The Summer of Ven: IDI Fuel System Teardown and Electric Fuel Pump Retro-mod

This series of posts will detail the first major system modification I perform to the IDI 6.9 liter engine of Spool Bus, inspired by the work of other enthusiasts like Nick Pisca.

After finishing the brake system work and getting it driving well, I noticed that it suffered from a pretty badly aerating fuel system. As I mentioned in the Murdervan post, the IDI engine family depends on a fuel system that is fully primed and free of air, or they tend to have severe starting issues. Coupled with a mechanical fuel pump that’s crankshaft driven, and it means a lot of work is dropped upon the starter (and therefore batteries and heavy power wiring) to turn over and keep cranking an all-original engine with dried or cracked rubber hoses to pressurize the system. Spool Bus definitely exhibited this problem along with a non-functional glow plug circuit, making things even worse.

To make up for it, I would do the unspeakable thing and feed it a tiny puff of ether (starting fluid) if cold starting. It would always getup and go immediately, which indicated to me there wasn’t really anything wrong besides the aerating fuel lines. With fall and winter on the horizon, I decided to go for the mod both as a quality of life improvement and because the system needed addressing anyway.

The changes entail removing much of the OEM fuel delivery system and replacing it with an electric low-pressure pump to feed the high-pressure injection pump unit, as well as relocation of the fuel filter mount from its basically-impossible-to-service OEM location under the engine cave ceiling.

See, a lot of these parts would be perfectly reasonable from a service perspective with overhead access in the pickup truck line. But when you shove all of it 2 feet backwards with the engine squarely under the dashboard, those OEM locations just make you go what. how. WHY. I keep saying Ford (and other manufacturers!) should have just committed and kept the van line cab-over, but I say that as a die-hard defender of the Church of the Cab-Over Van.

So here we go! Part 1 will focus on deconstructing the original fuel system, basically acting as a pictorial guide if you might ever want to fix one. Next will be the installation of the new electric fuel pump, and then I’ll clean and wrap up everything with new glow plugs and return lines.

Up in the “Service Position” it goes! I promise, this is far less sketch than it looks, as for some reason the slope of the driveway is exaggerated by the framing of the picture. That’s also what wheel chocks are for. The previous renter of this place left these big cut up railroad ties that worked suspiciously well as ramps, so maybe we had the same idea!

We’ll start with the underbody inspection. So, Spool Bus has no less than three fuel filters. I think people just added more fuel filters as they got clogged or something, not gathering that’s not how it works. I’d been getting some fuel feed problems before this where it feels like it’s running out or pulling air, losing some power while cruising. Having experienced this in Mikuvan back in the old’ dirty gas disaster days, I figured this was another impetus to finally making the mods, which is basically another chance to dig through what previous owners had done. The state of service of a van always tells a story, often a tragedy.

The item shown above and to the right of the yellow (new!) from shock absorber is the OEM fuel-water separator fitment. I figured it was OEM, as it was located in a spot that only Ford could have installed BEFORE they put the van part of the van on the van.

Next, moving just a few feet back, on the frame was another fuel-water separator unit. This is plumbed in right before the fuel tank selection valve, just inboard of the frame rail from it.

….and I know it’s hard to see exactly what I mean, but the white object immediately behind the A/C compressor shown at the bottom is the OEM fuel filter and its mounting fitting. Yes, far as I can tell, to remove this thing and replace it you have to actually unbolt the A/C compressor.

I always felt like the van line of any car company got the most disposability treatment. I mean, why not? They’re generally the most vocational of the product line. Buy them for your contractor, plumbing, environmental disaster response, etc. fleet, run them for 50,000-70,000 miles, and then throw them away before anything becomes a problem.

So the OEM water separator has a little cable coming out of it that leads to this knob under the driver’s seat. You pull it to pull up on a plunger inside, and theoretically with water being heavier than oil, all the water collected at the bottom will drain out. Pull the plunger too long and you drain out your fuel system as well ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I decided to dismount and mess with all the filters to see if they were exceptionally clogged or something to cause the fuel feed issue. I mean, the answer was Probably Yes, but I wanted to be thorough and see it firsthand anyway.

I yanked off the frame-mounted filter and… eww. It was chunky inside from an uncertain source of brown. I read that algae and other simple life forms can begin growing in situations where oil and water sit together too long. Whatever, I don’t care. Obviously, we needed a replacement here.

With a bit of hose following, I found out that the OEM water separator was actually no longer in the picture. I might uninstall it one of these days, but not right now.

To uninstall the OEM filter, I had to remove the intake hose and luckily was able to sneak a strap wrench in there just enough to start breaking it loose. There was just barely enough vertical volume to wiggle it out afterwards!

So here we have the two “Original-to-me” filters. I decided that the existing frame-mounted filter head was fine and dandy for anything I wanted to do – no use to purchase a new one, even if it’ll be fancy. I’d mount the electric fuel pump right next to it on the frame, and just run a hose straight from there to the engine.

There does need to be an air purge method located at the highest point of the fuel system. For that I brewed up a plan to use an electric solenoid valve connecting that point to the fuel return system, and so I can activate the P U R G E from inside if need be, instead of having a manual fitting like the Schrader valve on the OEM filter head.

Time to start deconstructing from the back side in order to remove the rest of the fuel system. Remember, this bullshit is what I’m dealing with. There is a LOT going on inside the engine cave of the Ford van chassis, even without Dashboard Turbo giving me the side-eye here like he owns the place. Nick’s assertion that the most valuable real estate on a van is under the hood and inside the engine cave is absolutely correct – whatever I can remove from here is added service access and airflow.

First to go is this torn up plastic coated metal coil intake hose. So it’s just been pulling air from wherever the hell it felt like all this time, huh? I’ll order a proper new one when I get to that point.

This is the view from the driver’s side of the engine cave, out towards the front. On the left, the shiny cylinder is the rear of the A/C compressor. To the right of that is the OEM filter head location, and to the immediate right, the black casing is the turbo compressor’s outlet adapter to the intake.

That’s right, there is NO blow-off valve or intercooler here. Just straight in…. as well as straight out. There’s no wastegate attached to the turbo either. It’s just “sized right” and with a 1000 pound blob of cast iron underneath it.

The view going the other direction, peeking in just under the hood apron. At the end of this adventure, the metal tower that is the OEM filter mount will be gone.

I’ve got a bunch of other hoses removed now, and also have removed the crankcase pressure regulator (the can at the bottom), which I’m led to believe works like a very overgrown PCV valve. This was enough volume for me to get a read on where to route and mount everything.

Fast forward a few days, and a combination of Papa Bezos and RockAuto have #delivered. I also just took the old filter to an O’Reilly and held it up to them and went ? ? ?, picking up a combined filter and water separator (that little knob at the bottom loosens to drain and also cover you in diesel-water poop)

Also in the order is the electric pump itself. I went for the near universally recommended one, a Facet DuraLift unit, and also ordered a bunch of brass fittings to match.

I also picked up a “fuel pump block-off plate”, seen in the middle of the fuel hose coil. I obviously didn’t know this, but it seems like every mechanical fuel pump for decades was the same hole pattern in the side of the engine, so there’s like only 2 products that cover up the hole for every American vehicle ever.

Step one of this whole disaster: Remove the mechanical crankshaft-driven fuel pump. Apparently the diaphragms inside these pumps can eventually (or prematurely) fail, which then dumps fuel into the crankcase. Great!

This photo makes it look like a reasonable service position. It is in fact not. I’m looking upward from just inside of the front passenger side wheelwell. The structure at the left is the engine cradle/crossmember. The orange b u l g e is an aftermarket coolant filter some previous owner installed (hmm, this is a good idea in general) which was absent on Murdervan and made this whole adventure that much harder to navigate.

Of course you can’t see the bolts either. If you ever want to work on vans of any sort, you have to be really comfortable with “Braille Servicing” out of sight and only having your proprioception and tactile feedback to let you know if you landed the socket or started the thread.

Face Down, Ass Up, That’s the Way We Like to [adjust the power steering belt tension on a 1975-1991 Ford Econoline]

I got a start on it with removing the fuel feeder line coming from the switchover valve (rubber, bottom nipple) and unscrewing the rigid line going to the OEM filter head (flare nut, upper fitting). The bolts holding the pump on are standard 3/8″ with 9/16″ wide heads.

I went ahead and pulled up the rigid line from the front of the hood after undoing a few clamps holding it to the engine.

The rigid line has a heater element attached to it that’s powered from a fusible link system coming from the passenger-side (primary) battery. I have no particular use for this, but will be tapping the power for the fuel pump later.

To remove the fuel pump, I actually found it easy enough to use a standard box end wrench. I didn’t have a ratcheting-end box wrench or a socket that would actually fit in these confines, so I just suffered through it with the initial loosen, and then the removal by hand was easy enough.

And here it is dumped out the bottom. Installation of the block-off plate was far more pleasant, as there was now nothing in the way.

Next up is to remove the OEM filter head and its fittings, also easy enough with a 9/16″ ratcher, though the approach angle is better from the front-right position (shown here).

Here we have the pile of scrap generated from this evening’s operation. Well, I suppose the intake pipe adapter isn’t scrap, but it happened to be laying here as well. Some of these rigid tubes will be harvested for their fittings and make it back into the operation.

Next up, re-plumbing the engine fuel feed and adding the electric lift pump!

The Summer of Ven: Reaching Peak Spool Bus

Hey! It’s VAN TIME again! Time for MORE VAN

While we approach the May 2021 Norwalk Havoc, I’m going to continue playing blog catch-up. I’m like, what, 1/3rd of the way down my original list rehash list now? Getting there, slowly but surely.

We’ll resume Happy Van Time by picking back up with Spool Bus some time in the middle of July when I’d repaired the physical manifestation of the destroyed front brakes, but then found out on the first stop (thank goodness it was a stop, or the landlord would have found a new pull-through carport addition) that the master cylinder had tendered its resignation.

From there on, I made a series of casual repairs and upfits to make it attain the “Step 1: Run Good” stage of my three-tiered “Run Good, Feel Good, and only then Look Good” van self-improvement guide. The next post about it will cover the first major upgrade I perform to the IDI fuel delivery system. So anyhow, let’s begin!

The opening procedure for any surgery on the Ford Econoline is “Remove Van”. I dunno, guys, I still think they should have just committed to the #cabover life and not ended up putting the engine in literally the most awkward place imaginable, halfway in front and halfway behind the firewall. The dual battery system of the IDI diesel and its larger spread of accessory mounts make the volume even more crowded up here.

So to get to the brake master cylinder at all, I had to remove the drivers’ side battery and its cable attachments, remove the cruise control actuator, shift the (non functioning anyway) windshield washer fluid bottle, shift the A/C compressor aside by loosening its belt drive, and generally shuffle vacuum lines and other cables out of the way. This was before cracking a single fitting. And of course, all of this occurs in barely visible areas without much in the way of being able to swing a ratchet more than a few clicks at a time.

To make the experience less gooey, I used some left over large syringes from my days of casting 30Haul and Overhaul wheels to pull as much brake fluid out of the buckets as I could.

The flare nut fittings were not terribly corroded or stuck in place, and I was able to free them up with some dynamically-made “Flare” “Nut” “Wrenches”… you know the kind, made with an angle grinder and cutting disc and your least favorite 3/8” box wrench.

Out with the old! The mating surface of the brake booster balloon was pretty rusty, so I cleared it up with a wire brush and some rust reformer first.

I managed to source this new master cylinder locally, because AMERICA, DAMMIT! The reassembly is opposite of disassembly, and if you “Removed Van” beforehand, this whole operation wasn’t actually bad.

By my standards, anyhow.

So the old school hydraulically-actuated trailer brake controllers on these things, seemingly made popular by Kelsey-Hayes, are hooked up to the rear brake circuit. By virtue of applying pedal force, you also push a little piston inside the trailer brake controller which varies the output voltage going to the trailer brake harness. Just a big rheostat, nothing fancy like a modern current controlled one. This means there’s a 3rd little brake line involved.

I couldn’t find any resources on how to bleed this line, and I figured leaving it mostly full of air will just cause the rear brakes to be ineffective. So I just made it up on the spot and shot a bunch of brake fluid into the tube with it raised high up, using a syringe. I periodically shook it to try and clear any bubbles, then just shoved it into its fitting as quickly as I could.

Imperfect, and I’m sure if I take apart the trailer brake controller it has a bleeder valve inside, but I’ll find that out later.

The “sense line” is just screwed into a tee fitting coming off the master cylinder.

Alright, everything’s back in place now. I took the opportunity to replace the battery positive terminal completely, as the old one was just too destroyed. I personally don’t like this “squish down with the skinny steel strap” kind of terminal, but it will do for now, as I couldn’t find 2/0 wire compatible crimps at the McAutoparts stores….nor do I have dies that large for the hydraulic crimper anyway.

“It’ll do for now” is how I approached the entirety of Spool Bus anyway. Burnouts first, sensibility later.

On its first highway-speed trip, the roof liner came apart and it started raining disintegrating foam everywhere. Because of course!

The first stop after BRAKES! is TIRES! because the ones that came with it were three different sizes and all completely dry rotted. Sorry, did I say I went on the highway to get here?

I went to my favorite local taqueria & tire shop, which I also had handle a Vantruck front tire rotation, so they knew what they were getting into when I showed up again.

Even materials we call flexible are crystalline in nature, as can be seen here in the brilliantly clear cleavage pattern of these plasticizer-depleted tires that I totally was not driving on before, I promise.

I mean, I did get used tires anyway, but at least they’re recent vintages that aren’t becoming mineralized. The other working mantra with Spool Bus is “You’re getting the cheap and terrible things until you prove you warrant the nice things”.

I also noticed during my continued joyriding that the headlight switch was intermittent. The switch in question is a combination 3 position switch AND a rheostat to control headlights, running lights, and interior lights plus dashboard/instrumentation light intensity. Pretty much every circuit was gunked up and intermittent, especially the headlight low beam….which was exciting to find out at night, of course. I had to smack and wiggle it to get them to come back on.

The uninstall/reinstall for this headlight wombo combo switch is by the book and rather straight forward – it’s just retained to a dashboard bezel with the Shiny Nut on the bottom right, and the connector block pulls right off.

I found which wire in the Wiring Teratoma actually provided 12V feeder power to the upper console, and gave it a home instead on the under-hood fuse block that Centurion added. Like it was supposed to be. I think it must have failed at some point and the rednecks preceding me just tapped whatever 12V power was available.

Verdict? The roof mounted clearance lights (truck dots, as I say) only have 1 still alive, but at least the circuit is working. The CB radio has no power and that problem seems upstream of its own inline fuse holder. The dome lights all work and the equivalently-tiny cargo light works. I’m sure there will be renovations here as I get to it.

I say “preceding rednecks” not because I’m better in some way, just the most recent. My next repair increment was to bring the Gear Vendors Overdrive back online, and I did it using just a regular switch like in Vantruck itself. I can’t stand the added mess and phone jacks that the 30 something year old automatic controller design brings in. It’s a switch, push it when you don’t think something will break.

The 12V feeder was pulled through the firewall in the same uninsulated, burr-lined spot that all of the other “aftermarket” wiring ran through, because *sigh* I’m not the best redneck, just the most recent.

The Gear Vendor solenoid was grounded nearby on the frame as I had done on Vantruck before, so all the switch does is touch the 12V accessory power to the blue wire.

Entering the cab underneath the Wiring Teratoma. I stopped caring at this point and predictably, like the most recent redneck should do, crammed the wire terminal onto an accessory fuse holder that had an “Add a circuit” tap installed. In time, this entire thing will be ripped out and I’ll start all the wiring from scratch.

In an act of abject “Don’t give a fuck any more”, I just zip tied the switch to the entire bundle of dysfunctional instruments for now.

All of this wonderful hackery really just was getting Spool Bus to the “Feel Good” stage. So at this point in early August 2020, I’d gotten it to both drive and stop AND turn (BONUS!), with working lights, and the ability to actually go on a highway or something with the overdrive hooked back up. I’d otherwise gone through and inspected/changed all the fluids and filters and cleaned up the interior of the cab and blew out the HVAC ducts.

But I’m tired of running around with a ratchet strap holding its ass on. The rear bumper’s broken weld would be the first “Feel Good” operation, and for that, I turned to the help of Overhaul.

Thanks for being a $10,000 strap anchor, Overhaul! I needed to pull the bumper face backwards some , such that I had clearance to clean and grind the former weld joint.

This thing was just held on by a few booger tacks on each side. Note that this is not the trailer hitch that’s hanging loose, just the shiny chrome face of the rear bumper attached to the crossmember shown here.

After the cleanup, it was time to loosen the straps and adjust the height vertically with a jack, such that I can dd my own boogers. You can see in this photo how the entire rear end is just one contiguous weldment.

And add my boogers I did. At this point I hadn’t had 240 volts brought out to the garage, so Limewelder was still severely throttled. I could not get a good bead going at all, especially also while being upside down. As a result, I had to resort to the good old “weld moar” approach on both sides.

Not the better redneck, just the more recent one. I still want to repave this one with 240 volts some time.

For entertainment purposes, while I had Overhaul already out, I decided to try a van squat with the clamp arm. The youtube video generated some confusion from people wondering why the bot wasn’t tipping forward.

Note that the forks are fully lowered here, so the clamp arm is going through them into the ground. It’s a jackscrew actuator, after all. This isn’t too far removed from a high-lift screw jack doing the same thing. So I’ve managed to make a $10,000 bumper jack.

(Based on its driving behavior, Spool Bus is terrifyingly light in the back as well, and it’ll break traction on every launch as well as instantly lock up on every stop….. so I don’t think this lift was all that impressive, maybe 2000 to 2500 pounds at most)

And here is the completed reattachment process, next to the (as of this point) still-assless Vantruck.

The Summer of Ven will soon draw out into the Autumn of Ven, and with it, I decided to upfit the fuel system of Spool Bus to use an electric lift pump with a frame-mounted remote fuel filter. It’s a very common and documented mod for the IDI family, and having hindsight, I strongly advocate it for everyone who comes into one of these, even if it’s the F-series trucks with actually accessible things under the hood. The electric lift pump takes substantial stress off the starting process and keeps the fuel system air-purged. That will be a tale coming soon, along with more!