Monthly Archives: August 2016

Check Engine Light

When your car’s “Check Engine” light comes on, it’s usually accompanied by a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. The light could mean a costly problem, like a bad catalytic converter, or it could be something minor, like a loose gas cap. But in many cases, it means at minimum that you’ll be visiting the car dealer to locate the malfunction and get the light turned off.

The Check Engine light — more formally known as the Malfunction Indicator Lamp (MIL) — is a signal from the car’s engine computer that something is wrong. The car dealer’s service department can diagnose the problem for about $75. But there’s a way to preview what the problem might be.

Prior to 1996, carmakers had their own engine diagnostic systems, primarily to ensure their cars were compliant with Environmental Protection Agency pollution-control requirements. Starting with model-year 1996, automakers standardized their systems under a protocol called OBD-II, which stipulated a standardized list of diagnostic trouble codes (DTC) and mandated that all cars provide a universal connector to access this information. It’s usually located under the steering column and is easy to access.

Deciphering the Code
Do-it-yourselfers can buy inexpensive code readers that connect to this standardized onboard diagnostics (OBD) port and search for the code’s meaning on Web sites such as Engine Light Help. The Check Engine light can even be turned off by some code readers, even though this action alone does not actually repair the underlying problem. In many such cases the light will simply come back on later.

Experts say that many drivers confuse the “service required” light on the gauge cluster for the Check Engine light. These warning lights are unrelated. The service required light just means the car is due for an oil change or other routine maintenance. It is not the indicator of trouble that the Check Engine light is.

Check Engine lights come in orange, yellow or amber, depending on the manufacturer. If the light begins flashing, however, it indicates a more serious problem, such as a misfire that can quickly overheat the catalytic converter. These emissions devices operate at high temperatures to cut emissions, but can pose a fire hazard if faulty.

Don’t Ignore That Light
So if the Check Engine light comes on and it’s steady rather than flashing, what do you do? The most obvious answer, of course, is to get the engine checked. But many people do nothing, perhaps fearing an expensive repair bill. Some drivers with older cars want to squeeze out as many remaining miles as possible without visiting a service garage. But before they can pass their state’s vehicle inspection, they have to get the light turned off. And a state inspection is a good motivator for dealing with the problem. If the light is lit, there’s a good chance the car is releasing excess pollutants or consuming too much gas.

Ten percent of all cars on the road have a Check Engine light on, and the drivers of half of these cars have ignored the light for more than three months, says Kristin Brocoff, a spokesperson for CarMD.com. The company sells a $119 device that reads engine codes and provides access to a Web site database that identifies the problem (according to the code) and estimates the cost of repair.

Choosing the Right Auto Body Shop

It’s not uncommon for estimates from different body shops to vary wildly. One shop might give you an estimate for $500 while another wants $2,000 for the work. What’s the difference? And when is it OK to choose the cheaper shop?

John Mallette, owner of Burke Auto Body & Paint, in Long Beach, California, knows better than most people how to choose a reliable shop. Mallette started working on cars when he was 12 years old and has been in the body shop business for 24 years. Here are some of his tips for choosing the right shop to work on your car — particularly when you’re the one paying the bills.

1) Pay Attention to Word-of-Mouth
Any business can advertise, but you’ll do better with a shop that friends, family or acquaintances recommend. It’s a business that has proven it can satisfy customers. And it might not be the biggest or best-known shop in your area.

Mallette went to a shop years ago on such recommendations and found that the owner was a “real stand-up guy…. He doesn’t advertise on the Internet; it’s a family-owned shop,” Mallette says. “But, golly, if you take your car there, you’ll get a fair price.”

In some cases, you might get a recommendation for a small shop where the owner works on the cars himself. “That’s how I like doing business,” Mallette says. “To me it seems so much more personal and then you can understand what’s really going on with your car.”

2) Consider the Operation’s Location and Overhead
“Where you get screwed in our business is labor hours,” Mallette explains. His shop charges $40 per hour for labor. But in ritzy parts of West Los Angeles, the per-hour labor charge is $60-$65. In wealthy Newport Beach, California, Mallette has heard of $90-per-hour labor charges.

Large body shops with a lot of front-office workers probably have to charge higher rates to pay their staff. While service delivered by front-desk folks, managers and foremen gives some people a feeling of confidence in the business, it can result in estimates that are padded with non-essential work. When they’re charging more labor hours at a higher rate, your bill can add up quickly.

In his shop, Mallette says he does things by the book — literally. Body shops and garages use reference guides that estimate the number of hours required to perform common repairs.

“Let’s say somebody has damage to their fender, bumper and headlight,” Mallette tells us. “I go to my book, I write an estimate and I basically go by the hours mandated by the book.”

By contrast, the higher-end shops might decide to charge for everything in “the gray area,” meaning those things that they might have to do to fix the problem. In Mallette’s example, high-end estimates might include a charge for time spent removing the hood and the door, while his judgment call is not to perform this additional work.

3) Get Several Estimates
Taking your car to several auto body shops for repair quotes is the best way to avoid overcharges, Mallette notes. “I’ll tell people to go get some estimates and bring ’em back to me. I’ll match estimates if I can.”

And while it’s important to protect against being overcharged, you shouldn’t simply take the lowest quote. “You might get some kind of midnight guy who will say he can do it really cheap,” he says. “Stay away from those guys, because there is something they’re not doing. You could have major problems down the road.”

4) Ask the Right Questions
When choosing a body shop, “you don’t go in with your pocketbook open,” Mallette explains. “You go in smart,” and ask some key questions. Does the shop provide a written warranty? And if so, for how long? What does the warranty cover?

All about oil change

Oil chemistry and engine technology have evolved tremendously in recent years, but you’d never know it from the quick-change behavior of American car owners. Driven by an outdated 3,000-mile oil change commandment, they are unnecessarily spending millions of dollars and spilling an ocean of contaminated waste oil.

The majority of automakers today call for oil changes at either 7,500 or 10,000 miles, and the interval can go as high as 15,000 miles in some cars. Yet this wasteful cycle continues largely because the automotive service industry, while fully aware of the technological advances, continues to preach the 3,000-mile gospel as a way to keep the service bays busy. As a result, even the most cautious owners are dumping their engine oil twice as often as their service manuals recommend.

After interviews with oil experts, mechanics and automakers, one thing is clear: The 3,000-mile oil change is a myth that should be laid to rest. Failing to heed the service interval in your owner’s manual wastes oil and money, while compounding the environmental impact of illicit waste-oil dumping.

Scared Into Needless Service
Part of the blame for this over-servicing lies in our insecurities about increasingly complicated engines that are all but inaccessible to the average driver. Pop open the hood of a modern car, and a mass of plastic covers wall off the engine. On some vehicles, the only thing an owner can easily access is the oil cap.

“Vehicles are so sophisticated that oil is one of the last things that customers can have a direct influence over,” said Matt Snider, project engineer in GM’s Fuels and Lubricants Group. “There’s maybe some feeling that they’re taking care of their vehicle if they change their oil more often.”

The 3,000-mile myth is also promoted by the quick-lube industry’s “convenient reminder” windshield sticker. It is a surprisingly effective tool that prompts us to continue following a dictate that our fathers (or grandfathers) drummed into our heads: It’s your duty to change your oil every 3,000 miles — or your car will pay the price. But as former service advisor David Langness put it, the 3,000-mile oil change is “a marketing tactic that dealers use to get you into the service bay on a regular basis. Unless you go to the drag strip on weekends, you don’t need it.”

Car dealers’ service departments are also guilty of incorrectly listing the mileage for the next oil change. We’ve seen them recommend a 3,000-mile oil change on a car with a 10,000-mile interval and also list a 5,000-mile recommendation on a car that has a variable oil change schedule.

Because busy car owners seldom read their owner’s manuals, most have no idea of the actual oil change interval for their cars. And so they blindly follow the windshield reminder sticker, whether it’s an accurate indicator of the need for an oil change or not. “I just go by the sticker in the windshield,” one well-to-do, educated Denver Lexus owner said. “Otherwise, how would I know when to change it?”

A career Navy mechanic who bought an Edmunds.com long-term car just shrugged when he was told that the vehicle had safely gone 13,000 miles between oil changes. “I’ll just keep changing the oil every 5,000 miles,” he said. “It’s worked well for me in the past.”

Our oil-change addiction also comes from the erroneous argument that nearly all cars should be serviced under the “severe” schedule found in the owner’s manual. In fact, a quiz on the Web site maintained by Jiffy Lube International Inc. (owned by petrochemical giant Shell Oil Company) recommends the severe maintenance schedule for virtually every kind of driving pattern.

The argument that most people drive under severe conditions is losing its footing, however. A number of automakers, including Ford and GM, have contacted Edmunds data editors to request that the maintenance section of Edmunds’ site substitute the normal maintenance schedule for the severe schedule that had been displayed.

About the only ones that really need a 3,000-mile oil change are the quick-lube outlets and dealership service departments. In their internal industry communications, they’re frank about how oil changes bring in customers. “Many people…know when to have their oil changed but don’t pay that much attention to it,” said an article in the National Oil and Lube News online newsletter. “Take advantage of that by using a window sticker system [and] customers will be making their way back to you in a few short months.”

Another National Oil and Lube News article tied the frequency of oil changes to success in pushing related products and services. For a midsize SUV, the stepped-up oil change intervals will bring in $1,800 over the life of the car, the article says. “A few extra services [or oil changes] can go a long way toward increasing the amount of money a customer will spend during the lifespan we estimated here,” the article concludes.