Tuesday, October 29, 2013

You Should Be Saving Money on Car Repairs and Maintenance

               Having a vehicle covered under a bumper-to-bumper manufacturer’s warranty is a beautiful thing.  Ideally you’d never need to leverage it, but bad things happen to good cars, so it’s always nice to have that peace of mind just in case.  What happens when your car is no longer covered under any warranties and something breaks, malfunctions, or just plain wears out[i]?  Well unless you’re planning on becoming a full-time bicycle rider[ii], you need to get it fixed.  Unless you are extremely “technically-challenged”, you should be saving money on your car repairs and maintenance.  Here’s why.

                Prior to the Internet the best way to learn how to repair a car on your own, or at the very least conduct basic maintenance, was through the owner’s manual or with a specialized “how-to” book like a Haynes manual[iii].  But now with the Internet and its plethora of automotive information from user forums to Youtube “how-to” videos, anyone that owns a car can pretty much find out very easily how to do a particular repair.  Also with e-marketplaces now ubiquitous parts of our online lives, you can pretty much find any part for any car and have it shipped right to your door!  No more driving to the local auto parts store to find out they don’t have European-style bulbs for an early 70’s Bimmer or having to take a loan out just to buy them from the stealership dealership.

                Just because all the information and resources are readily available doesn't necessarily mean we’ll be able to take advantage of them though[iv]…but you should.  Not only are you missing out on savings (sometimes significant, sometimes not), but you may end up saving yourself from getting fleeced for hundreds, maybe even thousands!  No matter what, you’ll learn something and at the very least reap a small sliver of personal satisfaction.  Take the below scenario I recently experienced.

                My wife’s 1998 Volvo S70 sedan was due of registration renewal recently, but first required an emissions inspection.  Not surprisingly it failed.  Can’t have a bunch of “check engine” codes popping up on an emissions test.

           No stranger to working on cars myself, I know my limits and decided it’d be best to have a shop diagnose what the problem(s) were.  Though often multiple engine trouble codes can be related to the same one issue/part, they could be 4 different things entirely.  I was lazy and didn't even want to begin troubleshooting myself so I took it in to a reputable national chain auto repair shop.

Learning Experience
                The first worst part about taking your vehicle into a shop/dealer, especially with flashing engine trouble codes, is that they want to charge you upwards of 100 bucks just to plug a little electronic device with the computing power of a TI-30 to tell you what the engine codes are and mean.

SAVING TIP #1 – Most auto parts stores offer to read your engine trouble codes for free

SAVING TIP #2 – Even if they only read the number (i.e. “P0103”), a quick Internet search will reveal the code description
To add insult to injury, despite the fact I showed them my emissions report with the engine trouble codes already diagnosed, they still went ahead with the “Engine Diagnostic Service” and charged me ~$100 for providing me information I already knew.

 After I made my case with the shop manger regarding the unreasonable charge, he did have the integrity to give me a 50% discount.  Still paying $50 was a kick to the pants.

Are You Serious?
                So now that the shop knew what I had already told them, they provided me with a “Recommended Service” quote to repair the issues relating to the engine codes.  Basically they surmised the best way to fix it was a “shotgun” approach; replace the oxygen sensors (and the turbo wastegate solenoid – a less typical problem).  Problem with these recommend services is they cost almost $1000!   The car is not worth all that much more than that.  I had already blew $50, I wasn't about to pay a thousand more…as my laziness started to melt away.  I was going to fix this myself – and save at least a few hundred on labor.

                Looking at the quote invoice, I was slightly incredulous at how much they were asking for two new oxygen sensors (one upstream, one downstream from the catalytic converter) and a solenoid.  I knew that seemed very pricey.  So I did some quick part look-ups online and found the OEM parts are significantly cheaper prices.

Sourcing parts on my own, I found all three with just about $230 with shipping!  They wanted to charge me $704!!!  What sort of racket are these shops/dealers running?!

SAVING TIP #3 – OEM parts (good, original equipment recommend by the manufacturer) are readily available online at extremely competitive prices.  Check out places like RockAuto.com for new parts and Ebay.com for junk yard parts.

Detektive Work
                 At this point I was pretty proud of myself for not paying the shop a thousand dollars and finding the parts I know I needed for hundreds less…but I was still leery of the diagnosis.  I’m sure replacing the O2 sensors and turbo solenoid would fix them, but I had the nagging feeling that was just a “shotgun” solution.  Perhaps it was something more precise. 

                The first thing I did was investigate the area around the turbo wastegate solenoid.  Well wouldn't you know, the connecting plug going to the turbo solenoid was loose[v]!  What happened when I firmly plugged the connector back in???  Well engine trouble codes P0245, P0300, and P0303 disappeared! 

It wasn't a complete win though as pesky P1072 was still showing up[vi].  So I took to the Interwebs again and researched the code “System too Rich (Bank 1)”. 

SAVING TIP #4 – Though not always 100% accurate, Internet auto enthusiast forums are a Godsend to troubleshoot automotive issues yourself.  Chances are there’s an informative forum out there for your car, even your trusty 1994 Subaru Justy!

Seger! (“Victory” in Swedish)
Apparently often the P0172 code in these type of Volvo’s is triggered not because of malfunctioning O2 sensors, but because of a small deteriorated or broken rubber elbow tube along one of the engine vacuum lines.  Sure enough when I went to look at ours  I saw a very similar image as this one.

                 Though I don’t usually purchase parts from the dealer, because shipping cost more than the part itself and it takes a few days, I purchased the part at a local dealer for a whopping $9!

                It took me about an hour to replace the part (mostly because it was very difficult to access that part of the engine - a 2 minute replacement with clear access) and sure enough after I cleared the code, it has yet to show up again after 75 miles of driving.  Suffice to say, I think it’s fixed.

Moral of the Story
                Though I do not believe the national chain auto repair shop had any mal-intent in quoting me an obscene amount in repairs, I don’t think they really cared at all about how much the amount was.  Clearly it would have taken them about 5 seconds to troubleshoot the loose connector.  The O2 sensor issue again is more a “shotgun” approach – it will work, but it may not be needed.  It’s basically just like the IT guy that says they need wipe your hard drive and reinstall the operating system – when it really could be just something that takes a little investigation, but doesn’t require a full wipe of the system.  What they’re saying is they’re too lazy or don’t care enough to try to figure out the specific problem.

                Regardless of how much a shop cares or not, this story proves that ultimately you have a lot more say in things than you think.  Sure a lot of times what the shop quotes you is exactly what needs to be done and how much it will cost.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much I want to do something myself, it needs to be done by a professional because of complexity, tools, etc.  That said a lot of issues can be solved by regular Joes like you and me.  Further, how many hundreds and thousands of dollars of repairs have you paid for in the past that may have just been a $5 part here or a loose connection there?  This isn’t a “glass half full” approach and it’s not an issue of trust either.  As I said, I think the repair shop was being as honest as the day is long; but honesty does not always equal precision and thoroughness.  You could have the nicest, most honest mechanic overcharging you hundreds for all you know.

                So go out and learn some things yourself.  Get your hands dirty on occasion, do some research, protect your investment, and save some money.  You should be!

[i] Yes I know even bumper-to-bumper warranties typically do not cover basic maintenance such as brake pad wear, state inspections, etc.
[ii] I fully support bicycle riding and even commute to work via bicycle (14 miles each way) one to two times per week – this is not a condescending comment.  That said, exclusive transportation via bicycle outside an urban environment is very difficult.
[iii] Haynes and Chilton manuals were and are still great, even if just for the plethora of pictures they have in them.
[iv] I’m fully aware there are many factors that prevent folks from working on their own cars, even if they would like to.  Time is of course the biggest one, but there can also be a lack of space/garage, or the proper tools, etc.
[v] Most likely my own fault from the last time I replaced the ignition wires and components…must have not completely re-plugged in all the connectors when I put things back together.
[vi] I borrowed a friend’s OBDII reader at this point.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Review of 'Gravity' Film (Minor spoilers)


        Gravity is some of the most intense LEO (low Earth orbit) action you will ever see.  It’s been critically praised, and as a sci-fi and science fan myself, I love it as well!  Do I even need to mention there are some minor spoilers below???  Also, if you can’t tell, my recommendation is to see it.  4.25 out of 5 stars.  Won’t change your life, but it will entertain you for 90 minutes as you constantly formulate ways to get out of these seemingly impossible messes.

Things It Did Well (or Amazingly Well)

No Fat
How many movies do you always think, “Geez, it really slowed down when they started talking about x-y-z.”?  A ton right?  So many movies are so overly bloated with “fluff” just till fill in the pages between the actual core plot.  Sure there are some movies that demand such superfluous expository, especially those based on tomes (i.e. “The Lord of the Rings”), but the majority of movies, especially action movies, don’t we just want the plot progressed through effectively and attractively?  No need to included non-contributory plotlines that involve flashbacks and other relational banter – when really they don’t help make the movie any more intriguing, nor do we really care about.  Gravity keeps it thin on tangents.  In retrospective, I can’t seem to think of one scene that I felt wasn’t needed or helpful in advancing the plots.  90 minutes is a perfect playing time for a move such as this.

No Mercy
One of my favorite science-fiction short stories ever is a small story called, “The Cold Equations” (apparently they made a TV movie in 1996 based on it, and a Twighlight Zone episode) in which depicts the merciless nature the scientific laws of the universe operate, with no regard or compassion for life.  Though Gravity allows for some extremely fortuitous circumstances to occur (see “Suspension of Belief” below) to the main character, the main thrust of the harrowing experience is based in the ruthlessness of space.  This premise, though heartless, is real – and unlike so many space-based movies, gives the film a level of credibility and veracity rare in this genre.

Accuracy (see also “Inaccuracy” below)
Jumping on the above point, Gravity is filled with scientific accuracies.  I’m not astrophysicists or astronaut, but it is widely reported that much of what takes place, albeit fiction, is based in factual premises.  Sure it’s great to see the Millennium Falcon jump to hyperspace, but it’s also refreshing to see how life in space really is and having humans subjected to the laws of the universe that we actually live in.  The filming/SFX sans-gravity is quite believable.
Side Note:  LEO space debris is a real issue and though the scenario depicted in the movie is extremely catastrophic and unlikely considering already-in-place contingencies, it is still a real threat. 

The main reason I don’t like 3D is because it’s always so darn dark!  Sure Avatar did a great job and The Hobbit in HFR 3D definitely was the most bright iteration I’ve seen, but for the most part I think it’s just a novelty (mostly unimpressive) that Hollywood has been trying to push down our throats for years now trying to eke out as many extra dollars from us as they can (love the new trend of theaters offering “discount” nights during the week!).   Gravity in 3D seems less like novelty and more like ubiquity, as if the movie clearly is more comfortable in 3D as opposed to its less fortunate counterpart.  Distinctly three dimensions very much helps in the spatial ambiguity of space for sure as well.  There’s not a ton of background to gauge distance and space in general…having the three dimensions clearly delineated definitely helps (that said, I have not seen the 2D version).

Clearly Sandra Bullock and George Clooney carry this film.  They’re likeable, believable, and genuinely care about how this situation, seemingly bleak beyond despair, is going to turn out.  Ed Harris as the voice of Houston mission-control was a subtle casting masterstroke.

Ever see a sunset over the Nile River Valley from 150 miles above the Earth?  Well now you can.  It’s breathtaking, and I’m just watching it from the comfort of my theater seat.  The visuals are amazing, and if you aren’t drawn towards at least the possible conclusion that there is a benign Creator behind it all…well I’d say you were fighting something.

Fragility of Life in 99.999999999999999999999999999% of the universe
Sharing the same sentiments as “No Mercy” above, the movie is a 90 minute manifestation of how pretty much almost the absolute majority of the universe operates.   It’s cold, quiet, and dark.  Advanced life (and even the simplest organic life) is so sensitive in the cosmic scheme of things, it’s almost inane to think it could exist anywhere.  The fact that we humans do exist, and in a relatively comfortable locale, is a miracle beyond miracles.  Stepping outside the comfort of our atmospheric “bubble” is another story.  Gravity gets that fragility pretty well.

Music and sounds
Perfectly associated with the environment and tension. 

Space Exploration Contributions
So without revealing the whole plot, despite starting the mission off on Space Shuttle, the characters do have interaction with the International Space Station (ISS), a Russian escape pod, and Chinese station as well.  Despite some of the interaction being slightly unbelievable, I like how the movie acknowledged the breath of space exploration and contributions among many nations.  We won’t talk about how the how “debris issue” may have been started though…

Fire extinguisher thrust
Come on, any space-loving person has always wanted to propel themselves across said vacuum with a fire extinguisher.

Things I Wasn’t So Fond of

Asking for Too Much Suspension of Belief
I don’t know…there’s a scene in the movie that the main character has a dream/vision/enlightenment that is very convenient to move the plot along.  I’m not saying this doesn’t fit in a movie…but considering how realistic, by-the-book they go most of the movie, this little episode feels a little out of place.  Also, the amount of death-defying feats accomplished in this movie borders on cartoonish.  Makes for great action and thrill…but slightly unrealistic no matter how entertaining.

No Rapport?
So you have a major Hubble Space Telescope repair mission via the vaunted USA Space Shuttle Program…and two crew-members don’t know anything about each other…and one of them is a rookie with only six months of training?  Yeah, I don’t think that’s how NASA operates its prime personnel.

Stations so close?
As I mention above, the story follows to characters to multiple space objects in LEO.  Considering the Earth’s diameter is 7,918 miles and LEO is between 99 and 1,200 miles, we’re talking about a circumferential range of 25,484 miles to 32,398 miles.  I know there are like 2000+ satellites currently in LEO, but considering the vastness we’re talking about here, is it really feasible such prominent satellites and stations would be so closely accessible to each other?  I highly doubt it.

‘Thank You’ to Whom?
There’s a point in the movie one of the main characters escapes death…and says an ambiguous “thank you” to the air.  There are subtle moments of religion dipped in this mortality-awareness movie (a prayer allusion here, a Buddha statue there), but they never seem to have any certain grounding.  Was the “thank you” to God, to Buddha, to processes of biological evolution?  Beats me.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Car Insurance ≠ Health Insurance..But Why Not?

*This has nothing to do with current politics and policies (i.e. “Obamacare”).  This is something I’ve mulled about for years.   

When I log into my car insurance profile online, there’s a page that includes a list of all the “discounts” I have that reduce my monthly rate. 

·         Multi-Car Discount
·         5 Year Good Driver
·         Multi-Line Discount
·         Passive Restraint
·         Seatbelt Discount
·         Anti-Lock Brakes
·         Anti-Theft Device

These discounts represent steps an insurance holder has taken that reduce the chances, statistically speaking, that they will be involved in an accident.  These statistical truths benefit the insurance company in the regard that they know I will be less likely statistically-speaking, than others without these features, to cost the company thousands of dollars in insurance claim payouts (as opposed to perhaps an individual that has multiple accidents within the past year).  With this knowledge that behooves them, they logically employ Adam Smith’s famous universal human economics concept that “people respond to incentives” and offer discounts to customers for securing certain safety features such as equipment and safe driving practices – all in exchange for a lower premium. This gives the customer certain motivation to not only obtain certain proven safety features, but to be a better driver.  It’s a win for the customer because they obtain a lower insurance rate and it’s a win for the provider because they get a happy customer that statistically will only make them money (because they’ll statistically pay-out much less to them, or never at all). 

Of course everything is qualified with statistics because “acts of God” can occur to even the safest driver.  Obviously some people get sick.  Some people get cancer or are involved in tragic automobile accidents.  These may be entirely not their fault.  That said how many people are going to the doctors for minor sicknesses?  How many people are convincing themselves they need a doctor or medicine to get through the pain or illness, when perhaps relatively speaking they’re not suffering that much at all; or at least something an over-the-counter pain reliever could help out with?  How many people believe the commercial tell them they need –insert latest inane medication on TV-.  Of course my thoughts are subjective.  Perhaps everyone that goes to the doctor when they have just a common cold or take expensive prescribed medication when they could probably just have taken Aspirin actually do need that type of care.   I don't know because I'm not a certified doctor, but I’d venture a guess not though.

I’m not trying to be a heartless tyrant here…but I am suggesting to health insurance companies…why not reward your customers that don’t cost you payouts.  Why not reward a healthy individual who hasn’t had a doctor’s visit in the past 10 years.  Sound crazy?  Why?  You may say because it's discriminatory against certain individuals with prior conditions but automotive insurance companies have been doing that exact thing for millenia; regardless of fault!  They assess premiums exactly based on driver history.  Look above…I have a “5 Year Good Driver” discount.  Why not offer healthy people a “5 Year Healthy Person” discount?  It’s the same exact thing.  Unavoidable risk is involved, but steps the individual takes can vastly help mitigate those risks – and the auto insurance companies leverage that personal responsibility into incentive for a customer to give them business.  
What incentive do I have be healthy, or live a healthy lifestyle?  Sure there are the generalities like wanting to stay in shape, avoid illnesses or premature death, or opposite motivators like not wanting to use up sick leave.  These aren’t fiscal motivators though (don’t underestimate fiscal motivators) – more like not wanting to get into an accident because you want to avoid crunching up your car and having to go through the hassle of getting it fixed.  There’s no positive motivator there however, just an anti-negative ones.   I don’t know, maybe instead of looking toward health insurance reform we should be looking at who’s insuring our cars and their ideas.