Thursday, November 26, 2009

E46 BMW 3 Series alignment, done the right way

Every time you go to a shop to mount your tires, the installer will most likely try to sell you an alignment. They're in business to make money, and always seem love to take advantage of your ignorance. For the most part, you never need it. Yes, you read right: I said never.

(climbing atop my soap box)
As most well informed people know, and any honest mechanic would tell you - a car only really goes out of alignment if it has been hit, or if there as been some unusual wear and tear put on the suspension. Unusual? Think hitting curb or diving into a pot hole at a relatively high speed. Other than that, if your tire wear is normal - don't waste your money on getting an alignment. What's normal tire wear you ask? It's not necessarily what you think. Your tires don't necessarily have to wear right down the center, or evenly for that matter. For example, E46 BMW's (and most other BMW models for that matter), tend to wear the front tires on the outside more, and the rear tires right down the middle. This, is considered normal. BMW introduces some negative camber in their suspension to allow for improved cornering. Don't let a tire shop tell you otherwise. Also, BMW recommends, against conventional wisdom, to never rotate your tires; but I'll leave that discussion for another post.
(ok, now that that's over)

My car had a nagging bump-steer problem. This is characterized by your steering wanting to pull right or left when you hit a bump on the road, especially under moderate to hard braking. It's actually pretty annoying, especially driving on city streets laden with undulating surfaces.

After installing a Myle suspension kit which a new set of lighter lower control arms and associated bushings and linkages, my steering got somewhat better, but wasn't totally cured.

After doing some research I found out the correct procedure for aligning BMW's is by using weights. These are bags that are placed inside the car so simulate a load. Only then, does the trained technician (often only found at BMW stealerships) will begin to take measurements with his Hunter DSP600 alignment machine. In the front, BMW's have adjustments for CASTER and TOE only (see actual printout below). For the rear wheels, you can only modify the CAMBER and TOE.

If you call an independent BMW shop, and they don't use weights in the alignment procedure, or claim they're not needed, I would suggest you hang up. If you're going to get any sort of calibration done, you don't want "good enough". You want it to be within the manufacturer's specifications under the right conditions. Always ask for a before and after printout. My alignment ended up costing me $179.00+tax from the dealer. You'll typically only pay for 1 hour labor. If you ask for a discount, these days, even most dealers will try to accommodate you. It never hurts to ask.

I almost never go to the BMW dealer, or send anyone else there for anything other than warranty issues. This would be one of my very few exceptions.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Google Android gets turn by turn, and turns heads

Just watch the video, and be amazed.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How to Fight your Traffic Ticket

So you got caught speeding, or making some illegal maneuver (what the state calls a moving violation), and now you've got this yellow (or white) piece of paper that you wish would just disappear. Well I'm here to show you how to do just that.

As the officer politely explained to you, you have two options: pay the ticket, or take it to court. It turns out, you've got a few more options than that:

1. Pay the fine and the points will be assessed (your least favorite option)
2. Hire a traffic attorney and hope for the best (this is probably what most people end up doing, and if you don't have time, it's not a bad idea)
3. Ask for a court date, and litigate the ticket yourself (this is where the fun is)
4. Don't do anything and get your license suspended (ok, they don't really give you this option, but that's what will happen if you don't act).

The clock is ticking

You've got 30 or 60 days to take option 1 or 2 depending on the county you got your citation in. You'll probably get a little pamphlet that will tell you how long you have, but the point is, act quickly. It might take some old fashion courthouses a few days (even weeks) to get the hand-written citation entered into the computer system, so sometimes you'll have to wait several days before you can do anything about your citation. If unsure, simply call the courthouse and find out.

Option 1 - Plead guilty, pay the fine, take the points

I would even go so far as to say that you should never just pay the ticket and take the points. Regardless of your driving record, what kind of citation this is, and weather you got a ticket in some other state or rural county, this is almost never an option. At least not until you've exhausted all your other options.

Option 2 - Get representation, make it someone else's problem

If you're in a major city or metropolitan area, within a week or so, your mailbox should be flooded by traffic attorneys wanting to represent you. This, combined with the internet and yellow pages, will serve as your starting point to hire an attorney to represent you. Most attorneys will offer you a full refund if they are not successful in keeping the points off of your license. Remember, that's not to say that you won't have to pay court costs, or a reduced fine, or both. What they actually do is try to get the case dismissed, which you could do yourself, but more on that later.

Grab your phone and call at several attorneys and get the following information:
  1. How much they charge (reasonable rates for Florida are about $60 - $100 if you're near the big cities). Rural locations have fewer lawyers who like to charge more.
  2. How long they have been in the business.
  3. If they will represent you themselves, or if they will have someone else do the legwork. Why do yo care? Because if the hire someone else, you're not getting the most bang for you buck. I don't like middle men, neither should you.
  4. If they offer a full refund in the event they are unable to keep the points off your license. Remember, you might still have to pay a fine and possible court costs.
Here's an attorney that I have used many times with success for violations in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties:
James H Babkes, Attorney
300 South Pine Island Road Suite 249
Plantation, Florida, 33324
Phone: (954)452-8630
Option 3 - innocent until proven guilty

This isn't criminal court, it's traffic court, which is a whole different ball game. It's all about technicalities. I'm going to show you how you can do exactly what any good attorney would do, all by yourself.

Let's break it down:

Ask for a court date. Sometimes this is as easy as calling the courthouse that is listed either on the lower portion on the front of your ticket, or somewhere on the back. Other times the courthouse requests that you mail (or fax) them a written plea of "Not Guilty" in order to request a court date. If you are unsure, look to see what county is listed on your citation and then do a search for that county's courthouse on google. For example: "Alachua county courthouse" (which happens to be in gainesville). You may have to send in either a copy of your citation or the original. In either case, make sure you scan in, or make a photocopy of your citation for yourself in case the ink fades on the original.

Wait for the notice. Depending on how backed up the courts are, it may take several months for you to receive a blue piece of paper in the mail that tells you when and where to appear in court. If you hire an attorney, this paper will be sent to both you and the attorney representing you, and both of your names and addresses will appear on the notice. The first notice you should get will likely be for a "Pre-Trial conference". This is not the one with the actual trial with the judge. Moreover, the officer who pulled you over will not have to appear.

Examine your ticket for errors. Look at your citation carefully. Specifically, look in three places for mistakes, either of which will result in an immediate dismissal of your ticket.
  • Location #1: Make sure the direction that you were traveling at the time you were pulled over is checked off. If nothing is checked here, when you go to court, all you have to say is "Move to dismiss, no direction of travel listed. The case will be dismissed, and you will pay absolutely nothing.
  • Location #2: Check to see that the type of radar or equipment that was used to determine your speed is shown. If this section is blank, at your pre-trial conference, just say "Move to dismiss, no equipment listed", and you're off the hook.
  • Location #3: Look for the Florida statute that you allegedly violated. If there is none listed, show up to court, and say "Move to dismiss, no statute shown". If there is a statute, then look it up and make sure that the infraction you are being charged for is consistent with the statute. For example, if you allegedly ran a red light, make sure the statute says something about how you shouldn't run traffic lights. Often, the officer will forget the statute or write the wrong one in. This has even happened to me on a computer printed ticket! In my example photo, the statue listed is 316.189(1), which happens to be correct.
If they got it all right and the ticket is free of errors, and you have a relatively unblemished driving record (no tickets in the past year or more), your best bet is to change your plea from "Not Guilty" to "No Contest" or "Nolo contendere" (same thing). This, while not an admission of guilt, is basically telling the judge (or magistrate), that you are asking for the mercy of the court. The judge will look at your driving record and will most likely withhold adjudication, which means no points on your license, and he or she may reduce the fine.

Show up to Court. By this time, you should already have a strategy of what you're going to do when you go to court. Remember to come early (I'll tell you why in a bit). If you're late, or you don't show - the court will immediately suspend your license.

When you arrive, sit up front. Look for the lawyer(s) seated or standing up near the front of the courtroom. These well dressed people get to go first. Sit near them so that you can hear what goes on and learn the tricks of the trade. You've got nowhere to go, so you might as well use your time wisely.

At the pre-trial conference. The first notice you receive in the mail will be for a pre-trial conference where there will be a magistrate (no judge), and the officer will not be present. Here you can bring about any motions for dismissal, or enter a change of plea. That's it, two options.

My advice is to first bring about any motions to dismiss if you have them. If that fails, or if you don't have any reasons to dismiss, then do the following: Ask the magistrate if you could "hear the offer for a change of plea to no-contest" (it's important to be polite here). This basically tells him or her that you don't want to change your plea just yet, but that you'd like to hear what the magistrate would do if you did. If he or she is nice, then they'll usually give you this information. If the magistrate says something like "I'll withhold adjudication and reduce your fine to X dollars", then my recommendation is for you to go ahead and enter a change of plea by proclaiming "Change of plea, your honor". If the magistrate is not in a good mood, and doesn't want to tell you what you would get ahead of time, or says that they will assess points and/or charge court costs, you should then ask for a trial by saying "request Trial, your honor".

The Trial. If you've gotten this far, that means you weren't too successful in getting your ticket dismissed and/or you didn't like the plea for "no contest". Long after your pre-trial, you will get another notice in the mail notifying you of your trial date. The officer who pulled you over, any witnesses, and any other plaintiff's (if any) must show. If the officer (or plaintiff in the case of an accident) does not show, your case will be immediately dismissed.

If the officer appears in court, you should do the following: Try to bring any motions to dismiss if you have any. You may try to bring the same motion that was previously denied for whatever reason. You never know, it may get accepted this time around.

If you have no grounds for dismissal, and the officer appears, first look towards the officer and say "Are you prepared to proceed?". It's amazing, but sometimes officers will show up to court without proper documentation, or forget their logbook and say "no". At this point, you simply "move to dismiss" and you're done. If the officer comes prepared to proceed, you should "change of plea to no contest" and take what the court gives you. It is almost never a good idea to actually try to litigate the citation if the officer is present and has all their paperwork. Your chances of success are minuscule, and you risk aggravating the judge and being charged court costs.

Best of luck!

* Although my example is for Florida, these tips are valid for any state, your citation might look a little different. Check with your courthouse for any changes in exact courthouse procedure.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The leaking windshield washer bottle (BMW 3 Series, E46 models)

If you're in your BMW 3 series, and your windshield washer fluid light comes on, what do you do? Refill the bottle of course. Then, a day goes by and the light comes back and you know haven't squirted anything on your front glass. Take a peek on your garage floor and you might see a puddle of the very same washer fluid you carefully poured into your bottle. You've got a leak!

The windshield water container, canister, bottle, whatever you wanna call it is relatively easy to take out. One bolt and and out she comes. Attached to the side is the pump, and right under the pump is a tiny strainer with a rubber o ring forming the seal.

This has actually happened to me a couple of times (living in an exceptionally hot climate might have something to do with it), and both times it has turned out to be the windshield water pump. If it's not the pump, think strainer, and lastly, suspect the bottle. Unfortunately, I haven't found any tell tale sign on how to tell which of the three it is, but I would recommend replacing the strainer and the pump at once and you'll most likely nail it.

No.DescriptionSupplementQty From Up To Part NumberPriceNotes
01Windshield cleaning container5L1



05Strainer f wash pump


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The faulty adjuster unit causing a vacuum leak (E46 BMW)

The Problem:
Engine runs rough, to the point where it can cause the engine to stall out when idling idle or running at low RPM. The whole car shakes or shudders as the engine misfires every once in a while.

Characterized by the following codes (you might have a slightly different variety):
P0171 - System Too Lean (Bank 1)
P0174 - System Too Lean (Bank 2)
P0303 - Cylinder Misfire (Cylinder 3)
P0304 - Cylinder Misfire (Cylinder 4)
P0305 - Cylinder Misfire (Cylinder 3)

The culprit is a part that commonly goes bad on E46 machines, a little black box on the intake side of the engine called the adjuster unit. Mine went bad after 170k miles... yours may fail sooner. If you suspect it -- just change it out. Some people on re-glue the old part to fix the vacuum leak - but since the flapper inside the unit goes bad anyway (see video), I would highly recommend changing out the whole unit. The part should cost you just under $200 from the stealer (dealer).

Tools you'll need:
  • Torx T40 screwdriver.
  • 10mm socket and ratchet (an extension is useful here)
  • Pliers to pull pop out the plastic rivets used to hold down the air box
  • A T40 torx bit attached to a ratchet at a 90 degree angle for removing the bottom screw (see picture)

Time it'll take: 30 minutes if you don't drop any screws or tools/sockets into the engine compartment (Key here: TAKE YOUR TIME).

Diagram (Part #7 is what we're after)

M54 ENGINES (325 & 330)
07 ADJUSTER UNIT -- 11 61 7 544 805

Here's a video of the failed part and where it came from:

Monday, September 7, 2009

Xmarks - Bookmark synchronization that just works

So you've got bookmarks on your computer at work, some on your desktop at home, maybe some on a laptop somewhere, and you can never seem to find where you saved what. Sound familiar? This got me so fed up that I ended up creating my own html page on the web somewhere that I used to store important web sites. Come on now, it's 2009 already!

I have finally found a plug-in that properly synchronizes (yes, synchronizes, not just copy over) your bookmarks. It works flawlessly with firefox, but I do plan on trying it on some other browsers. Don't want for me to do it - try it out yourself!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

BMW 3 Series (E46) Evaporator Temperature Sensor and Dash removal DIY

Every car has it's share of problems. For Toyota's, it might be water pumps and weak CV axles, for Nissan's it might be motor mounts that prematurely crack and break, for Hondas, you might experience havoc if your timing belt breaks prematurely.

BMW's have their own set of issues. One of them is the A/C evaporator. Most often, these develop a leak and the cooling ability of your air conditioner quickly comes to grinding halt.

One of the reasons this particular problem is so annoying is because the amount of work (labor) it takes to replace one. It took us (myself, the owner and a very savvy mechanic) about 6 hours of total labor. If you're thinking about making this one a do-it-yourself (DIY) project, then you'd better cancel all your plans for the weekend! But... have faith, it can be done.

We followed the Bentley BMW 3 series service manual, which has very good photos and decent descriptions on how to take the dash completely out.

Here we have most of the dash components already taken out. The steering wheel has already been removed.

The A/C vent comes out by grabbing it with your thumbs and pulling slightly upwards and out to release the clips underneath.

Watch carefully how the A/C vent cable is installed before removing it.

You're going to end up with a LOT of screws. It might be a good idea to put the screws in a zip-lock bag and label each of them.

Removing the airbag is pretty straight forward. Just be careful where you store it, and make sure to disconnect the cable without breaking the plastic harness.

Here's a shot with the dash completely removed. You'll need some help taking it out. The center console and gear shifter are kind of in the way. We were able to remove it from the passenger side by turning it and guiding it out slowly. Watch the headliner during this operation, especially if it's in good shape.

This is the driver's side. The only tricky part here is the headlight switch wiring harness. You have to slide the white collar around in order to release it. This took me a little while to figure out, and the Bentley manual wasn't of much help here.

Notice all the wiring harnesses. Try to remember which one went where, but don't panic -- it's pretty obvious where everything plugs in once you start putting everything back together.

This is the one of the evaporator temperature sensors connectors. The actual sensor is on the other side, in front of the heater core.

The second sensor is near the riverside right foot well area. The while harness with the green and white wire is the connector. The actual sensor is behind the connector itself. Don't worry about where the other end of the green and white wire goes.

The steering wheel airbag has to be removed. This is the sport steering wheel, so you have to insert a little screw driver in the slits on the side of the steering column to release the air bag assembly.

The wiring harnesses here are different. First you release the collar of the harness then pull up to disconnect. Again, be careful where you store the airbag.

Here's a shot of the car with the dashboard removed. Looks pretty overwhelming, but it's not actually as bad as it seems. Just keep track of all the screws and harnesses and don't rush!

When putting everything back together, go backwards, and make sure you have all the wiring harnesses connected before screwing in each part.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bling out your Hummer

Hummers are synonymous with excess. Originally a military vehicle, now a style statement for civilians. I always chuckle when I see commercials for the H2 and H3 - is General Motors trying to create some class conflict within?

So if you had the hummer, and you lived in a major metropolitan area where this type of display of excess has almost become common place, how do you stand out? How about you bling it out with gold bumpers and spare tire housing. It'll definitely garner attention you crave, albeit not necessarily the right kind.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

BMW 3 series (E46) poor quality plastic interior peels off

If you've owned an E46 3 series, you probably noticed that the plastics on the interior start to peel after only a few short years of use. The parts that are most affected are the oddments tray, the cup holder, the entire center console, the rear ash-tray surround, and the storage compartment in the dash.

Your only choice is either to take it up with the warranty department at BMW, or go buy replacement parts for the dealer and replace everything yourself. The hardest piece to change is the center console, but still the price for all these pieces isn't exactly cheap!

I hope BMW has improved their quality of interior plastics on the new generation 3 series (E90 and E92) .

Picture of old (left) and new (right).

Reset oil service indicator for all 3 series (1998–2006) E46 BMW cars

For BMW 318i, 323i, 325i, 328i, 330i, 525i, 528i, 530i models

This is a common question that gets asked a lot on almost every online BMW forum. When you're out of warranty, going to the dealer (read: stealer), is almost never a good idea -- especially when it comes to routine service that you can easily do yourself. If you change your oil yourself, or go to an independent shop to get it done, then you'll need to know how to reset your indicator so it doesn't blink "Inspection" in the instrument cluster every time you turn the key. It's also a good way to keep track of when to change your oil.

While the oil service indicator will only prompt you to change your oil every 10-15k miles (depending on how you drive), I wouldn't wait that long to change your oil -- especially if your car is not a lease, and you plan to keep it. The consensus on the boards is to change your oil anywhere between 3k to 5k miles. I do mine every 5k with the 5W-30 synthetic.

Steps to reset your oil service indicator:
  1. Turn the key all the way to the off position
  2. Press and HOLD the left knob on the instrument cluster (keep holding)
  3. Turn the key ONE CLICK to the accessory position
  4. Continue to hold the left knob until the test changes to reset
  5. Now release the left knob and press and hold it again
  6. When the word reset starts to blink, release and press the left knob once more time
Your service indicator should now read around 15,525 miles.

If you're confused, check out the video.

Friday, August 7, 2009

More photo for your buck

Costco is running a special in September on their ├╝ber large 20"x30" photo enlargements for under $10 ($9.95/each). I know what you're thinking - print quality. If you're like me and take the quality of your photos seriously, I share your skepticism. However, some professional have said the prints come out remarkably good; on par with with pro labs such as Dale or Mpix.

One word of caution: finding frames in some awkward sizes such as 20x30 might not prove to be easy. Make sure you check the availability of a matching frame before you submit your order for your gargantuan, life size print.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Deal Savvy: Online coupon shopping

It's amazing how you can find practically anything online these days. Not sure how regular brick and mortar retailers can even compete, and I guess many can't, as evidenced by the closure of Circuit City. It's getting to the point where I actually feel guilty shopping online because I know that I'm contributing to the closure of some wonderful local store. But, what can I do? Pay more?

Compound the problem with online coupons. Fatwallet was one of the first sites I heard about that would detail exactly how to squeeze every bit of value out of your dollar. Recently, I used logicbuy to get 30% off $1099 on one of my new favorite HP Pavilion dv3t series laptops. Killer price for an amazing machine.

Be weary though, not all coupons are as good as they seem. Some claim to be 50% off, but the resulting price is only a few dollars off from what other e-tailors are hawking the same item for.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The super thin, highly attractive, Lenovo u350

After using a 1.3Ghz Pentium Mobile on the ultra portable Lenovo u350 for about a week, I got mostly what I expected, but some surprises as well. Although the mobile Pentium will give you lots of battery life, and adequate processing power for most tasks -- if you're a techie, you'll undoubtedly run into some of it's limitations and get a little frustrated. Specifics? Try playing back HD video on your TV over HDMI: smooth 1080p playback is just not possible. I even tried the "fastest in the world" CoreAVC software codec, and the hardware accelerated Media Player 12 running on Windows 7. Try un-raring some large downloads, or even opening up large PDF's. Every now again, you'll get a little annoying pause. Price is awesome though - I got the super sexy u350 for $610 shipped to my door after the Lenovo employee discount (it pays to know people). Personally, I think 13.3" is the sweet spot for laptops. 14.1" is just a bit on clunky side, and 12" feels a little too cramped.

The build quality of the machine is above average. The light weight comes at the obvious cost of durability. You definitely notice the abundant use of lightweight materials (read plastics) on this machine. With normal use, I don't foresee any problems - but I doubt it would withstanding the daily stresses that road warriors would put it through for too long. It isn't quite the bullet-proof tank that the Thinkpad T series is legendary for, but then again, it doesn't come with the hefty price tag of the T series either.

Never thought the day of the sub $1000 ultra portable would come so soon! Gotta love economies of scale.

Why blog?

Blogging has been around for quite some time now. It was all the rave a few years ago, and was the new, trendy, hip thing to do. Then we had the emergence of social networking sites like myspace (which I despise) and facebook which allowed even the most introductory web surfers to establish a web presence. Now weather the content was actually useful is highly debatable.

I sidestepped the blogosphere when it first debuted, but I’ve made an about-face and decided to embrace it now. Why the change of heart? Because I feel I can contribute meaningful stuff. Many of my google searches, and I’m sure you’ve experienced the same, have landed on some blog that has empowered me with valuable information. So — I’d like to give back. I can’t recall the amount of times people have asked me on how to do something, or information on some topic that I did some research on, and I’ve had to strain my memory, or dig through my mail/browser history to find the information in question. Solution? Blog it!

So, completely selfless intentions? Not quite. Countless times, I have myself forgotten how I tackled a problem have lost valuable information that I spent hours gathering. Blogging it would be one way to make it easier for me to find — I hope.

So there it is. Let’s see where this goes.