Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Phannie's Back!

Fort Worth Freightliner called and said Phannie was ready after nine days in their possession.  The good news is that the problem was with a broken wire in a connector near the engine bay.  The bad news is that it took them enough hours of troubleshooting to snag $700 from my wallet.  Following the regular troubleshooting guide led the mechanics down a rabbit hole to the throttle sensor, causing them to replace the accelerator assembly ($1232 plus overnight express fees), only to discover that wasn’t the problem. 

Astonishingly, Fort Worth Freightliner initially tried to bill me for the $1232 part that didn’t fix the problem.  After a non-productive conversation with a service manager, I called up Freightliner’s corporate headquarters in Gaffney, South Carolina and let loose with a stream of invective that I struggled—successfully, thankfully— to keep clear of expletives.  They agreed this was not according to their corporate policy but stopped short of any suggestion of relief, as Fort Worth Freightliner is an independent franchisee.  However, my conversation next day with the local facility was much different; the $1232 charge for the ineffective part had been removed from the bill.  I’m not sure if Freightliner headquarters had influenced the decision, but I’m grateful for the reversal.

I’ve already droned on in the previous post about the breakdown and what I’m learning about motorhome ownership, so I guess I could best serve the reader by describing my experience with the repair facility and the extended warranty that I purchased along with Phannie.

Fort Worth Freightliner is a very large and very busy place.  It is open 24/7 and, parked on the acres of concrete surrounding the facility at any time, there are more than a hundred vehicles in some stage of repair.  I had asked the wrecker driver to take Phannie to this place for two reasons:  1) Phannie has a Freightliner chassis (kind of a no-brainer), and 2) it was open on the weekend so that the coach could be secured behind a locked gate and monitored by video.  (With $12,000 of new electronics, I didn’t want to leave her parked just anywhere in this urban area.)  When I arrived at the facility with the wrecker, I figured it would be weeks before Phannie could get in line for service, given the huge number of Freightliner trucks parked on the property.  I was surprised to see that only one other motorhome was there—an older Phaeton like Phannie that looked kinda tired. 

I was astonished when the service writer said they could probably start work on Phannie in a couple of days.  I asked him about all the other vehicles that appeared to be ahead of me, and he told me that most of them had already been repaired but were awaiting pickup by their owners or drivers.  Intrigued, I quizzed him further, because I was incredulous that businesses could allow so much rolling stock to sit idle instead of being on the road making money.  The service writer said that I would be surprised how many of the units were not being released due to non-payment of repair bills.  I hadn’t expected that answer, but I guess no business has escaped the bad economy.

Fort Worth Freightliner is a facility that services heavy trucks almost exclusively, as was evidenced by the dearth of motorhomes on their property.  Behind the service desk was a harried service writer, a young man in his mid-twenties who darted in and out of the small area on his side of the stainless steel counter.  Behind him was a starkly bare and well-worn open area with tables against the walls where two computers were set up.  Other unidentified employees, most of whom wore soiled clothing, would wander through here from the shop area, perhaps sitting at the computers for a few minutes or just stopping to chew the rag.  

The distraction of this parade of unkempt personnel and the incessant ringing of the unanswered telephone gave evidence of a facility that was poorly designed, poorly managed and anything but customer-oriented.  I had entered a steel door to the service writer’s office and found myself in a closet-sized alcove across the counter from him.  There were no seats in this tiny space, and I took my turn, standing among several other men who, judging from their attire and conversation, were obviously truck drivers attempting to transact business with the service writer.  To the young man’s credit, he made an obvious effort to be pleasant to those present, although he was clearly overloaded.  This was evidenced by his occasional curtness with the drivers, some of whom were pressing him unmercifully for updates.  And again, there was the constant ringing of the telephone that was hardly ever answered.  The service door opened directly into a large shop area with perhaps 30 service bays, all of which contained Freightliner trucks in various states of disassembly.  Customers had to make their way along the periphery of the shop area to enter and exit the service writer’s office. 

Outside the building, a wide concrete apron extended to the customer parking area, and upon the apron had been placed several picnic tables where drivers and Freightliner technicians tended to congregate for a smoking break while looking out over the parking lot.  I sometimes stopped by to check on Phannie after leaving the office, and I couldn’t help but feel out of place, judging by the stares of these picnic table-denizens as I arrived or departed.  I guess I would have blended in better if I had changed from my business attire into jeans and swapped the Escalade for a pickup.  My point is, this is a facility for trucks; servicing motorhomes is obviously a rarity, and a motorhome owner is considered, well, just another truck driver.  Don’t expect special treatment from this place just because your motorhome is being serviced.   

Another unpleasant surprise came as I attempted to make use of the extended warranty that I purchased at the time I bought Phannie.  It seems Interstate National Dealer Services, the provider, elected to pick up only $96 of the repair after the deductible was applied.  I didn’t fuss too much about this, as I guess I don’t expect much more than a ripoff with these things.  That’s why I almost never opt for an extended warranty on anything I buy but, in the case of something as complex and expensive as a motorhome, I just thought I needed to roll the dice.  I suppose I will just hope for the best from Interstate if something really expensive breaks during the remaining warranty period.  I would be interested in hearing from others who have these kinds of contracts as to which ones perform well for them.

Sorry this was long and rather humorless, but there wasn't much about this experience that made me laugh.  Next weekend should be a hoot; we’re taking a bunch of family and friends to First Monday in Canton.  Look for a post after that, for sure.

At last, back home and put to bed.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Oh, the Humanity!

Okay, perhaps the title of this post is a tad over the top.  My alarm over the indignity suffered by Phannie last week could hardly compare to the anguished phrase famously uttered by WLS reporter Herb Morrison as the Hindenburg burst into flames as it landed in New Jersey in 1937.  Even so, it was indeed painful to see the proud coach towed away ignominiously from the shop where I was having another gauge installed (you know how I hate the idiot lights).  When the installation was done, I fired her up and noted that the dreaded “check engine” light was on, causing me to emit an audible gasp!  For modern vehicles like Phannie, increasingly controlled by computers, this light can strike terror in the heart of the driver, much like the horror of the “blue screen of death” so well known by PC computer users.  I prayed that the fault announced by the light was something relatively innocuous like a filter obstruction or that Phannie was just miffed at having been parked outside all day.  Alas, it was not to be.  Noting that the engine was idling smoothly, I put Phannie in gear, released the brake and pressed on the accelerator.  Nothing.  Pushing the accelerator to the floor failed to advance the rpm at all.  
I  shifted back to neutral, set the brake and turned off the ignition, hoping it was all a bad dream.  Then I cranked it up again, hoping for something different.  No dice; there was the nefarious yellow light, taunting me.  Sure enough, there was no response from the accelerator; nothing had changed.  

The longer I stared at the light, the more I came to realize that the engine computer (which I have now named Hal) had decided to lead a mutiny against me, having determined that I was too stupid to deal with whatever condition was making it uncomfortable.  (While this may be true, I resent Hal's sudden evolution from what I thought was a provider of helpful information to becoming a member of the Gestapo.)  I mean, really!  What did Hal think I was going to do, take out my pistol and fire a slug into the radiator?   
Since it was late afternoon on a Saturday, I knew any attempt I would make to find help on my own would be a challenge, so I turned to my membership in Good Sam Emergency Roadside Assistance to find it for me.  This turned out to be a revelation in just how inept this service could be.  Without going into the maddening details, I suffered eight hours of indifference and incompetence from this dreadful outfit.  A mechanic showed up about 1:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, hooked up a computer to the data port, flashed Hal (I think the pervert liked it) and determined, after consultation with Caterpillar, that Hal's disablement could not be fixed in the field.  

Good Sam could not explain how it could possibly have taken eight hours to get assistance to me, perched in none other than the middle of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and surrounded by dozens of road service providers.  I had planned to switch to Coach Net when my Good Sam’s contract runs out in February, and now I wish I had done it earlier.  For years, I had had fairly good service from Good Sam for minor things like locked keys or tire changing, but when it comes to a big rig, I don’t recommend them at all.  I'm now thinking that Good Sam is somehow in collusion with Hal.  It's all very troubling.   

Is this not sad?

As perhaps their last service for me, I had Good Sam arrange for a wrecker at 10:00 a.m. the next day to tow Phannie to the Freightliner facility in Fort Worth.  This, surprisingly, went off without a hitch (pardon the pun) and, as of this post, the problem is still not resolved.  We’re at one week and counting, and we missed an RV trip we were planning to Houston this weekend.
So, what how does this event play into our observations so far from our new relationship with Phannie?  Well, let's see:
We love the ride, comfort and convenience of a diesel pusher.  However, it is a complicated piece of machinery with a myriad of systems that will, inevitably, need repair at times.  When repairs are necessary, they are usually expensive; that's why most owners purchase a maintenance agreement, in case there is a catastrophically expensive repair required at some point.  

Fuel mileage is abysmal; you have to be prepared for breathtaking numbers on diesel fuel pumps and try not to think of how much fuel costs per mile driven.

I really resent the degree to which the manufacturers have dumbed down the engine operation.  They use a computer and idiot lights instead of good ol' gauges to allow the driver to use his intelligence and determine what's going on.  On the other hand, I understand why the manufacturers do it:  They have to build these coaches for the lowest common denominator among the potential owners, and there will always be a few who would have no clue what the gauges could tell them and could indeed damage the engine needlessly.  Even though I know all this, it still ticks me off.  I suppose that is because I spent an entire career operating machines of far greater complexity--turbojet airliners--and I seem to have made the correct operating decisions when things went wrong.  (And this was before the proliferation of computerized systems among modern airliners that you see today.)  My flying career did just fine without Hal, thank you.

We've learned that the handier you are with mechanical things, the less expense you will have in keeping up your rig. Unfortunately, I am not particularly gifted in this area, so my wallet usually takes a hit. 
We’ve also learned that RV repair facilities generally do not operate with the same sense of urgency as those that service automobiles and pickups.  I suppose this is because there is a conception that RV travel is a leisure-time activity and that timeliness is not necessarily a priority.  This has proven true in all the years we owned fifth wheels, and it is certainly true with Phannie.  How do you deal with this if you're in a hurry?  It presents a dilemma when negotiating with RV repair shops:  Do you get better results from being aggressive, demanding and threatening or can you do better with smiling, stroking and charm?  I think that, in most cases, the charm thing works better for me, but I’m not particularly given to polemics anyway.  The bottom line is that most everything you do with an RV is time-consuming and expensive, so it may not be a good fit for folks with double type-A personalities or those with a modest travel budget.

It's really too early to determine the level of dependability of Phannie; I'm still taking a bit personally Hal's treachery (especially galling after all the praise I have lavished upon Phannie in this rag) and I'm still a little worried that Western Freightliner has not yet rendered a diagnosis.  We will be standing by, however, chewing our fingernails, and we'll keep you posted.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Discovering, Uh, Our Home Town

It was all due to a Groupon.  I don’t know how many people use these things, but we just can't resist them.  Half off of stuff is just too good to pass up, so I guess we’re just cheap.  We mostly use the restaurant coupons because we eat out, well, too much.  A few months ago, a Groupon popped up for admission to the Japanese Garden at the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens, so I bought it.  I kept it, downloaded into the iPhone, throughout the summer because the weather was just too hot to enjoy outdoor activities.  Since it turned out to be a beautiful autumn day yesterday, we decided to go take a look.

I am almost embarrassed to admit how long I have lived in this area without visiting the botanical garden complex in Fort Worth, but that seems to be the case regarding quite a number of attractions in the DFW Metroplex.  For some reason, owning an RV seems to have given me the impression that it is necessary to travel somewhere else to enjoy new sights and adventures, so it hasn’t really occurred to me before that I may have missed something in my own back yard!
We drove Mae (our toad) to the garden complex off University Drive.  Why?  Well, it’s a matter of miles per gallon.  Phannie gets 7, the Escalade gets 13 and Mae gets 26.  (I told you I’m cheap.)  We were struck by how large an area is occupied by the gardens, and on this Saturday there were many townfolk wandering around the manicured grounds.  There were few parking spots left at the Japanese Garden, as two wedding parties were there holding ceremonies.  We learned from the gate attendant that four weddings were booked on the day of our visit.  It’s easy to see why this is a popular wedding venue:  The place is beautiful!  Sandy and I have always enjoyed the simplicity of Japanese gardens; I know of no others that evoke such a sense of serenity.  I’ve included a few photos to illustrate:

New bride at her photo shoot

My bride, still beautiful after 35 years!
After enjoying the garden, we were (naturally) hungry, so we checked the old iPhone for our Groupon collection and, lo and behold, found Tres Jose's, a fine Mexican restaurant nearby that we had almost forgotten about.  We enjoyed an excellent meal with fajitas, enchiladas and tacos, and after applying the Groupon, the bill was eleven bucks!  (Yes, the Groupon cost a small amount, but we were able to knock $15 off the bill with it. Not bad!)

What a great afternoon!  When we pulled into the driveway later, we noticed Phannie, nosed into her RV port, as though she had been sent to the corner by a schoolteacher.  We felt, oddly, a little guilty.