Brake repairs are one of the most common vehicle services. With so many shops doing them and such a variety of advertised ‘brake specials’ and prices how do you know if your brakes are being done properly and you are receiving good value for your money? Remember, cheap pricing usually comes with compromises in quality of parts and workmanship. Here’s what makes a good brake job.
It starts with a thorough inspection and that begins with a road test. The technician looks for brake pulls and vibrations when the brakes are applied and listens for noises. In the shop comes is a visual inspection of the brake fluid, looking for fluid level and quality of the fluid. The master cylinder and brake booster are visually inspected as are all brake lines and hoses. Wheels are then removed and brake pads and shoes are measured for thickness and evenness of wear. Brake rotors and drums are also measured for thickness and inspected for damage. Calipers and wheel cylinders are inspected for leakage and freedom of movement. Also visually inspected are ABS wires and proportioning valves and let’s not forget the operation of the parking brake. Other incidental but critical items safe braking are inspected such as wheel bearing play, shocks and struts and obviously loose steering and suspension components.
From the inspection an assessment of the brakes is made: which parts are in good condition and functioning well, and which items need repair now. A good shop will consult with you about how much you drive and where. This helps determine the urgency of repairs.
Let’s now look at repairs. A quality brake job involves not only replacement of parts but also thorough cleaning: caliper and pad sliders frequently get corroded and using a wire wheel or sandblaster to remove rust is essential. Hardware and self-adjusters for drum brakes requires disassembly and cleaning. After cleaning, components require lubrication with quality high temperature brake lubricants.
Quality of parts is very important to a successful trouble free repair: there are many grades of brake parts and using the best quality makes sense for longevity and the best stopping power. Cheap parts usually wear out faster; will cause squeals and other unwanted concerns.
Flushing brake fluid is a service often required with a brake job. Brake fluid absorbs water right out of the air and becomes contaminated. Many manufacturers recommend replacing the fluid every 2 years. When due, this becomes part of a quality brake repair.
After repairs, a thorough road test is done to be sure that your brakes are stopping your car as they should. Be aware that after many brake repairs you may find that your brakes make different sounds, the pedal feels different and there may also be odd smells and even smoke coming from replaced parts. All of these concerns should disappear within a day’s driving.
I know that most folks really don’t want to know the technical details of their car repairs: let’s face it, cars are very complex and beyond the understanding of most people. And this is fine, however as a shop owner and technician I think a little bit of insight into what the technician has to do to repair and service your car goes a long way to create a sense of value for you.
With that in mind I’ve included a picture of a wiring diagram from a recent diagnosis on a 2006 Mercedes. The window washer wasn’t working when you push the washer button. No sounds were heard so it was obvious that the pump wasn’t running and the concern was electrical: either the pump was dead or it was not receiving power when it was supposed to.
This wiring diagram shows the complete wiper and washer system and what is amazing to note is, in addition to the numerous wires, there are 6 computers involved with this system! Now before we get too overwhelmed by that complexity (because as technicians we could…) we need to develop a diagnostic strategy. Fortunately in this case the best place to start and not involve all the complex electronics is at the washer pump itself: we access the pump and test the wiring to the pump. While doing this we found that power and ground was good which confirmed that all other items in the circuit, including those 6 computers were good and the pump was bad.
Diagnosing this concern was quite simple but at some time one of these computers may malfunction and diagnosis will be far more complex and expensive.
Now before you get all smug and say “I don’t have a Mercedes, I drive a Chevy”… Rest assured that things are almost as complicated: while there may not be 6 computers there is at least one, if not more.
While it may seem overly complicated to have all of these computers, and in some cases I believe it is, there are specific reasons for it. First, the number of wires in the car is reduced substantially and second, functions in the car are easily integrated. An example is your door lock system flashing the lights and tooting the horn when locking or unlocking your door with the key fob. With that basic system in place adding an alarm function is easy. This is a simple example of the many ways that your vehicle’s electronics coordinate many functions.
There you have a little insight into why a seemingly simple problem can take way longer to fix than you expect and cost what it does. The realm of the Auto Service Technician is complex and the tasks that we must perform in order to keep your car in great shape require expert knowledge and ongoing training.
When it’s possible and we can be certain of doing a lasting repair we will choose to repair something instead of replacing it.
Here’s an example from a recent repair on a 2002 Acura MDX.
Our client’s concern was that the right headlamps were not working. During our diagnosis we found that the low beam bulb just installed by the client was defective and worked fine after we put in one of our own. The right high beam however did not work and I also noted that the DRL lamp on the dash was on and that the DRLs (Daytime Running Lamps) did not work. Diagnostic testing found that these concerns were caused by a defective DRL module. We were able to open up the module and while inspecting inside found a couple of dried up solder joints connecting a relay to the circuit board.
At this point repairs could go 2 ways:
1. Replace the DRL module; or 2. Solder the bad connections.
Our client opted for the 2nd option and saved over $100. That’s just one way that we save you money whenever we have the option.
Diesel engines and diesel fuel injectors have changed remarkably in the past decade: gone are the rattly, smoky, stinky, low performance engines from the past.
Today we have the modern diesel: powerful and quick to accelerate, smoke free and quiet, with the added benefit of low exhaust emissions, and often times amazing fuel efficiency. 60+ mpg in a VW Jetta TDI is common!
There have been many changes that have allowed this remarkable transformation and one of the major contributors is the fuel injector which has undergone an enormous revolution.
On older engines all components within the injector were mechanical. The injection pump, again a purely mechanical device, precisely controlled the quantity of fuel to be injected.
Fast forward to today: the fuel injector’s controls are now electronic and the mechanical injection pump is gone. In its place is the common rail system. What common rail means is that all fuel injectors get their fuel from the same fuel rail under the same pressure. There a two types of common rail system: one with very high fuel pressure and another with low pressure fuel that uses high pressure engine oil to boost fuel to a very high pressure inside the injector.
While solenoids have been used inside the injectors the pinnacle of modern fuel injector technology is the piezoelectric crystal which, when electrically energized minutely changes the shape of the crystal and switches a small fuel chamber on and off. The on/off flow in the small fuel chamber triggers the top of the fuel injector to open and close and in turn spray fuel into the engine. The miracle of this injector is that it allows precise injection control to the millisecond.
Old diesels received only one shot of fuel during their combustion stroke while modern diesels receive several injections at precisely timed intervals and this has created the amazing engines that we have today. Through these timed injections more power is produced and the knocking sound, so common to diesel engines is virtually eliminated.
Well they have their concerns and quite honestly many are problematic. However much of this may be due to recent changes in diesel fuel refining.
In the late 2000s, ultra low sulfur diesel fuels were introduced in North America. Minimal sulfur emission is great for the environment but unfortunately for the diesel fuel injector, the refining process removes some lubricants that are crucial to long injector life. All diesel engines built 2008 and newer have upgraded injectors but those prior will likely suffer early failures.
Injector failures show up in a number of ways such as long crank times or no starts, smoky exhaust (usually black) and rough running.
With the expensive components in a diesel engine, performing oil and filter changes and fuel filter changes at or before the prescribed interval is essential.
Replacing modern injectors is very expensive, typically costing several hundred dollars per unit along with a very labour intensive operation. So you may wonder, what can I do to prolong the life of my injectors and avoid expensive repairs? There are several things:
Change engine oil and filter regularly and replace fuel filters regularly.
These additives will restore the lubricants missing from modern ultra low sulfur diesel and prolong the life of your injectors. While there is addition cost, some of these additives will boost the cetane rating of your fuel and pay for themselves with improved fuel mileage and performance.
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.
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.
The best way to save money on car repairs is simple:
It’s with routine maintenance.
Routine maintenance means that at specific time intervals, based on how much you drive, you have your car serviced following a maintenance schedule.
The very minimum schedule that should be followed is the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule. Following this schedule will make certain that you fulfill all of your requirements should you have a warranty claim. Some manufacturer’s schedules are more thorough than others and a good maintenance shop will review the schedule and make additional suggestions to help further maintain your vehicle.
One oil change every 6,000 kilometers for 60,000 Km equals 10 oil changes and a total cost of around $600.00. A lack of oil changes causing a blown engine is $4,000.00 and could easily cost double that based on the type car that you drive.
An average, thorough timing belt replacement (with water pump, pulleys and oil seals) can range from $1,000.00 to $1,500.00. Neglecting it and letting the belt break puts you back in the $4,000.00 and probably far more expensive price range.
Replacing brakes before they start grinding could be as low in cost as $300.00 but if left until grinding could easily run you $700.00 or far more.
Other Tangible costs:
• Lost work hours
• Arranging transportation to and from the Repair Shop
• The stress of readjusting your schedule
• Being without your car when you need it
Through routine maintenance you will know the condition and lifespan of many of your vehicle’s parts. At specific intervals critical services like oil changes and fluid flushes will be done extending the life of your vehicle.
Will routine maintenance eliminate all surprises? Unfortunately it will not, but it substantially increases your odds of trouble free driving.
So there is your key to save money on car repairs: Maintenance, Maintenance, Maintenance!
“Trust me: it’s a good car.”
“You don’t need a prepurchase inspection, we can offer you a powertrain warranty.”
“We’ve done an inspection on this vehicle and it all checks out.”
Those were comments made by the salesman to a recent client who brought in a 1997 Nissan Quest for a prepurchase inspection. Fortunately our client was smart and insisted on an inspection, and it is something that should be done every time you purchase a vehicle.
You really don’t know by just driving it what potentially expensive repairs may be required.
This vehicle was only priced at $2900 and was 15 years old so I wasn’t expecting perfection. On the plus side there were only 124,000 kilometers on the clock and the body and interior were in good condition.
We walk around the vehicle, inspect the interior controls and then go for an extended road test. The vehicle felt fine with the exception of a slight wobble in the steering wheel probably caused by a bad tire. There was also a noticeable humming noise present when the engine was running. Overall the vehicle felt good.
This involves an under hood and then an under vehicle inspection.
Under the hood, most everything looked very good except that the battery was in very poor condition (in spite of being only a year old).
Under the vehicle, on the hoist things looked good for the steering and suspension systems… except for a slight rack and pinion leak which in time will turn a into costly repair. The tires, as we suspected from the road test had problems: the rears were almost legally worn out and the fronts had several sidewall indentations.
This involves removing the wheels and inspecting the brakes, and here we found some concerns: front brake pads had 3 millimeters remaining which is close to worn out. Worse still, both rear wheel cylinders were leaking and on the right side badly enough to have soaked the brake shoes. Clearly these rear brakes would not pass a government safety inspection.
As a result of the inspection our client now knows fully what he is getting for his $2900:
A 15 year old van with low mileage and in pretty good condition overall but requiring some immediate repairs to brakes, tires and battery. Some time down the road repairs to the steering rack and the fuel pump (that was the humming noise that we mentioned earlier) will be needed. He can use this inspection to either negotiate a better price for the vehicle or simply move onto something else.
The prepurchase inspection gave him the truth in order to make an informed decision!
It seems innocent enough… your car’s working great, you live an incredibly busy life, you drive a lot and the car’s new. Why bother following your vehicle’s maintenance schedule?
We encounter this scenario at our shop from time to time. It shows up as a vehicle that has not been maintained to factory specs; in fact the factory schedule has been completely ignored. The consequence of this is two fold: first, damage is taking place to your vehicle even if you can’t feel it right now; and second, your warranty will be void should you need to make a claim.
Recently we had a client who came in for his first oil change on a Japanese vehicle with 50,000 kilometers on the odometer. It was quite frankly a miracle that his engine was still running but it was and in fact running fine.
However tell tail signs of abuse were present as grungy deposits were visible inside the engine. Hopefully this is one of those rare engines that can take excessive abuse and still survive: we do see that… not very often, but sometimes.
What is perhaps worrying is that, should our client have an engine problem, he will have no warranty coverage as he has not followed the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule. This could be very costly as a replacement engine job could be $5000.00 or more. Five oil changes costs around $300.00 and more should have been done, but 5 would have satisfied the manufacturer’s schedule.
That’s a huge cost difference.
Be certain to follow your maintenance schedule: it definitely saves you lots of money and gives you peace of mind. Remember – poor maintenance can void your warranty.
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.
Fearmongering is a sales technique used by some shops, and sadly, as it is so often associated with dishonest recommendations gives the auto service industry a bad reputation.
We recently had a client who brought her vehicle to us for a second opinion about some brake work that she was told was absolutely, immediately required and “must be done today or her car would be dangerous to drive”. We inspected her brakes (several days later) and found that the rear brake pads still had 4 millimeters remaining which is a far cry from needing immediate replacement. Yes they were nearly worn out but not dangerous. Through using this technique this shop not only destroyed their credibility but tarnished the reputation of the auto service industry.
We advised our client that based on her driving habits her brakes would be perfectly safe for at least 3 to 6 more months. Four months had passed and we replaced her rear pads and rotors. She had driven 11,000 kilometers and those brake pads that were supposedly unsafe still had 3 millimeters remaining. Three millimeters is worn out but still not unsafe.
There are times when we find something on a car that is unsafe and requires immediate repairs but this is rare. In this sort of case we can show you the concern while the car is on the hoist or if this is not possible send a video or photo via e-mail. We always educate our clients on what is good and what is worn or requiring servicing on their vehicle and let them choose when to repair it.
Getting back to the fearmongering shop, a better, and more honest approach would be to advise the client that their brakes are almost worn out and instead of falsely creating fear and attempting to sell work this shop could have built trust through honesty and waited for a few months to do the service.