Fixes on the Cheap

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Preventive care – and caring for your car yourself – can save you a lot of coin and a lot of hassle.Here are some practical tips to keep your car on the road – and money in your pocket:

* Fuel system:

All cars built since the late 1980s use some type of electronic fuel injection. These systems have fewer moving parts and are less maintenance intensive than the carburetors used in older cars, but problems can still develop – chiefly dirty (or clogged) injectors. While it may end up being necessary to have the system flushed by a professional mechanic using special solvents and injector cleaning equipment, you can sometimes get the same results yourself – and for a lot less cash – by adding a bottle of store-bought fuel injector cleaner (Gumout, STP, etc.) to the tank at each fill-up for 2-3 fill-ups twice each year (once in spring, then again in fall). The extra dose of detergent additives in the cleaner can keep things from ever getting gunked up in the first place – and will sometimes cure a rough-running/hard-starting problem without an expensive trip to see Mr. Goodwrench. There’s no risk of making the problem worse or harming your engine – so it’s worth a shot before giving up and turning the problem over to a pro.

* Exhaust:

If you really don’t want to pay a lot for that muffler, why not install it yourself? You can buy pre-bent, ready-to-install factory-style replacement exhaust components (and even full systems) over the counter at most auto parts stores (NAPA, Auto Zone, etc.). Everything from the head pipe that bolts up to the exhaust manifold to the catalytic converter and tailpipe. And at discount prices (no repair shop mark-up). If you don’t mind spending a little sweat equity, you can save hundreds of dollars replacing your won’t-pass-inspection rusted out pipes with a set of new ones. Often, it’s just a section of the system that needs replacing – for example, a rotted out muffler or catalytic converter. Grafting in the replacement part is not technically difficult – it just requires some unbolting (soak nuts with a liquid penetrant such as PB Blaster to ease removal) and sawing (either by hand with a hacksaw or – much better – with an electric reciprocating saw ), removal of the bad section and the bolting/clamping on of the new section/part. Often, welding is not necessary to git ‘er done.

The key thing here is not having to bend/force fit generic, one-size-fits-all components; the pre-bent parts are ready-to-install and will fit where they’re supposed to – without “custom work” by ball peen hammer, duct tape and coat hangers. Or cutting with a torch and welding.

* Serpentine belt:

Many new cars and trucks come with a single “serpentine” belt that drives all the accessories (water pump, alternator, power steering, AC) instead of single belts for each accessory, as was common in the past. The serpentine belt looks pretty intimidating – but replacing it is usually a lot easier than replacing old-style belts. Instead of having to loosen multiple hard-to-get-at mounting bolts and then leveraging each accessory (AC compressor, alternator, etc.) in to get the old belt off – with a serpentine belt there’s just a single tensioner pulley to deal with. Getting the old belt off is usually no more complex than using a wrench or socket to apply enough pressure to relieve the tension holding the belt in place, then slip the old belt off.

The tensioner pulley is usually very easy to identify – it’s the “idler” pulley not driving/connected to an engine accessory such as the power steering pump or alternator, etc. It will have a stud/bolt that you can get a wrench on to exert leverage – which will move the pulley enough to release the tension on the belt and allow you to take it off. Installing the new belt is just as easy. After making sure all the pulleys are clean/free of debris (clean if necessary), work the new belt around each accessory (there is almost always an underhood sticker with a diagram to show you how – but note the old belt’s position before you remove it and make your own diagram if the sticker’s not there. The final step is using your wrench to manipulate the tensioner enough to work the belt around it – then releasing the tensioner once you’ve got the belt on. Be sure the belt is centered properly on each pully and aligned correctly, etc. before you start the engine. The best part is there’s no need for further adjustment as there would be with old-style drive belts. The tensioner automatically takes up the necessary slack and you’re good to go. You also just saved yourself a half-hour’s worth of labor charges – not to mention a trip to the shop.

* Used vs. new parts:

A big dilemma for owners of older/high mileage vehicles is whether it makes sense economically speaking to (for example) spend $1,500 on a new transmission when the car itself may only be worth $2,300. But the alternative – throwing away the otherwise still-good car and digging deep for a replacement – can entail even more expense than biting the bullet and fixing what you’ve got. It’s a Catch-22 situation. However, there is a third way – used (but still good) replacement parts. You can buy everything from complete used engines (with wiring harnesses and all accessories) to small parts such as alternators and tail-light housings at used parts retailers. These places “part out” wrecked cars – salvaging undamaged/still-working mechanical and body parts – re-selling the bits and pieces to people looking for a low-cost way to keep their vehicles running. Used parts typically cost much less than what they’d cost you new – and there’s often a guarantee/exchange policy that the used part works. You’ll get your money back (or another replacement part) if it doesn’t. Installing a perfectly good low-mileage transmission from a wrecked car for $300 vs. paying a shop $1,500 to put a brand-new one in your $2,300 car makes a lot of economic sense – and otherwise. Look in the Yellow Pages under “auto parts” (see the sub-section on salvage/used parts, etc.).

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  1. I drive a used ’02 Land Rover and ’02 Miatia. Before buying I check out the cars through the internet and the dealer reputation as well. Rover at 100K needed a few bucks put into it but it hauls the crap I need it to. Miatia is just for fun and running around on a daily basis. Result: no auto loan debt. Although I can afford it, I refuse to pay through the nose for a new vehicle. Oh yes, when I have the time I do what we used to call “Echelon 1” maintenance myself.

  2. Typo alert

    In the section on the belts you repeatedly use “Pulley” when you mean “belt”
    “After making sure all the pulleys are clean/free of debris (clean if necessary), work the new pulley around each accessory “

  3. I don’t work for the company, but the only product I have seen that REALLY works to dramatically and quickly clean fuel injectors is Chevron Techron. It’s primary ingredient is the one in tier 1 gas, and I have seen it work on everything from Jaguars in 1984, to all the new gas engines. I was a dealer mechanic for most of my career and have never seen any of the other so called “injector cleaners” do that. Never heard of Sea Foam, but it seems to work miracles on carburetor engines, and even 2 Strokes. Every person I have introduced Techron to has said they put injector cleaner in and nothing happened, GM agrees, most don’t work, GM re-badges Techron, it is that good. Really.

    • I’ll second the recommendations on the Chevron with Techron. Warehouse clubs are a great place to pick it up as a six-bottle box costs about the same as two bottles at your local auto parts store. I can testify that you see plenty of it around the pits as SCCA and NASA races.

      I’m not sure what you’re considering “fix” and “maintenance” here since fuel injector cleaner and serpentine belt seem like maintenance but exhaust would be a fix.

      As far as maintenance is concerned, I can’t beleive what people pay to have brakes done. It’s an easy job, though a bit dirty and hard on your back if you don’t have access to a lift. But… I can do both axles with better pads and rotors for $300-$350, in just a couple of hours. The dealer charges $600 for this, easy. Plus… I keep the old rotors, get them turned for $8 and have the next set to rotate back in when the next set of pads are needed. I just wipe them with a bit of oil and put them in old plastic grocery store bags so they won’t rust.

      • Hi Aaron,

        On brake work: It’s not technically challenging but it can be physically demanding. I also do my own brake work, but I don’t mind getting dirty and I’m strong enough to deal with uch things as jacking up the car, removing the wheel/tire, loosening bolts, etc. For some people, that kind of stuff can be daunting – which is why they end up getting that “great GM feeling” to the tune of $$$. I hope I never get to the point that I, too, have to turn my vehicles over to the dealership. I don’t begrudge them what they charge; I just prefer not to pay it!


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