On the second day of a cross-country road trip, the thing I’d been dreading happened. Ever since I bought this 6-liter diesel-powered Ford E350 ambulance for long-haul work, I knew its Achilles heel would be its EGR system. It’s a well-documented issue, and I had plans to replace both the original EGR valve and the related cooler, but it was out of sight and out of mind. The van had been boosting plenty healthy and sounding good, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Well, it broke.
We were hauling ass across the open plains of Nebraska all day, and had climbed our way up the eastern half of Wyoming, and found ourselves sitting in dead traffic between Cheyenne and Laramie, thanks to a tractor trailer’s diesel tank exploding and burning half the highway to a crisp. When we finally got to Laramie, my wife and I both needed a break, so we pulled off for a gas station burrito lunch and the sweet release of a clean-ish bathroom.
As we were leaving Laramie and preparing to re-enter I-80 westbound, my wife at the wheel, the van decided it was done. Regardless of throttle position, mental state, economic incentive, or cursing at it, the van coughed and stumbled and decided it wouldn’t exceed 4 miles per hour. We were in the middle of an on-ramp, but we would not be getting on. It would be imprudent, and possibly a death sentence to do so. I climbed aboard the driver’s seat and goaded the van across the median between off- and on-ramp and returned to the parking lot of the 76 on the corner.
The plan was for this van to be our home on the road for around three weeks. We were heading from Southwest Michigan to Reno, Nevada to pick up a load of supplies, rounding the corner down to Phoenix, Ariz. to visit some friends, before carrying on to Radwood Austin by month’s end. At that point my wife and I would part ways, with her taking a flight and me continuing the drive to Northern Michigan. This being the second day of our three-week run meant the whole trip could have been scrapped.
My initial thought went to my AAA membership and sourcing a local diesel shop to get us back underway. It was Saturday and many shops were closed until Monday. We managed to get one to pick up the phone, but they didn’t have a tech available until Wednesday. Okay, so we’re on our own. Either I fix this van, or we’re stuck in Laramie for a few days. Even the car and van rental places were closed until Monday, so it would be minimum two days of down time, possibly as long as a week.
Because I wasn’t certain that the fault was in the EGR system, I wanted to get an OBD reader to confirm the symptoms. I found an open NAPA about a mile away and began walking. 30 minutes later I plugged in the reader and it confirmed what I feared. With a bit of forum searching and a YouTube video or two to see what my next steps were, I felt confident enough that the engine wouldn’t blow up if I drove it back to the NAPA, so we crept along a side street at walking pace and parked up in the store’s side lot against the wall of the building to block the wind.
The NAPA did not have a new EGR valve in stock, so I grabbed a can of the strongest brake clean I could find, and about 200 dollars worth of tools. The store would be closing in just an hour, and I didn’t want to be left without the tools I needed, so I might have overdone it. A basic socket and ratchet set, a pry bar, a big pair of channel lock pliers, and a screwdriver set were what I pulled off the shelf, but I ultimately only needed about five sockets, one screwdriver, and the pry bar.
Believe it or not, there aren’t many van-specific videos on YouTube for diesel repair, so I was forced to improvise a little bit. In something like an F350 Super Duty, the EGR valve is sitting right on top of the engine with nothing in the way. In a van, it’s a bit blocked. The bracket for the power steering fluid reservoir, a boost hose, two sections of charge pipe, and a radiator hose, all sit in the way of even getting the EGR unplugged from the wire harness. I knew I didn’t want to interrupt the coolant system, so I had to work around the upper radiator hose, which probably added at least 45 minutes to my repair job.
I started with the airbox, which was pretty easy. Then came a long segment of charge pipe. The worst part of the job was removing the four bolts where the charge pipe connects to the front of the engine, it was tight and cramped, and the ratchet would only move a few clicks at a time, but it came out. By unbolting the foil-wrapped boost pipe and moving it and the oil filler pipe aside, I was finally able to reach the EGR. Unclip the harness, unbolt the valve, then wiggle it sideways a bit until it can be pried up and out of its hole, and Robert’s your mother’s brother.
Oh god, the creature has been extracted from its hole, and it’s worse than we could have ever imagined! Apparently this is what 220,000 miles on the odometer and two years of idle time will do to a sumbitch. I know that this isn’t a permanent fix, but I squeezed most of a can of brake clean at the damn thing and made sure the valve could actually move freely again, then set about re-installing it. At some point in the future I will buy a brand new aftermarket EGR valve and cooler setup to install, but today is not that day.
With some work, this was as good as I could get the valve before popping it back into the engine. I have never in my life worked on a diesel engine before, so this was all pretty new to me, but with a little bit of confidence, a little bit of common sense, and a degree in mechanics from YouTube University, I managed to get it done. I wasn’t super confident that this would be the fix I needed, so I was little more than cautiously optimistic as I was bolting everything back together.
When I went for the first test drive after getting the hoses back on and the airbox back in, I was still quite nervous. It always idled fine, and I wouldn’t know it was actually fixed until I got the thing up above 5 miles per hour. I guess let’s give it a shot. I even left the doghouse off the engine so I could hear any issues on a trip around the block. Holy hell is this thing loud with the doghouse off.
In all, it was just about 3 hours from breakdown to back on the road. I’ll call that one a success. We were supposed to pull in to Salt Lake City for dinner and a quiet night, but we didn’t get there until about 10:30 p.m. If that’s all that was lost by this roadside repair, I’ll chalk it up as a victory. At least we didn’t have to spend a week in Laramie.