Thursday, December 1, 2011

Speeding-Up My Mac Pro

We love our Mac Pro. It's an early model from Apple; designated the MacPro1,1, it was built way back in November 2007. It has served us faithfully and reliably for several years now. However, the two 2.66 GHz Dual-Core Intel Xeon processors are getting a little old (from a technology age standpoint), and it no longer has the pep of a shiny, brand new machine. I considered the possibility of purchasing a new Mac Pro, but just cannot justify the expense at this time. So I decided to look for ways to breathe some new life into the box I already owned.

Although this blog specifically references the Mac Pro, the same changes could be made to other models of Apple computers that have more than one hard disk. Use the advice provided in this blog at your own risk. We are not responsible for any damage to your computer or loss of data that may occur!

The Mac Pro uses Serial-ATA (SATA) technology operating at a 3 Gigabit link speed to support its data storage devices. I've upgraded the drives a few times and currently have 5 Tb of hard disk storage provided by a combination of four SATA drives. One drive stores the OS X operating system, the second is used for local data storage, the third is used as a backup drive for the local data, and the fourth drive is used for Time Machine. I know there is a lot of backup storage here, but the two methods of archiving copies (plus occasional backup to external hard disks) has saved my rear end more than once.

As fast as the 3 Gigabit SATA hardware is, spinning magnetic disks remain a performance bottleneck. But all is not lost, because the beauty of the SATA hardware is that it can access multiple drives at the same time. What I discovered is that Apple's default method for locating folders does not take advantage of this capability, and herein lies my zero to low-cost method to improve the performance of your Mac Pro.

A few months ago I installed a nifty menu bar app named DiskLED. This app provides a disk activity monitor that can be customized to display an icon in the menu bar that changes color with disk activity (think traffic light with red, yellow, and green indicators). What I noticed right away was that the disk where OS X resided was constantly being hit, and hit hard. The corresponding icon was almost always colored red, while the disk with my local data was only sparingly used when files were loaded or saved.

When I viewed the folder structure of the main disk, I noticed that it not only contained the OS X files, but the Users folder as well. While I had already moved much of my data from the Users folder to my local data storage (i.e. the music, movie, and photo libraries), there was still a lot of other data in the Users folder. Specifically, there are a lot of user-specific application settings and support files that are located in hidden files and folders, and they are apparently accessed quite often as you use applications. If you would like to view these hidden files and folders, you must first tell Finder to reveal them. You can do this by opening the Terminal app and entering the following commands:

     defaults write AppleShowAllFiles TRUE
     killall Finder

To return Finder to its default of keeping these certain files and folders hidden, enter the following commands in Terminal:

     defaults write AppleShowAllFiles FALSE
     killall Finder

It was my hypothesis that an easy way to better leverage the speed and capability of the fast SATA devices was to separate the operating system and applications from the user data. However, it's not simply a matter of dragging the Users folder to the neighboring hard disk. Here is the process that is required.

1) Preparation

Start out by creating a backup of your hard disk that contains the operating system, applications, and users folders. It's better to be safe than sorry.

After you have successfully created the backup, it's a good opportunity to do some spring cleaning. Delete some of those old apps you have never used, delete user accounts that are no longer needed, clear your web browser(s) cache, and empty the Trash.

My final preparation step is to open the Disk Utility app and select the corresponding hard drive, and Repair File Permissions. This will help to make certain that the Users folder is in good order before it is moved.

2) Copy the User Folder

To copy all of the files and folders within the Users folder, including the hidden, locked, and system related files, you should use a backup or copy utility such as Synchronize! Pro X, SuperDuper, or Carbon Copy Cloner. These utilities are currently free to use on a limited basis, but we believe that these types of apps are invaluable for maintaining a scheduled backup of important files and folders. We recommend that you consider supporting the developers and purchase a copy.

Select as the source the operating system drive and the Users folder only. Then as the destination, the local data drive. Click on copy / clone and wait patiently for the data to be copied between hard drives. An example screen shot from Carbon Copy Cloner is shown below.

3) Link Each User Account to the New Users Folder Location

This is an important step. You must tell OS X to use the new location for the Users folder, otherwise it will continue to look for the folder in its original location. Open System Preferences, then select Users and Groups. Click the lock to enter your admin password to make changes. Now for each account, Control-Click the account name for access to Advanced Options. Then for the Home Directory entry, click on Choose to navigate to the new location of the Users folder. An example screen shot from the Users and Groups dialog is shown below.

You must repeat this linking process for each user account.

In order to activate the link to the new Users folder location, you must restart your computer. After restarting, you can verify that you have linked to the new location by navigating to the Home Directory, Control-Click on the "Home" icon and select Get Info. Here you will see the path to the folder, and it should designate the new drive location.

4) Delete the Old Users Folder

With the User folder successfully moved and linked to the new location, you can now delete the old User folder. After sending it to the Trash, empty the Trash.

5) Create a Symbolic Link to the New Users Folder

This last step may be the most important. Many applications (i.e. iTunes) will look for the Users folder on the same hard drive where OS X is installed. However, we have moved the folder, thereby "breaking" the application. We can fix that by creating a symbolic link to the new folder location.

Don't be fooled. A symbolic link is not the same thing as an alias. A symbolic link (symlink) is recognized by the OS X filesystem, whereas an alias is only used by Finder. The easiest way to create a symlink is to use a utility named Symbolic Linker. Download the utility and carefully follow the installation instructions. Then Control-Click on the Users folder and choose to Make Symbolic Link. You will now have a new folder named "Users symlink". While holding the Command key, drag and drop this folder to the same location as your original Users folder (that you have since deleted). Holding the Command key forces the folder to be moved instead of copied between hard drives. After you move "Users symlink", rename it to "Users". Now every application that looks for the Users folder will be redirected to the new location on your local data drive.

6) Enjoy the Improved Performance

That's it! You have successfully moved the Users folder. Now the Mac Pro will more effectively use the computer's fast SATA capability to access data from multiple drives simultaneously, essentially increasing the speed of the computer.

I have not completed benchmark speed tests to scientifically quantify the performance improvement, but anecdotally, applications do run faster. Observing the DiskLED icons, I can visually see that the OS X drive is no longer being accessed constantly since the files have been spread across two drives. This is most obvious when using disk intensive graphics applications like iPhoto or GIMP.

As a bonus, moving the Users folder will make it easier to transition the user data to a new computer because all of the data is installed on one drive. This also makes creating backups a more simple process; I no longer have to select specific folders from the OS X drive, I just backup the entire local data drive!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

This Holiday Season, Support Your Small, Locally-Owned Businesses!

I don't often re-post other people's work, but I believe that the message I've published below is worth repeating. I am not certain who the original author is, as I have seen this same message on a couple of other websites. And I would have probably written it a bit differently. However, the basic idea remains reasonable and sound. 

It doesn't matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican, whether you live in a big city or a small town, whether you have a lot of money or if you are struggling to make ends meet. We all stand to benefit if you please support the small, locally-owned businesses in your community this holiday season. The gifts are likely to have more meaning to the recipients, and our society is certain to benefit from the economic stimulus.

Christmas 2011 -- Birth of a New Tradition

As the holidays approach, the giant Asian factories are kicking into high gear to provide Americans with monstrous piles of cheaply produced goods -- merchandise that has been produced at the expense of American labor. This year will be different. This year Americans will give the gift of genuine concern for other Americans. There is no longer an excuse that, at gift giving time, nothing can be found that is produced by American hands. Oh.... Yes there is! 

It is time to think outside the box, people. Who says a gift needs to fit in a shirt box, wrapped in Chinese produced wrapping paper? 

Everyone -- yes EVERYONE gets their hair cut. How about gift certificates from your local American hair salon or barber? 

Gym membership? It's appropriate for all ages who are thinking about some health improvement. 

Who wouldn't appreciate getting their car detailed? Small, American owned detail shops and car washes would love to sell you a gift certificate or a book of gift certificates. 

Are you one of those extravagant givers who think nothing of plunking down the Benjamins on a Chinese-made flat-screen TV? Perhaps that grateful gift receiver would like his driveway sealed, or lawn mowed for the summer, or driveway plowed all winter, or games at the local golf course. 

There are a gazillion owner-run restaurants -- all offering gift certificates. And, if your intended isn't the fancy eatery sort, what about a half dozen breakfasts at the local breakfast joint. Remember, folks this isn't about big National chains -- this is about supporting your home town Americans with their financial lives on the line to keep their doors open. 

How many people couldn't use an oil change for their car, truck or motorcycle, done at a shop run by the American working guy? 

Thinking about a heartfelt gift for mom? Mom would LOVE the services of a local cleaning lady for a day. 

My computer could use a tune-up, and I KNOW I can find some young guy who is struggling to get his repair business up and running. 

OK, you were looking for something more personal. Local crafts people spin their own wool and knit them into scarves. They make jewelry, and pottery and beautiful wooden boxes. 

Plan your holiday outings at local, owner operated restaurants and leave your server a nice tip. And, how about going out to see a play or ballet at your hometown theatre. 

Musicians need love too, so find a venue showcasing local bands and purchase their CD's. Honestly people, do you REALLY need to buy another ten thousand Chinese lights for the house? When you buy a five dollar string of light, about fifty cents stays in the community. If you have those kinds of bucks to burn, leave the mailman, trash guy or babysitter a nice BIG tip. 

You see, Christmas is no longer about draining American pockets so that China can build another glittering city. Part of Christmas is now about encouraging American small businesses to keep plugging away to follow their dreams. And, when we care about other Americans, we care about our communities, and the benefits come back to us in ways we could not imagine. 

THIS is the new American Christmas tradition!! Forward this to everyone on your mailing list 
-- post it to discussion groups. 
-- throw up a post on Craig's List in the Rants and Raves section in your city. 
-- send it to the editor of your local paper and radio stations, and TV news departments.

This is a revolution of caring about each other, and our country.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

We're Living on a Ball of Confusion

One of the perks of my job is rather frequent business travel. I call it a perk because a portion of the travel is regional and it allows me to drive my own car. Unlike some people, I enjoy driving about the countryside, and I have often said that my vehicle's windshield is the very best window in the office!

I often listen to satellite radio while I drive. Sometimes it's news programming or talk radio, but I mostly listen to my favorite music from the 1970s and 80s. Hearing these songs again after thirty or more years can be an experience. Certainly I recall the popular melodies and the majority of the lyrics. However, now that I am older, I tend to pay more attention to the song's message.

One song that has really (re)captured my attention is "Ball of Confusion," performed and recorded by the Temptations in 1970. I recall listening to this song when it first came out and considering the state of the world at that time, I believe that their song had great meaning. The beauty is, the song is still very much relevant today. For me, that staying power is the sign of a true work of art. It's quite possible that this song will remain quite relevant for years to come. Let's hope that humanity can prove me wrong.

If you haven't heard the song lately, here are the lyrics. Read them carefully and enjoy.

People movin' out
People movin' in
Why, because of the color of their skin
Run, run, run, but you sho' can't hide
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
Vote for me, and I'll set you free
Rap on brother, rap on
Well, the only person talkin'
'Bout love thy brother is the preacher
And it seems,
Nobody is interested in learnin'
But the teacher
Segregation, determination, demonstration,
Integration, aggravation,
Humiliation, obligation to our nation
Ball of Confusion
That's what the world is today 

The sale of pills are at an all time high
Young folks walk around with
Their heads in the sky
Cities aflame in the summer time
And, the beat goes on

Air pollution, revolution, gun control,
Sound of soul
Shootin' rockets to the moon
Kids growin' up too soon
Politicians say more taxes will
Solve everything
And the band played on
So round 'n' round 'n' round we go
Where the world's headed, nobody knows
Just a Ball of Confusion
Oh yea, that's what the world is today

Fear in the air, tension everywhere
Unemployment rising fast,
The Beatles' new record's a gas
And the only safe place to live is
On an indian reservation
And the band played on
Eve of destruction, tax deduction
City inspectors, bill collectors
Mod clothes in demand,
Population out of hand
Suicide, too many bills, hippies movin'
To the hills
People all over the world, are shoutin'
End the war
And the band played on.

Copyright 1970 Jobete Music Company, Inc.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Paintless Dent Repair Using a Heat Gun and a Can of Compressed Gas Duster

Our daughter surprised us this past weekend by getting into a fender bender with my car. It was a very minor incident and fortunately nobody was injured. However, now I was faced with the task of dealing with a couple of dents in my car.

As you can see by the before-photo above, the damage was limited to two small areas. A large dent between the tail light and the gas tank filler door, and a small dent between the gas tank filler door and wheel well. Neither dent included any tearing of the metal or removal of the painted finish. It was just two simple dents. While I am not a body repair technician, I am an avid do it yourself kind of guy. It wouldn't be my nature to take this job to the body shop without trying to repair it myself first.

If I could access the rear quarter panel from behind, I could probably push the damage out with ease. The problem that I faced; there was no easy way to access the body panel from behind. In this vehicle the space between the body panel and the interior trim houses a rear air conditioner unit that leaves no access to the body panel.

I determined that I could try to pull out the dent by use of a suction device, or by drilling holes and using a dent puller. Well, I do not own a powered suction device, and purposely making holes in the car body would turn this into a more time consuming and expensive auto body repair project than what I was ready to tackle.

Then I recalled reading about paintless dent repair services. Maybe there was a way that I could do the same type of repair myself?

After some quick Internet searches, I found several videos of a technique that called for the application of a heat source (i.e. heat gun, hair dryer, or small torch) then a cold source (i.e. the liquid propellent used in compressed air dusters) to expand then contract the metal. The process was supposed to pop-out the dent, placing the body panel back into its original shape. Some of the videos demonstrated what was apparently a successful repair, while others were an obvious failure and claimed hoax. While I had no desire to play Mythbusters, the junior high school science fair aspect of the process intrigued me and I convinced myself that it was worth a try.

I already owned a powerful heat gun that is intended for use in removing paint and softening adhesives. Think of it as a supercharged hair dryer, except that this model can provide temperatures that are close to 1,000º F (538º C). If I was not careful, the heat source would easily peel the paint right off the vehicle's body panel.

For the cold source, I stopped by the local Target and purchased a two-can pack of Endust for Electronics, Multi-Purpose Duster. The two-pack of 10 ounce cans was priced at $8.99. Typical of these kinds of canned air packages, Endust Duster contains Difluoroethane. In addition to serving as a refrigerant for air conditioners, Difluoroethane is also commonly used in many consumer aerosol products such as canned air dusters.

Used as intended, the can is held upright and when the trigger is pressed, a stream of high-pressure air is released from the can. The dry, anti-static nature of the canned air makes it perfect for blowing dust and debris from sensitive electronic equipment. However, when the can is held upside down and the trigger pressed, the can releases a stream of the liquid Difluoroethane. As it is emitted from the can, the liquid has a temperature of approximately -13º F (-25º C). Definitely cold enough to cause frostbite or other possible injury to the user and anyone nearby.

It's important to note that the canned air is NOT intended for use in this manner. The Endust Duster can has clear warnings that you should never hold the can upside down and release the liquid Difluoroethane. We do not endorse this use either and cannot be held liable for any injuries or damage that may occur from misuse!

Now I was ready to give the process a try. First I heated the dent area with the heat gun, making certain to move the heat source over the affected area to provide even and thorough heating. Apply the heat for three to five minutes, or until the metal is very hot to the touch. Then, holding the air duster can upside down, quench the dent with the liquid Difluoroethane for about ten seconds. The liquid will create a frosty coating on the hot metal. Allow the frost to thaw and wipe the condensation dry with a clean cloth.

Depending upon the severity of the dent, you may see the damage begin to magically repair itself. In the instance of my two dents, I had to repeat the process a few times. However, it did work!

In the un-retouched after-photo above, you can see that the large dent is virtually indistinguishable. The small dent between the gas tank filler door and the wheel well is still slightly visible. Based upon this repair experience, I have concluded that the degree of success with using this method depends upon the location and severity of the damage. In my case, the large dent was located in an area of the body panel that was relatively flat and void of strength. That seems to have been a factor in my successful repair. 

The small dent was located along the curve of the wheel well and near the two arcing creases of the body panel. These features provide strength to the body panel and made repair of the dent more difficult. However, the process did in fact help to make the dent smaller and much less noticeable.

The following two-minute video summarizes the repair process and demonstrates the instructions provided above. If you have any doubt that this process really works, watch carefully at the 1:05 mark where the large dent pops back into place.

To view a larger, High Definition version of this video (much better than what I could place here within the blog), please follow this link to YouTube.

So, can you repair dents in an automobile with a hair dryer and a can of compressed air? Yes and no. It depends upon the location and severity of the damage. But as I have demonstrated, with a heat gun, $9 worth of Endust Duster, and about 15 minutes, you can achieve some remarkable results.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Mazda CX-9 - Blower Motor Stays On After Key is Turned Off

A few weeks ago, our 2007 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring model started doing something rather peculiar. When we turned-off the vehicle, the rear cabin fan would power-on at full-blast speed and continue to run for a few minutes. The blower would operate as expected when the vehicle was running; it was just this odd behavior when the ignition was turned-off.

A quick web search revealed that this seems to be a fairly common problem for Mazda CX-9 vehicles that were made between 2007 and 2009, and it's probably why you wound up finding this blog post.

There is a Technical Service Bulletin ("TSB") from Mazda concerning this problem: TSB 07-008/09, 2007-2009 CX-9 - BLOWER MOTOR STAYS ON AFTER KEY OFF. The TSB details the replacement of the blower relays, Mazda Part No. G115-67-730. There are two; one for the front (dashboard) fan and one for the rear (center console) fan.

This is not a very complex repair. However, that does not stop most Mazda dealerships from generating a handsome profit from the typical customer's repair fears. We have learned that other CX-9 owners have paid $150 or more to their dealer and lost a good part of their day to have this repair done. We would like to show you how to do the very same repair for about $30 or less in a matter of a few minutes.

ANYONE can perform this easy and inexpensive repair. You do not need any mechanical training or special tools. A simple pair of pliers are all that is needed. Just follow these three steps.

1) Confirm the problem. Okay, this seems kind of silly, but you should make certain that the problem we are explaining how to fix is really your vehicle's issue. When you turn-off the ignition on your 2007, 2008, or 2009 Mazda CX-9, does the front or rear cabin blower fan suddenly turn-on and then run for a few minutes? Problem confirmed. Proceed to the next step.

2) Purchase replacement relays. Surprisingly, there are a limited number of sources for these electrical components. What's even more surprising is that we found the best price from a Mazda dealership! If you live close to a dealer, phone their parts department and ask them for the price of Mazda Part No. G115-67-730 (Blower Motor Relay). If they want to charge you more than $15 each, consider making the purchase online.

We found the best price from a Mazda dealer in Arlington, Virginia; Rosenthal Mazda. They sell the relay for $12.68 each with reasonable UPS shipping costs. We ordered the parts late one evening and received them in the afternoon two days later. CLICK HERE to go to the part listing on this dealer's online store. Here is a photo of what you should have purchased and received.

You will need two relays; one for the front blower and one for the rear blower. Even if only one fan is acting-up, we recommend that you replace both. The parts are inexpensive and the repair is easy. Fix them both while you have the hood open!

We also found these blower motor relays for sale on eBay. However, they were used parts and we cannot recommend that you purchase a used part for this repair. When a brand new relay can be purchased for such a low price, why bother with a used part that is likely to fail quicker?

3) Replace the defective relays. This step is best demonstrated through a series of photos.

Open the hood to the engine compartment and look to the far-right, near the firewall (top right corner). There you will find the relay box; the plastic box circled in red in the photo above. Press the latch on the front of the box to release the cover and expose the parts within.

Take a look at the inside of the cover after you remove it. Here you will see the layout of the various relays that are housed within this box. Note the location of the two Blower Motor Relays (F. BLOWER RELAY and R. BLOWER RELAY).

Firmly grip the sides of the Blower Motor Relay with a pair of pliers and using a slight side-to-side motion, carefully loosen the relay and pull it from its socket. Repeat for the other Blower Motor Relay.

Insert the replacement relay into the vacant socket. Be certain to align the relay's tabs correctly. The relay's tabs are oriented such that the part will only fit when positioned correctly. If it does not seat with a firm push, make certain that it is properly aligned. Repeat for the other Blower Motor Relay.

Once both relays have been replaced, place the cover back on the box and make certain that it is secure. Close the engine compartment hood and wash your hands... you are done! Wasn't that easy?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ford Escape Hybrid Tone Ring Repair - Yet Another Problem with the FEH Brakes!

During one of the recent very hot days in the Mid-Atlantic (100+ degrees Fahrenheit temperatures) my 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid alerted me to a problem with my brakes while I was traveling in normal traffic conditions. The alert tone sounded, the yellow ABS warning lit, and the information display informed me to "Service Brake System."

With no cars directly behind me, I carefully tested my brakes and they seemed to operate as expected. The regenerative braking indicator showed that energy was flowing back to the high voltage batteries and the vehicle safely slowed down. Obviously, this was not another death-defying episode with a failed master cylinder and hydraulic control unit (Please see my previous blog posts: My Ford Escape Hybrid Brake Repair Experience - The Brakes Broke the Bank! and Ford Escape Hybrid Brake Failure - Revisited), so I carefully pointed the car towards home. But this was yet another problem with the FEH's brakes! What could it be this time?

Since the brakes seemed to operate correctly, I directed my attention to the ABS (Anti-Lock Braking System). Recalling research from my earlier brake problems, I started by resetting the vehicle's computer by disconnecting the battery for a short time. That cleared the alarm, but a short test drive resulted in the problem quickly reoccurring.

I understand that the ABS computer stores the failure codes for later review. If you have access to such a device, you will likely find the following codes: C1142 - Wheel Speed Sensor Right Front Tone Ring Tooth Missing Fault;  C1234 - Wheel Speed Right Front Input Signal Missing; U2023 - Fault Received From External Node. However, with no ABS diagnostic code scanning device available to me, I resorted to a physical, visual inspection of the brake components. It didn't take long to discover the problem. There on the passenger side, front axle was a broken tone ring.

So what is a tone ring? You may also find this component referenced as an indicator ring. This part is integral to the ABS. Coupled with an "electronic eye" sensor, this slotted ring is fitted to the axle at each wheel. The slots are used to send pulses to the ABS computer, indicating the speed of each wheel.

Since this tone ring was cracked, one of the slots was larger than the others. This sends false information to the ABS computer, resulting in the brake system malfunction that I experienced. What I discovered is that in this situation, the brakes still worked. However the ABS is apparently disabled, resulting in a potentially dangerous situation.

Why did the tone ring break? Good question. It is not a component that experiences any wear and tear; the ring is simply fitted to the axle at each wheel and allows the electronic eye to register pulses to determine the wheel speed. It appears as though corrosion (i.e. rust) between the axle and the indicator ring created enough pressure to force the ring to break. It's possible that the high ambient temperatures contributed to this failure by slightly expanding the size of the axle. However, based on my previous bad experiences with Ford's brake system design, I will chalk this one up to another poor component design; a potentially dangerous situation that never should have occurred! My research could not identify a technical service bulletin ("TSB") or recall notice associated with this issue, so if your warranty has expired, the repair is up to you.

How can you repair the broken tone ring? I determined that it's not a particularly difficult project. However, it may be beyond the scope of some shade tree mechanics as it does require some tools that are not often found in the typical household toolbox. I'll provide the steps that I took to complete the work, but I will recommend that you enlist the assistance of a more experienced mechanic if you are not skilled in these types of repairs.

I easily found the replacement part online at several retail sales websites. The original part number from Ford is 7L8Z-2C182-B. However, it has apparently been changed to AL8Z-2C182-A. You may want to try performing a search on both numbers in order to get the best comparison. Prices varied widely; I found that a single ring sold for between $7 and $35 (plus applicable taxes, handling, and shipping). I found what looked to be a reputable retailer that sold the "Genuine Ford Part" for about $15. It arrived just a couple of days after online purchase, so I was ready to tackle the project!

To complete the replacement of this important ABS component, start by carefully blocking the wheels of your Ford Escape Hybrid, engaging the parking brake, and lifting the corner of the vehicle that has the broken tone ring. After placing jack stands (or some other kind of safety blocks) under the car, remove the wheel. Then remove the two bolts that hold the brake caliper in place. A generous application of penetrating oil on the fasteners you will be removing goes a long way towards making your life easier for these kinds of projects. Buy a can and you will be very grateful... I promise!

After you have unfastened the brake caliper, you may want to carefully suspend it out of the way using a rubber strap / bungee cord to avoid placing too much stress on the hydraulic brake line; don't just let it hang there.

Next, remove the brake rotor. This can be a challenge as the part is often temporarily fixed to the axle, adhered by time and corrosion. If you cannot remove the brake rotor after a couple of simple taps with a hammer, follow the helpful advice provided in this instructional video before you do something silly and break or damage your vehicle's brakes.

Now remove the electronic eye sensor that is coupled to the tone ring and move it out of the way; a single, small fastener holds it in-place. Disconnect the tie rod and remove the two bolts that connect the hub to the suspension strut. You can conveniently leave the hub connected to the lower ball joint while you finish the repair.

Now remove the nut connecting the hub to the axle. If the axle does not easily dislodge from the hub, you may need to use a gear puller (like I did) to push the axle out of the hub to get access to the tone ring. Allow the hub to lay to the side, out of the way, while you get down to business replacing the tone ring.

Once the axle was free, the broken tone ring simply fell off the axle to the floor. Based on my observation, the area of the axle where the ring resided was slightly corroded and the original ring had only the one crack. The replacement ring looked virtually identical to the broken one (except for the crack!). It did not appear that Ford had done anything obvious to improve the design of the replacement part unless the metal alloy was somehow changed.

The replacement indicator ring would not easily fit in-place of the original, so I cleaned up the surface area with a small die grinder with a sandpaper barrel bit. Use special care not to remove too much material, just the obvious surface corrosion. I found that the new ring would not simply slide into place, which I was glad to see since I wanted the new ring to have a nice and tight fit on the axle. I carefully heated the new ring with a propane torch; not too hot, just enough to expand the diameter enough so that it could be tapped into place on the axle with a small hammer. Once cooled, the ring appeared to be fastened tightly in-place.

With the new tone ring installed, I proceeded to reassemble the rest of the axle and hub assembly, including the brake rotor and caliper. Once the wheel was mounted, I was able to remove the jack stands and lower the vehicle to the ground. A brief test drive in a safe area that allowed me to perform several hard-braking, quick stops, demonstrated that the ABS was working correctly and that the new indicator ring had resolved the problem.

In the end, the repair process took less than three hours, including preparation and clean-up time. The total out-of-pocket cost was less than $20, including a fresh can of penetrating oil. Assuming the usual labor and shop charges, performing this repair myself must have easily saved me a few hundred dollars.

I hope that these instructions may help you fix your own Ford Escape / Mercury Mariner Hybrid tone ring problems. If you have experienced this or any other issues with the brakes on your Ford hybrid vehicle, please file a complaint with the Office of Defects Investigation ("ODI") at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA"). You can file a safety complaint at this web site... or by calling the NHTSA Safety Hotline, Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. at (888) 327-4236, TTY: (800) 424-9153. Maybe one of these days the NHTSA will have Ford address these potentially dangerous issues with the brake systems on their hybrid vehicles.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

To Kill A Cicada Killer (Wasp)

Let me begin with a statement that I am not normally a garden pest killer. I prefer to get rid of the pests' attraction to my yard as the method of elimination. That has proven to be the most successful solution over time. However, this instance wasn't that easy.

Several years ago, we noticed a nest of Cicada Killer Wasps in our yard. I wasn't too alarmed because my research had revealed that these ground dwelling insects were relatively harmless and almost certain not to sting under any circumstance. That didn't make the wasp any less intimidating though. With a length of over two inches, menacing coloration, and active swarming, they can put the scare in just about anyone.

The good news is that the wasps have a relative short life-span and are only around for a few weeks a year at the end of July / beginning of August. They propagate by laying their eggs into the bodies of Cicadas that they capture and kill, so you are most likely to see them during the same time that Cicadas are present. Since the wasps are attracted by Cicadas and the favorable soil conditions of our yard, there was no way of making this site less attractive to them (i.e. We weren't willing to cover the yard in several inches of mulch or attempt to eliminate the Cicadas!).

The bad news is that they apparently found the conditions our yard favorable for nesting and over the course of a several years had multiplied to a good-sized colony. This year dozens of nests appeared throughout the yard; we decided that something had to be done about them.

I found several commercial insecticides that would do the trick, but we were concerned about using these types of toxic chemicals around our family's pets.

We read about physically killing them... literally swatting them out of the air with a tennis racquet and smashing them by foot. Uh. No thank you.

One home brew method captured our attention. It required the application of household ammonia into the underground nest; something that would be harmless to our pets in the manner in which it would be used. It would also be a relatively inexpensive solution compared to the costly commercial insecticide sprays and powders. We decided that it was worth a try.

The idea is to identify the Cicada Killer Wasp nests during the day while the insects are active. That was easy. The wasps actively swarm low to the ground and emerge from the soil from a distinctive hole (about 1/2 inch in diameter) with a pile of excavated earth beneath the entrance to the underground nest. We flagged each of these nests with a colorful plastic knife; something that would be easy to see under low-light conditions.

Later that day, in the evening when temperatures had dropped and the wasps were back to their nests and inactive, we returned with our materials. We came armed with a flashlight, small funnel and a bottle of household ammonia (scented is okay). At each nest, we inserted the funnel and poured about one (1) to two (2) cups of ammonia into the hole. Then upon removing the funnel, we covered the entrance hole with some of the excavated soil and tamped it firmly in place. This process was repeated at each nest location identified earlier in the day.

There are a number of wasp nests in our yard, and since the larvae don't all hatch on the same date the inhabitants continue to emerge over time. That means there have been new nests appearing almost each day. However, all of the nests that we have treated with our solution have remained sealed and inactive. Success!

We fully expect that we will need to repeat this process again for the next few years before we completely rid our yard of these pests, but based upon our effort to-date, the solution has worked. There is a noticeably smaller infestation of the Cicada Killer Wasps in our yard then what there has been over the past few years. Hopefully, this process will work for you as well.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

When is an Oxygen Sensor not an Oxygen Sensor? My Honda Element Repair Experience.

My daughter came home from college for Spring Break concerned that her beloved 2004 Honda Element DX had a problem. The check engine light had recently came on, and she was worried that there may be something amiss with "Elle".

I stopped by my friendly neighborhood mechanic, and he reported that the ODB-II code came back as P1157. According to Honda's list of ODB-II codes...

P1157 Air/Fuel Ratio (A/F) Sensor (Sensor 1) AFS Line High Voltage
P1157 Air/Fuel Ratio (A/F) Sensor (Sensor 1) Circuit High Voltage
P1157 Air/Fuel Ratio (A/F) Sensor (Sensor 1) Range/Performance Problem

In Honda-speak, the Air / Fuel Sensor is also known as an Oxygen Sensor. The Element has two O2 sensors, one located right before the catalytic converter, and one located immediately after. There is a difference, so be certain you are working with the correct sensor.

Based on this information, it looked to me like the front O2 sensor had gone bad. With about 70,000 miles on the vehicle, that seemed about right.

A quick look online provided several possible sources for a new replacement. Auto Parts Warehouse is one of my favorite Internet auto parts retailers based on positive experiences with parts availability and competitive prices. Always being one to try and save a little money, I decided to purchase the replacement manufactured by Bosch (part no. W0133-1613479) with a list price of $211.52 and a sales price of $51.95. Other Bosch parts have performed well, so I assumed that this would be a prudent purchase.

The new Oxygen Sensor arrived quickly. The Element went up on blocks to provide easier access to the exhaust system, and the original sensor came loose from the exhaust manifold after applying a bit of penetrating oil. I noticed that the old sensor was manufactured by Denso (part no. 234-9064).

The Bosch replacement looked very similar, and the electrical connection was identical to the original equipment. This should be any easy repair, right?

After installing the new sensor, and resetting the Honda's diagnostic computer memory, I starting the engine anticipating a successful job. Unfortunately, after about 30 seconds the check engine light reappeared. Bugger!

The next day I drove the vehicle for several miles, and reset the computer again, all in hopes that the new Oxygen Sensor would be recognized. Unfortunately, the efforts were in vain as the check engine light remained on. A return trip to my mechanic revealed the same P1157 ODB-II code. 

Based on my experience with other Bosch products, I doubted that this part was defective, and since it had been installed, it was no longer possible to return it to the retailer for a refund. However, it was possible that the Bosch sensor was not really a good candidate to be an original equipment ("OE") replacement. Was this the retailer's fault? Maybe, but browsing online revealed that many other retailers listed a number of different replacement sensors from a number of different manufacturers.

Browsing back to the Auto Parts Warehouse website, I found the Denso replacement with a list price of $134.37 and a sales price of $73.95. Hmmm. This Denso model (part no. W0133-1839108) had a list price significantly lower than the Bosch model. Could it be as good? Since the original sensor was manufactured by Denso, I was willing to make the leap of faith that maybe this would resolve my problem.

A couple of days later the second replacement arrived. Although the catalog number was different, the part number on the box was the same as the original sensor that I had removed. I was feeling more confident now, and I had the replacement installed in short-order. This time after resetting the diagnostic computer memory the check engine light stayed off and has remained off for another few hundred miles of travel.

So why did the Denso O2 Sensor work, while the Bosch model did not? I am guessing that the Honda engine's computer expects readings from the various sensors that fit in a rather narrow range; something that the Bosch replacement could not deliver. This was an instance where a replacement part from the original equipment manufacturer ("OEM") actually made a difference.

My lesson was learned. When dealing with Honda vehicles, an Oxygen Sensor is not an Oxygen Sensor; stick to the original brand! I hope that this information may save you some time and money with your next vehicle repair.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ford Escape Hybrid - Electric Motor Cooling Pump, Do It Yourself Repair

[Editor's Note: This blog post is one of our most popular and it has prompted many excellent questions from interested readers. Please take the time to read through the comments at the end of this posting as the additional information may be very useful in your own efforts.]

My 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid has served me fairly well. With slightly more than 120,000 miles, it has only had one major issue (please see My Ford Escape Hybrid Brake Repair Experience - The Brakes Broke the Bank! and Ford Escape Hybrid Brake Failure - Revisited).

When this hybrid electric vehicle ("HEV") was still rather new with about 17,000 miles, it suffered a failure of the electric motor cooling pump. I was traveling through the Appalachians in the middle of Pennsylvania when the "High Motor Temperature" warning came on. Some of you may be familiar with this issue. The display warns you to "Stop Vehicle Safely" and if you fail to do so within a few minutes the vehicle literally shuts down. Although it may be inconvenient, the shut-down is by design; to keep the electric motor and related components from being damaged from the high temperature caused by some failure of the cooling system.

After allowing the motor to cool off, I limped slowly to the nearest Ford dealer. They diagnosed the problem with the Motor Electronics Cooling System ("MECS") and replaced the Motor Electronics Cooling Pump (Part Number: 5M6Z-8C419-A) under warranty.

It so happens that Ford eventually issued a Technical Service Bulletin for this overheating problem. TSB 08-24-5 states that some 2005-2008 Escape Hybrid and 2006-2008 Mariner Hybrid vehicles may exhibit a red triangle light and codes indicating a transaxle overtemp. This condition may result in reduced power as the system activates fail safe operation. Codes P1A0E, P1A0F, P0A3C, P0A3E, P0A7A, P0A7C and P1A0D may also be set.

The first page of the TSB is shown below (the second page contains dealer billing information irrelevant to this shade tree mechanic repair, therefore it is not included).

I never gave the matter further thought since the replacement pump continued to work fine. Then a few weeks ago, I began to notice that the pump was operating rather noisily. I should have used that as a sign to proactively replace the part. However, I was complacent and before I took care of the pending failure I had a repeat of the "High Motor Temperature" and "Stop Vehicle Safely" warning.

Since I had driven another 100,000 miles since the first failure, I cannot really complain. From what I have read of other's experiences, it is not unusual for these components to fail after 50,000 miles.

With the vehicle out of warranty, I decided to see if this was a repair that I could complete myself. First I followed the procedure from the TSB.

[FORD] 1. After verifying the Motor Electronics Cooling System ("MECS") is at the proper level and condition, raise the vehicle on a hoist and with the ignition key in the run position, use a stethoscope to verify operation of the MECS pump.

[Me] The MECS pump cannot be seen from the top of the engine compartment, and is only visible from under the vehicle. It is located behind and below the radiator, just in front of the oil filter as shown in the photo below. Do not confuse this pump with the slightly smaller pump on the driver's side of the radiator. This other pump is part of the cabin heating system.

Well, I don't have a hoist or a stethoscope, but I used some jack stands to raise the front end a few inches and laid under the vehicle. Then I placed a short length of plastic hose between the pump and my ear to determine if it was operating. Nope. No sound from the pump.

[FORD] 2. If the pump is running, verify coolant flow into the MECS degas bottle. If there is no flow, verify hoses are not pinched or twisted and if no issues are found replace the pump with the listed kit part.

[FORD] 3. If the pump runs and there is coolant flow into the degas bottle this Technical Service Bulletin may not apply so follow normal diagnosis and repair.

[Me] Since the pump was not running, these two steps did not apply. And what the heck is a degas bottle? It's just a fancy name for what most of us call the coolant overflow tank.

[FORD] 4. If the pump is not running, tap the housing and listen for the pump to turn on.

[Me] Using a small hammer, I tapped the pump housing a few times and what do you know? After a few grunts and groans, and with a bit of noise, the pump began to operate again. It stopped after a few minutes, but it led me to the next step.

[FORD] 5. If the pump turns on after tapping, replace the pump with new service kit. The kit provides the necessary instructions and hardware.

[Me] There you go; it was time for a new motor electronics cooling pump. After seeing where the pump was located, I decided that the procedure was something that I could do myself. Two compression-type hose clamps, two 10 mm bolts and one electrical connection... just about anyone can perform this repair in the driveway. It would also be much less expensive than the $300 estimated dealer labor cost.

I checked with the local Ford dealer's parts department and they had part number 5M6Z-8C419-A in stock with a list price of $281.98. I also checked online and found it available for much less, as low as $177.37 (from Ford Parts Giant). Mentioning this to the dealer prompted them to drop their price to $225.58 without hesitation. Since I needed the repair completed quickly the discounted dealer price was a good deal for me, so I headed home with the parts to complete the work.

Ford's service procedure for the pump replacement couldn't be much more simple:

1. Remove old pump.

2. Install new pump.

Although Ford's instructions are correct, I would suggest that the steps listed below may be helpful if you are going to do the work yourself.

1. Optional: Securely raise the front of the vehicle using jack stands or blocks. Even a couple of inches makes the work so much easier.

2. Optional: Remove the protective plastic shroud under the engine compartment from the passenger side. There are five 10 mm bolts and one plastic pin. You CAN perform the repair work with this shroud in-place, but taking a couple of minutes to remove it makes the process so much easier.

3. Drain the coolant from the transaxle cooling system. Ford has an official procedure for this, but it seems overly complicated. I placed a clean, small bucket under the pump and carefully removed one of the hose connections allowing the coolant to drain into the container. Only about a gallon and a half or so drained from the system. If you are careful, you should be able to recover virtually all of the old coolant. I moved the bucket aside to reuse the coolant (more on that later) instead of dealing with an environmental hazard disposal issue.

4. After the coolant has drained from the system, remove the second hose connection.

5. Remove the two 10 mm bolts that hold the pump in place.

6. Remove the electrical connector.

The old pump on my vehicle was manufactured by Bosch, while the new replacement was made by Cooper Superior. The new model is obviously a highly modified design as you can see in the side-by-side photo below. The good news is that the new pump is a bolt-in substitute and no changes to the hoses or wiring are needed.

7. Bolt the new pump in-place with the two 10 mm bolts.

8. Connect the two hoses to the pump, and secure with the compression clamps.

9. Attach the electrical connector.

10. Replace the coolant. You may decide to use a new coolant mixture, or reuse the old coolant like I did. To make certain that no contaminants were introduced into the system, I strained the old coolant through a clean cotton cloth placed over a funnel. Ford has an official procedure for the refilling process as well. It includes venting the system at the transaxle; a task not easily done. I found that almost the entire volume of old coolant filled the degas bottle to the original level without a need to vent the system. Save the remaining pint or so that is leftover for the next step.

11. Turn the key to the run position and confirm that the new pump operates. With the pump running, verify coolant is flowing into the degas bottle. The level in the degas bottle should drop enough to allow the addition of the remaining coolant. In my case, the coolant level returned to virtually the same exact level it was before I started the repair.

Your installed replacement should look similar to the following photo.

12. Confirm that there are no leaks and that all connections are secure. Reattach the protective plastic shroud and carefully remove the vehicle from the jack stands or blocks.

Wasn't that easy? I'm not certain if I will still own this vehicle for another 50,000 or 100,000 miles. But if I do, I will be prepared to confidently complete this repair once again. Hopefully, these instructions will help you to do the same.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Resolving Slow / Delayed OfficeJet Printing Through an Airport Express

We run a mixed bag of computers in our house. There's a few desktop machines, and several notebooks; and they run operating systems that include different flavors of Apple's OS X, Microsoft Windows and our favorite Linux variant, Ubuntu. They all operate under a wireless network served-up nicely by an Apple Airport Extreme. The network also features an Airport Express that is dedicated to extending the wireless network via the WDS ("Wireless Distribution System") capabilities of the Apple devices, and another Airport Express that is used to provide for the remote location of a printer. Overall, the set-up has served its purposes nicely.

The remote printer is an older Hewlett Packard all-in-one device; an OfficeJet 7410 that is located in my office and near the children's rooms. It's a convenient location for a printer and the old HP inkjet has been a real workhorse having printed several thousand pages of reports and homework over the course of a few years.

The OfficeJet 7410 is connected to the Airport Express through a USB cable. The computers throughout the house are configured to access the printer through a Standard TCP/IP Port, using the IP address of the Airport Express and Port 9100. This is easy to configure on most any operating system and works best if you establish a set IP address for the Airport Express so that it does not change every time you power cycle the routers.

The Airport Express provides a secure connection to the printer, and printing speeds are reasonable for a wireless network. It's been great for the children who may choose to print from their notebooks from various locations throughout the house. This configuration has been used successfully for a few years with nary a hitch... that is until I upgraded the children's notebooks to Windows 7 64-bit Home Premium.

For some reason, once I upgraded the AMD 64-bit processor powered Dell Studio notebooks from Windows Vista to Windows 7 Home Premium, we encountered a printing problem with the OfficeJet 7410. The printing job would start in a timely manner and zip through most all of the document, but then it would hang for several minutes on the very last line or two of the document. Left to its own accord, the document would eventually finish and spit-out of the printer. However, the three to five minute wait for that last line to print would often seem like hours.

The interesting thing to me was that this problem was only with the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium and the HP OfficeJet 7410. Installations of Windows 7 32-bit Home Premium, Windows 7 64-bit Ultimate, and Windows XP on other computers in the house were able to print to the OfficeJet 7410 without a problem. The upgraded notebooks were able to successfully print to a network connected HP OfficeJet Pro L7780. And as you might expect, there was no printing issue with the Mac OS X or Ubuntu installations. What was the problem with the 64-bit version of Windows Home Premium and the network connected OfficeJet 7410?

Searching through the HP website for a solution was useless, and I could not find anyone else on the Internet who had this same problem. I tried a number of fixes; uninstalled / reinstalled the printer, installed new drivers, and changed IP addresses and ports. Nothing seemed to make a difference. 

After months of frustration and on a whim, I unchecked the "Enable Bidirectional Support" box under the Ports tab of Printer Properties. Presto! The print jobs now zip through to completion with no delay at the end, and there is no perceivable printing speed difference with the bidirectional support disabled.

I cannot explain why this solution works, I can only attest that it does. If you are experiencing slow or delayed printing with an HP printer network connected through an Apple Airport Express, this solution may work for you as well.