Check Engine Light

Why I haven’t blogged on this topic before now is anybody’s guess…  I get calls about this ALL the time:  You’ve probably been there – start the car up, everything is good, and then somewhere along your drive that orange Check-Engine light or Service Engine Soon light, on that orange picture of an engine lights up in the dash.  Makes your heart sink a little – am I right?

 

What do you do?

 

If I know you well enough and you call me saying “my check engine light came on – what do I do?” I may (based on your stress level) say “Well – did you check the engine?”.  I don’t use that joke often.

Or you could take the approach Homer takes from my favorate Simpsons moment:  Homer is driving down the road and he sees the check-engine light come on.  He quickly says “I thought I fixed that!” and then proceeds to pick up a piece of black tape off the floor and re-applies it over the light.

 

Joking aside – what do you do?  Here’s my standard answers:

 

First – did the light flash at you? If it did that is most dire warning the light can give you – it means your car’s computer was detecting active misfiring.  Misfiring is bad and, if not corrected, can escalate into much bigger repairs quickly.  If the light flashed, or if it is flashing now:  don’t drive the car.  Get it towed in.  The tow-charge may well become your best investment ever.

Did the light just come on / without flashing? Ok – this is a less serious warning.  BUT, we still have no idea how serious the problem is.  Back in Psychology we were taught the stages of grieving as:  Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally Acceptance.  I think this pattern holds true for people experiencing check-engine lights too and thus I get a lot of people working on the ‘Denial’ level.  I get questions like:  I just had it serviced or it’s due / overdue for service – is this why the light is on?  Does it come on based on some kind of mileage counter?  Sorry – no.  If your check-engine light is on your engine management system has captured a real error and is reporting it to you via this light.

If you have an active check-engine light on my advice is this:  get it checked as quickly as you can.  Try not to use the car much or drive very far.  Be aware of the car’s behavior / keep an eye on the other gauges and if you notice a change in the driving behavior get the car in quicker.  If there are obvious performance issues (hesitation, stumbling, stalling, etc) get the car towed.

Did the light come on for a little while and now it’s off? If so this is good news / it means that the active error that the engine management system was observing is now no longer active.  You should still have the car checked because the computer system will have information on this historical problem but, unless the car’s performance is somehow ‘off’, you can do this more at your convenience.  Certainly have it checked before going on a road-trip or something like that.

 

How do I get a check-engine light diagnosed?

 

One of the frustrations clients have with check-engine lights is that there isn’t really a way for the vehicle owner to judge the severity of the problem.  (With the exception of the light flashing – this always indicates a high-priority problem).  The functionality of the check-engine light is intimately tied to the vehicle’s emission systems and the EPA’s requirements for modern vehicles.  Because of this a lot of the concerns that the check-engine light comes on for are emissions related.  Some of these overlap with issues that can become or are vehicle damaging while others are exclusively emissions-only problems.  The EPA isn’t interested in having your vehicle make this distinction for you because they fear that emissions problems would get less priority.

 

What about free code-reading offered by parts stores?


The EPA requires that a certain level of diagnostic information be reported though a standard computer protocol that can be read by multiple diagnostic machines (computers or scanners).  This level of data (called OBDII) is easily accessed by low-cost scanners and you can get this info for free or close to free by parts stores, some lube shops, even some tire shops and other less-specialized automotive businesses.  Unfortunately the data available though this OBDII protocol is much less ‘rich’ than the computer data available though the vehicle manufacturer’s native diagnostic protocols.  The more complicated the vehicle the more true this is.  Diagnosing a modern Mercedes Benz with a check-engine light on, for example, with only OBDII information is almost impossible and the probability for an incorrect diagnostic result is very high.

Remember too – a parts store wants to sell you parts.  Providing free OBDII data to you is going to increase the likelihood of you buying parts from them.  It always saddens me to hear of someone spending hundreds of dollars on parts at a part store based on the OBDII error codes in their computer system without fixing anything.  Sometimes this process can even add to the problems.

 

Why should I pay for check-engine light diagnostics?

 

Check-engine light diagnostics does not only involve getting as much data from the vehicle’s computer as possible but it also requires a smart technician to then unravel this information, test the systems in question, and determine the real root-cause of the problem.  Factory level diagnostic computers include much richer data about what your engine and its sensors are seeing and doing / these computers can even force the vehicle to perform outputs that help a technician test your engine.

So, to get the check-engine light problem diagnosed correctly you are best to have it diagnosed with a computer that speaks your car’s native language (eg a Mercedes diagnostic computer  for a Mercedes, a Land Rover diagnostic computer for a Range Rover, etc).  The diagnostic process should additionally involve time for a good technician to then test the areas that the computer is complaining about to determine the root-cause.  Once the root-cause is found the repair is typically easy to determine and to price.

The thing to remember is this:  typically check-engine light diagnostics involve the best skills of a shop, the most expensive equipment in a shop, and the liability of ‘owning’ the results requires the shop to take on risk.  Ultimately the diagnostic part is the key part of getting your car fixed because if the diagnostics are wrong everything after that will also be wrong.

 

Who can best diagnose my check-engine light?

 

Dealers have a natural advantage:  they *should* have the best diagnostic equipment for your vehicle and should have the skills on-staff to find the root-causes.  Why do I say *should*?  Well – dealers are staffed by the same kind of people as none-dealers.  Some technicians are better than others.  If your vehicle diagnostics is handled by a senior technican (who wants to get the right answer) at a dealership the diagnostics should be correct.  When does this not happen?:  when the staffing at the dealership is lacking or the dealership determines that a junior technician is ‘good enough’ or your vehicle is less-critical to them.  Customers naturally assume that going to a dealer guarantees that the technian diagnosing their car is appropriately skilled.  Whereas outside a dealership environment a customer is going to more actively check for this competency.

A big problem with dealership diagnostics is that most vehicle manufactures ‘micro manage’ their technicians and their diagnostics processes are rigid.  Because of this the technician isn’t allowed to think for him/herself.  This results in a lot of overkill answers that ensure the problem is fixed but not necessarily in the most efficient way.  This is done to reduce the risk of wrong answers and to create a more consistent result from dealership to dealership.  BMW’s diagnostic computer, for example, includes the diagnostic tree for a given problem and the technician is required to work though the tree and then perform the repair at the end of the tree.

Another dealership problem:  do they care about or even know your vehicle anymore?  I get odd-ball cars all the time that the owner just didn’t feel good about how the dealer was approaching the problem.  Dealership techs would much rather work on their run-of-the-mill vehicles than the unusual ones that they don’t know well.  This is especially true for older vehicles outside of warranty – the technician has no guarantee that he/she will get any work from his/her diagnostic process because it has to be sold to the vehicle owner.  Additionally if the dealership doesn’t see a lot of value in the relationship with the vehicle owner then that vehicle will be lower priority.


Independent Specialists:

 

Your best choice for diagnosing your check-engine light is an independent shop with the equipment and competency to diagnose your problem.  The potential dealership problems above are usually not present in a speciality shop where the shop wants to build a relationship with you.  But, of equal important is the shop’s integrity so that you won’t be oversold or otherwise decieved.

How do you determine if the shop is appropriately equipped – ask this question:  Can you update my vehicle’s software with the latest updates from the manufacturer? You may or may not need this service but only the best shops can 1 – do it and 2 – have the confidence to say they can.

The question of integrity is more difficult to answer – I would suggest you start with a referral from a trusted friend where you can.  Also do some internet searching and see what the shop’s customers say.  Understand that nobody is perfect and typically upset customers are more vocal than happy ones but if you do some internet searches and reading you’ll sense a trend.

 

Final Thought:

 

People forget this but it’s critical:  don’t shop-hop.  Build a relationship with a good shop and stick with them.  Even if on some repairs they seem higher in price than what you think the going rate should be.  A good shop is like a good family doctor – they will know your car and they will know you.  Your family doctor is much better at helping you than the one at an insta-care that doesn’t know you or your history.  Your best opportunities for saving in auto service is, like in medicine, to catch things early.  A good family-mechanic will help you do this.  Look for this in a shop:  good service history records and the ability to retrieve them is key and demonstrates a more managed business.  It shocks me but I still see hand-written service invoices from some shops.  Consider this:  If the shop is that far behind the times in invoicing – where their money is – what else have they fallen behind in?  A shop that values an on-going relationship with you is your best weapon in any battles with your vehicle for a check-engine light or any other problem.

 

BMW New 5-Series Recall

I was surprized to read that the all-new 5-series has a recall already (see below).  This F10 chassis has been recieved well by the media so I hope this recall doesn’t dampen that.  Although, honestly, BMW have had issues with fuel level sensors before – more often than you’d expect for such a great company.  Oh well.  See below for the details:

 

NHTSA CAMPAIGN ID Number: 10V331000

Summary:
BMW IS RECALLING CERTAIN 2010 AND 2011 5-SERIES AND 5-SERIES GRAN TURISMO PASSENGER VEHICLES MANUFACTURED FROM JANUARY 12 THROUGH JULY 1, 2010. THE VEHICLE’S FUEL LEVEL SENSOR WITHIN THE FUEL TANK CAN BECOME WEDGED AGAINST THE TANK.

Consequence:
IF THIS OCCURS, THE FUEL GAUGE IN THE INSTRUMENT CLUSTER WOULD DISPLAY A LARGER AMOUNT OF FUEL THAN WAS ACTUALLY IN THE TANK. AS A RESULT, IF THE TANK BECAME EMPTY, THE VEHICLE COULD STALL INCREASING THE RISK OF A CRASH.

Remedy:
BMW HAS NOT YET PROVIDED THE AGENCY WITH A REMEDY PLAN AND NOTIFICATION SCHEDULE. OWNERS MAY CONTACT BMW AT 1-800-525-7417.

WOWZA! BMW Model Guide

This is an AWESOME document covering all BMW models back to 1928!  It includes MINI and Rolls-Royce as well.  It’s a little out of date and doesn’t have the new F10 chassis 5-series but it is otherwise way-way-way cool!

This can be useful if you’re shopping for a used BMW – if you are call us before you buy!

Check it out:  bmw_models_since_1928.pdf

[I’m not sure why the modern Range-Rover is missing, I guess they don’t consider it *all* BMW]

 

Jaguar XJ

Recently I celebrated a birthday.  I didn’t think much of it, the kids had fun, but otherwise it was uneventful.  It is one of those birthdays whose number you don’t make common knowledge / so I’ll leave it out here.  Seriously though, I didn’t think much of it.  UNTIL this week when I was treated to (one of the benefits of this job) the fun of driving a Jaguar XJ6.  Really a nice car.  I’m sure, of course, that its British ness gave it more appeal to me (since I’m of British heritage) but what I told the car’s owner when I gave it back to him was “That is a really nice car to drive.  I must be getting older.”  (Hopefully that wasn’t somehow insulting – I didn’t think of that at the time..)  Anyway – I must be getting old.

I drive a lot of high-end cars (that job-benefit thing again) including the XJ’s main competitors:  BMW 7-series, Mercedes S-Classes, Audi A8s, Cadillacs, Lincolns, Lexus, even the odd Rolls-Royce.  They are all great cars and very nice to drive.  But there is something different with the Jaguar, I think it’s the British ness – it creates a natural advantage with things opulent.

Am I right? Well, Jaguar are taking another swing at it with an all-new XJ – here are some links to articles on the new car:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaguar_XJ_%28X351%29

http://www.autoweek.com/article/20100326/carnews/100329919/car-pictures&template=photo

http://www.topspeed.com/cars/jaguar-xj/ke1206.html

 

Beautiful car!

Is your mechanic an Authority?

I am impressed with people when they offer appologies – probably because I have a hard time doing it myself.  I had a client do just this today – it’s a long story but basically he misjudged our abilities and was kind enough to admit it.  That’s touching, for sure, but something else he said kept me thinking:  “I’ve seen a lot of guys with ASE patches on their shirts that shouldn’t be fixing cars.”  (Or something close to that).

Reading between the lines I would say he was skeptical of our claim to be Audi-experts and seeing our ASE credentials didn’t, by themselves, convince him otherwise.  What did convince him, thankfully, was a detailed description of our diagnostic process and, of course, the end result of us solving the problem.

Honestly, too, this guy’s technical understanding of engines and modern engine-management systems was pretty good – way above what the average consumer knows.  I think, in a way, he felt slightly in competition with us and has had bad experiences with others lording their credentials over him as a way to dismiss his questions or alternate theories.  We’re good with vehicle enthusiasts as clients and, because of our commitment to integrity, we don’t fall into these types of conflicts.

Doing some quick web research I offer the following statistics on ASE certifications:

Definition:
The ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) board is the standard of certification for technicians in the US.  ASE credentials require certifiable work experience (2 year mininum) and passing a written test.  ASE certifications are good for 5 years before they expire. 

Total number of full-time automotive Technicians in the US:  750,000
Percent that hold current ASE certifications:  33%
Percent that hold current ASE Master-Level certifications:  13%
Percent of Integrity First Automotive technicians holding ASE-Master Level certifications:  100%

In software engineering we had a great expression:  “Be an authority, not an authority figure”.

This is brilliant advice for automotive technicians and it gets to the heart of this issue with my client today.  His experience, I speculate, is of automotive professionals that were more “authority figures” than real authorities.  Moreover, because he worked pretty hard at being a real authority he found this offensive.

I believe it is dangerous for anyone to rest on their laurels – certified or not – and anyone that does this deserves to be told so. 

My first ASE certification was in brakes.  I remember getting my test results in the mail, and attached to the report-card was a short paragraph that, roughly said:  “regardless of how you did you should be proud as only a small percentage of automotive techs even attempt to get certified and, of these, only a percentage pass…”.  (ASE tests have a 1/3 failure rate).

I think this gets to the heart of the matter:  a willingness to stand up and be tested demonstrates something – and the ASE is wise to capitalize on this and encourage automotive professionals to really be authorities in their profession.

We see vehicle problems every day of all types including easy and hard.  Although ‘hard’ aren’t always our favorite we promote a love of learning in our business and have tried to build an environment that supports this.  Anyone can fall into the trap of ego that halts learning, we’re not immune, but experiences like this one today serve as great reminders to stay open minded.

At my first job back when I was a teenager my boss used to say, “when you’re green you’re growing but when you’re ripe you rot”.

If you can admit that you’re ‘green’ and continue to learn, you can avoid rotting too.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

As a shop owner and as a technician I have benefited so much from the goodwill of others in my profession.

I have had many mentors who have taught me both how to be a better manager and how to be a better technician.  This is an interesting industry because technology is constantly changing both what we need to do and how we go about doing it.

I think 10-20 years ago a good mechanic could still largely exist by him/herself.  Learning newer technologies and the latest vehicle models could be done from shop manuals and the occasional training class.

Today this is just not so.  No man/woman can be an island.  In our shop we rely on technical networks like iATN and BIMRS as well as Autonerdz and several others.  Additionally Alldata is a technicial information system containing repair procedures – it is constantly updated and we rely on it every day.  Running an automotive shop today, especially one known for handling the tough probems, would be near impossible without a good high-speed internet connection.

What’s interesting though, and more the source of inspiration for blogging, is the real synergy that results from shops and technicians sharing beyond more traditional bounds.  Near our shop, for example, are several ‘mom and pops’ shops that have been in business for a long time and have a different business model than our’s.  We have tried to extend a hand of friendship to them and they have recipricated.  Together now we know we have more resources at our disposal and our shop and theirs have really gained from the friendship.  Certainly there are those that tell us “that’s your competition” and we shouldn’t be sharing like this.  We have found we’re better off this way.  And, what’s even better is, our clients are better off because we share in solving their problems.

Jason, one of our very talented technicians, is constantly contacted by people from all over the country to get his help on custom-tuning engine management systems.  He is very sharing with his talent and, I believe, has become better at that speciality because of it.  He gets to play with more custom engine management systems than just about anybody.  This builds his talent and his willingness to share opens the door to give him this exposure.  Pretty neat and everybody wins.

I am personal friends with Cecil Bullard, an automotive training guru and owner of Automofo.com.  I have heard several shop owners rave about how Cecil literally saved their businesses and their livelihoods.  One such case he never charged a cent for.  Cecil has been huge in helping our shop keep on the right path and I’m certain without his help, help he willingly gives, we would have had a much harder time building a successful business or any business at all.

I hear people fearful of the modern world we live in and the instant access we have to millions of people.  Certainly the internet has brought some bad things into our lives but I sincerely believe that the strengths brought to us by the power of networks far outweigh these bad things.

An interesting book to read on this topic is Wikinomics:  How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything.

Pick up a copy and read it – I think it’ll reshape your attitudes about sharing and collaboration.  I can certainly testify that collaboration in my industry, even with so-called competitors, has always resulted in win-win.  I think paradigms are shifting and this kind of attitude towards sharing is going to be required (if it isn’t already) to be the very best in any field – it’s happening in our’s.

How cool is that?

AAA Approved

We owe a big THANK-YOU to our wonderful clients who were willing to answer the phone and participate in AAA’s survey of our business a couple of months ago.  That was a critical part of their approval process to becoming a ‘AAA Approved’ repair facility.

AAA have requirements for tooling, certifications, facility, customer satisfaction, and even insurance and uniform requirements!  Our goal in becoming AAA approved was to have a third party hold us to a high service standard / thanks to our great clients we passed that test.  We would like to sincerely THANK YOU, we really appreciate your trust and faith in us.

 

AAA Approval

BMW V8 Leaking Coolant?

Here’s a huge advantage to working with the aftermarket – our friends at All German Auto have come up with an excellent way to save tonnes and tonnes of work on coolant leak repairs on the new BMW Valvetronic V8 engines.  Including:

- 2002-2005 BMW 745i & il
- 2004-2006 BMW X5 4.4i/4.8is
- 2004-2005 BMW 545i
- 2004-2005 BMW 645ci
- 2002-2005 Range Rover.

Here’s a link with more info on the fix:

http://www.allgermanauto.com/products/expanding-cooling-pipe-tube.html

This is actually very very similar to the problem with Porsche’s V8 (in the Cayenne and Panamera) and the same solution – a collapsible pipe for the repair.  This saves extensive labor in engine disassembly.  We’ve tried it; it works great!

If you’ve got one of these needing this repair let us know.  We can also do factory level software updates and diagnostics for your BMW too!


Quitting Smoking?

Well it’s that time of year again:  New Year!  Time for a change – right?  Why do people resolve to quit smoking?  Presumably because they know it’s bad for their heath.  But if they know that why do they smoke at all?  I think, besides the chemical addiction, that a big part of it is they can’t really see the damage one cigarette at a time.  You don’t feel different after a cigarette.  You don’t noticed any decreased lung capacity or increase in lung cancer or anything like that…  Right?

Well, as your family mechanic, I reflected on last year and want to help you have a better year this year.  One thing I remember about last year is the number of engines, ruined engines, that came through the shop.  I think it was 6 total last year.  ALL of them were in cars that shouldn’t have needed an engine yet.  ALL of them were due to poor maintenance – oil changes or lack thereof.  Which got me thinking about smoking.  Here’s the parallel:

Ignoring your oil change interval and skipping or doing an oil change too late usually won’t affect your car in a noticable way at the time that you do it.  Like that one cigarette, you can’t see the damage.  BUT, just like that cigarette, it does cause damage and do it enough and the engine will be ruined.

To make things worse we had some customers that not only went WAY too long between oil changes but they also had their changes done at discount department stores.  No oil change for $15 includes good oil – none.  Modern engines need good oil – a lot of modern engines require a full synthetic oil.  Many others SHOULD require full synthetic.

Of the ruined engines we saw last year ALL of them could have lasted A LOT LONGER.

So this year, instead of harping at you about maintenance as we always do this time of year – instead let me simply harp at you about oil changes:  Do your changes on time, use good quality oil.  Check your oil level regularly.

Like smoking a cigarette, breaking these rules won’t feel like you caused any damage, but if you do it enough you will end up needing a new engine.

For a lot of cars the cost of a new engine outweighs the value of the vehicle.  So ruining your engine can effectively mean ruining your car.  It’s not worth it.

Oh – and – at Integrity First Automotive – we can create a custom oil change interval for your vehicle based on your vehicle type or your engine.  OR, better, we can create an oil change interval just for you.  Our computer system will keep track of it for you.

Happy New Year!

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