[Incident Report] – Taken down by a pinhole leak in a rubber hose

Picking up where I left off the other day, I thought I’d share a “real world” example of why regular maintenance is important and also how to diagnose an issue in the field.  
What would you do in this situtation?
I have a lot of “been there; done that; got the t-shirt” stories.  I also have a lot of lessons I learned the hard way.  I’ve said, one of my goals for ECOA is to help others by sharing some of these stories.  A few will be quick and easy trail fixes, others will encourage preventative maintenance, and some will be a little more in depth.  This is a mix of all three.
So, let me paint the picture for you:  I’m traveling up I-81 in central PA about 15 miles south of Rausch Creek.  For once I’m not actually going to the park, instead I’m on my way to drop some parts off to get powder-coated (more on that later).  As I’m driving I notice a plume of thick white smoke pouring out from under my Jeep.  Immediately I pull over and do a systems check…

My initial systems check revealed no check-engine-light (a rare occurrence for me of late), the engine had full oil-pressure even at idle, and the motor was running smooth.
Once I got out I popped the hood and noticed the entire engine bay was COVERED in an oily fluid.  My initial worry was FIRE.  Where there’s smoke, there is usually fire, right?  With oil everywhere I checked the usual ignition sources and saw no flames.  I keep a 5lb extinguisher behind the seat and a 20lb one in the back just-in-case.
With fire ruled out, and being safely off the highway as far as I could reasonably get, I continued my systems check.
First check, oil.  I had pressure.  I didn’t see any oil leaks from the usual places, and no hoses or caps had been blown loose.
Next was power-steering.  Not uncommon to have a hose go bad, pop a cap off, or crack the factory plastic reservoir.  All checked out.
Lastly I checked the fluid itself.  Maybe it had a clue.  Rather than a blackish thick substance which I was expecting (I was still focused on it being oil for some reason) I found a low viscosity reddish-brown fluid.   <Insert lightbulb over head here> Ding!, transmission fluid.
I was close enough to the next exit I thought I could possibly limp it there before anything else overheated but I only got about 100 yards before the transmission wouldn’t shift out of 2nd gear and the smoke got bad again.
Not wanting to risk an accident or a fire, or both, I pulled over and called AAA and decided a tow home was in order.

If you don’t have AAA yet, get it.  It’s worth it.
Also check your car insurance roadside assistance policies.
With AAA on the way I did some more poking around.  That’s when I noticed a hose in a place it shouldn’t have been. I also noticed it has an abrasion on it.  Putting two-and-two together I made a guess that the hose feeding the transmission cooler slipped out of it’s clip and when I hit a bump on the highway it made contact with the engine’s cooling fan.  I guess the two had a slight disagreement and the hose lost.  Being under pressure meant that hose would spray fluid as long as the transmission pump was doing it’s thing.
Cue flashback… after I got the Jeep I had an incident with the factory plastic radiator cap cracking.  While replacing it I also replaced the old rubber supply and return lines to the transmission cooler.  Realizing the hose was practically brand new, and already having replaced it once, I knew it would be an easy fix.
Back to the present…  So the tow truck driver calls to confirm my location, assess the problem, and let me know he’s on his way.  While we talked I explained what I thought the problem was (transmission cooler line hitting the fan).  He informed me that his shop was attached to a parts-store and I could get everything I needed from the store to replace the hose and lost fluid.  He would also lend me any tools I needed to get the job done.  This is not something to expect, but it was a genuine offer and I knew I could fix it in under 20 minutes.  I was right.
The culprit. Small pine-hole in the rubber supply line to the transmission cooler.
The first moral of the story is three fold:
  1. PERSONAL SAFETY: If you don’t have at least one good fire extinguisher in every single one of your vehicles (be they 4×4 or not), get one.  Not the cheap box-store specials either. I mean a solid quality extinguisher.  Rule of thumb, if it comes in a cardboard box and isn’t heavy it’s the wrong one.  I carry two… had my jeep been on fire I could have done a lot in a short period of time to save it.  By the time a fire truck would have shown up my Jeep would have been burnt to a crisp.
  2. PERSONAL SAFETY: Get your vehicle and yourself to a safe place as soon as possible. If you decide to exit the vehicle make sure you have a bright colored reflective vest in the vehicle.  Do not exit a vehicle on the highway without one.  Also, don’t stay in your vehicle.  Once I was out I hopped off the shoulder into the nearby woods.  I didn’t want to be in/around/near the Jeep in case an inattentive driver.
  3. PERSONAL SAFETY: Never attempt a roadside repair alongside a major highway or in any unsafe area.  Even thought I knew it was a quick and easy fix I knew the shoulder of an interstate highway was no place to be under my Jeep trying to do a repair.  Once I was towed to a safe location it was tool-time!
Sitting and waiting is the worst part, but do so from a safe place.
The second moral of the story is also three fold:
  1. BE PREPARED: I grew up a Boy Scout so this motto has been my mantra for many years.  On any other given day I problem would have had the tools and spare parts to fix it myself.  Sadly, on this day I didn’t.  At the very least, I was prepared with a AAA membership and I could get towed to a shop, or in this case, a parts store, and fix it myself.
  2. BE PREPARED: As overlanders we won’t always be along the road in easy reach of AAA or other roadside assistance.  We also won’t be in easy reach of shops and parts stores.  YOU need to be prepared to work on YOUR 4×4.  I wasn’t even wheeling when this happened, however it could very easily have happened while I was wheeling some long forgotten dirt road miles from home.  You need to have some personal responsibility for knowing the modifications on your 4×4 as well as how to make basic repairs. You don’t need to know everything about every system on your Jeep. Just know what common things can go wrong (busted hoses, bearings, u-joints, axles, linkages, etc) and how to fix them.
  3. BE PREPARED: There’s an old saying, “Prior Proper Planning Prevents Panic.”  My first question at the start of this blog was “What would you do in this situation?”  There you are, out in your 4×4, there’s a huge puddle of oily fluid under it.  What are you going to do?  You need to be prepared with a PLAN.  Who are you going to call; AAA, a buddy, a local?  Are you able to diagnose the plan, or will you need a mechanic?  Can you fix the problem yourself with the right tools and right spare parts, or will you need them?  Being prepared with a plan will help  you keep your cool.  I phoned AAA.  I phoned a few friends.  I even phoned the guy I was dropping the parts off to get power coated to see if he could meet.  I kept my calm, noticed the problem was something I could fix, and eventually took care of business.
Guess who ran out of talent?

Two broken rear axle shafts at the same time…

What are you doing to do?
– or –
What would you have done to mitigate/prevent such a failure?

This post will hopefully help you understand there is a lot more to overlanding, and wheeling in general, than just bigger tires and fancy gadgets like winches and snorkels.  Being prepared and having a plan is better than any part you can bolt onto your 4×4.  That said, there are somethings you can do to your Jeep to help prevent common failures.
Stay tuned and expect ongoing writeups in the future about some quick and easy upgrades you can do to your 4×4 to mitigate common failures and help prevent needing a trailer full of spare parts.