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RUNNING AND RUNNING ON EMPTY

Dear Tom and Ray: I have a strange problem in my car, which, surprisingly, has improved my dating life. My gas gauge goes straight to empty when the tank reaches half-full. So I appear to have run out of gas a lot, which is a useful illusion on dates. I don't really want to fix it. I just want to know what's going on.
-- David
Tom: David, you sly little devil, you. When you do figure out what causes this, I suggest you immediately market it in college newspapers across the country. You'll be a millionaire.

Ray: Actually, you probably just have a faulty gas tank sending unit, David. There's a float in your gas tank that floats down as the fuel level drops. As the float goes down, the metal contact attached to it slides down a variable resistor. And the contact's point on that resistor tells your gas gauge how much fuel is left. My guess is that the contact on that float/sending unit isn't touching the bottom half of the resistor anymore.

Tom: It won't hurt anything if you leave it alone. But it will keep you from knowing when you're really about to run out of gas -- which can be inconvenient.

Ray: Should you ever decide to fix it (you know, on the rare chance that someone ever goes out with you more than once and catches on to your scheme), you can have the sending unit in the gas tank replaced for somewhere between $100 and $200. Have fun until then, David.

Missing the sweet smell of success

Dear Tom and Ray: I recently purchased an '89 Chevy Astro van for my wife at an auction. My mechanic has done the necessary repairs, and it looks like we got a fairly good deal. The only problem is that the car stinks -- like cigarettes and other nefarious "weedlike" odors. The upholstery and carpet have been steam-cleaned, and it seems like the air conditioning unit and the upholstery on the ceiling are the main contributors. Needless to say, my wife is steamed -- or "smoked." Do you have any ideas how we could de-smoke the air conditioning ducts, the ceiling or the whole car in general? Every car person I've talked to so far has been pretty useless.
-- Gil
Ray: Well, we fit that category, too, Gil. But that never has stopped us from giving advice.

Tom: You're right about its being a difficult problem. Smoke gets into everything: the seats, the carpet, the headliner. It can even permeate the duct work to some extent.

Ray: And it's easy to understand why. Let's do the math. If both husband and wife smoked three packs of Chesterfields a day in the Astro since 1989 -- that's nine years -- you could be sitting in the stench from approximately 394,200 cigarettes. And that's not counting any hitchhikers.

Tom: So if it's really intolerable, then your best bet is to call a company that does fire salvage.

Ray: Right. After a house fire, everything that didn't get burned up smells awful. And there are companies that do nothing but get that smoke odor out. You can usually find them in the Yellow Pages under "smoke odor services." They should be able to help you.

Tom: Right. They'll stick 2,000 of those Christmas tree air fresheners up inside your headliner and say, "You're all set, Gil." Good luck.

Write to Car Talk in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. Tom and Ray can't answer your letter personally but will run the best letters in the column. Their radio show airs at 6 and 10 a.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday on WBFO (88.7).

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