Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Certified!! (?)

So far, it looks like the dealership is going to treat the oil leak as a warranty item. I showed up last night with the pictures and I'm not sure how well they were received. I think I keep missing the service manager's jokes. Several times now, he's said something and smiled and I never know whether he's joking or not. I think I have a pretty good sense of humor so I'm not sure why I'm not picking up what he's laying down.

In any case, I'll be dropping off the car at the end of the weekend for some work. They're already due to replace the rear seat latch and rear seat belt tensioner sensor under warranty, and will be looking at the leak with the idea that fixing it will be under warranty and they'll do my timing belt replacement work while they're in there. It'll save me a bundle on labor and I'll mostly end up just paying for parts. He said, "Usually, Audi likes to see drops of oil to call it a leak." which I thought was interesting. Hopefully the level of wetness in the area will classify it as a "leak" and not some lesser level of unwarrantied seepage. If they tell me it won't be covered under the warranty then I'm back to fixing it myself in the barn. However it gets done, I'm looking forward to the feeling of well-being that'll come from knowing that there's a new timing belt riding on new bearings in there.

By the way, he officially verified that I could ignore the "change the toothed belt every 75,000 miles" red sticker under the hood. The good word from Audi is that the belts are good for 105K miles. Splash some rubber-degrading pertroleum around in there on the belt though, and I'll still be glad to have a nice new belt spinning the cams.

So now I'm starting to think less about the timing belt and more about phase one of my modification plans. I'm looking at new plus-one-size wheels and tires (I need new tires come springtime anyway), big brake kits, and new suspension. I'm like a kid with the Monkey Wards catalog before Christmas. Oooo... dating myself a bit with that one.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Full Frontal Nudity

This weekend I dove into the front of the car to determine where the leaking oil was coming from. Front engine work in the Audi S4 requires removal of the "lock carrier", which is the frame that holds the headlights, electric fans, radiator, and A/C condenser. I had to yank off the front bumper, disconnecting the fog lights and headlight washer hoses in the process. Then came a multitude of tightly packed electrical wires, the hood release cable, draining and disconnecting of the radiator, and unmounting of the A/C condenser. Then remove a few large bolts and voila, the entire front of the car just slides right off, no sweat. Including the copious notes, photos, and even tape recording of all the steps to make sure I can put things back together again, I'd say the entire process took me about 698 hours. Well, it felt like it. But it was a fun process.

With the lock carrier off, it was really easy to tell where the leak is coming from. As I suspected, the left cam drive seal appears to be bad. I didn't remove the bipipes and timing belt cover to view it directly, but underneath the cover, everything is covered with a layer of moist oil and the accessory belt has carried that oil over time to other parts down below.

So, now it's off to the dealer after work today (in the pickup) to see if cam seals are covered under the warranty. Most everything that tends to go wrong with cars is called "wear and tear" and is not covered. For example, Audi used to cover tie rod ends under their certified warranty, but they replaced so many that they declared it a wear-and-tear item and stopped putting on new ones for free. I'm hoping to get lucky and have the dealer say, "Why yes, leaking cam seals are covered under your warranty, and sure, we'd be happy to replace the timing belt, pulleys, and other seals while we're in there to save you a bundle on labor charges."

If the work is not covered under warranty, then it's off to blauparts.com to get a timing belt kit (including seals) and a specialty tool ten-day rental so I can do it myself, have some fun (hopefully), and save myself about a grand in labor.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Borrowed Timing

As I've mentioned before, I've been getting all into car maintenance recently. When I first got the car, like the good anal owner I am, I made a spreadsheet to visually graph out at what mileage points I should do certain maintenance. I consulted the maintenance guide that came with the car as well as the official Audi service bulletins I was able to download from the web. I carefully laid out when air filters, spark plugs, oil, etc. should be checked and changed.

Probably the most important item on the entire car is the "toothed belt", or "timing belt". The engine is a high-compression interference engine which means if the timing belt breaks, the pistons slam into the valves, the engine comes to a dead stop, and you tow the car to a shop and fork over at least $5000 for a complete engine rebuild. Not a good thing.

So I was very careful to note the mileage for the timing belt change. Both the maintenance schedule and the service bulletin I had noted that the belt should be changed at 105,000 miles. The service bulletin specifically said "2.7L V6 30V engine" which is the type of engine in the S4 and a couple other models.

I just went through the 80,000 mile mark on the car, and have been picking away at the scheduled maintenance. I changed the oil, air filter, and spark plugs. The fan belt is also due for replacement. To replace the fan belt and tensioner, you have to remove the bumper, air conditioner condenser and swing the radiator away from the front of the engine. It's not terribly hard (or so I read), but it's time-consuming. A layer behind the fan belt is the timing belt. While everything is off the front of the car, it's most time-efficient to replace both belts at once. For a beginning DIYer like me, changing a timing belt is pretty intimidating. Get it wrong and you break the engine. Take it to a shop though, and it's a $1500 bill, about $350 for parts and the rest for labor involved in dismantling the front of the car.

While changing my oil last week, I noticed some wet-looking oil seepage up on the front of the engine. The car is still under warranty but only until the end of January, so now is the time to identify all the bad stuff and have the dealer repair it. During all my past oil changes at the dealer, they failed to mention the oil seepage. I'm sure they'd rather wait until after the warranty is up to tell me about the expensive repairs that will be needed.

I finally decided on a course of action. I'd order a new fan belt and tensioner and take off the front of the car to replace it. I felt that it's easily within my ability range, I have compiled lots of instructions from various sources including the official Audi repair manual, and it'll be a great learning experience. While the engine is exposed, I'll document all the oil seepages and then take the car to the dealer armed with photos and say, "Here are the oil leaks. Please fix 'em for free." I decided not to change the timing belt myself at this time. If the dealer had to open things up to do the oil leaks, I'd just have them change the belt while they were in there and it'd cost me only parts instead of for labor.

I was talking cars with a coworker when it came up that a full-time contractor we've hired for a project is a master mechanic who repairs cars out of his house. I talked to him about timing belts and he said that if I wanted to do it myself, he'd be glad to make a house-call to my place to bless my work to make sure I'd done everything okay before restarting the car. He also gave me a couple tips to avoid a couple pitfalls during a DIY belt change. So that left me thinking about the "fun" of doing my own timing belt again.

While watching some disk arrays slowly rebuild late at work yesterday, I surfed over to AudiWorld.com and read every posting about timing belts I could. One thing that I always thought was odd struck me again. Every Audi S4 enthusiast out there has religiously changed the toothed timing belt at 60,000 miles. Since the manual reads 105,000 miles, I always assumed they were just being overly careful, or possibly changed their belts because many of them occasionally track their cars and/or have modified them which generally puts more stress on an engine. Just having driven through 80,000 miles, I figured that unless an opportunity for warranty work came up with the dealer, I'd be careful and do it myself in another 10K or so when I opened up the front to replace some other bits for performance reasons.

I happened on a thread of emails where one guy asked the question I'd always thought about. "Why do you guys change your belts at 60,000 miles when the manual says 105,000 miles?" There were a couple vague answers and then another guy posted this:

"The manual is generic across multiple Audi models. The S4 is different. Read the red sticker under the hood."

Huh? Red whazzit? Are you kidding?

Hands trembling, I finished up my work and headed out to the parking lot. I had driven the truck in, so I hopped in, drove home, and made a beeline for the barn and the hood release on the Audi. I pulled up the hood and peered in. Way in the back, near the windshield, I could make out a little red sticker, about two square inches in size. I leaned forward and focused.


Strangled expletives quietly escaped my lips and a lead weight sank into my stomach. When I had first started reading the AudiWorld posts, I had laughed at a "noob guide" that humorously welcomed Audi S4 owners to the wonderful world of paranoia and obsessive worry about their cars. I'm not laughing so much anymore. The more I learn about the car, the more obsessive I am about every little part and the closer I am to having paranoia overwhelm me.

Having stolen 5,000 miles past the predicted life of the timing belt per that little red sticker, I'm now afraid to turn the key. So last night I put the car up on jack stands and tonight will start ripping off the front of the car. Before I dare start the engine again, for peace of mind I need to examine everything, document all the oil leaks for possible warranty work, and visually examine the toothed timing belt for any indications that it's about to snap. If it looks okay and I think I can get the dealer to change it during warranty work, then I'll do that. If it looks bad, then the car will stay up on the stands until I can get the parts and specialty tools shipped to me so I can do it myself.

Little red sticker, indeed.

Friday, October 13, 2006

No Bull...winkle

Long time, no post. Sorry. I've been off the bike for quite some time, and have been working on house projects and obsessing about modifications I could do to the car. That's about it.

Last night after we got home from dinner with friends, I headed up to the bedroom and was about to go back downstairs when some movement in the corner caught my eye. I saw a big mouse go skittering behind a half-open door. I looked closely and saw a bushy tail sticking out. Hmmm... not a mouse.

I closed the door and startled a juvenile gray squirrel. It ran across the floor and into the bathroom. Great - more rodents in the house. At least this fellow wasn't a bat. I have some sort of instinctual problem with bats flying around my head and usually end up in a prone position on the floor while I crawl around to open up windows and doors.

Sue tossed up a big cereal box from the recycling bin. I figured if I could get the little guy into the box, I'd just take him outside. No problem.

I went into the bathroom and looked around the floor. Nothing. A scratching noise brought my eyes up to the top of the doorframe leading up to the attic. The little bugger had scampered up to there and was hanging out watching to see what I'd do next. It was then that I noticed something odd.

Wait a minute. His tail is bushy, but it's flat. And what's all that extra skin wadded up between his front and rear legs? And that's how I realized I'd met my first-ever flying squirrel.

photo source unknown

I slowly pushed the open box up the wall towards him. My plan was to get him to fall into the box, close it up, and carry him out. Well, flying squirrels have pretty good control over that "falling" part. He leapt into midair over my head and gently glided across the room to the far corner, then ran up the entry doorframe. Having a good amount of potential energy is a good thing when you're a flying squirrel, I suppose.

I tried the box thing again, with similar results. He dropped to the floor and ran for the corner between the sink and the enclosed tub. There, much to my chagrin, he found a gap between the wood and tiles just large enough for him to squeeze through.

With him safely back into the plumbing spaces in the floor and walls, there was nothing to do except go to bed and hope that he got out safely without taking a detour to run across our faces while we slept.

Thankfully, I haven't seen any sign of a moose in the walls, so I'm counting myself lucky.