I noticed the small orange fuel light when I dropped my daughter off at school, but I couldn’t remember if it was on when I left the house. My son had been driving the truck for the past three days. Did he see the light come on? Why didn’t he put gas in it? Since my appointment was only a few miles away, and I assumed he light had just come on, I decided to press on to my appointment and stop at a convenient gas station along the way.
About half way there, I passed an old van stalled on the side of the road. The driver was putting gas into the vehicle with a bright red gas can. We made eye contact as I passed - like a bad omen of things to come. The tiny orange fuel light suddenly looked like a flashing neon sign.
I was almost there. I could see the gas station – a hundred yards to go. Sputter. No! Cough. Just a little further! Jerk. Aw crap! My truck ran out of gas. I whipped into an adjacent parking lot. The sign from the gas station taunted and laughed at me.
I took a deep breath and kept my cool. I called my appointment and told them I would be late. I grabbed my phone and wallet and walked to the gas station. Ten minutes later I was back at the truck with two gallons of gas in a bright red container and a half-drank forty-four ounce soda. I was cool as a cucumber.
After pouring the gas into the tank, I wiped my hands and slipped behind the wheel. I took a sip from the soda and turned the key. The starter kicked in and the motor turned over and over. Nothing. I paused and thought for a moment. Oh yeah, prime the pump. I turned on the key, waited a few seconds, and then energized the starter. The truck sputtered a moment and then droned through the motions of trying to start. I took a sip of my soda and try to stay calm and cool. I repeated the process. It started for a moment and then died again. I took another sip. It was getting warm. I was starting to sweat.
I tried for twenty more minutes. All I could get was a sputtering start, a rough idle, or the moan of a turning motor that isn’t firing. I could feel the sweat trickling down my back. I wiped my forehead and called my son’s cell phone. He didn’t answer. He was still sleeping. I tried the truck again. Nothing. I called the house. No answer. I called my other son. He answered.
“Go wake up your brother and tell him to answer his dang phone!” I said.
A moment later we were talking.
“When did the gas light come on in the truck?” I asked.
“I don’t know… Sometime yesterday I guess,” he answered.
“When you saw the gas getting low why didn’t you put gas in the truck? You have a credit card.”
“I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that the light was on?” (I was looking for any excuse to shift at least some of the blame.)
“Okay, I need you to get up, grab another gas can from the shed, fill it with gas, and come help me.” I heard a long sigh.
I hung up and said a short prayer. I prayed that the truck would start. I prayed that I wouldn’t blow a gasket of my own.
I tried the truck again. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. I tried again, and all of a sudden, it started!
I called my son and told him he could go back to bed, and went on to my appointment. After my appointment the truck started right up. I went straight to the gas station and filled up. The truck started right up. I went to the bank. The truck wouldn’t start.
I tried to keep my cool, but the soda cup was empty. My frustration was reaching a fever pitch. After multiple attempts the truck finally started again. I roared out of the parking lot and merged onto the nearest freeway. I floored it and soon reached speeds in excess of the posted limit. When I was certain that the fuel problem was resolved, I headed home and nosed into the garage. I turned off the truck, and then tried to start it again - Nothing but a sputter.
When I walked into the house hot and bothered, my wife tried to console me, but I would have no consolation. A week earlier the air conditioning went out on our van. Out of the three vehicles I owned only one was working properly at that moment.
They used to hang horse thieves, and now I understood why. When you mess with a man’s transportation, they get testy and mean.
I wolfed down a lunch and did a couple of internet searches. I called a mechanic buddy of mine. The truck displayed all the symptoms of a bad fuel pump. Of course automotive engineers in their infinite wisdom place fuel pumps in the fuel tanks these days. Changing them requires dropping the fuel tank or lifting off the truck bed – neither of which excited me. It was all an evil plot to coerce me into taking the truck to the dealership so they could suck the dollars out of my pockets.
My calendar was full for the next day or so and I let the truck sit in the garage and drove our van with the broken air conditioner. I did try and start it a few times, but each time I got the same sputtering result. My wife put out a cry for help on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to help fix the truck in exchange for buddy passes. Our friend and neighbor, Geoff, said he could do it, but he wanted to make sure it was the fuel pump before we tore into the truck. He sent me a link from a forum discussing a recalled relay that could often show the same symptoms as a bad fuel pump.
Driving without air conditioning in the Phoenix summer heat can cause brain damage. It was time to get my transportation troubles solved. We decided to trade in the broken van, and I was going to diagnose the truck problem or haul it to the shop.
The next day we started early. First stop was the Nissan dealership. They could replace the recalled relay if I brought the truck into the shop, but they wouldn’t sell me the relay because of the recall. I was reluctant to bring it in until I knew it was the relay and not the pump – catch 22. We test drove some really nice vehicles, met the salespeople (not pushy thank goodness), and moved on to other dealerships.
We went through the usual suspects – Toyota, Honda, Subaru, Volkswagen. In the modern information age most car salespeople are friendly, but no too pushy. They know that you are armed with a lot of information. The Volkswagen sales guy was the only old-school, what-can-I-do-to-get-you-in-a-car-today pushy type. We drove by the GM and Ford dealerships, but we just waved. By the afternoon we were sick of sales pitches, sticker prices, and standing in the sun and drove home without a new car.
After we got home I headed for the parts store and bought a repair book and a fuel pressure tester. Following the instructions, I removed the engine cover and found the “quick connect” fitting where I was supposed to attach the fuel pressure tester. The only problem was that it was a “quick connect” not a “quick disconnect” and I couldn’t get the thing to come off to save my life.
After multiple attempts and several Youtube videos explaining how to disconnect a fuel line “quick connect” fitting, I called another my neighbor Charlie that likes to work on old cars. He came over and together we tried to get the fitting to disengage without success. He remembered hearing that if the line still has pressure, it won’t be easy to disconnect. So we both listened for the sound of the fuel pump priming when we turned on the truck. Sure enough, we heard the small whine of the pump coming to life. At that point it was late, I was hot, and my brain was mush. We pushed the truck back into the garage and I called it a night.
Just before I went to bed I read the link Geoff sent me one more time. I had missed a step. There was a workaround to determine if the problem was the relay or the fuel pump. I knew that the next morning I would get one more shot at diagnosing the problem before calling the tow truck.
I got up the next morning and went for a run. I needed some endorphins. When I got back I swapped two relays as instructed by the workaround solution. I kissed the steering wheel for luck and turned the key. The truck started right up! I danced a jig to the sound of a Nissan Titan motor running like a top. My transportation troubles were over!
My wife interrupted my celebration. “Honey, can we go to the Mazda dealership before you go to work this morning?”
By the time I took off from Phoenix that afternoon, she had traded in our van and closed the deal on a new Mazda CX-9. I was just glad that my temporary transportation troubles were over, for now.