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Old 11-27-2009, 18:16   #1 (permalink)
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1991 Ford E350 - solenoid keeps dying

I have a 1991 Ford E350 van that has been converted to an ambulance.

One of the solenoids up under the hood keeps dying; I think its the starter solenoid - the van will not start after it dies. The entire electrical system seems to be dead (though there one of the little lights on one of the overhead switches comes on (powered by the auxiliary battery from the other side of the isolator??)).

I don't know of anything happening at the moment that the solenoid dies, I don't even know when its happening. Its not like it tries to start, makes some noise, then quits.

After replacing the solenoid, it starts fine and runs fine. I drive, park, turn it off. When I try to turn it on again, its already dead.

So far I am replacing it every time I turn the vehicle on - but I haven't tried simply turning it on, off, and on again. I've gone through a half dozen $10 solenoids already.

Most people seem to think that too much current is going through the solenoid. Is that right? Is there any other possible cause for a several solenoids in a row to die like that? Shouldn't there be a fuse to prevent that?

One person seems to think the computer is sending out the wrong voltage regulation instructions. Is that possible?

Another seems to think that there is a short WITHIN the starter itself. Would that cause these symptons? Would that cause the solenoid to die at any random time? I mean, wouldn't I notice the failure DURING an attempt to start the vehicle, if the short was within the starter?

Another person thinks I may be using the wrong solenoid. I've used the standards ones from Kragen and Autozone for a 91 Ford E350 - but is it possible that it needs a different solenoid since its an ambulance?

Another pair of mechanics seemed to think this was an extremely rare problem, and the best explanation they could come up with was an exposed wire somewhere in the engine causing a short. They didn't seem to think that checking computer codes would help, and recommended I pay for 2 hours of 'electrical diagnostic' in the form of taking things apart (everything is packed in very densely) and looking around for a bad wire, an exposed wire.

If it was an exposed wire, then it would only short when it happened to bump up against the frame, right? Is it true that NO form of testing would reveal the exposed wire, without visually inspecting everything?

Are there any tests I or the mechanic should do before taking it apart? (I may have a multimeter kicking around, and I have a minimal understanding of electronics.)

Would it be possible/desirable for me to wire a fuse in line with the solenoid, to save money and time - replacing the fuse rather than the solenoid?

If anyone has any comments at all on any of these ideas - supporting or rejecting any of these theories, I would really appreciate it.

I moved recently, and I don't know any mechanics in the area that I can trust wholly. I know just barely enough about cars to recognize some of the mechanics that I called were feeding me a line of BS about their 'diagnostic methodology'.

What would you do if you faced this situation, and wanted to keep your repair costs as low as possible?

Last edited by learner91; 11-27-2009 at 18:25. Reason: I said the solenoid keeps 'burning out', but I don't know for sure if thats right - only that it quits working.
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Old 11-27-2009, 19:52   #2 (permalink)
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Re: 1991 Ford E350 - solenoid keeps dying

The starter solenoid is part of the starter. Maybe the solenoid is a battery isolator. Do you have a picture of the solenoid? What engine does it have? Are there 2 batteries? Did it come with a wiring diagram for the ambulance part?

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Old 11-28-2009, 15:43   #3 (permalink)
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Re: 1991 Ford E350 - solenoid keeps dying

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Originally Posted by rtg143 View Post
The starter solenoid is part of the starter. Maybe the solenoid is a battery isolator. Do you have a picture of the solenoid? What engine does it have? Are there 2 batteries? Did it come with a wiring diagram for the ambulance part?

Welcome to the forums.
Thank you for the welcome, and for responding!

The part I keep buying/replacing is described by the CSK website as the "Master Pro Starter Solenoid". This is for a "1991 Ford E-350 Econoline" with a "V8 7.3 Liter V8 7.3 Liter Diesel". Since its an ambulance, I'm not even sure its an 'econoline' but the rest of that is correct. A photo of it is here:

http://shop.oreillyauto.com/product_images/img/mpi/ss4.jpg


I heard the 'starter solenoid' is often part of the starter, but is sometimes separate. There are two identical looking solenoids under the hood, both wired in and bolted on, side by side, and only one keeps failing.

As far as I know, it could be a 'battery isolator' as you say, and I'm replacing it with a starter solenoid. (I'm not sure what that means though).

It does have two batteries under the hood, and a third under the body (on the other side of an isolator). I do have a wiring diagram, but not with me as I write this. The part that deals with the starter solenoid is pretty simple - if I remember correctly the diagram shows it being wired to the battery, the starter, the ignition, and for some reason also to the 'isolator' used to separate the 3rd (deep cycle, for the ambulance lights, etc) battery.

I know my first post is really wordy, I hope that doesn't stop people from commenting on this problem.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, RTG.
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Old 11-28-2009, 16:24   #4 (permalink)
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Re: 1991 Ford E350 - solenoid keeps dying

Being wordy is the best way to get the problem figured out. Better than having to ask for more information. Try to look at the starter and see if it has a solenoid on it. I'm almost positive you'll see one there. If you can see the part of the wiring diagram that runs the starter circuit, maybe we can see how they wired it. As far as the solenoid, see if it clicks with just turning the key on without turning to crank. If it gets powered up with ignition, then it has to be a special solenoid that can handle constant power. The older cars that had a starter solenoid only energized with cranking.
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Old 11-28-2009, 17:11   #5 (permalink)
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Re: 1991 Ford E350 - solenoid keeps dying

Thank you!

I don't know if this helps, but here are two starters recommended for my vehicle:



and



I will also try to find the starter in my van - its really crowded in the engine.

As far as listening for a click - I know this is a dumb question, but that would have to be after I replace the solenoid with a new one, right?
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Old 11-28-2009, 17:33   #6 (permalink)
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Re: 1991 Ford E350 - solenoid keeps dying

Right, with a new one. You could also check the trigger wire and see if it powers up with the key in the run position, not start. If it does, that's the wrong solenoid for that purpose.
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Old 11-28-2009, 17:47   #7 (permalink)
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Re: 1991 Ford E350 - solenoid keeps dying

I'm sorry that I'm so ignorant.... Is the 'trigger wire' the positive/red wire going to the starter? Or do you mean the positive/red wire (if I remember correctly) going from the battery to the solenoid I keep replacing?

By 'Run' position, you mean I turn the key one click forward? (And 'start' would be turning the key all the way forward?)


Can you tell me if any of the ideas other people gave me (a bad computer/pcm/ecu, hidden exposed wire) are just nonsense?
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Old 11-28-2009, 18:23   #8 (permalink)
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Re: 1991 Ford E350 - solenoid keeps dying

Only when the solenoid is powered, can it get overheated. The key in the run position, not the start position. Check the small wire that triggers the solenoid, not the 2 larger ones.
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Old 12-10-2009, 16:54   #9 (permalink)
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Re: 1991 Ford E350 - solenoid keeps dying

How much current should I expect my glow plugs to draw?


There were two solenoids side by side, and the trigger wire for the solenoid that was burning out was wired to the 'master switch' for the vehicle. Or, at least it showed around 12v or so when the master switch was on, and no voltage when the switch was off.

I've rewired the two solenoids - now I'm only using one solenoid, and the trigger wire (I THINK) is coming from the ignition.

I also put fuses on two wires which received their power from the solenoid in the old wiring arrangement - and one of those fuses pops as soon as I engage the glow plugs. My next question is:

How much current should I expect my glow plugs to pull?

I put the fuse there because there may be a short in the system - but I want to match the fuse to the device. I don't know for sure where that wire goes (its very crowded in there and there are literally DOZENS of wires, most of which are unused, in this 18yo ambulance), but since the fuse pops the instant I activate the glow plugs, I suspect that wire is powering the glow plugs. I will be removing these fuses after I've figured out the problem and fixed it.

Does anyone know the 'normal' current draw of the glow plugs (all of them, together) for a 91 ford e350?
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Old 12-11-2009, 15:41   #10 (permalink)
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Re: 1991 Ford E350 - solenoid keeps dying

Quote:
"As far as the solenoid, see if it clicks with just turning the key on without turning to crank. If it gets powered up with ignition, then it has to be a special solenoid that can handle constant power. The older cars that had a starter solenoid only energized with cranking
RTG, I completely misunderstood what you were saying here, but in retrospect I don't see how - as it seems very clear to me now.

I think you hit the nail on the head here - the solenoid that was burning out in the original configuration was triggered by the 'master power switch' in the vehicle. Therefore, it was constantly 'turned on' - not just when running the starter. I think you were trying to tell me that I should NOT be using a 'starter solenoid' for this purpose, but a special solenoid that is designed to be left in the 'on' state for long periods of time.

BTW, I wasn't able to listen for a click, as I'm working on this by myself (and can't hear anything from the drivers seat) - but I threw a voltmeter on the trigger wire and found it was controlled by the 'master switch'.

It looks like the same 'reliable mechanic' who said this should be a starter solenoid also wired the fourth post to ground. According to the instructions that came with the starter solenoid, thats wrong.

I've temporarily rewired it so that I don't have the 'master power switch' keeping that solenoid active all the time - but I didn't test the other trigger wire to verify that its coming from the ignition. I also removed the 'grounding' wire.

In the course of rewiring this, I took two wires that had been 'downstream' from the solenoid and connected them to the 'battery' (upstream) side of the solenoid. This made me nervous, as I don't know if there is an intermittent short somewhere on those circuits - so I put a 30A fuses in-line on those wires.

The next time I started the vehicle: I turn the ignition, the 'glow plug' light comes on, I wait for it to go away. I turn the ignition farther, and the starter runs. The vehicle won't start. I let it keep cranking for a bit, as air had gotten into my fuel lines last week, but it still won't start.

One of the 30A fuses I installed popped. I decided the wire with that fuse was probably powering the glow plugs - I heard that the plugs pull from 6A to 15A each. Its a V8, so I guess that means it could be up to 120A total. I put a 175A fuse (closest I could find) in place of the 30A fuse, and the vehicle started up.

The start was rough and smelled awful - I'm wondering if thats because I had flooded the cylinders in my previous efforts to start the vehicle without glow plugs???

One thing I still don't understand - it that wire was powering my glow plugs, why did the 'wait for glow plugs' light go OFF after a few seconds? Isn't that controlled by a temperature sensor? And if the plugs aren't getting power, wouldn't that light (if it came on at all) stay on?

So I'm not sure exactly whats on that line which blew the 30A fuse. I just know that it starts right now, the solenoid hasn't burned out yet, and that I think RTG was right all along - the solenoid was dying due to (a) being designed to be turned on for short periods of time and (b) was wired to a switch that was left on all the time.
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