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Is Premium Gas Worth The Extra Cost?

In mid October the CBC ran a story about premium gasoline and how, for most cars it was a waste of money (http://goo.gl/G5qR4). They went so far as claiming that its use caused higher levels of pollution from the tailpipe than regular fuel. While I agree almost entirely with the statement that it is a waste of money if your car does not require premium I found the claims of excessive pollution to be dubious. I admit that I did not watch the TV program, however while looking at the website article the picture of the technical expert with his gas analyzer set off alarm bells for me.

I had some discussions with those in the know about auto emission testing and they confirmed my thoughts: that it is very unlikely that using premium fuel when the manufacturer does not recommend it is going to cause any noticeable increase in tailpipe emissions. The gas analyzer shown in the picture is a piece of equipment similar to one that we own at our shop and while it is highly precise it is not capable of reading the very low emission levels that modern vehicles put out with enough detail to make such a conclusion. Modern vehicles have very sophisticated electronics, sensors, computers and catalytic converters which control emission levels and the simple use of premium fuel verses regular fuel cannot be detected by this type of gas analyzer. My recommendations are: 1) Don’t worry about the pollution increases as they are negligible to none-existent. 2) If your manufacturer doesn’t recommend premium, save your money and use regular. 3) If you own a premium fuel recommended vehicle as I do you can run it on regular if the engine performs well and doesn’t knock and ping: mine works great.

Premium fuel (91 octane) at 14 cents more per liter is usually not worth the extra cost over regular fuel (87 octane).


Are Electric Cars All They Are Cracked Up To Be?

Slowly, very slowly, electric cars are making their way into the market place and onto our roads. The other day I saw a Chevrolet Volt proudly displaying a bumper sticker that read “I burn electrons” and it made me pause to reflect about electric cars. For some time I’ve thought about electric powered cars and know that undoubtedly they are the way of the future. With fossil fuel resources continuously being depleted and the atmosphere’s chemistry being perhaps critically altered we have no choice but to change the way our vehicles are powered. Electric vehicles offer so many advantages: few moving parts, minimal maintenance, no oil changes and high torque. Very low energy consumption at idle is a particularly compelling benefit for both one’s wallet and our atmosphere.

But are electric cars all they are cracked up to be? There are some serious issues to consider. Perhaps the biggest is that while the “I burn electrons” bumper sticker is cute, it is untrue. Electricity is not an energy source but a conveyer or currency of energy (the same is true for hydrogen). Electricity must be created from an energy source therefore electric cars really “burn” whatever creates that electricity. Currently in the US, half of the electricity comes from coal, a fuel far dirtier than the oil that electric cars so happily no longer burn. In BC we are blessed with clean hydropower but we have few rivers left to dam and dammed rivers have huge environmental consequences.

What will happen when all cars are electric? Where will the extra electricity come from? Sure, at this time, one can happily plug in their electric car without overloading the grid, but at some point this will no longer be possible. Cars and trucks use enormous amounts of energy; if every vehicle were suddenly electric we would not be able to power everything.

Another area of concern is the tax revenue from gas sales. Some portion (though arguable not nearly enough) of gas tax is used for road maintenance. How will roads be paid for when increasing numbers of cars are electric? Will it be reasonable that gas and diesel powered vehicles subsidize electric cars?

While I’m all for the potentially clean future that electric cars provide it will certainly shake up my industry: auto service and repair. I can imagine that in the fully electric car future that only 1/3 or 1/4 of today’s auto service facilities will be needed. Many repairs that currently keep us going will no longer be required: oil & coolant leaks, emission system repairs, oil changes, fluid flushes and tune-ups just to name a few.

Electric cars currently have a very limited market: they are very expensive to buy and their driving range is severely limited, making them a choice only for drivers who use their cars for short trips. This is where the Chevy Volt is great: because it also has a gas engine it makes the vehicle useful for long trips.

Where I believe the electric car will shine is when we create our electricity (and we will need a lot of it) from a clean source. That won’t likely be from solar or wind, though they will play a part. Most likely it will be nuclear, and while it isn’t trouble free it’s clean, global warming free and tremendously powerful. This puts the whole electric car debate into a bigger picture: not only must we make the vehicles, but we must simultaneously change our infrastructure, and that will be a big challenge.

There are many forces that conspire against this change but overall it will be worthwhile. Just imagine a world where electricity is created without burning something that creates CO2 and where cars run on electric motors. Our cities will have clean air and the stench of vehicle exhaust will be non-existent. Now that’s an exciting future!

Electric wheel motor unit as found on a Brabus Mercedes sedan. This vehicle has 4 of these motors, one on each wheel creating a whopping 2100 ft/lbs of torque. This is the future of the performance electric car market. This particularly vehicle as yet has no price tag and is largely experimental but the technology will be with us sooner than we think.

Why You Should Fix Your Misfiring Engine Immediately

A misfiring engine is a very serious concern that demands immediate attention, unless of course you prefer to spend thousands of dollars on your car repairs.

What is an engine misfire?

It’s easiest to explain when you understand how an engine works. An internal combustion engine has several cylinders which continually fire in sequence creating a smooth flow of power and this propels your car. When the firing sequence is not smooth the engine has what is called a misfire. There are many causes from a bad spark plug, ignition coil, fuel injector or engine valve just to name a few.

When a misfire is present you will notice are several things: first the engine will shake or shutter either at a constant speed or when accelerating, and your check engine lamp may come on. Often the check engine lamp will blink and this indicates a catalyst damaging misfire. This is something to take very seriously and have repaired quickly.

When an engine misfires, a cylinder’s worth of raw, unburned fuel is exhausted through the catalytic converters and out the tailpipe. Any raw fuel in the catalytic converters quickly overheats them and leads to their destruction. If misfires occur severely then damage occurs quickly. If misfires are subtle, then damage may not occur for a year or two. When damage does occur expect to pay a lot to fix it. Most modern vehicles use what are called close coupled catalytic converters because they are integrated with the exhaust manifold and tucked up tight to the engine. On a V6 or V8 engine these are usually followed by another catalytic converter further downstream.

Over the years we’ve seen many vehicles that have experienced misfire concerns, fixed them after the vehicle was driven too long and then had the car return a few months later with either plugged exhaust and/or the check engine lamp on with a catalyst inefficiency code. It’s very predictable!

Recently we repaired a V6 equipped 2003 Ford Escape that had a couple of defective ignition coils that were causing a severe misfire. Several months passed and the vehicle returned with a plugged exhaust system. So severe was the blockage that it caused the EGR valve to blow apart. We dismantled the exhaust system, performed an inspection and found the front converter had partially melted, broke apart and sent particles to the rear cat, plugging it. After replacing these 2 cats and the EGR valve the engine’s power was restored but a further major exhaust leak was present from the rear exhaust manifold. Final repair bill: $3600 taxes in. Ouch! This happens more often than you think.

The good news it that it is completely preventable.

If your engine ever misfires get it fixed right away and save your money.

Broken pieces of the front catalytic converter substrate, some of which were found inside the rear catalytic converter. Note that some of these pieces at the top are melted.

EGR valve that blew apart from excessive exhaust system backpressure.

What Does Your Check Engine Light Mean

That orange lamp on your dash that either shows a picture of an engine or says “check engine” is often misunderstood so here is the check engine lamp demystified.

 

  • This light is there to indicate a malfunction with your vehicle’s engine management system.
  • On any vehicle 1996 and newer it will illuminate for any concern that will cause excessive vehicle emissions.
  • Many times when the light illuminates you will feel no difference in the way your vehicle runs. This is because many emission reduction systems on your vehicle do not affect the engine’s performance. At times when you don’t feel diminished performance it is because your powertrain computer is compensating for the defect and readjusting things so that performance feels normal.
  • As with all amber lights on your dash, an illuminated check engine lamp indicates a concern that needs to be addressed but it is not crucial that it be done immediately (unlike your red oil lamp which, should it illuminate means stop your engine NOW).
  • If your check engine lamp is blinking have repairs conducted as soon as possible. The blinking check engine lamp indicates a catalytic converter damaging engine misfire. Usually when the lamp blinks this will be accompanied by a rough running engine. Failure to repair the misfire quickly will damage your catalytic converters and cost you a lot of extra money.
  • If you go to AirCare with your check engine lamp on and your car is 1998 and newer you will fail the test! So save money and have it fixed first.
  • When your check engine lamp comes on it is rarely associated with low engine oil or low coolant. It is however wise to check these fluids just in case they are low.

The Check Engine Light: some lights show only the orange outline whereas others show only the letters

 

What if my engine runs fine and I just leave the check engine lamp? If your lamp is on it is most important to get a diagnosis as soon as possible. Some items are more critical to repair than others as is the case with engine misfires. Other items can be left if your budget doesn’t allow for repairs today but it is best to know the urgency and the consequence of not doing the repairs now.

Reflecting on 30 Years of Auto Service

I recently serviced a vehicle for a man who has been my longest client with our relationship going back 30 years. I got to thinking about the car I serviced today, a 2011 VW Golf and the car he owned that I first serviced: a 1980 Plymouth Horizon.

The Horizon, while it got from A to B just fine was quite frankly a piece of crap. The engine revved too high at idle and it thunked into drive with severe harshness. These cars were interesting: they were built at a time when Chrysler was coming out of bankruptcy and Lee Iacocca was at the helm. With the writing on the wall that the big American cars of the 1970’s were out of favour, Chrysler copied the VW Rabbit and created the Plymouth Horizon and the Dodge Omni. They unfortunately were not as refined as their German counterparts. The late 1970’s and early 1980’s were an awful time for American cars and I can’t really think of one that was great.

Fast forward to our VW Golf of today: while not a high end car, it still has a fabulous sounding touch screen stereo, air conditioning and runs so smoothly that you can barely feel the engine running. The emissions coming out the tailpipe are extremely clean. It’s a great and welcome change from the past and makes me wonder what we might be driving 30 years hence.

86 Plymouth Horizon

2011 VW Golf

New GM Central Port Fuel Injection Unit

Finally a Newly Designed Central Port Fuel Injection Unit is Available

This replacement part is for GM trucks that use this fuel injection system. And there are many trucks: millions of them, built from 1992 to 2002. This system was fraught with problems almost from day one and it’s surprising that it took so long to build a replacement part to address the original design flaws.

Most of the concerns with this system are due to sticking poppet valves and a leaking fuel pressure regulator. This system is unique in that poppet valves are located inside a ‘box’ from which the fuel lines and injectors are connected. The poppet valves are electronically controlled inside this ‘box’.

The redesigned part’s major change is to install electronically controlled fuel injectors at the end of the fuel line. This allows for very precise fuel control which the original unit lacked. It also eliminates the need for the troublesome poppet valves.

A Recent Repair Illustrates How Bad This Can Get

We had a 1996 Chevy pickup with a V6 towed to our shop for a no start concern. After a thorough diagnosis we found that the fuel injection unit was defective and causing the starting problems plus an array of other concerns:


    • Very Rough Running Engine
    • Poor Starting
    • Horrible Fuel Mileage
    • Vehicle Was Running So Rich That the Catalytic Converter Had Been Destroyed

The good news is that after installing this unit our truck ran great. Even better news it that these new and improved parts cost less than the old designed parts!

The new and the old: New, redesigned part is on left, note the wires and larger electronic fuel injectors on the ends. The old unit is on the right.

AirCare Repairs Make a Huge Difference

90% of our AirCare repairs produce these huge results.

Some folks think that AirCare is a scam or at least a waste of time and I’m here to say that those thoughts could not be further from the truth.

We fix several cars and trucks per month and from experience I can say that the results speak for themselves. Check out the latest AirCare repair that we did on a 1995 Jeep Cherokee: the results are profound and just by fixing this one vehicle, less toxins are being released into our air.

AirCare before and after readings. The failed gas is circled. Note the huge reductions after repairs.

Most modern cars, especially the new models are very clean and release mostly CO2 into the air. This is a global warming substance and of great concern.

However, the most toxic pollutants are carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen emissions and properly running modern cars minimize those pollutants.

Air Care’s purpose is to keep these toxic pollutants to a minimum and it does a great job of doing so by identifying vehicles which put out excessive emissions. If you care to know more about the hazards of these pollutants there are many websites with detailed information.

Lets look at the details of this particular inspection and what the results really mean.

    Before repairs this vehicle emitted the following amounts of pollution in 100 kilometers:
    • 40 grams of hydrocarbons
    • 664 grams of carbon monoxide
    • 168 grams of oxides of nitrogen

    After repairs this vehicle will now be able to drive:
    5.7 times farther (571 kilometers) and emit the same level hydrocarbons
    19 times farther (1900 kilometers) and emit the same level of carbon monoxide
    • A whopping 83 times farther (8300 kilometers) for the same oxides of nitrogen pollutants.

These are big numbers that mean much cleaner air for all of us. Next time that you think that AirCare is a waste of time, please take time to reflect on these numbers.

This is not unique. 90% of our repairs produce these huge results.

Prepare For Winter Driving

Winter driving help

With winter just around the corner now is the time to be certain that your vehicle is ready to tackle the cold, wet and possibly snowy weather ahead. Though modern cars (those built within the last couple of decades) are often in fine shape to tackle all seasons it is best to be 100% sure that everything is in good order.

Winter driving help

Here Are Some Items To Pay Extra Attention To For Winter Driving:

    Good battery Condition: a weak battery will not start your car when the temperature drops.
    Antifreeze Protection: your engine coolant protection should be good for at least 5 degrees below the coldest temperature that you are expecting to experience.
    Washer Fluid Antifreeze: you washer fluid should be of the antifreeze type this time of year.
    Tires: whether you have snow tires or all season tires the treads must be in good condition and the tires properly inflated (more on snow tires below).
    Wiper Blades: should be in good condition and all lights should be functioning.
    Block Heater: if you plan to visit very cold areas a functioning block heater may be needed.
    • Any deferred maintenance that might be affected by cold or wet weather should be repaired (if you have questions about any items, please call us)

Snow Tires
The question of snow tires often comes up. Living around the lower mainland we are blessed with a mild winter climate where snow tires are optional. When deciding on whether to get snow tires or not here are a few things to consider: will you drive only in Vancouver? Will you drive your car in the snow? If you answered yes to these, then snow tires are likely not needed.

If however you plan to head to the mountains skiing or on trips to Whistler or the interior then snow tires are a very good idea and may be legally required. Do remember that while snow tires do require an additional investment they save the life of your other tires so over the long run don’t add a huge cost.

Air Conditioning
While few people think of air conditioning at this time of year in Canada, a properly functioning A/C system is actually a safety feature! When you need to defog your front window, which occurs frequently in our wet climate switching on your A/C will defrost the windshield in a fraction of the time that it takes without the A/C.

Brighter Lights
If you find your night vision less than optimal (and it is not your eyes) we have many options for brighter headlamps and would be happy to discuss what is available.

Safety Kit
Another item that is often overlooked is a safety kit: this could save your life if you happen to slide off the road or become stranded. A few items that come to mind for this kit would be candles & matches, a sleeping bag and/or warm blankets and some extra food and water.

As always we are happy to answer any questions that you have about your vehicle and its readiness for winter. If you have snow tires to put on please call us to book now to avoid the rush.

Wishing you a safe and happy winter driving season.

The Changes are Profound: What a Difference 3 Decades Makes

Recently I worked on a gem of a 1978 Chevy camper van that a client had acquired with only 60,000 original kilometers.

In many respects this vehicle was near new, at least it certainly ran like a new vehicle. When she mentioned a concern about how the engine revved excessively high when cold it got me to thinking about the way these and other vehicles used to be. Mostly it reminded me of a Chevy van that a close friend purchased brand new in 1981. I spent a lot of time driving in this van and serviced it for several years.

Though an excellent vehicle overall, there was a few irritating things about this van, most particularly the way it would rev excessively high when started. This happened cold when the choke was on and it stayed revving high for a couple of minutes until the choke could be kicked off. What was even more irritating was when the engine was restarted, even when hot: the choke would come on full again and the engine would rev like crazy for a couple of minutes.

Clearly, this was something that shouldn’t have happened. But that’s just the way the vehicle was designed and the choke on the carburetor was not adjustable.

The late 1970s to early 1980s was a rather difficult time for the US auto industry when many less than stellar products were produced.

The US government had legislated stricter emission standards and the manufacturers were still stuck with old technology: engines with inefficient combustion designs and carburetors that delivered fuel in an imprecise manner. Only so much could be done with these outdated technologies. Many systems were added to improve emissions: catalytic converters, EGR valves and air injection systems. While none of these additions were particularly bad, and all vehicles of today use some or all of these additions, they were often installed without much consideration for overall engine operation and created a great deal of underhood clutter.

1980s era Chevy V8 with carburator and emission piping

This brings me to the next complaint about this era of Chevy van: they were horrible to work on. With the engine cover removed there was a sea of pipes for the air injection system which made accessing spark plugs difficult and servicing valve cover gaskets, once a simple job on a Chevy, very time consuming. Many feet of vacuum hose ran overtop of the engine to actuate various emission control items on the carburetor, the EGR valve, hot air intake system and so on.

In all fairness, many vehicles of this era, both American and Japanese, had this added complexity. Thankfully within a decade and a half, by the mid to late 1990’s things had changed for the better.

The carburetor was extinct, replaced by the precision of fuel injection.

Engines were redesigned to be inherently more emission friendly. Many of the added emission devices like EGR valves and air injection were electronically controlled. In fact electronic controls of almost everything has revolutionized the car. Today we have integrated control of the ignition and the fuel injection; all emissions devices are activated electronically, transmissions are controlled electronically and even the throttle, which was always actuated by a cable linked to the gas pedal is controlled electronically.

The bottom line is that we no longer have to put up with engines that rev too high at certain times. We can hop into our car, drive it at any engine temperature and it performs at 100%. Engine compartments are still very tight and complex but all components are meaningfully installed and the complexity has come by way of additional camshafts, multiple valves per cylinder and variable intake runners. All of these have helped improve exhaust emissions while maximizing horsepower and performance.

Enjoy our new technology, we really have come a long way!

Don't Disregard Your Check Engine Lamp

Check Engine Lamp

Do not underestimate the value of your check engine lamp even if your car runs perfectly well. Disregarding your check engine lamp can add great inconvenience to your life.

Let’s face it, sometimes spending money on car repairs is not your first choice (or even your second or third choice). It’s often one of those “have to” purchases.

Frequently it’s tempting to make choices about what to repair based on how the car runs. And so it goes with your car’s check engine light: that’s the amber lamp that illuminates on your dash that either says “check engine” or shows an outline of an engine. Its main function is to alert you to a concern with your engine management system and/or an engine concern that causes excessive exhaust emissions. Many times your vehicle will run perfectly well and herein lies the temptation to ignore the lamp.

A check engine lamp

Let’s look at the consequences of ignoring your check engine lamp:

1) If your engine is running poorly and the lamp is on, ignoring this will very likely cost you more money in repairs down the road. A rough running or misfiring engine will usually destroy your catalytic converter(s) which can cost thousands to replace.

2) Even if your engine is running well it may not be running as intended and could be using more fuel, costing you more to drive. Your vehicle’s powertrain computer is designed to compensate for malfunctions and keep it running as close to normal as possible. Often you can’t feel the problem but something is happening that will cost you more either in fuel or premature wear down the road.

3) If you live in the Vancouver Area and your vehicle is seven years or older then it must be tested at AirCare every 2 years. If your vehicle is 1998 and newer the entire test involves interrogating your vehicle’s powertrain computer for defects. If your check engine lamp is on YOU WILL FAIL the test and waste money for the inspection.

The best plan of attack when your check engine lamp comes on it to have it looked at. A basic inspection will retrieve the stored trouble code and from there a technician can discuss a proper diagnostic and repair plan.

On the simple end of the scale he/she may find your gas cap was loose and tightening it solves the concern. On the more complex end of the spectrum several levels of diagnosis may be required to find the cause and repair the concern. Either way it is important to know why the light is on and what effects it may be having on your vehicle.