It is 14.45 hrs the day before a bank holiday. You have 300 dollars in cash, the banks close at 1500 hrs, your generator has stuffed up and you have seven freezers and coolers loaded with meat and drink that have stopped working. In three hours it will be dark, the one rechargeable emergency lantern you have is uncharged, no water pump means no water, your phone is beeping at you because its battery too is about to expire. You are hot, sweaty and incredibly dirty, and the last time you spoke to your wife, who is in town, she was clearly in the foulest of moods.
What do you do?
Well, the first thing is to invite all your mates round for a barbecue because by lunchtime the next day, the meat will be nicely defrosted.
The next thing is come up with the mother of all excuses to explain to a tired and very pissed off wife why she is arriving home to a house in darkness. I normally face up to my failings and would never lie to worm my way out of a situation of my own creation but it is one thing throwing one’s self on the mercy of a boss the worst punishment at his disposal being a sacking, and entirely another admitting to Marcia that the reason the generator is now 850 kilograms of expensive scrap is because it wasn’t serviced on time.
This is irritating as I had included servicing the generator on my Ivan Denisovich list of things to do some two weeks ago and even more galling because I had firmly resolved to service it first thing Monday morning; the night before I had even ensured that Marcia included 10 litres of Castrol’s finest lubricating oil on her shopping list.
Before I had Dominic go and find an anthill on which to stake me out saving Marcia the effort, I rang my old boss. He is to the knowledge base of all things mechanical, especially power generation what the encyclopaedia Britannica is to general knowledge. When it comes to fault diagnosis, three or four honest answers to his perceptive questions is all it usually takes. If he was a GP, he’d save the NHS billions.
‘Apparently Marcia switched on the gennie early this morning, it ran for an hour then stopped,’ I told him, ‘so I let it cool down, checked it over, topped up the radiator and started it up again. It ran for an hour and stopped with an overheat alarm.’
‘Has it got a blocked air filter?’ he asked, beating his own record.
How does the man know? As I was checking it over, I noticed the pneumatic warning valve had popped on the filter housing and was now showing red along with an advisory stating, ‘Change Filter when Red’. How long it had been red, I had no idea.
‘Yes,’ I admitted and told him why I thought so.
‘Well, that’s probably it then,’ he continued in his low, steady tone, ‘the engine was struggling to breathe and the head has overheated. Sounds to me like a blown gasket or a cracked head.’
Shit. Symptom, overheating. Reason, cracked head. Cause, lack of maintenance. Fault, All mine.
‘But that’s not all,’ I said, ‘I filled the radiator again…’
‘How much did it take?’ he said interrupting me.
‘About a litre.’
‘About enough to fill a cylinder,’ he remarked.
‘And now there’s water running out of the air filter housing. Is that bad?’ I asked, fearing the worst.
‘Well, it’s not good!’ says he with a sigh. ‘You haven’t tried to turn it over have you? Because that would be really bad.’
‘No!’ I exclaimed, ‘I’m not that stupid!’ Whatever opinion he had of me he held in reserve.
‘Tell you what,’ he said brightly, ‘tomorrow is a public holiday and we fancy a run out of town, how about I come down with a couple of blokes or three and we whip the head off and have a look?’
I have never really considered having a man’s babies before but I was suddenly overwhelmed with a desire to have his.
Now I had bad news for Marcia that I could temper with some good news. I told her that I was preparing some extension cables and fitting plugs so if she could buy a small petrol driven generator in town, I could rig something up to keep at least the freezers going and maybe the TV as well. She wasn’t, I confess, particularly impressed but took it all better than I could have hoped for.
Sure enough, Tuesday morning they pitched up. It had taken Dominic and I over an hour to get one panel off the sound deadening canopy so we could see if the radiator was gummed up with dust. It took them only two hours to have the rest of the canopy off and the engine stripped down to the block. As the rocker cover came off, we could see the valve gear was full of water. As the head came off, we could see the number one cylinder was, as the man had correctly predicted, full of water. Trouble was, no reason for the water being there was readily apparent. The gasket was in good order, no cracks were visible in the head and the bores looked ok. Everything seemed as it should be.
|Water, water everywhere...|
|...everywhere it should not be.|
One of the mechanics finished scraping the last of the muck off the head, ‘There you go!’ he said. I don’t know off hand how much a core plug is but it can’t be more than a couple of dollars. There are four of them fitted to the head, invisible to casual inspection as they are hidden under the rocker cover, and two of them had rusted through allowing water into the inlet ports. They could only just have failed for if the gennie had sat overnight with an inlet valve open allowing a cylinder to fill, water being incompressible would have destroyed the engine had an attempt to start it been made.
A few posts ago I mentioned the need for ant-freeze in the coolant and a lot of readers wondered why I needed anti-freeze in a country where it never freezes. Well, here is the reason. Anti-freeze is also a rust inhibitor. By running this engine with only water as a coolant, it had quietly started to rust inside allowing the failure of a tuppenny-ha’penny component to potentially destroy a ten thousand dollar engine. As it is, we won’t know for certain until it is back together and cranks up for the first time again.
Fortunately, it is a common and highly regarded engine and as such, is fitted to a wide range of applications from Cummins, New Holland, Perkins et al in everything from generators to tractors and plant. Amazingly, all the components required were available off the shelf in Angola… at a price, of course. A complete head gasket set was US650 plus another couple of hundred to have the core plugs replaced. A new head gasket in the US is $65 so a full set wouldn’t be more than twice that. $850 is good value for money though, because the parts are here.
The engineering company doing the head has promised it will be ready tomorrow so my ex-boss has said he will be back here on Friday. If all goes well, we’ll have light and running water again in time for the weekend.
In my experience over twenty years in Angola, for a generator to suffer a major breakdown and have it stripped, the fault diagnosed, the necessary parts located and be rebuilt within one working week is nothing short of a miracle. Some would say it was all down to whom I knew which is, of course true but in this case seems cynical smacking as it does of corruption. No, what really made the difference was luck, pure and simple. I was very lucky to have had a boss like Andy Mallet who, rather than take a hard earned day off and enjoy a much needed stress break on the beach with his family, elected instead to drop everything and help out one of his ex-employees.
Now, I must be off. Marcia bought a small petrol driven generator that can just keep the freezers and the laptop going. The well pump is too much for the poor little thing so water for washing and cooking has to be hauled up a bucket at a time from the well. Guilt ridden as I am, I have ensured there are always a full 100 litre container in the bathroom and a full fifty litre plastic washing bowl in the kitchen. Normally I heave the water for cooking onto the dining table but today I was giving the house a good clean so placed the bowl on the floor and was then distracted by blogging. In the background as I write, I have just heard the lapping sound of three thirsty dogs burying their snouts deep into our cool, clean cooking water. Now it would probably shock, even nauseate a few but really, that doesn’t bother me; after all I have drunk water from streams and animals don’t just drink out of them but, in all conscience, I couldn’t possibly allow Marcia to cook with what she would consider water no less than poisoned, even if she were ignorant of the fact, so I have a bit of water carrying to do before she gets home.
|All that is powering Fort Hippo at the moment|