Taken a few years ago at some joint on Broadway in Nashville, this was one of several photos with good-looking girls I had never laid eyes on before. It wasn't my birthday, but the Nissan crew was telling every attractive female we encountered that it was. Here's to getting older!

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Great Hot Water Heater Pressure-Valve Caper of 2017

The freshly installed water heater in April of 2015.

I'm not the kind of guy who thinks everything should work as advertised all of the time, but my position is that new stuff should perform reliably, at least for a while.

It has been almost two years ago to the day I replaced my hot-water heater. You can read about that adventure here. Actually it was about 23 months ago, if you insist on picking nits. I think the life expectancy of a water heater should be something north of two years, right? Like, maybe, um...10, 12 or even 20 years? Maybe? Right?

Among the storied auto media organizations to which I belong, is GAAMA or the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association. I, in fact, was among the founders, serving on its board for its first two formative years. Making the twice monthly slog to Atlanta and back for a board meeting and then the regular group meeting simply became too time consuming.

At the end of two years when, as the senior vice president, I was heir apparent to assume the reins as president, I declined the responsibility and all of its assorted hassles, such as making those Atlanta runs. (If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve.) For the past couple of years, I've only attended the March meeting, which is in conjunction with the media day for the Atlanta Auto Show.

This year's media auto-show day was last Wednesday. With the festivities beginning with an 8 a.m. breakfast, I needed to be at Atlanta's convention center by 7:30 or so to sign in and so forth. Roughly two-and-a-half hours are required for me to drive the 150 miles from my house to the convention center. I know this because I've done it several times. Rain adds another 30 minutes or so to the total. It was a clear morning; so, I needed to leave my house no later than 5 a.m. Wow! I must be a real go-getter after all.

Answering my alarm at 4 a.m., I headed to the shower to the sound of a fairly high-pitched whistle. That's odd, I thought. I showered, toweled off and noticed the whistling persisted. Throwing on a bath robe, I walked the house investigating the source. My house is more vertical than horizontal and my recon only required about 45 seconds. Determining the sound was emanating from under the house, I pushed open the door leading from the lower-level hallway into the bowels of the crawl space. Yep, no doubt about it; the noise was much louder. Oh, I could also hear the sound of running water.

I'm not a handyman nor an expert on home repair, but I am a high school graduate. There definitely was something amiss in the deep, dark recesses of my crawl space. If you are an at least somewhat loyal Clanging Bell reader, you may know that my crawl space is not your typical den of dirt and mold. Accessed from the lower-level of my house, it actually occupies the area under the second level or main floor of the house. Entering through the lower-level hallway door just off my office, one drops about 30 inches onto a plastic-covered surface. One of the few benefits of being vertically challenged, I can bend over at bit at the waist and navigate around this tomb without too much trouble. But, it's still a crawl space.

I headed upstairs and ditched my robe, donning grubbies and my old yard-work tennis shoes, I grabbed a flashlight before heading down into the unknown.

Just to summarize: It's 4:15 a.m. and I'm under my house with a flashlight searching for the source of the noise and running water.

Both the whistling and the running water were from my water heater. The water was running out of the run-off located on the top of every water heater. I couldn't tell what was causing the whistling. Having no clue what to do, I crawled back out from under the house.

I decided to just flip off the breaker switch for the water heater and leave it until I returned from Atlanta. The breaker box is actually outside on the side of the house. Not a particularly safe nor convenient arrangement. With the band-aid in place, I dressed and was out the door to Atlanta by 5. In retrospect, I should have probably turned off the water, as well, but it was more of an aggressive dripping than a running.

Media day at the auto show wraps up with lunch followed by GAAMA's annual business meeting. I did wolf down some BBQ before rushing out the door, but I skipped the meeting. My goal was to have a water-heater plan of action in place before sunset.

Back under the house, the water was still flowing out of the heater's overflow run-off when I returned home. The water was now cold and there was no longer any whistling. I discovered when I depressed the pressure valve on top of the tank, the water flow stopped. Could it be something as simple as a malfunctioning pressure valve? Taking the glass-is-half-full approach, I decided replacing it would be my first line of attack.

I “Binged” replacing water-heater pressure valves and found a few You-tube videos on the subject. It didn't appear too difficult. I grabbed my second shower of the day and headed to my weekly gathering of the Wednesday-Night Irregulars at Greenville's Peddler Steak House. Leaving a little early, I stopped at the Lowe's next door to Peddler. Discovering there ate two sizes of replacement pressure valves, I purchased one of each at $14.95.

Because of project deadlines for a client, I didn't get around to readdressing the pressure-valve issue until after lunch the next day. Hiking out to the shed, I grabbed a garden hose, channel locks and a big wrench. I needed the hose to run from the tank drain to the downstairs shower. The other tools should be self-explanatory.

Roughly 45 minutes, a crack on the head from a floor joist, and about 10 trips down into and back out of the crawl space were required to complete the replacement.I was finished before 3:00.

To date, everything seems to be fine. Well, until the next time.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Toyota C-HR Event: Austin, Garrison Brothers, Angel Envy Rye and Bubble Wrap

2018 Toyota C-HR

I'm not the kind of guy who heads off to overnight destinations unprepared. I've been a road warrior for more than 30 years, and have racked up nearly 2 million miles on Delta alone. There are times when I only keep up with the day's date to meet the demands of my next plane ticket. When on the road, expect a pregnant pause if you ask me to name the day of the week. And, I don't travel nearly as much as some of my peers, and certainly not as much as I once did.

I've become fairly adept at packing. I'm hell on wheels gathering together what I will need for a two-night stay somewhere. Two nights is the common length of media car-event trips. Although some carmakers have turned their media events into one-night death marches, while others occasionally stretch an event into three or even four nights, two remains the industry standard. As an East Coaster, there's nothing like hopping on a plane at 5 a.m., spending six or seven hours on planes and in airports to reach a California destination, arriving at noon or so to wolf down a cold-cut sandwich, receiving an hour's indoctrination on some new vehicle, driving it for three hours, being fed dinner and then jumping out of bed the next morning to catch a flight home. Agreed, it's a first-world problem; but not much fun nonetheless. There's a good reason that two nights remains the industry standard.

Faced with a two-night outing, my packing skills know no equal. I am usually on autopilot when laying out the clothing I'll need. Two pair of underwear: check. Two shirts for dinners: check. A sport coat for dinners: check. And so forth. Now that I'm shooting video for, I must inventory and pack video gear, as well.

No matter the duration of a trip, I also always carry bubble wrap with me. It's part of that being-prepared thing. I stumble across a craft beer or hard-to-get bourbon with enough regularity on these trips that I've learned to be prepared to haul home a bottle or two in my checked bag. However, even with this level of preparedness, at times I'm not prepared enough.

A couple of weeks ago I headed to Austin, Texas with Toyota for the media reveal of its all-new C-HR crossover. (C-HR, incidentally, stands for "Coupe-High Rider.") From my previous junket to the Lone Star state a week or so earlier with Jeep, I was on a tear to secure a bottle of Garrison Brothers Bourbon. Carrying my standard-issue 12-inch by 48-inch sheet of bubble wrap, I felt as though I could easily meet the challenge of safely transporting a bottle of bourbon back to Greenville.

Lost a few hours in Banger's taproom that was within a block of our hotel.
Toyota hosted us in Austin's Hotel Van Zandt. Yes, that Van Zandt. Situated in an upcoming trendy area of the city, this hotel is surrounded by older homes converted into all manner of chic restaurants and watering holes. As one might expect with Austin as the event's home base, our C-HR drive took us into Texas Hill Country.

If since Toyota's announcement that it was deep-sixing its Scion brand you've spent some sleepless nights fretting over its demise, you only need look as far as Toyota's all-new C-HR to assuage your angst. The C-HR provides ample evidence that at least the phantasm of Scion lives on. Fully qualified to wear the Scion nameplate, C-HR exhibits Scion's two most prevalent traits: radical styling and somewhat tepid acceleration. Oh, and as with Scions of the past, it offers a value story, as well.

In fact, Toyota originally intended the C-HR to be Scion's first crossover. As for styling, it looks like the love child of a Nissan Juke and a Toyota RAV4. That's really okay, though. Toyota styling has always erred on the side of conservative. Think of C-HR as Toyota's version of your crazy uncle you give movie money to when company visits. It's fun and refreshing in a way, but will look a little odd when it arrives in showrooms in April parked between a Highlander and a Camry.

As with Scion's FR-S Coupe, Toyota defines C-HR's sportiness through its handling, rather than acceleration. Providing spirited handling, it corners sharply and without drama. Armed with what Toyota calls a “punchy” 144-horsepower 2-liter 4-cylinder engine mated to a continuously variable transmission, the C-HR offers acceptable acceleration for urban street warfare. On the highway, it cruises effortlessly once up to speed, but requires a lot of runway to get around slower-moving vehicles.

Toyota will offer C-HR in two flavors: XLE at $22,500 and XLE Premium at $24,350. Every C-HR will come right out of the box with a standard pre-collision system with active braking and full-speed range radar-based cruise control, as well as dual-zone climate control and backup camera. All-wheel drive isn't available.

After our C-HR ride and drive, my driving partner and I returned to the hotel, regrouped and then headed to a liquor store about four blocks away. Well stocked, this purveyor of spirits had a healthy variety of bourbons. Among them were a couple of bottles of Garrison Brothers. Immediately scooping up one, I continued down the aisle in search of other hard-to-get treasures. I didn't find anything else of great interest on the bourbon side, but I did a double take as I strolled by the ryes. Can it be? I thought. I looked again; and sure enough, I was staring at five bottles of Angel Envy Rye: the unicorn of rye whiskeys.
Mission accomplished!
I hadn't seen a bottle on a store shelf in months. Knowing I couldn't leave without one, I grabbed a bottle and headed to the checkout. Setting my two finds on the counter, I suddenly realized I couldn't take a bottle of Angels Envy Rye home for me without checking to see if my buddy Jeff would want one, too. Calling him, I wasn't surprised when he told me to get it.

Despite my careful packing, I knew I only had sufficient bubble wrap to secure two bottles in my checked bag. The store clerk directed us to a FedEx store another block up the street where I invested four bucks in a 10-foot roll of bubble wrap.

As I struggled back to the hotel with my purchases, I suddenly realized that although I had room in my checked bag for my newly acquired stash, my bag tipped the baggage check-in scale at 43 lbs when I left Greenville. I calculated the three bottles would push the suitcase precariously close to the 50-lb weight limit. Well, nothing I could do about it now. If push came to shove when checking in the next morning, I'd remove my tripod from the bag and hand carry it on the plane.

Checking in the next morning, I smiled at the counter agent as I ally ooped my bag on the scale, admitting to her, “It's the moment of truth.” I watched in alarm as the pound count whirled upward beyond 50 lbs, landing on 53 lbs. Wide-eyed, I looked at the gate agent expectantly. She smiled, shrugged and said, “You're okay.”

(Insert sigh of relief here.)

Delta is far from perfect, but occasionally, it comes through.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Yep, It's Another Delta Story

I'm not the kind of guy who looks a gift horse in the mouth, but I have suspicions about Delta and my attempted use of a $1,000 voucher it issued to me for giving up my seat on a flight home from South Bend, Indiana last September. (Oh, and for the record, if you are going to strand yourself in an airport for eight hours, South Bend shouldn't be your first choice.)

If you tuned in today for the post on my Toyota C-HR trip to Austin a couple of weeks ago that will include the to-be-continued element from last week's post about wanting a bottle of Garrison Brothers Bourbon, you'll need to wait another week. With my back-to-back trips this week, and a couple of commitments battling for my time today (Sunday my Clanging Bell post-writing day), I just don't have the time that the C-HR post requires.

Back to Delta.

One of my fraternity brothers, part of the group I went to the Wyoming guest ranch with for years and Nashville with last summer, moved to Montana last year. He decided to organize a little trip out there in August for our crew of merry fools. He has secured a very nice cabin on a lake near his home for the overflow of guys he can't accommodate at his house. Near Kalispell, it's a gorgeous area. Upon sharing his idea, the majority of us immediately became hand raisers.

Learning that Kalispell has the closest airport (Who even knew Kalispell has an airport?) to the proposed lodging, I jumped on to see if Delta services Kalispell. I have been disappointed more than once this past year learning that Delta no longer services a couple of destinations hosting car events. Santa Barbara being the biggest shock. Last month my trip to participate in the GMC Sierra HD event in Telluride entailed flying a different airline for the outbound than the return trip because Delta has all but abandoned Montrose, Colorado as a destination.

Remarkably, Delta services Kalispell. I don't recall exact ticket prices from my initial visit to last Thursday or Friday, but a regular round-trip steerage ticket from Atlanta to Kalispell was less than $600. My Knoxville-based fraternity brother reached out to me yesterday regarding flights. He said that if I advised him of the flights I booked, he would book the same flights between Atlanta (ATL) and Kalispell. I responded that I would book the tickets today and let him know.

I logged onto this morning fully intending to book the flights. I submitted dates and airports involved, clicked on the “Money” (as opposed to the “Miles” key) and was preparing to hit “Search” when I noticed a line of script at the bottom of the form asking if I would be using a certificate of some sort. Because that was my plan, I clicked on it and was spirited to my “Wallet” page showing my available certificates and vouchers. I checked the box for the $1,000 voucher and was immediately transported back to a blank for page where I had to reenter all the airports-and-dates information. Hmmm...odd, I thought.

When the flights came up, the prices were 25 to 30 percent higher than the prices three days ago. What? Me thinks something smells a bit fishy. I then clicked on “Miles” to see what numbers came up. Delta wanted 65,000 Sky Miles for the flight. That's really, really high. These are flights are six months from now. I've never paid anything close to that for flights booked a month out.(Note: Since posting this, I've gone back and rechecked my numbers. Seems I was too quick on the draw and my tendency to assume the worst regarding airlines got the better of me. I first checked fares for Saturday-Friday. When I went to book, I looked at Saturday-Saturday. The one day's difference accounted for most of the cost difference. Mea culpa.)

As one of its frequent fliers, I have an innate distrust of all things Delta. Depending on your point of view, I had a ridiculous or positive experience with Delta on Friday evening. I have upcoming flights from Greenville (GSP) to Los Angeles (LAX) that span Monday to Wednesday. Well after those tickets were booked for a Honda event, I received an invite to a regional Hyundai event in Raleigh, NC beginning that Wednesday. The only way I can arrive in Raleigh in time is to go from Atlanta to Raleigh, rather than going on to GSP and trying to fly to Raleigh from there.

Over the objections of the Hyundai travel adviser, I booked my Raleigh flights from Atlanta on Wednesday and then back to GSP on Friday. This left the Wednesday segment from ATL to GSP in place, but unusable.

As I was walking around downtown Greenville late afternoon on Friday, I received a text message from the Hyundai travel adviser telling me that Delta was raising a stink over what it considered a double booking. As a longtime Delta frequent flier, I knew I would have better luck dealing with Delta than a travel agent. Airlines absolutely despise travel agents.

Calling Delta, I explained the situation to the agent. I wanted to depart LAX on Wednesday and rather than to continue from ATL to GSP, I would board the booked flight to Raleigh instead. My ATL to GSP ticket would go unused and Delta could resell the seat. Because of all the video gear I now carry, I have to check a bag. I would get the desk agent in LAX to check my bag from LAX to Raleigh. Simple, yes?

To us mere mortals, this sounds perfectly reasonable. At least it does to me. Why should Delta give a damn that I wasn't going to use my ATL to GSP seat? In fact, doesn't it benefit Delta to be able to sell that same seat again? I basically just handed Delta $300. Would it cost Delta any more to check my bag through to Raleigh rather than GSP? I can't imagine it would. But, suddenly we were at an impasse. I was told they would allow the double booking, but the only way to get my bag all the way to Raleigh was to check it to ATL, pick it up there, recheck it to Raleigh and then reenter the terminal through TSA during my 75-minute layover in ATL. The only way I could avoid all of this, the Delta agent advised, is to combine and reissue the ticket. Charging me change fees and penalties to do so. Yep, Delta took what wasn't a complex issue to begin with and turned it into a major (and expensive) ordeal.

I didn't attempt to throw around my Medallion status, nor the fact that I've logged just short of 2 million miles with Delta. I didn't rant about never flying Delta again nor any of the other silly things I was so tempted to do. I played the victim card. I explained to her that the tickets were purchased separately by two different clients, and that neither would be willing to shoulder the change fees and penalties of which she was speaking. Either I would have to personally pay the extra expenses, or the trip to Raleigh would need to be canceled completely. And you know, I added, if my Raleigh client re-books the flights, it will be on whichever airline absorbed US Air and its routes. I'd rather fly Delta, but it would be out of my hands.

After two pow-wows with her supervisor, the inclusion of some other agent in another department and about 25 minutes of my time, Delta had canceled the ATL to GSP leg of my Wednesday trip, opening the way to check my bag from LAX to Raleigh. This was achieved at no cost to me, nor anyone else: a one-time favor, I was told.

There was absolutely no reason for all this drama. It was a simple problem with a simple fix. I can't imagine that similar situations don't play out each and every day. Why wouldn't Delta have a remedy, other than an expensive ticket change, in place? On one hand, the Delta agent at the call center went above and beyond the call of duty to work this out. On the other hand, there shouldn't have been anything to work out. The entire airline industry in general and Delta specifically is organized with no other goal than reaming the customer at every opportunity.

So, when the cost of a flight six months out mysteriously jumps 25 percent over the period of three days and the only variable is the form of payment from cash to a Delta credit voucher, it triggers my Spidey sense.

Perhaps I'm just a cynic. If so, I've earned it.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

From San Antonio to Comfort in the Redesigned 2017 Jeep Compass

I'm not the kind of guy who raves about this or that hotel. I stay in a lot of hotels, spas and resorts all over the place. Most of them are truly high-end properties that excel in pampering their guests. Generally, carmakers take very good care of us when hosting a media event. I'm not jaded by any stretch of the imagination. I still appreciate the level of service and comfort of the beds in a Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton, but long ago I ceased being dazzled by them.

So, it's something when I'm sufficiently impressed with a hotel to say so. In this instance, the lodging is San Antonio's Hotel Emma. In the past year I've stayed at Emma with Infiniti, Kia and, most recently, Jeep. To say I really like this property doesn't even come close to describing my enthusiasm for it. Located on the far north end of San Antonio's famed River Walk, it occupies the former home of the Pearl Brewery in the trendy Pearl District. Built in the 1800s, many elements of this historic structure have been preserved and integrated into the hotel. Everywhere you turn, history is staring you in the face.

Beyond the physical structure and its elements, service is topnotch, the bar remarkably well stocked and the rooms exceedingly comfortable. Although not part of the hotel, at one end of the building is the Southerleigh Restaurant, which is actually an upscale craft-brew pub. Hotel Emma is about as close to flirting with heaven as I want to get right now.

On this latest trip to experience the redesigned 2017 Jeep Compass, I was fortunate enough to spend a little time with the hotel's general manager Bill Petrella shooting a couple of just3things segments. A congenial host, he keeps all the balls in the air for this smooth-running operation. In less than 20 minutes, he delivered j3t segments on the River Walk and the Pearl District. Nailed it!

I arrived early on day 1, leaving me plenty of time to shoot the video I needed around the hotel. Dinner that evening was in the hotel followed by a visit to the Sternewirth 1883 for some small-batch bourbon and a few laughs. There was plenty of both.

The next morning we received the 411 on the Compass in a presentation lasting about an hour. Then we paired up, mounted up and headed off to sample this compact crossover in action. Our drive route took us out into Texas Hill Country where we eventually wound up at the Flat Rock Ranch near Comfort, Texas for lunch. Here Jeep had set up an off-road driving loop where we could really put Compass to the test.

Among the redesigned Compass takeaways is that this is a much improved vehicle. My driving partner and I judged its acceleration somewhat sluggish when trying to pass slower traffic. This may well be more of an issue with the 9-speed automatic transmission than with the 180-horsepower 2.4-liter Tigershark 4-cylinder engine. We found the powertrain much more spirited in the 4X2 Compass with a 6-speed automatic transmission that we drove back to the hotel that afternoon. Otherwise, there are no big buts in describing the updated Compass, whether discussing handling, ride quality, fit and finish, or amenities.

The reason for the 9-speed automatic (4X2 editions come standard with a manual 6-speed), of course, is fuel economy. Here the 4X4 Compass turns in more than credible numbers for its segment: Best in class, says Jeep. In the 4X4 with 9-speed auto tranny, the government estimates 22 mpg in the city/30 highway/25 combined. This is about the same as the significantly lighter 4X2 versions whether equipped with the 6-speed manual or automatic transmission.

Offroad, Compass is all Jeep. Offering Selec-Terrain, the system includes modes for snow, sand/mud, rock, as well as an automatic setting. The Compass Trailhawk also offers 4-Lo for really serious offroad crawling.

Boasting more than 70 safety systems, Compass also offers a wide range of tech features anchored by FCA's 8.4 Uconnect systems interface with an 8.4 in. touchscreen. Nicely crafted, the interior is comfy and surprisingly quiet. Pricing begins at $20,995 for the Sport 4X2. Loading up a Limited 4X4 with all the bells and whistles will top you out at around $34,700.

For dinner that evening Jeep walked us around the building to the front entrance of Southerleigh. The food was terrific, as were the craft beers brewed on site. After dinner it was back to Sternewirth 1883 for a nightcap. I confess, I have enjoyed Garrison Brothers Bourbon from time to time. Crafted just west of Austin in Hye, Texas, this is a sippin' bourbon of the first order. I almost always order a tumbler full when I can find it. 

I must admit, however, I had never paid much attention to its bottle before settling onto a bar stool that night in San Antonio. I think it's a work of art. I decided at that moment I needed a bottle for my liquor cabinet at home. Because I had a 4:30 a.m. shuttle to the airport the next morning, there wasn't anything I could do about it at the time. But acquiring a bottle was high on my priority list for my next Texas visit.

To be continued in next week's Clanging Bell wrap-up of the media event for the all-new 2018 Toyota C-HR in Austin.