What to Do When Your Van Gets the Black Death on Day 4…

Unburned diesel fuel and exhaust spewed all over the injectors and the head of the engine. This black gunk is the telltale sign of the Black Death.

Unburned diesel fuel and exhaust spewed all over the injectors and the head of the engine. This black gunk is the telltale sign of the Black Death.

We started our van journey on Earth Day. We drove west from Ian’s parent’s house in Virginia to West Virginia. We spent a couple of days in wild and wonderful West Virginia.

We then headed to the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky. We made our way south through the Red River Gorge. We visited four natural sand stone arches and drove on some treacherously curvy one-lane mountain roads. Neither of us knew that Kentucky had such beautiful rock formation and gorges.

The natural sandstone arches and rock formations in Kentucky were a huge surprise to us.

The natural sandstone arches and rock formations in Kentucky were a huge surprise to us.

We drove the van through Nada Tunnel into the Red River Gorge. It's a one lane tunnel carved straight through a mountain.

We drove the van through Nada Tunnel into the Red River Gorge. It's a one lane tunnel carved straight through a mountain.

It's totally pitch black inside the tunnel.

It's totally pitch black inside the tunnel.

On day four, we decided to stop for coffee in Corbin, KY to spend a little time with WIFI in order to work on our blog. The place was right on Main Street. It was a quiet but quirky, spacious spot, called, You and Me Coffee and Tea. Little did we know that this would be far from our last visit to this coffee shop…

When we got back to our van and started it up, we both immediately heard this very distinct chuffing noise. Ian popped the hood and took a look. After listening and examining the engine by taking the air box off from the turbo (right on the main street!), Ian determined that we most likely were having a very common engine issue in older Sprinters. It could be serious. So common and serious that Sprinter mechanics literally call it the “Black Death.” The dreaded Sprinter injector leak.

At this point we could still drive a limited distance. Ian put the turbo back together, and we drove to an Advance Auto. Little did we know that this was only the beginning of our quality time in the Advance Auto parking lot.

The black gunk was apparent around the injectors and along with the chuffing, we were certain it was Black Death.

The black gunk was apparent around the injectors and along with the chuffing, we were certain it was Black Death.

Ian took the turbo back apart so that he could get a good look at the engine. Sure enough, there was the tell tale black spew of unburned diesel fuel and exhaust particulates on the top of two injectors.

Unfortunately Ian broke an O-ring in the turbo while he was taking it apart. We walked down to a nearby auto repair shop to see if we could get the O-ring there because it was not a product carried by Advance Auto. While we were in the shop, we learned that their diesel mechanic was out due to surgery, but they did give us a recommendation for a mechanic who had worked in their shop for 25 years and now had his own shop.

Armed the contact information for an experienced diesel mechanic and with an O-ring that wasn’t exactly the right thickness, but that we could make work in order to limp over to the diesel repair shop, we headed back to Advance Auto to put our engine back together.

Then Ian broke a fuel return line while putting the engine back together so that we could leave. After 10 years, the small plastic connectors between the different lengths of hose had grown very brittle. There’s no limping to the auto shop with a broken fuel line.

Ian called the Dodge dealership, and ordered both the correct O-ring and the fuel hose. Rather just being able to buy the broken plastic piece, we had to buy the whole hose assembly. But $174 later, we had the correct parts on their way.

Still more unfortunately, we broke the fuel line on a Thursday evening. Corbin is a pretty small town in Kentucky. There was only one dealership within biking distance where we could get the Sprinter parts, and they were closed on the weekend. We’d have to wait until Monday for the parts to arrive. Not just wait, but camp out parked in the Advance Auto parking lot on a busy road. We got permission from the store’s manager, who said in a quiet southern drawl, “You can stay as long as you like,” but we still knew we were in for a less than comfortable weekend.

What do you do with a long weekend in a small Kentucky town when your van is broken down?

We spent most of the first night worrying over the extent of damage that had been done to the injector and even to the engine head by the leak. While the issue could potentially be resolved with some $5 copper washers and bolts, depending on how long the injectors had been leaking, it is fairly common for injectors to break while you are pulling them. The dealership quoted us $800 for the injectors and if we had one or two broken and with the cost of labor, we could be looking at a repair between $1000 and $2000! That would certainly eat into our budget for our year of travel.

It felt like the whole town of Corbin drove giant lifted diesel pickups with the mufflers removed and that they were ripping through the parking lot all night. These “fart cars”, as we dubbed them, made for a less than restful night of sleep.

The next day, we resolved to make the best of our time immobilized in Corbin. We headed back to the coffee shop to make use of their WIFI and work on our website. We were very grateful that this little town with its downtown from the 1960s and railroad that ran through the middle of town had such a cozy coffee shop with such cool AC and fast WIFI. Throughout the weekend we went to the coffee shop for several hours each day, so often that the baristas started to get to know us even though we had only been in town for about three days. What can we say, we’re millenials.

It was hotter than hell’s hinges in our van, so we spent most of our time in the town. One day we were trying to eat lunch in our van and our thermometer told us that the internal temperature in our van was 98 degrees. It was about two miles to the main street, and even though we had bikes, we walked just so that we could spend more time outside the van.

We also discovered an excellent bar that also had very cold air conditioning—The Wrigley Taproom. They had 25 beers on tap, and we discovered a delicious bourbon barrel ale from Alltech Brewing in Lexington. On one of our visits we played an entire 2-person game of Settlers of Catan.

We enjoyed cold beer and cold AC in the Wrigley Taproom several times while we were in Corbin.

We enjoyed cold beer and cold AC in the Wrigley Taproom several times while we were in Corbin.

Cooking in the van was a trying experience, because it was so hot. We were trying to keep a low profile since we were immobile, so we couldn't even open the doors.

Cooking in the van was a trying experience, because it was so hot. We were trying to keep a low profile since we were immobile, so we couldn't even open the doors.

We learned that Corbin was the home of the first KFC. We visited a park dedicated to a Colonel Sanders and went running on the riverside trail that we discovered when we visited the park. We spent a lot of time exercising, because there wasn’t anything better to do. On one of our runs we discovered a pretty scary country road. Huge dogs barked at us from the ends of their chains at every other house. Large trucks couldn’t see us on the tight curves on the road, and there was no shoulder on the road, so each time one came we had to jump into the ditch. Good thing they were mostly “fart cars” so we could hear them from a distance. Many of the houses were very run down, and we felt like we were in a chapter of Hillbilly Elegy. One particular house made us pick up our pace, because it had holes in the walls, was surrounded by partially burned garbage, and had a piece of plywood nailed to its front with the words, “harry’s hell hole” scrawled in sharpie on it. From then on, we kept our runs mostly in the city limits.

We did laundry at the town’s laundry mat. It was the dirtiest and most run down laundry mat either of us has ever been to. The machines were from the 1970s and mostly broken. We had to search through the laundry mat like it was a scavenger hunt to find two machines that weren’t out of order. Fortunately we got some advice from another patron that the 30-lb machines just eat your quarters usually. While our cycle was running, we also witnessed a police helicopter almost hit two separate power lines.

Ian got an insane sunburn one day when we went running. Definitely a do where sunscreen if your van breaks down.

Ian got an insane sunburn one day when we went running. Definitely a do where sunscreen if your van breaks down.

Finally after an almost surreal weekend of odd experiences, Monday arrived! As soon as the dealership opened, Ian endured a treacherous bike ride that was partially on a highway to pick up our parts. By early afternoon, he had the van up and running again. The sound of the chuffing engine, once so alarming, was now reassuring. We were mobile again.

Now we had to deal with our real problem—the injector leak. Later on Monday afternoon, Ian and Ricky, the mechanic at ADE Auto Repair, were elbows deep in our engine fully diagnosing the issue. Ian ordered the parts we would need that afternoon. Fortunately we only needed the copper washers and the bolts—only about $40 of parts. Ricky told us that he could fix the van on Wednesday morning when the parts arrived, and he gave us permission to park in a small field next to the shop in the meantime.

That evening we drove the van to a Mexican restaurant in town to get celebratory margaritas!

Tuesday was a breeze, because we could drive the van limited distances and we knew that the van would be fixed soon. We visited the local farmer’s market and enjoyed some live music. We also discovered that there was a muffler shop next to ADE Auto, so we made an appointment to get a rusted part of our exhaust pipe repaired. It was a repair we would have had to do sooner or later, and it was convenient that we could get everything done in the same location.

On Wednesday, the exhaust was repaired by 8:30am. We picked up the parts for the injector at 9am when the dealership opened. By 10:30, after the engine had cooled, Ricky, the mechanic, was looking at our engine.

A picture of the van mid-repair. (Ian replaced a brake sensor as well while we were waiting at the shop, that's why the van is jacked up and the wheel is off.)

A picture of the van mid-repair. (Ian replaced a brake sensor as well while we were waiting at the shop, that's why the van is jacked up and the wheel is off.)

Ian asked if it was okay if he helped out with the repair, because he wanted to make sure that everything was done correctly since he had already done so much research on the problem. He also wanted to get the experience working on this issue, since it is a very common one for Sprinters. Fortunately the mechanic said it was fine if he helped out, which was uncommonly kind of him. Some shops won’t even let you near the vehicle while they are working on it. Ian and Ricky hit it off pretty quickly, and Ian learned a lot from him about diesel engines and owning an auto shop. If we ever get another injector leak, Ian will confidently be able to fix the issue on his own.

We are super grateful to ADE Automotive Services, for not only fixing our van, but also for letting Ian help out with the repair as well, something they definitely didn't have to do.

We are super grateful to ADE Automotive Services, for not only fixing our van, but also for letting Ian help out with the repair as well, something they definitely didn't have to do.

Ricky and Ian pulled the two suspicious injectors and discovered that only one had been leaking. It was spraying unburned fuel everywhere, making it look as if both were leaking. Ian did a lot of the tedious cleaning of the injector well. This probably saved us quite a bit on the cost of labor.

After all the parts were shiny clean, they replaced the bolts and washers of both injectors. As per protocol for the repair, the bolts were tightened to the perfect torque. After a bit of growling while the fuel lines were being primed, Violet B. started up just fine. The chuffing noise was gone, and she was back to her old self.

Excluding the fuel line that Ian broke while fixing the vehicle, the repair cost us about $150. If we had gone to a dealership for the repair or had not caught the problem so early, the repair could have been in the thousands. You cannot imagine how relieved we felt as we left Corbin that night.

The moral of the story is that if your van gets the Black Death on day 4 of your #vanlife journey, do not panic. Deal with problem right away, and do not ignore it. It will probably save you a lot of money. Don’t lie awake worrying that this will be the end of your ad-van-ture—it’s probably not, so try not be as dramatic as I was. Make the best of your time in the place where you are stuck. Visit local businesses and restaurants and explore nearby neighborhoods, trails, and parks. Drink a beer and relax.

Most importantly, try not to break a fuel line.