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  • “Check engine” light on? Get it fixed soon

    Posted on 17, May, 2017

    The “check engine” or “service engine soon” light is a very important part of your vehicle’s performance, dependability and capability for lowering emissions.

    Early vehicles required a tune-up every 5,000 to 15,000 miles. But tuning a vehicle made in the last 20 years is just not done anymore. It’s a “past” term.

    Tuning a vehicle used to be like being the conductor of an orchestra, making sure that each and every instrument was played at the correct instant, right volume and length of time -- timing being critical. In the tuning of engines, it was making sure that every cylinder was doing its part, and that the spark of each spark plug was delivered at precisely the correct time with the proper intensity.

    Checking all this on a scope – firing times, voltage potential, fuel delivery -- was a very difficult job. Few knew how to do it thoroughly.

    The modern vehicle is an incredible piece of equipment, and is the most advanced technology that people own. Millions of lines of code are written; very advanced control units make all the “tuning” choices quickly and accurately for all driving and temperature conditions.

    Now here’s the good and great news with a little bad news.

    Modern cars deliver great performance and good fuel mileage with very little maintenance. (Spark plugs every 105,000 miles vs. every 5,000 in older vehicles). Modern vehicles are even able to tell you when something is not correct. If the feedback to the control unit is out of parameters, that is when the “check engine” light comes on. It’s like having an onboard mechanic (or doctor) always checking to see if everything is OK.

    In 2016, the second most common repair for the light coming on also was the most expensive, a catalytic convertor. The average cost for that repair is around $1,200.

    Now here is the golden nugget: The most common reason a catalytic convertor goes bad is human procrastination, not getting the “check engine” light fixed soon after it comes on. An improperly running engine puts off an imbalance of air/fuel mixture that overworks the catalytic convertor, causing it to fail.

    According to CarMD, the most common “check engine” light repairs are around $250-$350.

    Drive with it on too long, and you add another $1,200. Sounds like a no brainer to me; get it fixed soon.

    Now to the next part of diagnosing and repairing “check engine” lights.

    Often, we have a vehicle come in with multiple codes present. For the sake of integrity and cost, we repair only what we feel is the most common and prevalent code first, clear the codes and test-drive the vehicle. If the light does not come back on, we will release it to the customer and inform him or her that if the light comes back on, we will rescan for free and do more repairs if necessary. The reason for waiting is simple: One sensor or problem can affect other sensors into reading outside the parameters, causing the light to come on.

    Reading, diagnosing and repairing the “check engine” light is the most challenging repair we have in our shops.  Having the enhanced (factory) scanner is imperative to doing the job properly. 

    This is an area where getting it fixed soon is wise. The good news is that, dollar for dollar, a newer engine takes less maintenance and costs less than an older engine.

     

     When do you need brakes?

    One of the concerns we have at our shops is people bringing in their vehicle for new brakes when it’s not necessary.

    New brakes start out at 100 percent of what we call the lining or thickness of the brake pad (disc brakes) or brake shoe (drum brakes). Every time you use the brakes, you take off a very small percentage of this lining.

    We estimate the life of your brakes in percentages. Even when lining is down to 20 percent, your brakes are working 100 percent. I perceive a fear: “Only 20 percent? Wow, I must get my brakes replaced.”

    Not true. Even brakes with 10 percent left are 100 percent safe. Sometimes we even hear stories that your brakes MUST be replaced now or they will not work. This is very seldom true or almost never if it’s about brake lining. We do recommend replacing brake lining at 10 percent to err on safety. The moral of this story: Sometimes it’s a good idea to get a second opinion.

     

    Tips

    Never leave any living animals in a vehicle with the windows rolled up. On a hot sunny day, temperatures can rapidly increase to above 135 degrees. Leave the animals at home; it’s a matter of life and death for them.

    When getting into a hot car after it has been sitting in the sun, roll down the windows for the first three minutes of driving. I have measured the temperature of a closed-up vehicle, and it was over 135 degrees. Rolling the windows down will expedite the cooling process.

     

    Questions or comments are more than welcome. Email me at [email protected]

  • Rolling into the future

    Posted on 18, April, 2017

    The future of the automobile in the next few years is going to be very exciting, even incredible.  As electronics, computers and great designs get more refined and less expensive; they enter the automotive world more often. Electronic systems and motors are so dependable now, cars are chock full of them. Vehicles now operate with more than 100 million lines of software code, and that number is predicted to go to 300 million lines of code. (More than the Boeing 787 Dreamliner)

    Some newer high-end cars have up to 100 electronic control units (ECU) with 25 to 200 microprocessors. To keep all these communications working, vehicles are using FlexRay, CAN Bus and LIN (motor control) systems.  Basic vehicles have about 1,350 wires for about 1.5 miles in length: high-end vehicles have up to 2,300 wires adding up to about 2.6 miles of wires.  Plus, modern vehicles can contain up to 100 electric motors and solenoids.  That’s a far cry from the 1960s cars.

    We have all heard about the next generation of technologies, here are the five levels of automation and driver’s assistance that are a reality of new vehicle:.

    1. In the most basic stage of automation, the driver does all the work but the vehicle can take over one of two vital functions - steering or speed controls. An example would be adaptive cruise control, which keeps the vehicle in front of you at the same distance. The vehicle can accelerate or brake. The steering assist would happen if you change lanes without using your turn signal, for example; brakes on one side would apply, nudging you back into your lane.
    2. Partial automation:  The more advanced cars today can take over steering, acceleration and braking. Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volvo are doing this now.
    3. Conditional automation: This car can drive itself but the driver needs to be behind the wheel to take over if intervention is needed, as if the car’s system gets confused. The newest Tesla has this.
    4. High Automation: This is where the driver lets the car take complete control. This level of sophistication is not currently available to consumers, but is being tested in some areas by Google, BMW, Bosch, GM, Benz, Nissan, Tesla, Ford and Uber. Lots of input and the roads need to be mapped to the inch with all the inputs we see such as lights, intersections, crosswalks etc.
    5. Full Automation: This would describe George Jetson’s vehicle if you remember that futuristic cartoon. All control are built in, and this kind of vehicle would have no steering wheel or pedals for driver input. I know of none of these in reality.

    There are many advantages to the idea of fully or partially self-driving vehicles. About 94 percent of crashes occur because of driver’s errors, so these vehicles would be safer. Imagine if all vehicles could “talk” to each other; the chances of a crash would be eliminated. Traffic would flow smoother on freeway, and the “wave” of vehicles speeding up and slowing down could be eliminated. Driving faster and smoother would allow more vehicles to efficiently use the same road.

    The downside would be the process of people learning to ‘trust” smart vehicles, but after a short time driving with these system in place, one’s fear would ease.

    The cost of equipping these vehicles would be great but the real challenge would be “mapping the roads “so a vehicle would know where it was going if clues where taken away.  Knocked down or defaced stop signs, a snow covered highway or a whole multitude of other problems.

    Want to lean more? Join me at City Club of Eugene forum, “The Age of Self-Driving Cars,” on Friday, May 12th at 975 High Street noon to 1 pm, get there early for the best seating. I’m going to be the first questioner.

    I’m excited for the futures of vehicles. Repairing vehicles for over 42 years, the changes have been incredible.

     

    Tips

    1.         Lighten your key chain; if you have lots of leys or other stuff on your keychain, it put extra strain on your ignition lock tumblers. Remove these will extend the life of those tumbles saving you money and inconvenience.

    2.         Driving a pre-2000 vehicle.  These are easy for thieves to still, more if it’s a 1990s Toyota or Honda. Keep your vehicle safe by installing a steering wheel lock like the Club. The Club is available from the Eugene Police Department for $12.50; it’s a cheap price for peace of mind.

    3.         Buying a vehicle for the young adult who just turned 16? Newer vehicles have so many more safety features, both to stay out of a crash, ABS brakes, traction and stability controls. If a crash happens, advance air bags systems may make a huge difference. Buy newer and safer.

    4.         If an animal jumps out in front of you, continue to look where you want to go, not at the animal. Where you look, the car will go. Apply brakes firmly but don’t swerve to avoid the animal, staying on the road is the safest thing to do. This simple tip will save you for injury or worse.

    Question or comments? You can e-mail me at george1502@gmail.com. I will answer all questions promptly and use the best for this column

     

  • Hazards of self-diagnosis

    Posted on 17, April, 2017

    As vehicles get more complicated, new twists and more advanced multiplexing and technology only add to the challenges of diagnosing automotive problems. Yet in the world of auto repair, some customers don’t always perceive the valve in the cost of diagnosis. Throw in the fear of unknown and lack of trust into this equation, and some people start looking elsewhere for answers. The results most times are questionable.

    Our shop technicians spend weekends and evening in classes to learn about the new technology. Newer vehicles are the most complex object that most people own and it is time consuming for technicians just to learn how to use new scanners and understand all of their capabilities.  In the past two weeks, four of techs spent Saturday and Sunday in classes.  

    Recently, we had a customer bring in his European import with a check engine light on and running poorly. We hooked up a specialty scan tool, scanned the vehicle and found a P0301 code, misfire #1 cylinder. We called the customer asking for permission to spend time diagnosing the problem and what it would take to repair.

    He called back and said he just wanted us to replace the fuel injector in the cylinder, saying that he had read it on the Internet. Very seldom do we find a fuel injector causing this problem but he said he was willing to take the risk. $245 later with a new injector, the vehicle still had the same problem. The owner then gave us permission to diagnose the real issue, which turned out to be two bad spark plug wires to that cylinder. (Yes, this vehicle has two spark plugs per cylinder). The customer was very understanding but we didn’t take out the injector because by that time it was used.

    We had another customer request that we put a clutch switch in a Japanese import because the starter didn’t crank over on occasion even though we have never have replaced a clutch switch on that kind of car. It didn’t fix the problem.

    Self-diagnosis also is a problem in the medical field, I have been told. But, I must admit that there is valuable information on the web, we use pay sites, $105 per month, which gives us direction. I repaired my motor home refrigerator from information in a blog about the problem I was having. But when it comes time to diagnose potentially complicated problems that could be expensive to repair, my advice is to trust the professional who is working on your vehicle.  Most times it will save time, money and aggravation.

    How often to change oil?

    One of the questions I come across as how often should you change your oil. This is a great question and I don’t have a black and white answer. There is no one size fits all answer other than to say oil should be changed frequently enough so that no engine damage is done.  

    The low end is every 3,000, twice a year and there are some manufactures that do as high as 20,000 miles with no time recommendations!

    There is one manufactory with high mileage recommended oil services that we have found an alarming amount of worn out engines at 80-90,000 miles.

     I will try and explain what I recommend is best. Cars before the year 2000 using conventional oil should have the oil changed every 3 to 5000 miles depending on how many miles you put on your vehicle per year. If you're putting 12 to 15,000 or higher miles on it a year every 5000 miles is fine but at least once a year in most cases.

    If you have a car between 2000 and 2010 using conventional oil every 5000 to 7500 miles if you put over 10 to 12,000 miles per year but again, at least once a year.

    If you have a car from 2010 to 2018 with synthetic oil and most newer cars take synthetic oil every 5 to 15,000 miles will work on oil services.

    Now comes the exceptions is how do you drive and where the car is driven. Short in town mileage during the cold moist winters when the engine doesn't get warmed up is the most difficult on oil. Keep in mind, some of the combustion leaks past the rings in the engine fuel and moisture. This contaminates then mixes with the oil to create sludge and other harmful stuff in your oil. Twice a year or every 3,000 miles on this condition.

    The 15,000 mile extreme on oil services would be if you did a lot of freeway driving, have a newer vehicle, use synthetic oil because you would be putting on 1 mile per minute at 60 miles an hour and keeping the engine warm or hot. 

    There are many exceptions to these recommendations; the most common one is for folks with classic cars like myself. I have a 69 VW Karman Ghia.  It sits in storage most times, driven about 200-500 miles per year. I only drive it in the summer when not raining and at least 40 miles to get the oil hot. I change the oil every three to four years.

    One thing is certain, In the long run, regular oil service is much more affordable than engine replacement. At the shops, we see a lot of wasted engines because of lack of oil services. 

  • Save on vehicle ownership costs.

    Posted on 23, February, 2017

    Your vehicle is one of the most expensive objects you own and it loses value every year. Vehicles just about always fall in value as you “use” them for your day to day travels.

    To call them an investment would be a poor choice of words unless you calculated time saving.  A vehicle gets you to your destination quickly, saving your un-renewable asset called time.

    Over the past 43 years of maintaining vehicles I have my own theory of how to minimize the expenses of owning a car.

    This theory includes the top three reasons people buy new cars.

    The first is the same reason you buy new clothes. Your old clothes are not worn out; you just need a new “fashion” statement.

    The second reason for buying a new car is your old one is worn out, undependable, needs a lot of repair, has too many dents, lack of shine.

    The third reason is it doesn’t fit your life style anymore, family expanding or contracting, and you need for larger or smaller vehicle.

    When I buy a replacement vehicle, I spend a considerable amount of time picking it out. I do research in Consumers Reports (Thee car buying guide comes out each April) and asking people who know more than me.  I buy a vehicle that I really like, good looks, is dependable, and has the accessories that I like. (I have to have heated seats, once you have them, you will never go back) I combine the emotional factors - good looks, loving the car - with the practical aspect of research. No, not all cars are created equal. Read up and check with the people at your favorite independent repair shop to get their take on the car you are looking to buy. Please, do your research.

    To keep my love affair alive with my vehicle, I get my vehicle detailed every year, spending $200 to make my love shine.

    Maintenance is key

    Keeping your new vehicle in tiptop shape for a long time is the next hurdle to cross.

    There have been articles and theories written about this. I have even heard the conspiracy theory of “planned obsolescence” by manufacturers. 

    Part of me agrees with this when I see 18,000 mile oil change recommendations while my businesses are replacing “slugged” engines more often than ever before.

    This is where preventive maintenance comes in.

    Preventive maintenance is the art of increasing your car’s life and dependability, thus decreasing the cost of ownership

    So I’m going out on a limb and making recommendations on servicing. It does vary by year and brand of vehicle and the type of driving you do so check with your favorite shop or dealership to see what they recommend, too.

    Oil service, should be between 5000 to 10,000 miles or at least once a year. Synthetic oil holds up longer than regular oil. Many short trips in the city that don’t warm up the engine are hard on oil, so that kind of driving would require oil changes more in the range of  5000 miles.

    Schedule a coolant flush, transmission service and fuel filter, every 40,000 to 60,000 miles.

    Flush brake fluid every two years, and replace air filter, every 15,000-20,000 miles. Air filters, however, are one of the most oversold items. It’s ok that a little dirt is in it. On 1998 and newer cars, a dirty air filter will NOT affect fuel mileage.

    On a rear wheel drive or four wheel drive vehicle, fluids in transfer case and differential should be changed every 40,000 miles.

    The word “tune up” is no longer used in the business. Spark plugs life is so different now that the manufactories’ recommendation is good. It varies from 40,000 -105,000 miles.

    On top of this, the factory services should be performed.

    The best way to maintain your vehicle is to use the same shop on all your maintenance and repair. This way the shop can know the vehicle’s history and make recommendations on getting the most life out of your car.

    When buying a new or used vehicle, don’t choose a model for that once-a-year family gathering. Rather, make your choice based on day-to-day use.

    If you research your next vehicle purchase wisely, maintain it well, keep the interior and exterior nice, the chances of a long affair with your car will increase. It is not unusual for vehicles to last 15 years and log 300,000 miles before it is time to buy another.

    More preventive maintenance suggestions

    Water in the wrong places in your vehicle can do incredible amount of damage to the electronics. Your newer vehicle has more electronics than most people own.

    Keep water out of your vehicle by keeping the drains cleared. Keep the cowl clear of debris. The cowl is in front of your windshield under your hood. Open the hood to remove leaves and fir needles that have collected there.

    If you have a sunroof, once a year, open it and take a damp cloth around the valleys that the sunroof slides in.

    If you find water anywhere inside your car or trunk, get it fixed soon. Thousands of dollars could be riding on it.

     

    Questions or comments. My email is [email protected] 

  • Car Trouble's cause not always clear

    Posted on 20, February, 2017

    As modern vehicles get more advanced with modern luxuries and safety equipment, so do the challenges of diagnostic and repair.

    Most folks think you hook up the scanner and it tells you what is wrong. This is so incorrect, it doesn’t. It will sometimes give you an idea of where to start looking but very often digging in deep to consider all the remote possibilities is the only way we get to the answer.

    Newer vehicles have an incredible amount of information that is gathered from sensors placed around the chassis, brakes, engine, interior, transmission, even sun sensor on the dash to determine the best setting on you climate control.

    All of this information is feed into control modules or electronic control units (ECU) placed around the vehicle.

    Newer vehicles have many sensors and ECUs for safety equipment to help avoid crashes or surviving a crash a higher probability. These include anti-lock brakes (ABS), traction control, stability control and the air bags, air curtains system. Each one of these systems makes vehicles much safer to drive and survive.

    Most times when these systems are in need of repair, a sensor, wiring, or control unit is defective. These systems keep very close tabs on when the vehicle is doing, many times a second, and making logical decisions with all the sensor inputs.

    Recently a customer brought a 2010 Volkswagen into our shop with an unusual symptom. He was driving on the freeway at about 70 mph when he started feeling his car “hiccup” every few miles. Out of his corner of his eye, he saw a light flash on this dashboard. As he continued to drive, the hiccupping got worse and the stability control light would flash more often, then came on the ABS light and air bag light. The bucking continued until he manually turned off the stability control. This happened the next day as he drove back to Eugene and turning off the stability control stopped this bucking.

    When he brought the vehicle to us, we had many questions for him, one being what was the weather like when the problem occurred? Well, it was summer, so there was no rain or snow, and while driving on a dry freeway there should be no reason for the stability control system be engaged. This system is designed to keep you from sliding in wet conditions or going into a corner with too much speed.

    To start troubleshooting we hooked up our enhanced VW and Audi vehicle scanner and found stored fault codes for the ABS, air bag system and stability control. We cleared these codes, then gave the vehicle a long test drive. The codes didn’t return and the vehicle was returned to the customer with the explanation that we couldn't duplicate the problem and therefore didn't know why the codes were set.

    The customer understood, took his vehicle but the problem returned after driving for about 60 miles and only at speeds around 70 mph. In further discussing the problem we asked if there was kind of recent “event” that preceded it. It turns out he had gotten new tires and rims installed along with having the tires “siped” - a process in which small slots are cut into the surface of the tires to increase traction. We went for a test drive down I-5 as he was explaining the problem, hoping it would happen again. We could not duplicate this problem. But as we were driving I believe I knew what was wrong. We need to check the rolling diameter of the tires that is make sure all the tires were identical The modern vehicle counts very precisely every rotation of tires and wheel and feeds this information into control units.  If there is a differential, the vehicles will react by modifying inputs and setting to make sure your vehicle is in control.

    Back at the shop, we marked each tire at the bottom with paint, rolled the vehicle forward and found the front and rear tires had a different rolling diameter. I theorized that this was the cause of the problem but the proof is always in the pudding.

    So the customer went back to the tires store and told them of my theory.  They said they had never heard of siping having that effect, but they did replace his tires without siping this set.

    Two weeks later and hundreds of miles later, this symptom has not returned so I feel somewhat confident that this was indeed the problem.

    What I don’t know is if the tires were different or the siping caused the rolling diameter to be different.

    Modern vehicles are very sensitive to all inputs and this is a case in point of that. The vehicle was doing its job, analyzing the information it got. The information was just on the cusp of showing what it “thought” was a problem and reacting.

    The moral of this story is, modifications should be done carefully and due noted in case problems do happen later. Without the customer providing the information on tires, we would have spent much more time with this VW. When you have problems with your vehicles, please remember the events and take the time to pass this information on to your repair shop. It’s not as easy as just hooking up the machine to get the answer to what is wrong with your vehicle. In this case, nothing was wrong with this VW other than being sensitive.