Tech Talk

Buying a Used Car

So you need to buy a used car, now what? Now you find yourself in a position of needing to buy a used car.  Maybe your replacing a clunker or perhaps you’re a parent that needs to get your kid a first car.  Whatever your reason, you should do your homework.  Under no circumstance should you make the decision based on price alone. Start your home work with the vehicle requirements.  What do you need the car to do will lead you into the class of car that best meets your needs.  Do you carry a lot of stuff?  Do you need to move four or five people around often?  How about fuel economy?  Is the primary driver young or older?  Can the driver handle a low to the ground sedan or do you need to sit up higher?  Most people keep their cars for about 8 to 10 years and you don’t want to make a mistake.  Once you have identified your requirements your next stop is Consumer Reports. Ideally, you are looking for a vehicle that offers low long-term cost of ownership.  That is where CR comes in.  Reliability is one of the key factors CR tracks and monitors.  After carefully reviewing the data, you will find that the Asian manufacturers make a better long term car than the American and certainly the European manufacturers.  European cars, Mercedes, BMW, Audi’s, will cost much more to maintain in the second half of their lives than others. After you have identified the car that best meets your needs there are several different ways you can go about making the purchase.  This is an important decision because the risks are directly proportional to the method of purchase.   A Certified Used Car from a mainstream dealership is much less risky than a Craigslist offering but also more expensive.  A Certified Used Car comes with a warranty while a Craigslist or a car from a neighbor comes with no warranty.  The risk is measured in dollars and you must consider that in your decision and budget.  You are not going to find a $3000 car as a Certified Used Car but you can find dozens of them on Craigslist. Another way to lower your risk is to do a pre-purchase inspection.  Most shops will do them for between $75 and $100 depending on how much time they take and how deep into the vehicle the shop goes.  Cars are so computerized now that you can’t tell by looking at the engine if it’s a problem waiting to happen or a reliable machine.   At the very minimum you should insist on a full module scan from the shop.  That is where a computer is plugged into the cars data port and then proceeds to reach out to all the computers on the car and inquire as to their status, potential problems and ability to do their jobs.  If the report comes back clean, that’s a green flag.  If the report shows that the Transmission control module has a problem, that’s a red flag. If you decide to not have a pre-purchase inspection done, at least ask the seller if you can have one done.  If they say “no”, run away.  If they say “sure”, then at least there not trying to hide something. Good Luck in you hunt

Check Engine Light

The Check Engine light is on, now what?     The MIL (Malfunction Indicator Light) takes a few different forms.  It can be a picture, symbol, or an icon of an engine; it can say “Service Engine Soon” or simply “Check Engine”.  What it means is that one of the computers that manage your cars vital systems has recorded a fault and wants you to know about it.  It can represent over 2500 different faults and until you hook up a Scan tool to the OBD data port, you can’t be sure what it means. In 1996, any car sold in the US, must have an On Board Diagnostic (OBD) connector in it.  They are usually located near the base of the steering column or under the dash.  This is how Automobile Technicians hook into the cars network to gather information. Vehicles have used computers to manage vital systems since the 1970’s.  The Engine is monitored by the ECM (Engine Control Module) the Transmission is monitored by the TCM. Body functions like windows, door locks, etc., are monitored by the BCM and so on.  These modules communicate and share information on both High Speed and Low speed networks. ECM codes are generally P codes, Transmission codes are also P codes.  BCM codes are B codes and Chassis codes are C codes.   Communications problems are usually U codes.   The Check Engine light does not represent a single problem rather simply telling you that something is in need of attention.  The most common codes relate to the vehicles Emissions system and will not affect drivability but will cause the car to fail emissions.  In fact a person should never attempt to go through the state emission testing process with the light on.  It’s a guaranteed failure and why waste $27?  Another common code appears if you don’t tighten the Fuel Cap after refueling.  Some seniors with poor strength in their hands have a hard time screwing down the cap until it clicks. As a vehicle ages it becomes more common for the light to appear.  Don’t freak out but do get it checked out.  If the light is on and flashing, it’s likely to be a more serious issue like a miss fire that can ruin a Catalytic Converter.  When you start your car you will see the light for a moment as the instrument cluster does it’s light and system check.  It should go off almost immediately if all is well.   Today’s vehicles are much more reliable than ever but that does not mean they don’t develop issues.  It’s impossible to simply look at a component and determine if it’s working properly.  The code obtained by scanning a vehicle may or may not point directly at the problem.  You could get a code for an oxygen sensor but you can’t blame the sensor if a rodent ate through a wire going to the sensor. Sometimes a Check Engine Light will come on and then go out.  The fault is still recorded in the appropriate module but it usually refers to an intermittent problem that currently does not exist.  A good example of this is a sensor that swings in and out of acceptable performance range.  There are three types of code status.  History, current and pending.  History means that the problem happened in the past but is not currently occurring.  Current means that the problem is happening now and Pending means that the module can see the problem coming but it has not faulted enough times to actually request the MIL on. It all appears complicated but not to someone who works with modern cars all the time.  You can have your car scanned for free at many places including Auto Parts stores but you would be smart to have a ASE Professional Automobile Technician do a Diagnostic check before simply replacing parts.  I will save you time and money.

Shop Humor

Hi Miss, what can we do for you? I just need an oil change.  Have you been here before? No. Ok what’s the last name?  It might be under Becky……


My car is making a strange noise.  Ok let’s give it a listen. Knock, Knock, Knock, KNOCK.  Let’s check your oil level.  Well there is no oil on the dipstick and it sounds like the Engine is knocking badly and is probably damaged.  Well the Dealer just did an oil change two weeks ago. The noise just started but a little red oil light on the dash has been on for a few days

Hi, what can we do for you? My car pulls left when I take my hands off the steering wheel.  Have you ever done an Alignment? Oh no, I don’t need an Alignment I just need my wheels straightened….. 

Hello Sir, welcome to our shop, what can we do for you?  I just need an Oil Change, nothing else.  Don’t try to sell me anything else, just an Oil Change.  Oh yeah, it’s also making a strange noise when I brake and leaks something orange.  The passenger front window doesn’t go up or down and the A/C stopped working at the end of last summer and the ……. 

I’ve got twenty minutes; can I get a Brake Job?  I’m sorry but it takes longer than that to do the Free Brake Inspection that we do.  Ok, how much does that cost? 

Gone are the days of old shop humor such as Blinker Fluid and a can of Elbow Grease.  We are now driving a rolling computer system with a vehicle attached.  That does not mean you can’t find humor in different situations.  Most of the humor revolves around the fact that ordinary drivers really don’t understand how their vehicles operate.  And it’s only going to become more complex.  Our job is as much about education as it is about turning wrenches.  It is better to get the education PRIOR to running into trouble on the road. Technology is a great thing but lacking a full understanding of how it affects you can lead to trouble.  It can lead to you being taken advantage of and worse, it can cost you lots of money. After 16 years in the computer industry and another 23 years in the Automotive Industry it amazes me how little ordinary people truly understand how that 5000 pound machine they drive actually operates.  The amount of training we must go through in our industry is staggering.  We have no choice because we do not manufacture the vehicles but we do choose to service them.   Humor is an important part of life.  It’s important to laugh and not take ourselves too seriously. One thing I have learned is that knowledge is the key to avoiding issues you really want no part of. is the email address that you can submit questions about your vehicle.

Cool It Phoenix

 Cool it - Automobile Air Conditioning We all know how hot it gets here in Phoenix.  Each and every year, some of us look forward to it and some of us hate it.  I’m old enough to remember when A/C in a car was an option, not anymore.  Let’s spend a few minutes talking about how it works and how you can preserve the health of your cars A/C system. 

The principal is the same as your Refrigerator at home.  Your A/C system works in the reverse of how you think it works.  Rather than make cold air, it removes heat.  What’s left over is cooler air that is pumped back into the passenger cabin cooling it down. The larger the interior space, the longer it takes to cool down. Physics. 

When we park our cars here, especially in the direct sun, the inside temperature can climb to between 150 to 160 degrees.  Each and every piece of plastic, metal and all other material inside also climbs to that temperature.  This presents quite a workload for the A/C system of your car.  It also is the reason that the car does not cool down instantly when you start it and immediately turn on the A/C and drive away. It’s really a heat pump type of system that pumps the heat from the cabin to the front of the car where it is disposed of at the condenser.  We basically move the heat from the cabin to the outside of the car.  

You can accelerate the rate of cool down with a few simple tricks. 1: For the first few minutes, lower the windows as you drive away and give the heat a place to escape while you are driving. 2. Upon start up, don’t use MAX A/C.  Max recirculates air from the inside and it is easier to cool outside ambient air at 108 degrees than inside air that is 150 degrees. 3. Tint your windows.  Tint reflects the sun’s rays and keeps temperatures inside lower than cars without tinted windows. Again, Physics. 4. Most cars today have a filter behind the glove box also known as a Cabin Air Filter, keep it clean or replace it when it’s dirty.  Just like a house furnace filter. 

As far as the health of your system, the best thing you can do is exercise the system even in the cooler winter months.  The refrigerant has lubricating oil that travels with the refrigerant through the system. Since the system is a series of components connected with hoses, at each joint there are seals that keep the system sealed up.  Just like a rubber band that gets old, cracks can form in the seals when they are not lubricated and since it is a high pressure system, any little crack and cause the system to leak refrigerant.  Once that happens, the efficacy of the systems starts to degrade.  By using the system even when it’s cold out, you’re keeping the seals lubricated. Finally, other that the Cabin filter, there is little or no maintenance you can do to a Car’s A/C system.  You can’t add just a little refrigerant to your system.  These systems are designed to hold a specific amount of refrigerant.  Too much or too little and the system performance will degrade.  Also avoid Aftermarket products that promise to cool your car down by adding the bottle any auto parts store can sell you.  They have sealants in them that can block the flow of refrigerant in very small channels in the condenser and end up costing you much more in the long run. 

One final tip. What we as A/C service professionals look for is vent output temperature approximately 50 degrees below outside ambient air.  If it’s 108 outside, 58 degrees coming out of the vents is considered acceptable.  You can monitor this yourself with a simple store bought meat thermometer placed in the vent. Stay cool Phoenix.

Seniors and Their Cars

 It would almost be easier on me if I didn’t care.  We have a customer, call her Mrs. S.  She’s in her mid-seventies and she has a 2000 Nissan Sentra.  The car has a blown head gasket because she overheated it and kept driving it around, not noticing the temperature gauge.  She only took action when smoke was pouring out from underneath the hood of her car.  Overheating a car engine is one of the worst things you can do to an engine. She lives modestly on Social Security but is still spry enough to take care of herself and drive around keeping herself independent of others.  Now she finds herself in a position of having to do a repair that would easily exceed the value of the vehicle.  What should she do?  

At her age I would rather not see her take on Car payments for the next five or six years but she still needs a car. This got me thinking about something.  We all hear about Financial Planning, Planning for Retirement, even Planning for Health Care but we never hear about Vehicle Planning.  Why is that?  Why does no one sit down with seniors and discuss their plan for their mobility for the duration of their lives?  It’s not difficult but is totally ignored.  Ideally you would want to see your senior loved ones in cars that have a high degree of reliability with low mileage.  That would be the situation which would produce the least amount of stress, both financially and emotionally. Now she has to choose between fixing this car or getting into another car that she can afford.  Unfortunately, the only thing she can afford are cars that are also nearing the end of their lives. She is confused as to what to do.  She asked me if a 2010 VW would be a good car because some Dealer said he could get her into that at a very low cost.  I told her the reliability of European cars in the second half of their lives is low and the expenses for maintenance and repair could be higher that she would like.  She didn’t like that answer.  Oh well, better to be honest with them now than to just give them the answer they want to hear. 

If someone had sat Mrs. S down when she was in her late fifties or early sixties and discussed her vehicle plans for the next twenty years she probably wouldn’t be in the situation she is now.  Seniors have enough challenges with Medical and Financial issues.  Why can’t they simply think about their mobility earlier and plan for it like they do anything else.  For example, seniors should think about ease of Entry and Exit.  It’s much easier to get in and out of a small crossover SUV like the Honda CRV or Toyota Rav4 than any low to the ground sedan.  It will be easier on their knees.  It sound simple but nobody really plans that way.  It’s a shame.   

Maybe Uber is the answer but seniors link their independence to their cars.  Extended warranties are not really the answer since that’s just another form of insurance and we all know Insurance companies look for any excuse not to pay a claim. Besides, who would want to pay for extended warranty coverage for an 18 year old car? The premiums would also exceed the value of the vehicle.  There does not seem to be an easy answer except for planning.