The Need for a Critical Eye in Servicing CarsPosted 2/15/2006
By Brian Manley
I've noticed an alarming trend recently: Many vehicles we've serviced in our shop have been neglected. Cracked drive belts, corroded battery cables and 10-year-old brake fluid are examples of unperformed vehicle maintenance we've seen roll into our bays. On a more serious note, we've discovered dangerously loose ball joints, worn tie-rod ends (inner and outer) and bald tires. Consequences of these neglected items range from inconvenience, in the form of a vehicle breakdown - to dangerous, in the form of failed braking or steering systems.
One could make the case that these vehicle owners are refusing service when told of these items. However, in most cases, when I describe the needed items for their vehicles, I am often met with "I wasn't told I needed those things by the last shop that worked on my car." Granted, the last shop to work on their vehicle may have been a specialty service center, such as a tire store; I would not expect a thorough stem-to-stern inspection from a specialty shop.
How often do you pay close attention to the little details of vehicle inspection?
When I have a hood open on a customer's vehicle, or have it on a rack, I try to have a critical eye. I take the opportunity to find items that are substandard, out of place, deteriorating or missing. Our recent rash of animal erosion prompts me to scrutinize as much of the wiring harness and vacuum hosing as possible.
Over the course of two installments of Tech to Tech, we will examine a vehicle from top to bottom, searching for any items that can save your customer inconvenience - or in a worst case - an accident. This month, we will focus on the vehicle from an "open hood" standpoint. Next time (May 2006 issue), we will look at all of the under-car items, with the vehicle on a lift.
Find Opportunities During the Test Drive
As often as possible, I precede any service or repair to a vehicle with a test drive to get a "feel" for the car. I drive a loop that includes stop-and-go, right and left turns, and road speed up to 55 mph. I test for braking effectiveness, feel for excessive shock rebound, listen for any noises, and feel for pulling or wandering in the steering. I run the windshield wipers and washer (front and rear) and test the horn. I try to gauge the performance of the engine, the heater and the air conditioning system. I also monitor the vehicle gauges for abnormal readings and look for illuminated dash lamps. I am often surprised at the customer who brings a vehicle in for service without mentioning the glowing warning lamp!
Scrutinize Components in the Bay
Some of you may not be able to perform a comprehensive test drive before pulling your customer's car into the shop; perhaps your service writer or shop owner will do this for you. These team members should bring their list back for you, but if there are no concerns after a test drive, your opportunity to eyeball the rig is now upon you.
Once in my service bay, I run all of the lamps with the help of an assistant - including interior, reverse, park, brake, turn, hazard, and low and high beam headlamps. Recently, I have noticed an amazing amount of vehicles in front of me on the road with only one out of three functioning brake lamps!
If the vehicle is not going up in the air, I still take time to grab a flashlight and check tire tread-depth and wear. Low inflation pressure and incorrect toe or camber all manifest themselves as abnormal tread wear patterns.
Next, it is time to grab your clipboard and pop the hood. Opportunities abound under the bonnet that often go unnoticed, even if the vehicle has been to other repair facilities.
Battery, Cables and Harnesses
What year is the vehicle? If it is four or five years old with the original battery, suggest replacement. Your customer may see the wisdom in replacing it now, rather than incur frustration and a tow charge a few months from now. If it has been replaced and the technician punched out the year and month, then you will know its age as well. Have a digital volt/ohm meter (DVOM) handy to check for open circuit voltage. If the open circuit voltage is 12.6 or above, the battery is fully charged, and you can assume that the charging system is at least doing something. Check to see if the hold-down is tight or missing.
While you have your DVOM out, you can earn some extra credit. Hidden and potentially loose or damaged battery cable connections are easily overlooked, especially if ground wires are tucked out-of-sight. A voltage drop test can quickly determine their condition. Learn this trick; this test can save headaches down the road.
Battery cables, especially on side-terminal batteries, are always suspect. Corrosion increases resistance and can be hidden from the naked eye. If in doubt, sell a terminal cleaning, and always use a battery saver to maintain all of the vehicle's electronic functions when disconnecting the battery.
Since we have seen so many chewed wiring harnesses as a result of rabbits and mice, I carefully check all sides of any harness I can see or get my hands on. I will occasionally see signs of rodents, such as seeds and shells on the intake manifold, but see no outward harness destruction. The customer can be warned about the possibility of costly repairs if critters take up residence in their engine compartment, and advised about methods to repel the animals.
Hoses and Belts
This is one of the fastest and most revealing checks you can do under the hood: Simply squeeze the hoses and twist the belts.
Squeeze all coolant hoses along their entire length, but concentrate near the ends by the hose clamps. If hoses show signs of electrochemical degradation (ECD), you will feel cracks, voids or weak spots inside the hose while using your thumb and fingers - not your entire hand. Small electrical charges that occur between the coolant and the engine materials cause minute amounts of current to flow through the hoses, resulting in internal cracks, which weaken the hose.
If the hose is soft or "gooey," it may rupture due to oil, which has reacted with the hose, causing the hose to weaken. These hoses will often show bulges at the end of the hose, especially the upper radiator hose. Also look for any hoses that may be routed over a sharp end that may rub through the outer layer, resulting in hose failure.
Belts can easily be checked with a flashlight and a twist. If the drive side of the belt shows cracks, chunks missing or separation, it needs replacement. If the back side of the belt shows signs of abrasion or glazing, check all of the pulleys. The pulley that is pictured came off of a GMC truck and is made of plastic. As the photo shows, the pulley has part of it that looks fine at first glance, but there is a huge chunk worn out of one side.
Tension should also be checked at this time. V-belts and multi-ribbed belts that have manual adjustments can be checked for tension by hand. Serpentine belts with automatic adjusters should be checked to see if the adjuster is getting "sticky." Release the belt tensioner with the proper tool to see if it springs back with reasonable force. Often when I do this, the tensioner will remain stuck wherever I leave it, indicating a need for replacement.
Timing belts should always be considered a priority when discussing maintenance. Because a broken timing belt can cause severe engine damage, or at the very least a stranded motorist, records should be consulted to help in recommending replacement.
Because timing belts cannot accurately be diagnosed by visual means, only mileage should be used. For this reason, it is not practical or even worthwhile to spend time removing a belt cover to get a look at the belt itself. If you and the customer cannot verify that the belt was replaced during the last recommended service, you have to err on the side of caution and recommend replacement. Consult repair information for recommended replacement interval.
Don't forget: If you are in there replacing the timing belt, carefully scrutinize the tensioners, pulleys and water pump. Many shops are recommending replacement of some, or all, of these items as a package.
Coolant should be checked for both protection and condition. In today's world, where a general repair shop needs to stock three or four different antifreeze types, the question of compatibility comes up. Should the vehicle you're looking at have green coolant or should it be orange? Of course if the coolant should be green, the service interval is more frequent, and the interval is greater with long-life mixtures. Many do-it-yourselfers have topped off the orange stuff with green, causing incompatibility.
Engine oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, brake and clutch fluid, and washer fluid all need to be examined for condition and level. Because brake fluid, for example, is hydroscopic (water-absorbing), recommended flushing should be performed.
Leaks from any of these components should be addressed as well. Many leaks can be seen with the hood open, so jot down notes about valve cover gaskets, power steering lines and transmission cooler hoses. Don't forget to check the clutch master cylinder and slave cylinder for leaks as well; you will have to peek under the dash in many cases to see if the master cylinder is dripping.
Don't forget the tuneup items. Even though some spark plugs aren't recommended for replacement until 100K, there are plenty of vehicles that have plugs and wires that need to be replaced much sooner. You may even run across a cap and rotor that needs a good going-over. Inspect the air and cabin filters, too, if they are easily accessible.
I have often wondered if I am too aggressive about my search for service items on a customer's car. I wonder if the customer will think I'm trying to "up-sell" unnecessary items. However, this is rarely the case. More often, I have grateful customers who thank me for caring about their car in such a detailed manner, and items that I find on one visit are often scheduled for repair or replacement at a later date, increasing the safety of our customers and the shop's bottom line.
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