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Monthly Archives: November 2016

How To Find a Good Car Mechanic

We hear it all the time: “Where can I find a good car mechanic?” In the past, word of mouth was probably the best way to find an auto repair shop that would do the job right and charge a fair price. But now, a good mechanic might be only a few mouse clicks or touchscreen taps away.

Crowdsourced review sites have greatly simplified the search. Here are a few tips on how to work these sites to find a good car mechanic in your area. Keep in mind that this isn’t an exact science. Sometimes a highly rated shop might disappoint, but at least you can tilt the odds in your favor.

Yelp
Yelp.com describes itself as a site that “connects people with great businesses,” whether that’s a hot new restaurant or a top-notch dentist. And, luckily for car owners, it also has auto repair reviews. The site is free and has a mobile version, plus apps for Android and Apple mobile devices.

We’ve had good experiences with Yelp recommendations as we looked for a mechanic to work on Edmunds’ long-term 1996 Lexus ES 300, which is the subject of our Debt-Free Car Project. With our new long-term vehicles, we tend to use dealerships exclusively. But because containing costs is important for the Lexus project, we’ve used Yelp four times to locate independent mechanics. Of the four, we would go back to three of them. We’ve found Yelp to be the most useful site, thanks to its review volume and convenience.

Here are a few tips to help you narrow down your mechanic search. Type “auto repair” into the search field and enter your ZIP code. You can filter the results based on distance, most reviewed and highest rated. The goal should be to find a place that strikes a balance between a good rating and a substantial number of reviews. For example, a place may have a glowing review, but if it’s the only review, that customer’s experience might not be the same as yours. Or worse, it could be a misleading review from an employee or business owner.

Yelp has an algorithm that helps it spot misleading reviews, but sometimes they can slip by undetected. That’s why it is important not to put too much stock in one review. Instead, see what patterns emerge after you’ve read numerous reviews. Look for reviews that are specific and give plenty of details about the users’ experiences.

Sometimes, the owner of an establishment will reply to a review. This response can either be a thank you to someone for a good review or a defense or apology if the review was a negative one. Either way, we consider a thoughtful reply a good sign — particularly in response to a negative review. It shows that the business cares about its reputation.

Angie’s List
Angie’s List prides itself on having a thorough vetting process for its reviews, which cover everything from automotive listings to home repair and even wedding planning. In a search we did for our area, Angie’s List provided a number of repair shops nearby, but we found the volume of reviews lacking when compared to Yelp. For example, one repair shop we used for the Lexus had just one review on Angie’s List, and it was from 2008. The same shop had 22 reviews on Yelp, with the most recent one being less than a month old.

The small number of reviews on Angie’s List can be both a good and a bad thing. On one hand, the chance of a falsified review drops considerably, since the site requires a paid membership to access the site and post a review. But at the same time, it is hard to get a feel for a shop that has very little feedback.

Google
Google’s enormous database will yield the greatest number of search results, but they may require some extra filtering to be useful. Type “auto repair near (your ZIP code)” into the search field. Ignore the sponsored ads at the top of the page. The repair shops will appear about halfway down the page, with their address to the right of their listing. Google has its own review and scoring system. Approach these as you would Yelp reviews.

Edmunds Dealership Directory
We have dealer locator for those in search of a dealership service facility. The Edmunds moderators closely monitor the reviews for misleading postings.

Other Sources
Yellowpages.com and Citysearch.com are two other sources. The reviews on these sites are spotty in terms of quantity, and we haven’t had the chance to use them that much. Still, the sites can be useful for those who want to research a shop thoroughly.

Message Boards
Enthusiast message boards dedicated to a particular car make and model often have forum threads where members discuss their local dealerships or independent repair shops. Forum members chime in and give their experiences or recommendations. Apply the same filtering that you use with Yelp reviews: Look for patterns of excellence or disappointment.

A Final Tip
Despite how far crowdsourced reviews have come, an old-fashioned word-of-mouth recommendation from someone you trust can often be the most effective tool. Ask your friends and family who takes care of their cars and you may just find your new mechanic.

How To Fix Your Car’s Oxygen Sensor

 If your car’s “Check Engine” light is glaring at you, it’s probably because the oxygen sensor is malfunctioning. That’s right, the oxygen sensor. It’s a little device that’s a mystery for most drivers but its misbehavior is the problem that most commonly triggers a Check Engine light, according to CarMD.com, which sells an automotive diagnostic tool and provides repair information. The oxygen sensor unseats the formerly most common Check Engine light culprit: a loose gas cap. There are fewer reports of that problem because savvy motorists have learned to fix it themselves and consumers now buy new cars with capless gas tanks.

But don’t despair. Replacing your car oxygen sensor will keep you from wasting money by burning extra gas, and the repair isn’t horribly expensive. We know this firsthand. We had to replace the O2 sensor on our 1996 Lexus ES 300, the subject of our Debt-Free Car project, and it wasn’t as much of a hassle or expense as we had feared.

After the dreaded Check Engine light appeared in our Lexus, we plugged the CarMD device into the car’s computer to read the error code. In our case, the code was P0135, which meant that the oxygen sensor in “bank 1” was malfunctioning. It was surprising to learn that something was wrong with the car, since it still seemed to be running fine.

Even though a car seems to be behaving normally, a faulty oxygen sensor will cause the engine to start “gulping down gas,” says Kristin Brocoff, director of corporate communications for CarMD.com. She says this problem can cause up to a 40 percent reduction in fuel economy. Sure enough, when we checked our fuel record for the driving we did while the Check Engine light was on, our mpg had taken a hit.

The oxygen sensor, developed in the early 1980s, is an essential part of the car’s emissions control system, says John Nielsen, director of engineering and repair for the American Automobile Association (AAA). The sensor is about the size and shape of a spark plug and protrudes into the car engine’s exhaust stream. It determines if there is a lot or a little oxygen in the exhaust, so the engine can make adjustments to the amount of fuel being used in the engine to run at maximum efficiency.

Oxygen sensors in older cars fail for a variety of reasons, according to Bosch, a leading manufacturer of auto components. In some cases, sensors are fouled by gasoline additives or oil from worn engines. Newer oxygen sensors can last 100,000 miles if conditions are right, but often problems occur sooner.

After we plugged CarMD’s diagnostic device into the Lexus’ onboard computer port, we connected it to our desktop computer. It accessed a database of information about this engine code and how to have it repaired. Among other things, the report included an average estimate just to buy a new oxygen sensor: $168.82.

At the first sight of a Check Engine light, most owners of new cars that are still under the factory warranty would simply make a beeline for the dealership’s service bay. But car owners on a budget might want to go the do-it-yourself diagnosis route to save money. By using the CarMD device, or any engine code reader, drivers can learn what the problem is, and the skill level required to fix it, before attempting the task.

Modern cars have two to four oxygen sensors, Nielsen says. A V6 engine, such as the one in our Lexus, has one sensor in each exhaust manifold and one after the catalytic converter. The sensors simply screw into place, but reaching them can be a problem for do-it-yourselfers. Additionally, since the exhaust subjects the sensor to extreme heat, it can “seize” (become frozen in place) and be tough to unscrew. A new sensor comes with anti-seize compound to apply to the threads, but the compound should never be put on the sensor itself.

Nielsen says that while a code reader might indicate that the problem is the car oxygen sensor, there are other problems that can trigger the identical code — a disconnected vacuum hose will do it, for example.

As a first step, a car owner can look under the hood to see if there are any wires or hoses disconnected, Nielsen says. In some cases, a wire leading to the oxygen sensor could be broken or burned out. If nothing obvious is visibly awry, it’s time to go to what Nielsen calls “a trusted mechanic.” Reputable garages use an expensive diagnostic machine called a scan tool — not to be confused with an inexpensive code reader — that can watch the operation of the engine in real time and see if the oxygen sensor is actually the problem.

“Most motorists would be well served to find a shop that they trust and take their car there for all oil changes and tire rotations,” Nielsen suggests. “Then, when they have a problem with something like an oxygen sensor, they trust what the mechanic is saying rather than thinking that they’re trying to rip you off.”

In our case, we learned that the faulty O2 sensor was in the rear of the engine and difficult to reach, so the fix seemed above our skill level. Instead, we took the Lexus to Overseas Garage, in Long Beach, California. There, the mechanic told us that the new sensor would cost $117, plus $144 in labor for a total of $261. This was close to the $246 average cost cited by CarMD’s Brocoff.

While many people opt to simply ignore “Check Engine” lights, Brocoff says this can cause bigger, more costly problems later. “So the problem you could have fixed for a few hundred dollars turns into a repair of the catalytic converter, which would be over a thousand.”

Driving back from the garage, it was a relief not to stare at the glowing check engine light. This made us realize that fixing such a problem provides another benefit: peace of mind.

Should You Fill Your Car’s Tires With Nitrogen?

 A member of the Dodge Challenger owners’ forum was buying a new car from a dealer and noticed green valve-stem caps on all four tires. The salesman told him that the tires had been filled with nitrogen, which would keep the tire pressure and temperature more consistent and that it would prevent tire rot from the inside out. It wasn’t a free add-on, though. The “nitrogen upgrade” was a $69 item on the supplemental window sticker. Another forum member later posted that his dealer was charging $179 for this same “upgrade.”

Some dealerships and tire stores claim that filling your tires with nitrogen will save you money on gas while offering better performance than air. But a closer look reveals that nitrogen has few benefits and much higher costs. For starters, a typical nitrogen fill-up will cost you about $6 per tire.

Why Nitrogen?
The Get Nitrogen Institute Web site says that with nitrogen tire inflation, drivers will note improvements in a vehicle’s handling, fuel efficiency and tire life. All this is achieved through better tire-pressure retention, improved fuel economy and cooler-running tire temperatures, the institute says.

This sounds great in theory but let’s take a closer look at each of those claims.

  • Better tire-pressure retention: Over time, a tire will gradually lose pressure. Changes in temperature will accelerate this. The general rule of thumb is a loss of 1 psi for every 10-degree rise or fall in temperature. The institute says that nitrogen has a more stable pressure, since it has larger molecules than oxygen that are less likely to seep through the permeable tire walls.

    In 2006, Consumer Reports conducted a year-long study to determine how much air loss was experienced in tires filled with nitrogen versus those filled with air. The results showed that nitrogen did reduce pressure loss over time, but it was only a 1.3 psi difference from air-filled tires. Among 31 pairs of tires, the average loss of air-filled tires was 3.5 psi from the initial 30 psi setting. Nitrogen-filled tires lost an average of 2.2 psi from the initial setting. Nitrogen won the test, but not by a significant margin.

  • Improved fuel economy: The EPA says that under-inflated tires can lower gas mileage by 0.3 percent for every 1 psi drop in pressure of all four tires. The theory is that since nitrogen loses pressure at a slower rate than air, you are more likely to be at the correct psi and therefore get better fuel economy.

    If you are proactive and check your tire pressure at least once a month, you can offset this difference with free air, and you won’t need expensive nitrogen. We think this invalidates the “better fuel economy with nitrogen” argument.

    For many people, however, this kind of maintenance is easier said than done. Most people either forget to regularly check and top off their tires, or never learned how to do it in the first place. Even Edmunds employees (typically a pretty car-savvy group) were under-inflating or over-inflating their tires, according to a tire-pressure study we conducted a few years ago.

    And though tire-pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) now come standard on cars, a 2009 National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) study found that only 57 percent of vehicles with TPMS had the correct tire pressure. That’s because most systems are only meant to signal that a tire has very low pressure, not to show that the pressure is optimal.

  • Cooler running temperatures: When air is pressurized, the humidity in it condenses to a liquid and collects in the air storage tank you use at the local gas station. When you add compressed air to the tire, the water comes along for the ride. As the tire heats up during driving, that water changes to a gas, which then expands, increasing tire pressure. Because nitrogen is dry, there is no water in the tire to contribute to pressure fluctuations.

    But this fluctuation in temperature isn’t as significant as you might think. A 2008 ExxonMobil study plotted the changes in temperature over the course of various inflation pressures. The lines on the graph were virtually on top of each other. In other words, the change in temperature when using nitrogen was negligible.

  • Prevent wheel rot: Nitrogen proponents will also point out that water in a tire can lead to wheel rot. A tire engineer who anonymously maintains Barry’s Tire Tech, a blog on a number of tire issues, says this isn’t really a problem with modern cars.

    “Alloy wheels don’t really have a problem with water inside the tire,” the engineer writes in a post on nitrogen inflation. “They are coated to keep aluminum from forming aluminum oxide, which forms a crust, which isn’t very attractive. But even then, this crust protects the aluminum from further corrosion from the water.”

    Where wheels have problems is when the aluminum alloy contacts steel, such as the steel spring clip used on wheel weights. It’s a particular issue when salt is present, the engineer writes. “But this problem is totally independent of the inflation gas,” he says. “Steel wheels only have a problem if the paint is damaged.”

Cost and Convenience
Let’s say a person bought a set of tires at Costco, a place that uses nitrogen to fill all the tires they sell. If he needs to top off the tires with more nitrogen, he won’t be able to go to just any gas station. He can use regular air if there is nothing else available, but that would dilute the nitrogen in the tires. He’ll have to go back to Costco and wait until the tire technicians can attend to the car. On a busy day, he could be there awhile.

Nitrogen is free at Costco and at some car dealerships we called, but these are rare cases. We called a number of tire shops that carry nitrogen and found that the prices for a nitrogen fill ranged from $5-$7 per tire. Assuming our consumer was diligent about checking his tires monthly, he could potentially spend about $84 a year on nitrogen alone per tire. Compare that to the most gas stations, where air is free or a 75-cent fill-up for all four tires at the most.

Finding tire shops with nitrogen could be an issue, too. We called a number of large chains, including America’s Tire Co., Discount Tire and Walmart. None carried nitrogen.

Is Nitrogen Worth It?
The air we breathe is made up of 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen and a few other elements. To get the desired benefits for tires, nitrogen needs to be at least 93 percent pure, according to nitrogen service equipment providers quoted on Tirerack.com. So we’re basically talking about adding an extra 15 percent of nitrogen and getting rid of as much oxygen as possible.

Based on cost, convenience and actual performance benefit, we don’t think nitrogen is worth it. A much better use of your money would be to buy a good tire-pressure gauge and check your tires frequently. This is a good idea even if you have a tire-pressure monitoring system in your vehicle. The warning lights aren’t required to come on until you have less than 25 percent of the recommended tire pressure. Having the correct tire pressure will get you many of the benefits of using nitrogen and will ensure that your tires last longer.

How Old and Dangerous Are Your Tires?

 More recently, an investigation into the cause of the accident that killed the actor Paul Walker revealed that the Porsche Carrera GT in which he was riding had nine-year-old tires. The California Highway Patrol noted that the tires’ age might have compromised their drivability and handling characteristics, according to the Los Angeles Times.

These incidents illustrate not only the potential danger of buying used tires but also the perils of driving on aging tires — including those that have never spent a day on the road.

For years, people have relied on a tire’s tread depth to determine its condition. But the rubber compounds in a tire deteriorate with time, regardless of the condition of the tread. An old tire poses a safety hazard.

For some people, old tires might never be an issue. If you drive a typical number of miles, somewhere around 12,000-15,000 miles annually, a tire’s tread will wear out in three to four years, long before the rubber compound does. But if you only drive 6,000 miles a year, or have a car that you only drive on weekends, aging tires could be an issue. The age warning also applies to spare tires and “new” tires that have never been used but are old.

What Happens to a Tire as It Ages?
Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., compares an aging tire to an old rubber band. “If you take a rubber band that’s been sitting around a long time and stretch it, you will start to see cracks in the rubber,” says Kane, whose organization is involved in research, analysis and advocacy on safety matters for the public and clients including attorneys, engineering firms, supplier companies, media and government.

That’s essentially what happens to a tire that’s put on a vehicle and driven. Cracks in the rubber begin to develop over time. They may appear on the surface and inside the tire as well. This cracking can eventually cause the steel belts in the tread to separate from the rest of the tire. An animation on the Safety Research & Strategies Web site shows how this happens. Improper maintenance and heat accelerate the process.

Every tire that’s on the road long enough will succumb to age. Tires that are rated for higher mileage have “anti-ozinant” chemical compounds built into the rubber that will slow the aging process, but nothing stops the effects of time on rubber, says Doug Gervin, Michelin’s director of product marketing for passenger cars and light trucks.

How Long Does a Tire Last?
Carmakers, tire makers and rubber manufacturers differ in their opinions about the lifespan of a tire. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has no specific guidelines on tire agingand defers to the recommendations of carmakers and tire manufacturers. Carmakers such as Nissan and Mercedes-Benz tell consumers to replace tires six years after their production date, regardless of tread life. Tire manufacturers such as Continental and Michelin say a tire can last up to 10 years, provided you get annual tire inspections after the fifth year.

The Rubber Manufacturers Association says there is no way to put a date on when a tire “expires,” because such factors as heat, storage and conditions of use can dramatically reduce the life of a tire. Here’s more on each of these factors.

Heat: NHTSA research has found that tires age more quickly in warmer climates. NHTSA also found that environmental conditions like exposure to sunlight and coastal climates can hasten the aging process. People who live in warm weather and coastal states should keep this in mind when deciding whether they should retire a tire.

Storage: This applies to spare tires and tires that are sitting in a garage or shop. Consider how a spare tire lives its life. If you own a truck, the spare may be mounted underneath the vehicle, exposed to dirt and the elements.

If your spare is in the trunk, it’s as if it is “baking in a miniature oven,” says Dan Zielinski, senior vice president of public affairs for the Rubber Manufacturers Association. Most often, the spare never sees the light of day. But if the tire has been inflated and mounted on a wheel, it is technically “in service,” even if it’s never been used, Gervin says.

A tire that has not been mounted and is just sitting in a tire shop or your garage will age more slowly than one that has been put into service on a car. But it ages nonetheless.

Conditions of use: This refers to how the tire is treated. Is it properly inflated? Has it hit the curb too many times? Has it ever been repaired for a puncture? Tires on a car that’s only driven on the weekends will have a different aging pattern than those on a car that’s driven daily on the highway. All these factors contribute to how quickly or slowly a tire wears out.

Proper maintenance is the best thing a person can do to ensure a long tire life. Gervin recommends that you maintain proper air pressure in tires, have them rotated regularly and have them routinely inspected.

How To Determine the Age of a Tire
The sidewall of a tire is full of numbers and letters. They all mean something, but deciphering them can be a challenge. This Edmunds article about reading a tire’s sidewall goes into greater detail, but for the purposes of determining the age of a tire, you’ll just need to know its U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) number.

Tires made after 2000 have a four-digit DOT code. The first two numbers represent the week in which the tire was made. The second two represent the year. A tire with a DOT code of 1109 was made in the 11th week of 2009. Tires with a three-digit code were made prior to 2000 and are trickier to decode. The first two digits still tell you the week, but the third digit tells you the year in the decade that it was created. The hard part is knowing what decade that was. Some tires made in the 1990s (but not all) have a triangle after the DOT code, denoting that decade. But for tires without that, a code of “328” could be from the 32nd week of 1988 — or 1978.

Clearly, these DOT numbers weren’t designed with the consumer in mind. They were originally put on tires to make it easier for NHTSA to recall tires and keep track of their manufacturing date.

To make matters worse, you might not always find the DOT number on the outer side of the tire. Because of the way a tire is made, it is actually safer for the technician operating the mold to imprint information on the inner side of the tire, so some manufacturers will opt to put the number there. It is still possible to check the DOT code, but you might have to jack the car up to see it. Keep the visibility of the DOT number in mind the next time you are at a tire shop and the installer asks if you want the tires to be mounted with the raised lettering facing in.

That potential inconvenience is going away, however. NHTSA says that the sidewall information about the tire’s date of manufacture, size and other pertinent data is now required to be on both sides of the tire for easier reading.

After checking out a tire’s birth date, give the rubber a visual inspection. Some of the best advice on such an inspection comes from the British Tyre Manufacturers’ Association. It recommends that consumers check tires regularly for any sign of aging, such as tread distortion or large or small hairline cracks in the sidewall. Vibrations or a change in the dynamic properties of the tire could also be an indicator of aging problems, the association says. It recommends replacing the tire immediately if such symptoms appear.

Don’t Buy Used
Tires are expensive, especially when you factor in the price of mounting and balancing. That’s why used tires become more attractive to consumers who are strapped for cash. But the purchase of used tires is very much a buyer-beware situation, Zielinski says. “Even a one-year-old tire can be dangerous if it was poorly maintained,” he says.

When a consumer buys a used tire, he has no idea how well it was maintained or the conditions in which it has been used. The previous owner might have driven it with low pressure. It could have hit curbs repeatedly. It could have been patched for a nail. Further, it’s a dated product.

“You wouldn’t want a used tire for the same reason that you wouldn’t buy a 10-year-old computer,” Zielinski says. “You are denying yourself the advancements in tire technology over the past few years.”

Make Sure You’re Getting a “Fresh” Tire
Just because a tire is unused doesn’t mean it’s new. In a number of instances, consumers have purchased “new” tires at retail stores only to find out later that they were manufactured years earlier. In addition to having a shorter life on the road, a tire that’s supposedly new but is actually old may be past its warranty period.

If you buy tires and soon after discover that they’re actually a few years old, you have the right to request newer ones, Zielinski says. Any reputable store should be willing to make amends. “It is fair for a consumer to expect that ‘new’ is not several years old,” he says.

Letting Go
Getting rid of an unused spare or a tire with good-looking tread may be the hardest thing for a thrifty consumer to do. “Nobody’s going to take a tire that looks like it’s never been used and throw it out,” Kane says. But if it’s old, that’s exactly what the owner should do.

Although Kane has lobbied NHTSA to enact regulations on tire aging, nothing is currently on the books. A NHTSA spokesman says the organization is “continuing to conduct research into the effects of tire aging, and what actions consumers can do to safely monitor their tires when they are on their vehicles.”

It’s too bad that tires don’t have a “sell by” date, like cartons of milk. Since there’s no consensus from government or industry sources, we’ll just say that if your tire has plenty of tread left but is nearing the five-year mark, it’s time to get it inspected for signs of aging.

Of all your vehicle’s components, tires have the greatest effect on the way it handles and brakes. So if the tire store recommends new tires at your five-year check-up, spend the money and don’t put it off. Your life could depend on it.