December 31, 2016: Taking your car in for a smog check in California is a bit like playing Russian roulette; when it's your turn, sometimes you pull the trigger and nothing happens. Occasionally there's a bullet waiting in the chamber. In automotive speak, that is any of a number of things that can cause your vehicle to flunk its emissions test, leading to extensive and expensive repairs or, in a worse-case scenario, replacement of the vehicle itself.
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This was the prospect that Glenn faced this fall when it came time for the biennial smog check for his 2001 Toyota Corolla. Two years ago, with the car hovering at 160,000 miles, problems began surfacing that caused intermittent illumination of the check-engine light. The light would go out on its own in a few days, however, and it wasn't an issue when it came time to smog the car; it passed the test easily.
But on a then 14-year-old vehicle, even an occasional blush of orange on the dashboard can be a sign of the coming apocalypse, and there was no denying that the car was getting old despite Toyota's excellent track record for longevity of its products. Glenn decided that he would keep the car for two more years — assuming it survived that long — and then replace it at the end of 2016.
At least that was the plan before life got in the way this year. After paying off Roni's new car that we bought in September 2014, we had been slowly banking money to use as a down payment on a new car for Glenn, hoping to pay for it mostly in cash. That's not a typical approach for most car buyers in this age of 72-month loans and endless leases that try to suck you in with promises of low monthly payments. We've learned it's much better to spend what you have on hand when practical rather than buy on credit, and that approach has brought us peace of mind in the face of never ending job uncertainty.
But the latter half of 2016 has brought wave after wave of unexpected bills, including home improvement projects, trips to the vet for Eevee, and an emergency room visit for Ben. It's looking like next spring or summer it will be time for a new roof on our house. Dropping 25 grand on a new set of wheels, even with payments, didn't feel like the best option right now, so Glenn took a second look at his aging, ailing Corolla and said, "Maybe I can get this baby to last another year."
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T ISN'T THAT Glenn hasn't maintained his car all these years, but he hasn't been trusting of mechanics and has done everything to avoid them for minor maintenance needs. That includes such things as changing the oil, replacing spark plugs, topping fluids and repairing the occasional burned-out bulb or broken door handle. He even tried rotating his own tires before discovering that he didn't have the means to balance them properly, then wound up taking the car to Les Schwab Tire Center in Oakley on Halloween in 2014. That was the last time the car saw the inside of a professional service center. In the interim, Glenn's approach to the vehicle has been to provide the equivalent of hospice care. Not planning to keep it beyond 2016, he put the bare minimum into addressing its major needs.
That included tackling the persistent check-engine light, which now no longer shut off on its own. Over the course of nearly two years since the last smog check, Glenn replaced the air intake manifold gasket, swapped in a new O2 sensor, checked for air leaks, and replaced the mass air flow (MAF) sensor. He poured in bottles of fuel injector cleaner every few months. He even attempted to change the serpentine belt on his own before discovering the bolt holding it in place was too difficult to remove and thought better of it. Still, nothing helped. And then came the long anticipated notice from the DMV: it was time to have the car smogged.
Now the panic set in. Was it possible that this much neglected car could pass the rigors of California's tough air pollution standards and receive a new lease on life? It seemed unlikely. First of all, the check-engine light must be OFF or it is an automatic fail at a smog station. That is easily handled by acquiring an OBD-II scan tool, which performs engine diagnostics, and having the device tell the car's computer to turn the light off. The problem is that when you clear the light, you also clear the error codes that tell a trained mechanic what's wrong with the car. P0171 is the car's shorthand for a lean fuel condition, which means that the car's computer thinks not enough fuel is getting to the engine, so it compensates by increasing the fuel flow to match the recorded air flow. If you have a vacuum leak somewhere in the engine, that's allowing unmetered air to enter the system, causing the engine to compensate by increasing fuel flow until it can no longer add any more. At that point the computer throws the pending P0171 error code. If it happens once, no big deal; the condition will correct itself and the light won't come on. But if it happens again, the pending code becomes active and the check-engine light illuminates until the condition is corrected or the code is cleared.
Glenn was well familiar with this situation, and had purchased an inexpensive OBD-II (for On-Board Diagnostics) reader several months ago while troubleshooting his car's woes. Now it would be crucial to getting the car smogged. The other thing that happens when the check-engine light is cleared with the scan tool is that the emissions control system's readiness monitors are all reset. You have to drive the car for a while and under certain conditions for the monitors to return to their ready state so that a smog technician can perform the test. The monitors check for a variety of things, including the functioning of the O2 sensors and catalytic converter, critical components in pollution control.
The challenge would be to strike the delicate balance between getting the monitors to set while avoiding any new pending or active error codes.
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HEN THE SMOG notice arrived at the end of October, Glenn started prepping the car for its test like an athlete working out at the gym. He refueled and dumped another bottle of fuel injector cleaner into the tank, hoping it would help loosen any deposits of gunk in the fuel line, then he started taking the OBD scan tool with him on the way to work, experimenting with resetting the engine light and seeing under what conditions he could drive it before triggering new codes. Climbing any hill was a definite no-no. Placing the engine under heavy load always threw a code. The same was true for freeway driving at high speed. (That's 60 mph for this car, which isn't considered high speed to most drivers.) The one good thing is that the readiness monitors reset themselves fairly quickly after the light was cleared. Some vehicles you have to drive for days or weeks to get the monitors ready, but at least for Glenn's car most of them were ready within a few minutes. Most of them. The O2 sensor sometimes takes a bit of coaxing, and occasionally the catalytic converter doesn't cooperate. But for this test, everything had to be on the same page at the same time.
With the gas tank depleted again by Thanksgiving and hopefully all the fuel injector cleaner gone from the fuel line, it was time to get serious about the test. That meant going for a little drive. Glenn inflated all his tires to their appropriate pressure — an important thing to do before a smog check — and then let the engine warm up about 10 minutes. The engine-check light was off and there were no pending codes. All the monitors were ready except for the O2 sensor. To set it, the internet is full of advice, most of which boils down to this:
Starting with the engine cold, let it warm up for 10 minutes, then take the car on the road and gradually accelerate to 40 mph and hold that speed for a minute or two, then drop down to 30 mph and hold that speed for a minute or two, then drop to 25 mph and do that for a minute or so, all the while trying not to apply any brake. Next, drive the car between 25 and 45 mph for about 10 minutes. Finally, take the car up to freeway speeds for about 10 minutes and then you should be good to go.
Who knows if it really works, but that's what mechanics claim they do after they service a vehicle to make sure their repair worked. (And you wonder why the labor for car repairs is so expensive?) The other problem is that while this sounds reasonable in theory, achieving those ideal conditions in real-world traffic is another matter. The angry commuter behind you that wants to drive 80 mph on the freeway doesn't understand or care why you are driving 45 mph in the slow lane. At least not the ones where we live.
So in the interest of self-preservation, Glenn stuck to the surface streets and did the 40-30-25 thing as best he could around mid-day traffic in Oakley and Antioch, finishing with a freeway drive that ended at a parking lot about a block from the smog station he planned to use. There he shut off the car, pulled out the trusty OBD scanner and held his breath as he waited for it to report back. Bad news: there was a new pending P0171 code. Time to clear it out and start the driving challenge again.
Another circuit on the back roads and half an hour later, it was time to check the scan tool again. The good news was that there were no codes... but the O2 sensor wasn't ready. Gah! With the day moving along and work calling, it was time to abandon the day's effort. Glenn would take the car out again Tuesday with hope for better luck.
But another day saw the same old problems. Either the O2 sensor refused to clear or the P0171 pending code was present. Glenn had already made a couple of circuits around the now-familiar road test course, trying different approaches with accelerating and maintaining speeds, and was preparing to give up for the day when he pulled into his favorite Antioch parking lot and read the codes one more time. There were no codes and the O2 monitor had finally set and was ready to test! ...But now the catalytic converter wasn't ready!! After beating his head against the steering column several times, Glenn took the car for yet another drive and then retested. Now the monitors were all set... but the P0171 code had returned, so Tuesday was another no-go at the smog station.
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OULD THE THIRD time be the charm? Glenn certainly hoped so, beyond Roni's urging that he give up and start making plans to visit the car dealership. She sometimes forgets that she married a Cancer, and the crab's best-known attribute is tenacity. Some might call it stubbornness, but Glenn prefers to think of it as determined. Whatever it is, Wednesday morning found Glenn back at it for what he had already decided would be the last attempt to get the car smogged. He warmed the engine, drove a bit, took the freewy, then checked the scanner. No codes, but the monitors weren't all set. He made another circuit, did another test, held his breath, and... it worked! Close to noon and after three days of trial and error, the car was at last ready to take to the smog station. He texted Roni, told her to cross her fingers, and then it was off to Firehouse Smog.
Firehouse Smog has been our smog station of choice for more than a decade. It gets its name because it is located inside a former Antioch fire station on Lone Tree Way. It's a little pricey, but it is a drive-through operation so it has the advantage of being quick, and the staff are always helpful. It's first-come-first-served, however, so when Glenn arrived there was a small line ahead of him, including a guy in a big pickup truck who pulled in a second earlier. No worries. Glenn tried to distract himself by watching "Dr. Oz" while he filled out the paperwork and waited his turn.
The other folks in line all passed their tests until it came time for the guy with the pickup. He failed, and then he and the counter clerk got into discussing his situation. "Did you recently have work done on it?" asked the clerk. "Because there wasn't enough information in the vehicle's computer to run the test. You have to drive it about 600 miles, then bring it back and it should pass."
Six-hundred miles! If this guy and his swanky pickup couldn't pass smog because his codes had recently been cleared, there was no way Glenn's out-of-tune rust bucket had a chance. He couldn't drive it 6 miles without the engine light coming on, let alone 600 miles. His heart sank as the feeling of impending doom descended. The hood was up on his Corolla and the technician was running the test at that very moment.
Things looked even worse when the tech finished his routine after just a couple of minutes and unhooked the machine like a doctor pulling a patient off life support. He came back into the waiting room, clipboard in hand, and silently passed the report off to the counter clerk, who summoned Glenn to the desk. "Congratulations, your car passed."
Passed? Passed! It sounded like he said it passed. Really, it passed? How did it pass? Glenn was in such shock that the clerk could have triple-billed his credit card and he might not have noticed. He was still in a delighted daze when he drove the car up the freeway on-ramp to head home and the check-engine light promptly came on. He laughed at the sight. The car can start puking oil and smoke within the next two years and it won't matter as long as it is still driveable. That's the goal for now, as Glenn will hope to limp it along for another dozen months or so until the next round of year-end clearance deals.
In the category of no good deed going unpunished, although Glenn was successful at temporarily staving off a new car purchase, we might not be able to bank that savings. Roni's MacBook Pro has been misbehaving in recent months with random shutdowns, and just days before Christmas the graphics card on Glenn's 27-inch iMac began exhibiting symptoms of its imminent demise, which will mean either replacing the failing part with an expensive new board or buying a new computer — a much more expensive option. We lament the necessity of computers in our daily lives, such that we can justify replacing them every four or five years when they fail. But everything we do, including our livelihoods and this newsletter, depends on having reliable, sustainable computing power, so it is off to the Apple Store we go as the end of the year approaches.
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HRISTMAS SEASON WAS a blur this year for us. December is always an insanely busy month, but this one in particular didn't seem to afford us a lot of time for decorating, shopping or festive merriment. Well, we had good intentions for it all, but you finish with the Thanksgiving turkey and before you know it the stores are doing clearance sales to prepare for Valentine's Day.
Our usual decorating plans were subdued by the lack of outdoor power, a situation we have been forced to deal with since October. No electricity meant no strings of mini lights or moving deer on the front lawn. Combine that with the fact that our front yard is still a construction zone and it became an easy decision to not place anything outdoors except for a pot of poinsettias and a wreath on the front door. We still went all-out on the living room, resurrecting our Peanuts display from last year and decorating our pre-lit artificial tree. Roni brought out her Christmas village, and Glenn did his usual inspired job of hanging large ornaments from our vaulted ceiling.
Amazon caught a lot of our business this year where it came to buying gifts, but there were still several brick-and-mortar shopping excursions, mainly with Ben so he could make his purchases on days when he had time off work. Finding the perfect gift for folks at Target or Best Buy is usually a losing game anyhow, but so often we find ourselves there or at Barnes & Noble, so a lot of the "shopping" trips are ritual to begin with — time to spend window shopping for stuff we might like to buy once the clearance sales arrive, or for ideas to add to our own Christmas lists, since it seems one of the biggest challenges of holiday shopping is what to tell others to buy for us.
For her part, Roni really wanted a new kitten to make up for the loss of Eevee last month. Or a puppy. She wasn't particular about which one. We actually went to Pet Food Express a week before Christmas and looked at kittens up for adoption through HARP. Believe it or not, there are kittens to be found in December, even though spring really is the time for them. The ones we saw were all cuddles and cuteness, of course, but there are some issues to be resolved before we are ready to adopt again, so we are looking to early next year for that, and Roni knew it. But it never hurts to wish.
Ben had a laundry list of gifts he wanted Santa to bring him, not the least of which was a Sony Playstation 4, which he said he wanted because of its ability to play Blu-ray discs. We haven't been keen on buying him gaming systems in recent years, mainly because he has so many of them already and can buy the ones he doesn't with his own money. But Glenn relented this year when we walked into GameStop and found the system on sale as a bundle. Seeing as we hadn't bought him a major gift and already planned to buy him some necessities that weren't on his list — a new mattress for his futon bed along with blankets and pillows, underwear and socks — we thought the game might salve some of the disappointment.
Glenn's list was fairly basic. Happy to avoid the major expense of a new car this year, he was content seeking calendars, books and a few of his favorite sci-fi/fantasy movies. He also wanted some of the Funko Pop vinyl characters based on "The Hunger Games" trilogy and a set of noise-canceling headphones.
We all had Christmas Day off from work, although Ben did have to work an opening and closing shift at the grocery store on Christmas Eve. It was ideal that both days fell on the weekend. Roni, who always has about 10 tasks to do at once, delayed her holiday baking until Christmas Eve. This was our year to spend Christmas Day with Glenn's folks out in Hayward, and Roni had hopes of baking something fun to take with us to share. She found this idea for a cookie tree where you cut out sugar cookies in the shape of stars and layer them to make it look like the branches of a snow covered Douglas fir. She also found a kit at the store with the cookies pre-made, so all she had to do was ice them. She assembled the kit on Christmas Eve, but was so frustrated with the process and unsure about the edibility of the cookies that she decided to keep it for us as a table decoration.
Glenn went about the task of baking his annual Christmas bread, getting a late start on Christmas Eve because, in part, he took time out to watch football games and help Roni wrap the bounty of presents she had amassed for people. Our living room resembled Santa's workshop amid the rolls of wrapping paper, bows, tags, gift bags and boxes we used to package everything. Glenn said that if he hadn't assisted her, Roni would probably still be wrapping gifts on Christmas morning. Ben's new mattress was the toughest item we tackled. It shipped to us vacuum packed and rolled up inside a huge cardboard box. It weighed a ton and took both of us to move it. We used two whole rolls of paper to wrap it, then we propped it up next to the fireplace and just hoped it wouldn't topple over in the middle of the night and crush the rest of the gifts.
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HRISTMAS MORNING ARRIVED foggy and cold. We were lucky to have a reprieve from the rainy weather that had been in the area for the past week, but more rain was in the forecast for that night, so Roni was anxious to get on the road to Hayward in hopes that we would be home early enough to miss the impending storm. As it happened, there was no rain that night, and we didn't get out of the house until nearly 2 p.m. because we awoke late and had dozens of gifts to open. Christmas just doesn't happen as quickly when your kids are older and there's no one trying to wake you up before 6 a.m.
We feasted on a breakfast of bagels, orange juice, cocoa, and Glenn's Christmas bread — which all agreed was one of the best loaves ever. Perhaps that was because it was prepared from the last of a 22-year-old bottle of cardamom that had been the staple ingredient in all the breads that came before it. We passed on eggs, bacon and sausage this year because they just give us indigestion and there is always too much food to eat while we're trying to get to opening presents.
Just as wrapping the gifts had been an assembly line task, so too was opening them. We dubbed this the Christmas of Clothes because it seemed that everyone got something to wear — from Roni's brightly colored wolf T-shirt, to three work shirts for Glenn, to a wide array of Pokemon and Legend of Zelda gear for Ben (in addition to the underwear and socks.) Glenn scored not one, but all seven of the Funko vinyl figures from the "Hunger Games" movies. Ben was surprised and delighted by his PS4, and despite not finding a new pet under the tree, Roni was quite enchanted by the new Apple Watch she received.
We had barely finished our gift exchange than it was time to pack ourselves into the car with more bags of goodies for the drive to Hayward. Being so late in the day, the roads were mostly free of traffic and we made excellent time. All the family members were accounted for, including Glenn's parents, sister and brother, Grandmother, Tom and the two kids. Everyone had a good time over dinner, conversations and more presents to exchange. There was even civil discussion of politics — always a risky proposition — with plenty of fodder provided by the recent presidential election.
Our visit was a good one, but clearly the kids wore out before the adults did, so by 7:30 we were all saying our goodbyes with hopes that we'll all see each other again soon before the next holiday gathering, which will likely be Thanksgiving.
That's going to put a wrap on 2016, and despite what many lament as the year the music died, with the passing of so many cultural icons, we think it turned out okay, our own loss of Eevee aside. With a changing of the guard in the White House next month and signs of personal changes in our own home, next year promises to be one filled with exciting new adventures. Stay tuned and have a great start to 2017.