Posted on February 8, 2021
Main takeaways if you’re stuck in a parking lot
1. If you’re going to be broken down overnight, be proactive and reach out to the local non-emergency police line. Ours was super friendly and helpful.
2. People are relatively nice in general, especially restaurant workers. Ask them if they know about cars getting towed there often.
3. Park far away from popular spots, preferably on the edge of a lot.
4. Write a note explaining your situation truthfully and put it under your windshield wipers. Update it daily.
5. Some property management companies don’t check their parking lots very often.
The full story
So there we were, fresh out of the mechanic with new brakes and power steering hubs (and a lot less money). We trucked into LA for a medical appointment and to have lunch with my aunt before heading south towards San Diego. We parked in the back lot of this mixed-use restaurant shopping center establishment, away from a lot of other cars. Note: this is something I really recommend for anyone doing vanlife. Always park in spots that people won’t care about.
For context, we’d been having some issues keeping the engine running that morning (and it almost caused me to miss my doctor visit). The truck would start, but then right after starting, it would sputter out and die. With some jiggling of the break pedal and a good amount of luck, we got the engine started, kept it running, and got to my appointment in LA just in time.
After my appointment and a healthy lunch with my aunt, Sonoma and I went back out to the truck and worked for the afternoon. Then, as the sun was starting to set, we got all “movement proofed” and ready to drive. The truck started just fine, but then quickly sputtered out and died, just like it did earlier. And none of the tricks or luck we used that morning could get it to start again.
We googled our symptoms for a while and determined that it could be an issue with our fuel filter. We didn’t know what a fuel filter was, but we were about to learn all about it. And now so are you, unless you scroll past this next section.
What’s a fuel filter?
In diesel engines (and probably gas ones too), there is a filter that takes out all of the gunk and other foreign objects in the fuel before it hits the engine. For our 2004 Chevy Silverado 2500, it’s in the top left of the engine compartment, and it looks like this:
The fuel filter is a high point in the fuel line system (I think), so that large circular button-looking thing on the top functions as an “air pusher”. If you get air in your fuel lines somehow, like by running out of fuel or by owning a truck from 2004, then you can push pressure into the fuel line system by pressing this button repeatedly, and then let the air escape by opening up the bleeder screw. If you look above, though, our bleeder screw is missing its head – that’s not good, and it was definitely letting air in.
However, when we went to O’Reilly auto parts, we learned that our broken bleeder screw probably wasn’t the only issue – our exact year and model of truck is prone to getting cracks in the fuel filter housing after 180,000 miles (which is about where we’re at). So we needed to replace that entire metal assembly, and probably also the fuel filter itself while we were at it.
The first night
Unfortunately, there was only one auto part store in the entire LA area that had the part we needed (yes, seriously), and it was a half hour drive away over some mountains. Not exactly doable on a longboard, and we weren’t about to pay $60 round trip for an uber. We commissioned my awesome aunt to pick it up for us the next morning.
The first night was quite stressful. We surveyed our area, and luckily the parking lot we were in was relatively inactive – the cars parked there seemed to belong to employees of the nearby stores instead of apartment residents. After we realized that we were going to have to sleep there, I found the local non-emergency police line and told them we were stuck. However, because we were on private shopping center property, there was nothing the police could do – they weren’t gonna tow us because we weren’t on city streets, but they also couldn’t ask the property management not to tow us.
Sonoma went into the restaurant we were stranded near to ask them some questions. She found out that the property managers rarely check this lot and that people sometimes park their cars overnight here. The manager she talked to had never seen anyone get towed. Of course, being in a truck camper is slightly more conspicuous than just parking a car overnight, so we wrote a couple notes explaining our situation and put one on the windshield and one on the camper door. This gave us the confidence we needed to actually get to sleep.
At 3am, a vehicle with blinking lights, back-up beeping, and a loud engine arrived at the lot and we thought we were getting towed. Luckily, it was just a street sweeper cleaning the lot, and apparently they didn’t tell on us, because we woke up to my alarm the next morning instead of a knock on our door.
After my aunt dropped the part off, we spent the day removing the old fuel filter assembly and installing the new one. This took a long time, and resulted in quite a few trips to the local O’Reilly’s.
After we got the new part installed, we realized that the nozzles on it were pointed in the wrong direction, and our fuel tubing wasn’t long enough to connect the engine to the new filter.
After considering trying to replace the fuel tubing and consulting mechanics over the phone, we elected to order the part we were pretty sure was correct on the internet. With expedited shipping, it was scheduled to arrive in two days. Two more days… in the parking lot…
And on the third day, we waited. This day provided both of us with the chance to catch up on our work – being a mechanic takes a lot of time when you don’t really know what you’re doing, and we were physically stressed from constantly worrying about our house getting towed so we were sleeping longer than usual.
At this point, we had a lot of hope that the part would arrive the next day, which gave us the ability to start exploring the area. Sonoma and I would take shifts “guarding” the camper, while the other person could walk around and investigate the stores and apartment complexes surrounding our lot. We were in a pretty fancy place, actually. There were lots of nice cars parked in the busier lot on the other side of our restaurant, and we were super glad we weren’t parked there because they probably wouldn’t’ve liked us as neighbors.
Day 4 (final day)
On our fourth day in the lot, we finally got a visit from a representative of the property management company. One of the workers who was cleaning the lot saw Sonoma talking on her phone outside and came to ask her what’s up. Sonoma explained our situation and told her that we would hopefully be leaving that night. The property rep said that she didn’t want to tow us, and had read our notes a couple days ago which is why she hadn’t called a tow truck at the start. She then told us that we would have until Monday to get out of the lot, or we’d be towed. Given that it was Thursday, we were like “hell yeah” and crossed our fingers that the part would get here today (and that it was the right part (and that this was actually the reason our truck wouldn’t run)).
Finally, that afternoon, the part arrived. After my uncle hand-delivered it to us (along with some pistachios and plantain chips), we got to work uninstalling the old new filter and installing the new new filter. Thankfully, this one had the tubes in the correct position, so it went in fine. The hardest part was jimmying the hose spring clamps onto the fuel tubing. These types of clamps are super strong, which is good for holding in the highly-pressurized fuel that flows through the lines (EDIT FROM THE FUTURE: the lines around the fuel filter assembly are actually low-pressure – the fuel doesn’t get super-pressurized until it goes through fuel injector pump, which happens after the filter), but they’re reeeeally annoying to install. It took us around two hours to get the final clamp on the hose (in our defense, the angle was super difficult).
After finally getting the part fully installed, it was time to bleed the filter. As I explained above, you pump the button on top at the same time as loosening the screw, but you have to make sure you tighten the screw before releasing the button or you’ll just pull a bunch of air back in. We watched a youtube video to perfect the technique, and after getting my hands and forearms thoroughly doused in diesel, the filter was bled and the air was removed.
Finally, the moment of truth… was the fuel filter assembly the true root of our issue?
Yes! Success. The truck started, ran, and continued to run. After hastily packing up, we got the hell out of that parking lot and drove back towards the coast. And so our adventure continued…
Big shoutout to my Aunt Staci for delivering us parts, food, showers, and good vibes. We would have spent so much money on towing and mechanics if she hadn’t been there. Thanks Aunt Staci!