It seems most people would rather undergo dental surgery than face the unenviable challenge of finding a good car mechanic. This is especially true for those whose vehicles are no longer under warranty: the point at which any repair becomes an out-of-pocket expense.
How do drivers sort out the good eggs from the bad? It isn’t as much of a mystery as one might think, thanks to ASE certification. ASE stands for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence: the sanctioning organization for automotive technicians.
ASE’s certification program tests the technician’s knowledge in a variety of specialties, ranging from air conditioning service to tune-up. In addition to passing written tests, technicians also need to prove that they have worked in the field for a minimum of two years.
The tests aren’t easy. Passing requires a combination of book knowledge and hands-on experience. An ASE master technician has passed all of the exams.
But a good service facility needs more than qualified technicians. Complex electronic control systems on current vehicles require specialized diagnostic and repair equipment. The best way to find out if a shop is qualified to work on your car is to pay the service manager a visit, preferably at a low-traffic time when he can spend a few minutes answering your questions. Ask to tour the facility, and be on the lookout for the following:
- Cleanliness: We would never take our cars to a shop that isn’t at least as clean as our own garages. Do technicians protect the car fenders by putting clean towels or shop rags over them? Are tools laid out in an orderly manner? Are tools that are not in use put away in cabinets?
- Good working environment: Is the shop able to keep technicians on a long-term basis?
- Transparency: Are both the owner and technicians open to sharing diagnostic information, and explaining it in a manner that customers can understand? A good technician will keep a bad part after he replaces it, so he can show the customer why the part failed.
Finding a good shop is only half the battle. The other half is making sure your car is fixed correctly, preferably with one visit to the shop. The best defense is a good offense, beginning with a written estimate before the technician begins work on the vehicle.
The estimate should include the cost of replacement parts as well as service.
Shops use Mitchell manual standards to price out various services. The manuals list book time: the reasonable amount of time to perform a particular repair. The cost of a repair is the shop’s hourly rate multiplied by the book time for that procedure.
Make sure the technician or service manager tests drives the car after repairs are completed, to ensure that the car is running properly. This may mean an extra half hour or hour that the car is in the shop, but it’s worth any extra time or expense incurred.
Some problems are easier to diagnose and fix than others. Technicians have a much easier time diagnosing a malfunction when they have a trouble code to work off of. Trouble codes are sent to the car’s on-board computer when one of the sensors determines that control(s) are not within certain specifications.
Typically trouble codes are tied to emissions problems. They can include something as simple as the driver failing to tighten a gas cap, allowing fumes to escape around the filler neck, to more complex engine problems.
While the driver only sees a check engine light, the technician has the ability to pull the code from the car’s computer using a scan tool. The trouble code directs the technician to the source of the problem, making the diagnosis and fix relatively straightforward.
However, there are numerous problems that can arise that will not trigger the check engine light. They include:
- Base timing out of adjustment
- Dirt in the throttle body housing that restricts airflow into the engine
- Worn oxygen sensors. Since oxygen sensors are potentiometers, they rarely fail completely. Over time they slow down, and eventually, the driver notices decreasing gas mileage.
- Problems on the secondary side of the ignition system
- Excessive backpressure due to a catalytic converter that has filled up and needs to be serviced and replaced. The driver will notice a loss of engine power and poorer fuel economy.
Intermittent drivability problems are some of the hardest to diagnose, because the technician may not be able to reproduce the situation during his own test drive.
Car owners can save the technician time and themselves money by gathering information before heading for the service facility. Keep a memo pad in the car, and record as much information as possible about how and when the problem occurs.
- Does the problem typically occur first thing in the morning? The on-board computer doesn’t start to work until the vehicle reaches operating temperature.
- Note when and where any unusual noises are coming from. Are they coming from the engine bay or around the wheels? Since noises tend to travel in unibody cars, it may be necessary to have someone else drive the car and sit in both front and back seats in order to pinpoint the source of the noise.
- Does temperature or wet weather make the problem worse?
- Does the problem occur during idle, acceleration, steady state cruising or deceleration?
Putting it All Together
The more complex automotive technology becomes, the more of a challenge it is for technicians in the field to keep up on advancements and diagnose complex drivability problems. Be patient. If you have faith in the shop, give the technicians the benefit of the doubt. It is in their best interest to fix your car properly, but it may take more than one visit to the shop to diagnose the problem.
Keep a paper trail of all your automotive service. It will contribute to the resale value when you decide to sell your vehicle.
And no matter what the age of the vehicle is, don’t ignore scheduled maintenance. Staying on top of oil, air and fuel filter changes, wheel alignment, tire rotation, coolant and brake system service will go a long way towards minimizing major repair costs.
Washing the car makes a difference too. Car companies don’t test dirty cars in the wind tunnel because dirt on the car’s surface impacts gas mileage. A clean, well-maintained car will pay its owner back with reliability throughout its lifespan.