This year I rode the Nightowl down to the 2019 Haystack conference on search relevance. I rode the entire way there with a dead fuel pump. Strange, but true.
The Setup: Wishful Thinking
During the combined 6k-12k-18k service that immediately preceded this trip, I noted that the Nightowl ran like crap, missing a lot and bogging down under any significant load. At the time, I chalked this behavior up to skunky gas left in the talk all winter. My wishful thinking was that a fresh tank of gas would fix the problem and all would be well in the world again.
In shakedown rides before the trip, I had filled up as soon as I’d run about a 1/3rd of a tank of the old gas out of its system. During the short ride home from the station noted that the bike ran better, but not great. Satisfied that a full tank of new gas would solve the job, I went on with other preparations for the trip.
If I’d only known…
Cold, Wet, and Ugly
I had about 500+ miles to cover to get the the Haystack conference, which included two days of training that would start on Monday. With an entire weekend to play with, I elected to go against my usually get-the-hell-out-of-town modus operandi and did not leave Friday night. I knew I’d have plenty of time to get at least halfway there (even on back roads) on Saturday. With any luck, the cold and wet weather Friday evening would blow through by the time I left on Saturday.
Overnight, some big airmass out east threw out an anchor and halted any eastward movement of any weather system trailing behind it. Consequently, I woke up Saturday morning (after sleeping in a bit) to a cold, windy, rainy day.
I knew this meant layering up in a shirt, my heated jacket liner, my jacket, and my rain suit. With my recent weight gain, I already felt like a sausage in my leather jacket, so the prospect of riding the entire day with the heated jacket liner crammed in as an extra layer was a bit depressing. Alas, we make our decisions and we live with them. So I layered up, prayed that the jacket zipper wouldn’t break, and headed out into the not-so-inviting riding conditions.
Through wind and rain and weather, hell bent for leather, wishing my gal was by my side…Frankie Laine, theme to Rawhide
The wind was out of the west-north-west and my route was south with a turn southeast about 90 miles in. That meant I dealt with a gusty crosswind for the first hour or so of the trip. The gusts weren’t strong enough to push me out of my lane, but still a unwelcome distraction.
I was thinking that the ride was colder than I expected. Then I realized that my heated jacket liner and gloves weren’t working. I had installed the on-board controller right after I bought the Nightowl. It had worked well for years, but nothing I did now was bringing it back to life. But wait…
Good news: I have a second circuit in place for Karen’s heated gear, one that taps directly into the battery.
Bad news: The second circuit has no inline controller, so my heated gear would either be on full blast or off.
I expected to alternate between freeze and fry for the rest of the day, but the good news (really?) was that it was cold enough that full blast heated gear was actually comfortable.
Making Ohio Interesting
While southern Ohio is filled with hilly river valleys that make for excellent riding, Northern Ohio is a bit of a yawner. Lots of farmer’s fields, mostly flooded in low spot due to the ongoing rain. There is no convenient interstate that takes you across Ohio from the northwest to the southeast, so a route of back roads at least does a bit to make the ride more visually interesting.
Over the years I’d established my favorite route from Marion, OH east to Fredericktown, southeast through Mount Vernon and on to Zanesville. Then I’d take a route along the Muskingum River, winding in a general southeasterly direction to the Ohio River at Marietta.
My Ohio-base riding brethren will, no doubt, remind me of all the great roads through the Athens area (Hocking Hills, et al) but that is a little more out of my way and I’m not going to significantly add to my time in the saddle today given the conditions.
It’s Not the Gas, It’s the Bike
The rain had mostly stopped by the time I’d reached Marion and departed the slab for the two-lanes. By this time, I was down to a little below half a tank and the Nightowl was increasing its tendency to miss and run rough. I pushed east past Mt Gilead and finally got gas as my route crossed I71. I filled up hoping that the Nightowl would run better after adding 2/3rds a tank of fresh gas. I even sprung for the 93 octane fuel, hoping it may help.
Pulling out of the gas station, I could feel that it wasn’t missing nearly as much, but it was still missing. A few miles later, I tried to pass a slower vehicle, usually a laughably easy proposition on the Nightowl, but it bogged down under load and I had to fiddle with the throttle to ease around the slower car.
Oh, the embarrassment.
I spent the rest of the ride to Zanesville pondering the possible causes of the crappy running. The landscape got hillier, and that required more throttle jockeying by me. As I passed the small farms and pastures, nested in valleys and bordering forests, a pattern of behavior started to emerge.
Any time I asked too much of the motor, it would completely die for a second or two and come back in a sudden rush. If I flirted with that threshold of death, I could feel the engine running slightly better and worse, almost as if I was losing or gaining the use of one of the six cylinders at a time.
The other thing I noticed was that the lower the fuel level got in the tank, the worse the missing got.
I was thinking that the ignition system could contribute to this behavior, but what I was experiencing didn’t fit the profile. You see, if you turn off the ignition on a running vehicle and then suddenly turn it back on, the unburned gas that got pushed into the exhaust usually ignites when the ignition resurrects itself. This causes a backfire, which when experienced on a Harley with barely-baffled mufflers, can be a real eye-opener to the folks on the road behind you. So, no, it can’t be an ignition problem.
It has to be fuel starvation.
In addition to all the evidence, I did have that smoking gun from the GS911 scan before the combined 6k-12- 18k, service I performed just before this trip:
21F5E2 : Fuse activated for Electric fuel pump, overload Currently present : NO Engine warning light (MIL) : NO Frequency count : 5 Logistic(Healing) count : 40
I rolled along the pleasant sweepers on the banks of the Muskingum River, wondering if the fuel pump fault code wasn’t really going away. What if the fuel pump wasn’t starting at all, or at least not running at full capacity? That might be a condition where the fuel rail is running under too low a pressure but not drawing quite enough current for the fault code to set.
This is where my mind was when I pulled into Marietta.
Evening in Marietta
Marietta, Ohio is a nice little town at the confluence of the Muskingum River and the Ohio River. It sports two bridges over the larger Ohio River: one old two-lane bridge, and a wider set of spans for I77. It has a nice old downtown, where the buildings often have hand-painted high-water marks on them with dates of historic floods over the years. I spent a summer or two in this area as a child, so some of it is still recognizable, but not much.
I pulled into a gas station not for gas but to evaluate my lodging options for the night. My go-to Wyndham Rewards app did its normal good job of finding me a discounted rate as a local Super 8 motel, right in the middle of a shopping mall district with plenty of restaurant options.
I was checked into the motel by a former rider, an older gentleman who walks with a cane due to the accident that ended his riding career. We chatted for a bit and he came out to check out the Nightowl. He couldn’t believe that there were six cylinders of motor crammed onto that bike. He really liked the brightness of the Clearwater driving lights, especially when I turned them on full blast.
After moving the necessary luggage into my room, I pulled out my iPad and walked back out to the bike. I hooked up the GS911 and did a quick live-value read on the engine controller. It showed the fuel pump in an ON state, but it also showed the fuel pressure as 12.85 PSI.
12.8? That’s below normal atmospheric pressure of 14.7 PSI! That fuel pump may be “ON”, but it sure ain’t doing much. I immediately wondered what the correct pressure was, but I was getting hungry. My test complete, I headed across the parking lot for dinner.
The closest two food venues were a Shoney’s and a Pizza Hut. A craving for a Supreme Personal Pan Pizza directed me to the Hut. The waiter also talked me into an appetizer of Garlic Parmesan Bits. What can I say, I’m a carb lover.
While consuming my dinner and guzzling never-ending refills of diet soda, I scoured the internet for more information on the failure scenario the Nightowl was seeing and what options I had to fix it. When I finally looked up from my research, I found that I was the only remaining customer in the restaurant. Time to head back to the room.
When I’m an a motorcycle tour, I usually take my iPhone and iPad, but no laptop. Since I was traveling to a conference for work, I had my laptop with me this trip, which means I also had my BMW service manual software. It didn’t take long for me to find a documented procedure for measuring fuel pressure. The acceptable pressure for the K1600 was (drum roll, please), 3.5 bar +/- 0.5 bar. I asked Siri for a couple of quick conversions and translated these figures into a range between 43 and 58 PSI.
I’m running with less than 13 PSI.
No wonder the bike runs like shit.
I did a quick check for BMW Motorrad dealerships on my route through West Virginia and Virginia for tomorrow. No, there weren’t any dealers on my way, and they probably wouldn’t be open on Easter Sunday even if there were. There also wasn’t a dealer in Charlottesville.
Options are getting slim.
I started a new thread on the K1600 Forum, asking for insight and possible help along my planned route.
I went to sleep wondering how frustrating it would be to attend my first BMW Motorcycles Owners of America (MOA) event next weekend, riding some of the best motorcycle roads in America, with a crippled bike.