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

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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Dash Lights

Written by Randy Gerdin on March 1, 2016

Our cars and trucks have always had dash warning lights. The common ones were the red “Oil” light, the red “Engine Overheat” light, the red “Brake” light, and the red “Battery” light. Notice that all the lights in the past have been red, and red means STOP. Because if you did not stop, it usually would cause engine damage to the vehicle or the engine would not stop but may stall out. We still have these same lights and they are still all red. Late model vehicles now have these lights plus many more. Sometime, try turning on the ignition switch but not starting your vehicle. Take a look at all the different lights that come on. The reason the vehicle turns them on is to do a bulb check. So if you do not see, for example the red oil light, come on, you may want to get it checked out to see why. If you would lose oil pressure while driving and not be notified by the red light, most likely, it would ruin the engine.

The problem these days is there are so many lights of various colors that may come on that it is confusing for the driver to understand. In many cases, people just ignore the lights. There are a few additional lights that come on only while the engine is cranking over as you start it up. Again, these are bulb checks so you can make sure they do indeed come on. Many people do not understand all of the lights and they are ignored. One phenomenon I have noticed lately is that most people do not even pay attention or have a concern when a dash light comes on even while driving. The other day I test drove a customer’s car and the check engine light, low coolant light, brake light, tire pressure light, traction control light, anti-lock brake light, and air bag lights were all illuminated on the dash as I was driving down the road. When I mentioned this to the owner, they were not concerned. I guess it is their vehicle and they can do what they please. However, dash lights do not come on unless there is something wrong.

Some lights are safety related, others are maintenance related, and some may even cause damage to a major component of the vehicles. Some folks go to the internet to find out how to get these annoying lights off. Some folks have the code readers or stop by a parts store to have the code read and then go to numerous websites that say they can tell you what the code is and how to fix the problem. I am always wary of these types of things. We have had folks drop off their vehicle and tell us to install a certain part. We ask if they want us to diagnose the problem and they tell us that they have checked it out and they just want the part replaced. In most cases, we put the part on and the light is still on, and now they have spent good money on the repair and must decide to have the vehicle properly diagnosed. Our approach has always been to inspect and test to the proper conclusion rather that just replacing parts and hope we hit the problem.

We have had vehicles where the owners have spent hundreds of dollars in parts and then finally will bring it in for a proper diagnosis. Usually the trial and error method is the most costly. Some folks do not realize the ramification of a light being on. For example, if an air bag light were on, the air bags would not deploy in the event of a crash. This could be very serious for the occupants. If the anti-lock brake light is on, the anti-lock brake system will not activate in the event of an emergency stop, again this could be very dangerous. If the check engine light is ignored, especially if the light flashes, this could cause anything from increased emissions to excessive fuel usage to damage to a major component. Usually these light are amber in color. This indicates “caution”. You may continue to drive but the vehicle should be inspected as soon as possible.

You may not notice any difference in how the vehicle performs when some of these lights are illuminated, because the computers will try to compensate for certain conditions so you may drive them in for service. In some cases, the vehicle may go into “Limp In Mode” which will severely restrict vehicle operation, but allow you to get to someplace safe so you can properly take care of your vehicles needs. Really, that is a good thing for you; otherwise you may not know there is a problem until it is too late. I Hate When That Happens!

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That’s The Brakes

Written by Randy Gerdin on February 1, 2016

One of the most commonly performed services on any vehicle is a brake service. At our shop, we do brake work almost daily. Of course, no one gets really excited about having to put new brakes on their car. Brake problems are never convenient and they can cost a good deal of money. The fortunate part is that you can stay ahead of any problems by having the brakes inspected somewhat regularly. That way, you can plan for the work both in terms of time and cost. What I really want to spend time talking about is brake material quality. It really can be very confusing.

There are so many different brands of brake parts and so many different kinds of brake materials within each brand. Each brand usually has three to four different lines or qualities of brake pads. They are all made from different materials, each made for a specific purpose. There are brake products for severe duty, like for police cars or taxicabs. There are also parts designed for extreme heat and reduced stopping distances. In some cases, these parts need to be warmed up to achieve the minimum stopping distances. When using these types of pads, it is always best to use severe duty brake rotors as well. The purpose of these rotors is to dissipate the heat in order to minimize brake fading and rotor warping. If you happen to look at the brakes on a high-end sports car you will find very large braking systems with special “slotted” rotor. These vehicles can go fast quickly and need to stop quickly at high speeds. There are also severe duty brakes available for work trucks that carry heavy loads. Most passenger cars and light trucks do not require using such brake material. However, there are vast differences in brake part qualities on the market. Of course, you get what you pay for.

The parts companies are all in business to make sales, and price can be the most important consideration to some people when they purchase brakes. Of course, when one chooses a cheaper brake product, they are giving up some important features. The most important feature being stopping distances. I have seen information reporting that certain brake pad and rotor combinations can add 5-15 feet of stopping distance in a panic stop. That may be the difference between being involved in a crash and being able to stop in time. Also, cheaper brakes tend not to last as long and usually are noisier.

To some people, “dusting” is important. Some brake materials, as they wear, will leave behind black dust that will adhere to their pretty alloy wheels. This dust does not hurt anything, but some folks are very conscious of how this may look on their wheels. There are specific brake materials that will reduce this effect. Ceramic brake pads are one example of these material types. There are different qualities of ceramic pads as well. The better the products are, usually the more expensive they are.

Another commonly replaced brake part is the brake rotors. Again, there are vast differences in qualities, and with this come with vast difference in price. Usually the cheaper rotors have visible differences. The total thickness may be the same, however, they are made out of different metals. Also, the amount of webbing between the discs may be different, which will cut down on the thickness of the disc surface. This will cause the brakes to run hotter and increase in noise and wear. One thing I have noticed in recent years is the great increase in the rusting of the brake rotor. I feel this is due to the cheapening of the materials used to manufacture brake rotors. I have seen brake rotors only a few years old with such large rust areas that they are unusable. I have also seen brake rotors that have extreme rust areas in between the braking surfaces that are only 6 month old. I believe this problem may be more limited to locations where salt and chemicals are used on the road surfaces to control ice, like here in Minnesota.

Again, I feel these problems can be avoided by having your brakes inspected by a professional technician with knowledge and experience of the brake products available, along with knowing the needs of the vehicle and driver. We have certain customers that we know are “hard” on their brakes, and we use a specific line of brake products on their vehicles. Other vehicles are prone to brake problems and we use specific products for these vehicles as well. Also, there are specific procedures that need to be followed in order for a brake job to be done correctly. Trust me, we have seen all kinds of things with inexperienced installers. I Hate When That Happens!

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