Cleveland to Seattle: Part 2 - The Logistics

Well, I've probably avoided writing about this part because it's simply the hardest, most complicated, and most important. Either that or I'm stupidly busy or extremely lazy. Or, perhaps some combination thereof.

Excuses aside, this is for sure: when planning a trip involving multiple vehicles, one of which may be towing a trailer, multiple drivers (possibly inexperienced), thousands of dollars worth of cargo, and one or more pets over a distance of several thousand miles... it pays to have a plan. A realistic plan, one based on many factors including the experience level of the drivers, the time of year, the reliability of the vehicles involved, and any serious liabilities or restrictions.

Let's start with the obvious: You can only cover so many miles in a day. A couple of hundred years ago, you'd have been happy to manage 15 miles in a day with your covered wagon in the plains states, and half that in the mountains. Yes, that's right: 9 miles a day in the mountains. These days, you're driving a modern vehicle (I assume) and given that it is in reasonable shape the main limitations are the driver, and weather conditions. Since you'll be taking interstates the road surface is not something that, thankfully, you have to worry about any more. Isn't progress wonderful?

Provided your vehicles are in good order (see: Preparation) you should be ready to figure out how far you are willing to drive in one day. But first, let me make an important point.

You should be traveling with two vehicles. If something goes Terribly Wrong with your mechanical animal, you will at least have the means to get to civilization and safety. Plus, one working car and one broken car beats one broken car and nothing any day of the week. You may need to jump start. You may need to drive for fuel. You may need to run the engine to keep from freezing to death. I am not joking.

The most important thing you can do is travel at the correct time of year. Regardless of route, you'll be going over 7000 feet at least a few times and snow and ice make driving combination vehicles exciting, especially if you've never done it before. The best times are the times of most moderate temperatures. Late spring, late summer to late fall. If you encounter snow on the I-90 pass you'll need to have chains or 4wd, or both. Combinations over certain weight limits may be banned.

What I'm saying: don't even think about coming in the winter, or when there is even a chance of heavy snow. Why bother? Seriously?

So now that you've decided to travel when it's neither searingly hot, or extremely cold, you need to think about daily travel quotas. 500 miles a day is a lot for an infrequent or inexperienced driver. You can do this in the plains states, but in the mountains it'll be difficult. We started out our trip with longer legs, then as we got closer to our destination and the route became more mountainous, I shortened them to as little as 250 miles in a day. I like taking my time through the mountains, anyway. If you're trying for 500 miles in a day you're not going to be stopping at many scenic pull outs for picture opportunities - or to let the vehicles cool. Hopefully you can take a few extra days out of your extremely busy and short life to take your time on this trip. We decided to take it a bit slower than we probably could have, and I'm glad we did.

If you're actually planning your stops (and we did, for the most part, at least for the first 90% of our journey) you might as well book your hotel rooms in advance. If you're traveling with a pet - we were - you just want to do this for peace of mind. Not all hotels allow pets, and some charge a pretty significant fee if they do. Motel 6 allows one dog. We just planned our stops around available Motel 6 locations on our route. Simple. Make all your reservations online, and print them out, and stuff them in a folder.

Ok. Route selection. You have two options: I-90 all the way, or I-80 to I-84 to I-90/5. Please remember that we are escaping from Cleveland. If you're coming from anywhere northeast, though, I-90 connects you to Cleveland. I-90 is more direct, although only marginally shorter, more rugged, and has more and higher elevation gradients. It's probably also prettier, although I've not driven the southern of the two routes and won't pretend to be objective. I could put in links to nice little Google maps at this point, but seriously? You can figure it out.

Since you're sticking to the free-ways all the way, a map is optional, but it wouldn't kill you to get a nice set of old-fashioned paper maps. I should take my own advice. If you have a GPS, your life is a lot easier. You can punch in all your way-points before hand. You can even go without fixed way-points and drive (our friends did, and it appears that they survived).

Make sure you know where you're going when you get there. Seattle has some pretty serious geographical constraints that make driving to some destinations a challenging proposition. Make sure your mapping software isn't asking you to do something that seems crazy or impossible. I didn't print out directions to our final destination, from the highway, because I didn't think of it, and then had to purchase detailed maps at a gas station. Being able to read maps is a definite advantage. If you have a GPS, you can skip all these steps. Make sure your GPS doesn't get stolen.

If you're all organized and stuff you can print out a list of way-points, and reservation information, and phone numbers for your hotels if you've booked them. It wouldn't hurt. Motel 6 publishes a handy directory that even has rudimentary maps for it's locations. Grab one the first chance you get.

A clipboard with a legal pad was extremely useful. I recorded my fuel consumption information, and it was a good place to keep receipts. Even better would have been a large envelope, but I didn't think that far ahead. Having all three things - clipboard, legal pad, and receipt envelope would have been perfect. Remember, you're writing this off on your taxes, right? You have a job lined up so this is a work-related relocation... right? I hope so. It just has to be one member of your household that's relocating for work.

That's really about it for the boring stuff. Next: Part 3 - The Journey. Hey, that might actually be fun to read. And have some pictures. Yeah, logistics are the worst. Boring. Necessary. But boring!



Cleveland to Seattle: Part 1 - The Preparation

It's been a few years since we moved to Seattle (or more precisely, the Pacific Northwest, or something, since we aren't technically in a Seattle zipcode) but since someone finally expressed interest in our epic, uh, adventure, I need to write this up. Plus I found exactly zero information on this when I was searching before, so...

Here's how I solved the problem of moving two people and one dog and two cars and a bunch of assorted belongings from Cleveland, Ohio, to Seattle, Washington.

Primary objectives were minimal cost. Actually, now that I think about it, that was really the only fixed objective. Why would I want to spend more money than I had to? Besides, it was kind of fun to see how little we could do it with.

First things first: we had to get rid of things we couldn't afford to bring. For me, that meant my 1985 VW Cabriolet and my 1993 BMW 318i. Oh well. Shipping cars from the rust belt to the west coast is costly and stupid, and my dog can't drive. So they had to go. This was actually the hardest part of the preparation. You may not have this problem - you may hate your cars, in which case this should be much easier.

Next decision: truck or trailer? Unless you are traveling very light indeed (in which case, you don't really have any preparation or logistics to worry about, do you?) you'll probably have a bunch of stuff you'll want to bring with you. In our case it was things as diverse as a queen size bed (worthless when used, not cheap to replace) and a chest freezer (likewise). Bulky. Annoying. Necessary.

If you have a tow vehicle, a trailer is definitely the cheap way to go. Uhaul will charge you $600 even to rent their largest trailer, a 6 x 12, one way from Cleveland to Seattle. There are no mileage penalties - how could there be? Your tow vehicle is probably something that you're going to be wanting to move anyway. It'll take a pretty serious mileage penalty for the trip, but a box truck is going to be even more thirsty.

If you don't have a tow vehicle, a truck is the only way to go. Uhaul wants $1400 for a 14 foot truck from Cleveland to Seattle. I haven't done this, so I can't comment on mileage, but their quoted figure of 10 miles per gallon is probably fairly optimistic. Expect quite a bit less when you're towing a car.

In my case, I happened to have a tow vehicle. I had bought a 2006 Grand Caravan as a windsurfing, camping, snowboarding, practical kind of vehicle, and while I hadn't intended to two anything with it when I bought it, it was heavy, had fantastic brakes, and plenty of torque. My only concern was that it lacked a proper transmission cooler. There's an optional tow package for the vehicle that includes an uprated transmission cooler, but I bought my van used and it didn't have that. Darn. I was just going to have to keep a very close eye on the transmission. More on that later.

Of course, my van didn't come with a hitch. The tow package doesn't even include a hitch, that's an optional feature. I've always liked Hidden Hitch's products, and I spent about $170 on a Class II hitch from them, with a 1 1/4 inch receiver.

It bolted right up. Well, no, that's not true, the first one I got was damaged in shipping and the mounting plate was bent. But that was the vendor's fault. You might want to go with a step up from the lowest price vendor you can find on Google...

Ok, the second one bolted right up. I did have to get a torque wrench to install it correctly, but I needed one anyway. However, that's an additional cost to consider if you're not getting it professionally installed.

Those mounting bolts take a huge amount of torque, but the hitch is a Class II and rated to 3500 pounds and a 350 pound tongue weight. Astute observers may notice that the base Grand Caravan is only rated to tow 1800 pounds. So why didn't I go with a Class I hitch? Because the van is heavy enough, and powerful enough, and has enough brakes to pull more. It's tow rating changes to 3800 pounds with the optional tow package, which includes... a transmission cooler. That's it, for my model year, as far as I can tell. I couldn't discover any other item that it would have added to my van. So yeah, given the choices, I opted for the bigger, stronger hitch. Overcapacity doesn't hurt. My van has beefy four wheel discs and a load leveling suspension. So the only risk I ran exceeding the manufacturers tow rating is overheating my transmission. Well, this is a pretty serious risk, so I strapped a temperature sensor to my (stock) transmission cooler feed line so I could monitor the transmission temperature while driving. This proved to be very, very useful.

Yes, that's correct, I zip-tied a high-temperature thermistor to the feed line. Hey, it was surprisingly accurate.

That completed the prep work for my tow vehicle. I ordered a 4 pole trailer harness along with my hitch, and installed it behind the jack access hatch inside the rear of the minivan. It just runs out underneath the lift-gate when it's in use. Not very exciting, but necessary.

Oh, wait: that didn't exactly complete the prep work for my tow vehicle. I put a fresh batch of Amsoil 0w-20 (the 3.3 liter V6 in the Caravan loves it, I switched it to synthetic on buying the van) in the engine, with a Bosch oil filter. I wanted to swap the transmission fluid to something synthetic with more protection, but the factory warranty was in effect, and I decided it was better to potentially discover a weak transmission without breaking the seal on the transmission pan. A high quality synthetic ATF will keep doing it's job at much higher temperatures than the stuff in most factory transmissions. For the record, no issues 25k miles later, although I did not overheat the transmission substantially at any point. I could easily have had I wished to or not had any idea of how hot the transmission was getting.

Getting a tow package installed at the dealer might be a wise investment if you have the money. The transmission cooler would be well worth it, and it will improve the resale value of the vehicle, if you get it done at the dealer. Keep records.

The other vehicle didn't really need any prep work. This was a Saab 9-3, a modern car that had proven to be very reliable runner, and had less than 70k miles. It got a fresh batch of Castrol 10w-40 and a Bosch filter. Maybe I'm weird because I won't put less than a Bosch filter on my cars, but I have this bizarre notion that they care about the quality perception of their brand, spend a little more on their filters, and the chance of one of them rupturing or going into bypass mode early is lower than other (cheap) brands. If you DIY your own oil changes, you know this already. If not, get a trusted mechanic to go over your vehicles before the trip.

So both vehicles got fresh oil. Neither needed nor received fresh coolant, although I always carry a gallon of pre-mixed coolant and at least that much distilled water on long trips where a vehicle overheating is a possibility. You will be crossing mountains on this trip, although not deserts, and with a heavily loaded vehicle, if something goes wrong with your cooling, you could lose a lot of coolant quickly. Or, even, if you're not paying attention. Watch those gauges. Seriously.

I inflated the donut spare in the Saab. Never been used, and completely flat. So, essentially, dead weight. I'd check both your spares. And your jacks.

Also, I have an 'emergency shit' bag for trips like this. It contains, in order of importance:
  • Jumper cables
  • Flashlight (Glowsticks are acceptable substitute)
  • Duct tape
  • Flares
  • Adjustable wrench (12" min, bigger if you have it)
  • Lug nut Star wrench (try to find a small one)
  • Inverter (150w minimum)
  • Extension cord
It's a big duffel bag. I love it like a close friend. Therefore it goes in whichever vehicle I am driving.

Next: Logistics.


JBL GT5-A402 Install & Review, sorta

When I bought my Miata back in June, the audio situation in the car was pretty dire. An aftermarket Pioneer head unit with possibly the worst front interface I have ever seen was rattling around in the DIN slot. The previous owner asserted without much confidence that it was indeed in working order. I turned it on, it sounded like it was shorting across the speaker outputs, so I turned it off and never turned it on again. Honestly, the stereo system is really at the bottom of my priorities when buying a used vehicle. The number of clean aftermarket installations are sadly outnumbered by various levels of clusterfuckery ranging from simply cheap components often inferior to stock (which it seemed I had encountered) to hacked up harnesses complete with a rats nest of unlabeled and severed wires.

So I paid no attention to it, and after I discovered that the head unit was held in place by nothing more than the force of gravity, I yanked it out. It was just so much dead weight, anyway.

I toyed with the idea of removing the remainder of the stereo. I didn't want to dedicate a huge amount of resources or accrue a large weight penalty by putting a monster stereo in the car. Besides, that goes against everything the Miata stands for. On the other hand, I wasn't sure I could get adequate performance from simply a head unit and door speakers. It's not quiet in the Miata cockpit.

So, rather than a head unit and an amp, I decided to skip the head unit completely and just use one of the many MP3 players I have lying around. Hey, head units are heavy. I decided on the JBL GT5-A402 for the amp because it was a) two-channel and b) cheap. But, importantly, not ridiculously, awfully cheap. There aren't any absurd and unrealistic wattage ratings on the casing and it comes from a big (very big) and reputable manufacturer, Harman International. In this case branding means it won't be completely crap.

Honestly, the hardest part of this install was getting wires figured out. Yes, the harness had been mutilated. Once that was done the rest of it was surprisingly easy.

There's a tunnel that runs from the trunk to the passenger compartment, and since the battery is mounted in the trunk, the install is almost trivial. No drilling in the firewall.

The amp went behind the passenger seat. Note that if you have a post-1994 NA, the ECU is mounted here. I think. Someone correct me. Either way, make sure what you're drilling into.

I was expecting to find stock speakers in the doors, but it looks like someone put in these poly cone Pioneer units when they installed the head unit. If they're installed with the same level of skill as the head unit, there are wires twisted around the speaker terminals and wrapped in electrical tape back there. At the moment I'm just going to leave them. They don't actually sound too bad, and I haven't figured out exactly what I want to put in the door yet.

I know this install is neither unique nor revolutionary, especially in the Miata world, but I am still pretty happy with it. It fits the Miata ethos. Functional, minimally complex, and light. The amp is very slightly heavier than the head unit that got binned, but I excised about three feet of tangled up wiring and three (yes, three!) inline fuse holders. At the very least, I've reduced the risk of my car burning to the ground in an electrical fire.

As for the amp itself? I didn't tear it down to check out the quality of the components or the packaging. I don't have reference quality speakers to listen to it critically. I can say it has way, way more power than those particular speakers need. It's not supposed to be a flagship amp - I paid $80 for mine - but I'm confident it'll deliver its rated output with a minimal amount of distortion. I've been impressed at how much detail I'm hearing even with the poor speakers and the large amount of cockpit noise. The screw terminal block could be wider and beefier but it's not exactly flimsy. The included mounting screws are the perfect length to mount through about half an inch of insulation and carpet. They aren't self-tapping. The amp has a nice soft turn on feature, but that's hardly ground-breaking or upmarket these days.

So, for a total of right around $100, including the mounting kit, I've added two 60 watt channels. Is it going to win any competitions? Well, I hope not. Does it go louder and cleaner than any head unit? Absolutely. Combined with an almost infinite playlist, the fact that I don't have to carry expensive and obnoxious media, and the fact that it looks like my stereo has already been stolen - this is an unbeatable upgrade for the working Miata.


Miata 'Ebay Clears' turn signal install

Well, the stock turn signal / running lamps at the front of my Miata were starting to show their age. As in they had huge rock chips and holes and were full of rusty water. One of them was starting to short out in heavy rain. Not good.

OEM replacements are $80 apiece. While I really do appreciate the factory look, I can't see spending $160 on a couple of molded plastic pieces. I really just wanted a functional replacement for the factory pieces. Well, the aftermarket knockoff hucksters on Ebay would be happy to sell you a pair of clear (or smoked - out of the question for this car) turn signal lamps for $30.

For the pair. With bulbs.

I have to say I was skeptical. Would they leak? Would they have fitment issues? Well, no. They may be slightly cheap, but they're totally solid. Proper venting in the back. The pigtails and connectors fit perfectly. I have to say I'm impressed. Worth $30? Absolutely.


Idle Speed Control Valves and safe failure modes

Finally. It has taken me a great deal of wrenching, cursing, and no small amount of money, but my 1992 Miata is finally running the way the good Lord intended, as she rolled off the factory floor in Hiroshima so long ago, the same year I started high-school in rural Connecticut. Back then I had no idea that this car would eventually be waiting for me, more than three thousand miles away and two continents later.

Well... of course, that first statement should come with a caveat or two. My example could do with a new soft top, a new timing belt and accessory belts, really, new rubber all around.

That said, it finally runs right. Yes, I'd say my example had some deferred maintenance. So far I've replaced:

  • Shock absorbers (Koni Sports)
  • Thermostat (was frozen shut)
  • ISCV (failed, probably due to overheating when thermostat was stuck shut)
  • Plug wires
  • Air filter element
  • Clutch slave cylinder
  • Brake pads and fluid
  • Battery (Duralast 8AMU1R)

Is that really it? It feels like I've done so much more. Maybe the fact that I've flushed the coolant three times while I was fighting the overheating issue, the fact that I've changed the oil and transmission fluid, spent so much time dealing with the sneaky idle control problem... I feel like I have more into the car than just a simple dollar amount.

The shocks are a good example. Far from being drop-in replacements, the Konis have a 12mm shaft that includes an internal adjustment rod - which of course won't fit through the factory shock mounts. So, I had to drill them out... under my carport, without the benefit of a drill press or even a bench vise. I have to admit that it's high time I set up a proper machine shop.

My latest adventure: replacing the idle speed control valve.

The old ISCV is on the right, with air intake tubing attached, and the new ISCV is already mounted on the throttle body. In the Miata (and I assume other Mazda cars from that era) the idle speed control valve can open to allow a calibrated amount of air past the throttle plate at idle to compensate for load. The best example would be the air conditioning compressor. Of course, as good engineers would, Mazda's realized that it would be safer for this valve to fail open. Far better to have the car able to run the A/C at a light if the solenoid actuating the valve fails. The alternative? The engine would either stall or do horrible things to itself at 200 rpm. So, the ISCV fails open, and your car idles at an annoying 1800 rpm. Yeah, that's how much extra throttle you need from a 1.6 engine to run a tiny air conditioning compressor.

Well... mine failed. Since my original ISCV would stop working as the engine reached operation temperature (later ceasing to work at all, cold or hot) my best guess is that the overheating problem I inherited with the car resulted in an broken conductor within the solenoid housing. If I can muster up the motivation, I'll grind open the housing and see if my suspicions are correct.

Either way, the 'new' one works perfectly. My baby now idles quietly and without fuss right around 800 rpm. It's beautiful. Even the valve assembly itself looks newer, which is strange as it was pulled from a '91. Either it was a replacement piece itself - possible - or that particular NA was parted out early on in its life. The $50 in cash from my local specialist was a lot less painful than the $500 new replacements fetch online.

So... my baby is now back to some kind of baseline. Handling and engine performance are 'stock-like'. This winter, it'll be ready for some proper modifications. I haven't decided exactly what I'm doing, but a manual steering rack is definitely going on, and the power steering hardware coming off. The steering is precise, but much too light.

One thing: if you take off the ISCV for inspection or cleaning, you probably won't be able to re-use the gasket that seats into the throttle body. At least, I couldn't. The gasket seated (I think) and promptly disintegrated.

I'll note that the gasket had swelled badly from being cooked for several hundred miles, and the rubber must have been pretty badly deteriorated. Since I was unable to source a replacement gasket, this time I went with a rubber/cork one that I cut by hand. I was considering a silicone sealant, but I'm weird and I'll probably want to pull the throttle body for inspection, at which point it'll come apart without a mess.

In retrospect, I should never have pulled the old ISCV for cleaning. It didn't do any good, and the gasket failure wasn't the best thing in the world to happen to my engine. Those missing pieces of gasket were nowhere to be found, which meant they probably went through the engine. That's not as big a deal as the rust on my old ISCV, which makes me think that small amounts of coolant were leaking into the intake.

Not good. So: don't do what I did and attempt to re-use that gasket. It wasn't broken for very long, though, and I think my car is ready to forgive me.


Do you REALLY need an airbag?

Actually, I just wanted to post this here so I could find it again.

Driver wearing 5 point harness walks away (laughing) from a 55 mph head-on in a Miata. Racing steering wheel installed.

It's kinda funny to watch the passenger bag blow. Heh.

Edit: NOT wearing a helmet.


Throttle Body and IAC (ISCV) Cleaning

Yes, that really is my car with the throttle body out and lying on the ground. I have no idea why there's a pile of rusting bike parts littering my work area, I need to clean up. Box that shit up. Yeah.

For the record, although you do see the Haynes manual pictured, it was pretty useless. This article is vastly more useful. Remember, of course, this is for the 1.6 - I don't know if the 1.8 is different.

I attempted a non-invasive cleaning with no real results. Apparently, so had the previous owner, as the main mounting screw for the plastic air intake had been removed. Permanently. So I need another one. However, spraying the face of the throttle restrictor plate is not going to fix idle problems.

When cold, my ISCV (idle speed control valve) worked perfectly, compensating for extra load (like A/C) exactly as it should. Idle was right around 900 with the idle control screw pegged shut. As the engine warmed, the idle would rise to about 1200-1300 and the ISCV would stop working completely. Turning on the A/C would almost stall the car at idle.

This made me think I had a very dirty ISCV. I mean, had it even been cleaned in the 102k miles the car had been driven? I have absolutely no records for this car.

Well, how does it look to you? I think it looks pretty filthy. That's the back of the throttle, by the way, with ISCV still attached.

The Haynes manual refers to the ISCV as the IAV (Idle Air Valve). I think that ISCV makes more sense, as there is another valve that's also an 'air valve' but responds to coolant temperature, not the ECU. I haven't been able to find that valve referenced in my Haynes manual.

ISCV removed. I think the hardest part of all this was putting that stupid gasket back in. It was way distorted, probably from heat, and much too big. Ended up using a simple, latex based adhesive on the back side of the gasket, applying pressure, and praying. I'm pretty sure it got back in it's groove, finally, as it's a very thick gasket and the ISCV seated without a gap of any kind and not a great deal of effort. But that was awful, and if you can find a new gasket for this, do so and save yourself some serious frustration. Or share with me your secret for getting a swollen gasket to stay in place.

Look any better? That's about halfway through cleaning it... I eventually pulled the gasket from the groove which proved to be a silly thing to do. Silly me.

Oh yeah, and that's the inside of my intake manifold looked before cleaning. Nice.

That's about all there is to it, really. I'm happy it all went back together, the ECU isn't throwing open ISCV solenoid codes like it used to sometimes, and so far it seems the idle problems are cured. At least, the ISCV problems. I now get a nice steady idle at all engine temperatures and the ISCV works whenever I test it. Of course, it's not over - I am suspicious of the other air valve. But that one's a lot easier to get to.