Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mind Your Binders

Don't let your brakes break 

Many different vehicle systems could be classified as important, but there is only one system that gets used all of the time and if it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed too only one time, serious property damage and injury is guaranteed to result. This system is the braking system. Think about how many times you have applied the brakes of your car as you are barreling off of the freeway heading straight towards another car, a pedestrian, or a concrete wall, and your 2 or 3 ton instrument of death and destruction stops effortlessly. The amount of dynamic inertia contained in the movement of the mass of your vehicle is tremendous but you are so used to the brakes working without even thinking about it, that it’s no big deal.

So what’s happening when you step on that pedal? Brakes are nothing more than energy converters. The vehicle moving through space is nothing more then kinetic energy, energy in motion. In order for the vehicle to stop we cannot simply take away the energy or destroy it, we have to convert it into something else which would be another form of energy. The easiest thing to convert the kinetic energy into is heat. To convert the energy into heat we take advantage of friction between the rotating wheels and the material that makes up the brake pads or shoes. These brake components get hot and then the heat is dissipated into the air surrounding the brakes.

Sometimes when the brakes get overused they loose the ability to convert the kinetic energy in to heat energy. This is called brake fade. When the brakes get too hot, the coefficient of friction between the brake pads and the brake rotors is decreased. If the components of the braking system do not dissipate the heat, then they cannot convert any more energy into heat, if this conversion does not take place then deceleration of the vehicle does not take place, or at least it does not take place as much as it should. This is the reason that big trucks take their time when driving down a steep canyon road. These trucks are so heavy that they have an enormous amount of kinetic energy so they use engine braking to keep their speed in check, because they are very susceptible to brake fade.

So how is the force of your little foot enough force to bring a 6000 lb. land yacht to halt? Several different things are in place that makes this possible. First of all a good old fashioned lever is attached to the brake pedal. When you push on the pedal you are pushing on one end of a lever. On the other end of the lever there is a mechanism called a brake booster. The brake booster uses vacuum force from the engine, or hydraulic power from the power steering pump to help the brake pedal lever exert force on a hydraulic piston inside of the master cylinder. The master cylinder is where we find the brake fluid that flows through a closed system to each one of the wheels.

An old dead scientist by the name of Blaise Pascal discovered that mechanical advantage could be gained when a small diameter piston pushes fluid through a closed circuit and pushes against a larger piston. This means that the small piston in the master cylinder can move a few inches and the pistons at the brake calipers increase that force greatly as they push against the pads. This concept is similar to the way torque is multiplied when a small gear turns a larger gear. The large gear turns with more force but it turns slowly. In the case of a hydraulic circuit, the small piston moves a longer distance than the large piston, but the large piston exerts tremendous force.
A brake master cylinder attached to a brake booster
On the other side of the large piston are the brake pads. The brake pads are pressed into the discs or rotors at the center of the wheels. In the case of drum brakes the piston or actuator that is located at the wheel is much smaller then the piston used for disc brake assemblies. The moveable friction units that are used with drum brakes are called brake shoes. When the shoes are acted upon by the hydraulic piston, or wheel cylinder as its called, they expand outward, away from each other and press with great force into the inside of the brake drum. So in the case of disc brakes the pads grab the rotors, and in the case of drum brakes the shoes push outward against the inside of the drums. This is so simple and so reliable that people never think about this action whenever they mash that wide pedal on the left to throw on the skids.

In order to meet safety standards all cars and trucks must have disc brakes in the front. Disc brakes aren’t necessarily more powerful than drum brakes but they are much more resistant to fading, and the application is more consistently smooth. Since the front brakes do the majority of the heat conversion that brings the vehicle to a stop, it is important that they be up to the task. Many vehicles will have disc brakes on the rear axle as well. These disc brakes will always have smaller pads and rotors than the disc brakes that are on the front of the vehicle. Drum brakes are not as common as they used to be but they are still common enough. Drum brakes are only found on the rear axle of cars and trucks and are usually used on lower end vehicles. These would be cars and trucks that are more entry level or less expensive. Usually disc brakes on the rear of a vehicle would be 
considered an upgrade.

Brakes don’t require a tremendous amount of maintenance, but brake pads and rotors are perhaps the most common wear and tear items anywhere on the vehicle. Front brake pads can wear out under normal usage in as quickly as 25,000 miles. Rear brake pads or shoes will usually last 2 or 3 times as long as the front brake pads, because the rear brakes provide less of the stopping force. The speed at which the brakes will wear out depends on the habits of the driver and the conditions under which the vehicle is driven. If the driver lives at the top of a canyon and drives down the canyon everyday to go to work, they are probably going to have to replace the pads on a more frequent basis.

Replacing break pads and shoes is very simple and doesn’t require much in the way of special tools. When selecting new pads at the parts store many different options exist. These options are based on the composition of the friction material used on the pads. The three most common materials can be classified as semi-metallic, organic, or ceramic. Each one of these materials has different qualities that affect performance. Typically the ceramic pads are the best all around brake pad, but of course that means that they are also the most expensive.
Brake pads
Should the brake rotors be machined or replaced every time the pads are replaced? The answer to that is technically no. If the rotors are not machined to remove any warpage, or replaced with new ones when the pads are replaced, the brakes will still work fine. The problem is that many times the pads will not break in properly and they may begin to vibrate in the calipers when the brakes are applied. This will lead to a squealing noise. The other thing that may happen is the rotors may have a tendency to become warped. Warpage usually occurs when the brakes are overheated, and when this happens is causes a vibration in the pedal and a shimmy in the steering wheel when the brakes are applied. Mounting the rotors on a lathe and cutting them so they turn true, used to be the most common way to service the rotors. Most shops it seems now just recommend replacing the rotors. This is not a bad policy because it more often results in trouble free brakes on the customer’s car in the future. Sometime the cost of machining the rotors and cleaning them up is the same as the cost of replacement rotors.

A few other things related to the brake system that require periodic maintenance are things such as brake fluid, brake shoe adjustment, and parking brake adjustment. Brake fluid typically should be replaced about every three years. On 99.9% percent of the vehicles out there the brake fluid has probably never been replaced because it is one of the most forgotten and neglected fluids on the automobile. The reason that the service of brake fluid depends more on time rather than miles is because one of the jobs of the brake fluid is to absorb moisture. This will occur whether the vehicle is driven or not. If the brake fluid becomes saturated with moisture it causes the boiling point of the fluid to decrease substantially. If the boiling point gets low enough it will boil when the brakes get hot and the vapors in the brake lines will compress rather than transmit force. This will cause failure of the brakes. Moisture is also corrosive to the brake components, and corrosion can also lead to brake failure.
A blown out caliper piston caused by brake pads wearing out and grinding metal on metal.

A few adjustments still remain as far as the braking system is concerned. Even though drum brake assemblies have been fitted with automatic self adjusters for the last 30 years or so, they still benefit from routine adjustment. The automatic adjusters just keep the shoes somewhat adjusted. The shoes in the drum brake assembly need to ride very close to the drums to ensure proper application. If they are not adjusted then the drum brakes will not take their share of the stopping duties. This can lead to premature wear of the front brakes or even brake fade. The parking brake can still be adjusted on all vehicles as well. This may be a matter of adjusting the parking brake shoes (these are part of a separate braking mechanism at the rear wheels of some cars), or adjusting the cable. If you apply the parking brake and it will not hold the vehicle, or even if the lever has to move to far in order to apply the brake, it might be out of adjustment.

One more thing to look for is the brake warning light. This is not the ABS light, which is something different. The brake warning light comes on for one of three reasons. The parking brake is left on, the brake fluid in the master cylinder reservoir is low, or there is a failure in the hydraulic system. If the light comes on and you have a hydraulic failure, the pedal will feel very spongy and may sink to the floor. This is very bad, get your brakes looked at right away. If you have left the parking brake engaged than you can easily remedy that situation. If the light is on, and the previous two scenarios don’t seem to fit, then it is likely your brake fluid is low. Do not top it off. Brake fluid does not get consumed or run out. If the fluid is low it is likely that your brake pads are worn out and require replacement. As the pads wear thin, the pistons in the brake calipers move out from the housing. The space behind the pistons fills with fluid. This fluid comes from the reservoir, which causes the level in the reservoir to go down.

Pay attention to your brakes. If they don’t feel right they aren’t right. If you hear grinding, or any other noise that is abnormal, don’t delay, get your brakes checked. Many people wait way too long to check their brakes. Some minor squealing and chirping is normal for disc brakes, but if you are not sure then it’s best to have them checked. The best thing that results from such neglect is a much higher repair bill because worn out parts damage other parts. The worst thing that results is serious damage to property and person. No excuses are valid for neglecting your braking system. If they fail you not only hurt yourself but you could hurt others.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Be Nice to Your Mechanic

To help you understand a few things about your personal automotive technician

A few things that everyone should remember when they take their car to the repair shop. This post is written for the benefit of the customer, and in defense of the technician and the things that they are trying to do, in order to do a good job and make a decent living. Some things are small such as, not taking your car to the repair shop to have a poor running condition diagnosed and the fuel gauge is on empty. How are they supposed to test drive your car and diagnose it when it’s about to run out of gas? Other things are much bigger, but all of them are things that will help the customer to make the mechanic’s job a little easier.

Even though the automobile is a man made machine, the service and repair thereof is not an exact science. Even technicians that are smart and work very hard at what they do, are not clairvoyant, and cannot predict everything, nor catch every problem. Sometimes a problem will require more than one visit, though this should be rare, it does happen. Why is it that people will pay a doctor $6,000 four different times to fix the exact same problem, and not bat an eye, but if the brake pads their auto mechanic put on the car 6 weeks ago are now making a squeaking noise, it’s because the mechanic must be some kind of fool or perhaps incompetent.

Customers should understand that nothing is free. Diagnosis of today’s complex automotive systems takes time. If you are told that it will cost $200 dollars to diagnose your problem then that’s because it takes time. Time is the only thing that the technician has to give, and they should not be expected to give it away for free. When some shops advertise free services, most of the time the shop owners expect the technician to take it on the chin and do something for free with the chance of maybe up-selling something along the way. The problem with freebies is that they attract people who will never buy anything and only want something free whether it’s really needed or not. Also, the more freebies people are given the more freebies they will expect in the future. So if you take your car to some place expecting not to pay for some quick check or service, don’t expect to get anything useful out of it, just expect that it will end with a sales pitch. Take your car to shops that charge an honest fee for an honest service. If they happen to top off your washer fluid for free, consider yourself lucky because nothing in life should be free, not even washer fluid.

Many times when you take your car to the mechanic to get something diagnosed it can be a shock to find out that your vehicle has suffered some kind of massive failure. Maybe the failure is not huge but perhaps your mechanic finds all sorts of other problems with your vehicle, either way it’s going to take a huge chunk of change to get the thing back to tip top. If you want to get a second opinion that’s perfectly fine, but don’t just assume that the mechanic is trying to take you to the cleaners just because they say your car has problems. Do not take anything personal if your mechanic says your car is falling apart.

Cars are just big expensive machines that do nothing but wear out. From the moment you drive it off of the dealership lot it begins to wear out. Never ask your mechanic to just patch the problem. If you don’t have the money to fix the car properly then maybe you need to start walking. When you ask the technician to only halfway perform a repair you are asking them to take a tremendous amount of liability upon their shoulders. This is not fair to them, and it’s not safe for you to drive a car in such a state.

Auto repair shops calculate labor costs and technician pay according to what they refer to as a flat rate system. This means that if the labor estimating guide says that it takes two hours to replace the water pump in your car, then you are going to get charged two hours worth of labor. The good thing about flat rate is that is protects to customer from slow or lazy technicians because the tech will get paid two hours worth of time at their hourly rate to complete the job, regardless of how long it actually takes. If it takes the technician 3 hours to complete the task, then they still charge the customer two hours and the technician still gets paid for two hours. However, if the technician can complete the job in 1 hour, they still get paid for two, and the customer still has to pay for two. Don’t think that just because you the customer are paying for five hours worth of work, and they finish the job in two, that they are ripping you off. This is the way that charges stay consistent, and the way that a good technician makes money.

Shops also mark up parts. When they purchase parts from the same parts stores that the customer’s could get parts from on their own, they usually get the parts at a wholesale price and then, they mark up the price when they sell them to you. Many shops will even pay a small commission to the mechanic for every part that they install. Sometimes people will try to bring in their own parts to save money and they get upset when the shop says that they won’t install them. This is the same as bringing your own unpopped popcorn to a movie theater and expecting theater personnel to pop it in their machine and serve it too you. The other problem with installing customer supplied parts is that the quality or integrity of the part cannot be backed up. If there is a part failure after the part is installed, who is responsible for paying the labor to install a second one?
Auto repair is not something that you want to wait around for. If you are just getting your oil changed then it’s not big deal to wait, but if major services or repairs are being performed don’t wait around for it. This puts undue pressure on the service writer and technician. Many times the technician might have to skip a well deserved lunch break just because they feel like they need to get your car finished quickly. Nobody likes to have someone hovering over them when they work, even if you are not actually hovering.

One more thing, don’t give the technician the valet key to use while they are working on your car. For one thing they might need to get into your trunk or into the glove box as part of the service or repair process, and the valet key is only good for unlocking the driver’s door and starting the car. The other thing is that you cannot keep them out of these areas anyway because they can always find a way in if they are looking for something to steal. At a dealership all they have to do is go to the parts department with your VIN and they can cut a new key in minutes. If all they have is the valet key then it’s very annoying, and a waste of their time and yours, if they have to find some other way around.

Remember these few things and you will be happier, your mechanic will be happier and your car will always be repaired to the best of the ability of the professionals that you have entrusted your vehicle to.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Know a Good Mechanic?

A few things to look out for when picking a technician, in defense of the consumer.

If you do, it can really make your life seem peaceful and make the universe seem more balanced. If you don’t, then nothing but pain and despair result anytime there is a problem with your car. Why is it so hard to find a good mechanic? Why does it seem like so many automotive technicians are trying to rip you off? Why is the auto repair industry so messed up? Many reasons can be cited as to why things are the way they are in the auto repair industry.

The biggest problem in the auto repair industry is that most auto mechanics don’t really know what they are doing as often as they should. Many mechanics know something about most things, but they lack understanding of the fundamental operation of most vehicle systems. If the general public knew how truly clueless most technicians really are they would be 10 times more afraid then they already are, every time the check engine light comes on. Most technicians have no formal education so they not only lack all of the mechanical know how, but many of them lack the necessary skills to even properly document everything that they are doing to service and repair customer’s vehicles. Many mechanics with years of experience, but no formal education, are very good at what they do. But, you show me an old mechanic that made it good with no education, and I’ll show you a mechanic who took longer to get good at what they do then was necessary.

So why is it that shops will employ such uneducated individuals, and allow them to do things like fix the brakes on someone’s 3 ton land missile? Part of the fault lies with service managers who themselves may not know as much as they should. Many service managers have backgrounds in sales and customer service and know nothing about the automobile. Part of the blame lies with the general public. The reason that the consumer bears some of the blame is due to the fact that many people shop price when trying to figure out where to get their vehicle serviced, rather than shopping for quality of the work. You get what you pay for. Is there ever a time when this is not true?

Technicians that are very highly skilled, work quickly and efficiently, and without making mistakes, are the ones that make the most money. Shops that employ these kinds of technicians are almost guaranteed to charge more because they have to cover the extra cost of paying such a technician. The customer is going to pay this extra cost, but they are going to get a better product. That product is a car that is repaired right the first time, in a quick and convenient manner. How much is this peace of mind worth? If the public would demand more quality by not settling for the cheapest shop then they would get more quality.

Is there any way for the average consumer to know if the technicians that work at a particular shop are any good? One way is to seek out technicians that are certified through the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). A technician that is ASE certified has met the proper requirements for experience in the industry, and has taken the time and effort to pass any one of the many ASE exams. The typical automotive technician can become certified in 8 fundamental areas under ASE. These areas cover things such as braking systems, steering and suspension systems, engines, air conditioning, and engine performance. Once they obtain certification in the 8 areas they claim the title of Master Technician. Beyond that they may certify as an advanced level specialist in things such as engine performance or alternative fuel systems.

Being ASE certified does not guarantee that a technician will be perfect, but it does mean that they care enough to take the time to maintain some kind of standard in an industry that is completely void of any standards. When asking about ASE certification, make sure that their credentials are up to date since the certification must be renewed every 5 years. Any technician who values their certification will be happy to show it to any customer. All of the major auto manufacturers push for the technicians at their dealerships to become ASE certified. If the public would demand standards within the auto repair industry then more shops would demand that their technicians become certified. Since ASE certification is completely voluntary, it’s up to the public to push for it.

So why do automotive technician’s seem so dishonest so much of the time? Calling them dishonest is not really accurate. Some will make up a story to cover a misdiagnosis by telling you that the muffler bearing wore out because the transmission dongle was seized. Some are just very dishonest, but most of them are just very bad at communicating. If a technician fails to adequately communicate the condition of the customer’s vehicle, or the nature of the repair, then it leaves the customer to second guess what it is exactly that they are paying for. The technician must also follow through with good advice for the customer regarding any other possibilities for the future of the vehicle. Example: If the technician replaces a fuel filter while doing some routine maintenance, and finds it very plugged, they need to tell the customer that the possibility exists that the fuel pump could be damaged and may go bad in the next 4 to 8 weeks, or maybe not. If they don’t tell the customer this bit of information, the pump will fail, and the car will come back to the shop on a hook (tow truck) with the customer screaming that they just had there car in the shop, now it’s broken, and they want it fixed for free. If the customer knows about this possibility of failure up front, when the fuel pump fails, the customer will say to themselves that they knew this might happen and they will take the car back to the shop and happily pay for the prophetic mechanic to now replace the pump. If the pump never fails, then that's okay too.

A few more things to think about. A shop that is good shop is also a shop that is clean and tidy. No reason exists to justify any shop being a complete pig sty. This doesn’t mean that the paint on the walls must be fresh and everything must be shimmering white, but there is no excuse for a floor that is not swept or for tools that are scattered on the floor. If the technicians or shop managers don’t look after their own stuff then what makes you think that they will look after yours.

Finding a good technician is difficult. If you do find one then never let them get away. Considering how much we rely on our cars each day, a good mechanic can make life much easier.

The next post will be for the benefit of the mechanic things for you to consider on their behalf.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Retro and Then What

Retro styling is something that auto engineers and designers do when they run out of ideas. A vehicle with retro styling is one that is designed to either look like a modern incarnation of its former, and perhaps more glorious self, or it’s a car is designed with styling cues to reflect the styling of the past in a more generic way. Sometimes manufacturers will resurrect a model name just for the sake of nostalgia, or to try and appeal to people who used to buy their products but no longer do. Rather then bringing something back from the past, the auto manufacturers need to worry only about the future.

One vehicle that is the poster child for retro styling and all of its problems is the Chrysler PT Cruiser. This little gem was huge for Chrysler when it first hit the market for the 2000 model year. The public flocked to it with their check books open. The PT Cruiser was so well received that dealerships couldn’t keep them in stock, and could often get more than sticker price on the sale of one that wasn’t already spoken for. People liked the styling because it looked like something from the past. The PT Cruiser looked like the old station wagons of the 40’s and 50’s.
Chrysler PT Cruiser
 Now where is the PT Cruiser? Gone, cut, cancelled, no longer in production. The PT Cruiser was built from 2000 to 2010 with very few changes. How is the buying public with such a short attention span supposed to stay interested in a model, even a very popular model, when no updates or changes ever come along? Secondly, what does a manufacturer do to update the styling of a vehicle that has styling from the past? If they change the styling too much then it’s no longer retro, and if they don’t change it enough people get board.

Another example is the Volkswagen New Beetle. The New Beetle hit the market in 1998 and it too was very well received by the public. You might say that the New Beetle started the whole retro style trend. Many a baby boomer remembers the old Bugs that used to run around the streets of America all through the 50’s 60’s and 70’s, and so many of them wanted to recapture their youth, but in something that actually had a heater that worked. The New Beetle has had only a few styling tweaks over the years and some changes in engine options. Volkswagen is set to release a new New Beetle next year with significant mechanical changes; but the body still looks mostly the same. The New Beetle will never again be the hot seller that it was for the first few years it was on the market, but apparently VW still has hope for it.
VW New Beetle
 Other retro styled vehicles include such things as the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger, and Toyota FJ Cruiser. All of these are fine vehicles but what are their respective manufacturers going to do to develop these over the years. Maybe they won’t do anything. Maybe once the public is board with them they will be discontinued. The Mustang came out with retro styling for the 2004 model year. An updated model was released in 2010 with some styling tweaks but still keeping its late 60’s early 70’s looks. What will be next for the Mustang? Perhaps styling cues from the late 70’s Mustangs (remember the Mustang II).

As for bringing back old names, this is no way to keep the interest of the younger generation of car buyers. The most profitable auto makes and models are the ones with the average age of the buyer being younger, rather than older. Ford let the Taurus die an ignominious death. The Taurus was the only sedan that could compete with the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry as a sales leader back in the family sedan market of the late 80’s and early 90’s. After achieving fantastic sales numbers it was then allowed to languish as Ford spent their R&D dollars developing more profitable SUVs. Once the Taurus was nearly dead the only buyers were rental car companies who were able to get a good deal buying in bulk. Ford got rid of the Taurus name with a new model labeled the Five Hundred (this also was a moniker used on several Ford models from the past). After using the Five Hundred name for a few years they switched the name back to Taurus. Why? The name Taurus has too many negative connotations, particularly for younger families that are the target demographic for the new Taurus. In reality the new Taurus is a fantastic car in many ways but most people won’t touch it with a ten foot poll because of the name.
Old Ford Taurus back when it was a good seller
 The best way to sell cars over the long run is to build really great cars that drive nice, and last a long time. If more of the manufacturers would stick to this concept then they could give the cars whatever name they want and people won’t care. Look at brands like BMW. Very well known for their luxury and performance sedans and they use names like 128, 335i, 525i, and 750i. Despite these seemingly meaningless names the cars still sell well across all demographic groups that they target. Just build good cars, forget about the past, and focus on the future. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

VIN Decoding

Numbers mean things, and so do letters. The digits that compose the vehicle identification number mean something as well, and some of the information that can be interpreted from the VIN is important to know, especially if you work around cars. Even if the automobile has nothing to do with your work day except for taking you to and from your place of employment, there are still a few things that are interesting about these seemingly uninteresting characters. The current format for the vehicle identification number dates back to 1980 when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated that a standard 17 digit format be used on all over the road motor vehicles sold in the U.S.

The VIN can be found in a number of different places. The first place where the VIN must always be displayed on any car or truck sold in the U.S. is at the base of the windshield on the driver side of the vehicle. In this position it should always be visible from outside of the vehicle, and it will be stamped onto a metal plate that is riveted to the dash. A barcode containing the VIN may also be visible alongside the alphanumeric representation of the VIN. The second most common place to find the VIN is on an information label on the driver door frame. On newer vehicles the VIN can be found on every body panel, as well as on the engine and transmission. This is a good way to tell if any of these parts have ever been replaced because if they have the VIN will be missing. This is a good thing to look for when examining a used car for possible purchase.

The first digit of the VIN says in which country the vehicle was built. BMW builds cars in the U.S. and Ford builds many of their cars in Mexico. Honda sells a few cars in the U.S. that were built in England, and Mitsubishis sells cars in the U.S. that were built in Australia. This first digit will tell you where the car came from. Many people buy “American” cars because they want to support the American worker. This is a noble cause but if the car that they think is domestic is built in Mexico, Canada, or soon to be China, then maybe they need to rethink their strategy. Conversely, some people only drive cars made in Germany because they think these are superior, but does it still count as a German made car if it was built in South Carolina, Alabama, or Mexico?

VIN first Digit
Country of final Assembly
United States
United States
United States

The second digit of the VIN represents the manufacturer of the vehicle. Sometimes this digit must be looked at in conjunction with the first digit but most of the time it stands on its own. Sometimes the name of the manufacturer displayed on the tailgate of the vehicle is not actually the one that built the vehicle. The Honda passport was not built by Honda and the Pontiac Vibe was not built by Pontiac.

General Motors
BMW (like Dodge)

The third digit can get confused with the second digit because it refers to the vehicle type or the manufacturing division within the larger parent company. For example Lexus is a division of Toyota, and Cadillac is a division of General Motors. This relationship may be displayed by the third digit of the VIN.

The fourth through eighth digit of the VIN relates to vehicle model and equipment. Various options that the vehicle might be equipped with are represented. If the vehicle is the four door version or the two door version, this is where the VIN will specify. The eighth digit is very important because this is the digit that states which engine option the vehicle is equipped with. The 2002 Ford Taurus comes with a 3.0 L V6, a 3.0 L V6, or a 3.0 L V6. They are all the same size engine and they are all V6’s. They are not the same engine by any stretch, so the way to tell the difference on paper, other than saying 3.0 L V6, is to use the eighth digit of the VIN. The engine would be designated as 3.0 L V6 (W), or 3.0 L V6 (T).

The ninth digit of the VIN is the check digit. Many different types of serial numbers, identification numbers, or even things like SKU numbers use a check digit. This is for electronic verification that the other digits of the VIN are accurate. A formula is used to determine what the check digit should be, and this formula may be universally used by any electronic VIN registry.

The tenth digit is very important because it designates the model year. On the driver’s door label, the date of manufacture is printed, but this is not the model year. Many people look at this label to determine model year, but this is inaccurate because manufacturing of the 2012 models begins in the spring or summer of 2011, and will go until sometime in the late winter or early summer of 2012. In 1980, when the 17 character VIN became the standard, the tenth digit was an A, 1981 was B, 1982 was C, and so on all the way through the alphabet, skipping O, Q, and U. When 2001 came along the letter Z was next, but it was decided to skip Z and go with a 1 instead. So then numbers were used starting with 1 for 2001, going up to 9 for 2009. In 2010 they stared all over again with A.

The 11th digit represents the assembly plant, and the last 6 digits are essentially the serial number. This serial number portion usually starts out as 000001 on the first car to roll off of the assembly line at the plant designated by the 11th digit. If two vehicles of the same year, make, and model are built in the same factory with the same options, the only place the VIN will vary is in these last 6 digits. The car that came off the assembly line sooner will have the lower number. When a manufacturer has a problem that leads to a recall because they got a bad batch of parts, and installed them on a whole string of cars, they may only issue the recall for all cars between number 002564 and 010500, which may be the only cars affected.

Many websites can be found that will completely decode any VIN that you punch into the computer. I don’t know who sponsors these websites, or if they are safe to use or not, but they do work, and the info they give you is accurate. One of these sites can be found at

So these letters and numbers do mean things. Have a look at the Vehicle Identification Number on your car and see if you can learn a thing or two about your vehicle that you didn’t know before. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Your Wife's Ride

The following post might not be serious, but then again maybe it is. Maybe it is something from a guy who knows exactly what he is talking about or maybe it’s something from a husband who has been well trained by a woman who just might be smarter than he. Either way it’s definitely something worth considering.
Most married couples have at least two cars. If the couple has children then most of the time the car that the wife drives will also be considered the family car, and the vehicle that the husband drives is the commuter special. Any combination of vehicles is possible. Sometimes the wife drives the family minivan and husband drives a pickup truck. One vehicle is for hauling kids around which is the duty that often falls to the wife, so the minivan is her most practical choice out of the two vehicles. The truck is driven by the husband because it is used for making a run to the home improvement store on the weekend, or it gets used to haul the husband’s toys around. Regardless of who drives what, the one thing that is certain is that if the wife is driving the older, or the junkier of the two vehicles, then the husband needs to work on his husbanding skills.
Is this your wife's car?
Just about everyone knows a married couple out there where the husband drives the nice new truck or car, and the wife drives the whatever is left over, or whatever can be afforded after making the payments on the husbands ride. The husband might drive a big 4x4 pickup or SUV and the wife gets a 12 year old minivan, or some old little sedan with peeling paint, bald tires, and a chronically illuminated check engine light. The husband has a $40k sports car while the wife drives a rusty SUV from the mid nineties that leaks oil like the Exxon Valdez.
Is this your wife's car?
If you are this husband then you need to stop and think long and hard about your relationship. If you are now thinking to yourself that your wife indeed drives that old beater minivan from 1994, but you drive the Chrysler K car from 1986 then this doesn’t apply to you. Or, if you are thinking to yourself that the new corvette that you drive may seem excessive, but your wife seems pretty happy in her brand new Escalade then this doesn’t apply to you either (unless she is forbidden to ever drive the Corvette, but that’s a topic for another day). Nothing is a bigger sign of a bad husband than the one that drives a nicer car than his wife. If you think that your wife likes what she drives, and she doesn’t care that your car is nicer, it doesn’t matter, the fact remains that you are a bad husband and you need to change your ways.
Maybe this is your wife's car?
Your wife deserves the best car and here are a few reasons why. First of all she is your queen and you should treat her as such. She deserves to drive the vehicle that is going to be the most reliable, and the nicest looking. She is the mother of your children, which means she will play chauffer to them on a regular basis. The last thing you want as the father is to have your family break-down on the freeway in heavy traffic, or have an old worn out tire blow out in the middle of nowhere when you are not there to change it. Even if she knows how, and is perfectly capable of changing a tire herself, a gentlemanly husband will perish the thought of his wife performing a task such as this all alone with the kids packed in the car, screaming about the things that kids scream about. Your wife’s car must remain free of mechanical troubles. Do you want your wife to have to get out and push her broken down car out of a busy intersection? Your wife’s car should be in tip top shape, with all services up to date. Once, while working as an automotive technician, I heard a customer say that the car he had brought to the shop only needed the cheapest tires because it was the car that his wife drove, and the car that she shuttled the kids around in. Are you kidding me! This man is an embarrassment to loving husbands and father’s everywhere.
This should be your wife's car, but only if she likes it.
The other reason for you to get rid of your nicer car and get an older one is that it will give you the chance to fix it on a regular basis. Women like a man that can fix things, and they especially like it when their own husband works on one of the cars in the family stable. This is one of the easiest ways to turn your wife on and get her to notice how manly you can be. If you are not skilled as a mechanic it won’t matter. You will be working on your car and not hers, so you can botch the repair and she won’t notice because she’s not the one who will have to jack the car up on the freeway to try and put the wheel back on after it falls off because you forgot to tighten the lug nuts.
Just think how good your wife would look driving this.
My wife’s car is 6 years newer than mine and has 60,000 fewer miles on the odometer. She and the kids are much more comfortable in her car than they are in my car. My wife knows that she has the choice of any vehicle that we have or that we could afford and she chooses the vehicle that she has. I’m happy knowing that she’s happy, but even more realistically I’m happy because she’s happy. A husband, who drives a nicer car than his wife, is probably the same man who is not totally happy in his marriage, or; he is the same man who is married to a woman that is not totally happy in her marriage. Either way they are both missing out on something, and its likely something that is more important and more meaningful than a nice ride.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Life Blood

Engine oil is critical to the proper function of the internal combustion engine. Calling oil the life blood of the engine is fairly accurate. When oil or oil pressure is lost the engine will be damaged, and damaged quickly if it is working under load. Oil seems like something that is pretty simple and in many ways it is, but so many different types exist, and with recent advances in engine technology and lubrication technology many of the rules have changed. Of all things associated with the automobile there are perhaps more myths surrounding motor oil than anything else. One of the biggest myths is the ‘change your oil every 3000 miles myth, more on this later.
Engine oil is necessary in order to keep metal parts from rubbing on other parts. The amount of friction in the engine is tremendous, and without a good lubricant that can stand up to the harsh conditions inside the engine, the heat buildup on the surface of these parts would destroy everything. The crankshaft which bears the brunt of combustion forces, and turns the reciprocating motion of the piston into the rotational motion that eventually reaches the wheels, must receive the most lubrication. The journals of the crankshaft where it attaches to the engine block and the journals where the pistons attach to the crank contain bearings. These bearings are not ball bearings or roller bearings; they are thin semicircular metal strips that wrap around the journals. Oil is pumped into the very narrow space that exists between these bearings and the journals so that when the engine is running, the force exerted on the journals is actually propped up by a thin film of pressurized oil so that the journals never really touch the bearings. The oil also flushes out any small metal particles from these areas as they slowly wear.

Typical crankshaft, the journals are the shiney parts

Crankshaft bearings prior to installation

A conventinal spin-on filter

The filter is simply a device that to trap large particles in the lubrication system and keep them from circulating through the oil galleries in the engine block and cylinder head. The filter usually contains a paper or cloth element of some kind that acts as the filtering medium. Many new vehicles are not using the metal canister style spin on filter that is common. The housing of the filter in permanently attached to the engine, and the paper element is removed and replaced by itself. This makes for less waste and also reduces the amount of trapped oil that gets thrown out with the filter. A good filter has a bypass valve in it that will open if the filtering element gets plugged. Most of the time the filter will be replaced with oil, but some manufacturers don’t necessitate filter replacement every time. 

In some ways engine oil is like milk. All oil comes from the ground just like all milk comes from a cow. With similar origins you would think that there is no difference between the various brands of oil. On a fundamental level this is true, but some differences do exist that the average car owner should be aware of. The additives are the things that make them different. Friction modifiers, detergents, antioxidants, antifoaming agents, metal conditioners and other such things are added to the oil to make it hold up under heat and pressure and function as a lubricant. The American Petroleum Institute is responsible for making sure that standards exist for the lubricant manufacturers to follow. Soma manufacturers will have special blends for special purposes. High mileage, heavy-duty formulations for off-road applications, and special blends for diesel engines where a little oil foaming can lead to drivability problems, just some of the options that are out there. Some of these oil formulations can provide some benefit in certain situations but just use the oil that the manufacturer recommends and none of the other stuff matters.

On a container of oil you see designations such as, 10W-30, 15W-40, 0W-20. This refers to the thickness, or viscosity of the oil. In the old days you would see things like SAE30 or SAE40 on the label. SAE stands Society of Automotive Engineers which is a group of engineers that sets many standards within the auto industry, and the number referred to the viscosity of the oil. The viscosity did not vary much for any reason. On newer containers of oil the numbers still represent viscosity, but the viscosity will vary with temperature. So the 5W in 5W-30 means that the oil will have the viscosity of 5 weight oil in the winter (the W stands for winter). The 30 means that the oil has the viscosity of 30 weight once it is warmed up. Variable viscosity engine oil allows the engine to turn more freely when it is very cold which helps on cold starting and allows the engine to operate more efficiently at cold temperatures, without sacrificing the ability to maintain pressure when the oil is hot. Recommended oil viscosities are getting thinner and thinner which reduces mechanical power losses in the engine and will result in a slight increase in fuel economy.

The latest thing when it comes to engine oil is synthetic oil. Synthetics and synthetic blends have actually been around for awhile but more and more auto manufacturers have begun to use them and recommend them in their products. Synthetic oil is derived from the same mineral sources that conventional motor oil comes from, but a completely different process is used to create the lubrication oil. Most people think that synthetic oil is purely man-made this is not really the case.

These synthetics hold up well over the long term and do not suffer from thermal breakdown and oxidization as much or as quickly as conventional motor oils. This means that synthetic oil will last much longer. How long? Some synthetic oil manufacturers claim that their oil will go 25,000 miles before it loses its ability to lubricate. This may be true because synthetic oil is very effective, but the best rule of thumb is to go with the recommendations of the manufacturer regarding oil change intervals and oil type specifications. Synthetic oil does cost more than conventional oil but this cost is usually off-set by the fact that you don’t have to change it as often. Most oil manufacturers also sell synthetic blends which are a mix of synthetic and conventional oils, to provide some of the benefits of synthetics but at a lower cost.

A few common myths: Proper engine maintenance requires that oil be changed every three months or three thousand miles. Not true. Modern engines are so well built and modern oil formulations are so effective that engines will be just fine with more extended service intervals. Most manufacturers recommend changing the oil every 5000 to 7000 miles. When synthetic oil is recommended the interval goes to 10,000 to 12,000 miles. This is not the standard for ‘normal’ use this is the standard for ‘severe’ use. Only your grandma, who lives in San Diego and only drives her car to the grocery store and to church, is considered normal, when it comes to auto maintenance standards. Quick lube centers and other service shops will continue to push the 3 month 3000 mile interval because it is in their best interest, from a business standpoint, to do so.

Once you pick a brand of oil to use in your engine you shouldn’t switch because it will damage your engine. Not true. Any motor oil that meets the current API standards will protect your engine properly. Mixing different brands at the same time may be less effective because of variations in the formulation of additives but if you are in a bind and need to add a quart, use whatever is handy as long as it meets the current API ratings.

If all of this is just too much information, and it still seems confusing, then just remember the simplest rule of auto maintenance; follow the service guide listed in the owner’s manual. This will tell you everything that you need to know. And if you are still confused, take this service schedule with you to your mechanic and tell them to do the things listed there. If you make sure that the life blood of your car’s engine is taken care of, then you car will take care of you. Unless the engine explodes anyway.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Here we go again. Is this going to be permanent or is it going to be temporary? Either way it’s going to be painful. The pain of which I speak is that pain in your wallet that you feel when you go to the gas station to fill up. Gas prices are not only high, but they are the highest they have ever been for this time of year, ever. Imagine what is going to happen this summer, which is the time of year when the price of a gallon of gas usually reaches its yearly high. Prices north of $4.00 a gallon are not only a certainty but the highest prices ever seen are very likely.

What are the alternatives to gasoline powered cars? Well, you could ride a bike, or walk… that will never happen. How about buying a hybrid? That might help somewhat but most likely it will mean getting a car that’s smaller than what you are used to, and any savings on fuel that might be realized on fuel purchase, might not be worth the extra cost of purchasing the car. Hybrids still run on gasoline so you can’t completely avoid the petrol station. Ethanol is a joke as a fuel (this is a subject for another article altogether), so it’s not worth discussing here. A purely electric car like the Nissan Leaf might be good but they are very expensive and are only good as a commuter because of a limited range. Most of these technologies are good for one reason or another but most of them are still not at the level where they can really begin to reduce our dependence on good old gasoline. So what else is there?

Compressed natural gas (CNG) is perhaps the best alternative to gasoline, and there are many facts out there that can support such a claim. First of all compressed natural gas is only stored in the compressed form, in order to increase the energy density of the fuel that is stored in a special tank on the vehicle. This helps to increase the range of the CNG powered vehicle. Typical pressure of the CNG fuel tank is between 1000 and 3600 psi.
A CNG tank mounted in the trunk

Let’s look at the pros and cons.

  • CNG is cheaper than gasoline everywhere in the country where it’s available. Prices range between $1.00 gasoline gallon equivalent (GGE), to $2.50 GGE
  • Little to no reduction in vehicle performance. Power output with CNG is very similar to what it is when running standard petrol. Fuel economy is also very comparable
  • This technology can be fairly easily retrofitted to any gasoline powered vehicle. A vehicle that can run on CNG or gasoline is referred to as being bi-fueled.
  • The distribution network for natural gas is already in place in most areas around the country. Nearly every business and residential establishment has natural gas hookups already in place. This would make it possible to refuel at home which would put the cost of refueling somewhere near .50¢ GGE.
  • Natural gas pipelines spread across the country from places like Eastern Utah, Southwest Wyoming, Western Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania. This means almost all of the natural gas used in the U.S. comes from the U.S. The reserves in these areas are huge, much bigger than anybody knows.
  • Because natural gas is a gas it is shipped in pipelines and rarely shipped over seas. Natural gas has to liquefied in order to be shipped in tankers. This requires cryogenic tanks that keep the gas at about -260° F, and special loading and unloading facilities at the ports where the tankers are loaded. Because of all this natural gas is not globally traded the way crude oil is. This means that instability in the Middle East has less of an impact on price here at home.
  • Natural gas is the cleanest of fossil fuels. Emissions from an engine burning natural gas are much lower because atomization of the fuel is not required at the same level that it is for efficient combustion of gasoline. Natural gas has less carbon in it than gasoline so there is less carbon coming out of the tail pipe. This means less carbon monoxide, less hydrocarbons, or other volatile organic compounds, and if you care, less carbon dioxide. Also, there has never been a natural gas spill that contaminated a river or a coastline.
  • With less carbon in the fuel there is less carbon buildup in the engine. This means engines last longer and require less maintenance. This also means that additives and detergents, along with octane boosters, are not required. The normal octane rating of natural gas is already very high.
  • Natural gas works as a fuel right out of the ground and requires very little processing, and as I mentioned before additives are not required. This means that refining capacity is much less of an issue, such as it is with gasoline.

A CNG vehicle filling up at home

  • While states like Oklahoma, Texas, California, Colorado, Utah, and some others have quite a few CNG stations, many states have very few or none at all.
  • Don’t run out of gas if your vehicle is a dedicated CNG vehicle. If you run out of gas you will have to call a tow truck because you can’t just fill a small gas can and transfer it to your tank. If the vehicle is bi-fueled then it will automatically switch over to gasoline on the fly, once the CNG runs out.
  • CNG systems store the fuel at 3600 psi. The general public might look at this as a problem because they may fear highly pressure explosive gas. The fact of the matter is gasoline in a non pressurized tank is probably more dangerous than a tank of CNG because it’s doesn’t dissipate easily when it leaks, and the tanks that store gasoline are weak and flimsy compared to those that store CNG.
  • CNG tanks have expiration dates which means legally they can’t be used longer than 15 to 20 years depending on the design.
  • CNG is still a fossil fuel so there will still be some controversy surrounding its use.

One of the biggest things standing in the way of more bi-fueled and CNG vehicles on the road is the regulation of parts suppliers by the Environmental Protection Agency. If the average person in this country wants to covert their vehicle to run on CNG there are many obstacles, and most of them are very expensive to overcome. In order to make your conversion legal, the parts must be EPA certified. Very few kits are available that are EPA certified because the parts manufacturers have too much red tape to endure through the certification process. While some oversight is warranted, the process could use real streamlining.  

CNG is unbeatable as an alternative fuel. This is not a permanent alternative because there will never be anything that will be permanent about our personal transportation. CNG can be the bridge between the gasoline of today and the batteries of tomorrow. When gasoline prices skyrocket, that’s when we will see some action.