Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Smell of Petrol

Before I purchased Pea Soup I did a lot of research in to VW campers in the hope that once I got one I wouldn't have too many surprises.

One very scary thing that I found out during my research is that these vans are very prone to catching fire.  I found no end of horror stories about peoples pride and joys getting completely burnt out, and saw hundred of photos and videos of both the aftermath of fires and of the fires in action.

The reason for them being prone to fire comes simply down to rubber fuel hoses that get brittle over time and then split and leak petrol over the engine.  Being that the engines in these air cooled vans run hotter than modern cars there is enough heat to ignite the petrol and that then is pretty much the end of your van.

In order to try and reduce the risk of these fires happening, and also limit the damage should one occur it is highly recommended that the two first things you do IMMEDIATELY when getting an old VW van is a) replace all the rubber fuel lines, and b) fit an automatic fire extinguisher in to the engine bay.  These automatic fire extinguishers get triggered by heat and so if a fire does start they should go off and hopefully put the fire out.

Bearing all this in mind I made sure that included in my budget for the van was both of these things.

So, when I first spoke to the dealer selling Pea Soup it wasn't too much of a surprise when he said to me "I've just started her up and noticed a fuel leak and so want to get the fuel lines replaced before you come to view it.".

A week or so later I spoke to him again and he'd had the offending fuel lines replaced and so we arranged to go and see it.

On viewing the van there was still a strong smell of petrol inside.  Knowing that there had been a fuel leak I put this smell down to still being lingering from the leak, and this, combined with knowing from my research that I should check in detail all the fuel lines anyway, didn't put me off.

I didn't however want to drive it anywhere before being able to check everything out and so much to my delight the dealer said he would be able to deliver it to our house on the back of a lorry, and so as promised, a week or so later Pea Soup was delivered to our door on a low loader and the only distance I had to drive it before being able to check everything over was the few metres on to our driveway.

On her arrival it was very evident that the smell of petrol was still there.  Any remaining smell from a leak should have long since disappeared and so I knew there was more to it, and so over the next couple of weeks I embarked on a completely strip out and replace of pretty much the entire fuel system.

It became apparent very quickly that the dealer had only replaced the one piece of rubber fuel line that had had the leak in it.  Meaning that there was still a lot of VERY old rubber fuel line that was from the look of it original - so 36 years old.  The good thing is that replacing all the fuel lines themselves is a very easy task.  

First part of the job was to drain the fuel tank.  I knew there wasn't much fuel in it and so got a couple of fuel cans in case and upon crawling under the van to do this I noticed that the fuel lines coming from the tank were actually oozing the smell of petrol from them.  You should not be able to smell petrol going through a good solid rubber fuel pipe and so this meant that these pipes and corroded/split to the point that petrol was actually leaking though them - good job they were all coming off anyway!

Pulling off the fuel line from the tank to the the petrol pump so that I could drain the tank showed me just how bad they condition of the rubber was - it literally crumbled in my fingers, flooding me we petrol as it fell apart.

It didn't take me long to get all the old rubber lines off and new ones fitted, and having done that I could move on to the harder part of the job.

The fuel tanks on these vans have a fuel breather system that takes any evaporated fuel and then feeds it in to the engine.  This fuel breather system is mainly made up from metal pipes, however the metal pipes are joined in numerous places by little pieces of rubber hose, and these also need replacing as if they split you start venting fuel vapour which not only smells but can also be flammable.  Doing this was where the "fun" started.

Most of these rubber joining pieces are tucked away in the fuel tank compartment which is behind a bolted in firewall, which in turn is behind the engine.  With the engine out you can easily remove the firewall to get good access, however with the engine place all you can do is move the firewall cover out by a couple of inches at the top allowing you to just get your arms in to the fuel tank compartment where you then have to replace these sections of rubber hose by feel alone.  This took me hours and hours and resulted in my arms getting totally scratched up from forcing them through gaps where they didn't really fit.  Getting the old bits of hose off wasn't a problem as again they were all just crumbling and falling apart (I think these were the cause of the strong smell of petrol) but getting new hose on, along with jubilee clips screwed up tight on both ends, when you can't see what you are doing and have hardly any space to move was a nightmare.  I did thankfully manage it though so no need to remove the engine - yet...

Sadly doing all this was before I decided to blog and so I didn't take many pictures, however I did take a couple of pictures with our mini camera inside the fuel tank compartment to try and help me know where I was trying to do things.  In these pictures you can see the small pieces of rubber hose that I was trying to replace and how small an area I was working in - I'd say the height as seen in the picture is about 7cm.

While I had the firewall open a crack I figured I may as well replace the only other bit of rubber in the fuel system that I hadn't already replaced - the petrol filler hose that goes from the filler cap on the side of the van to the petrol tank.  This again would have been easy with the engine out, but proved to be another nightmare that took me another good few hours as again I had to do it though two small holes completely by feel.

The final parts of the fuel system that I then replaced were the fuel gauge sender unit that bolts in to the top of the fuel tank and the carbon filter in the fuel breather system.

One of the previous owners had fitted an extra third party fuel gauge which used a different (non-vw) sender unit.  I'm planning on trying to get the original fuel gauge working, hence the replacement - and this also means that a new seal is fitted around the sender unit which should stop any petrol fumes leaking from there.

The carbon filter in the fuel breather system is basically a big box that is filled with activated carbon - any fuel vapours coming off this fuel tank are collected in the carbon filter and then sucked in to the engine and burnt next time the engine is run.  The activated carbon stops working after a time and so the whole thing starts smelling of petrol, and so I stripped the filter down, go some new carbon from a pet shop supplier (it's the same stuff as used in tropical fish filters!) and refilled it. Simples!

With the fuel system all restored I left the van overnight to see what the petrol smell was like in the morning.  To my delight, after having all aired out the smell of petrol was completely gone, and so that must mean that at least one of the parts I changed was a problem before and is now fixed.

It also hopefully means that Pea Soup is less likely to catch fire as the main causes of fire have now been replaced.

There was one thing left to do before I could say that this job was complete - check that the van still runs.

On first attempt it fired up fine and then died after a few seconds.  Second and third attempts did the same.  So I started checking things, like making sure that fuel was flowing etc. but no luck - everything seemed fine.  I was beginning to think that I'd broken something major when I noticed a pipe on the engine connected at one end but just dangling at the other.  After a bit of hunting around I found that it should have been connected to the air filter box and after putting it back on correctly I tried the engine again and it started first time and kept running.

Phew - that was a hard and not very pleasant job!

*** Update *** This was all done about two months ago now and I'm pleased to say the smell of petrol has stayed away :o)


  1. You are scaring me. Strange; I don't remember seeing these horror pictures when you were putting forth the campervan proposal to me...

  2. Blimey! Glad you weren't so hot as to spontaneously combust when you got leaked on. I can't believe you had to replace so many bits just by sticking your arm in and feeling about. Hope you are confident of your blind work! (and that your arms have been left unscarred!) Bravo on another job well done :-D