Be grounded

- Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

You normally hear the words “Be grounded” from counselors and motivational speakers but rarely is it an advice that is emphasized in auto shops or by mechanics. After all, the word “grounded” connotes something negative such as a short circuit in your electrical system or a problem that will take time to find and will cost a lot of money to repair. However, being “grounded” can also give you a lot of very positive benefits.

My “classroom” for this discovery came in the form of my 1977 Porsche 911 which I have painstakingly repaired and fought with from battle to battle. I got the car many years back by trading four Mustang Fastbacks of different years and various conditions. One had a diesel engine in it, another had no engine, another was a total rust bucket and the last one was a barn find in relatively good shape. Just for good measure, I also threw in a 2-door Chevy Biscayne just to make sure I snagged the Turbo Body 911. If you’re wondering, my philosophy is that each car would cost a ton to fix so I was better of bartering them for a 911.

The last two years have been the most trying in terms of fixing up the Porsche which makes me think that the reason they may have badged the car as 911 is because if you lose your patience fixing it up, you might end up having to call 9-1-1! In spite of it all, I continue to go from victory to victory because the car is a great drive on the highway, and all the challenges contribute to one’s learning. Perhaps this has also contributed to keeping me mentally “grounded” rather than being big-headed about owning a Porsche.

If there ever was a “mysterious” problem I’ve encountered with my car, it has to be the one where the power would constantly discharge. The week would start with the engine starting and turning over just fine and then by the end of the week the battery would be drained.  Then there would be the nightmare where I would drive the car somewhere near like from Ultra to the FORT in Taguig and when I go back to the car, the battery would also be dead.

Normally all you had to do to check if there’s a ground in the system is to disconnect the positive terminal of the battery and lightly tap it on the battery post, if a spark occurred you know there is a short circuit or a “ground” in your electrical system. Knowing you have one and finding where it is can take a minute or months. Just remember that the only way to find it is to ISOLATE each and every connection. But even knowing that does not make things easy. The first electrician who went through the system isolated and even replaced many of the old wires in the car but still failed to lick the problem. I even switched batteries from a local to a foreign made, but no luck.

There is however wisdom in the counsel of many. When our first attempt failed, I consulted my friend Martin de los Reyes on the matter and after a few nail-biting minutes he came back to me and suggested that I check if the car and the battery were properly grounded. To be honest, my initial reaction was: “How difficult can that be to answer? All cars have a thick black or stranded grounding cable that goes from the negative terminal of the battery to the car’s chassis or engine block. So when I told Martin the same thing he patiently explained to me like a doting grandfather that in order to get the maximum voltage from the electrical charging system of a car, professionals always puts in more than two “grounding” lines.

That’s when I remembered the time when David Feliciano of DMF Drift Shop sold me a kit of five or six purple-coated grounding cables for my all-aluminum-bodied Mustang fastback. Back then I thought it was all for show and bling and didn’t really pay much attention or asked what actual benefits they offered.

To drive the point home, Martin suggested that I go out and buy a set of high-quality grounding cables and a decent voltage meter. I have to warn you that you will have extreme difficulty finding a decent voltage meter that measures voltage and not amperes. A decent affordable one costs around P2,000 and might be available from Ichiban owned by Atong in Banawe St. If you luck out like I did, your only option would be the performance-quality at P5,0000. Funny enough they cost almost the same abroad, so if you find them here, get it. 

Before putting in the grounding cable, Martin told me to write down the voltage reading. I was shocked to discover that I only got 11 to 11.5 volts on the meter. With such an output, it was no surprise that my battery dies after a short run with the aircon on. I dutifully began connecting two grounding cables between the engine block and the chassis, a grounding cable from the battery to the engine block and from the battery to the chassis grounding points. When I re-started the engine the volt meter read 14 volts! That simple solution from Martin immediately solved the power drain problem. So from now on, my rule is to be grounded!      

The story however does not end there and neither did the problem. I could now drive around without fear of power drain; but if I left the car unused for over five days, the power would disappear. So we brought in another electrician. By sheer stroke of luck, I had to leave on the day he worked on the car, which prevented me from interfering with his options. Once again he did the process of isolation and at the end of the day, he figured out that my relatively new alternator was “grounded” and needed a simple parts replacement. I found it unbelievable that a newly purchased alternator from the US could actually go bust or have a production defect, but it did.

Thanks to Martin and the second electrician, we finally licked that problem. So whatever your car is, consider an upgrade on your “grounding cables” and buying a voltage meter. An ampere gauge only tells you your system is charging or discharging but it does not tell you how much you are charging. This Christmas, keep in mind to stay “grounded.”

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