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.


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