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Block Heater

January 11, 2015

I put my car in the garage every night.  In the winter, I plug the block heater cord into a timer set to start at 5 am.  That way it will be ready to go in the morning when I’m ready to go.  We get many days in the winter when the temperature hovers around -20 or -25.  Of course, sometimes it’s warmer than that.  Sometimes it’s colder too.

This winter, the first sign of trouble was one circuit breaker for the garage that had tripped.  The timer was dark, too.  Maybe the timer caused a short.  It was a few years old.  I bought a new timer.  Of course, it was better than the old one, with more programs and another digit in the display.  The new timer worked, but still my car never started easily.  It was slow turning over, and was cold for a long time once it did start.

Was the block heater really working?  Didn’t I have the same problem last winter?  The timer always lit up, but that didn’t tell me very much.  I needed to know if any current was passing through the block heater.  I built a current tester last winter.  It was only a 60 Watt incandescent lamp connected in series with the outlet for the block heater cord.  If the lamp glowed, I knew that the block heater was passing current.  When I tried it then, the lamp stayed dark.  As soon as I examined the plug, I saw the reason: one of the wires was broken.  I cut off that plug, stripped the wires, and installed a new one.  Of course, I had to do all of this in the cold and the dark, on the floor of the garage.  It’s hard to do things like that properly under those conditions.  With several trips to the garage, I managed.  The lamp on my tester glowed this time.  The car started normally.  I was pleased with myself.

What could have gone wrong this winter?  I first tried a straight extension cord instead of the timer.  There was a loud bang as I moved the cord!  That’s not supposed to happen.  What could that be?  I finally decided it was the door opener motor jerking the door quickly.  I need my tester again, before I do any damage.  Once again, there was no current through the block heater.  Could it be the plug again?  I disassembled the plug and inspected it.  All three wires were intact.  One screw was loose.  I tightned it, and tried my tester again.  Still there was no current, even though the plug was good.  What’s left?  It has to be the cord or the block heater itself.  The cord runs inside a plastic conduit that disappears under the engine.  I couldn’t even see the block heater.  I’d done all that I could do this time.

My only option now was to take my car into the dealer’s service shop.  They soon told me that the block heater was burned out.  I’ve never had that happen before.  I have had plugs fail a few times.  They replaced both the block heater and the cord.  The bill was quite a shock, about four times larger than I expected.  Next morning, though, I was quite pleased with how easily the car started and how quickly it warmed up.  I had almost forgotten how much it had cost me.

I told somebody today that the weather had become much warmer since I had the block heater replaced in my car.  It’s true.  That’s how it felt to me.  In Manitoba, you need a working block heater in your car just to get through the winter.


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