Saturday, January 23, 2010

Replaced the radiator in our 2001 Dodge Caravan today

Late last week I ordered a radiator from Radiator Barn online for our 2001 Dodge Caravan with the 3.3L V-6.  Original radiator with 212,000 miles had sprung a leak and was losing fluid and had me worried it might rupture in an inopportune time.  I called around locally and discovered there isn't a radiator shop in Waseca, with the closest being in Waterville - 15 miles away.  Radiator replacement is usually pretty straight forward, so I decided I have more time and skills than I have money so time to do it myself.  Radiator Barn had my new unit here in 4 days for only $133.06.  The two local parts stores in town wanted $160ish and it would take a day or two to get it in.  I called Advanced Auto Parts in Owantonna, and they had it in stock but wanted $280!!!!! for their unit, claiming the "lifetime warranty" was the difference in price.  I don't need a lifetime warranty for a van that has over 200K miles on it, let's be real here.

Mechanically, I can hold my own.  I grew up in my grandfather's car shop watching my dad work on our cars, plus watching grandpa whenever I could.  I also spent many years working along side of my father in his motorcycle shop, where I really learned to be competent with a wrench.  Add to that my whole life I've had to work on my own vehicles with money always being tight, and this seemed on the surface like a no-brainer job for me.

So at 4:00PM started taking the radiator out.  I've done many radiators in my years, but this one is unlike any other.  A little over 2.5 hours later I finally had the radiator out, and was now missing a sizable chunk of flesh from the palm of my hand.  My hand slipped and caught a sharp metal post on the radiator housing about an hour in, just in time for me to bleed on everything and just before I started draining the system.  Fun.

Little did I know when I tackled this project that you have to disassemble most of the front of the van.  Honestly, it would be easier to remove the front bumper, quite likely saving you time and headache if you do so.  I did remove the grill portion that is attached to the bumper.  There are some little clips that hold this on that are an absolute nightmare to get off, especially if you have arms larger in diameter than a 4th grade girl.  You have to remove a cross member (one of the few easy things), all the plastic above the engine, the hood latch and both electric fans.  The fans fight you the whole way, but if you stick to it, they eventually come.  By this point your lower back is barking, and since I'm 6'3" and fat my is really barking.  And then the fun begins.

Getting the radiator to separate from the air conditioning radiator is a real chore.  On the left side where the AC lines run there is a peg on the AC cooler that sticks into a hole on the radiator.  This is darn near impossible to lift out with the AC lines fighting you and the tolerance being very slim.  After fighting and fighting, and contemplating opening the garage door and pushing it out into the street and lighting it on fire, I finally got apart.  But the fun doesn't end there.  Now you have to get the radiator out.  Everything possible fights you - all the wiring and everything else in the front half of the engine bay.  They didn't leave much space to get it out, but slowly and surely if you wiggle it back and forth and pull off everything that seems to grab it on the way up, you will eventually be holding the radiator in your hands.

It seems like a victory, until you realize you still have to put the other one back in.  The good news is that reassembly take only about half the time as removal, since all the rusted bolts are now loose and you've now kinda figured out how everything goes.  But it is by no means easy or enjoyable.

Check the hoses, refill the fluids, double check everything is tight and make sure you don't have any left over parts - check.  Now time for the test drive.  If it comes up to temp and holds pressure you are in the clear.  Thankfully everything checked out after my test drive.

On a scale of 1-10 for special skills, this really isn't all that special, probably a 4.  But on a difficulty scale this was an 8 or 9 simply for the continual frustration you will experience because of the design.  There are few other shadetree projects I have undertaken that pegged my frustration like this.  I wanted to break things about half way through, and that never helps the work process.  Add to this the horrible experience of putting the rear spark plugs (front are easy) and both O2 sensors in this van, and I am quickly learning to loathe this vehicle.  The only good design I've encountered on this van is the fan relay switch that was burned out when I got the van.  Remove the glove box, 2 small screws, one wiring plug and you're done.  A 3 minute job.  Otherwise, everything else I've touched on this van has taken at least three times longer than I'd like, and twice as long as any similar project on a different vehicle.

But in the end I achieved victory.  I no longer have to worry about my van stranding me on a cold winter night in Minnesota, and that piece of mind is worth a lot with a 5 1/2 month old son.


Jay McHue said...

My wife had a Dodge Caravan Sport until just a few days ago. She had to get a newer vehicle because a pin in the engine shattered/exploded and wrecked the transmission and a few other things. It was at least a couple thousand dollars just for the cost of the new transmission, so we decided to just get a newer vehicle instead. You might want to inquire with a local Dodge dealer about this issue because it sounded like a problem the Caravans are prone to having.

Chris Meirose said...

This is the second transmission in this van, and this transmission has been rebuilt once itself. I fully expect that to be the thing that causes its death. I got the van from my father-in-law, and at about 190K it was rebuilt after dying near Albert Lea. Another terrible design.

CanisiusHistGrad said...

I'm curious Chris, how did you end up getting the black plastic pins out on the top, connecting the grill to the black plastic shroud on top? I ask because I'll be fighting the fan assembly next weekend until it comes out.

Chris Meirose said...

CHG - there is a tool you can get from your local car parts store that is called something like "Trim removal tool" that has a handle like a screw driver and an end that bends at about 30 degrees and opens up into a "U" shape. This is used to reach in doors on cars to pop the plastic tabs loose, and it also works on those tabs under the dash. It is also needed to change a tail light bulb in your van. This a is a pretty universal tool, so once you buy one, you won't probably ever need another. I got one about 5 cars ago and it still does the job just fine. Without one of these tools you end up destroying the plastic tabs and have the headache of replacing them. As a side note, those specific tabs you are looking at pull up in the MIDDLE not on the outside. As the middle is pushed down in, it mushrooms the whole unit out locking it in place. A simple design, but if you are trying to get the outside loose you'll just destroy the tabs.

Lockman said...

I know it's a little late to comment on those plastic clips, but Lowes actually has them in a variety of sizes. They push down in the middle to mushroom the bottom, allowing them to hold tight. That tool you are talking about was designed to remove the clips holding on the window crank handles and most have been designed to also remove the door panels. I'm a locksmith and I wouldn't dream of not having that tool in my arsenal of tools.