Some Car Advice For The Non-Gearheaded

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Cars are kind of unique in one important respect: Most of us have to have one, even if we don’t have a clue how they work. We – most of us – can avoid other things we don’t really understand, like differential equations. But cars are as much a part of modern life as clothes and just as hard to do without.

But, this leaves the not car-hip particularly vulnerable to things expensive, potentially dangerous – and which they don’t see coming because they don’t know what to look for. Things like…lug nut 2

* Snapped off lug nuts –

These are the bolts that hold the wheels in place. Most cars have four or five lug nuts per wheel. Each screws onto a threaded stud that sticks through holes in the wheels. Sometimes, a rushed or inexperienced technician (look out for these at quick lube joints, as well as – ironically – state safety inspection lanes at gas stations) will cross-thread a lug nut, or apply too much tightening pressure with his air gun. Air guns are common at shops because they’re quick and because they make the job of loosening and re-installing lug nuts less labor intensive. The problem is there’s not much tactile feel and it’s easy to cross-thread and over-tighten… and to snap off one or more of the studs.

Now, the right thing to do in such a case is replace the sheared off stud with a new one and not charge the customer. What sometimes happens, unfortunately, is that the tech doesn’t do that – and lets the customer drive off with four rather than five lug nuts (or three rather than four) which makes it much more likely that the wheel will shear off the car while it’s moving. This is, of course, potentially catastrophic.lug nut 3

What to do: Whenever you have your vehicle worked on, before driving off – before paying the bill – do a walk-around of the vehicle and count lug nuts. If any are missing, if any of the studs they screw onto are broken off, call this to the attention of the shop’s manager. Hopefully, he will take care of it. If he refuses, drive the car – slowly, with extreme caution – to another shop and have them fix it.

Then report the first shop to the local BBB and anyone else who will listen.

If more than one lug nut is missing (more than one stud sheared off) do not drive the car, period. If necessary, have it towed to another shop.

Also: It’s a really good idea to ask that the shop install the lug nuts by hand, using a tool called a torque wrench rather than an air gun. This will help avoid the problem of over-tightened lug nuts, which are not only sometimes a real bear to subsequently loosen and remove by hand if you have to (as when you’re stuck by the side of the road with a flat tire) but which can also warp brake disc rotors, which typically means replacing them once the damage is done.

* Under (or over) filled crankcase –

Many quick-lube places do not pour fresh oil into your engine quart-by-quart. They use a gun-like tool that transfers oil from a large container, such as a 50 gallon drum. Ideally, the amount is metered – and ideally, they check to be sure the right amount has been added. Neither too little nor too much (either is bad; too little oil can lead to oil starvation, overheating and catastrophic engine failure while too much can lead to aeration – “foaming” – of the oil and similar major problems). Unfortunately, as a result of rushing or ineptitude, it sometimes happens that your car’s engine gets over (or under) filled. If you don’t notice this, assume all’s ok and drive the car around, not only could you end up with a big bill, the shop responsible may deny responsibility. They may say the car was fine when it left the shop, the engine filled with just the right amount of oil – and they can’t be faulted for what someone else (they’ll claim) did later on down the line.oil check pic

What to do: Before you drive off, pop the hood and check the dipstick. Anyone can do this. It does not require tools, it does not require special knowledge or skills. The primary hood catch will usually be somewhere inside the car, on the driver’s side, near the footwell. Your owner’s manual will tell you exactly. Pull this, then go outside and pull the secondary catch near the grille area that keeps the hood from popping open while the car’s moving (in the event the catch inside the car is inadvertently pulled). Now raise the hood and look for the dipstick. It will usually be obvious, with a yellow or orange handle. With the engine off, pull it out, wipe it clean with a rag or paper towel, then reinsert it in the tube. Now pull it out again and check the level against the marks on the dipstick. There will usually be a mark (or range area) that indicates “full.” If it’s low – or high – or if you have any doubts, go inside and ask the store manager to come out and have a look. Do not drive off until you are confident your car has the right amount of oil in the engine, neither too much nor too little.

PS: The oil on the dipstick should appear clear/translucent, if it was just changed. If it is dark brown (or black) the shop may not have changed your oil at all.

* That your car’s “safe” because it has a state inspection sticker –

It may be that it was in good roadworthy condition at the time of the inspection. That does not mean it’s in the same condition today – or will be in the same good condition two months from now. Tires, brake pads and suspension components wear as the car is used. Rubber (as in windshield wiper blades) oxidizes from exposure to UV rays and becomes brittle. Exhaust systems rust. All a valid state inspection sticker tells you is that on the date the vehicle was inspected, everything was within legal limits. The inspector is legally obligated to “pass” the car. But he may neglect to tell you that certain things just barely made the cut. Your tires, as a for-instance, might only have 20 percent of their usable tread left. Your brake pads may be worn to just a fraction of an inch of being too worn to pass muster. But your car passes, you get the new sticker – good for a year, usually. However, you may need new tires before another month goes by. Same with other wear parts.

A very real problem with these state-mandated “safety” inspections is that they arguably impart a false sense of security and encourage people to just as assume their car’s ok – fit to drive – until it doesn’t pass inspection.inspection sticker 2

What to do: Ask the inspector whether the car’s tires, brakes and so on are probably going to need attention before the next inspection – a year down the road. If he says yes, keep on top of those items and get them fixed before they become a safety hazard – which will probably be long before your next state safety inspection.

Remember: If you get into a wreck on account of a problem with your vehicle and you cause damage or injury to some other person or their property, you can be held civilly and perhaps even criminally liable. That is to say, you are not legally (or morally) entitled to drive around on bald tires just because three months ago your car passed safety inspection.

One doesn’t need to be a mechanic – or even pop the hood – to periodically look at all four tires to make sure they are not obviously worn out (and to look for any obvious signs of structural damage or impending failure such as a rip or bubble on the sidewall). You can also take preventative steps as soon as you notice any meaningful change in the way your car handles and brakes. If you feel pulsation through the brake pedal or hear grinding/screeching noises – that’s a clue. If the steering wheel is vibrating, it’s a clue. If there is a new noise coming from somewhere… it’s clue.

Have it checked out as soon as possible.

No matter what the sticker on your windshield says.

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  1. Some jerk loosened all 6 of my front driver side lug nuts in hopes that I would crash or total the Blazer because he hated it being parked in the apartment complex parking lot (I never figured out who did this- he also keyed it and spread snot on the windows on other occasions after this failed). I drove 12 miles in deep snow (at night, hence me not noticing this) with the 4×4 on and figured it out the next day. The deep snow prevented me from noticing any abnormal wheel wobble. All 6 studs were half worn down, and the wheel was destroyed because the stud holes were all 2x larger- but the wheel stayed on! The front has a huge manual locking hub that is all steel, and it kept the weight of the truck through all that! Fortunately, I was able to replace all studs in about 6 hours time. Pretty sure that guy did not expect to see it again

  2. Hey Eric – I need some advice. How can I keep the INSIDE of my windshield from fogging/frosting up? Or at least get it off w/o waiting for the defroster to warm up? I bought one of those little heaters that plugs into the lighter socket, but it’s a joke.

  3. Ya gotta love air wrenches and lug nuts. There’s nothing like getting a flat by the road side and trying to loosen those cranked-on nuts with a four-way wrench when what you need is a four-foot breaker bar.

      • The OTHER thing using a torque wrench on wheel nuts does for you is prevent the disc brake from getting warped. Uneven torque on the bolts (like from an air gun) can pull it out of true. 5 minutes per wheel can save you a $300+ repair.

        The torque wrenches sold by Harbor Freight are “good enough” for wheel lugs (I wouldn’t trust theirs when rebuilding an engine). The owner’s manual will have the torque setting to use.

      • eric, it greatly depends on what you’re working on too. Some big chains stores have 7′ long torque wrenches for big rig lug nuts but most just hammer til it’s tight. I don’t blame a single operator not using a torque wrench since they’re a two man thing for the most part. Trying to use one by yourself is a real bitch. Most stuff I can use a 1/2″ impact on it’s cool to do so.

        But….I use a torque wrench on wheel nuts on my personal vehicles after I spin it up semi-tight with an impact, unless it’s a high dollar exposed nut or capnut, and then use the torque wrench and ratchet only.

        I came across a thing one time that I’ve never heard anyone discuss. I changed out wheels and tires on a Nissan 4WD for some 30.5 X 15 tires and 7.5″ wheels, wagon style. I ran those but we got into a big rainy era(those were the days I’ll likely never see again)and I was always getting stuck with those A/T tires so I bought another set of wheels and mud tires I kept in the barn most of the time. One day I was switching to the mud tires and although the wheels looked identical, the boss that sticks out in back to contact the axle was a wider circle than the others. I wondered about this as it was wider than where the axle end behind the drum was. I stuck those wheels and tires on real quick with an impact but didn’t over-torque it, just eased up to the final torque with a wrench, I noticed the rear wheels(drum brakes)kept taking more and more threads before finally getting right. When I attempted to drive away, the rear wheels were locked. WTF? says I to me. So I break them down. Low and behold, where the boss on the wheel contacted the drum, it was far enough outside the axle behind it that the drums were literally in two pieces, both broken right where the wheel contacted them. It was time to make a call, get in the Chevy and go to the wrecking yard for another pair. I made a thin spacer to take that torque and it was ok with those same wheels. It was do that or buy two new different wheels that would have looked identical but obviously weren’t.

  4. Does anyone know if the Automotive courses at technical colleges actually teach you anything?

    Or would I be better off to buy a second car and just dive in?

    • You can only check around from my experience. The same course(s)may be taught by someone else from one semester to another. You get somebody who really knows their stuff and then a dolt. If I were going to do that, I’d check with some of the students and see if I could find a mechanic who knew the instructor too. Seems like it’s always a crap shoot.

      • From my experience in Vo-Tech school (ag) there are 4 kinds of instructors: Those who know their stuff and can communicate it to you; those with good information but who are ineffective communicators; those who can transfer information, but have nothing you want to know; and finally, the totally worthless.

    • 8, PtB, those are good points. Isn’t any reason for those courses to be any different from the rest of Big Education. I’ll just find other ways.

  5. Another thing with state inspectors. They may actually know very little about cars, since many people in government jobs are hired for political reasons rather then for merit. Though it happens far more often in local building inspections, it certain can come into play with car inspections as well. It can be as simple as a lazy inspector as well. Looks at one tire, looks ok, doesn’t bother looking at the other three, misses the one bad tire for example.

    When I was selling real estate, I never went by government inspectors passing a property, when it came to new construction, I always advised a third party inspection no matter the age of a property. For example, I watched a town inspector not even bother looking at the second floor of a house, when doing a final inspection. He then issued the builder a occupancy permit! After he left the builder even admitted that inspector had never gone upstairs ever! Seems the government drone couldn’t do stairs………

    So hundreds of dollars in government inspection fees resulted in only half the house looked at. The builder, wanting to cover his own butt, hired his own third party inspector to double check his own work. Most probably wouldn’t bother with that.

    • Growing up, SC had a vehicle inspection. The most a licensed inspection station could charge (per state law) was $12. And they weren’t making any money on doing them. So they’d charge you another $7 to adjust your headlights. 3 turns left on the screwdriver followed by 3 turns to the right, and now you were in compliance!

      • MD has vehicle inspection, but not annual, only when the title is transferred. And even that is waived if the transfer is to a family member.

    • City, county, state, and you never know what to expect unless it’s definitely going to be someone you’ve dealt with before and that can change with a bad mood, spousal problems and health. I completed a remodel job(electrical). Everything was code and straight so no beefs but this guy didn’t like I had put the ground down on receptacles. This was way back when things were starting to change and you’d see more cords with a 90 for a ground on bottom. He made me turn them all up. Nothing in the written code that said that, just him. A half hour later and he was satisfied. I would say happy but don’t think that was in him.

      When you pull a city permit it’s often a known thing but as in this case, not always. I work with pipeline inspectors(actually, around them)frequently. They all have their own ways and interpretation of contracts. One guy will drive by something and say that’s not what the contract specifies but he’s not doing that section. Mostly, if a land owner will sign off on it, it’s fine.

      I see it all and it mostly makes little sense. A welder gets three tries to make a proper weld. An operator can literally touch a line so you can barely see a mark and if an inspector is there, he’s gone(generally to some other part of the job). Most inspectors think getting out of a pickup is a big deal but some will get down there in the trenches, literally. That doesn’t mean anything though.


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