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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
I think I have a bad head gasket. Worth rebuilding? I plan to do the work myself, and I have the factory service manual already.

My girlfriend and I bought the car with 236,500 miles last September, in Oklahoma City, and we had about a 60 mile trip back home to Stillwater. We had noticed a possible overheating problem on a short test-drive before we bought the car, but other than that it seemed to be working OK, and after investigating engine prices and seeing they don't seem too expensive, we went ahead and bought the car for $2,000. Well, we got less than 3 miles down the road before the car experienced some overheating issues, so we filled it up with the only coolant we had with us, some original-formula green Zerex antifreeze (50% mix with distilled water). It took quite a bit, over half a gallon I'm sure. I think closer to a full gallon. After that, the car behaved well for the rest of the trip home and got 56 mpg. I focused on some other repairs at first (O2 sensor, spark plugs, etc.), and left the green coolant in there. We took the car on a couple of trips to nearby cities, but it started having IMA battery issues, so we pretty much stopped driving it on long trips.
Sometime around November, my girlfriend and I changed the coolant. We couldn't get the engine block drain plug out, so refilled the system once with distilled water, ran the engine for a minute or two, then changed the coolant again to the correct Honda type 2 coolant. I am pretty sure that we had the factory service manual and we followed the coolant bleed procedure, however I am not sure that we successfully got all the air out at that time. I drove the car back and forth to work for a while and it still seemed to be running fine, but when my girlfriend used it for a trip about 6 miles out of town and back, she noticed the heater wasn't working. I didn't know if the heater had been working on my drives to work, since I don't generally try to use the heater on very short trips. I drove it for a while longer before we attempted the coolant bleed procedure again, mostly just to work and back, but I took it on one longer trip.
On New Year's Day, I took the car to Oklahoma City again, probably the fourth sort of long trip (over 30 miles) since we had owned the car. As on previous long trips, the IMA failed, and it was very cold that morning, and the heater did not work hardly at all. For part of the trip I had it off, but then I turned it on because it seemed to be just slightly warmer than outside, but still not warmer than 35 degrees or so. The trip involved climbing a lot of hills, and without the IMA working, I downshifted and drove it hard to get up the hills. I noticed at that time that the engine temperature seemed to be behaving kind of randomly, but there was no definite overheating, just sort of a failure to maintain a consistent engine temperature. Also after the New Year's Day trip, my CEL came back, with a code for a bad catalytic converter.
I had been very cold on that trip, so I asked my girlfriend to help me attempt the coolant bleed procedure again to see if we could get the heater working.
Upon trying to bleed the air out again, we found that no matter what we did, it seemed that there were still air bubbles coming out every time we revved the engine up. In fact, we had the engine all the way up to operating temperature before we finally gave up and decided not to try anymore. I hung the funnel from the hood latch and left it setting there for a couple of hours until the car had cooled down most of the way, then disconnected and plugged the bleeder pipe. One good thing about this - it seemed to get more of that old green coolant out of the system. It floated on top the Honda coolant, and ended up in the funnel and hose.
Also while checking out this problem, I realized that I had never heard the engine cooling fan operate. Testing indicated that the fan itself works, but I tracked the problem down to a bad temperature switch controlling the fan. I have not replaced that part yet. In contradiction to what someone else said in another thread about a head gasket, the fan is actually controlled by its own switch, separate from the temperature sensor. However, I do not believe that the non-operational fan is a major problem. I'll definitely fix it at some point, but I believe the car should drive without overheating in most conditions, even without a working cooling fan.
After bleeding the air out of the system, my girlfriend attempted the trip 6 miles out of town again, and when she got back she reported that the heater had worked. So, we thought the problem was fixed. But then, she drove the car to Tulsa, which at about 75 miles one way is I think the farthest trip we have ever taken the Insight on. She reported that not only did the IMA light come on again, but also the car started overheating. She said that turning the heater on seemed to help with the overheating, even though the heater did not seem to work.
I thought there was some probability this was just a bad thermostat, so I kept driving the car on short trips, and once I took it on a longer trip to another town about 30 miles away, but it behaved very poorly and overheated most of the time, so I never took it on another long trip. I bought a thermostat from NAPA and eventually got around to installing it. I think almost all of the coolant came out of the cooling system when I did that. I know I added more than when we had only drained the radiator. I didn't have anyone to help me with the bleeding procedure, so I attempted that alone. I got some air bubbles out, but I also made a mess. While I was doing this, I also verified that the heater control valve works. I can see the control cable move one way when it is supposed to be open, and the other way when it is supposed to be closed.
Driving the car around town, the temperature seemed more stable than it had been (although it seemed to run a little hot), so I thought maybe it was fixed. Thinking the problem was fixed, I attempted a trip to a neighboring town again. It was a warm day (80 degrees and sunny) and I was driving south, into a strong south wind. I was watching the speedometer and tachometer closely, trying not to slow down too much on the uphill parts, and when I got about 4 miles down the highway, I took a look at the temperature gauge and it was in the red! So, I turned around, turned the heater on, and cruised more slowly, and the temperature went back down. Obviously, the new thermostat did not solve this problem and something is still wrong.


Question 1: Is this definitely a bad head gasket, or is there something else I should try first?
Question 2: Can head-gasket problems be caused by changing the coolant for the first time on a high-mileage vehicle? I have also seen head gasket problems recently on a Dodge truck and a Chevrolet truck, that did not seem to appear until the coolant was changed, at 180,000 and 220,000 miles. Would the head gasket have gone bad even if the coolant had been changed more regularly, instead of never until such a high mileage? In the future, if I buy a car with such high mileage, should I avoid changing the coolant if it has not been changed before?
Question 3: If I drive without using the heater or air conditioner when they would be required to feel comfortable, is that bad for the IMA battery?
Question 4: How hard should it be to bleed the cooling system? The manual makes it sound easy, but we seemed to always have more air bubbles coming out until we gave up and stopped trying. Is it better to use a shorter hose with the funnel? Ours was sort of long and narrow.
Question 5: Is it likely that a bad head gasket caused the catalytic convertor failure? Or is there a different cause and effect sequence here? My car originally had only O2 sensor and IMA battery error codes, and after I replaced the O2 sensor is when the weak catalyst code started.
Question 6: I don't know if it is worth it to replace the head gasket and associated gaskets (as well as the catalytic convertor) on a car that I already have invested close to $4,000 in, that still needs a windshield, brakes (I have the front brake pads already), probably an IMA battery (maybe try grid-charger first), and eventually a transmission rebuild to fix that grinding noise on downshifts to second and first gear. I also need to diagnose the IMA battery cooling fan, because I'm pretty sure it does not run and I think this might be what killed the battery so fast. Would you do all this if it were your car? Maybe I should try to trade it for one that already runs well.
 

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I agree with willie....
except for number 6, I'd likely repair the head gasket.
the brakes get fixed after you get it going....

there is no car like the 1st gen insight.

find another before you let go of the old one....
 

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I vote fix it.

I would fix the head gasket and start watching for a parts car. You can do a country wide search on craigslist through Google which actually is a little better than the other aggregater of craigslist postings. Just paste the following in the search box:

"site:craigslist.org honda insight"

The "site:" restricts the search to any USA craigslist domain. It seemed like this site was loosing 2 cars a week to minor fender benders over the winter, there should be some out there. I know of 2 parts cars, but they are thousands of miles from you.
 

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If you are going through the trouble replacing the head gasket, might as well get a valve job and resurface as long as it's apart. At least you'll know the head is flat and not warped. I got a head with cam shafts set online for my toyota and sent the old one back as a core.
 

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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
Thanks for all the replies, and for taking the time to read my post. I am sorry for making it so long.

I really like the car, I just hate that I haven't been able to drive it anywhere. I think I am going to order the parts and do the work. I've done one before on a 4-cylinder BMW. Hopefully this one won't be too hard.
 

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Just to say,

I replaced the head gasket on my insight a year or so ago and it is actually quite easy.

The hardest bit was trying to move all the sensors and wiring out of the way without disconnecting it all or damaging anything.

The actual head job is no problem, helped mostly by the fact that the pices are more like they belong on a sewing machine than a car! There is somebody on e-bay selling a gasket set for 93 dollars. My head skim and valve work only cost around 150 dollars so its not going to be a fortune.

Just follow the method in the Honda shop manual and it will go O.K.

One other thing to look for. Check the expansion tank. There is a rubber hose under the cap that goes to the bottom of the tank. Mine fell off once and the symptom was loss of water and problems with the heater which would never bleed properly. Not likely but worth looking at.
 
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