti! We were extremely impressed that they had manged to drive the maruti over a kilometer from camp because the maruti is very difficult to drive if you are not very experienced with manual cars. Despite this, they had decided to try and come get us. Now feeling really bad that we had inconvenienced more people Lily and I sheepishly informed them that we had run out of diesel.
The dependable maruti to the rescue! 
This morning we headed straight up to the lodge to get diesel and brought it to the Cruiser. We figured we could just fill up the Cruiser, and jump it using the maruti and then we could just head out on morning obs. Nope. The Cruiser was dead and it was staying dead. We waited around for an hour or so to see if Langot could come check it out but he was working. We couldn't just leave the Cruiser sitting in the middle of the road so we weren't really sure what we were going to do. Luckily, a very nice photographer with a very powerful Rover drove by and offered to tow the Cruiser to the Conservancy. When we arrived at the Conservancy headquarters our mechanics were there and took a look, it turns out that not only was our brand-new battery totally drained for some reason but a connection in the fuel line became disconnected and no fuel was getting to the engine which was why jumping it this morning had failed. Great. It made me feel good at least that Langot couldnt't jump KAL either and that it wasn't for our negligence that we ran out of fuel.

Finally, with the Cruiser running and fixed up the mechanics told us to drive it around for a half hour to charge the battery a bit and then it should be okay. We drove it around and arrived back in camp. We turned it off and held our breath as we turned the key over to see if it would start again. Only a clicky noise resulted from the key turning and the Cruiser is, once again and unsurprisingly, not starting. Now I'm sure that this is a more serious problem, possibly the alternator is going bad, because a brand new battery should be charged with 30 minutes of driving. Hopefully now the mechanics will be convinced of this and we'll be able to fix it once and for all!  

Sorry for the wall of text, my next post will be shorter! 


Anonymous said...

Check the output of the alternator, if not between 12-14V it's probably the regulator on the alternator if yours doesn't have a built in regulator. Probably only need to change the regulator, but if it's built in probably need to change whole alternator.
If output of alternator is fine your batteries get drained by something else so you need to check the wiring.
Also might want to consider using different mechanics, batteries don't drain naturally.

EmilyThomas said...

Thanks for the advice! We luckily had an alternator specialist come in and replaced our automatic charge regulator and cleaned up a lot of the wiring and thoroughly check everything out. So far, so good! The battery is charging and we haven't been stuck yet!

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