Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: True Cost to Own a Toyota Echo

The Toyota Echo is ridiculously cheap to own. I’ve had my 2000 Toyota Echo sedan for more than two years without a single incident of anything going wrong. Check out a few online forums on the topic – the Echo is built like a tank where it counts, under the hood. There are numerous online examples of Echos going over 200,000 miles, and the Toyota Echo was one of Consumer Reports’ most reliable used cars back in the years following its appearance on the market.

Regular maintenance costs for the Echo are impressively low. Because the 1.5L engine is so small, it requires less coolant and motor oil than other vehicles. While an SUV or truck might require 6 quarts of oil, for example, the Echo requires just 3.9 quarts (when the filter is changed.) Of course, you’ll need to do your own maintenance to see these savings, otherwise your mechanic will charge you the “big car” price. Other elements are similarly downsized and less expensive. I recently purchased new Michelin Defender tires for it, and they were something like $114.00 a piece, totaling 460 bucks. A friend’s Buick Rendezvous required a larger tire that cost significantly more.

Also, since my Echo has so few options and components (no power locks or power windows, no cruise control, no automatic headlights or keyless entry, no sunroof, no turbocharger, etc) I think there are simply fewer things that can go wrong. So far reliability has been outstanding, although I understand there are a few known issues with the Mass Airflow Sensor (located above the engine air cleaner box) malfunctioning.

To put the icing on the cake, getting car insurance for a Toyota Echo is cheap, cheap, cheap! I recently chose to drop comprehensive and collision coverage on it, since it is an older car that doesn’t have much cash value, but to give you some idea, a 500 deductible for comprehensive & collision insurance cost about $12.00 per month, and liability insurance was about $20.00 per month. That’s peanuts compared to most, but keep in mind I’m in the upper Midwest, one of the cheapest places in the US to get auto insurance. If only my state gave a registration discount for efficient cars!

So as you can see I don’t have a lot of numbers to throw around regarding the true cost to own a Toyota Echo, but I can confidently say that it is less expensive than your average car. Top-notch reliability, low routine maintenance costs, inexpensive to insure, and excellent fuel economy to boot… it all adds up to a pretty nice package with relatively few drawbacks.

More In The Toyota Echo Ownership Series:
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes for Tall Drivers (or Why I Chose the Echo)
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes on MPG
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Highway Cruising & Cabin Comfort: Not Bad, Not A Lexus
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: What is it like driving an Echo in the snow?

Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: What is it like driving an Echo in the snow?

I live in the Midwest and drive a 2000 Toyota Echo sedan with automatic transmission. While you’re probably aware that it snows a lot in the Midwest, you might be curious how a economy-class, front-wheel drive, 2000-lb car drives and handles in the snow and in other Midwestern winter conditions.

In a word, driving in snow with the Echo is tense. I tend to get nervous driving in snow anyway, and I hope the majority of other drivers do too, but honestly the Echo is just so small that it’s hard to ignore even a little snow when you’re driving. The relatively narrow tires do cut through fresh snow on a rural road pretty well, if you’re traveling along at a high enough speed (around 35 usually is good enough). And the light weight of the car means it’s pretty easy to bring it to a stop when you have time to plan your braking in advance.

But the short wheelbase and weight distribution over said wheelbase means that if you do have to stop quickly, the rear tires are quick to lock up and the back end easily starts traveling sideways. Overdo one of these stops and you’ll probably find your rear bumper leading the way into the ditch. Luckily I’ve never experienced that, and this is a problem with all front wheel drive vehicles to some extent, but it seems especially bad in the Echo. The narrower tires also mean less rubber is in contact with the ground, which works out fine because of the light weight of the Echo, but it just doesn’t feel as secure on icy roads or slush.

Also, if you do happen to slow down when you’re cutting through the snow, and you lose your momentum, you’ll get stuck. The relatively low ground clearance makes it easy to get hung up just pulling out of your driveway. But if you’re the kind of person who shovels a path just big enough for your car, you will have a slight advantage. My Toyota Echo does not have ABS or any kind of traction control, so if the model you are considering does you’ll need to think about how that might affect your experience.

After the snow is cleaned up, you have the rest of the winter wonderland to deal with – freezing temps, frosty windows and cold starts. My Echo has always started up, even at about minus 20 degrees F. Once when it was around that temperature, the transmission began slipping when I gave it too much gas leaving the parking lot at work, but that cleared up once it warmed up. The rear window defroster is pitiful. I’m not sure if there just isn’t enough electrical power between the blower, AC, headlights, wipers and all that stuff for the defroster to get warm, but it really takes a long time to melt snow or ice off the rear windshield. It can handle a little moisture or a light frost fine, but a heavy frost or snow means you must use your scraper!

One odd thing about the Echo is that when you start it cold (after having left it sit and cool down for a period of time) there is a blue temperature light that comes on in the instrument cluster. This blue gauge light is normal and means that the Echo’s engine has not reached the optimal operating temperature yet. It also means that the engine and exhaust system is running in open loop mode, which is less efficient than the mode used by a hot engine. The Echo also will not shift into the final gear until the engine warms up and the blue light goes out. This can be very scary if you’re just getting on the highway with the blue light still on, since you’ll be buzzing along at 70 mph in third gear at what feels like about 6000 rpm for half a mile and it will seem like something is wrong. But once the light goes out, the car usually is quick to shift into fourth. Sometimes on my Echo you have to let off the gas for it to upshift into the final gear.

If it’s very cold out (say less than 0 degrees F) it can take a long time for the blue light to go out. Like most modern vehicles, the Echo doesn’t warm up much when it’s started cold and left outside to idle in cold weather, so it makes no sense to start it and let it sit for 10 minutes. In my experience it will not generate much heat for the defrost or cause the blue light to go out by just idling at below-freezing temps.

The Toyota Echo is not as versatile in the snow and cold as most vehicles. But it will still get you reliably from A to B, even if you can’t see out the back window and are gripping the steering wheel tightly and worrying about sliding off the road. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing to be scared to drive too fast in the snow anyway. If you’re the kind of person who absolutely must get to work under any conditions, you’re looking at the wrong vehicle – try a 4x4 instead. If you’re the kind of person who goes back to bed when the snow is blowing or stays home on snowdays, the Echo will work fine.

More In The Toyota Echo Ownership Series:
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes for Tall Drivers (or Why I Chose the Echo)
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes on MPG
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Highway Cruising & Cabin Comfort: Not Bad, Not A Lexus
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: True Cost to Own a Toyota Echo

Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Highway Cruising & Cabin Comfort: Not Bad, Not A Lexus

The Toyota Echo wouldn’t be my first choice of car for a highway cruiser. Here’s why: the short wheelbase and jaunty handling characteristics that accompany it are well-suited for urban treks, but they don’t fare as well on the long hauls.

First, the tall silhouette is very susceptible to being buffeted by crosswinds, and on a day with gusty winds in excess of 10 mph you’ll be fighting the wheel just to stay in your own lane. Also, the tiny tires (13” diameter) are a mighty big benefit when you’re at the parts shop picking out new rubber, but they sure are noisy on all but the freshest blacktop. That and the economy-class soundproofing in the cabin make for a noisy, fatiguing environment inside the cabin on long trips. Frankly, it’s hard to hold a conversation or listen to the radio at a comfortable volume in the Echo at highway speeds. A better use of the Echo is for bombing around town on errand runs or as your everyday commuter.

To add to the handling drawbacks, the interior amenities are very much lacking in the Echo. Pretty much everything besides the four wheels and a seat was optional. My Echo has an aftermarket CD player in it that has a clock, otherwise a dashboard clock was only available as an option. AC and rear window defrost? Options. Power steering? Option! I guess that’s why the base price was so low (just under $14 grand). In later model years they had power windows and power locks, ABS and keyless entry, but my Echo doesn’t have those things, and I don’t think they would make it any more comfy on long trips.

The lack of cruise control becomes more than a missing amenity as your trip length is extended. It turns into a serious problem. On one voyage I remember alternating between my left and right feet on the highway to keep my foot from cramping up. Honestly, when was the last time you drove with your foot for more than an hour at a time? My foot certainly isn’t up to that kind of challenge. Sure, there are aftermarket cruise control kits for the Echo, and a lot of drivers have them installed and never look back, but I am hesitant to put one in myself and I’m not going to pay someone to add that to the car. Plus, there’s some obvious safety risks to having an aftermarket device take control of the throttle. Lets just say that I can’t believe a car made for this millennia was missing cruise control.

So the Echo falls flat as a highway-conquering cruiser, and the cabin comfort is not so good. But for an economy car with a bottom line price tag, was anyone surprised? My advice is if you’re looking for a highway cruiser you need to look elsewhere unless you’re really ready for the quirks. But if you’re not going too far  the Toyota Echo just might be for you.

More In The Toyota Echo Ownership Series:
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes for Tall Drivers (or Why I Chose the Echo)
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes on MPG
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: What is it like driving an Echo in the snow?
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: True Cost to Own a Toyota Echo

Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes on MPG

Part of what makes the Toyota Echo so attractive to me is the efficiency. While you would expect an economy-class car like the Echo to be fairly frugal, even I was surprised and skeptical when I read that the Echo sedan with an automatic tranny is EPA-eastimated to achieve 32/39 mpg. You can imagine how shocked I was, then, when I first pulled up to the pump and fueled up the 10.7 gallon tank and calculated that I had gotten 35 mpg! At that time, gas was more than $4.00 a gallon in the Midwest and SUVs and trucks were routinely dropping Bejamin Franklins into their gas tanks like it was nothing. And here’s a goofy looking car with a drivetrain that would be equally at home in a lawn mower (or so it seems sometimes) that gets 35 mpg and costs less than $50.00 to fill up.

My point is that the Echo is great on gas. Even if you factor in all the other cons about the car that you can think of, the fact is it’s an efficient little vehicle that is only a handful of mpgs less efficient than the newest Toyota Prius (at this writing) without any hybrid technology at all.

It's worth noting that the gas mileage does decrease in the hot summer months and the freezing winter months. My Echo is finished with a metallic Black Pearl paint job that get hot in the sun faster than your oven will preheat, so you’re running the AC all the time. The AC is actually an add-on option and I kind of think maybe if it had been standard equipment someone at Toyota would have wanted a bigger power plant in the Echo to run it, because it really does cause a noticeable drag on the engine. With the AC on, the auto transmission shifts later as the engine revs higher when the compressor is on. And there’s an electromagnetic clutch on the AC pulley that kicks on and off with a noticeable clunk every few mintues as the compressor engages and disengages, and your engine power will surge when it’s off and get sluggish when it’s on. It’s annoying but not too bad at highway speeds. You’ll likely notice it when you’re counting on the peppy 1.5 liter four to pull out in front of someone on a highway entrance and end up with a rearview full of their grille instead of the car lengths between you that you had hoped for.

In summer running that AC all the time I’ve seen anywhere from 32 to 38 mpg and in the winter with the heat on, battling slushy roads and cold starts anywhere from 28 to 36 mpg. Those are still some pretty decent numbers for a car with over 120k and 12 years on the clock!

More In The Toyota Echo Ownership Series:
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes for Tall Drivers (or Why I Chose the Echo)
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Highway Cruising & Cabin Comfort: Not Bad, Not A Lexus
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: What is it like driving an Echo in the snow?
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: True Cost to Own a Toyota Echo

Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes for Tall Drivers (or Why I Chose the Echo)

I drive a 2000 Toyota Echo and I’m here to tell you that the Echo is an amazing car for tall drivers. I am 6 feet 9 inches tall with a beanpole figure, and while I do have to do a little turtling (craning the neck down and out) to see the traffic signals at intersections, the Echo is among the very very few cars that I could comfortably sit in, let alone drive.

The front head and leg room doesn’t look all that great on paper, at 39.9” and 41.1” respectively, but something about the upright driving position and tall greenhouse let it work well for tall people. It has a seat that is kind of skimpy but nothing different than your other economy class cars, and it really doesn’t offer much support beyond my butt, but since you’re sitting almost as if you were in a minivan it works. Well, it works for most trips less than 200 miles, I should say. And given the lack of cruise control you’re not going to be driving much farther than that without getting out and stretching out your foot anyway. A tiny dummy pedal on the left doesn’t do much for my size 14 foot either, and I have to consciously move my left foot off of it to it doesn’t get too stiff on a long trip.

The front doors on the sedan are large enough for large people to get in and out comfortably, and while I do have to scrunch down to enter and sit in pretty much any sedan, the Echo isn't nearly as bad as other econo cars in this class. Rather than falling into the driver's seat, I can just kind of sit down into it.

Most other tall people at my height and up are driving with their seats tipped so far back they are checking their blind spot out of the rear window, but the Toyota Echo actually lets me sit up a little straighter than normal. It’s not perfect, I’m definitely still leaning back, but I think my in-laws said it best after going for a spin: the Toyota Echo is bigger inside than it looks from the outside. Back seat room is cramped for me, I have to bend sideways or way forward to even think about sitting in the back seat, but I never spend any time back there. As a front seat passenger the room is also pretty much fine.

The Echo also comes with 60/40 folding rear seats, and as tiny as the rear trunk lid appears you can actually get a fair amount of stuff in there. Ten paper grocery bags are no problem, but bulky stuff like multiple sleeping bags or a disassembled bicycle can be a challenge. (And if you’re wondering, yes, my uber-large Schwinn Impact mountain bike does fit in the back with the seat down and both tires removed. You just need a shoehorn to get it in.)

The moral of this story is simple: if you’re 6’9” or less, an Echo will work fine for you. You might get some weird looks getting out of it, but given the reliability and mpg stuff that I’ll be touching on in future posts, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick one up.

More In The Toyota Echo Ownership Series:
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes on MPG
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Highway Cruising & Cabin Comfort: Not Bad, Not A Lexus
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: What is it like driving an Echo in the snow?
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: True Cost to Own a Toyota Echo

Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Introduction

My 2000 Toyota Echo is 12 years old, and I feel like it's finally time to give it a review on my blog! This is the first in a series of posts that will attempt to detail my ownership experience with the Toyota Echo on several levels.

Let's begin with an introduction. Toyota created the Echo starting with the 2000 model year as an inexpensive car aimed at younger customers. Previously, this segment of the car market had been served by the Toyota Tercel, and for anyone used to that vehicle's styling the Echo looks a lot like someone took a Tercel and inflated it. Inflated it a lot, actually. The tall shape and short trunk lid give it a unique look that I've heard of as "cute" or "goofy" (although I haven't really heard anyone say anything bad about it, just that it's different.) The tiny grille up front and fairly flat sides do make for an interesting look at any angle, and I always think it looks like the engine is weighing the front end down since the whole car appears slanted forward from the side. It’s a look that’s best described as “original.”

Under the pint-sized bodywork is a matching engine: a 1.5L four-cylinder aluminum engine that generates 108 horses and 105 lb-ft of torque. Of course, the curb weight of the four-door sedan is only 2030 lbs., so the engine hauls the Echo to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds. Not too bad, but keep in mind that you're going to have to punch the pedal through the floor to achieve that number anywhere besides the test track. My Toyota Echo has the optional A/C (yes, air conditioning was an option) which noticeably saps engine power when it's engaged.

The engine is also equipped with variable valve timing for increased efficiency - Toyota's version is dubbed VVT-i. The Echo’s small engine is a good fit for the technology, and EPA mpg estimates for the 4-speed automatic model are 32/39. In real life I’ve been seeing right around those numbers on a highway commute of 30 miles to work and back, but it does drop some in the Midwest winter. It’s also worth mentioning that the Echo’s transmission is “hill-smart” meaning it won’t upshift to go up a hill unless it’s a serious grade. In practice this represents another smart choice by Echo engineers – the small engine is capable of moving the Echo up grades without lagging just fine in the final gear. And you won’t even notice if it does lag a little since I don’t think cruise control was even an option until the 2005 model year.

Given its low, low original price (typically under $14,000) Toyota has done an amazing job on getting all the basics right and adding just enough of a twist that you feel like you’re driving something special. In fact, it kind of makes me want to buy another quirky car just so I don’t have a common vehicle. Maybe that’s just my left brain expressing itself, since my wallet sure is going to be surprised when I have to say goodbye to my Echo!

More In The Toyota Echo Ownership Series:
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes for Tall Drivers (or Why I Chose the Echo)
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes on MPG
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Highway Cruising & Cabin Comfort: Not Bad, Not A Lexus
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: What is it like driving an Echo in the snow?
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: True Cost to Own a Toyota Echo

Monday, August 27, 2012

Are you sick of the Kohls "sale" pricing strategy?

Isn't it remarkable how Kohls is always having a sale? My local Kohls store, for example, is always mailing out flyers advertising 50% off the entire stock of this or that. I'm not knocking it - there definitely seems to be some value in this strategy since Kohls has stuck with it for so long - but lets consider how the deals might not be as good as they appear. Kohls sale pricing strategy creates a remarkable sense of brand loyalty and the feeling of getting a good deal by exploiting the whole concept of a sale and some careful emotional marketing.

It's no secret that shoppers (specifically women shoppers) love sales. They get the feeling that their dollar goes farther (Walmart does a great job of marketing this to customers) and the sensation of getting a good deal is exhilarating and addictive. Plus people don't mind buying things when they're on sale. They automatically draw the conclusion that the item they are buying is less expensive at this point in time than it was previously or will be in the future. That's kind of the whole idea behind sales in the first place - some kind of tangible savings. For example, last week this product was $4.00, now it is $3.00. I should buy this product.

Kohls has done an amazing job of capitalizing on our automatic sale logic. I suggest that they price the majority of their items at an artificially high "original" price. Then they put the item on sale for a massive discount, say 40% off. Plus, they give customers who use their store card (a powerful loyalty device in and of itself, not to mention a pleasant profit booster) an additional coupon via direct mail to redeem for another 20% off. And then when they check out, we will tell them they saved a huge amount of money, circle it on their receipt, and send them on their way. It's a strategy designed to exploit our understanding of "sales." They tell you an item is on sale. They tell you you saved more than you spent. And by the time you leave, even you are convinced that you have just saved more than you spent, never mind that the same item is $20.00 cheaper at amazon or a comparable quality pillow is hitting a lower price point at Target. From at least one viewpoint, Kohls has just told you a little bit of a lie.

I'm sure you're wondering how this white lie of "you just saved x amount of dollars" is possible with all of today's advertising regulations. The fine print at Kohls appears on every mailing piece and on their website and has some very clear language disclosing what is going on - here's a direct quote from
“Sale” prices and percentage savings offered by Kohl’s are discounts from Kohl’s “Regular” or “Original” prices. The “Regular” or “Original” price of an item is the former or future offered price for the item or a comparable item by Kohl’s or another retailer. Actual sales may not have been made at the “Regular” or “Original” prices, and intermediate markdowns may have been taken. “Original” prices may not have been in effect during the past 90 days or in all trade areas.

What do you think of the Kohls pricing strategy? Would you agree with my suggestion that the whole thing is a little deceptive? Or do you like the feeling and enjoy aggressively shopping the multitude of sales to get what you agree is a great price? I would love to hear from you in the comments!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What is a Kalimba?

In case you were curious, the kalimba is a musical instrument that originated in Africa. Shown above is an alto kalimba, with 15 tuned steel bars that are played by the thumbs. This particular model is a Hugh Tracey kalimba, made with resonant mubvamarope wood and also has a hole in the center to allow extra resonance and modulation of the sound with the thumbs.

back of kalimba
Here is the back of the kalimba, showing two small resonance holes and the metal Hugh Tracey brand plate. Overall, the instrument measures 8-1/2"L x 6"W x 1-5/8"D. I think the kalimba's sound can be most easily related to the xylophone, although it is softer and less bright. You can cover and uncover the holes to create a sort of vibrato, but my kalimba is quite soft and I didn't find that this feature worked especially well.

hugh tracey kalimba side
The same instrument from a different angle, showing the mechanism that supports the metal tone bars. They are held in place by spring tension, and can be adjusted for tune or even tuned into a different key by moving them forward and backward over the soundboard. It also shows how the bars rest directly on the sound board, causing it to resonate.

kalimba fingering chart

The layout of the kalimba is designed for harmony - neighboring keys always form a third. Above is an image of my alto kalimba and a fingering or key chart in place under the keys. To play a scale on a kalimba that has been tuned to a major key, simply play alternate ascending and descending keys with both thumbs.

If your kalimba makes a buzzing sound on certain keys, it is typically caused by debris or dirt at the metal-on-metal contact points between the steel keys and the clamping mechanism or front rest. Sometimes you can cure a buzzing key by wiggling it from side to side or blowing at the contact point while playing it. Alternatively, you can wedge a scrap of paper under the key after pressing down on it near the bar and the paper will eliminate the buzzing. (You'll just tear off the paper and leave it in place as a washer.)

And for the grand finale, here's a video of a few kalimba chords being played by yours truly. The visuals are pretty bad thanks to Blogger's video processing, but the audio quality is still ok. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bouncing the built-in flash on a Canon 60D

There's plenty of literature out there about on-camera and off-camera bounce flash techniques. But if you don't have a powerful external flash unit for your Canon DSLR, you can still play with bounce flash techniques using the built-in flash.

First, let me apologize for the quality of the photos below. This busy scene was where I happened to be when I was testing this out. And I don't have a tripod, sorry for the slight movement of the camera.

Here's the scene with existing light only. Shot on a Canon 60D, EF-S 17-55, at 23mm, 1/8 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600. Notice that it is unevenly lit, with a light on the right side making that part of the image almost blown out.

And here's the same scene illuminated with the built-in flash on the 60D. This time the exposure is 1/5 sec, f/2.8, ISO 400. This is the built-in flash fired directly at the scene, exactly as it would normally pop up if we were trying to illuminate the scene more evenly. The result isn't terribly bad, but I wondered if I might be able to do better.

Here is my first attempt at bouncing the built-in flash. I am sitting on a sofa about 8 feet from this scene in a fairly small room. I help up a credit card sized scrap of off-white cardstock in front of the flash at about a 45 degree angle, causing it to reflect off the card onto the ceiling and wall behind me and then strike the scene. Remember that the 60D flash has a guide number of only 13 (compared to 58 for the big 580EXII that a pro would use in a church, for example!) The exposure is 1/4 sec at f/2.8, ISO 400.

The flash illumination is uneven since the cardstock had a crease in it and I was handholding it over the lens while handholding the camera at the same time, meaning I wasn't paying any attention to the angle. But already the shadows have been altered and I think the effect is somewhat more pleasing than the harder light of the preceeding image, even though it still leaves a lot to be desired.

And here's my final attempt. I held up a larger card (approx. 5"x7") in front of the flash at about a 45 degree angle this time. The exposure is 1/10 sec at f/2.8, ISO 800, so I had to double the ISO to capture an equivalent exposure, making me think the flash is at or near the limit of its power here. But I think the scene is the most pleasingly illuminated yet, with softer shadows behind the objects and no more reflection of the direct flash off the wall behind the shelf.

I case you're wondering exactly what my method was, above is a crude shot showing the basics. Just hold up a piece of paper (wedding program, whatever) in front of your flash.

My point is that in a pinch you can reflect the built-in flash in a small room to create a more pleasing scene. With a candid portrait, the subject is often not too far away, and using this tactic to bounce your flash off the ceiling creates an image that is immensely more pleasing that that captured when firing directly at your subject's face. Because you are frequently shooting at a few arm lengths away, the on-board camera flash will probably have sufficient power.

However, remember we are talking long exposures that require you to tell your subject to stand still! And with a more brightly lit scene you would probably want to rely on existing light or use the uneven illumination to your creative advantage. Or switch to the big guns and get an external Speedlite flash. But I think if you're on a budget, or just like playing around with your camera, this could be a fun technique to use. Let me know if you like it or don't like it in the comments!

2000-2005 Chevrolet Impala Turn Signals Not Working: Solved

I recently went on a 600 mile road trip with our 2004 Chevy Impala. On the way home the turn signals stopped functioning normally. The indicator light in the dashboard would stay lit without blinking until the turn signal cancelled out.

After arriving home I checked the turn signals from outside the vehicle and discovered they were not working at all when the indicator inside the vehicle was illuminated. At first I thought it was only a burnt out bulb, but when using the hazard lamps all four bulbs worked fine.

After doing some more research on the web, I discovered that there is sometimes an electrical gremlin with the hazard switch module in the dashboard of these cars. The hazard switch also controls the turn signals. My solution to the problem was to push the hazard switch on and off rapidly for a little bit, and since then the turn signals have been working like they should. I just thought I would drop this tip in case anyone is having a similar issue.

If the problem with the turn signals not working happens again and just pushing the hazard switch on and off a few times doesn't work, I guess I will have to replace the hazard switch. Looks like if you're a surgeon you can replace it without removing the dash... I can't wait. But for now it is working fine.

Edit: If you do need to replace the hazard switch, you can do it without removing the entire dash. Here is a link to a flickr set (a group of photos and captions) that shows the process very well.
Link to Flickr Set for replacing the chevy impala turn signal switch

Also please let me know in the comments if my solution - pushing the turn signal switch on and off rapidly - works for you!

Monday, August 6, 2012

How To Change The Batteries in an Accutire MS-4021b Tire Gauge

accutire ms-4021b
If you enjoyed my review of the Accutire MS-4021b tire pressure gauge, you may also be interested in how to change the battery. Changing the batteries inside an Accutire MS-4021b tire pressure gauge is easy. You'll need:
A Phillips screwdriver (I used a PH1 sized bit and it worked fine).
3 new LR44 batteries to replace the old ones inside your gauge. These batteries are also called A76,  357, or AG13 and are 1.5 volts each, making for 4.5 volts of total power.

Flip the gauge over and unscrew the battery compartment cover. It will drop out when you turn the unit upside down. Then hit the handle against the palm of your hand until the batteries pop out. It took quite a bit of force to knock them loose. I was surprised at how securely they are held in place.

Here you can see the original batteries that came with my device, no-name "button cell" batteries marked LR44. Also note that the battery compartment is completely enclosed in plastic. As cheap as this device is, it seems like there actually was some engineering that went into it. There is no possible way those batteries are getting knocked loosed even if you drop it, and it keeps dirt out of the inside of the gauge. There are even little symbols molded into the compartment showing you which way to turn the new batteries so the polarity is correct, another nice touch I was not expecting.

Just line up your three new LR44 batteries like the inside of the compartment shows and squeeze them into the metal battery holders. Then screw the battery compartment cover back on. Piece of cake!

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry Fender Long Term Test

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry
Five or six years ago in college I wanted a bicycle mudguard that was detachable, lightweight, suitable for a very tall rider with a large bicycle frame, kept my butt dry, and looked better than the cardboard bits and 2-liter plastic bottle pieces my old roommate used to use. The SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry fender fit the bill. After putting a lot of dirty, slushy city miles on it, here's my take.

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry

I used this on an enormous Schwinn Impact frame over a big, fat Schwinn Slickrock tire with a tread pattern that truly excelled at grabbing sand and dirt (not to mention moisture) and vomiting it all over my butt. Now, instead of freaking out when it rains, I just attach the SKS Equipment X3 and let it get dirty. I'm saving my butt one puddle at a time, plus it's saving my roomies from complaining about the sand in the washing machine.

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry
The photo above is with a different tire, since the Schwinn Slickrock tires gave up the ghost when the gumwalls rotted out. The X3 does a very nice job of catching the crap that gets launched by this tire. When used with the big mountain bike tires and the deep tread pattern, though, it was a little too short to catch all the debris. Sometimes I would still get a wet spot and some sand up near the top of my backpack, but to me that was way better than having a wet spot on the back of your pants!

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry Durability
Anyway, having a fender that was durable was important to me. I routinely rode through snowbanks, over curbs, across railroad tracks and down stairs (until one less-than-graceful endo). The X3 didn't disappoint. Here's a look at the back side, where you can see there is some serious cross-bracing under the plastic shell that makes it plenty durable without adding too much weight.

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry seatpost attachment
I also wanted a bicycle fender that would be detachable so I could remove it on nice days. Here's a look at the all-important seatpost mounting mechanism on the SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry fender. A pair of rubberized pads mounted in a curved plastic piece grip the back of your seatpost, and a nylon strap with rubber woven in inside lets it hold fast even when it's soaking wet.

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry locking cam
The strap and fender are secured by a cam-like plastic piece that fits into grooves on the back plastic piece. You fit the pieces together and then flip the plastic tab back to snap the strap tight. It's a brilliant system that has a minimum amount of parts. The little plastic tabs near the strap in the above photo look like a weak spot, but as much as I've reefed on that part, they haven't broken. It's made of some tough plastic! The rubber stitching inside the strap isn't doing so well, it is pulling out of the strap a little at time, but it's still gripping the seatpost fine. Given the number of wet/dry cycles and temperature extremes is has seen I would say it's holding up great.

On the flip side, since it is so easy to remove, I was always paranoid about someone stealing my SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry because they wanted to put it on their bicycle. I know no normal cyclist would do that since they are always polite people, but once a thief figured out just how simple it is to take off, they're just a craigslist post away from scoring ten or twenty bucks. To the untrained eye it looks like a pretty permanent setup, but it would really only take 15 seconds for it to disappear.

SKS Equipment X3 Tra-Dry adjustment screw

There's an adjustment Allen screw that you can use to adjust the angle of the fender. I find that I could leave it pretty tight and there's enough friction to prevent the fender from sagging even after bouncing over the worst potholes, but I can still move it up and down as needed without worrying about breaking it. As you can see in the above image, my Allen screw has started to rust from riding in the salty brine of the Madison city winter, but it is still working like a champ.

That's my take on the SKS EquipmentX3 Tra-Dry fender. While it's designed to be used on a full-suspension mountain bike, it is pretty good on an unsprung mountain bike as well. The coverage isn't as good as a fully enclosed city fender but it's not as heavy, doesn't rattle over the bumps, has fewer parts, and is removable in about ten seconds. It's an ideal compromise! And as an added bonus the angle of the arm holding the fender means it will clear a light or reflector attached to your seatpost with ease.

But wait, what is this Tra-Dry thing all about?
I think the Tra-Dry is simply a fancy name for the texture of the flap. Maybe the crud is supposed to hit that matte surface and drip off in a controlled way instead of falling back into your tire? I've used this fender for a long time and the texture doesn't really seem to be anything too special. Just forget that it has that fancy branding on it and enjoy a dry butt.

Planet Bike Superflash Long-Term Test Review: PB Gets Everything Right

Planet Bike Superflash
I've had the Planet Bike Superflash blinking taillight for over 5 years. It still works. If you need more convincing that this is the best bike taillight available, keep reading and I'll tell you why I wouldn't want any other light between a car and my bicycle.

planet bike superflash

Why I like this light:
It's a space-saver. The dimensions are about 2.75" tall x 1.5" across x 1.5 inches deep. You can carry it in your bag when your bike is locked up. And trust me, you'll want to because this light is worth its weight in gold, but it just snaps in and out of the mounting bracket, so I always worried that someone would steal it.

Also, the mounting system (picture above) is absolutely rock solid. I've ridden down countless curbs and bounced my way across the railroad tracks on University Avenue in Madison, WI more times than I can count, and it's always still back there when I get home.
Here's the light detached. You can see it also has a clip so you could attach it to your bag. But since it's an LED, the light output to the side is tiny compared to the light output to the back, so I recommend only mounting this to your bike frame. That way cars are always getting 100% of the LED in line with the bike frame, instead of 5% when your bag slips to the side going uphill or if you are leaning through a turn. For the same reason, I wouldn't put this light on a helmet, although it's small enough to do so. I guess if I was going for a jog the clip could be handy, but it's first and foremost a bike light.

In fact, that's about the only con I can think of with this light. Since it uses a directional LED light, it doesn't shed much light or flash very brightly when viewed from the side. Of course, it's marketed as a taillight, not a side light. And that same technology means that none of the light energy is wasted by being sent to the side. Just be sure your wheel reflectors (or better yet, reflective rims or sidewalls) are clean and you'll be fine.

It's super light. Most urban commuters don't care what their gear weighs anyway but Planet Bike says it weighs only 75 grams with batteries. Trust me, you won't even know it's back there.

It's water resistant and weatherproof. I used this light on my bicycle during thunderstorms and snowstorms in Madison, WI for three years. I'm not on campus anymore, but during that time I beat my bicycle pretty hard and a lot my other components and gear failed, but not this light. It just keeps on blinking!

It has amazing battery life. I've never changed the batteries since I bought it, which is more than 5 years of use. Just the other week I left this thing on blinky mode all day long at work. That's more than 8 hours straight. When I came out it was still blinking away and it's still bright enough to hurt your retinas if viewed head on. Planet Bike rates this thing at 100 hours of runtime and I have no reason to doubt that claim.

And finally, the most important point: the Planet Bike Superflash light is flippin' bright. Don't turn it on and look right at it because you will see spots for a few minutes. Apparently the main light is a 2-watt LED. When you have it in blinky mode there are also two smaller kicker LEDs that are plenty bright.

My Planet Bike Superflash light has 2 options: the main LED can be constantly on, or there is an eye-popping blinky mode that flashes the 2-watt LED every few seconds and the two smaller kicker LEDs in between. I assume you might want to use the constant on mode if you were riding in a group and didn't want to totally blind the cyclist behind you, but for all other purposes you might as well use the blinky mode.

I noticed a dramatic difference in the way cars reacted with this thing mounted high on my seatpost - they slow down and give you space. It's impossible to ignore this little light. It's so bright that it attracts attention during the day. If you're planning to do any kind of city riding near dark or after dark, you need to go out and get this light. It will save your butt from those nasty close calls!