• Before You Take Your Vehicle In
  • How To Avoid Being A Victim Of Auto Theft
  • Jim's List Of "Preventative Maintenance" That You Can Do Yourself
  • The Truth About Check Engine Lights (MIL's) and ECU's

"Before you take your vehicle in"

  1. Do your homework. If you are new in the area or are looking for a new repair shop, start asking your friends and associates now for their recommendations. You are more likely to make a good decision when you are not rushed into it.
  2. Follow the servicing recommendations of your owners manual. The manufacturer knows what it will take to make you want to buy another vehicle from them, so use their recommendations as the basis for your servicing decisions.
  3. Put it in writing. If you are having specific problems or symptoms, list them in as much detail as possible. An accurate description of the symptom can result in reduced diagnostic times saving you many dollars on your final bill. This list should include a mention of any unusual noises, smells, changes in performance, etc. that you may have noticed, even if you don't think they are related to your primary concern. You know your vehicle better than anyone else and therefore may recognize unusual situations that would not be apparent to someone else.
  4. Stick with one facility. Like using a doctor, cultivate a good relationship and use one shop for all your service needs, this greatly improves the odds of your happiness in the long run. It also allows the shop to maintain complete records on your vehicle to aid in providing better service.

"When you take your vehicle in"

  1. Write down your exact mileage when you arrive. Add it to the list for the Service Advisor, by California law it must be included on your initial estimate.
  2. Go over the list with the Service Advisor. Answer any questions they may have in order to properly document the situation. Ask the Service Advisor to take a test drive if that will help to demonstrate the symptom. Be sure the work order/estimate that is created covers all the issues you have with the vehicle.
  3. Ask questions. Be sure you understand what is being proposed as work to be done and steps to be taken. If something is not clear, request an explanation in terms you understand. Do not sign anything until you are clear what it proposes.
  4. Don't force the Service Advisor into an on-the-spot diagnosis. Today's vehicles are complex, the same symptom can be caused by many different problems. In most cases initial diagnosis time will be needed before an accurate estimate of final costs can be given.

"Before leaving your vehicle at the shop"

  1. Be sure the Work Order lists all the work you want performed and the max costs that you will incur for that work. The old maxim of "If it isn't in writing, it doesn't exist" applies in this case. Be sure you understand and agree with what is written as proposed work, this is a contract between you and the shop
  2. Stay in touch. Inform the shop of a valid phone number to reach you during the day. If that is not possible, agree upon a time that you will call to check the progress on your vehicle. This is critical if your vehicle is going to be completed in a timely fashion. By state law, no work can be performed without your express consent; so if additional problems are found and you are not available for a decision, work on the vehicle must be stopped. This could result in your vehicle not being repaired in the time period you would prefer, so be sure you stay in contact with the shop or notify them where they can reach you.
  3. Clarify the policy on guarantees and payment. Most shops require full payment to return the vehicle to you. Be sure they accept whatever form of payment you intend to use. Also ask what kind of warranties/guarantees are provided for finished work. A minimum of 3 months or 4,000 miles on parts AND labor; 6mo/6,000 miles is standard. (see Choosing The Right Repair Shop)
  4. Sign the Work Order/Estimate. This is a contract between you and the facility. It should never be a problem to retain a copy of the work order or estimate.

"When you pick up the vehicle"

  1. Review what was done. Have the Service Advisor go over each item on the Invoice and explain exactly what was done, including parts used. All work performed should be described with an amount shown for that portion of the job. Beware of a general listing of work done with a final total only, descriptions and costs should be specific to avoid any misunderstandings.
  2. Get a copy of all inspections. If inspections were performed as part of the work done, be sure to get a copy. You will want the results of that inspection, with a detailed listing of what was checked and what was found, for your files.
  3. Do not pay for the work until you are satisfied with the explanations given. The amount charged should never be more than the amount you have approved, including additional authorizations you may have given by phone. By New Mexico law you are not required to pay more than 10% of what you have approved, excluding tax.
  4. Resolve problems immediately. If there is a problem with the transaction, ask to speak with the manager immediately to resolve it. If that is not possible, pay the bill but note on the work order the problem you have so it can be resolved at a later date. Shops are not required to release the vehicle until the bill is paid, but noting problems will give you the needed verification of a situation should future action be needed.

"Following the visit"

  1. If you are happy with how you were treated, let the shop know. A kind word will go a long way to assuring continued excellent service in the future.
  2. Tell others. Sending others to a shop that you have had good results with is another excellent way of assuring excellent service in the future. Good shops depend on referrals to keep their cost of advertising to a minimum. This also allows them to invest more into training and equipment. Telling others is a win for everyone.
  3. Resolve problems. If for some reason the service was not all you expected, don't rush off to another shop. Discuss the problem with the Manager or owner, because 95% of all problems are due to faulty communication. Good businesses understand the value of your business and will go out of their way to resolve a problem or misunderstanding. Should that fail, use the channels available to you for third party resolution such as AAA, the Better Business Bureau or New Mexico Attorney General/Consumer Affairs Department.
  4. Keep good records. Keep all your vehicle repair paperwork in one file. This is not only valuable to you as a method of staying on top of your vehicle's needs, but is an excellent tool when you go to sell the vehicle

How to Avoid Being A Victim of Auto Theft

By Diana Mann, Program Analyst
Illinois Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Council

Car Theft Can Happen To Anyone

You wake up one morning, get ready for work, grab your coffee and car keys and head outside to your automobile. Maybe you don't always lock it up, but who would want to steal an eight-year-old car from right in front of your house? Outside you realize that something is wrong; your car is not in the spot where you left it. A wave of panic washes over you. Incredulous, you walk around the block hoping maybe, maybe you parked it somewhere else, but it's nowhere to be found. Eventually, the inevitable sinks in: your car has been stolen. It's gone, along with all its contents. Confused and angry, you head back into the house to dig up your insurance information and begin the frustrating process of reporting the theft to the insurance company and the police.

How Serious Is Auto Theft?

A stolen car creates a myriad of problems for the owner: loss of transportation, a sense of violation, a time gap for replacement, the overall "hassle factor." A vehicle is stolen every 20 seconds in this country. In 1995, some one and a half million vehicles were stolen across the U.S. The cost to Americans is an overwhelming $8 billion per year. Thieves steal vehicles for transportation, exportation, parts, gang initiation, to commit other crimes, to scam insurance companies, and for several other reasons. Neighborhoods, shopping malls, city parking lots, and streets are favorite targets of thieves, but auto theft can happen virtually anywhere at any time of day.

Age Before Beauty

As most car thieves are opportunists, they look for vehicles that are easy to steal, regardless of age. Why? As cars age, the parts for them become more in demand. A car can be worth several times its value in the underground market for replacement parts. Some makes and models have remained virtually unchanged for several years, so their parts are interchangeable. One make's parts can often fit another's as well, making any older car highly desirable to a thief. In fact, the ten most stolen vehicles in America are at least four years old.

Top 10 Vehicles Reported Stolen in the U.S. in 1995:

  1. Honda Accord
  2. Oldsmobile Cutlass/Supreme
  3. Chevrolet 1/2 Ton Pickup
  4. Toyota Camry
  5. Chevrolet Blazer
  6. Honda Civic
  7. Ford Mustang
  8. Toyota Corolla
  9. Chevrolet Caprice
  10. Oldsmobile Delta 88/Royale

Park Smart

Drivers can take proactive precautions that will greatly reduce the chances of theft. The first line of defense is to always "park smart." Make it a routine, just like buckling your seatbelt. Do all the common sense things you already know you should do, faithfully: lock the car each and every time you get in and out of it; take your keys; roll up all windows; park in well-lighted areas; never leave packages, bags, purses, briefcases, cellular phones, anything a thief could want (which is anything) in plain view; purchase anti-theft devices and use them. Don't forget to lock the sunroof! And don't leave a spare key in the car. Thieves have that one down. Instead, have just the car key duplicated and carry it in your purse. Give parking attendants your car key only, no others, or pick a parking lot where you don't give your keys. Unless required by law, never leave your registration or title in the glove box; thieves can sell your vehicle and know where you live. Likewise, don't leave your address or other identifying information such as your signature in the car where it can be found and later forged. These are also good tips to keep you consistently cleaning the inside of your car! Lock up your garage door opener in the trunk or glove box, or take it with you. If a thief steals your car, he could later get into the garage and maybe your home. Thieves watch for people who leave their cars running outside the convenience store while they run in for just a minute or while they pay for their gas at the pump or warm up the vehicle up on a cold day. If tempted to do any of these, think twice and remember it only takes a second for a thief to get behind the wheel and take off in your car. At home, back your car into your driveway to prevent a thief from raising the hood and hot wiring your car while appearing as if he is the owner working on it. Ask your mechanic to show you how to remove the distributor cap or coil wire, and do so if you are going out of town.

Be Prepared

Have your car appraised periodically so that if it is stolen and not recovered, you will have some documentation to present to your insurer. If you have a garage, use it. Lock your car inside and lock the garage door as well. Make a thief work harder to get into your car and increase his chances of getting caught. Again, put the alarm or anti-theft device on to "harden the target." When parking on the street turn your wheels sharply to the curb, and put on your parking break. Thieves sometimes brazenly steal vehicles by towing or loading them on to flat-bed trucks on the theory that no one notices. They are often right.

Watch Out For "Hot" Buys

Whether at a dealer's lot or with a private party, always check the VIN (the vehicle's unique identification number located on a small plate on the driver's side of the dashboard) for tampering and compare the number to the number on the title, registration papers, and federal certification label on the driver's side door. Ask for the original manufacturer's keys. If they don't have them, the car may have been stolen without them, and the hot deal may be too hot. If you suspect the car is stolen, check with your local police department to see if they have a similar vehicle listed. Check for a different color paint inside the driver's door, which may indicate a stolen car has been repainted to avoid detection. If a car you purchase is found to be stolen the police will confiscate it without any reimbursement or refund to you.Consider purchasing a vehicle that is far less likely to be stolen than others, making it less expensive to own and insure. Visit the Highway Loss Data Institute Website at for a list of vehicles, comparing their rates of injury, collision losses and susceptibility to theft.

Anti-Theft Devices

Anti-theft devices come in all flavors. While not foolproof, they can deter amateurs and frustrate professionals. There are a number to select from, depending on your budget and risk, including:

Help Law Enforcement

Sometimes a determined thief can steal your car no matter how hard you try to protect it. Help law enforcement recover it by dropping business cards down inside the doors through the window slots, so it can be more easily identified if found. Mark your car's vehicle identification number (VIN) found on the driver's side by the windshield in several concealed places. Engrave radios and other expensive accessories with the car's VIN. If your car does get stolen, notify the police of identifying protective measures you took. If you locate the vehicle yourself, be sure to let the police know right away or your car may be pulled over as stolen. Keep all the information about your car in a place you know you can get to it, such as on the refrigerator or in your purse. Make, model, color, year, identifying marks, VIN, license plate number, insurance company, policy number, agent's name and number, and number for the police will make it easier to report a theft. For further information: Illinois Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Council. (312) 793-8550.

  1. Alarm systems: Devices that sound sirens, horns, lights, or even verbally rebuke the tamperer, varying widely in price.
  2. Steering wheel lock: Locks steering wheel in place to prevent turning. (Downside: these can be quickly sawed off).
  3. Window stickers: Deters thieves by warning them car has an auto theft system. (Downside: thieves have been known to test whether a car has such a system by rocking it for the alarm.
  4. Vehicle Tracking: Hidden transmitter allows stolen car to be tracked by police. (Downside: not available in all areas; you may not know car is gone, and by the time you call police, car is chopped and device is disposed of).
  5. VIN etching: The vehicle identification number of your car is etched on windows and major parts to make them easier to trace.
  6. Steering column and ignition lock: Cover goes over steering column, locks, stopping access to ignition.
  7. Fuel or "Kill" switch: Inexpensive switch inside vehicle cuts off fuel supply or "kills" electrical current and must be flipped before car will start. Only driver knows where it is. Best when combined with a hood lock to keep thief from cutting switch wires under hood. Check if car's warranty is affected.
  8. Steering column collar: Metal sheath surrounding the steering column preventing access to the ignition switch. (Downside: Could be dangerous in an auto accident.)
  9. Locking gas cap.
  10. Keyless entry system: Computer keypad lock where only you know the code. Appearing now on newer cars. How do you know which of these is right for your car and situation? The National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit organization dedicated to combating insurance crime and supported by 1,000 insurers, advocates a "layered approach" to protecting your car. The more layers you have on your vehicle, the more difficult it is to steal. To take their Theft Prevention Checkup test to determine how many layers of protection are best for your vehicle, visit their Website at or contact Jeff Benzing at (708) 430-2430.

Jim's list of "Preventative Maintenance" That You Can Do Yourself

The vehicle's fluids are very important and should be checked regularly. Most break downs or failures on the road are caused by simple maintenance items that were neglected.

Brake Fluid - This check is done by removing the cap or loosening the clip on the master cylinder and removing the lid. If fluid is needed, consult the vehicle owner's manual for correct type and fill to recommended level.

Engine Oil - Correct engine oil level should be maintained to assure proper lubrication of your vehicle's engine. It is best to check engine oil level approximately five minutes after a fully warmed up engine is turned off or before starting the engine after is has sat for a long period of time. Remove the engine oil dipstick; wipe the dipstick clean with a lint-free cloth or paper towel. Reinsert dipstick until it fully seats in its tube. Remove dipstick and read oil level. Add oil only when the level is at or below the ADD OIL mark.

Power Steering Fluid - This check is done by removing and checking the dipstick. NOTE: The dipstick is attached to the cap of the power steering fluid reservoir. Use the dipstick to check fluid level in the same manner as you would check engine oil.

Transmission/Transaxle Fluid - This check should be done while the engine is running in neutral with the parking brake securely set and the vehicle is in a level place. The transmission should be at operating temperature. Remove dipstick, wipe clean, insert and remove again to check fluid level. CAUTION: DO NOT OVERFILL, IT CAN CAUSE FOAMING!

Windshield Washer Solvent - This check is done by removing the cap and reservoir and refilling with the correct mix of solvent and water for your climate. A couple drops of mild soap per gallon of water works in the summer months but freezes in the winter and can be expensive to repair the damage. Alcohol based solvents are best all around but may not be as environmentally friendly.

Windshield Wiper Blades - Most people neglect them until they are needed, especially in our desert southwest sunny climate.

Antifreeze - This check is done by removing the radiator cap from the cool engine and refilling, if needed, with antifreeze and water mixed to a 50/50 ratio. Never use pure antifreeze, it actually loses some of its desired properties without H2O.

Battery - Check the fluid levels and CAREFULLY add clean tap water to bring the level up to 1/2″ below the bottom of the cap hole. Some batteries today are sealed and cannot be checked. With the caps on and securely in place; clean the top and sides with 2 tablespoons of baking soda mixed with 1 quart of clean tap water and an old toothbrush. If your cable ends are heavily corroded they will need to be taken apart and cleaned thoroughly also. Flush area with clean water when finished.

Tires - Keeping the pressure 10% under maximum should keep the tire wear normal but if the outside edges on the same tire are wearing faster than the center, then they are under inflated. If the center is wearing faster than the edges, they are over inflated. Proper tire inflation is good for your wallet. Better gas mileage and longer tire wear. To check wear, turn a penny so that you set President Lincoln on his head down into the tread. If the top of his head shows, replace the tire. That should be about 3/32″ of tread remaining.

Hoses - Open your hood when the engine is good and hot. DO NOT OPEN THE RADIATOR WHEN HOT! Visually inspect all cooling system hoses that you can see. Very often when hoses are going bad they swell up and look like a snake that swallowed something large at the ends or in the middle.

Belts - Inspect engine drive belts with the engine off. Cracks in the pulley side should never be more than 4 per inch and very small. Large cracks or chunks missing is a good sign that they are going to fail.

Lights - Occasionally check all of your lights. These are safety items that are most often checked for you with basic maintenance services like oil changes. While some light bulbs are very easy to change, some are not and getting plastic snap-together parts apart is sometimes nearly impossible. This could save you from a ticket, or even an accident.

Air Conditioning - Your system should be turned on periodically during winter months. Lubricating oil needs to circulate throughout the system and will help to keep seals working and bearings lubricated. If on a normal, warm spring day you notice that "its just not as cold as it used to be" after it has run for 10-15 minutes, it should not be used until it has been recharged. The refrigerant that makes you cold also "carries" the system's oil for lubrication. A poorly cooling system is an indication that you have a poorly lubricated system. Failures can be expensive and the compressors today are made of aluminum and plastic composites and need a lot of lubrication.

The Truth About Check Engine Lights (MIL's) and ECU's

ECU's - Electronic Control Units, AKA: control modules, computers, black boxes, all usually have blinking lights. They are all the same.....the brain of the ignition, fuel injection, brake or transmission control systems. More than one ECU in a system is very common.

SCAN Tool - Extracts codes, reads information in a useable format for sensor and component operations. Does not tell you what is wrong in a pinpointed manner very often. Also used to reset the ECU to turn the "check engine" light off.

MIL - "Check engine light", that's the MIL or Malfunction Indicator Lamp. Unfortunately it is not as easy to diagnose on board computer systems as it should and someday will be. This light can be turned on due to as many as 140 different things, with sometimes only a dozen representation codes. In other words, lots of things have the same code number. When the light comes on, the ECU recognized a malfunction of some sort. If you are lucky the ECU saved the malfunction in its memory, called "codes" and the failed component(s) are easy to find at fault. 90% of the events that turn the MIL on are emissions related and have no immediate effect on drivability or performance. Things as simple as a loose gas cap can be the culprit. The Antilock Brake System (ABS) ECU affects the Transmission ECU that can turn on the MIL in the Engine ECU.

Codes - are numbers that correspond to the components or problems in the computer control systems. Pieces of the system are made up of many yards of wiring harnesses, switches, sensors, grounds and electrical feeds and make up "subsystems". Unfortunately there are hundreds of things that go wrong and only tens of codes. Many times the failures are "domino effect" failures. Intermittent - all too often intermittent failures are the worst and most costly to find, they tend to be very elusive.

Charges - for drivability problems are by the hour; there are rarely flat fees. Wiring schematics are many pages long, manufacturerss make weekly changes at the factory while in the same model year. Factory information available only includes the designed "connector" locations. Due to supply and redesigns the connectors are not where they are supposed to be and wiring colors are not the same. These wiring diagrams have to be followed like a road map. Not just the main roads have to be followed, sometimes all of them do. Some of these roads go inside a postage stamp sized computer chip that only the original manufacturer of the chip can test and its schematics are a "secret".

Poor ground connections and voltage feeds must be tested and repaired first! No exceptions to this rule! Bad grounds are the #1 cause for problems.

Sensors and switches must be schecked hot and cold. Attempting to duplicate intermittent complaints can prove to be difficult to nearly impossible because of where they are mounted or how the manufacturer made it and how often it acts up.

MIL - Sometimes the light can be off for weeks and then come back on and go back off, sometimes they just won't stay off, and no codes are stored.

LIFE - for switches and sensors is believed to be around 60,000 miles. Depending on the conditions that it has been subjected to, they may last much longer. Most sensors have limited life, especially now with computer aided design for those parts, the tolerances are minimal and life expectancies can be predicted very accurately!

The Steps that you and your Technician may go through.

  1. Answer detailed questions, when, where, how. The technician's job is to find out the why.
  2. Road test to verify running condition if any.
  3. Access ECU and system and retrieve codes.
  4. Retrieve code explanations from technical database. This can take time but should be limited to much less than 1 hour in most cases. It is billed for and is research.
  5. Check for TSB's (Technical Service Bulletins) based on described symptoms and retrieved codes, again more research.
  6. Test battery and charging system for AC voltage, main grounds from battery to body and engine. Basic voltage test for system can take time but should be under 1 hr for main systems tests only. Feeds must be tested and repaired first! No exceptions to this rule!
  7. Test emissions from tail pipe and major components for obvious failures.
  8. Repair obvious "related to symptom failures" parts can directly affect each other and often are a chain reaction event. Tune up specs and basics have to be checked. No exceptions here either, as is the case with the cooling system and the control system. If the engine is hot but a failure in the cooling system tells the computer that it is cold the engine would run poorly and affect the exhaust system components, oxygen sensors and catalytic converter. Often the failure is not the cause, only the effect.
  9. After repairs are made, road test and clear codes.

The Light is BACK on! Now what? Phase 2

  1. No one, especially your technician, wants to see or hear that the light is back on. (Believe it or not, they are on your side. They are helping you get your car's problems repaired.) Unfortunately, this is a common problem due to the many subsystems that are all interrelated. A reasonable amount of time (up to but not to exceed original diagnosis time billed) should be spent on verifying previous system tests, and to verify all are still functioning correctly. No charge to the customer.
  2. Answer lengthy questions, when, where, how. The technician's job is still to find out the why. Now, they should know what they don't have to check if previous needed repairs were made. The hourly rate will apply after step #1-5 of phase 2 are completed. There are few "first time repair guarantees" because these systems are so deeply complex.
  3. Access system ECU and retrieve codes.
  4. Retrieve code explanations from technical database. Check for TSB's based on described symptoms and retrieved codes.
  5. Quick rechecks for grounds and voltage feeds into system.
  6. Electrical schematics are followed into the smaller side "roads".
  7. Large multi-function devices are checked, such as subsystem relays and modules that have their own grounds and feeds. Circuit boards in some cases crack due to mounting and vibrations or impacts during an accident. Obvious problems are checked against factory specs if available. In many cases the last step of the diagnosis flow chart is to "Replace with a known good part". In the case of some ECUs that can be scarily expensive.
  8. Glitches of incorrect information being sent to the ECU due to a broken wire or poor connection in a multi pin connector or inside of a loom somewhere can turn on the MIL. Finding a broken wire inside a hidden harness can be very time consuming.
  9. Split second component failures with no other indication of a fault usually go undetected but can also turn the MIL on and store codes. This is the true meaning of "finding a needle in a haystack".
  10. After repairs are made and no other obvious faults are found and road test thoroughly.
  11. Reset light.

OH NO! It's BACK on. Heaven forbid!

  • Recheck total system to verify integrity still remains. Usually no charge for rechecking, but not always.
  • We gather our thoughts and make decisions of which secondary road on the well traveled electrical schematics to take.
  • Search the Internet for chat rooms, researching details and nurturing our desire to know what the cause is.
  • Get out the magnifying glass and find that little sucker. (Providing you, the owner, give the approval.)

Good news!!

*70% of the time MIL's come on due to poor connections and bad grounds. These kinds of problems are commonly found and repaired in the first 4 hours of shop time, using multi-meters, logic probes, oscilloscopes, tons of patience and a healthy dose of curiosity.

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