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Surgical troubleshooting

Thursday, May 1, 2014 - 07:00
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I bought this good solid ride used about four years ago, and have since put quite a few miles on it.

It has always been interesting to me how a set of jumper cables can look so good and be so dysfunctional when it comes to actually getting a car started. I stopped several years ago to visit a friend of mine. I found him and a teenage boy trying to get a medium-size diesel tractor started with a pair of jumper cables that looked pretty good. They had the pickup truck engine on fast idle with those cables connected, but the tractor starter just wouldn’t spin the compression-fired diesel fast enough to light it off.

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My personal jumper cables are a set that I built when I was working down on the Texas Coast. Our company had built a brand-new heliport, and there was a 40-foot piece of leftover electrical cable that was about 3-and-a-half inches thick. Inside the outside sheathing of that cable were four pieces of 00 gauge wire: one with red insulation, one with black, one with white and one with green. My supervisor gave me a 12-foot piece of that leftover cable, and I built it with some 500-amp jumper cable clamps I bought from Spence Battery, the Delco parts supplier I used in Port Arthur, Texas.

This parasitic drain came out of nowhere, and if I had followed the most common pattern (at least around here) on these trucks, I’d have replaced the $380 cluster. But I eliminated that first and found the CJB to be internally compromised. It had a very large “Made in China” label on it. The replacement unit did not.

Thirty-plus years later, those same cables are in my truck toolbox, and they’re really heavy. And on that crisp autumn day all those years ago when that tractor wouldn’t start, I cheerfully suggested we try my cables. As I dragged them out of my truck toolbox, the teenager snorted at me.

“Them cables ain’t gonna make no difference,” he muttered. The farmer’s son was less skeptical. He and I had a history, you see, and he knew me to be a “can-do” sort of a wrench guy. When we connected my heavy cables and engaged the starter on that Massey Ferguson, it took off like it meant business, spun at normal speed, and rattled to noisy life. It belched a heavy cloud of white fuel smoke from the previous unsuccessful attempts that did nothing but mist copious amounts of diesel fuel into those dark, cool chambers.

Over the years I’ve done a bit of roadside troubleshooting, just to help stranded motorists, you see. Then it turned out that my own F150 threw me under the bus one Saturday morning. And since I’m one of those guys who doesn’t like to work on the lawn mower when it’s time to cut the grass, it was a revolting development to slide into the seat of my pickup and find the battery — a nearly new Motorcraft — so dead that it took my super jumper cables to get the truck started.

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