Sunday, June 29, 2014

The sad sordid saga of truck 21392

When I went on vacation in March, the truck I was driving, a trusty 2012 Freightliner Cascadia that hadn't given me a lick of trouble in a year of driving, was given to another driver because, well, the company can't have a truck in the fleet idle for 10 days. Unfortunately, I didn't know this was going to happen until I was on vacation, and all of my stuff in the truck was packed in boxes and stored at the company terminal.

Upon my return, I was reunited with most of my stuff, sans the $150 bluetooth headset, which somehow got "lost" in the transition. And the truck I was assigned, a 2012 Peterbilt, the now infamous 21392, entered my life.

This upset me right off the bat. In addition to losing my headset, the Pete was previously driven by a smoker, and the ash tray still contained residue and evidence of this filthy habit. The entire cab also reeked of it. An insert in the shifter knob was missing, so the spot where I would rest my palm when shifting was a sharp divot. The entire time I drove this truck, I had to shift holding on to the sides of the knob. And one of the two small storage lockers had a door that was off its hinges, which meant I couldn't store anything in it that would slide out. It was essentially useless. But I am a regional driver. I am home every weekend. So I don't keep a lot of stuff in my truck. This was the least of my concerns.

I drove this truck first on the night of March 31. The next morning, as I stopped at a shipper to pick up my return load to Illinois, the truck wouldn't start. I was at the gate to the shipper. This meant that every couple minutes, a truck would turn to go into the gate, honk their horn for me to move on, get out and angrily approach the vehicle, and I would help them back out onto the road so they could go in through the out gate. I tried standing by the back of the trailer to ward drivers off, but it was brutally cold that day, with temps in the teens, and I didn't have a hat, so I had to return to the truck.

Within a couple hours, help arrived, and the mechanic got me started. "Don't turn off the engine. It won't start again if you do. Go directly to a shop. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200."

I spent a pleasant evening in De Pere, WI, and got rolling again the next day with a new starter.

Truck 21392 rolled steadily along for a few weeks, but then developed problems the first couple weeks in May. I noticed a steel on steel grinding noise when I backed up or rolled over uneven ground, kind of like the sound railroad wheels make. Oh, well, I thought, no biggie. I'll mention that the next time its up for preventive maintenance and an oil change. A week later, the truck stopped burning diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), what truckers call Cow Piss because it is made out of urea and puts out an ammonia-like smell. All newer trucks are equipped with DEF because it cuts out particulates in exhaust. No smoke comes out. Just carbon dioxide. Again, I figured. I'm due for an oil change real soon, so I'll wait...

The next day a fuse went out and the trailer clearance and license plate lights wouldn't light. This was a stopper. A cop could see this and pull me over. This put me out of Department of Transportation (DOT) compliance and I would be cited and ticketed on a roadside safety inspection. It was finally time to put the truck in the shop.

The DEF issue and blown fuse were easy fixes, but the grinding noise I'd heard was the engine block rubbing against the axle. The motor had slipped from its mounting and needed a new motor mount, which is a major job. The truck, still under warranty, was sent to a dealership, and I drove a day cab (semi without a sleeper berth) for two weeks, getting a hotel voucher each day to sleep. Even though the day cab leaked coolant and DEF, requiring daily refillings, I liked the hotel vouchers and stocked up on soap, shampoo, and stationary. A hotel room is a much nicer accomodation than the sleeper berth of a truck.

When I got truck 21392 back after two weeks, the first thing I noticed is that the windows wouldn't go down. And when I pressed the buttons to make the windows go down, the mirror defrost lit up on my dash. Also, I couldn't cut out all the power in the truck using the master switch. Usually, if there's a problem with the onboard computer or electrical systems in the semi, shutting everything down and starting it back up resolves the issue. I didn't have this option. Somehow, during the motor mount repair, wires got crossed. The electrical system was all messed.

But this wasn't a stopper. The air conditioning worked. I could open the passenger side window from the passenger side. I could live with these problems.

The first morning after getting the truck back, just as I pulled onto the highway, laden heavy with a 20 ton load, all my emergency bells and whistles went off, and I had to immediately pull over. All of my coolant had spilled onto the roadway. The same mechanic who'd got me started at the shipper gate April 1 came back and reattached the radiator hose which had a broken clamp and had come undone.

Then the phantom starter debacle began. When I first had a problem with it, it wouldn't stop at the company terminal. When I put in the repair order, the mechanic came out and the truck started right up. I felt foolish. But the next day at a shipper, the starter gave out again and I couldn't restart it. Roadside assistance came out and the mechanic got the truck started by simply boosting the battery voltage.

Thus began a two-week saga of trying to convince the shop there was something wrong with my truck. I wouldn't be able to get the truck started. I would take it to the shop, put in a repair order. They'd get it started right away, do nothing, and declare it fixed. I'd get it back, go out on the road, and get stranded again when the starter gave out.

This happened four times.

A shop tech accused me of making up the problem to get out of work. I said, no, I really need the money. I'd rather be driving.

Finally, I said, I refuse to drive this truck unless an actual repair is done. I then said I thought it was an electrical issue, maybe somehow connected to the issue with the windows (which they'd fixed). Frustrated, a shop tech called me and said they'd been starting the truck all weekend, indoors and out, and had used every diagnostic tool they had, but couldn't find anything wrong.

I said, just put a light on in the cab for a few minutes with engine off and try to start it. I was running on a hunch, thinking this was what I'd done every time the truck wouldn't start.

VOILA! They couldn't get the truck started. This helped them figure out the problem was a bad alternator signal cable, which connects between the alternator and starter. I said to the shop tech, "See. I'm not crazy after all." He said, "You were right. There was something wrong with your truck. But the verdict's still out on your sanity." Funny guy.

I drove six days in a row without any problems. Finally, as I was leaving a shipper last Thursday morning, the stop engine light went on and I couldn't drive faster than 5 MPH. I limped to a truck stop and put in a request for roadside assistance. The culprit this time was a faulty emissions sensor, a microchip device used to make sure my emissions met EPA standards.

Finally.... Enough was enough. I shared a rental vehicle with another driver and sent down to Mississippi to pick up a new truck, a brand new 2015 Freightliner Cascadia. Hopefully, if the trucking gods will it, I can put the last couple months of breakdown issues behind me and roll smoothly for awhile.

The worst thing about this whole debacle is I after I awhile I mistrusted my equipment and approached each night of driving with a dreaded sense of apprehension. That is no fun. Neither is being broke down by the side of the road.

Patience has paid off, though, and may my new truck, dubbed Red Sonja Redux, be a boon companion for many a mile.

No comments: