Understanding Automotive Maintenance & Repair
Have you ever felt confused when getting your car worked on? Did it seem like the mechanic was ripping you off? Maybe you just didn't believe what they were saying about what was wrong. The only way to know for sure is either bring a consultant each time you take your car to a repair shop, or my favorite, educate yourself. In Robert T Kiyosaki’s book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, he talks heavily about financial education and the effects it has on your ability to make money. Well the same rule applies for the automobile. But in this case, its not to make you money rather to save you money. Due to the fact that automobiles are the biggest mode of transportation, you're more than likey going to own one at some point in your lifetime. It is mind boggling to me that someone would spend thousands of dollars on something and not know anything about it. I wouldn't buy a house and not know how many rooms are inside.
Ive spent the last twelve years selling parts to repair shops and do-it-yourself customers. I graduated from one of the premier technical schools in the country and have an ASE certification as a parts specialist. So for me to go into a repair shop and have a mechanic look at my car is no big deal, I have a good understanding how the process works and what to expect. But if you don’t have that technical background, or even if dad never showed you how to change your oil, then you will probably worry when a service light pops up on the dashboard. Lets dive in and give you some education for the next time you need your vehicle repaired.
First things first, if you just bought a vehicle or even if you’ve had the vehicle for a while make sure you have the owners manual. This typically would be located in the glove box. This, in my opinion, is one of the most important resources you will have for getting any information about your vehicle. Granted, not every tid bit of information is in this book but, you will find all the different functions of the vehicle, fluid type recommendations, even where a fuse is located. If you do not have one, or it was never equipped, there is no need to worry. You can buy them second hand on various sites online, at the dealership, and they even make pdf versions you can download. Caution, be aware they differ from repair manuals. Be sure to skim through it and get familiar with the book. Like every other book it has a table of contents and an index for reference.
Now we can move to some basic maintenance items.
Changing your engine oil.
Each vehicle takes a specific capacity and weight of oil. In that owners manual I mentioned, you will find out how much and what type your vehicle takes. There are so many options when it comes to engine oil. Each oil and oil filter is rated for a certain amount of mileage before needing to be changed, which most shops will put a oil change reminder on the inside of your windshield. Be sure to check your invoice when checking out also. If you know how much oil your car takes, You’ll be able to verify how much oil they are billing you for.
Tires need to be rotated after so many miles. Meaning moving the front tires to the back, and the back tires to the front. Some manufacturers are specific on how they want you to rotate the tires so again, consult the owners manual. All vehicles have drive wheels, some are front wheel drive, some are rear wheel drive, and some are all wheel drive. Drive wheels typically wear faster than non-drive wheels, which is the reason tires need to be rotated. Doing so will help the tires wear evenly and get the most miles out of them. This service is typically included or fairly cheap when getting an oil change.
Each car has a specific pressure setting the tires are supposed to be set at. You can find that information in the owners manual, and on most newer vehicles, there is a label on the drivers door jamb that will indicate the specification. Tire pressure is vital to the tires lifespan. Too much air will cause the center of the tire to wear faster. Too little air will cause the outside edges to wear faster. In order for that tire to get the best grip, it needs to wear evenly across the surface. The best reward is the efficiency of fuel mileage. Having the correct pressure can directly effect how much gas you use, and we know how important that is these days. Most repair shops will check the air pressure for you, but just be sure to ask in case they don't. They may even have a report they give you with what they checked and adjusted. That way you can confirm what they set your pressure at match what your vehicle needs.
Transmission & other fluids.
Brake, engine cooling, some power steering systems, transmission, and depending on the drive type, differentials, all have fluids that need to be serviced. These fluids are often overlooked for the simple fact, as long as there is fluid in them, they work. However, these fluids need to be changed after so many miles in order to keep mechanical components, within each system, functioning properly. Even though these operate as closed systems, the fluid breaks down and can get contaminated. When that happens, components such as water pumps, or power steering pumps will fail causing costly repairs. Typically new fluids are a lighter color, and when they get dirty, they become much darker. Flushing out these old fluids and replacing them with new would be categorized under preventative maintenance. So when your vehicle is in the repair shop for something unrelated, and the service advisor comes to tell you about one of these “fluid flushes”, they are probably not just trying to take money from you. Rather they just noticed how dark the fluid is and suggest it get changed before other issues happen. Be wary, some repair shops will try to get these services when they are not needed. Be sure to ask them if you are able to see how dirty the fluid is, that way you can make your own assessment.
Engine air, climate control, and fuel systems typically have filters to catch particles from entering each system. The engine needs fresh air for the internal combustion process, and unfiltered particles can be harmful to that process. Those particles can even reach your engine oil and cause the oil to get dirty quicker. The climate control system uses fresh air from inside and outside the cabin area, known as the cabin air filter. It keeps the air you breathe inside the vehicle clean. Fuel filters filter small contaminants that end up in your fuel tank from gas pumps. Again consult your owners manual to determine when these filters need to be changed. Failure to change these filter will cause the system to work harder and potentially cause issues. Regarding the engine air and fuel filters, if not changed they will cause worse fuel mileage also. When at a repair facility, and the advisor suggests changing the filters, be sure to ask them if you are able to see how dirty it is.
With the advancement of technology in automobiles a tune up no longer consists of many items. Some of the items we have covered so far will consist of your tune up, like changing filters, and changing fluids. If you have a gasoline engine then you will still need to change out the spark plugs. Again check your owners manual to see when they are suggested to be changed. Most engines require one spark plug per cylinder. So if your engine is a 4 cylinder then you only need 4 spark plugs. However, some ignition systems do require 2 spark plugs per cylinder. Another overlooked item on a tune up would be the positive crankcase ventilation valve (pcv). Not all pcv valves are serviceable though, so again check that owners manual to see if that is suggested.
This is a very important part. Brakes are what stop you when your hurling down the highway at 70mph and the person in front of you slam on their brakes. Good functioning systems will help you avoid an accident. If your brakes are not in good shape, your front bumper might get introduced to their rear bumper. Not everyone should be able to work on brake systems. Not catching something that is ready to fail, or improperly installing components can mean the difference between life and death. In many cases though, repair shops have the tendency to suggest replacing every single component in the brake system. That is a good practice but is very costly. Some of the items can be rebuild or re-lubricated, rather than be replaced. Other items like the brake pads have to be replaced when they wear out. Rotors can rarely be resurfaced due to the cheap metals that are used during production. Unfortunately there are too many variables to be able to say they need to be changed at a specific mileage. So for that, getting a visual on the worn out components will be the best way to determine if they need changed or not. You can always take your vehicle to another mechanic for a second opinion, but remember a diagnosis fee may apply.
Now let’s get into the heavy stuff, actual repairs.
Most items relating to suspension, or steering will have similar components on the left side and right side. Many times, mechanics, will recommend changing both sides to prevent more issues in the future. Typically when one side has worn out, the other is not far off. If you have the extra money then I would recommend changing both sides. If you happen to be in a situation where you cannot afford that, ask the mechanic if only one side could be done. You’ll find out that in most cases, only one side needs to be addressed immediately. Asking to see the old parts, or for them to show you how the component has failed is a great way to verify what your mechanic is saying. Trust but verify is what I like to say.
Modern engines and transmissions can be a bit more difficult with how many different sensors there are on vehicles. Mechanical issues are easier to understand because you can physically see how the part failed. When a sensor goes bad it is usually caused by the internal wiring within the sensor that has failed. Some repair shops are able to print off their findings with data that supports their diagnosis. However, not all shops have the kind of funding that is required with those nice diagnostic machines, so you may have to trust them on their diagnosis. Now, before you agree to them replacing the part be sure they can guarantee this repair will solve the issue. Ive seen many times repair shops telling their customer to replace a sensor to fix the problem. Customer agrees, but doesnt fix the problem. Then charge the customer again when they say it's another part, and even another part after that.
Check engine, Brake, ABS, Traction Control, VSC, and many more indicate certain systems are at fault and need to be serviced. A solid light usually indicates a minor issue, while a flashing indication tells you things may be a bit more severe. You can get familiar with the lights specific to your vehicle in that handy owners manual. The same one I may have mentioned a couple times before. It will give a great break down on what system each light represents. Now when it comes to these trouble lights, before you freak out, turn the radio off and notice how the vehicle is running. Is it any different that normal? Does it sound different? Does it brake weird? Are there any noticeable differences or noises than before? If there is, either drive it to a service station or have it towed to one. If there is no difference, more than likely it is safe to drive until you are able to have a professional look at it.
Air Conditioning / Heater
Although these systems are on the same control panel, and have to deal with the climate control, they are completely different systems. The heating system runs off engine coolant (aka antifreeze). If there is an issue with the heat you can check the engine coolant level first before taking it to the mechanic. The air conditioning system runs off refrigerant in a separate system. This system operates like your refrigerator at home. Have you ever had to refill your fridge? Probably not, so unless your car is older or has been in a front end collision, it is unlikely that the refrigerant has leaked out and needs to be refilled. Now, unlike your fridge at home, your vehicle uses alot of rubber hoses and seals. Older vehicles are prone to those rubber components failing over time due to dry rot.
Most of the automotive industry is set up on flat rate. Meaning a certain job has been determined to take certain amount of time to complete. For example, replacing a wheel bearing calls for 1.5 hours to complete. The repair facility then multiples that number by the labor rate they charge. Lets say that is $120.00 per hour. Labor rates will vary from shop to shop, and area to area. Typically they will be competitive with other repair facilities in the area. This is how they calculate how much to charge.
120.00 x 1.5 = 180.00
This is ideal for both sides. Having a standardized labor scale means mechanics can’t make up ridiculous labor rates. Now remember, time is money to mechanics for this reason. If they can get a job done faster than what the labor scale says, then in theory they can get more jobs done in a day and make more money. If they do succeed in getting done quicker, that does not entitle you to pay less. On the other side of the spectrum, if they take longer than the labor scale, in theory they lose money. And that is what equals everything out.
Not all repair shops follow these standardized guidelines, and they are not required to in most cases. Some will make up labor prices right on spot or even try to add extra time after they already told the customer a price. In my opinion, you probably want to stay clear of these types of shops.
Going into a repair shop uneducated can lead to very expensive repairs. You would never pay a contractor to rehab 6 rooms in your house when it only has 4 would you? Then why would you let a mechanic fix something on your car that may not need addressed so quickly or at all? Get familiar with your vehicle. Open the owners manual, learn how your car operates. Ask questions. Ask to see the damaged parts. Heck even check some of the basic stuff yourself. The information is out there, you just have to be willing to learn something new. When you do, I guarantee you will be satisfied.