Pulling Parts

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I got an e-mail (too late) from my sister out in California about a problem she was having with her car. By the time I heard from her, she’d already spent close to $600 on repairs the car may not have needed. This happens all the time. Chiefly, because people panic. The car won’t run! Or start, as was the case with my sister’s car.car problems lead

We have to do something! Immediately.

And then, they pay.

Not infrequently, for parts – and repairs – that don’t actually fix anything.

Consider my sister’s problem. Early 2000s Honda would not start. To be precise, the engine wouldn’t turn over when she turned the key. Just “click.”

What’s the first thing to do? If you’re my sister, pull – and throw away – what turned out to be a perfectly good battery. How do I know it was perfectly good? Or rather, that the thrown-away battery probably wasn’t the source of the problem? Because with the new – and not cheap – battery installed, the engine still would not turn over.

Same “click.”

I explained – too late to do her any good – that the smarter (at least, cheaper) course would have been to check the battery’s condition before throwing it away. This can be done by taking it to almost any auto parts store and asking them to load test it. Which they typically do for free. They’ll hook up alligator clamps to the positive and negative poles, apply load (simulating what happens when you turn the ignition to “start” and – hopefully – the starter motor turns the engine over) and it will either pass or fail.load tester pic

Then you can decide whether to buy a new battery … based on whether you actually need a new battery.

First, though, I told my sister (post facto) that she should have popped the hood and taken a look at the battery cables – and the connection points. These sometimes work loose – a poor connection – or they get corroded (which amounts to the same thing). If you can hand-jiggle either cable, it is loose. Tighten the loose cable, and it’s a good bet you’ll be able to start the engine. Without spending any money. Cleaning the terminals (use a wire brush or steel wool and finish by spraying them off with a water-dispersant/protectant such as WD-40) where the cables connect to the battery posts (the “+” and “-” hook-ups) is also easy – and free. It is also a commonly necessary thing to do as electro-chemical reactions at these junctions frequently corrode the connections (greenish-white powdery residue is typical) and if it gets bad enough, the car will become hard-starting or won’t start at all.battery cable pic

Instead, my sister paid a shop to replace the starter. Which may have been necessary. But before doing that, I’d have made sure the battery was ok, then the cables/connections. Only after eliminating those easy and inexpensive possibilities would I have moseyed on to the starter. And even then, it could be a poor connection at the starter. The red “+” positive cable from the battery connects directly to the starter. Actually, to the solenoid. Which is an electrical switch that sits on top of the starter. Sometimes, the solenoid rather than the starter itself goes south. And sometimes, the solenoid can be replaced (or even repaired). As opposed to throwing away the whole thing and buying – and installing – a new one.

Which is what my sister paid the shop to do.solenoid pic

Consider the surgery analogy. You feel a pain in your side. Would you hire some guy to cut out your spleen? Or maybe first try to figure out why you felt a pain in your side? And maybe then – having isolated the actual source of the trouble – go ahead and pay a guy to cut out your spleen… assuming, of course, your spleen is the source of your pain. It might have been a pulled muscle.

My sister’s first (expensive) mistake was guessing what might be wrong and then – based on a guess – replacing parts that probably didn’t need replacing. Her second mistake was not checking simple things that almost anyone with a little bit of initiative can check themselves – like looking to see whether a cable is loose (or covered with obvious corrosion). Her third was not asking advice from someone who might actually have something intelligent to offer in the way of advice.

The shop she eventually took the car to may not have ripped her off. But it’s dead certain she spent money she didn’t need to (on the battery, minimally). It’s also possible that all her car actually needed was for someone to tighten (or clean) one of the battery cables. But it’s too late now. The money’s spent – and the car is “fixed.”

Try not to let this happen to you… .

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  1. I repaired a friend’s ’95 Chevy Caprice (305 cu V8) which wouldn’t start. I went thru the same goat-rope by replacing the battery, then the starter. I was intent on replacing the battery for her anyway, so I didn’t really consider that lost $$. However, the Advance Auto tested the starter and said it was okay. However, it couldn’t deliver any torque. I would spin fast, and not draw too much current, but couldn’t spin the gears. Ended up replacing it and the car ran fine.

    BTW, the biggest clue of the starter going (that I’ve seen) is slow, weak starting, but eventual turning over and firing. The click-click-click is usually the solenoid or the battery as you have stated.

  2. I can’t think of a more worthless than “ASE certified”. Most ASE Certified techs aren’t any better than your typical backyard shade tree mechanic.

    In Miami the auto dealers lobbied local government to outlaw any shops without a full-time ASE “Master Certified” technician on staff to limit competition. I can tell you endless stories of vehicles that become money pits because of shitty part-swapping techs.

    • Pedro, sure gummint can fuck up anything per the old saying about the Mojave desert but wearing a patch isn’t always a sign of a part replacer or incompetence. I had a friend, a kid, who graduated TSTC with every certification you can get except marine(don’t think they offered that). He knew a great deal about just about everything that moved, esp. engines before his “edgycashun”. Ne never ceased to amaze me though. He could get pissed with frustration working on a CV and never miss a beat in turning around and rebuilding a Japanese engine of any make. He could be knee deep in parts involving nearly anything and you could pull up with a big rig diesel problem and he knew all about it, could rebuild a Detroit or a Toyota 4 banger with equal ease and competence.

      • Yeah 8SM – some guys have it an some never will – patch makes no difference either way.
        Several years ago, my oldest nephew was a senior in HS. Counselor calls him into office and asks “What are your plans for next year?” He says “I want to go to Austin (MN tech school) and take diesel mechanics” She – “But you’re going to graduate 3rd in your class. You can go wherever you want.” He – “Good, I want to go to Austin and take diesel mechanics.”
        Counselor calls my sister and relates this to her. Sis says “If that’s what he wants, fine. If he changes his mind later on, he’ll be able to pay for college.” And that’s just what happened. He now works for Case-New Holland. They send him all over the world (last year Austria) to trouble-shoot stuff the locals can’t pin down.

        • Forgot to mention that his 2nd year @ “Austin” he and a partner won the John Deere Diesel Trouble-Shooting Contest.
          He almost got a job with Cat – in the destructive testing department. Now THAT sounds like fun.

  3. Dont you just love a tech that beats the battery terminals on and the ones that leave greasy fingerprints on your sunvisors?-Kevin

    • Ditto Kev. My sister’s upmarket sedan came back with greasy fingerprints all over the sun visor and head lining. Wonder what the idiot was doing in there. I swear some of them pay little attention to what they do. If this keeps up we’ll be finding dirty footprints on the rear parcel shelf.

      When I was a forklift repair tech, we had to clean everything before it was returned. The customer always really appreciated that because nobody that uses the damn thing in their warehouse ever does this.

  4. Some years ago a neighbour of mine got home from work in his TBI ford ute and asked me to have a look because it’s running rough. Sure enough it was and seemed to be running lean. Note that this thing was a clapped-out 80’s pile of rotted out junk, typical of a first.. umm.. “car”.

    It was already late and dark so checking everything but the cursory items was out of the question. Fuel pump wires were in shocking condition due to a previous hack-job years earlier by some idiot, but wasn’t the culprit. Fixed that anyway.

    Wanted to check the fuel filter as all electrical connections and intake meters/sensors seemed fine. Didn’t have a plug socket to check mixture properly, so told him to take it easy and I’ll look further after work the next day.

    I get home to find he’s spent the best part of the day with a mate of his, shopping for bits at a wreckers and swapping them out – ignition leads and such, intake sensor/air cleaner box included, but not the fuel filter. Problem still not fixed, but somehow he got the idea that it was my fault that he bought all that crap regardless what I told him the night before.

    He eventually sells the bomb and starts using his GF’s car instead.

    Sometimes Eric, it matters not if they either fail to ask advice or call you immediately, they can still screw it up on their own.

  5. I just replaced the entire starter on our old 2002 Accord 4 cylinder because the solenoid was bad at a cost of 120$ and an hour of my time. Maybe your sister has the harder to work on V6? If it makes you (or your sister) feel better no parts retailer offers the solenoid separately.

    You don’t just need the basic knowledge and some tools, you need someplace decent to work. For me a little repair work is a reason to spend some satisfying time in a warm, well lit garage. Apartment dwellers with only the parking lot to work in, with a flashlight, in this cold and with the clock ticking down the minutes until you are supposed to be back to work and of course no second or third car for backup don’t feel like they really have a choice.

    • Hi Daniel,

      Their big mistake was not being calm about it – and buying parts (like the battery) before they had any clue what the problem was.

      I agree about work space – and place.

      Thank the Motor Gods for a warm, well-lit garage!

  6. David, you have my sympathy and empathy. I too would not purchase a Ford but for different and the same reasons both. Frod’s been(screw you spell check, I know what I want to write)putting those shoddy things……. along with those shoddy plastic intakes, on their junk since the 80’s. There was a time, in the 80’s when Ford put plastic intakes on nearly everything including their CV’s The CV’s ran pretty well for their time and did fairly well in major mechanicals but there was always that scepter of a plastic intake hovering like a black cloud. I’m no expert on them and don’t know if cold weather plays hell with them(probably)but Texas weather for most of the year(or simply heat cycles?) sure does. Ford made a pile off all those heroes and the CV’s they gave hell and tore up every day. I have knowledge of local things as such and recall very few CV’s that avoided this problem. So, how many other brand vehicles do you know that 50,000 miles into their life need a new intake?

    I realize a great many people live in less temperate climes but I can only imagine our 125 degree variances in ambient temp thru the year stress them also. Then again, I’ve seen lots of plastic parts of all sorts fail when a metal part wouldn’t have.

    • In 202,000 miles the 4.6L in my ’97 Mustang has had two intake cross overs go. One catastrophically the other I noticed weeping through a hairline crack before it blew. Sadly right after I replaced the intake manifold gaskets so I got to do the job again. And really other than the coils getting weak and the waterpump I replaced for weeping the engine has needed nothing else but oil, filters, coolant and cleaning the IAC a couple times.

      Since the aluminum cross over the problem has gone away for Fords. And -everybody- now uses plastic intake manifolds to save weight and get better internal surface finish for air flow. GM has had problematic ones themselves. Just look at the replacements Doorman offers.

      • I’ll take cast iron or aluminum. They last decades. Put a simple TBI unit on top and you have almost all the “modern” drivability characteristics of a modern car, without the over-the-top complexity and expense of the modern car.

        Everything – just about – since the advent of TBI and overdrive transmissions has only added cost an complexity to cars. Not improved how the car drives.

        The post-TBI/overdrive stuff (especially DI and the latest 8-9 speed automatics) was added to eke out fractional improvements in fuel efficiency and fractional decreases in emissions.

        Throw it in the woods!

    • Hi Eight,

      My mechanic friend gets some interesting reading materials – inside baseball stuff. Direct Injection is already biting the owners of such cars in the ass (and wallet). Carbon build-up. Top end work… well before 100k in (apparently) lots of late model cars less than three years old.

      More fun to come!

      • eric, I don’t understand that. More efficient burn should produce less carbon. I can see the ultra-high compression ratios causing hot spots on the pistons and valves necessitating top end work but I don’t get how DI would make MORE carbon buildup. It does just the opposite on diesels.

        I do see how the carbon buildup could be in a more localized area.

        BTW, when it comes to starting systems, I realize AGM batteries are more expensive but just one of the great things about them is Zero corrosion on the terminals. They’re lighter too and require no maintenance, a thing I had to witness for myself as being better. Sure, we’ve had MF batteries forever now and for the most part, they lived a shorter life but not so with AGM which are sealed. On many cars where the battery is hidden, it’s a real pain to take everything off, including things such as the washer system, air intake system(often every thing right up to the intake) and underhood braces just to add water. Over a decade ago I was pleasantly surprised to find they responded to the desulfation process many of the newer battery chargers will perform.

        On a note about starting systems and what it could be that’s not right, even the small power wire from the switch key to the solenoid will get loose. I used to have a pickup that would eat those wires(actually, break the wire off the ring terminal) left and right, be going along and it just shuts off. Then I get enough grassburrs in my body fixing it to start a new crop. I finally got a special “high heat” ring terminal that fixed the problem. Go to your electrical supply for these. They’re mainly used on ovens and such where high heat is a factor. They’re made of much better stuff and generally are twice as thick and a great deal stronger.

        One of the main things I look for is oil weeps or leaks that cover any part of that system too.

        • Hi Eight,

          The cause – apparently – is that in DI, the intake valves are not “washed down” with gas, hence crud builds up. And de-carbonizing can mean pulling the head – a big (expensive) job. Solvents could be tried, I suppose – but my bet is that would risk screwing up the O2 sensors and cats downstream.

          I loves me some AGM batteries! Have ’em in all my stuff except the trucks….

          • eric, that leads me to think a diesel injector cleaner might work, just a little put in the Clean side of the air cleaner now and then. The cams must have a lot of overlap(at different times on all these variable valve timing engine) if this is happening Even with electronic vehicles I’ll still throw in a gallon of diesel in a full gas tank now and again. It may not help but has never hurt anything. I thinking squirting in enough to coat the inside of the combustion chamber as you kill the engine might be a boon, esp. if you cranked it up and did it cold and let it sit till the next time you used it. Every time i look at a new gasoline engine my fingers curl up and I can’t do a thing, have to get somebody to set my beer somewhere with a straw. ha ha ha

  7. Customers are irate when 1.5 hours labor is charged for a $10 part. In other words, they’d rather pay far more to replace serviceable batteries and starters than to be charged for the time required to diagnose and repair electrical connectors. That, and many automotive “technicians” have no technical aptitude for troubleshooting so throwing parts at it in hopes of success is the best they can do.

    • I hear you, CC.

      And the trend is becoming typical – in my opinion, because of the often extensive diagnostic work needed to source an electrical (or computer) fault in a new/recent-vintage car. It’s easier to just pull parts. Just not cheaper.

      PS: An engineer I know who works for one of the majors told me – off the record – that we’ve arrived at a kind of nexus of complexity such that it almost takes an engineer to competently service a modern vehicle… and engineers (or those with the aptitude to be engineers) generally prefer to not wear overalls with “Dale” on them, spending their days turning wrenches. So, you end up with code-pullers who pull parts… who don’t really understand how it all works.

      • We end up with parts swappers largely because the USA gutted out it’s technical education programs in favor of everyone going into debt slavery for some sort of college degree, usually one that is worthless for any sort of career. Carlin put most simply and crudely when he said the system wants people just smart enough to press the buttons.

        The automobile is still a series of simple systems tied together. The idea is to break the car down into it’s simple subsystems and go from there. Anyone who can diagnosis a 1970s car competently, a car that just sits there and doesn’t tell you anything should be able to diagnosis a brand new car IMO. There are more components to check, there are different ways of checking things, but really it’s the same basic skills at the end of the day. The problem IMO must be the training. People are trained in procedures and not how to think.

        The other issue is labor costs for diagnosis vs. parts cost. Part swapping can easily be cheaper when labor is charged at over $100/hr.

        • BrentP, eric, guess I should have read back a few posts. But both of you are correct. I watched it happen during my life and saw only the ones who could do computerized diagnostic work succeed.

          A guy close to me was a good mechanic but reading tech and esp. learning tech was not his forte. And he no longer mechanics…..but if you wanted to compete in some old style drag race, give him a call. His youngest child now has his own shop an is one of the best mechanics I know. He’s the only guy I’ll allow to work on my stuff which I rarely farm out to someone else.

      • I have a buddy, who, had he been born forty years earlier, would have been an auto mechanic, no question. But for whatever reason no one can figure, cannot operate a computer (his brain just doesn’t comprehend how to work one). So he flunked out of mechanic school because of it, and largely can’t work on a car with a computer. There seems to be little need for classic car repairs (or too many people that only want to work on old cars) around here, so he is driving a truck. He knows a computer will someday replace him in the drivers seat of that too. Never the less, he is not a fan of computers………..

        Your right about engineers not wanting to turn wrenches. Most I know don’t want to get their hands dirty even. I think its a huge problem as they design things that are really hard (and expensive) to service. And its all due to the fact engineers NEVER touch (let alone service) what they have designed.

        • NEVER?
          Maybe I just imagined trips and visiting dealers. On my last trip a dealer had a problem with a product. Not my design, but I was working on making it better. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it. I did some diagnosis, some parts swapping and isolated the problem to a sub-assembly. We told the dealer to replace the subassembly under warranty and send the problem one back so I could look at it with the proper inspection equipment. I found the problem back at the office and isolated it to a single part.

          I’ve always had to deal with serviceability issues. My entire career I have. But here’s the thing, the assembly like is usually prioritized above service.

        • richb, there are plenty things he could work on and be well paid. Lots of older equipment out there he could understand and fix.

          I know a guy similar to what you say. He’s dyslexic and doesn’t have the proper skills although he could if anyone had cared to diagnose and teach him.

          Just not being able to type is a big thing for a lot of people. Maybe a lot of people who can’t type just didn’t have anyone who cared if they learned so let them drop out. That’s a big deal in the computerized world we live in and leaves many feeling inadequate when they probably really are not.

          Take my wife….please. Really though, she’s very smart but can’t type. I can bang my head against a problem and often, overthink it. Desperation will drive me to drink so to speak and she’ll come look at what I’m working on. I know this stuff and she doesn’t but she’ll say What is the link between this and that? Don’t you need this to do that before the other will work.

          Oh hell yes. She’s right. I had thunk past that looking for a much more complicated design for things I might add in the future when she can point out the obvious. I feel sorry for your buddy. I know it’s frustrating and have seen it before many times.

          Recently I spent hours performing checks on batteries and solenoids, etc. on a big rig just so someone who could crawl under that thing and do the work(I was down in my back at the time)which I had predicted two months earlier. Here’s what I’d said to the maintenance and mechanic two months earlier “The first day it’s really cold this truck won’t start and it ain’t the batteries, it’s the starter”. But I’d always get it started, even if it took a while. We had to do it the hard way though and do it all in 20 degree weather with a 30 mph wind blowing.

          I was off driving another rig and didn’t really want to hear from it till it was fixed. If it’s my rig, I’ll drive it and fix it. If I get paid driving wages, I’ll wait for somebody making twice as much to do what I said months earlier needed to be done. I wish I had your buddy working for me right now. There are a plethora of things to be fixed, mechanically, that don’t have anything computerized on them.

      • Eric,

        I got bit by that at a Ford Stealer. I drive into the STEALERship, where I purchased the vehicle, to have a hard start/run engine issue on my Ford Explorer looked at. Mind you, I purchased a Ford Power Train warranty on the truck in question (as a side note this was my first mistake, NEVER EVER buy factory PT warranties. A third party warranty actually covers any parts that the engine requires to operate. Yes that includes engine sensors). I described the issue with the Explorer and the Service Writer flat out stated, I know what the issue is, “it is X sensor!” OK, so replace it. I go to pick up the truck thinking said repair is covered by the PT warranty. NO DICE! Ford’s PT warranty doesn’t cover any sensors required to keep the F’n truck running. SAY WHAT? So my PT warranty was essentially worthless, IMHO. To boot, the next morning I get up crank the truck and guess what? Same S different day. Meanwhile I’m out 300 bucks plus parts. I call the STEALERship again and talk to the SW and he says well it must be the X sensor. I asked, just how many sensors can cause this issue? 11 he spurts at an average cost of 200 bucks each all not covered by Fomoco PT warranty. Well, I paid in excess of 2 grand for the warranty so I wouldn’t have to pay 2 grand to fix a PT issue, if you know what I mean…. Long story short, the issue was not a sensor at all. By the time I had the money to pay 2 grand for the repair, the truck was 3k miles out of the PT warranty. A proper technician diagnosed the issue and found a cracked PLASTIC intake. He replaced it and the issue went away. Nice eh? It gets better. I call Ford. I wanted the repair covered under the PT warranty I paid for. NO DICE! Doesn’t matter the issue started under warranty and was plainly documented as well as the non correction of said issue. Ford refuse to cover it all because I was poor and had to save up 2000 bucks. I then had to wait until the PT warranty collapsed until I did was able to. So as a result, I was out an additional 544 bucks in labor plus parts.

        Now Eric, I know you are not a Ford guy but I grew up a Ford guy. Hell, I even use to work for Ford out of the N.O. zone office as a new technologies training instructor. I’d been buying Fords since I was 16. But I swear, I’ll never buy another Ford again as long as I live. Strictly due to the entirely crappy attitude taken by Ford on my issue. BTW, Ford knew about the issue. They distributed a Field Change Bulletin to all the STEALERships about the Explorer intake problem and the STEALERS were suppose to correct them when any vehicle came in with a hard start/run issue.

        As a side note, Ford certainly doesn’t care about the axiom of customer service. Satisfy a customer they tell on average 4 people about a good experience. PISS a customer OFF, they on average tell 12. In the internet age is is not good to PISS OFF a CUSTOMER! With the help of the internet, I’ve told more than 100 people of this travesty and plan on telling more. Ford should have swallowed the cost of the repair under the PT warranty and kept me happy.

        David Ward
        Memphis, Tennessee

        • Sorry about the rant.

          The way FOMOCO started treating customer is one of the major reasons I left and went into the computer field. LOL!

          BTW, I can troubleshoot computer problems. I’ve been doing it now for at least 35 years. Which is why I think that Eric retiring his iMAC is a bit extreme, if you know what I mean?? Hell, have you seen the new specs for the Mac Mini? 1.4 ghz dual core i5 boxes. POS in my opinion. MSata soldered onto the MB, Memory the same. If you haven’t thought ahead you are so screwed. I just read an article from OWC that states my 2009 mini can support 8 gb. I plan on getting it. Then I also plan on putting an Intel 120GB SSD into the little beast. Dang, man even with a core 2 duo that bastid will be faster than my Winblows machine with a 256 GB ssd, 8 gb of ram and a quad core processor all because of an optimized OS. Go figure.

          David Ward
          Memphis, Tennessee

          • Hi David,

            Thanks for the input; computers are definitely not my bag.

            My Mac’s issue is intermittent slowness. As in, dial-up speed slow. 30-90 seconds to open a web page, for example. It also frequently gets “hung up” – and I see the spinning ball thing… and sometimes, the only way to get it to stop is to pull the power cord and re-start. It never used to do either thing.

            What I’m worried about, chiefly, is a dying hard drive. If the Mac croaks, I am out of business. EPautos goes dark.

            In the past, I always had a back-up for just-in-case. Meaning, another, older Mac I could fall back on. But because times have been so tight, I only have an unusably old laptop to fall back on. It’s so old it only displays some of the EPautos “admin” area and I literally can’t use the thing for work. Basic e-mail and that’s about it.

            So, if this desktop goes, I’m screwed.

            That’s why I am looking at buying a new machine and relegating this one to back-up status.

          • David, I gotta replace this nearly 11 year old HP desktop. Been a good one but it has no sound no and not up to speed on the new peripherals with a badly outdated graphics card. I want to replace it with a laptop/desktop replacement. Got any suggestions?

        • Hi David,

          That well and truly sucks.

          Especially since the cracked intake should have been diagnosed in the first place and did not require a computer wizard to do it, either. Vacuum leaks (which would be an issue with a cracked intake) are pretty damned basic. One of the first things I’d look for. A visual examination of the intake usually uncovers such – and if you can’t see a hairline crack, a shot of WD-40 almost always finds such.

          I am not a fan of plastic intakes because plastic is brittle and more fragile than cast iron or aluminum – both of which are more amenable to the heat cycling and vibration that comes with internal combustion. The OEMs use plastic because it is cheap and because it is easily formed and light.

          But cheap is the main reason.

          • weight and internal surface finish are the main reasons. Cost wise probably third since it eliminates machining and all the manual handling involved with casting however the injection molds would be comparatively very costly and then there is the vibration or sonic welding fixture. Then of course a new molding machine may have been needed depending on what they had with available capacity at the time. It should pay back before the design is changed though but it would have been a very significant up front investment.

          • eric, just wanted to throw something in on the chance not everybody here knows about. I use a propane torch as a source and have even taken the line off something to use a propane bottle to spray propane all around a running engine to determine if there is a leak on the intake side, gaskets included. Of course it shouldn’t be done in a closed area and no need to cover every place in one sitting that could potentially be leaking if there are no cooling fans running to disperse it. It’s safer than using engine starting fluid. It works well for finding cracked vacuum parts as well.

      • But they have a “patch” on their shirt to justify the $120.00/ hr. labor charge ( which the mechanic gets $15-20 / hr. of ).

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