Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Vanagon Road Trip: Erving State Forest, Laurel Lake Campground

We have some catching up to do with a backlog of maintenance and trip posts, so I'll start with the most recent. This past weekend we packed the family into Ruby the van and headed to Erving State Forest in western MA.

The campground is situated on small but lovely Laurel Lake. We always try to avoid resort-like, RV-heavy campgrounds in favor of more rustic, simpler options, and the camping at Erving offered the perfect balance of easily accessible adventures, nice facilities, and spacious, reasonably private camp sites. We stayed in site #20 and left feeling that it's one of the best available at Erving. The only downside is that the lake access was quite far from most sites. Not walking distance when you're traveling with a 2 year old and a 4 year old.

We were also camping with the dog, and dogs are not permitted at the Laurel Lake beach. The temperature was 95 degrees that day so we certainly weren't leaving him in the van. The solution: while one of us was swimming with the kids, the other took the dog on the short (1.5 mile?) trail loop that begins at the Forest Headquarters hut near the lake's day access parking lot. The trail offered surprisingly excellent terrain: rugged, varied, and scenic. Parker was able to run wild and release some pent-up energy while the lone parent enjoyed some quiet time in the woods. Neither of us saw another person out there; maybe we were the only ones crazy enough to hike in that heat and oppressive humidity.

The trail loop ends a bit further down the park road and I found a sneaky access point on the lake for Parker to swim and drink.  Amanda and I then traded places and she took Parker for a second hiking loop while I enjoyed a swim with the kids. Everyone was happy, dog included.

Forest staff visited the site in the early evening to warn us of approaching severe weather, so we finished up the campfire s'mores session and prepared to hunker down. The skies quickly darkened and a lighting storm did rip through the area, but it was brief and the rain brought some desperately needed cooler temps.

I'd call this trip a success. The boys were happy (Jacob's first time sleeping in the upper bunk!) and this little adventure was a great way to continue easing them into Vanagon life. We would definitely return for another stay in Erving State Forest.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Vanagon Repair: Cold Weather Vanagon Brake Fluid Leak and Fix

For the second consecutive winter, the cold and dry temps resulted in a steady dripping of brake fluid from the fluid reservoir/brake master cylinder vicinity behind the dash cluster.  Like clockwork, as soon as the weather reached a sustained freezing to sub-freezing cold, the leaking commenced (and I quickly contained the mess with a collection pan placed on the driver's side footwell).  I knew from my experience the previous year (and from corroborating posts about this very phenomenon on thesamba.com), that the leak would miraculously cease as soon as the warmer weather returned.

But this winter I wanted to determine  the source.  Had my relatively new brake master cylinder failed? Was the leak coming from around the brake sensors? Or from some less obvious failure point? It turns out that the leak was coming from the two grommets at the top of the master cylinder inside of which the nipples from the fluid reservoir are seated. The grommets are, at least in warmer months, soft and rubbery and intended to seal the connection between the reservoir and the cylinder. When I took a close look on an icy February day, I could see that the grommets were damp with brake/hydraulic fluid and when I wiggled the reservoir a bit I could see additional fluid oozing out. The conclusion? It appears these two rubber grommets must shrink a bit in the colder weather and take on a more brittle character, thus losing an effective seal.

I didn't attempt a fix over the winter. I never drive the van during those salty, corrosive winter months in the Boston area, and by the time I diagnosed the leak the reservoir had already drained enough that a brake bleed would be in order.  I left the project for warmer days and finally got to work over the weekend.

After removing the instrument panel I carefully pried the almost-empty reservoir from the master cylinder.  This is 25 year old plastic, so care should be taken to avoid snapping the nipples inside the cylinder.

I then used a small syringe (previously used for administering baby tylenol) to suck up any brake fluid that was sitting in the top of the master cylinder holes. After that, I popped out the grommets and thoroughly cleaned them with soap and warm water and set them aside to dry.  In the meantime, I also cleaned out the cylinder holes with a rag and a bit of alcohol. At that point I was ready to apply my experimental remedy.

The main ingredient of the fix is an anaerobic gasket maker. I used Permatex 51813. Others will tell you to use Loctite 518. They are exactly the same. Loctite owns Permatex (or maybe the other way around?). Permatex is widely available at your local auto shops, but  Loctite 518 is nowhere to be found. These anaerobic sealers are flexible, never fully harden, and won't degrade with oils or brake fluid. I also grabbed a spray can of the matching anaerobic gasket maker surface primer.

Spray the surfaces with the primer and let it dry for a few minutes per the instructions. Then apply a nice bead of the gasket maker. I sealed both sides of the grommet: the surfaces between the cylinder and the rubber, and the flat surfaces between the reservoir and the rubber.

After setting the reservoir back in place I refilled it with new DOT 3 fluid and bled the brakes.  And I finished off the afternoon with a fresh oil change. The application seems to have worked really well.  Definitely not a drop of fluid.

Ruby is ready for spring and running beautifully!

Permatex 51813 is the red substance you see on both side of the grommet.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Vanagon Repair: Clutch Master Cylinder

We've been busy. Busy with the toddler, busy with work, busy moving, busy with planning for Baby Boy #2 due in August. Unfortunately this has left our lovely Vanagon unused for the better part of a year.

Out with the old...
To get Ruby back in prime condition, I ordered a replacement clutch master cylinder from GoWesty Auto Parts. That new master cylinder then sat in my garage for many months until I finally got around to the installation this past weekend. And as everyone who's ever done this seems to agree, it's definitely a messy task.

Just as I did with my brake master cylinder replacement, I looked to the very helpful resources on vanagonauts.com for guidance. Here's my edited version based on my own experience:
  1. Remove the shroud covering the instrument cluster to gain access to the hydraulic fluid reservoir. Also remove the lower steering column cover secured by two screws.  Carefully pry it off.
  2. Lay some plastic sheeting and/or lots of newspapers or rags in the footwell. Hydraulic fluid will spill during this process and can infiltrate carpeting and dissolve paint, so do all you can to prevent it from contacting bodywork. Use cold water or rubbing alcohol to clean spills from such surfaces.
  3. Siphon fluid from your fluid reservoir until the level is below the braided rubber supply hose leading from the  reservoir to the master cylinder. The fluid in my reservoir was already below that hose (due to the leak), so I didn't have to siphon.  Others have recommended clamping the braided hose in lieu of siphoning. 

    Note the broken/missing nipple.
    Easy there big fella...
  4. Removing the old cylinder. My 1990 Vanagon uses a bolt-through banjo fitting on the front of the cylinder, with a 17mm head.  Loosen and remove it.  Lots of dripping ensued from the remaining fluid in the cylinder and braided supply hose.  Be ready with rags. Lots of rags.  Keep track of the two copper washers that are used in these banjo assemblies. 
  5. Remove the two 13mm retaining bolts holding the old master cylinder in place. I used a socket, but the upper bolt was a bit tricky to access. You might have an easier time with an open wrench on that upper bolt. 
  6. You can now lower the clutch master cylinder, being mindful of the pedal-actuated rod that will slip from the rubber boot atop the cylinder. Gently wriggle the braided rubber supply hose from the nipple on the back of the old cylinder.  I stress "gently" because at this point I was dirty, sweating, pissed off, and uncomfortable, and in my frustration I ended up snapping the old nipple off inside the hose. I then had to give the hose a fresh cut above the embedded nipple.  No big deal.
  7. Installation of your new master cylinder is pretty much the reverse of removal, starting by attaching the supply hose and then carefully slipping the actuator rod into the master cylinder's rubber boot.
I then bled the system, which was actually surprisingly easy. I put a short tube over the the bleeder valve on top of the clutch slave cylinder (located in the left-front of the engine compartment) and the other end of the hose into an old brake fluid bottle to catch the fluid.  When I opened the bleeder the fluid began to flow freely.  No vacuum bleed required (as some suggest). I topped up the reservoir and let about a pint a fluid run through the system, making sure to always keep the fluid level above the supply hose. I could see lots of air bubbling through the clear tubing running from the bleeder, a good sign that I was purging the system.  And that's it!  The clutch was a little jumpy at first, but then smoothed out.  The whole process--from removal, to installation, to bleeding the system--took about one hour.  One messy hour.

Good luck.