Monday, September 27, 2010

Labour Rates and Flat Rates - why does this cost so damn much?!?!?!

A lot of what I hear from people after they've had their car repaired centres around the labour rates and he flat-rate system of estimating, so I'll do my best to explain it here.

The hourly labour rate charged by a shop doesn't only go to pay for the mechanic (In fact, not nearly enough of it does!), it also has to cover all of the expenses of operating the shop: Counter staff, equipment, training, insurance, rent, maintenance and environmental compliance all factor in to the amount charged per unit of labour.  Many shops are now charging more for diagnostic labour than mechanical labour, because of the more specialized skills and equipment necessary for troubleshooting modern electronics.

There is also a variation in the way the mechanics themselves are paid - some shops pay based on the flat-rate system, where the tech's pay is directly proportional to the number of labour hours he bills.  This (obviously) leads to the techs trying to bill as many hours in a day as possible (I've personally seen almost 40 hours in ONE DAY).  Other shops pay their techs a regular hourly wage, or hourly plus a bonus.  This fosters a much more honest shop from the customer's point of view, since the guy looking under you car isn't trying to find every .2 of labour he can under there!

The amount of labour charged for any particular job is usually governed by a Flat-Rate Manual, usually published by either Chilton or Mitchell, which gives the rates in tenths of an hour for any given repair operation.  In theory, this standard keeps everyone honest because the times are the same from shop to shop, even if the rates differ..

Where a lot of shops find a little extra padding, though, is by creatively reading in the "extras".  If "replace water pump" calls for 2.3, then "-with serpentine belt" adds .3, "-with coolant replace" adds .2, the job comes out at 2.8 units of labour.  Now, a cooling system flush is usually a flat price, $39.95 or something, which may show up on your bill anyway on top of the labour, so you're basically paying for it twice.

Another questionable one is when certain jobs end up costing the same for every car - the "$89.95 Brake Special" becomes a lot more when they've added on labour for rotors (Which fall off in your hands if you're changing the pads) and "Caliper Slider Service", when the estimating guide specifies that this is part of a brake job anyway.  If you decline the service, you generally lose your warranty, so you're stuck with an extra .6 on your bill to have the job done properly, which it should have been in the first place.

This is by no means a blanket accusation of the entire industry - since cars last a lot longer, they seriously do have trouble making money these days, but a little honesty goes a lot further than milking every invoice for every penny you can find.  Finding a shop that will be totally transparent about where your labour dollars are going can save you a lot of frustration as well as money!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

So You Just Got a Scary Estimate...

One of the things that I hated to do when I was in the trade was to tell someone that something was badly wrong with their car.    Whether a major brake job, blown head gasket or whatever it was, it was always tough for me because I always knew that the first thing that was coming to their mind was "This guy's trying to rip me off".

Catastrophic failures are tough to deal with, especially when they come out of the blue.  A friend of mine just had her alternator die on her Sunfire (Yeah, another Sunfire) and I really felt sorry that I couldn't help her out.  She lives in the city and needed her car the next day.

Sunfires use a serpentine belt to run the alternator, like most modern cars, and a spring-loaded tensioner.  The ridiculous thing about GM's design on the 2.2 litre is that the tensioner is part of a large, aluminum bracket that also secures the power steering pump and bolts to the cylinder head.  My friend's tensioner was also bad (I wasn't there to verify this, but it's not atypical), and the labour to replace it isn't simple, so it quickly turned into a $700 repair... new tensioner, alternator and belt.

Ripoff?  Probably not, unfortunately.  The labour guides are pretty straightforward for this type of repair, so there's no way for a shop to legitimately overcharge for labour, and the parts are consistently priced, so when she called around the variance between estimates was only around $40.

She asked me if she should ask for a used alternator ... The trick with that is that if the tensioner is bad, it won't tension the belt properly after it's been compressed and extended to reinstall the belt (Which is, apparently, cracked), and she leaves with no warranty at all, so she could get a block away and have her belt squealing like a ... squealy thing.  Her best bet was to bite the bullet on this one, get the warranty (2 years is typical on alternators) and hope it dies a bit closer to my house next time!

Friday, September 17, 2010

The shoe from the side that was broken...

The broken spring ... it's supposed to look more like a W.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When Mechanics Assume...

A friend dropped in tonight to have me take her car around the block and listen to a noise from the rear end. She had just had her car in to the dealership for a whatever-point inspection because it was making noises... they did front brakes and sent her on her way, but this noise kept getting worse, so a couple of weeks later she came to me.

The car is a 2006 Chev Cobalt (Yup, we all know how I love GMs) with 107,000 km on it - all highway. Considering the mileage it was definitely time for front brakes, but here's where the tech dropped the ball - they didn't even CHECK the rears.

These cars don't exactly consume rear brakes, so the tech probably thought they would be fine and he didn't need to waste his time pounding off the drums. WRONG. When I did (And there's NO way these were off 2 weeks ago), I found that the big horseshoe-shaped brake spring was broken and one of the shoes had tipped over and worn down right to the metal.

Now she's stuck in my driveway until tomorrow when the parts stores open, and the dealership will be getting an earful, all because a mechanic ASSUMED that the rear brakes would be fine.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Your Ad Here

The Myth of the Modern Tune-up

It used to be a little frustrating to me when customers came into my shop looking for a tune-up...  I ended up confusing them by telling them that they didn't need one, there wasn't really such thing, and they should only do one or two small services.  (This is also another reason why I'm not in the business any more, since it's not profitable to turn useless services away!)

The service schedule for my 1978 MGB calls for these things to be done roughly every 6 months (Spring and Fall used to be the standards...)

  • Change engine oil and filter
  • Change air filter element(s)
  • Change spark plugs, ignition points and condensor
  • Set ignition point gap to .018" to achieve correct dwell angle
  • Inspect distributor cap, rotor and replace if any sign of carbon tracking.
  • Set static ignition timing to 6 degrees before top dead centre
  • Put a few drops of oil on distributor centrifugal advance weights and verify that they're free to move
  • Verify operation of vacuum advance unit, check that diaphragm doesn't leak
  • Set tappets to .008" with engine warm (And running if you're REALLY good)
  • Set choke mechanism and verify correct high idle
  • Set idle mixture and verify correct hot idle
  • Grease driveshaft u-joints
  • Check differential oil level
  • Check gearbox oil level
  • Grease outer tie-rod ends and steering rack
  • Oil trunnions
  • Check oil level in shocks

Now THAT'S a tune-up!  (And that's just from memory... I'm probably forgetting things...)

Not only do modern cars need virtually none of these adjustments and services, most cars that did are now over 30 years old, meaning that the mechanics who knew how to do them are all retired!

So what does MY car need?

You need to read your owner's manual, and ONLY your owner's manual, to know what services your car needs and when.  Most shops will always put a sticker on your windshield reminding you of a 3 month/5000 km (3000 mile) interval, but this may be WAY more than necessary.  Changing your oil more than required can't damage your car, you're not doing anything wrong, but you are wasting time and money.  My Golf, for example, calls for 16,000 km between changes.  I do it at 8000 anyway for my own sanity's sake, but that is the recommended interval.  Many cars also now have systems to monitor your oil change interval, and you can definitely rely on this.

When you take your car into a shop for an oil change and they start telling you about recommended services, you need to be educated so that you don't get anything you don't need.

Add-On Services

"Engine Flushes" - This one is a little annoying, and controversial.  The idea is that the shop adds a can of stuff to your engine that thins out and breaks down sludge that builds up in your engine (Before your oil change) and drains it out with your oil.  I've done these, and the oil comes out like water and black as anything.  Basically, if you're not sure of your car's oil change history or if you know you've gone WAY over your mileage at some point, it can't hurt.  You certainly don't need it more than once in a few years though!

Cooling System Flushes - you DO need to change your coolant at the interval recommended by your manufacturer.  Coolant becomes acidic over time and attacks aluminum components in particular, leading to all kinds of failures, from head gasket to water pump.

Transmission Flushes - Check your manual and ask your dealership.  There are a lot of different types of transmission fluid changes, ranging from full system flushes that don't change the filter to "dump and fills" that do change the filter but don't get all the fluid.  There are conspiracy theories to go along with each.

Brake Fluid Flushes - Same thing - your fluid should be changed whenever your system is opened (Caliper, wheel cylinder, hose or master cylinder replaced) or at the manufacturer's interval to avoid these very parts failing!

Fuel Injection Flush - A bit more controversial.  There are reasons to get this done, I'm sure, but my wife's Toyota has 285,000 km on it, has never had one, and runs perfectly according to my engine diagnostics and its latest E-test.  I wouldn't blow a lot of money on it unless you've replaced plugs, wires and filters and still have rough running with no check engine light.

So what am I getting at?

I guess my point is that a tune-up is a thing of the past.  RTFM (Read The F***ing Manual) ad go into any service as an EDUCATED CONSUMER and you'll be fine.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Cars Mechanics Hate (And a few they love...)

Came across this article this morning listing ten cars that mechanics hate (because they're too reliable) and I definitely agree.  It seriously astounds me that, after 30 years of American car makers' lax attention to quality and reliability, there is anyone left who still says "Buy American"... but they're still out there.

I remember when there were still Ford Tempos and Mercury Topazes all over the place.  Those were great days for mechanics - they were guaranteed not to start on the coldest days, they consumed brakes and front end parts like I consume coffee, their alternators even caught fire.  Good times.  In the early-to-mid '90s I worked at a large shop with six Class A techs, and if one of them had worked exclusively on the Tempo/Topazes, he would have been the best paid tech in the shop.  Alas, the Tempo/Topaz was replaced by the Contour/Mystique and then the Focus, which were European designs and a whole lot better in every way.  (Even though we only get the latest Focus platform as the Mazda 3...)

Today no particular car has replaced the Tempo as Mechanic's Sweetheart, but the Cavalier/Sunfire is up there.  They're cheap to buy, they were the best-seller here in Canada for years, and like the Tempo, they fail in very predictable ways, which is great for a mechanic:  It takes very little time to diagnose, and he's done so many that he can do the repair in WAY under book time.  It's great doing brakes on one, the customer always leaves happy and you can catch a nap in the middle.

The irony of it is that, a lot of the time, I can't tell friends and family NOT to buy a car that I know so well due to its consistency of failure, since when it DOES fail I can fix it up easily and cheaply, whereas if they bought something odd and tough like a Subaru I'd be spending time looking up procedures because they're reliable enough that I'm unfamiliar with them!

Please feel free to email me if you have any questions, or comment below!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

My first fan question!

Dear Sooper Luke,

I have been trying to fix my POS truck all day. No matter what I do, it never turns into a Porsche.  I changed the brakes, rotated the tires, changed the oil, and replaced the spark plugs an air filter, but it's still a POS truck.What else should I try? I really want it to turn into a Porsche.

Porsche-less in RI

Sent from my iPhone

You're part-way there, don't give up now.  You have an iPhone, and your truck has a lot in common with a Porsche:

  • Most have two seats.
  • Most are used more as commuting vehicles than for their intended purpose.
  • Most have four wheels.
Now, Porsches are light, and trucks aren't, so the first important step is to remove weight.  Porsches also don't have much cargo-carrying ability, so just remove the box and throw it away.  There, it's lighter and a lot more useless!  Isn't this easy?

The best Porsches have the engine behind the driver, rather than in front.  You'll have to drive backwards from now on.  The lack of visibility will make you super-courteous to other drivers, just like Porsche owners.

Pickup trucks are much taller than Porsches, so you should definitely cut your springs off and let most of the air out of your tires so that your truck rides lower and corners a lot better.  If you want a convertible Porsche, cut off the roof too, but leave the windows up all the time.

Trucks usually have V-type 8-cylinder engines, while the best Porsches have flat-type 6-cylinder engines.  You should remove two spark plugs and smash your engine with a sledge hammer until it's flat.

Porschification complete!

Friday, September 10, 2010

That darn "Check Engine" light.

Today we're discussing that light that sometimes pops up on your dash. "Check Engine", "Service Engine Soon", just a yellow picture of an engine, it's all the same thing. What it is, since 1995's OBDII standard came into play for all vehicles sold in North America (And most of the world) is technically called the Malfunction Indicator Lamp, or MIL.

The MIL comes on when your engine computer (ECM or PCM, depending who you ask) stores what is called a Fault Code. Fault codes are triggered for a number of reasons, running the spectrum from a single cylinder misfiring to a temperature sensor reading an unusual value to your gas cap being loose.

One major flaw in the OBDII system is that all you, the driver, have is that one light. A lot of people get trained by their mechanics that "It's no big deal, just ignore it", when sometimes there can be a new, underlying issue that needs more immediate attention! Living with your light on all the time can be very dangerous to your wallet - unless you're constantly able to have it scanned to make sure, you can't possibly know that there aren't any newer, more troublesome codes in there!

Code Readers

Diagnosing a check engine light can be a tricky thing for people who, as they say, "Know just enough to be dangerous". Buying a $60 code-reader is definitely helpful, but here's the problem. You plug in your code reader and find out that one of your codes is P0125, which indicates that the coolant temperature sensor is reading too low for closed-loop fuel control. So you've spent $60 to find this out, but what do you do with it? (Hint: Ask someone like me) You don't know if the sensor is reading correctly or not. You don't know if the coolant if actually too cold or not. You don't, really, know much more than you did before. This brings me to my next point:

Why diagnostics are so expensive!

Many shops charge more for diagnostic labour than mechanical labour, and there's a reason for that - a trained technician knows how to use their time properly and diagnose the root cause of your MIL properly. A good, multi-platform scantool costs thousands of dollars and has to be updated each model year, along with the tech's knowledge, to keep everyone abreast with the latest technologies and procedures. Scanners allow a tech to sit in your car and watch data from all sensors live, as well as to trigger self-tests that aren't necessarily run continuously as the car drives, but which can also trigger an MIL.

So what should I, Average Driver Person, do?

My advice?
  • Get a code-reader, or borrow a friend's, but don't rely on it.
  • Use resources like this blog when you're not sure if your problem calls for further diagnosis, research or can just be ignored for the time being.
  • If you do need further diagnosis, find a good shop with technicians who keep up on their training and equipment! In the US, this means ASE certification at the very least. (ASE isn't the best, but it's all you seem to have down there). In Canada, a recent grad from an Auto Service Tech program with a recent Class S license has had great training.
  • Drive happy!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Great Nitrogen Rip-Off Scam!

I've been steaming about this one for a while, and I think it's time to express my contempt for an inert gas.

The fair person in me says that everyone has a right to make a buck. When I worked in the trade, I had few qualms about charging people an extra 3 bucks on their invoice for "Environmental Disposal" when, in reality, the shop got PAID for its used oil. It is pure profit for the company, but it's an industry standard and allows the illusion of competitive pricing.

However, shops are now charging their customers for the wonderful advantage of filling their tires with Nitrogen, rather than compressed air as is the norm. This is silly on so many levels.

Compressed nitrogen is extremely cheap. A shop that charges $5 per tire is making an incredible markup. I have heard, however, of London Chrysler dealers charging over $200 for this service on a new car! Absolutely INSANE. Consumers need to educate themselves before cheerily forking over hours of wages for absolutely nothing.

Nothing you say? Here is a link that questions many of the supposed benefits of Nitrogen in car tires.

Does it keep your tires from oxidizing on the inside? Who cares? They're obviously oxidizing on the outside! Look at the inside of a tire that's been on a car for five years and the inside looks a lot better than the outside.

Does it keep your tire pressure more constant? Ask yourself the question "Was my last qualifying lap affected by tire temperature?" If your answer is "Huh?" then it really doesn't matter. The temperature of your tires going down the road on a daily basis doesn't vary much, unless you have truly horrible alignment, in which case you'll need new tires soon enough anyway. Seasonally, of course, your pressure will vary, but if you're not checking it at least that often you're failing yourself as a car owner.

Most important of all is the fact that the atmosphere, and hence the regular compressed air that you get for free, is already 78% nitrogen! Not only that, but when your tire is inflated from 0 psig to 32 psig you're not actually removing the oxygen that was already in there. There's only one way in. You've paid whatever you're paying to go from 78% nitrogen to maybe 90%. Whoopee doo.

What it comes down to is this. Make sure the guy who changes your oil checks your tire pressure. Let them put in the free air. Pay the Environmental Fee happily, even though it's going straight into the owner's pocket. Smile.

Regarding the labour price for an oil change...

The following is something I posted on yahoo Answers as a response to someone asking the "Labour price for a oil change". I must have been bored... but I like what I said!

Most shops provide a flat price for oil changes on most vehicles, depending on which grade and type of oil you choose. Be aware that they will always try to upsell you to a "premium" conventional oil or a synthetic oil. Neither of these is necessary as long as you follow your manufacturer's recommendations, which can be found in your owner's manual. The shop's cheapest oil will meet these specs. Anything else is paying more for no reason other than to feel like you're doing something good (You're not). (But it does feel good to think so, doesn't it!)

They will also check your air filter, passenger compartment filter and other maintenance items based on mileage. Do your own research ahead of time, because a lot of the time (Depending on the depth of your wallet) it is worth the premium they charge not to have to worry about changing these things yourself! They're not ripping you off - they're just trying to make money, and there's nothing dishonest about that, as long as they're not flat-out lying!

If you want to know if you can bring your own oil and filter and have a shop change it and only charge labour, be aware that the price they offer will seem like a ripoff. Sorry, but it will. But you're tying up a bay and their time, and they expect a certain amount of profit in that bay whether they're selling their own parts or not. Fair is fair.