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

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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Black and Round

Written by Randy Gerdin on May 1, 2016

I have been in the tire business for many years, and black and round is a term we used to use all the time. It is true that tires are indeed black and round, but unlike their predecessors, the modern tire is much more than that. As our vehicles have progressed and morphed into SUV’s, CUV’s, crossover’s, hybrid’s, performance vehicle’s, etc., our tires have also had to keep up. These days there are tires designed and produced for each segment of the vehicle market. If you really stop and think of what a tire actually does and how long they do last, they are amazing.

Our tires must carry and support 60-100 times their own weight. They must provide the traction to accelerate, take a sharp curve, hit a pothole in the road, and come to a sudden stop. All the while producing a smooth, comfortable, and quiet ride. They must do this while having a relatively small footprint on the road. The average tire only has a three-inch by five-inch patch on the road as it travels at speed. This is only about the size of a postcard. Your tire is the only contact point you have to the road, which is why tires have become so specialized as they relate to each vehicle type.

Tire design, material composition, tread pattern, and tread design are all factors engineers consider when they design the correct tire for a particular vehicle. Tires come in a variety of sizes, wheel diameters, and load and performance ratings. Each of these features is designed to have a specific benefit. For example, the design of a high performance tire that would go on a Corvette is completely different from a tire for an Accord. A Corvette demands a tire that has completely different features than the average passenger car tire. These performance tires have a much thinner and stiffer sidewall to handle the aggressive driving a performance car demands. They are great for these cars, but you probable would not want them on your daily driver. They ride much rougher and typically only last about 20,000 miles. They also are not very good in the snow. Conversely, a regular touring radial would not stand up to the rigors of a sports car.

We take many calls each day from folks asking about tires. Some people are only interested in price, and that is understandable. However, making a buying choice on price alone, in many cases, may be a mistake. This is where a true tire professional comes in, so that you can be assured of getting the right tires for you, your driving habits, usage, and your budget. Of course, there are always tradeoffs in making a purchase. You may not get a high mileage tire with the characteristics you need for the price you want to pay. In many cases, getting what you truly need is only a few dollars more than the economy tires. Again, you get what you pay for.

After you decide on the tires you need, they will need to be cared for. The first and most important things to pay attention to is the tire inflation pressure. Every vehicle is designed for a particular type of tire with a specific inflation pressure. You can find the correct pressure by looking at the tire placard on driver’s door. This placard will list the factory tire size and appropriate inflation pressure. In vehicles with Tire Pressure Monitoring sensors (TPMS) in the wheels, the pressure on the placard is what is programmed into the computer to activate the TPMS light. If the pressure is too high or too low, the light will come on. The pressure of your tires is also based on an ambient temperature of about 70 degrees. The inflation number on the tire itself is the maximum pressure that particular tire is design to hold, so always inflate your tires based on the vehicle’s tire placard.

Another important thing to do is to rotate the tires every 6,000 miles. This will keep the tires wearing evenly. This is a great time to inspect the vehicle’s suspension system, as it also needs to be inspected periodically and repaired as needed. As time and miles click by, many things on your vehicle will begin to wear out. Also, don’t forget to align the vehicle every so often. Some vehicles have adjustments on all four wheels, while others only have adjustments on the front wheels. Some vehicle may require special parts to be added to the vehicle to make these adjustments. Each of these items can effect how your tires wear and should be checked periodically. Good tires can be your best safety lifeline to the road, so please don’t think that all tires are just black and round. I Hate When That Happens!

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Rust, Rust, Rust

Written by Randy Gerdin on April 1, 2016

I have a son who lives in Portland, Oregon who bought his used car here in Minnesota. The car spent much of its life here in the Snow Belt and some time out east. Anyway, it has seen its share of winter driving and salt covered roads. He told me he took his car in for service and they joshed him about that rusty car from Minnesota. They do not have rust problems in Portland. These days, the bodies of our vehicles hold up pretty well, but vehicles are still made of steel, and steel rusts. In fact, we had a couple of vehicles in within the last month that were so rusted underneath that one of them almost had the engine fall down due to a rusted engine cradle, it had to be towed to the dealer for a recalled/updated engine cradle. The other vehicle had a left front strut tower rust out so badly that the vehicle was undrivable and unrepairable, so off to the salvage yard it went. The point is that without having your vehicle up in the air and thoroughly inspected, you may not know the true condition of the underside of your vehicle.

In most cases, everyday drivers last about 20 to 25 years. But there are a some models that have a few specific problems like the ones I mentioned. Still, you may not have any major structural issues with your vehicle, but the salt does its work by rusting and corroding many items. One thing we see commonly is brake systems that are rusted, some to the point of the system not functioning properly. In many cases, a good cleaning and lubrication with the proper lubricants (yes, there are special lubricants for different systems) is all it takes to put it back in top shape. Of course salt sprays up and seems to get on everything. This does little harm itself, but it does affect removal of nuts and bolts as things are disassembled for replacement. We have experienced bolts breaking off when replacing everything from exhaust system parts to water pumps. We have taken things apart and found parts literally rusted away.

One other issue is that our vehicles are made out of so many different materials that in some cases the materials (we call them dissimilar metals) chemically react with the salt and water spray. This can cause things to seize up and stop working. This can be especially true if it is something that you may not use often. One time we had a rear door that would barely open because the driver never opened that door. Usually these types of things can be cleaned up, lubricated, and put back into working order. It seems each spring we see our share of vehicles come in with rusted out brake lines. Again, they are steel and steel rusts completely through the brake line causing a brake leak. These usually are not fun. Your brakes may work fine one moment and then if a line blows you may all of a sudden have a low or spongy brake pedal and stopping distances are greatly increased.

Along with external brake lines rusting they can also rust from the inside out. Brake fluid itself has a characteristic that if left open, the fluid itself will absorb moisture. This moisture mixes with the brake fluid and it travels in the system and can cause internal brake failure. We had a vehicle in the other day that had a left front brake seize. The metal caliper piston in the caliper had frozen. The brake would apply, but would not release. This is one reason why it is recommended to have your brake system flushed out every few years. This contaminated fluid, of course, gets into all the parts of the brake system including the anti-lock unit and master cylinder. These are a couple very expensive items that can be cared for with a brake fluid flush.

I know it is impossible to keep the water and salt off your vehicle during the winter, it is a fact of life. Frequent car washes are helpful, especially the types that blast under the vehicle to wash the corrosive agents away. But with winter comes salt. I Hate When That Happens!

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