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Auto Repair, Hatchback, Truck, Sedan
This topic is primarily for professional mechanics, current or retired, or ardent amateurs who would like to share the suprises, victories, tricks and challenges of working on the modern automobile. All Forums members are invited, of course, to ask technicians about their work, or comment on your own experiences dealing with mechanics.
If you have a maintenance or repair question about your vehicle, please use search to find one of our Maintenance and Repair discussions, or ask a question in Edmunds Answers.
#1 of 4850 A Mechanic's Life - Tales From Under the Hood
by MrShift@Edmunds HOST
May 01, 2012 (5:17 pm)
This topic is for professional (or retired) techs who would like to share their experiences "in the trenches"-- the challenges of repairing modern automobiles, of running a shop, of interactions with the general public. Dedicated amateur mechanics might also want to jump in and discuss what it's like for the talented DIYer, and how they relate to both professionals and the aftermarket. Last of all, we'd like to invite any forums member who would like to know more about how technicians "think", how they run their businesses, and how to make having a car repaired easier and more cost effective.
Technicians, you've got bragging rights here, so it's not all about the downside!
#2 of 4850 Thanks for forming this new forum
May 09, 2012 (12:48 pm)
I'm glad someone thought to start a thread for us. Though I'm not a professional mechanic, I am often called upon for advise on electrical problems in today's modern vehicles. It seems that the modern car has moved from a mechanical marvel to an electrical marvel in the past 20 or so years, leaving a lot of older master mechanics scratching our heads when we open the hood. I hope we can help each other, and close the gap between those who can only replace parts, and those who can actually repair parts.
Thanks, Karen, for inviting me in.
#3 of 4850 What every mechanic could always use...
May 09, 2012 (4:47 pm)
When someone writes in with a car question; the first things I need to know are; what brand of vehicle is this; what year model is it; what model engine does it have; what transmission type does it have; and how many miles are on it? Sometimes it feels like pulling teeth to move posters to provide this information; but without it, I am effectively working blind.
I think many owners feel intimidated when they are asked to provide technical information about their car; after all, if they knew about that kind of stuff; they wouldn't be writing in asking for help.
If you want to phone someone who lives far away, and don't know their area code; do you just leave out that part of the number when calling? Of course not; practically everyone knows that a long distance call cannot go through without an area code. So when people don't know an area code; they look it up in the front of their phone directory; or call the operator and ask for the area code.
But people regularly ask us car questions without telling us what model car they have, or its engine model. However, I now can be confident that everyone who reads this will not omit this info in the future; right?
There are actually many people out there who do not know the year model, engine size, or transmission type in their car. But such people usually realize that they don't know this information. The thing to do in this situation is to go to a garage, an auto parts store or a dealership, ask them to give you this information; and then write it down. Keep a copy in the car, and another copy in your wallet. You'll then be way ahead of those who don't know this vital information.
One fine point here is that the model year of a vehicle may not be the same as the year in which it was manufactured. They start building the next year's models in the fall of the preceding year; so a 2012 car may have been built as early as August 2011. This is why the label on the driver's door or door frame is not useful for model year identification (although it is VERY useful for parts ordering information).
There is an emission information label on the underside of the hood, or on the radiator support, or the inner fender. This label has a statement at the bottom that reads something like "This vehicle conforms to all US and EPA regulations pertaining to 2011 model year new motor vehicles." This is where you can find the model year of your car. This label can also tell you whether the car has California emission equipment, or 49 state emissions.
There is also an abbreviated note at the top of this label, which reads something like "engine family 3.5 VVT." This means that this particular car has a 3.5 liter engine with Variable Valve Timing.
Give all this information to the mechanic; and they will give you much better service and might even smile occasionally. Give the mechanic as much information as you know about the car's service and problem history; and they will think you're an exceptionally aware and considerate customer. They also may spot something you had no idea was an issue with this car; and which may clear up a mysterious problem that has plagued the car for ages.
#4 of 4850 Re: What every mechanic could always use... [zaken1]
May 10, 2012 (11:11 am)
Rant over? Sorry couldn't resist.
#5 of 4850 Re: Thanks for forming this new forum [lovemygrandam]
May 10, 2012 (1:26 pm)
Your comment echoes what I have heard for many years from mechanics; in response to new trends in engine design, emission control, electronics, fuel chemistry, and government regulations.
In about 1970, when I first saw a thermostatically controlled air cleaner, and the thermal and vacuum control valves which it used; my heart sank. This seemed outrageous and unacceptably complicated. I seriously considered finding another line of work. But I was just reacting to the contrast with the simplicity of past engines. Before long; I became more familiar with these systems; and realized that they really weren't so bad.
When EGR systems were first introduced in 1973; some old time mechanics swore they would quit this business; because routine servicing and tune ups were becoming unmanageably complicated and impractical. Indeed; the 1973 cars were very tricky to tune; and the 1974 models, with their further retarded ignition timing. were even worse. 1974 was clearly the worst year in modern history for running quality. But 1975 then brought us catalytic converters; which, despite their cost and vulnerabilities, also permitted manufacturers to use sensible ignition advance and fuel mixture calibrations; and the 1975 cars ran much better. Today, mechanics don't even blink an eye when they see an EGR valve. It has just become another standard part.
Granted; it is the ongoing refinement AND INTEGRATION of computerized fuel metering and ignition system controls, combustion chamber design, porting and camshaft profiles, intake and exhaust manifold design, exhaust flow and reversion dynamics, cooling system design, engine temperature regulation, spark plug design, and electronic spark timing controls; which have enabled each of the recent engine efficiency improvements to work as well as they now do. All of these systems now have to work together more closely and interdependently than ever before.
But human nature being what it is; we tend to resist change. So some mechanics drop out along the way; while new ones come along. Automotive evolution is an ongoing process; which ain't gonna stop. At each step; some people will decide they can't keep up; while others just crank up their steam.
One of the biggest shifts in this process has been the introduction of electronics into what previously was mainly done with mechanical systems. When I taught engine theory courses at MMI, students often told me that electricity was the most difficult part of the course for them to understand. but they later came to me and said that they learned more in those courses than they did anywhere else in the school. It is often a matter of how open a person is to new ideas; rather than how educated, experienced or smart they are; which determines their success in this process.
You wrote that you would like to "close the gap between those who can only replace parts, and those who can actually repair parts." I need to make a slight correction here: The most successful approach to servicing modern automobiles is not to be able to repair parts: Most electronic parts are not repairable (at least not in a practical sense). It is to be able to know which parts do not need to be replaced; and to only replace parts which actually are defective. Yeah; I've heard stories of Russian engineers at a high tech company where the computer broke down, and everybody was sitting around waiting for a replacement part to be shipped in; who went over to the computer, took it apart, and repaired it. But this is not something most of us can expect to do.
The greatest waste of money and time in auto repair is caused by misdiagnosis and replacement of unnecessary parts. This has gone on for as long as I've been in this business. During the 1950s and '60s; the typical scapegoat when a mechanic did not understand why a car did not run right was to replace the carburetor. If I had a dollar for every carburetor that was unnecessarily replaced due to misdiagnosis; I'd be a rich man today. In 85% of these mystery cases; the real problem turned out to be in the ignition system. But electricity is, of course, invisible; so those who are accustomed to thinking only about what they can see are at a disadvantage here.
Today; the usual scapegoat for misunderstanding a problem is to replace the computer. However; the computer actually is one of the most reliable parts on the car (and also one of the most expensive). But because modern engines are sensitive to surprisingly small changes in fuel mixture and ignition timing; the real cause of running problems is no longer as simple as replacing the ignition system. In a modern engine; it could be a broken or slipped timing chain or belt; it could be a restricted fuel filter, or a vacuum leak, or low compression, or the wrong spark plug heat range or gap, or bad plug wires, or a coil which is arcing internally; or it could be a defective engine control sensor or module. It also could be that someone messed up in a previous servicing.
Gaining a perspective on how the different systems in an engine interact; and which parts are prone to cause a given class of problem, is the most effective skill a mechanic can gain. But this education requires patience, trust, humility, the willingness to accept challenge and revise incorrect assumptions, and an open mind. Many of us are weak in one or more of those areas; and this limits our potential as a mechanic, as well as in other aspects of life.
This forum offers an opportunity for those of us who have certain skills to share them with those who would like to improve theirs. But that process can also lead to ego struggles and competition. I ended up quitting my teaching position at MMI, even though it was the most successful and fulfilling job I've ever had; because of the number of people in my classes who had bad attitudes, ego problems, rigid beliefs and were not really open to learning.
I sincerely hope that this forum will turn out to be more adult and cooperative.
#6 of 4850 Re: Thanks for forming this new forum [zaken1]
by MrShift@Edmunds HOST
May 10, 2012 (1:51 pm)
It is interesting that although car owners are beginning to realize the high level of intelligence and skill sets needed to repair a modern car, they still don't want to pay for that level of expertise. Is it because the dentist's hands are clean that a client forks over $700 for an hour's work, but because the mechanic's hands are dirty people often protest to pay $700 for a full days work?
Maybe the only answer will be mandatory licensing or an apprentice program--if that's what it takes to gain the respect of the public and to charge the fees necessary to stay in business.
#7 of 4850 Re: Thanks for forming this new forum [Mr_Shiftright]
May 10, 2012 (3:03 pm)
I never had a problem of lack of respect from my auto repair clients; and I know of other shops which nobody puts down or complains about. But many shops have shining buildings, spotless floors, TV in the air conditioned waiting room, and a yard long row of certifications on the wall; but are run mainly to create profit; and this attitude is apparent to the public. Greed and dishonesty is nearly impossible to conceal. The issue here is that the public is far more sensitive to the spirit in which they are treated than mechanics (and shop owners) often realize. Mechanics work all day with physical objects; which do not have feelings and are usually hard and strong. So it can be difficult to shift gears and be warm, caring, and compassionate when the car owner walks in (especially if you're feeling frustrated because you're mainly doing this work for the money, or if you feel at all uncomfortable about having marked up your cost of parts by hundreds of dollars; while the customer is on a small fixed income).
This poor economy is bringing out the worst side of some people; and it shows. And this leads to businesses failing; which in some cases is justified. There are a lot of unscrupulous people in the auto industry; and they don't deserve our compassion or sympathy. They really don't belong here; and the reputation and ill will which they create is making it tough for those of us who are not like them. But dentists also have the same problem; clean hands notwithstanding (just consider how much malpractice insurance costs these days).
There are two very different worlds out there: One is the world of fast track living, credit bubbles. new cars every year. expensive homes, and premium products. Mercedes, Harley, and Porsche buyers EXPECT to pay through the nose for the services on their vehicles; hell, they need those price tags to create and support the image they live in.
But the automotive industry also services the needs of poor people who buy old cars and just hope they can stay together. And those $70-$125 hourly shop labor rates inevitably end up impacting the lives of people who cannot afford those services.
It didn't used to be like that; cars used to be an affordable, practical appliance (back when people expected to have to drive a stick shift). People enjoyed maintaining their own cars. But then it was discovered that adding luxury accessories to cars would bring in lots more cash; so automatic transmissions, power everything, air conditioning, and soft, cushy suspensions became standard. Then came emission controls; and along with this evolution; labor rates skyrocketed. Now it is becoming more and more difficult to even find a stick shift car for sale. If you also want a car without power steering or air; it is nearly impossible in some brands.
Some countries in South America have just rich people and very poor people; with practically no middle class. America is evolving towards this type of society. And this is what is driving the distrust and resentment toward mechanics. Those of us who have resisted this trend are becoming rarer and rarer. But we each make our choices, and have to live with the consequences.
#8 of 4850 Re: Thanks for forming this new forum [zaken1]
by MrShift@Edmunds HOST
May 10, 2012 (4:05 pm)
Well greed is a subjective issue in many cases.
For instance, if you come to my shop, for which I pay a lot of $$$ + staff + tools + whatever, and you want to know what your check engine light means, am I really supposed to drop what I'm doing and scan your car for free? Or, do I charge you $60 and tell you what it all means and then suggest that we'll deduct that should you let us repair the vehicle?
To some people, this scenario suggests greed, but not to me.
As for certificates, as far as I know, you don't legally need any training whatsoever to hang out an "Auto Repair" shingle. Am I wrong about that?
#9 of 4850 Re: Thanks for forming this new forum [Mr_Shiftright]
May 10, 2012 (4:39 pm)
"Well greed is a subjective issue in many cases." But it is objective in others. My dentist charges a sliding fee scale; depending on the income level of a client. That seems like an objective, non greedy way of dealing with the 2 level economy in which we now live. The fees from higher income clients offset the low fees from poor people. I occasionally did that in my work; but it depended on how I felt about the client; their car, and what they claimed about their finances. I know I can't please everyone; but that is no reason to not try when it seems appropriate.
I don't need your shop to drop what they're doing in order to scan my computer. Auto Zone does it for free (or so I've been told). But if you give me a senior citizen price break if I bring the car in; I'd find that attractive. The shop where I last had my car smogged did that. They also gave me a printout of how to adjust my idle speed (no, I did not need it) so I could drive down the street and slow the idle down in order for the car to be testable. And they did not charge extra for the retest.
I'm not asking for people to suffer for poor people's sake; just to be kind once in a while (when and how is optional). Besides; it comes back multiplied...
I didn't mean to imply that certifications are required to do auto repair. I just meant that pricey shops often make a big point of posting certifications on the wall where clients can see them; because they impress some people.
#10 of 4850 Re: Thanks for forming this new forum [zaken1]
by MrShift@Edmunds HOST
May 10, 2012 (4:49 pm)
Well that's called "goodwill"--the opposite of goodwill is probably more accurately----selfishness.
Greed, to me, is blatant overcharging, not being stingy with your time.
As for a sliding scale, that becomes more difficult for a mechanic than a dentist, because you didn't just spend $30,000 on a new set of German teeth, but you might roll in with a brand new, or new-ish car---that sort of upsets the generosity equation for most mechanics.