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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Toyota Corolla Codes PO171, PO441, or PO455

Yesterday, I had another experience with a customer owning a Toyota Corolla getting the rapidly popular PO171, PO441, and or PO455. This was a favorite customer of mine. She’s been bringing her car in to Nilson Brothers Garage since shortly after I came to work here in 1976. Imogene is in her eighties now with a 2009 Corolla which she had told me would be her last car.

Imogene pops open her driver’s door as I approach and eases out of the car carefully. She only puts about two thousand miles a year on her car, so I haven’t seen her since the end of 2010. She’s one of those people that tests your ability to take verbal jabs. When she finds out you can, she’ll fire a few over your bow at a moment’s notice. This was my moment.

“Wow, Bernie… you managed to keep the weight off. Your face looks gaunt. Eat a sandwich for God’s sake.”

I laugh because when she saw me back in 2010 I’d just lost the fifty extra pounds I had been hauling around after the Achilles Tendon injury I had in 2007. Her first statement back then after I’d been gaining the weight gradually was:‘You look kind of bloated. Do you have a water retention problem?’ Then in 2010, she wasted no time after seeing my drastically trimmed down form to offer me her doctor’s phone number to get checked out for cancer. If anything on me is out of place I can rely on Imogene to point it out to me, including but not limited to smudges, faded work clothes, or even my normally close cropped hair touching my ears. Imogene probably weighs around a hundred pounds and can’t be much over five feet tall. I don’t fire rounds back anyway. I don’t talk back to my elders. Besides, she’s funny.  :)

“It’s staying off too, Imogene. It takes too much torture to get the weight down. What brings you in today, fluid and tire pressure check? I haven’t seen you for a while.” She usually comes in a few times a year so I can check her car’s vitals out. It’s a free service I do for any of my customers uncomfortable about doing it themselves, mostly so if they’re lax about doing it, I won’t get blamed.

“My check engine light came on yesterday. You can do the other stuff too though. I spent some time with my daughter in Arizona so my little Toyota didn’t get out much.”

I had a half hour before my next appointment so Imogene has chosen the right time to drive in. “I have the heater on in the office. Go on in and I’ll check things out for you.”

“Don’t get grease on my seat,” she reminds me on the way to the office.

I smile while putting my seat cover on and my floor protector down. Yeah, that’ll happen. If I ever got grease on her seat, Imogene would make sure she lived to a hundred or my expiration date so I would be dutifully reminded of my carelessness. Plugged into my notebook computer scanner interface, the infamous PO171 (lean system, bank one) and PO441 (evaporative purge flow) show up. I’ve seen these before. I quickly print out the Tech Service Bulletin for Imogene to take with her to the dealer, and check her fluid levels and tire pressures.

In the office, Imogene’s staring at my family picture from Christmas. Uh oh… it’s the one with my black eye from playing basketball I got according to my family just so as to ruin the holiday photos. She does a deliberate pirouette finger pointing at the picture. She was waiting for me, the little…

“Joyce finally clocked your disrespectful ass, huh?”

Why fight it. “Yep, I nagged her once too often at Thanksgiving and she tuned me up.”

Imogene chortles appreciatively. “Okay, so what’s wrong?”

I hand her the printout. “Bad news is you’ll have take this in to the dealer and get the Engine Control Computer replaced. The good news is they’ll probably give you a loaner and it will be free. I’ve already had two other customers with the same thing. Toyota took care of them right away.”

“Damn! I hate going over there.”

“I could do it for you. The cost would be astronomical, but I’m here to please.”

Imogene heads for the door. “I’m old, not stupid. Don’t retire.”

“I’ll make a note. Nice seeing you too, Imogene.” And it was.

Here’s the PDF link for the Tech Service Bulletin for any of you folks out there with a 2009 Toyota Corolla: 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

U0168 Code for GMC

Two rather strange and sometimes creepy aspects of running an auto repair shop happen infrequently, but often enough, where I wonder about the cosmic balance. I call one of the occurrences the ‘Conjuring Factor’. If I really believed in it though, I’d be using it to drum up business whenever the shop gets slow. I keep a card file on customers and jobs. Yes, I also have a complete database with every customer and job on it, but the card file acts as my hard copy for quick access since I don’t keep anything of value in my front office, especially my notebook computers. Once in a while I’ll be flipping through the file at a customer’s request for info on a maintenance record when a name will jump out at me. Then, as happened today, I come in and find a message from that person about getting their vehicle in for service within a day of mentioning him to my wife. I hadn’t seen this particular customer since the beginning of last year. He’s a contractor and owns a relatively new 2007 GMC. The second creepy aspect is when what I call ‘Dumb Luck’ rears its head during a diagnostic check, which also involves my customer with the GMC I’ll refer to as Joe Acadia.

My wife asked about a certain type of electrical contracting because my son is searching the local real estate for a fixer upper home in his price range. I mentioned Joe to her and what do you know, his voice is on my answering machine. I call him up to schedule the repair he hints at in the message – his GMC won’t start occasionally.

“Sometimes my security light blinks on,” Joe explains after he drives in. “Then when I unlock it with the key, it won’t start.”

A number of possibilities float through my head: battery going out, body control computer losing the code it interprets when the key is turned to start or run, concerning security, or even a bad security component such as the mini-computer key goofing up because of a weak battery. People send those things through the wash by accident quite a bit too, and boy does that cause trouble.

“I’ll have to check it out, Joe. Hopefully, it’s just a loose connection. Anything that disrupts power to the body control computer can set a security code. Do you have an extended warranty on this?”

Joe’s silent for a moment, wondering if his answer will somehow affect the price. “It’s out of warranty. It already has more than a hundred thousand miles on it. I drive the crap out of it. I’ll leave it for you.”

He signs the estimate after I write up the sheet and I hook up the GMC to my software. It spits out a U0168 code for interruption of communication to the Instrument Cluster and Security Module. I do the usual quick checks for loose or corroded grounds and power leads – all good. Then it’s time to take a look inside on the column and see if everything jibes as I work the key. Suddenly, creepy aspect number 2 kicks in (Dumb Luck). I lower the telescoping wheel and the security light goes out. I work the wheel up and down, duplicating the problem with security light blinking on and no start. I sell the column harness and install it, thereby ending the no start and security light problem. Joe’s happy.

I, on the other hand, have now tempted the cosmic balance by having both conjured the customer out of thin air, and diagnosed his problem with dumb luck. Uh oh.  :)

Thursday, January 12, 2012


My automotive posts get hundreds of hits a day, and I answer e-mail questions along with the resulting blog comments. I put a link for buying my novel COLD BLOODED in the comments section of each one. The idea was triggered by e-mails from grateful people appreciative of the automotive repair blog posts who suggested I put up a donation button. I figured putting the link for the novel would be a better way of letting people say thank you and get something in return. I received an e-mail with my first review of COLD BLOODED:
“Enjoyed your blog- it helped with my son's Park Avenue. To thank you I bought Cold Blooded and read it on my Kindle. It was great!- You're a very good writer! (And under cover of being a mechanic, probably a very good assassin as well!)
It made my day. Although I’m not an undercover assassin, it never hurts to get some feedback on my undercover writing.  :)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

MRI Methods In Madness

Having been a mechanic for nearly four decades in the demilitarized zone of East Oakland, the arrogant presumption that I’ve seen and heard it all sometimes creeps up on me. Then, lo and behold I read an article like this titled ‘Orgasm Research: Climax in an MRI Machine? Been There, Done That’. Doh! I bet you didn’t know Rutgers University actually hosted dynamically important studies like this. I know I didn't. The author and participant in this lame-brained, cockamamie… I mean earth shattering research is Kayt Sukel, a self professed science journalist, writer, and blogger – two out of three ain’t bad, I guess.

All the while I’m reading Ms. Sukel’s article, I’m thinking wow, this is really the cutting edge of hands on science journalism, complete with directions for journeying into the unknown world of MRI tube masturbation – wear a loose fitting dress with no panties. Her family must be very proud. The Lord knows I don’t want to know who actually pays for this kind of crap at a major university, but I have my suspicions. I take nothing away from Ms. Sukel. To actually cloak this incredible farce in language meant to make it seem like Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon takes real talent and the chutzpah of a true ‘Sex In The City’ High Priestess of nonsense.

There were other science pioneers in the comments section requesting to assist in Ms. Sukel’s future endeavors, and of course the obvious hope Rutgers is still asking for volunteers. They were running neck and neck with the hecklers who wanted full disclosure on exactly whose pocket got picked to subsidize Ms. Sukel’s ‘on the cusp of science’ experiment. Fear not for Ms. Sukel’s safety by the way. The researcher assisting Ms. Sukel, Nan Wise (you can’t make this stuff up) blazed a path into the MRI lab with the proper CVS lubricant. And here I thought a train ride to Reno was exciting.  :)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Reno Trip

I agreed to go with my wife, Saint Joyce, on an AMTRAK train trip to Reno, Nevada over the mountains for our 35th wedding anniversary. She wanted to see the mountains from the train, covered in snow, and stay somewhere nice in a spa room. No problem. We purchased the tickets for the California Zephyr – don’t ask me to explain why they call it the Zephyr. I booked us into the large players spa suite at the El Dorado only a block away from the train station. Fantastic.

We arrived at the Emeryville train station on Thursday morning well ahead of schedule. At train stations in California they issue tokens to use the bathroom, because we have the largest per capita number of homeless bums… I mean unfortunate, without residence, citizens in the country. We’re sitting there making geezer jokes to pass the time about our own myriad quirks in playing the over sixty geezer card at every opportunity to get out of doing what we don’t want to do. I then notice a short, very plump, white haired guy with a beard that looked like Santa Claus walk to the women’s restroom instead of the guy’s. We’re pretty far away, and although I’m considerate, I have no intention of running across the crowded station to rescue this guy. There was nothing left to do but smile and enjoy the show.

“Geezer alert,” I inform Saint Joyce.


“Santa Geezer over there is trying to get his token in the door of the women’s restroom while staring at the very obvious universal symbol, and the word women stenciled in two languages on the door.”

Saint Joyce chuckles because she’s not always saint-like. “Ah oh. Look, he’s not too bad. He got his token to work.”

“This is going to be an interesting test though. If I walk into a restroom, I expect to see urinals, or I know I’m in the wrong place. He’s already been in there too long. That’s a geezer strike two.”

“Strike three,” Joyce proclaims with a laugh. An unhappy occupant has exited the bathroom pointing and announcing ‘there’s a man in there’.

A woman train employee opens the door just in time to have the little red faced elf hustle out saying ‘sorry, sorry’ as he crosses to the correct bathroom. It pretty much gets a few chuckles rather than a call for security forces to arrive. From the look on the old elf’s face it appeared to be a legitimate pull of the geezer card rather than a perverted scheme. Being easily entertained, the scenario passed some time for his fellow geezers, Saint Joyce and I.

We left on time and headed up on our journey into the mountains where it has been unseasonably warm with very little snow. Since snow occupied a top spot on the Anniversary love train trip, Saint Joyce is mildly irritated. Then one of the usual fly in the soup moments happens on top of the fact I find out AMTRAK’s billboard for free wifi applied only to the local train rides. Tracks ahead, damaged by who knows what, will require the Zephyr to halt its journey while two on-coming freight trains pass us. This means an hour and a half delay sitting motionless on the tracks. People on board cheer humorously as first one rockets past, and then the second one rambles by. So, we’ll be getting into Reno late. Into each life a little rain must fall. I’m a pessimist by nature so this is relatively minor, the seating is comfortable, and I’m writing the last part of my YA novel DEMON while entertaining Saint Joyce on and off.

A guy about my age two seats in front of us gets up to move by our seats into the next car. He’s wearing a gray pullover, long sleeved shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. I instantly remember why it is I am dressed exactly like him. Saint Joyce set out a gray pullover for me to wear, because she has this annoying habit of asking me what I’m wearing to go somewhere while waving what she wants me to wear in my face. I usually don’t object unless it’s some pastel metro-man crap she’s picked up during one of her shopaholic excursions. I quickly elbow her to look up as my clothing doppelganger pauses next to us waiting for others to go by before he walks on.


“You dressed me in the geezer uniform of the day. Thanks a lot.”

Saint Joyce giggles, because as I stated earlier, she’s not always Saint like. “Awwww… isn’t that cute.”

“Yeah,” I stick the fork in, “about as cute as us taking a now nine and a half hour snow hunting expedition train ride into the snow barren mountains.”

Saint Joyce gasps in outrage while I’m heehawing. “How the hell was I supposed to know there wouldn’t be snow in the mountains in January?”

Then she gets the needle out for me.

“Besides, if you had went with me last year when they had record snow like I asked you to I’d have had it already crossed off my bucket list.”

Bingo. It’s now my fault. “Maybe you need to change your bucket list into a ‘by myself list’ for convenience.”

“We’ll just have to do this trip again when there’s snow,” Saint Joyce announces as the train finally kicks into gear for our railway trek into the snowless mountain passes.

Oh wonderful, there’s some good news. The sunny mountain scenery dazzles us with splendor anyway without the thick white blanket. As we get higher in elevation, Saint Joyce starts elbowing me to look out the window at the small patches of snow and ice. I immediately begin a running commentary.

“Oh yeah, there has to be enough for at least four or five snowballs in that batch. Oh look, there’s a carrot and a few lumps of coal still left where Frosty’s remains were interred. Hey, there’s a patch on the slope good for a four foot bobsled run…”

Joyce starts howling in laughter, probably because of the Frosty gem. We immediately start getting eyeballed by our fellow travelers probably searching for a way to be offended, or simply enjoying the geezer show.
We arrive in beautiful Reno without further delay. All proceeds well from there. We only have to walk a block to the Eldorado. Check in is quick and painless. The large players spa suite is magnificent as you can see from my picture next to the in room Jacuzzi. Saint Joyce does not allow me to post her on the blog, because if I do, she believes the people in the box will get her. We have a drink to toast our gorgeous room and anniversary before heading down to get dinner and donate a small sum in hopes of striking it rich. Heh, heh, heh… yeah, that’ll happen. At least I got to invent 'The Geezer Alert'.  :)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Code PO171 - GMC

Happy New Year!

As I exited my office on this, the first day back after New Year’s long weekend, a late model GMC Sierra drives in. Nice looking vehicle. The customer gets out - all smiles, and how are you, and how was your holiday. Nice guy, but I’d never seen him before. Since I have a nametag, it’s not uncommon for total strangers to be using my first name. I always take it at face value while politely conversing. My good buddy will be Joe Sierra. Joe’s a six footer, carrying about fifty pounds too much, thinning brown wispy hair, and a short goatee. I shake my best pal’s extended hand.

“I need you to give me a quick scan, and tell me what’s wrong.”

Now look. For my regular customers, I do indeed hook up my scanner for some quick code pulling. It’s like automotive triage so I know how much more time I’ll need to figure out what’s really wrong if it’s not obvious. I don’t do it for first timers, because most of the time the results are next to worthless, and they’re thinking oh boy, I’ll just replace that and everything will be fine. See ya! Then a few days later they’ll be in to blame me for telling them to fix the wrong thing, when I had done the exact opposite. I explain to Joe I’d be glad to check out his vehicle and how much it would cost for the diagnostic fee. I’m nearly half what the dealer charges. Joe loses his happy go lucky demeanor.

“I just need a quick scan, Bernie. I’ll bring it back in at the end of the week for repair.”

“It doesn’t work like that. Most of the time the code merely points to an area where the trouble lies.” I’m thinking it’s a new year. I have a few minutes. I’ll do a demo for a potential new customer. “I’ll show you what I mean.”

I bring out my scanner, enter the vehicle info (2006 GMC 1500 with 5.3L engine), and scan the truck. PO171 – bank one sensor lean. I’m thinking wow, you can’t ask for a better example than that. This code refers to the bank one cylinders’ monitoring air fuel sensor. It used to be called an oxygen sensor and gives information to the computer about the oxygen content exhausted by the bank one cylinders. It can get tricky like my out of town guest before Christmas with the Nissan.

I check the digital data and misfire readings. The fuel trims and sensor info are within spec’s. Then I check at what temp the code set. The computer decided something went wrong when the GMC was cold. I explain in detail to Joe how many things can cause the code that have nothing to do with the sensor, such as an electric fuel pump going out, a slight intake manifold vacuum leak, and even a slight exhaust manifold gasket leak when the vehicle is cold. Joe nods while watching me point out the normal readings on the scanner as if he understands.

“I get it. Give me your card, Bernie, and I’ll call you next week when I can leave it off with you.”

Good deal. I give him my card and he drives away. Tuesday, he’s back in, and Joe’s not smiling.

“I changed that bank one sensor and disconnected the battery to erase the code like you said, Bernie. The check engine light came back on and it ran real shaky for quite a while. Scan it and tell me if the same code set.”

Bingo! If the refrain in this story seems familiar to some of my friends… it is. I feel a lot like Dr. House on the TV show, only I don’t torture my patients before fixing them. :) Patients lie, patients deliberately mislead, and leave details out. They blame the Doc when he takes their input and they get worse, even though they gave him false data. It’s the same with vehicle repair, except with my large old time customer base I’ve built trust with over the decades. Strangers… not so much. Remember, I have to bring Joe back into reality, which I do quickly.

“Leave it now, Joe. I’ll find out what’s wrong and call you with an estimate. Come in the office and we’ll make up the invoice for the diagnostic check.”

“You’re going to charge me?”

“Yep. I’m the one who told you in detail how many things can cause that code other than the sensor and you changed it anyway. The reason it ran rougher is because you disconnected the battery and blanked all your computer settings to erase the code. That’s not a good idea for exactly the reason you discovered. Now, you’ll have to pay me to do the checks I would have to do normally to find out what’s wrong.”

Joe’s heart ain’t into taking this ploy any further. “Okay. Can I use your phone to call for a ride? I forgot my cell.”

“Sure. How long did it take for the check engine light to pop back on and what brand sensor did you use?”

“AC Delco, and the light blinked on pretty quick after I started it. It went off for a while, but when I restarted it yesterday afternoon after it had been sitting, it came back on and stayed on.”

“Okay, thanks.” I took his keys, and went about finishing what I already had in the shop. I decided not to get fancy because I had a good idea what might be happening. When I started the GMC cold with my scanner hooked up, I sprayed some quick dry brake clean stuff along the edges of the intake manifold. The oxygen sensor readings and fuel trim data started revving up and down along with the engine. As it warmed up the spray made little impact. That explained why he didn’t have a misfire code. I got Joe’s reluctant okay to replace the intake manifold gaskets and kept it until this morning after an extensive test drive late yesterday. It all checked out and Joe was even appreciative while paying the not inconsiderable bill. It’s around a five hour job. Another new year, but already a familiar story of intrigue in the Twilight Zone of auto repair where everything is my fault until proven otherwise, even freebies.  :)

That’s all for this update from Nilson Brothers Garage, but if you’re appreciative of the information, here is a link to my new novel COLD BLOODED for Nook and Kindle. If you’re kind enough to read it and like it, please review it on the site you purchase it from. Thank You! Every little bit helps my writing gig. :)