We needed to replace an essential part of our car: the alternator. But where would we get the parts in southern Mexico? Would we ask the help of a mechanic, or attempt to solve the problem on our own? What were our options, and why was this question so difficult for us?
Two weeks ago, we were standing behind our open engine bay, turning the alternator by hand to see if we could identify a weird sound we had heard while testing something else. It was hot, but the fresh coconuts we got earlier were still cold and took the edge off southern Mexico’s tropical humidity. The sound we were trying to reproduce wouldn’t appear again. Instead, we found a different one.
After an educated guess, a bit of research, and consulting with Robbie, our Bus-genius friend from southern California, we were certain: we had a busted alternator bearing.
So your first question might be: what is an alternator bearing?
Every car, including modern ones, has an alternator. It is basically a generator that converts the movement of your engine into electricity to charge the car’s battery, run your lights, and so forth. Additionally, if we are low on power coming from our solar panels, we can charge the auxiliary battery from our alternator, instead. It’s a useful – not to mention 100% essential – part of our car.
The bearings are a piece inside the alternator that keep moving pieces moving peacefully without creating friction. The only way to fix the bearing would be to either get a “new” alternator that someone else had rebuilt, take ours apart and rebuild it ourselves, or have someone rebuild ours for us.
We cannot go anywhere with no alternator, and when it breaks we have no choice but to fix it. To prevent this from happening, we decided to spend some of our time in Puerto Escondido with more car work than we had initially anticipated.
Sourcing alternator parts
But the most complicated questions were: how were we going to fix it, and where were we going to get the parts from?
In the States, this question was usually not very complicated. There are a number of websites such as BusDepot or GoWesty that are popular places for bus owners to get parts (both new and refurbished, by manufacturers of varying quality). If you happen to live on the West Coast, and especially in southern California, there are also a number of stores where you can simply pop by and shop for what you need. Although you might think sourcing parts for buses and other old VWs in the States might be challenging, it really isn’t. It is usually, just like most goods in our modern-day world, just a mouse-click away.
We were used to using this system in the States, even used to using it while on the move (which meant constantly updating shipping addresses to ship to various friends that we had stayed with along our way). But would they ship to Mexico?
As it turns out, most of these places do, fortunately for us. It would be expensive, but we would eventually get the part we needed, given the shipping systems in Mexico didn’t fail us.
Of course, there was an alternative option: get the part we need here in Mexico. Mexico made buses (albeit modified versions that differ in many ways from Big Emma) up until 1994. So shouldn’t it be easy to get the parts we needed here? We didn’t know any Mexican BusDepots, so our part-sourcing methods would be confined to asking local mechanics and the nearest Autozone.
What did we need to fix?
Even if we could figure out where to get the parts, what parts should we order? This turned out to be the biggest question, and more complex than it sounds. That was because it was wrapped up in how would we fix the alternator in the first place.
We had a few different options, each of with came with a different price tag and long-term guarantee.
Option #1: Replace the alternator itself
This option would mean that we would replace our entire alternator, not just the broken bearing inside it. We could order one from the States and have it sent to our current address in Mexico. Replacing an entire alternator is not hard; you basically screw the old one off and screw the new one on.
This option would be the easiest one, but it would be by far the most expensive. Costs would include the costs of the part itself, international shipping, as well as any additional import taxes. The great benefit to this would be that the part would be almost guaranteed not to fail on us again during our trip. Rebuilt alternators should have a lifetime of at least 200,000 miles.
Option #2: Replace with a Mexican alternator
We could do this same procedure, but get an alternator that had been built in Mexico. We would likely be getting the part from the local mechanic’s and would have to simply count on the new alternator being strong and healthy. It would be considerably cheaper than ordering it from the States (probably around a 10th of the price), but it would also be much riskier, as we would have no way of knowing or measuring the quality of the alternator.
Option #3: Rebuild the alternator ourselves
This option would be the most stressful of the bunch. This would mean getting new alternator bearings, not the whole thing. There are two bearings in our alternator. If we were lucky, the broken bearing was the one that was easy to reach; if we weren’t, it would be the hard one. Neither of us knows a lot about alternators and has never rebuilt or even seen the inside of one before. Like most Big Emma repairs, this would be all-new territory for us.
Even if we went for this option, we would still have to get some help from a mechanic: you have to press the bearing out with a press, and, as we were told, “a hammer is not an option”. We would have to hope that the local mechanics would have a press, and not just insist on the hammer.
Option #4: Have someone in Mexico rebuild our alternator
This is similar to option #3, except we wouldn’t do the work. The positive part would be that the person rebuilding our alternator would hopefully know what they were doing, and it would still keep costs down. But what if they did it wrong? What if they made a grave mistake, that would leave us stranded in 300 miles? Or even in 3,000?
Stereotypes and Mexican mechanics
Why were we so skeptical of Mexican mechanics? Both options #2 and #4 made us nervous. But what were we so worried about?
I do not want to succumb to or spread the belief in the stereotype that Mexican mechanics are bad mechanics. I do not believe they are. I’m sure that there are many competent mechanics out there, and that they deliver quality work. However, I am skeptical that this mechanic happens to live in Puerto Escondido, located in a part of Mexico where buses are rather rare and parts are harder to come by than in others.
No matter what country we are in, we are very careful where we take our car. Although there are plenty of good mechanics in the States, not all of them are experts in foreign VWs, and often a shop is needed that specializes in these cars. Even so, we would always prefer to fix the car ourselves. Not only because it is cheaper, but because I can check the quality of my own work. I don’t need to trust the mechanic, I only need to trust us. You never know when a mechanic will screw up even the simplest of tasks. You don’t want an incompetent mechanic to screw your oil plug in wrong – that could lead to horrible, irreversible engine fatalities. Trust me, it’s better to take control and do it yourself.
Learn from those who came before you
But that wasn’t our only problem. Especially here in Mexico, I am skeptical about taking my Bus to a mechanic. One of the great benefits of doing this trip now is that we can learn from our predecessors. In particular, Ben from Hasta Alaska spent quite a lot of time fixing his Kombi in Central America and Mexico. We learned a lot from his Samba thread.
Ben would break down and attempt to fix a problem himself or have it fixed by the local mechanic in whatever town he happened to be in. And he kept getting stuck. This is probably due to a combination of factors, such as Ben not knowing very much about his bus at the time and that the small-town mechanics were not VW experts. While we were on Baja, Ben took his Kombi to a VW mechanic in La Paz, who – without asking – welded a tie-rod in place (those are not supposed to be welded to anything if you ever want to align your wheels again). While a solution in the US or Germany is only a solution if it was done to spec, this might not be the case down here. Mexican mechanics are reputed to have very creative solutions to your current problem, solutions that will most probably get you back on the road. However, they may not always be the most long-term solutions.
As a result, we could not be really really sure if the mechanic we would take our car to would do what we thought was right. We could also not be sure that they would rebuild our alternator to the spec that we thought it should be. When it comes to Big Emma, we are very untrusting people, and we do not accept half-ass work. If we were going to fix our alternator, we would fix it so we would not have this problem again before we were done with our trip.
Then again, maybe the Puerto Escondido VW mechanic would be excellent. Prejudice should not stop us from finding out. On the other hand, our first priority had to be what would be the absolute best for Big Emma.
This left us pondering a lot of questions, all of which had to do with quality, time, and money. We had to make a decision, and fast if we needed parts to get here before it was time for us to leave. If we decided to rebuild the alternator ourselves, or have it rebuilt, and it got screwed up, we would have a problem. We would still need a new alternator to even leave Puerto Escondido, and waiting a week longer than we had planned was not an option. We didn’t have time to screw up the rebuild and then get a new one shipped. If we were going to get anything shipped at all, we needed to do it now.
We could probably figure out how to rebuild our alternator if we could find a shop that could run some other tests for us and do the pressing. However, our lack of knowledge did make us nervous, like it usually does when we are faced with repairs of this size. All of this meant that the safer option was to get the alternator itself instead of just the bearing.
At which point we ran into the next question. Should we try to find an alternator in Mexico or ship one from the States? An alternator from here would be much cheaper, but we could not be sure of its quality. We decided against this option; after all, the money we could save on the alternator would not be worth the hassle and time of getting stranded in the middle of nowhere in Nicaragua.
We decided to go for the expensive option that left us with the most guarantees and had it shipped from Airhead Parts in the States. Once it was here, we would install it ourselves. We would get our old one rebuilt anyways, and keep it as a spare.
This way, we were not dependent on a mechanic we were not sure if we could depend on. The main variable would be if FedEx would ship it here on time, and how long Mexican customs would decide to hold it. If customs didn’t decide to keep our package forever, it would get here on time and it would not hold up our departure. We would have a well-functioning alternator and would be able to continue with a peace of mind, even if we would have less money.
So how does this story end?
This story ends with success, if a turbulent one. After the hassle of making sure our package got shipped to the correct city, it actually got here on time. I should have more faith in the Mexican postal system. We picked up our package from FedEx one week before we had to leave Puerto Escondido.
And then we started installing it. Like I said before, it’s kind of a screw-it-out-screw-it-in process, just with quite a lot of screws. But when it came time to reconnect the battery, that sinking feeling of despair rose in our throats. Upon connection, black smoke promptly started rising from the alternator. Of course, we immediately disconnected the battery and took the whole thing back out again.
Uh-oh. We had possibly just fried our new, shipped-from-abroad alternator. That would be one expensive fuck-up. Not to mention, again, that wouldn’t be able to leave on time if we needed yet another rebuilt alternator. If the thing was toast, we would be starting again from zero. Except we would have less time and a lot less money.
We knew there had to be a short in the system. This means the plus and the minus pole were directly connected without anything consuming all that energy in between, which leads to a gigantic current flow and heats things up to the point where they catch fire.
There is a solution to every problem
After much experimentation, which included sawing off the end of a bolt, we solved what we thought the short had to be. We ran a few more tests – the ones we could do at home – and our new alternator seemed to be okay. We put it back in and kept running tests with every step. So far, no evil black smoke. The last experiment included – again – reconnecting the battery. Again, no smoke. Big Emma started and our new alternator seemed to be charging out battery like it was supposed to.
We let out a sigh with relief. We had not wasted our money or our time, and the road continues to prove that there is a solution to every problem with enough persistence.
Was it a good idea to get the parts we needed from the States? Even as week took all of the precautions we could to make sure Big Emma got the best treatment possible, things still went wrong. We fixed it in the end, sure, but in the middle, we were very close to screaming in frustration. Even when you invest in parts you trust, there is still somebody who can screw it up as badly as anyone: you. Lucky for us, we only came close. I am sure there will come a time in the future, however, when shipping is not an option, or just too expensive; then, we will have to rely on one of the other options to get the parts we need.
For now, Big Emma is back on the road. And she is complete with a shiny, new, non-fried alternator.
So much suspense in international car repairs. Definitely smart approach to rebuild old one as a spare. I probably would have gone with a local, low cost new part (or maybe even two of them) rather than trust the postal system, but super stoked it all worked out for you. May this be your LAST auto repair Blog!!!
Thanks Mike, we hope so, too! Even if the road is long, we will figure it out!
Yea! All is well with Big Emma again!