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Friday, April 8, 2011

California Dreamin'

In California, repair shop owners have to ask the right questions because we have the toughest smog laws in the nation. When a customer comes in and says they want an appointment for a tune-up, nearly eighty percent that I handle have flunked the smog check. Smog failure… tune-up… then pass smog. I’m afraid not. The situation has to be handled right or I will have a very unhappy customer and a comeback. Yesterday’s stop-in illustrates my point. A customer drives in with a 2001 Mitsubishi. She’s hopped out of the vehicle and is already pointing a finger accusingly at the poor Diamante. I greet her at the front.
“I need an appointment for a tune-up on this thing,” she states.
“Sure, may I ask if you’re having any particular problems you believe are tune-up related?” I’m trying to gather info without coming across like I’m looking to pad the bill.
“It runs great. I flunked the smog test so I need to get it tuned.”
Uh oh. “Why don’t you let me see your test results and I’ll try and find out if your smog failure is tune-up related?”
Ms. Diamante scrunches her face up at me. “Of course it’s tune-up related. What the hell else could it be?”
“Many things in the computer feedback system can cause failures in these. Is your ‘Service Engine Soon’ light on?”
Ms. D’s face goes blank for a moment. That would be a yes, but she thinks it would be better if the answer is no. “I don’t know what light you’re talking about.”
“Did the tech who did the smog check mention anything about codes?”
“Uh… I’m not sure. Look, can’t you just tune it?”
“I can, but the 3.5L engine in these is an expensive one to tune. It runs over $600 because the upper intake manifold has to come off to reach the rear ignition parts. That’s a lot of money to pay out for nothing if it doesn’t solve your problem.”
Ms. D laughs. “$600? Ridiculous. I can get it done for under two.”
No, she can’t, but there’s no use getting into that discussion. I stick to the facts. “My point is, whether you pay $200 or $600, it will be a waste of money if you still can’t pass smog. I can tell from your test results if you’ll allow me to see them. Looking is free.”
“Fine!” Ms. D angles inside the car and pulls out some papers from the glove compartment. She brings them out and hands them to me.
It takes me only moments to see the actual exhaust readings out the tailpipe are as good as you can hope for in a ten year old car and well within the test parameters. Carbon Monoxide, Hydrocarbons, and Nitrous Oxides are all comfortably below the fail point. The key engine indicator is very good – that’s the dreaded CO2 (Carbon Dioxide). In a combustion engine the higher the CO2 in the 14 to 15 percent range the better the engine condition. When CO2 drops below 14 percent, it’s an indication of a poorly running vehicle. Hers read 14.5%. What flunked her was the two codes set in the computer memory listed as failures – PO421, which I knew from so many of them over the years, is a code indicating failure of the Pre-Catalytic Converter. The other code was a PO455 for a large Evaporative Emissions Leak.
I asked her for her key and went over to start the Mitsubishi. I pointed at the ‘Service Engine Soon’ light glowing in plain sight. “This is what’s making you fail smog, and I’m afraid the one code being set is for a very expensive part. I would need to make some tests to confirm it. Have you left the gas cap off recently for a time?”
Ms. D’s face went blank again. That would be a yes.
“That can cause this Evap code. The test results indicate it’s a history code so once it’s erased it probably won’t come back. The tune-up will not help you pass smog. It may be a great maintenance idea if it’s been a very long time since you’ve had it done, but it won’t help you with the smog fail due to these codes.”
“How much is that Pre… Pre… whatever you’re talking about?”
“The last one I did was in the $1400 dollar range. California Mitsubishi Pre-Catalytic Converters can only be bought from the dealer and they are very expensive.”
I agree, but I’m not taking the rap for it. “It sure is, but I don’t make the parts or the cars.”
Ms. D plucks the test out of my hands and dives into the driver’s seat. “That’s more than the car’s worth.”
Maybe… and then the smart-ass thoughts stream through my mind from the couple with the Cad from my last blog as I watch Ms. D back out of the shop – but what about the sentimental value… does the Mitsubishi have a name? Yeah, I know… I’m bad...  :)   Anyway, the point of all this is it’s very important to ask questions even if it costs you work. Having Ms. D storm back in with another smog failure after I did over $600 work on her car is a no-no.


raine said...

Bernard, you really know your stuff. :)
And I guess you've learned patience from dealing with the public. My instinctive reaction to “$600? Ridiculous. I can get it done for under two” would be to wish her a good day & walk.

BernardL said...

It's the metal beasts on four wheels that teach patience, Raine. If you lose your cool working on them, they'll snap something off just to spite you. You mentioned naming your car and such. You ought to hear me when I'm three hours into a very delicate repair and I'm going 'please baby... please baby... please... it's friggin' embarrassing to realize I'm cajoling an inanimate object. :)

raine said...

it's friggin' embarrassing to realize I'm cajoling an inanimate object.


BernardL said...

Yep, Raine, I'm just another mystic mechanic. :)

whydibuy said...

And an example of how not to approach a service person.

If you were a waiter, the meal might include a little spit,lol.

But, really, a polite and specific concern that it failed a test would have gone alot farther. As you noted, it appears the engine was sound and perhaps it was nothing but a stored code for a gas cap loose or missing or damaged.
If she was respectful, perhaps a inspection of the cap and a clearing of the codes is all that was needed. She could have calmly waited a couple days to see if it set a code again. If not, she could cruise on down for a second test. Nice and easy.

I'm with Raine. Mouth off at me, don't let the door hit ya in the ass on your way out.

BernardL said...

It's that pre-cat code that wasn't going away, whydibuy. That wasn't a history code. That was an active and expensive one. Those pre-cats on the Mitsubishis of that vintage are very common failures.

She didn't call me any names or imply I was a thief so anything else is just the service business. Imply that I'm a thief or launch a personal attack on my character, and I will and have escorted customers bodily to their cars and stuffed them in. I have a line like anyone else, but it's only been crossed a handful of times in over three decades. Usually a warning is all that's needed.

Charles Gramlich said...

Man I wish you were here to work on my cars. I probably wouldn't have traded in my scion.

BernardL said...

Thanks, Charles, but I spent a Mardi Gras season down there in 1973 working in Baton Rouge from February to June. It's too wet for me, buddy. :)

Vesper said...

I loved reading this, Bernard. You have such a talent for this kind of real-life dialogue. And your knowledge and honesty are highly reassuring.

BernardL said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Vesper. I admit it. Dialogue rattles around in my head for a long time after I've had a conversation. :)

whydibuy said...

I have no doubt that there is a thriving field of mechanics willing to do a bypass of that sensor if the car could sneak past the emission test.
And by the sound of the readouts, it could.

She'll find one willing to cross a couple wires, undocumented of course.

BernardL said...

That used to be true, whydibuy. It's no longer possible to rig the tests. The code she got is computer generated when the oxygen sensor in front of the pre-catalytic converter is varying normally, but the oxygen sensor after the pre-cat doesn't read a steady clean signal going down the road. The only way to cheat smog in California now is for a testing station to run a completely different car through that passes, and yeah, some are doing that.