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Cars are machines – complicated machines that provide us our freedom. Just think about it – your microwave, refrigerator, or cell phone can’t physically take you anywhere. Neither can your PC. All these machines serve you and either communicate with you or provide communication in some form or fashion. But since your car has physically taken you away from home, the messages it sends tend to be pretty doggone important. And a modern automobile uses about 250,000,000 lines of computer code to do all it does to keep us safe, comfy, and en route. From the driver’s seat, our cars don’t seem too complicated, do they? We think we know what to expect and we know how our personal ride is supposed to ride, perform, and drive.
Let’s be honest; our cars give a lot, but they don’t work for free – They routinely reach into our wallets to take our hard earned greenbacks, sometimes more than others. And when they do, we shouldn’t resent it. After all, there’s no such thing as a free anything, and our cars tend to remind us of that fact, particularly if we have ignore the maintenance schedule the automaker put in that little book we keep in the glove box. The automaker has gone to great lengths to communicate the truths about the vehicle they built and sold, but in many cases those books remain pristine and unread. If they get in the way, they can find their way into the trash in short order. After all, we know how to drive, fill the tank, work the A/C, and pop the hood, and we know to turn off the lights when we park and get out. We understand what those odd little lights and gauges mean (mostly), and we depend on the communication provided by these instruments and indicators. So why do we need instructions?
Then we encounter those times when things change about the way our car feels, drives, smells, or wiggles, we as owner/drivers need to decide what to do about it. There are some vehicular problems we can put up with and some we can’t.
I heard "Click and Clack" talking to one woman whose Volvo wouldn’t start unless she poured some water in the ignition switch, so she kept some water on hand for that purpose. But let your air conditioner fail and you’ll typically sacrifice something else to get it fixed. Some people (like the Volvo owner) do whatever they can to get by, and they dodge shops and mechanics like the plague; they don’t trust anybody who handles a wrench.
The simple fact is that not all repairs are simple. Fixing cars requires intelligence, gumption, training, experience, and understanding. Some people may have intelligence and gumption, but those two elements alone can get a would-be car repair person in over his or her head. The work goes smoother if you know what you're doing and understand your limitations. Information is another necessary element of fixing cars. Wiring schematics are the order of the day when you're looking for an electrical problem, and woe to the person who breaks a part because of that hidden screw that was plainly illustrated in the shop manual.
Note to everybody - it is simply not possible for me to give an accurate price quote on repairs, so don't bother asking "how much will it run me" or "how much will it cost to...?".
There are simply too many variables involved. A shop in my area might charge $100 for repairs that could easily cost five times as much in your area. Get estimates and opinions from at least three local shops before deciding.
Further, if the first shop charges you several hundred dollars and the car still isn't fixed, the worst thing you can do is take the car to a second shop to try and get it straightened out - they're not bound to do anything except charge several hundred more dollars and then both shops are off the hook when it comes to making any of the repairs good if you still aren't satisfied.
Find a good shop and stick with that shop.
Build a rapport with your mechanic. Check with other customers who have used that same shop - preferably long time customers. Don't expect anybody to bust their fanny fixing your car for peanuts, either. Good work costs good money.
If you've changed your tire size, check out the tire size calculator (button on left side right above the Richard's 'videos' button). It'll tell you how much your speedometer is off based on the size tires you have versus the original tires.
Those Check Engine lights need to be dealt with right away (this has nothing to do with fluid levels, by the way; it's just an emission system warning light, but it's important nonetheless). Don't ignore it when it comes on, else other problems may pile up behind the first one and the Check Engine light looks the same whether you have one problem or ten problems, and you could have a record-breaking repair bill if you wait a long time before having it fixed.
And let's not forget about the filters - all of 'em. The air filter, the fuel filter, the cabin air filter (if you have one). Some vehicles only have in-tank fuel filters (Dodge likes to do this). And remember to check your owner's manual for timing belt replacement intervals. Pay attention to the tread depth on your tires, too, watching for uneven wear patterns, and watch the air pressure. You can find the air pressure specs on the car's door sticker (don't use the air pressure specs on the tire). The tire size and pressure should be either on the VIN decal or on another sticker close by that one. Some cars will have on a right rear door pillar, so check everywhere.
Winter's coming on and it's time to build a hedge against car problems!
Tell me what's wrong with this post:
"Yesterday we installed a new alternator, the car drove fine today until we were pulling into the driveway where it suddenly died and the Hazards turned on. The car will not even attempt to start, the Battery is charged, and even when I just open the door, the Hazards turn on and go for a few minutes then turn off.
This fellow gave me absolutely no information about what kind of vehicle he's talking about. In those cases, I simply can't help. And I get emails just like this every day, asking some question about a particular car problem without telling me the make, model, year, and engine size. And sometimes when I reply asking for specifics, I get no return email. Oh, well....
It's interesting to me how some folks want answers spoon fed to them.
Here's an example:
My radio, blower motor, and cruise control don't work. Tell me exactly which connector I need to check and where I need to go to find that connector. I also need to know which wires in the connector to check and exactly what I'm supposed to find there.
So I send a wiring schematic - any do it yourselfer who's serious about DIY needs to be able to read a schematic, and it isn't rocket science. Then a snippy reply comes back basically repeating the previous question with no reference to the schematic at all.
I'll do what I can to help, but there simply isn't a silver bullet for every problem - some folks think you can tell them exactly which screw to tighten that will increase their fuel economy by 3 miles per gallon.
Some folks email with multiple problems and want a cost estimate on the repairs. I can sometimes provide a window ($100-$500) but I have no idea what a shop in your area will charge for parts and labor on any given repair. There are simply too many variables.
Finally, there are a couple of people who have complained that their answers aren't coming quickly enough - I have a full time job and I'm the only answer man on here. I don't do this on company time. And I don't make money off operating this website - it actually costs me. This is a service I provide. Some people have offered to pay me for my advice and I always refuse - my answers are educated, but not guaranteed, and I'm not in this for the money.
Now, on to other things.
Don't ever remove a radiator cap if the engine is hot and the upper radiator hose is tight!!! Third degree burns can ruin your whole day.
Cracked belts and swelling or rotten hoses should be replaced as well. If you aren't wrench wise, you might want to hire a trustworthy shop. A radiator cap with a dangling return valve should be replaced - if air can come and go at will, the cooling system tends to rust up and those scales will wipe out the seals on a water pump. If your car has over 100k on it you might start thinking about a radiator - those plastic ones (see photo farther down) can fail without warning and turn your vehicle in to a candidate for the junkyard.
Have the battery checked too - hot weather AND cold weather can kill a battery, and most batteries get weaker with age until one morning they just won't start the car.
If your battery has been dead a lot, it's probably on its way out. Unless it's a deep cycle marine battery, it won't handle being completely dead very many times without losing all its life permanently.
It's best to decide when the repairs or made rather than letting some unscheduled failure decide for you.
Important note: Don't work near any battery without wearing safety glasses or goggles!
Simple battery check if you have the "click" when you try to start your vehicle - just because the battery terminals look okay doesn't mean they are: Let's say your vehicle runs just fine, has had no problems starting, and then one day you try to start it and hear the "click." You can check the connections at the battery this way: Step 3 actually should read "have the battery charged and checked," but replacing it will usually be the end of that process, unless the poor connections have prevented the battery from receiving a charge from the generator. If the voltage remains strong at all these connection points you have a bad connection between here and the engine block on the ground side or between here and the starter on the positive side. You may have starter problems, but don't go there until you're sure you have good connections everywhere.
But what if your battery goes dead overnight and you've already replaced the battery? Well, first make sure no lights are burning all the time (including the trunk light and the glove box light), and then try this:
Some folks use a test light for this, but that isn't as accurate as a simple 10 dollar meter like this one. Set the meter up this way (measuring AMPS not volts, and never connect the leads directly to both sides of the battery with the meter set on amps or you'll blow the meter's internal fuse). Make sure you perform this check with the doors closed, the key off, and all accessories and lights off. Current is actually flowing through the meter at this point and the meter is measuring the amount of current that is being drained from your battery.
If you see a reading that is more than 50 milliamps here (0.050) that's enough to kill most batteries overnight unless the battery is very strong and new, in which case it will take a couple of days. Disconnect the alternator and watch the reading. If it doesn't change, open the fuse box under the hood and remove the fuses one at a time, always watching the reading. If a fuse drops the amperage but the amperage is still too high, there may be two parasitic drains. Note: The large fuses typically feed smaller fuses, so if one of the large fuses kills the draw you'll need to move to the smaller fuses to determine which circuit is draining the battery.
One of the most interesting and necessary aspects of troubleshooting is the process of finding out what's wrong. When in the course of chasing a problem we sometimes might want to toss parts at it, and we might sometimes get lucky, but usually we just get frustrated. The parts store, on the other hand, is quite happy.
There are quite a few emails coming in from people who have a problem of some kind, and they're looking for a 'silver bullet.' Let's be honest enough to believe that those are very rare this side of the Lone Ranger's six shooter. One notable exception would be the Honda no-start fix referenced in the "Help Desk Stories" category.
The problem I've been running into is that if I suggest a troubleshooting technique to determine the cause of a problem, then I happen to mention a possibility (such as, for example, the fuel pressure regulator), the emailer doesn't even apply the troubleshooting technique, he usually throws the part at it and then wants more input - in the way of a guess - as to what the problem might be, so he can change another part.
Any good troubleshooter will gather data, interpret the data, and make informed decisions based on the data gathered. When I worked in the field, I started out as a regular line mechanic and then specialized in driveability and electronics because I applied (and developed) true troubleshooting techniques that would pinpoint the cause of the concern. And sometimes I would get calls from mechanics who wanted a silver bullet.
"Have you checked the fuel pressure?" I'd ask.
"Er... no." They would answer. "Check the fuel pressure while the problem is happening and see if you see something there."
Then there were those who would lie to me because they didn't believe the fuel pressure was the problem. I'd ask them what the fuel pressure was, and they wouldn't know, right after telling me they had checked it.
A few days ago I got an email from somebody who described what sounded like a transmission problem. I mentioned something about the torque converter possibly remaining in lockup mode and causing the trouble. The reply that came back was very suspicious.
"We've already replaced the torque converter." That was silly. Nobody replaces the torque converter without checking the electrical and hydraulic circuits first. My reply reflected that fact.
"We've already replaced all that stuff too. What next?"
I had no more time for those yo yos. If they knew how to do all that, they didn't need my help. It was as simple as that.
There are many problems that simply cannot be found without a scan tool, no matter how many parts you throw at it. And yes, there are rare cases where a particular problem has happened enough on a particular car that the symptom can lead to a 'silver bullet' part replacement. That happens about 1 percent of the time.
Finally, we help a lot of people here (meaning they actually fix their cars after receiving our return emails), but some people have problems that simply can't be dealt with long distance.
We don't know all the answers - nobody does. But we try as best we can to help people whenever we can. Sometimes that means taking the problem to a shop. Sometimes that's the only way, even if it costs more to have a professional plug in his scan tool and find the concern.
If my articles are helpful, or if you need help with a specific problem, let us know - you can send an e-mail through the big "Contact Us" link below. Remember to provide make, model, year, and engine size, i.e., "1998 Chevy Malibu, 3.4L engine." Also, the more honest information you provide, the more likely you are to get useful feedback.
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PHOTOS: From a 1998 Escort: 137,000 miles on these plugs.... Notice the black streaks that cross the blue lines on plug number two (second from left). That one was misfiring because it was easier for the spark to run down the outside of the ceramic than it was to pop across the spark plug gap. As spark plugs wear out, they make it more and more difficult on the rest of the ignition components. Coil-on-plug Fords and these coil-pack-equipped Escorts fire their spark plugs three times in rapid succession at idle, and so if you let your Ford pickup, your Crown Vickie, or your Lincoln Town car idle a lot, you stand a good chance of ruining one or more coils, even with good spark plugs! Always replace the plug (or coil) and the wire in a situation like this! If you don't replace the wire, the carbon tracks on the inside of the boot will cause the situation to repeat in just a few miles.
For ten years, I drove to Savannah, Georgia to visit my two sons once a month. When my oldest turned sixteen, he told me his mother and stepfather were looking around for an affordable car. We heard about a dealership that was having one of those Saturday morning hoopla deals where everybody comes to the lot in search of a cheap car - there were a couple of cars that were supposed to be sold for only $50 - obviously a come-on stunt, but it got us over there that Saturday. While we were standing among the gaggle of people who were hoping to get a good deal from this dog-and-pony show, we spoke with a young woman who told us that she and her boyfriend only had one car between them - her down-and-out car was a late '80s Chevy Nova that was kind of ragged and wouldn't start. She wanted $275 for it.
The dog and pony show at the dealership turned out to be unproductive (predictably so), and so we embarked upon the adventure of traveling to the apartment parking lot where this young lady and her boyfriend parked their cars - her Nova had been parked for a couple of months.
The body wasn't bad, but the interior was kind of soiled. What the hey! A sixteen year old boy doesn't need a late model 4 wheel drive pickup (my opinion). He needs a fixer-upper and that's what this was. We opened the hood and found a positive battery terminal that was barely holding on to the post, let alone able to carry current. The negative terminal was all chalked up, and looking to clean the terminal with something that would cut the acid, I asked the girl if she had some Coke.
"What, you mean, pop?" (what else would I have meant?) She brought a can of Coca Cola and I popped the top, poured some on the terminal, and used an old toothbrush and my pocketknife to give it a good scrubbing and a connection. The boys and I made a short trip to the parts store and bought a bolt-on battery terminal for the other post. We installed it on the freshly cleaned positive post and after checking the oil and coolant, we managed to start the car without so much as a pair of jumper cables. The power steering was as stiff as all get-out, and it turned out that the power steering pump was dry. We put some automatic transmission fluid in it and bled the power steering - why it had gone dry was kind of mysterious - there was no visible leak at all. Evaporation? Maybe, but who knows? Would somebody have replaced a hose without filling the pump?
The engine had a steady misfire on cylinder number 3 that turned out to be a low compression problem (from the sound of the spinning engine - three puffs and one freewheeling hole), but the car ran surprisingly well. My son Matt drove it around the block and said he'd take it.
Well, it wasn't that simple. She drove it around the block and decided to keep it. She took out her checkbook and paid me $35 for my trouble (the amount was her decision - I dropped the $35 in the offering plate at church the next morning.)
Her car was the classic case of a vehicle that had deteriorated due to neglect. The things we did were repairs she could have made herself, but she didn't have the confidence to even try. Do you?
A Tip for Today:
Two things you might consider replacing if your car has more than 120,000 on the clock, and neither is part of regular maintenance schedules!
1 . Plastic radiators (prevalent on today's vehicles) like to crack without warning and spill all your coolant - this problem can be an engine destroyer on a long road trip. The radiator cap should be replaced every 50,000 miles or so and the coolant should be replaced religiously.
This radiator only had a small crack, but it was enough to cause some pretty deadly overheating.
2. Spring Loaded Belt Tensioners: Another odious failure that is subject to happen without warning is the widely used spring loaded belt tensioner - that baby can pop suddenly and leave you in a lurch - toss one in the trunk, but buy a good one - sometimes they're cheaper at the dealer (believe it or not) than they are a the parts store, and OE tensioners are just about always better quality than the aftermarket ones.
We depend on our cars very heavily, and they deserve more than gasoline. Ever wonder why some people get two or three hundred thousand miles out of a car and some people seem to run their vehicles into the ground early on?
Above: High mileage spark plug - when they look like this, you need a set of new ones...
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This is a 250,000 mile Grand Prix (97 model) with the original upper radiator hose still holding pressure (barely). I noticed this swelling hose (below) while revving the engine - had this hose burst with the engine at 210 degrees, well, it's kind of hard to finish the thought.
Granted, some cars give more trouble than others, but simply speaking, it you'll be nice to your vehicle, it'll be nice to you. Change oil every 3,000 to 5,000. Don't ignore the "Check Engine" light, either, because it can't tell you if you have one problem or five, and when you finally decide to get it handled, you could need several hundred dollars worth of parts - fix what happens as it happens and you'll be better off.
Replacing the battery without cleaning the terminals is downright silly - the photo you see was taken on a 2005 Dodge Caravan - look at all the corrosion and problem connections on this terminal...
Make sure you don't make frequent short trips on any car - it always needs to get warm before you shut it off, because engines make water in the combustion chamber and some of it inevitably blows by the piston rings - on a hot engine, the manufactured water that makes it to the crankcase is processed by the PCV system. So what happens when the PCV system can't process and eliminate the water vapor?
These parts fell prey to an inadequately operating PCV system, and a cold running engine (like the one granny drives a mile to the store and back) will cake up like this eventually - this can be an engine killer when it finally clogs the oil pump screen!
Ford vehicles have a sensor that monitors EGR flow, and in order to do that, the sensor has two silicone hoses connected to the EGR tube. When one of the hoses splits and begins spraying hot exhaust on the underside of a plastic intake plenum, well, you get the scenario you see below. This one would start and die and this is what we found.
Replace the timing belt at the recommended interval, or you could be sitting beside the road somewhere -it's better if YOU choose the time when the belt is replaced rather than letting the belt choose when to strip or snap!
Here's an e-mail I got from a subscriber:
"My wife and I were driving to florida from NC when our 2004 kia rio broke down. The timing belt broke and subsequently the entire engine needs to be replaced. We still owe $7000 on the kia. My question was would you advice at sinking another $3000 or so dollars into the kia with 90000 miles."
Question: Could the above scenario have been avoided? You bet! And while the labor to replace a timing belt might be a little pricey, it wouldn't have cost $3000.
Let's go on to say that not all engines destroy themselves when they jump time. Toyota Camrys don't. Ford Escorts with single overhead cam don't. But there are some engines like the Kia that will suffer tremendous damage when the cam and crank are spinning and suddenly lose the connection provided by the belt!
High mileage timing CHAINS can fail as well. The photo below illustrates how a catastrophic failure can happen at extremely high miles (240,000), even if the camshaft is chain driven!! The piece of metal that fouled this chain was once a part of the timing chain damper you see bolted to the block just above the fouled gear. The chain got loose enough and slapped against the damper until part of the damper dropped into the chain and made a couple of rounds.
Ignoring brake noises isn't such a good idea either...
And if you're going to fix brakes, do it right... what's wrong with the picture you see below?
What about gas mileage? Did you know your car has 40% more WIND resistance at 65 mph than it does at 55? It's a proven fact. So if you drive slower (and keep your tires at the right pressure), you 'll generally get better fuel economy. Keep the jackrabbit starts to a minimum - that'll help too.