The Summer of Ven: The Electrical Phantasmagoria of Murdervan

Here’s a surprise retropost for you! I actually blocked out this post about Murdervan from a template some time last August, before I sold the sitevan and bought a new one. I ended up never finishing it in lieu of updates about Spool Bus and quite a few robot events, because after all was said and done, Murdervan didn’t have much wrong with it. I put a few hundred miles on it just around town as a daily errand runner but with more curb jumping and casual non-roading – note I didn’t say “off-roading” for a reason, just going places that isn’t…. public paved roads. What, who’s gonna stop me?

By July, though, I noticed it had developed a habit of popping the fuse for auxiliary lighting. This meant no running lights, no dashboard lights, and so on. The horn was also involved, straightly enough. If I put new fuses in for either circuit, they’d go if I tried to turn on interior lights or …. use the horn.

What it told me was some ghostly electrical problem residing in the dashboard area, the kind of electrical problem that gets a lot of things junked, probably even more so today as cars depend highly on all sorts of electronics and software. Luckily, this thing is so paleo that it was probably shorted wires to ground somewhere, like from chafing or a previous overheating adventure that is only now manifesting. The only trouble is now finding where.

I’ve said frequently now that part of the upside of having a flock of misfit ven, especially a new cast member you dug out of someone’s yard, is that it helps alleviate the fear of “Well what if I can’t put it back together again?”. So what if I can’t? Murdervan was going to be a helpful lesson for any issues Vantruck might have in the future. So I just dug in and started removing all the dashboard panels and bezels to expose as much wiring as I could.

The usual aftermarket service manuals are pretty worthless for electrical systems, but at least they contain (usually several versions of) system diagrams with wire colors and general locations I could follow around. I started with the horn circuit, for example, which is a greenish-yellow wire. I found it in the steering column bundle and followed it outside the van through this bulkhead connector in front of the driver’s floor:

So by 1991, they turned what was just a big bundle through a body grommet (in Vantruck and Spool Bus) into an actual bulkhead connector. This is certainly an improvement!

I continued to follow the yellow-green wire around through the various harnesses until I confirmed that yeah, it just ended at the horns.

So…. What’s the deal? When the horns are used, presumably this wire is energized, and in doing so, bad happens. Very strange.

This is a view of the bundle that goes up to the steering column. The auxiliary lighting circuit, a blue-red wire, has a branch that goes up here too for dashboard lighting and the like.

Like any good and competent engineer, I started jumping fuses and put the whole van on one of my lab power supplies to give it a maximum of 15 amps into the various circuits. My goal was to feel around (absent having a FLIR camera on me) for what wires got hot as I held various switches and buttons down to energize the circuits.

This is a more legitimate method of finding shorts and high-resistance areas than you might think….provided you’re sane about it. I wasn’t, and with that 15 amps and non-judicious use of the horn switch, I started smelling terrible things.

Turns out I roasted the horn switch. Oops. The mystery still isn’t solved, but at least I’ve knocked one branch of it completely out of the picture.

As I continued to pump 15 amps now into the auxiliary lighting circuit, I felt the red-blue wire inside the bundle that went into the steering column get warmer. So the power supply feed to the steering column was acting up, and either it or the horn switch (in the process of giving the power to the horn circuit) was causing a short.

That means the steering wheel had to now come off. I actually bought a steering wheel puller a long time ago for Vantruck to correct it’s 15 degree “Left is Straight” error, but never used it because, again, I wasn’t in a good position to not be able to put it back together quickly.

Well now I don’t give a shit, so off the steering wheel comes! Under the steering wheel lies some slip rings and switches like the turn signal switch. Any one of those could be the source of the shorting problem.

I continued to dismantle the steering column as well, following the red-blue wire upwards. I noticed that it was grounded to the steering column at one end (that screw terminal in the middle) yet somehow also carried power. What?

More digging revealed that it wasn’t some kind of Ford Family of Fine Fuckups engineering choice to float the entire steering column at 12 volts, but that they just got lazy and used the same wiring color to go into this weird connector here that…. Hey, wait a minute.

I found out what this was: It’s the light bulb socket to light up the PRND69L transmission indicator. There is no light bulb in it. The contacts had for some reason melted together, and was Shorting the 12v auxiliary lighting feeder wire straight to ground through the steering column!

Well I found my villain there. Check out that burn mark where the whole thing heated up! Oddly enough, the contacts themselves were not damaged, just touching. I just pried apart the housing a little, back to its un-deformed shape, then stuffed in an obnoxiously bright T5-sized white LED bulb, and suddenly, all was fine.

I’m not going to ask questions about how this interacted with the horn circuit. The only possibility I can think of is, this auxiliary circuit also supplies power to the horn, and when I close the switch, it just finds a path to ground instead of to the horn wire.

Whatever the case is, my “Debugging By Fire” approach damaged the slip ring contacts that allow you to have buttons on the steering wheel (Murdervan has the cruise control steering wheel buttons, but the actuator appears to have been taken out under the hood). I pushed a fix where I twisted a stripped end of wire very tightly around the spring plunger since the original wire attachment tabs had been melted off.

With the short now resolved, I tested that I in fact had dashboard and running lights again, and the horn worked. Again, I have no idea how these two problems were possibly inter-related, but here we are. This is what ghost hunting is all about, right?

Well, it’s certainly time to put this absolute disaster area together. But as I did so, I decided to go on an electrical binge and take care of an Annoying “Feels Good” thing that had remained unaddressed for a few weeks.

Up to this point, I had jumped the glow plug controller relay with a set of alligator clips hanging out of the doghouse/internal engine cover because I dug all of the fried electronics out of it before. So I’d jump in, connect the alligator clips, count to 10, and then disconnect them.

While I had the dashboard taken apart, I decided to make this hack permanent and run it to a button on the dashboard.

So to start, I wired one side of the contactor to the 12V feeder line coming from the battery. That means I just have to touch the other terminal to ground to throw the relay.

I ran this trigger wire up and around the engine cave, following other wiring harnesses, and into the dashboard area through some spare grommets.

I put this wire on the Magic Button that Murdervan came with. That’s right, it’s always had a Magic Button here. What did it do? Hell if I know, the wires ran somewhere underneath and just ended. I’m guessing it might have been a light switch or secret turbo boost/methanol injection button or something, since it was momentary and not latching. Whatever the case, it’s now the glow plug activation button.

The other side of the button was appended to the nearby main interior body ground.

And there we have it. I get in, push the button, count to 10, and let it go! This was the state I ended up selling Murdervan in – I never put in a new glow plug control module, and just explained it to the buyer who (as I mentioned, was familiar already with old Ford diesels) didn’t even bat an eye at it. I assume this is a common remedy for the dubious OEM electrical system anyway.

The Summer (Autumn, Winter, Whatever) of Ven: Fuel Return Line and Glow Plug Surgery on an IDI Turbo Diesel

This is the last of a three part series about retrofitting an electric fuel pump and frame-mounted fuel filter onto my 1985 6.9 liter IDI turbodiesel spool bus. Last post, I got everything wrapped up and operational from the fuel system end, but discovered that the steady 10PSI feed pressure was now causing a whole bunch of the injector return fittings to leak!

Go figure, as part of the problem is the o-rings that seal them become crispy. I actually drove for a while like this to make sure everything was operational when it came to the fuel system. However, by the late November into December timeframe, the leaking was getting steadily worse, and I really had to address it.

What it did show is that the electric fuel pump will help extend the time horizon of having to deal with all your fuel line fittings on one of these things. I could leave the key in the “on” position after it sits a few days and hear the bubbling and gurgling coming from the lines for the first few seconds. What the e-pump does is keep the inlet end of the injection pump primed, so it can at least light off quickly. Then you can usually inertia through any further problems.

But that’s no way to live, so before it got cold, I was out to correct the problems and also repair the glow plug circuit – up to this point, I was still monkey-starting it with a little shot of ether.

The downside to all this? I have to go back in there. UGH.

Off the cover comes! By now I’m well used to digging around under here, so the crankcase vent value, intake hose, and some other hoses actually went away quickly. I made sure to leave the hose clamp screws in accessible positions last time since I knew this would be inevitable.

A 5/8″ regular wrench (I guess you could use a 5/8 flare nut wrench if you wanted) releases the injector line fittings. They pull up slightly, and then the plastic return caps come off, leaving O-rings behind.

So here’s the story on these “return lines” and why they’re nightmares besides being hidden in a cave. The only thing sealing the fuel being returned to the tank are those O-rings. They’ll get old and crispy, and with the fuel system under vacuum due to the engine and filter being higher than the banks, they’ll start letting air in to drain out the fuel system slowly. Then you have a bad time.

Dunno why anyone thought a series of handmade rubber hoses with plastic caps was a good decision here (seriously, they definitely had to build each of these by hand on a stand). Maybe a single molded plastic or cast metal “rail” was considered but ended up being too costly. Maybe secondary compression/flare fittings were considered too underserviceable.

Whatever the case, just grab a return line kit from Accurate Diesel and use the existing line lengths as a guide. I’m being a little dishonest with these photos – I did the same operation for Murdervan a few months prior, but haven’t written anything else about it because it ended up being just quite functional and as you recall, I ended up selling it in early September.

I learned from that time to cut the hoses very slightly short, like 1/16″ short. It’s easy to pull them a little outwards from the fittings to get the line of them to sit straight. The spring clamps grab a fair bit of width, so I wasn’t concerned about having enough seated over the push fittings to seal.

Otherwise, if the hose is curved between them, looking like an S or snake shape installed, it’s exerting a pressure towards one side which could cause premature hardening/deformation of the O-ring over (let’s face it, a long) time.

Because Spool Bus has the aftermarket turbo system, the return lines are set up differently than OEM with the crossover line occurring at the front of the engine and the “master drain” at the very back of the driver’s side. I needed more of the 180 degree straight-through fittings than provided, so I ended up recycling in some of the old ones.

There’s nothing wrong with them, mind you. I cleaned them up and inspected them for cracks or chipping. The only thing that causes pressure sealing loss is the O-rings, which disintegrated as I was picking them off the injectors.

After crafting the two sides and the “reacharound hose” to connect the two, the installation involves lubing up the O-rings (I used some plain lithium grease; any petroleum grease will dissolve in the fuel bath to come), shoving them on, then seating the return line caps over them.

I used a remote hose clamp grabberator to maneuver the clamp into position on the Reacharound Hose, which is at the very front of this arrangement behind the A/C compressor – not super tight here, just awkward and out of sight. Remember what I’ve said about working on vans being Nightmare Mode Wrenching – you need to be comfortable with wrenching by feel and estimating positions.

I was expecting the turbo side to be impossible to access, but actually it wasn’t at all. I did undo the mounting bracket of the turbo itself to let it shift an inch or so to get better wrench clearance.

The injector train and Reacharound Hose connection on this side is actually easier reached from the front side behind the alternator, with an approach from the centerline (i.e. right in front of the grille). If the turbo wasn’t there, it would be an easy reach from the interior.

All return lines now installed and fully seated. I let the system fully prime and sit for a while with the fuel pump running to make sure nothing was coming out.

The next weekend, I was out to change the glow plugs, so I can continue building this thing up to turnkey operation (instead of, you know, Pop-the-hood-puff-the-ether-close-hood-open-door-get-in-then-turnkey operation). Another order from Accurate Diesel for their IDI 6.9 glow plug kit was on the way so that means….

Taking the fucking thing apart again.

I had ascertained from testing the circuit that at most one of these were still working. They’re positive temperature coefficient resistive heaters, so they start out drawing a burst of high current and very quickly settle down. I got the entire glow plug harness to draw only about 20 amps, when it should be 200 to 300 amps.

Before I started, I used alternating blasts of shop air and brake cleaner to really clean out the wells they sit in. Spool Bus had accumulated a lot of wildlife in its years of sitting wherever, and I did not want any grunge getting into the open glow plug holes once I removed them.

These dudes are one of the “middle difficulty setting” service items in an Econoline IDI engine setup. They stick out and can be grabbed with a 3/8″ deep-well socket on a swivel. But you do need to wiggle it through the injection lines and rely some on proprioception to land the socket. Loosening the clamps for the injection lines helps them be able to wiggle a bit to get you some more space. Notice in the photo I also swiveled the Diesel Delivery Dongle out of the way to get at the front two on the driver’s side.

For some reason, the passenger side is actually easier again, probably because they are displaced towards you instead of away. I used one longer extension to get around the turbo outlet pipe.

Now, installing them again is definitely a “By Feel” exercise. I started with putting some copper antiseize grease on the threads (In case I had to do this again…. or someone else) and started the thread manually. If everything’s clean, you can thread all the way up to when it stops by hand, then tighten with the socket handle.

I decided to connect them up one at a time and measure the increase in current draw. Each plug will add about 20 to 30 amps at the start and taper down to ~7-9 amps each, after which they should be cut off from power to prevent damage. I suspect a failed glow plug controller, apparently a known defect in this generation of the engine, caused them to burn out.

A shot after all 8 were hooked up. The current momentarily bursts up to 280A and falls rapidly to about 100 over the course of 10 or so seconds. Obviously, taking a picture of this was hard.

With this complete, I know that the glow plug contactor was working fine – since I’ve been throwing it with an alligator clip touched to the battery – and all the heavy wiring leading to it. What was not working was the glow plug controller. I obviously couldn’t tell exactly why not, because….

Yeah, uh, this is going to be a problem for another day. My upcoming mission was to tear out this Wiring Teratoma as I called it and just start from scratch after reaching the OEM layer.

For now, I just rigged up a switch as usual so I could activate the glow plug contactor by hand, count to 10, and let go. Spool Bus then starts with a single key bump, so all is good up to whatever has happened to the control wiring for the OEM glow plug control module!