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Mysterious Noise in Toyota Sienna Minivan: Fixed!

For about the last week I’ve noticed a soft clicking-buzzing sound somewhere near the dashboard / center console of our 2000 Toyota Sienna. I tried some on-the-fly isolation, but it wasn’t related to motion, engine on/off, CD or tape player, fan, or anything else. Finally Mary noticed it, too, and we spent half an hour in the garage yanking fuses and wiggling things until we tracked it down to below the passenger seat.

Now, in the good old days, that was empty space, but in the Sienna it’s where the rear-area heater lives. Shoving the seat forward to the stop exposed the heater and, sure enough, it’s buzzing and clicking. Intermittently, somewhat randomly, but very steadily.

Rear Temperature Control

Rear Temperature Control

With that as a hint, I twisted the rear-area temperature control (on the headliner behind the driver seat) and shazam the noise stopped. The control has detents and when moving the control to each detent the heater makes a faint buzzing. I suspect the control adjusts a valve that regulates engine coolant flow inside the heater.

It’s not obvious whether the control is a pure-digital rotary encoder or a potentiometer, so I decided to investigate: it’s already sorta busted, what’s to lose? The bezel comes off by prying its door-side edge outward. The white plastic frame has two screws into the metal structure under the roof. The two electrical connectors are, of course, the positive-latching kind that you pull the little tab until you break your fingernail and then realize that you should push it instead.

Temperature Control - Interior View

Temperature Control - Interior View

Taking the control apart reveals that it’s a potentiometer with some switching contacts. The two bifurcated spring-finger contacts on the black plastic disk short the resistive element to the inner metallic track.

Resistive Element

Resistive Element

The metal contacts appeared slightly grody, but with no major corrosion. The resistive track looked just fine.

The offending control position would be to the left side of the element as shown in the pictures here: there’s nothing obviously wrong at that spot. I think the maximum-heat position is off the resistive element entirely, resting on the far left end of the metal traces, but the control wasn’t quite set to that spot. Perhaps the problem was that the contacts became intermittent at the exact edge of the element.

I smoothed the collection of anti-oxidation grease over the tracks, covered the contacts with their own blobs, put everything back together, and it works fine.

We tend to put the control at A/C during the summer and at maximum heat during the winter. I suppose the poor thing got frustrated after we moved it a month or so ago…

The money saved with this repair might just pay to have the Toyota dealer replace the spark plugs. The shop manual says that task starts by removing the windshield bezel and all the stuff above the engine intake manifold; the job costs upwards of 300 bucks. I can barely see the rear plugs with a looong inspection mirror angled just so while lying on the floor under the van, so it’s truly a nontrivial operation.

I [delete] all over their [censored]…

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