Our last travelogue post ended on a bit of a cliffhanger.
We started the morning off in Hohenwald, TN driving south on the beautiful Natchez Trace for a few miles, and we then headed westward on Highway 64 towards Memphis to rendezvous with our dear friends Kristin & Jason, who we hadn’t seen since our shared time in Cedar Key earlier this year.
It was an easy drive.. beautiful weather, cruising along a nice divided 4 lane highway through tranquil countryside.
And then it happened.
In a matter of mere seconds, all of the air in our bus let out and as the alarm buzzer sounded the Mini-Max emergency spring brakes automatically engaged.
Chris skillfully pulled the bus to the side of the road, but commented as he did that there was no additional braking power – the main service brakes were completely soft. While the spring brakes were slowing us down, he was actually eyeing a guardrail up ahead to potentially ram us into to stop. I was at the ready to hop out as soon as the bus slowed down enough to grab the chocks and toss them under the bus.
Thankfully, we were on flat road and such heroics were not called for. We came to a complete stop, and I got us chocked… just in case.
We took a deep breath, looked each other in the eyes and said:
‘Not Again’ ‘We got this’.
We were already dealing with feeling overwhelmed, and really didn’t need another adventure like this. But we also knew that freaking out wouldn’t help matters.
Chris began to diagnosing the situation, while I started spreading the word online to solicit local resources and second opinions.
Diagnosing on the Side of the Road
Since we had just had work done to our air systems in Chattanooga at Choo Choo Express Garage – including a new air compressor & governor, and an air dryer added – those systems seemed like the most obvious culprit.
But the sudden whoosh of air out of the braking system didn’t seem to match the symptoms of an air compressor failure. We had had a governor stick on us before during our early bus days, and it was a more slow release of air pressure that still gave us manual braking power to get safely to a stop.
Chris got on the phone with Choo Choo, who started a conversation with the supplier of the rebuilt air compressor. They assured us that if the problem was the air compressor, it was completely covered under warranty. And Choo Choo assisted in a bit of troubleshooting.
Meanwhile, our online bus community was making remote guesses ranging from a blown air line to a sheered pin in the compressor gearing. A local bus nut affectionally known as ‘Busted Knuckles’ made phone contact with us and offered his ear and local resources for parts suppliers. It’s always so reassuring to have friends help out in such situations – and the online bus community is overall awesome.
At this point, it was getting late in the afternoon and nearing the closing of most business hours. We still had no definitive answer as to whether the problem was with the new compressor, or a blown line somewhere else in the system. The bus started and ran just fine, and though the compressor was confirmed to be putting out some air – the air gauge remained stubbornly at zero psi, and there were no obviously audible leaks over the sound of the engine either.
Further diagnosing the compressor would involve fully removing it, which is doable but tricky – and reassembling it properly would require a new gasket which we did not have onboard. So it was a bit of a speculative gamble if it turned out not to be the cause. We decided we wanted instead to get a higher powered air compressor onsite to try and manually air things up and test out the blown line theory. Our little automotive compressor from the Mini Cooper wasn’t doing the trick.
So… with the day progressing on, we placed the call to Coach-Net – our emergency roadside service dedicated to motorhomes. They helped us out tremendously when our engine overheated and made proper arrangements then to get us hauled to Billings for last summer’s 7 week engine rebuild.
They informed us with air system problems, they always deploy a mobile mechanic first and that doing so doesn’t take away our option of later having a wrecker service covered if we need to be hauled into a shop. That’s a very cool policy.
We weren’t ready to resign to needing to be hauled, and really just wanted some additional eyes on the situation.
Koenig’s Towing & Recovery service out of Savannah, TN showed up, and helped us with the diagnostics. Using our spare air line, we hooked up his heavy duty onboard compressor to verify that no air pressure would build in the system – pointing to a blown line somewhere. The mechanic Ron then got to work underneath our bus inspecting all the lines, and found a valve dangling – blown off the end of the primary air supply line.
It was a Bendix TR-3, which is the rear spring brake inversion valve.
As we understand it – this little gizmo is responsible for automatically engaging the rear air brakes whenever the rear spring brakes are engaged (whether as parking brakes or in an emergency). In an emergency, this valve will divert the last remaining air to the rear brakes to assist in braking. After all, the springs alone only provide about 60% braking power.
The threading to the main air intake on this valve had been stripped and it had blown right off, likely due to a former (before us owning the bus) bad installation with the valve not mounted to the rear bulkhead as securely as it should have been.
The new air compressor and governor may have contributed to this part failing by putting more sustained higher pressures into the air lines, but this was likely destined to fail eventually anyway.
But fortunately for us it happened in the best possible of conditions – while we were on flat 4-lane roads with wide shoulders and little traffic. If this had happened on a steep hill or in heavy traffic, things could have gotten messy.
Oh, and we had cell service! That was a huge plus compared to our engine overheating last summer, where the nearest cellular tower was 20 miles away.
We were able to verify that the Bendix TR-3 is a relatively widely available still current heavy truck part. However, by this time of day, all resources within range were closed. There was no fixing the problem that night.
Our mechanic apologized profusely for needing to leave us still on the side of the road, and then charged us $150 for an hour of his time troubleshooting. We vowed to hit the phones first thing in the morning to track down the closest TR-3 option. Our friends Kristin & Jason told us that if a part was to be found in Memphis, they’d be happy to bring it out to us.
The Next Morning
Instead of staying in the bus at a tilted angle on a fairly busy highway, we opted to head into the nearby town of Bolivar and indulge in a motel room and take long hot showers. Kiki would be fine for a few hours overnight on her own, and more comfortable in the bus than in a motel room.
Sometimes, just because you CAN stay in your house no matter where it is … doesn’t mean you have to. And this was absolutely the right decision for us.
At 7am, we were on the phones tracking down the valve – and found a couple options. The most promising was at Fleet Pride in Memphis, and Kristin & Jason were at the ready to pick it up for us and drive it out. I offered to hop in the Mini Cooper and meet them halfway, but they assured us they wanted to join us onsite and hang out a bit. We certainly weren’t saying no to hugs from friends!
The timing worked out great. Just as Chris was researching how to install this thing, including properly blocking the bus while underneath… Coach-Net called to get a status report.
They pro-actively offered to cover another service call by the mobile mechanic. And since he knew what he had taken apart, we felt that paying his hourly labor rate was probably worthwhile instead of having Chris shimmy under the bus on the side of the road with large trucks speeding by just a few feet away.
Kristin & Jason (and pups) arrived about the same time that Ron the mechanic did and we got to quick work. The install should have taken just 15 minutes, but Ron discovered that at some point the old Bendix valve had been drilled out to use an oversized fitting, the new one would need a different connector piece to install properly. Stuck without it, he headed into Bolivar to seek out such a part.
That left the rest of us catching up on the side of the road after a couple months of being apart. Not exactly how we imagined reconnecting – but then again, stories of how things went smoothy rarely get retold. We are very blessed with dear friends who kept us entertained instead of pacing while Ron was out shopping.
We’d of course do the same, and have, for friends.
Back on the Road
After visiting 5 different hardware and automotive stores in Bolivar, Ron was at last able to find the fitting he needed to make the new valve mate with our old air system plumbing.. and with the fitting in hand he quickly got it installed.
We fired up the engine, and things aired up exactly as they are meant to. We did some testing of the brakes to confirm. Hooray! Fixed.
We paid Ron for 2 hours of his time, unfortunately the bulk of it spent hunting for a fitting. Sure, we could have done the shopping ourselves – but we would have still either paid Ron to sit on the side of the road until we got back or paid for another service call ourselves or had to handle the repair ourselves.
This brought the cost of this little adventure to a $600 repair bill, especially painful on top of the $1800 we just spent at Choo Choo.
We were happy to pay it and get on our way.
We’ll still need to seek out a pit somewhere soon to have other valves in our system inspected just in case anything else is wrong, and to have the new Bendix TR-3 properly mounted to the bulkhead so it too doesn’t prematurely strip out.
We made the final 2 hour drive into Memphis and finally joined up with the Snowmads as temporary neighbors.
And as soon as we landed, Apple informed us our new app US Public Lands had been approved. No rest for the weary!
Is a Bus Worth It?
After the past year we’ve had, we honestly did have thoughts in the beginning of this ordeal of ‘what are we doing?’… ‘is it time to give this vintage bus nomadic thing up?’
Maybe it’s time to find another cool sublet somewhere, like we did in the Virgin Islands 3 years ago? Maybe this time, somewhere with a hot tub??
But we were reminded that any lifestyle has bumps in the road. In a stationery house, it could have easily been an appliance failure, an air conditioner quitting on the hottest day of the year, or an overflowing toilet causing stress.
There’s no escape from the finality of machined parts. They will break at some point.
You can only hope it happens at a time that has the least negative impact. And for that, we feel extremely blessed that this failure happened along a wide flat road, and not while traversing the mountains.
Less than 24-hours on the side of the road, and we were back on the road.. and off to new adventures.
It’s all good.
(But if you do have a cool opportunity available with a hot tub… do let us know.. we might just be tempted!)
Live Video Chat Re-Scheduled
We got to our next location to discover we didn’t have enough bandwidth to host the live video chat we had scheduled… so we rescheduled it for THIS Thursday instead. We hope you’ll join us!
When : April 24, Thurs @t 8:30 pm CST
(6:30pm PST / 9:30pm EST)
Topic: Blogging for RVers
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To blog.. or not to blog? There seems to be RVers starting blogs all the time, but is starting one right for you?
We’ll discuss the various motivations behind blogging – from keeping family & friends up to date, keeping a record of your adventures to generating an income. We’ll share some of the rewards of blogging and some of the challenges. We’ll also briefly discuss the various blogging platforms out there – and how to choose what is right for your motivations and technical skill sets.
As always, a general Q&A to follow.