I Hate When That Happens is a monthly column that appears in the
St. Francis Community Courier written by Randy Gerdin.

Old vs. New

Written by Randy Gerdin on March 1, 2017

We have a fantastic client who has many different cars and trucks. The other day he brought in his 1941 Cadillac, a very, very nice car. This vehicle has a unique style that you just don’t see anymore. Of course, it has the “40’s” look. Wide white wall tires, long hood, rear fender skirts, lower front end, and distinctive passenger compartment. The car, of course, has running boards, and yes, there is real wood in them. He purchased the car and was working on it himself. It needed a front-end alignment and was also running poorly. The suspension and the engine were not original to the car, so he had to special order a number of the parts in order to complete this project. We got the front-end set up and went to work on why it was running so poorly. He had already replaced a number of the fuel system components and wanted us to install the ignition components. After we installed them, it still ran poorly.

Well, I am the “old” guy around our shop and even this car was made before my time. The technician that was working on it had installed the parts, but had limited experience with how to set everything up. So we dug though the shop and found a timing light, tachometer, and dwell meter. I used to use these tools daily, but had not had the call to use them in years. Also, my eyes are not what they used to be, so that is another challenge, but we started in. I knew what to do, but was unable to see some of the finer items and really had a hard time setting the gap on the points, etc. So, it took on a tag team effort, an old mind and someone with good eyes.

After messing with it a while, I felt the engine was running lean, the carburetor was not flowing enough gasoline into the engine. We knew the fuel supply was adequate, so the problem had to be inside the carburetor. The owner had purchased and installed a new carburetor, so it should be good. We pondered for a while, tried a few tricks I knew from years ago, but no luck. So we started to take the carburetor apart. It had been many years since I had one of this particular model carburetors apart, so I was remembering as we went. We took the front bowl cover off and found that there was a bunch of rusty looking crud in it. We figured if that stuff is in the bowl, then it probably is everywhere else inside the carburetor as well. We cleaned it out, removed the fixed jets, and cleaned everything we could.

Putting it back together was another chore. There are multiple items that need to line up correctly while the gaskets and O-ring must stay in place. After a couple attempts, we finally got it together with no leaks, but it still ran poorly. I had to take a phone call and when I returned, the car was running well. I asked what he did and he said he tried one of the old tricks I knew and it worked. We adjusted the idle mixture and idle speed, and down the road it went. It was then on to the next job sitting in the adjacent stall.

This was a late-model pickup with an engine misfire and an unusually loud engine noise. And I mean LOUD. We were about to condemn the engine, but a few things did not add up for us, so we kept working to find the root cause of the problem. After some research, a few phone calls, and a little investigation, we found the engine fuel management system was part of the issue. In this engine, the computer uses engine oil and a solenoid to shut down the engine lifters on four of the cylinders during certain situations to save fuel and improve emissions. In actuality, it turns an eight-cylinder engine into a four-cylinder engine. The computer also will shut down the corresponding four fuel injectors. We found when we used the scanner to manually shut down the system, the loud noise went away. What a difference from the old 1941.

We were using computers to talk to other computers to diagnose internal engine systems. We had not experienced this in the past and I hope we will never forget this one either. Fixing cars is a lot like the rest of life. We live and learn from our experiences. Hopefully, we don’t forget them. I Hate When That Happens!

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Written by Randy Gerdin on February 1, 2017

Our staff and I have been working on cars and truck for many, many years. More often, it seems we look at each other and just say, “Crazy”. Of course, we are referring to the technology of vehicles and what it takes to repair them. Recently, we had a full size major brand pick-up into the shop. The complaint was a check engine light and occasionally the truck seemed not to shift properly. The owner also had purchased a couple of non-factory key fobs off E-Bay that he wanted programmed. We started in, scanned the computer with the factory scanner, and found 4 codes all relating to the oxygen sensors and their circuitry. We took the vehicle on a 10-mile test drive while monitoring the oxygen sensors, as this vehicle has 4. While driving, we did not notice any issues or irregularities with the sensors, their response time, or any other issues.

When we got back, we opened up our on-line professional database/repair manuals, did our research, and found that this vehicle had a program update available for this condition, as well as a transmission update. The repair manual instructed us to perform the update, clear the code, and test drive. If the codes stayed cleared, that would be all that is needed. If the codes returned, the Power-Train Control Module (PCM) computer would need to be replaced. In addition, the manufacture had released a recall on the PCM for this issue. That is great. However, we needed to go through those steps to verify what needed to be done. In fact, after the update to the PCM, the codes returned and we informed the owner of the recall, which he should have received in the mail.

We then started to program the key fobs. The first step was to replace the batteries in the fobs, because they were dead. After we replaced the batteries, we then did the reprogramming sequence. When done, we found the vehicle would start, but the door lock-unlock did not work. We then, with our factory scanner, went into the body control module and monitored the lock-unlock signals. We found that the computer would recognize one of the fob signals, but not the other. Also, the locks would not actuate on the truck. We could use the scanner and lock and unlock the doors, but the E-Bay fobs would not work. That is one big risk with getting aftermarket keys/key fobs. There is just so much security built into these vehicles. Without this security, someone could pick up used or aftermarket fobs, program them, and in essence steal anyone’s car. Crazy!

We encountered another technical challenge a few weeks ago while installing a remote start system on a 2016 vehicle with a push button start, no real key. We went through the entire installation, and at the end found out the remote key fob had not been properly programmed at the factory to allow the remote start system to activate. The owner needed to take the vehicle and key fobs back to the dealer and have them reprogrammed. At first, the dealer did not understand what needed to be done until after our technician spoke with the dealer technician. They did what they needed to do, returned the vehicle, and we finished the install and programing. Once again, “Crazy!”

I regularly spend time reading technical journals regarding what new technology is coming out. Again, I say “Crazy”. Technology is moving at an increasingly rapid pace. My concern is, what happens when these vehicle are ten years old or older? I feel we don’t know what is going to happen with this technology. But as always, each day is a new day of learning. One unfortunate consequence is it seems that all this new technology can come with an increase in price as well as a steep learning curve for the consumer. I Hate When That Happens!

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You won’t do what?

Written by Randy Gerdin on August 1, 2016

This month I would like to touch on a subject that is very “touchy” with some folks. This scenario happens once or twice a month, and sometimes people are not happy about it. When I speak with other shop owner I know, they all agree it can be a problem if you do and if you don’t. Most don’t. So, what’s the big issue?

This may come as a surprise to some, but the issue is we periodically have a client who would like to supply their own parts to fix their vehicle. Of course, the main reason they do this is cost. Most reputable shops will never allow someone to supply their own parts. Most shop owners are very particular about which brand of parts they use. Even within a specific brand, there are different part lines to appeal to many segments of the market. In other words, one tie-rod end may or may not be the same as a different brand of tie-rod ends. Even if you go to a dealership to get your vehicle repaired, they also have different part lines for the price conscious buyer. They are not the same as the ones that came on the vehicle from the factory. Also, the part you buy from the manufacture may not be the highest quality. There are many aftermarket manufactures that produce parts that actually exceed the quality of the original equipment items. I guess summing this all up, automotive parts are not a commodity per-se.

Back to the original subject, why most shops will not install customer supplied parts. One reason is to protect their own reputation. If a particular repair would fail, it may be misconstrued as the fault of the installer, when in fact it was an inferior part provided. Professionals also know from experience what brands of parts work well with certain vehicles and what brands do not. For example, we have found a certain well-known and high quality spark plug does not perform well with a particular vehicle. We also have learned that, in some cases, unless we go back to the vehicle dealer (even though it is much more expensive) for a particular item, the vehicle will not perform well. For most things, aftermarket parts have exceptional quality at a greatly reduced price. However, we have found better pricing at the dealer level for certain other items. That is one reason people choose to pay a professional for their services. Professionals are professionals.

One case in point, we have a commercial client who had been working on their own vehicle and the repair became more complex than they had planned. They had already purchased the part, and because of a long time personal relationship, we broke our policy and agreed to use the part they had purchased. We installed it and the vehicle would not start, so now what? Was it something we did or a problem with the part? We ended up diagnosing the problem as a failed part. The client took the part back to the parts store and they gave them a new one. We installed it, and low and behold, we had the same scenario. So again, after much time spent, we found the part to not function again. This part was an electronic part with no moving pieces, just circuit boards. We got our diagnostic hotline involved and they agreed with us. We then started researching the part number they were given. Low and behold, we discovered that they had been given the incorrect part. According to the part supplier, the part was correct, but in fact it was not. We secured the proper part numbered part, installed it, and the vehicle started right up. This was a very frustrating situation for the client, the part supplier, and us. I do believe that we would have gotten the correct part number the first time because of the methods we use to source parts.

Another reason most shops will not install customer supplied parts is that a repair shop is a business, and the parts revenue is one way that the company stays in business. I know one would not walk into a restaurant and bring their own steak to be prepared by a professional cook, because they feel that the price the restaurant charges for the steak is too high. All businesses survive, thrive, grow, and innovate based on their profits.

The final reason to let your professional shop supply the parts is in case of a part failure, you have the company’s warranty to stand behind the part they supplied. If you supply something and it does not work out, everyone loses. I Hate When That Happens!

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It’s Crazy

Written by Randy Gerdin on July 1, 2016

About a year ago, I was at my son’s graduation ceremony from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management MBA program. The keynote speaker was John Stumpf, Chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo Bank. He was speaking about technology and the innovations to come. He made a statement that has stuck with me. “We are in the first five minutes of a yearlong technological revolution”. The first 5 minutes? That is crazy. Then I stop and look at the last year and what I have seen happen in the automotive repair world over this time. Even here at our small independent repair shop in St. Francis, we have had some major changes, mostly due to technology. We now track our tow trucks online from our desktop computers and through apps on our phones. We can tell where the trucks are, where they have been, how long they stop at a scene, and even how fast they are and have been traveling.

All of our technicians now have iPads they use to scan in the vehicles they are working on. They use the iPads to perform inspections, take photos, make notes, and access technical information for diagnostics. When they are finished with a repair, they send the information to our service advisors and we can pull it up on our computers. We then use this information to make estimates for needed services and repairs. All this saved in the cloud so we can reference previous visits and send the information to a client if needed. It’s crazy!

It seems that a lot of the world these days is, for whatever reason, not available to take a phone call. So texting has become a major way for us to communicate with out customers. It starts with an opt-in text. By law, a business cannot text you without your approval, so we ask permission first and with their authorization, we can communicate via text. Many of our clients now prefer this method of communication. In many cases, due to the complexity of the repair and the costs associated with them, we need to speak directly to them as some point. Yesterday, we had four different vehicles in that needed new computers. We have the equipment to handle most of them, however, there was an older vehicle that required a power train control module. I called many places and no one could provide one. I ended up taking photos of the vehicle identification number of the vehicle and the part numbers on the module itself and texting it to a company in Florida. They had a unit they could program and send to us, we would return the old one, and it would save the client about $400 versus a new one from the dealer.

We recently had a pick-up truck brought in with a strange noise going down the road. After some research, we found a manufacture’s bulletin describing the problem and informing us that a new updated program installed in the vehicle’s computer was the fix. We “flashed” the computer and the noise was gone. Somehow, the running of the engine caused a harmonic vibration in the exhaust system causing this strange noise. It’s crazy!

We now are in the midst of fixing a vehicle that runs very poorly once or twice per day. We have put about 60 miles on it today, and it acted up only once. The vehicle’s computer is setting erroneous codes so we have little to go on, it’s crazy. It is true that we do have much better diagnostic test equipment, but somehow, I think the manufactures are getting ahead of their own vehicles. It’s crazy! I Hate When That Happens!

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Computers Everywhere

Written by Randy Gerdin on June 1, 2016

I joking say that if I knew that I was going to need to know how to use a computer when I was in High School, I would have been more attentive in keyboarding, back then it was called typing, when I took the class. I remember my Mom sending my brother and I to summer school for typing. I think she just wanted to get us out of her hair at that time. These days, almost everything we do in the car-fixing world has a computer attached to it. As I look out my office window, I see one technician using a laptop to test, and then reconfigure a heating/AC system to get it to work properly. Another technician is using a different computer to reprogram a Tire Pressure Monitoring sensor (TPMS) before installation. Then he will need to reprogram the vehicle so the vehicle’s computer will recognize the new sensor and integrate it into the TPMS system.

Last week we had in a pick-up truck with its check engine light on. It had a fuel system code telling us that the system was running too rich, it was receiving too much gasoline. It turned out that the truck was a flex-fuel vehicle and able to run E85 fuel, but the computer somehow got confused on the amount of alcohol in the fuel. We needed to test the alcohol content of the fuel and compare it to the reading on the vehicle’s scanner. We found that the fuel contained 5% alcohol, but the vehicle thought that it contained 22% alcohol. Since there are more BTU’s in gas than in alcohol, the vehicle’s fuel calculation was off. The repair required us to go in and reset the computer system. If the system would not reset, the power train control module would need to be replaced and reprogrammed. Thankfully the system did reset, so that took care of the problem.

It seems that daily things that used to be just “plug and play” need some kind of programming or reconfiguration in order for them to function correctly. These type of systems can be a big problem for the do it yourselfer’s out there. Last week, we had in an import vehicle that had been in a crash. The owner was working on it himself trying to get it back on the road. He brought it in with the air bag light on. Remember, if this light is on, the air bag system in inoperative. Anyway, he told us that he had replaced numerous parts related to the supplemental restraint system, but the light was still on. We did our diagnostic work and found that in this particular model, the main air bag computer would need to be replaced after a crash event. In this case, the vehicle would need to go back to the dealer and have some information extracted from the old module and then reprogrammed into the new module. We also found that this was an extremely costly procedure. This is the reason that so many vehicles these days that are involved in an accident are totaled if the air bags do deploy. It becomes too costly to repair these vehicles because the cost often exceeds the value of the vehicle.

We often see vehicles come in where the customer has been working on their vehicle and has not been able to resolve the problem. In many cases, we find that the average guy does not have the tools, techniques, or software needed to fix the vehicle. Another problem we have encountered is that the owner may have installed a new aftermarket part, and the problem still exists or will reoccur. One thing to remember is that not all parts are equal. Vehicle parts are not commodities, they are not all the same. The parts manufacturers make parts to fit every buyer these days. To some people, price is their major determining factor on which part to buy. I do understand this way of thinking, but once again, you get what you pay for. In the past, as effort to hold down the price of a repair, we have used an inferior part in a repair. However, we quickly learned our lesson that the cheaper, inferior part usually does not last or may not work properly. We find this especially true with electronic parts. We have learned over the years what works and what usually does not. Unfortunately, we too learn the hard way. I Hate When That Happens!

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