Fighting the electrical gremlins

by Mark Lee

The electrical gremlins must read this column. Just as last month’s issue hit the shelves they struck me not once, but twice.

I had just managed no extricate myself from under my truck, which is no easy task given my circumference and the side skirts on my truck, after trying to locate an electrical issue when my phone started to ring. It was my driver and he had just stopped to get fuel. When he went to start the truck after fuelling, it wouldn’t go.

I called my local service agent for the second time that day. My priority was getting my second truck running. My driver is pretty good with wrenches, so I was confident he could try a few things out without making things worse. The guy from the service agent is an encyclopaedia of knowledge and he gave me three items to look at. I passed this on to my driver and waited for him to call back.

The call came and it was bad news. The truck still wouldn’t start, so now I had to call the manufacturer’s breakdown service and let them do their thing. After speaking to the lady there it was recommended that I use the on-site repair facility at the truck stop. My man was at the Flying J in South Beloit, Ill. I passed this on to Paul, my driver, and he wandered over. He walked back to the truck accompanied by a technician who spent about an hour rolling around under the truck trying to get it going. Unfortunately he could not.

The next call I got was from the lady at the truck stop repair shop. She had phoned around to get me the best price for a tow into their shop but I was alarmed to find out it would cost me US$575, which at the current exchange rate feels like about $600,000 Canadian!

She recommended that I use the tow truck to drag the truck to the local dealer as the tow price is a flat rate for a call-out and a tow within a certain distance. The dealer was only 15 miles down the road, so it would work out cheaper as they could fix it on-site. She also told me there would be no charge for the assistance they had given me so far, which was very nice of them. I told Paul to go to the store and buy her a box of chocolates and grab a case of fizzy adult beverages for the guys who had looked at my truck to thank them for being so helpful.

By this time I had phoned the manufacturer’s breakdown service again and within a couple of minutes the local dealer called me. He was sending a tow company to either start the truck or tow it into their shop. Fifteen minutes later my driver called to say that the $600,000 tow truck had arrived. A minute later he called back to tell me that the tow truck operator had crawled underneath and had, with the help of a six-inch piece of wire, managed to get my truck running!

Now I could get back to sorting my own problem. It was one of those little things that will drive you crazy. I was losing power from my batteries; sometimes the low-voltage alarm would trigger soon after shutting off the truck, at other times it would run the bunk heater all night and everything would be fine the next morning.

When I picked up the truck in December the batteries were shot, so I replaced them all and the dealer picked up the bill. The previous week I had put the truck in the shop at my carrier to try to figure out what was going on. They found a battery that was completely dead and I had replaced that, but the problem persisted. I was starting to think something goofy was going on and I had a drain somewhere that had caused the original batteries to fail.

During the night the alarm had gone off and I jumped out of bed and fired up the engine, but the volt meter was going crazy, jumping from 12.2 volts to 14.9 volts and I was concerned that it may lead to further problems if it started overloading any of the sensors. The consensus was that it was either a bad ground or the isolator switch on top of the battery box was failing. I found all the grounds and piggybacked them with my booster cables. It didn’t help, so it was looking as though it was the isolator or some form of witchcraft.

In the meantime Paul called. He was ready to get rolling again. The shop had checked and cleaned the starter solenoid and relay terminals and everything was good. The bill came to US$188, so I couldn’t complain about that.

I haven’t had the bill for the call-out from the towing company yet though, so there’s still time for some sticker shock. The guy turned up in a half-million-dollar tow truck, so I’m not expecting the company to offer discounted rates.

After becoming claustrophobic under my truck I decided on three things. I needed to: lose weight; get some blocks to drive up on if I need to get under my truck; and to leave my truck’s problem to the professionals. The third option was the most successful so far. I called into the manufacturer’s facility  on the way home and they ran a check on every single electrical circuit on my truck. Everything was 100%, so they fitted a new isolator switch and it solved my problem. The only downside was that it cost over $500 to fix. Electrics!


A fourth generation trucker and trucking journalist, Mark Lee uses his 25 years of transcontinental trucking in Europe, Asia, North Africa and now North America to provide an alternative view of life on the road.

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