What do you know about Emissions?

  1. Vehicles primarily produce three harmful gasses and two harmless/beneficial gasses.  What are the harmful three? ______, ______,and ______ What are the harmless/beneficial two? __________ and___________
  2. What gas does the Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) System control? ___________
  3. What is the optimum air/fuel mixture for the cleanest burn? _________
  4. Why was it necessary to remove lead from gasoline in the early 1970s?_______________________________________________________
  5. What vehicle emission does the evaporative (EVAP) system control? ____________
  6. Black smoke from the exhaust is a strong indicator of ___________ emissions (it’s one of the three)
  7. What actually happens at the molecular level when fuel ‘burns’ in the combustion chamber? ___________________________________________________________
  8. What does the term “stoichiometric” mean? _________________________________
  9. Does alcohol produce more power and fuel economy than gasoline? _________________________________
  10. During a combustion event, why does the ignition spark ‘burn out’ while energy is still available in the ignition coil? ____________________________________________
  11. If an engine is running too hot, which harmful gas increases? __________________

If an engine is running too cold, which gasses increase? _____________________

Then and Now

Back in the 1960s odometers flipped back to zero when they passed 99,000 miles, and if a car made it to that flip without needing major repairs it was considered an uncommonly good vehicle.  My wife and I both drove cars of those vintages in our early years, and even now she has still the mindset that a car with 100,000 on the clock is pretty much used up. But there are multiplied thousands of cars in every state in this day and age that have more than doubled that number and are still running strong and looking good.

Contrary to what some old-timers might say, cars weren’t better back in the day than they are now. Those vehicles weren’t as protective of the occupants, the fuel economy and emissions were dreadful, and I can’t count the hours I spent in my early career fiddling with carburetors and distributors. Electronics have changed everything, and the changes keep coming.

Now, I will concede that the electronics on twenty-first century cars has become something of a nightmare for technicians who aren’t willing to keep up with the changing times. Mechanics and parts people alike are more likely to reach for a smart phone, a tablet, or mouse and keyboard when it’s time to look up parts and info. Heck, my people punch into Alldata and Identifix right there on the scan tool screen when they’re looking for information. Sometimes I find them “Googling,” but with all the ill-informed self-taught posters online, that’s like digging through a box of rotten pecans or smelly apples hoping you might find one that’s edible.

But the fact that Microfiche parts catalogs and paper shop manuals began to disappear in the ‘90s isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a changing world, to be sure.  But one thing that never changes, even though cars go farther now than they ever have, is the fact that time and chance will bring them to our door. Everybody who travels needs a mechanic sooner or later. And even those who don’t own vehicles benefit from the services of those who service the wheels that carry them.

A Revealing Question…

I was working in my office preparing for the Fall semester when a teenage boy and girl came into the shop where I teach auto mechanics to ask if I could help get her car started.
As I walked with them, the boy told me about an expensive automotive program he was going to attend somewhere in Florida and boasted about the big money he would make when he was finished with that $60,000 program.
As we opened the hood on her Honda, he pointed to a part and asked if that part was the starter, and I said,
“No, that’s the distributor. The starter is down there.”
The problem wasn’t complicated – all the kids really needed was boost, and so I fetched a vehicle and we jumped the car off. The boy asked a couple of questions about my program, and one of the questions he asked was more revealing than he realized.
“Is your program hard?”
It seems that there are more than a few young people who want to go through an easy training program and get an easy job making easy money – lots of it – so they can live an easy life. And while the life of an automotive technician can be extremely rewarding, no successful automotive technician can honestly say the occupation is an easy one.
That’s not to say every task an automotive technician performs is hard, but a steady regimen of solving vehicle problems for other people requires heavy duty gumption, not to mention the need for expensive tools, intelligence, resourcefulness, and deep critical thinking skills.In order to be proven, we have to be tried. It’s the stuff of life.
Growing in Christ is no exception.

Catch-up Maintenance

Whenever we get a vehicle in for one simple service and find a lot of stuff that needs attention, any well-trained, reliable technician will make a list of the needed repairs for the customer, putting the safety-related ones at the top.  Loose front end parts, failing brakes, expired or worn out or expired tires, and so on.  The caveat is that if a customer is shocked by a large estimate of needed repairs they didn’t expect (and it happens more than once), they’ll tell all their friends your shop tried to sell them the moon.  And today, it doesn’t take many needed repairs produce a hockey-stick estimate that climbs off the chart above what some customers can afford to have done. Even if they can afford the repairs, some savvy customers will opt to get a second opinion, so honesty is always key when making a list like that.

Show-and-tell is the best way to handle those situations.  And your communication skills must peak in situations like this. Someone has quoted Einstein as having said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”  And we all know some customers are sharper than others when it comes to absorbing what you’re telling them.  Some will nod and act like they understand what you’re telling them when they don’t have a clue.

The other way the “Laundry List” goes is when they bring one with them when they come, and in my department, we get that regularly.  These folks are typically the busy drivers who have been putting off first one repair and then another one for quite a few thousands of miles and then they’ll decide they want all those problems handled all at once. And some of their repairs aren’t quick and easy either.

One of the recent ones we got was a 2005 F150 with an inoperative moon roof that was stuck in the open position, no taillights, inoperative outside rearview mirrors, an erratic gas gauge.  That same day we got a 2009 Chevy C2500 with a “fix whatever you find wrong” order, and there was quite a lot we had to do to that one. Then there was the 2005 Nissan Pathfinder with a Laundry List that was a knuckle-busting adventure from beginning to end.

Happy Customers

This family loves the work we do, and they tend to bring us most of it, but this was the first time we had ever seen the Pathfinder.  On the phone, the owner told me the instrument cluster was acting crazy, and I figured that’s all she wanted done initially, but then  by the time her husband got there with it, she had added that she wanted the heater core replaced – what an afterthought that was! It had long ago been bypassed. The good part is that she wasn’t in that much of a hurry, and so the first-timer I would give the heater core could engage in the struggle without being under too much pressure.

As for the instrument cluster, it was doing wacky things. The temp gauge, the tach, and the speedometer would come and go, and the brake, ABS, and VDC warning lights would flash on and off just as randomly. The scan revealed a network code or two but not much else. One thing we did notice is that the cluster couldn’t communicate during the dead-needle times. Filing that away mentally, I had Thomas launch into the heater core job.

In the meantime, the two other laundry list vehicles rolled in. That 2009 2500 series Silverado mentioned earlier had been neglected for many a mile and year, with StabiliTrak and Tire Pressure Monitor messages (no surprise), a gaggle of inoperative and busted lights, and inoperative door locks. The 2005 F150 was one a police officer brought in with an inoperative moon roof, tail lamps that didn’t work, and a squirrely gas gauge.

The Silverado wasn’t all that interesting, except for the “StabiliTrak” message displayed on the cluster. The DTC and the troubleshooting led the replacement of the steering angle sensor, which was fairly involved because of the rusty, dusty fasteners.  Robert jerked the steering column out, put it in a vise, and did the surgery – that took care of the StabiliTrak, and the rest of the repairs were fairly straightforward, but we did need to mount a couple of universal tag lights in the rear bumper – you can get a traffic ticket in these parts if your tag lights are out. We also replaced the busted CHMSL/Cargo lamp assembly.  Who on earth breaks one of those? We replaced the driver side power door lock switch for corrosion (it had been wet a lot), but then found two of the four door lock actuators were dead, along with two of the tire pressure monitor sensors.

The 2005 F150’s moon roof was open and wouldn’t close (not good on rainy days), and so when we ran through the process of checking switches and wires we found a bad moon roof motor.  We left the permanent magnet casing off the motor, remounted it, and turned the armature with fingers to close the moon roof, because he didn’t want to spend the three hundred bucks on a motor.  The issue with the gas gauge and the tail lights had its roots in an oddly melted connector shell just outside the frame rail on the left side. The wires leading into the front side of that connector looked like a flame had been held under them or something – the tape and insulation was melted, and that side of the connector was too. We could twist and wiggle the connector and get tail light and gas gauge normalization, and so we opted to clip that connector out and bypass every wire with solder and heat shrink.  It was a good repair, because even if we were to find new replacement connector shells for this, they’d be too expensive to buy anyway.

A Patch Job and a No-Fueler

One of our directors owns a fairly decent little 2001 Tacoma he uses for a deer hunting truck, and he came to me one day to tell me that he was having to add a gallon of water a week to keep the cooling system filled.  It turned out as we investigated, that the coolant was making its way into one of the cylinders and out the tailpipe – one of the spark plugs was ultra-rusted.  Well, he made it plain that he didn’t want to start with a head job on that deer hunting truck and so he asked if I had any other ideas.  For his purposes, we decided to run some head gasket sealer through it, carefully following the instructions on the bottle for time, then we refilled it with coolant mix. About a month later he came by and told me that he hadn’t had to add any more water. Take that for what it’s worth.  When somebody’s in a bind, we do what they ask if it’s not dangerous.

About that time a 1999 Lexus rolled in that wouldn’t take gas at the pump, which can be one of the most frustrating issues known to man, and we found a plugged vent hose on that one. Some insect lost his homestead and that customer was a lot less frustrated the next time he pulled up to the pump.


Back to the Pathfinder

With the heater core in place on the Pathfinder, Thomas came to inform me that the brittle heater pipe manifold under the hood had broken when he was reattaching the hoses to the heater core (no surprise), and this wasn’t something we could fix, so we ordered the $220+ manifold with its built-in plastic water pump and did that job up right.  Filling the cooling system was challenging, but with the front jacked up, we managed to make it happen.

Before we re-attacked the cluster issue, we figured we’d do the alignment, and Thomas started out with the rear wheels, because we always align those first if there are adjustments. The problem was that the adjustment bolts were rusted to the bushing sleeves on one side (doncha love it?) and the first bolt he fought with popped off right below the nut, which had become an irremovable part of the bolt. This was becoming difficult and irritating beyond words.


I called the owner to enlighten her, and she told me the Pathfinder had found most of its early paths at the beach, because that’s where it lived for the first five years of its life. Yeah, I know you northern wrench guys see this every day, but we ain’t used to it down here in the south, although we do see some rides from up your way now and then. We ordered replacement cam bolts from Nissan and a lower control arm from the parts store, but to get the old control arm out of there we had to use the high-speed cutter’s 4 inch wheel to clip the adjustment bolts just inside the flanges.

Got that part of the job done, finished the alignment, and then we went after the cluster. Checking the network with the Pico, we found a pattern that was somewhat noisy, but after eliminating first one module and the other to no avail, (we even clipped the network wires feeding the TIPM, which caused the fan to kick on high), we decided the cluster itself must be at fault, because sometimes it’d talk and sometimes it wouldn’t.

This cluster is a “Plug and Play” unit, and when we told the customer what we had decided, the owner found a used one that was right for $75 and when we popped it in there everything was peachy keen.


The 2009 F150 Transmission Problem

In and amongst all these jobs, we had a 2009 F150 with intermittent 6R80 transmission problems. The symptom was that the truck would have spells where it wouldn’t back up and during those times it would also stick in third gear until you cleared the codes. We were told that a transmission shop had pulled the pan and had found good fluid and no debris, and they were kind of stymied as to what needed to be done next, so they sewed it up and the owner brought the truck to us.

We got a Transmission Range sensor code, but that was pretty much it. In the years that I’ve done this, it’s a pretty good bet that the transmission control module (or PCM) is suspect if the transmission starts acting strange and wiping the codes clears it up for awhile. This is obviously not always the case – sometimes the transmission controller will go into limp-in mode for other reasons. With zero experience on this 6R80 gearbox, I called one of my guys who does them all the time – only he’s accustomed to the newer ones. He told me we’d need the “lead frame,” because he has to change them regularly for this kind of problem. That device looks like a big hard wire harness with the speed sensors built in, but it’s actually the Transmission Control Module. Why they call it the “leadframe” is beyond me.

This wasn’t the source of the problem, but another shop had taken a shot at this one before we got it – and apparently they left this busted part in place – we got a replacement before we put it back together

My guy decided to help out and called the parts department to ask if they had one, and then I called, gave them a purchase order, and they billed it out at $125. The way this went down was a perfect storm situation, because the year model was lost somewhere in the process of passing information from pillar to post, and it cost us some work.

When we pulled the valve body to replace the leadframe, we saw that the plastic-and-rubber adapter between the valve body and the pump was cracked, and so I got another one of those from my guy at the Ford place.  The only problem was that when we put everything back together put the fluid in, and found that the transmission wouldn’t engage at all and the TCM (leadframe) wouldn’t talk to the IDS either.  But we could plug the old leadframe into the wires and let it swing and it’d talk to the tool just fine.  What the heck was going on here?

This was strange to me – for years Ford told us that electronics couldn’t cause a no-engagement issue, but here it was.  Things have obviously changed. With the absence of electronics, this one dumps the pressure instead of raising it.

It was then we discovered you can’t buy a leadframe for a 2009 model – you have to buy the whole valve body, leadframe and all ($1000). And even though the later leadframes look identical and are replaceable separately, they won’t talk to the IDS and they won’t function on a 2009 model.  So we got a whole valve body, installed and torqued it, did the fluid fill, and fixed the truck.  It was messy but fun pumping transmission oil into that one through the hole where the dipstick tube used to go and checking it with that tiny plastic dipstick right next to the catalyst with the engine running and hot. That was a knuckle-BURNER. One way or another, we won that fight and all the rest of them on this round, with busted and burned knuckles galore.  Who knows what we’ll see next week?  R.W.M.


The Industry as I See It

Before became an instructor in 2001, I worked in the field for 25 years; the last fifteen of those years were at a dealership in a nearby town that has from 20-25 mechanics and cycles 100 cars a day through those service bays, and I saw a lot of guys come and go during the time I was there. I was the only drivability/electronics guy they had for several years and I had to work out 12-15 cars a day.

But the point is that there was quite a bit of turnover in the service department. I saw some guys who were really good at doing the work but would miss at least one if not two days a week.

I saw other guys who were really efficient and good at their work and came to work every day but had to borrow tools from just about everybody else in the shop because their toolboxes were almost empty.

I saw one guy who came to work with about $30,000 worth of Snap On tools he didn’t know how to use – he couldn’t fix a ham sandwich.

I saw some young guys with no training who came in doing oil changes and tires and graduated to belts, hoses, and used car inspections, but couldn’t fix much of anything beyond that, even after factory schooling.

I saw engine mechanics who could do heavy engine repairs well but couldn’t get the fine tuning done when their wrench-twisting was done – and the dispatcher would pass their jobs to me to have them straightened out.

I’ve also worked with some really great mechanics who were crisp, capable, and sharp, but were looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and bounced around from job to job looking for that gold.

Some mechanics are gifted at doing the work but take a mess with them wherever they go – their benches are piled high with junk and their service bay floors are filthy and some of these “messies” leave greasy marks on the fenders, the steering wheel, and the floor mats. Even though they turn a lot of hours and do a lot of really good work, their customers are ticked off because of the mess they leave.

But then I also worked with a few guys who had a lot of potential I could see from my vantage point in the shop, but there were some service managers I served under who didn’t seem to understand that virtually every one of us – myself included – was at some point in our career, not as good at our jobs as we would one day be. Not a single one of us was a fine-tuned and perfect specimen of anything when we first began our career, whatever that career might have been. We all had (and have) a lot of room to grow.

The point is that, as you well know, virtually everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and virtually everybody is a work in progress. Lee is obviously no exception to either of those, but from what I’ve been told by people I have working in the field, Lee is superior to technicians who come from much larger for-profit schools – and I’ve worked with some of those people myself and seen it firsthand.

One of my graduates originally started out at one of those big for-profit schools – his father paid $14,000 for a single semester where he learned almost nothing. He left that school, came to my automotive program, finished it, and has worked for about five years at a large dealership in this area, where he is one of their core people and earns a lot of money.

From what I’ve been told by shop owners, mechanics in this area, and even a man who sent his own son to another one of those expensive schools, students who come from those schools in other states have, for the most part, fallen victim to that “buddy” mentality while they were there. It’s a system where their buddies tell them how they can “play the game” and get past their training with the least amount of effort – and it shows when they finally make it to the shop floor, as you have probably noticed.

What I’m leading up to, is that, as an instructor, I’d dearly love to cut cookies (so to speak) and produce a platoon or so of “Top Guns” every four semesters to place at various shops and dealerships in the area. Lord knows there are enough jobs out there, and fewer people all the time to fill those jobs. The local industrial parts rep told me a few days ago that he could put seventeen people to work tomorrow. Shops are vigorously competing for techs and in some cases hiring warm bodies for OJT.

As it is, I work at a state college attempting to provide a service to the alumni and the community by training people – and many who know NOTHING when they come to me – so that they can be a part of the machine that is the American workforce.

We were at that one meeting at a local high school talking to students whose initial (and primary) focus is how they can make the most money, and the welding instructor there does everything he can to convince all his prospective students that if they become welders they’ll make four thousand dollars a week.

And many of them believe that, even though only a small fraction of them will every achieve even a fraction of that.

But with those pie-in-the-sky wage promises, welding programs do very well. They don’t show their recruits the 12 buck-an-hour paychecks most welders get – they show copies and pay stubs of people who make stupid money for very dangerous jobs, either offshore or in some other faraway place.

I could do that same thing, if I showed pay stubs and didn’t tell them anything else – I have people in the field making upwards of $70,000 a year and more. I have a 22-year-old graduate at a dealership in this same county making (from what the dealership general manager told me) more than $900 a week – and earning every penny of it.

Why are we having problems? Well, it’s largely because the perception is that there isn’t a lot of money in mechanic work, that it’s a thankless profession, and that when you first start out in the field, even with training, you’ll probably be doing tires and oil changes in spite of the fact that you spent eighteen months of your life preparing for that career.

Another perception out there is that you have to work too hard and know too much to make a good living as an automotive technician, and there are entire trade magazine articles about shops frequently that don’t treat their mechanics with respect.

There are some shops where I won’t even attempt to place anybody because those places aren’t good places to work. I had one graduate who worked at a dealership where they paid him peanuts because he was young, yet he was the only mechanic they had who could rebuild automatic transmissions – and he turned a lot of hours, only to have the service manager give the pay for those hours to some of the older mechanics who seemed to be having a lot of bad flag weeks in a row and then cut his pay $30 a week based on the hours he actually gave the guy credit for.

One thing I tell people I’m recruiting is that, in this business, you WILL earn what you get paid and your work needs to be perfect 100 percent of the time to garner the respect of your employer and customers. Nothing less will do. After all, what percentage of perfection do we expect from those who make our hamburgers? Would you eat at a place that promised hair-free hamburgers 99 percent of the time?

That being said, every individual is an individual, and, as stated earlier, everybody is a work in progress and everybody brings their strengths and weaknesses with them when they come.

One dealership I know of seems to be willing to hire just about anybody who walks in the door with a toolbox, to include guys with no experience at all, probably in hopes of getting a lot of work done by people who are being paid very little money.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were dozens and dozens of super mechanics out there who could fix anything and would work really cheap? We all know that simply isn’t the case.

Older mechanics are burning out and retiring because they’re sick of the grind and the changing technology; we all know we need new blood in this industry. I’m trying to do what I can to remedy that, and I can’t turn anybody away who wants to enroll in Automotive.

How many teachers do you know who will fail a student or two at the end of a term if that decision will cost them a thousand dollars a month for the next three months?
Yet at the end of just about every spring semester, I’m faced with that decision, and I don’t rubber stamp anybody. If they fail, I fail them and I take the cut in pay as a result.

Why? Because I’m trying to produce good people. I have time to teach them how to do the work, but there are some of my enrollees who don’t know how to work – and that’s very difficult to teach, but it is what it is.