Automotive tasks I can do:
- change a tire
- clean and replace an air filter
- change oil
- replace wiper blades
- jumpstart, test and replace a battery
- replace a taillight
Automotive tasks I can’t do (partial list):
- isolate a pinhole leak in the fuel filler neck and hose assembly
- maintain and/or replace an evaporator canister
- recognize the term “evaporator canister”.
“Evaporator canister” does return only 457 Google hits, leading one to question whether such a component even exists. (cf. “skyhook”, “snipe hunt”, and “key to the batter’s box.”)
The vehicle in question, a 2008 Ford Explorer, has 52,340 miles on it. The check engine light came on, a crisis that created an opportunity to do two things:
- save a little money
- spend a lot of money.
You can read about what to do regarding vehicle maintenance in the book (available now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine bookstores). Rule 1 is Don’t Go To The Dealer. More specifically, don’t begin at the dealer. You might have no choice if you need a specific original-equipment part for body work, but for repairs not restricted to a certain make and model of vehicle, start elsewhere.
There is a caveat, the exception that reinforces the rule. It’s OK to begin at the dealer if you’re willing to stay a few minutes with your vehicle and confirm that you don’t want this to turn into a full-on service appointment. If your vehicle’s clearly in the warranty period, it shouldn’t be a problem. If it’s on the fence, stand your ground and ensure that the dealer’s service department won’t charge you.
“On the fence” means you aren’t sure whether a certain component is still in the coverage period or not, which is definitely possible. Here are some examples from the warranty for said Explorer:
- catalytic converter (8 years or 80,000 miles, whichever comes first)
- idle air bypass valve (5 years or 50,000 miles, unless you’re driving something other than a heavy duty vehicle, which is a truck from 8,500–19,500 pounds)
- intake manifold (7 years/70,000 miles, if you have the long-term defects warranty, but only if your engine is at least 4 liters)
- any other emissions-related part (15 years/150,000 miles, but only if you’re in California, the special state that might as well be an independent country for its refusal to accept the laws the rest of us seem to have little trouble crafting.)
So yeah, you might not know what’s covered until the dealer’s already in your pocket. Beware, especially since check engine lights are similar to dental cavities: ignoring them is never an effective way of getting the underlying problem to disappear.
It’s astonishing how many people will take steps to reduce their water bills by .35¢ a month, or shop around to save $5 on groceries, but won’t expend a little effort to save hundreds on automotive repair.
The dealership will tell you that only it can diagnose the check engine light and identify the code that arises. They’ll also charge you $90 for the privilege of determining what’s wrong with something they sold you in the first place. (Read that sentence again.) This is the same dealership that likely told you the $1100 desert protection package option is a vital add-on that all the smart drivers are getting this year, even though you live on Kaua’i.
In other words, a lie. If you don’t have a scanner of your own, find a lube shop that does and an employee who knows how to use it. Depending on what state you live in, you need to do this surreptitiously. The bureaucrats in some state governments, peons of the automotive-industrial cabal, prohibit everyone but dealers from using scanners legally. Which is not only counterproductive and immoral, it’s expensive.
Nor are state transportation department employees above going to a lube shop, asking for a diagnosis, then levying a fine. (The 1930s are alive and well in some industries.) So be careful. If you’re already comfortable at a particular lube shop, and they know you, or you can prove that you’ve taken your vehicle there before, ask if you can get someone to check the code on your vehicle. Obviously, you shouldn’t do this in front of anyone but a single technician. At the very least, they might be able to recommend someone who can help you. Be explicit about how you’re not there to jeopardize anyone’s livelihood.
With a diagnosis from a lube shop, which takes less than a minute, you’ve already saved the $90 service fee a dealer would charge. (At this point you’re welcome to tip the technician.) Yes, the dealer will refund the $90 if the work is covered under warranty, but why wager $90 to take that chance? Better to walk in armed with at least the results from the code reader.
The Explorer had an evaporation leak, which the tech classified as a small one. Small, by definition, means .004-.006”. (Anything smaller is hard to detect.) The initial course of treatment was a “smoke test”, in which a tech literally blows smoke up your vehicle to determine the genesis of the leak.
Lube shops don’t do this, so the next stop was a non-affiliated service center, which quoted close to $90 for a smoke test. However, the dealer charges about the same, but also tells you if the work is under warranty. Thus in this case it is time to head to the dealer, for a rare justifiable visit. A few hours later, the verdict: repair the leak in the fuel filler neck and hose assembly, and replace that mysterious evaporator canister. $1531.
Fortunately, a small evaporation leak isn’t enough to render the vehicle un-drivable, at least not for a few days. So off we go to comparison shop, after a tactical lie to the dealership’s service writer (“I’m broke until my next paycheck. I’ll take it home and hopefully have enough to come back and let you fix it next week.”)
Then to the service center. Their quote?
$818, at least ¾ of which is parts. Same guaranteed work, none of which voids the warranty. That’s more than a $600 savings, and no one had to turn off the faucet while brushing to accomplish it.
Only go to the dealer if you absolutely have to. In a situation like this one, doing so gets you the best of both worlds: as inexpensive a diagnosis as possible, plus a quote, which you can then use to shop around with and get a better price. Thus selling a liability, and leaving you more funds to buy assets with.
Greg McFarlane is an advertising copywriter who lives in Las Vegas and Lahaina – testament to the power of entrepreneurship. He recently wrote Control Your Cash: Making Money Make Sense, a financial primer for people in their 20s and 30s who know nothing about money. Buy the book here (physical) or here (Kindle) and reach Greg at greg@ControlYourCash.com.
I just got done with some car repairs and I think I am still bleeding. Just a very painful experience.
Great post–you could probably add to the list of things that can be done yourself–changing sparkplugs.
Even an automotive idiot like myself has figured out how to do it.
All you need is the right tool, and you can rent the tool from Autozone and other retailers, and they’ll even tell you how to do it.
Preventive maintenance on your autombile is imperative to extending the life of your car