Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Branching out (to other makes)

Popular Mechanix is branching out 
to service and repair 
models other than Volvo

Our loyal customer requested this added convenience and our ASE certified master technicians Lawrence, EJ and Samson love the idea of adding variety to the shop. I applaud their enthusiasm because I know they can arm wrestle any mechanical conundrum to the ground.  So bring in your “other” car and let’s see how we can help.

Andrew Gescheidt, owner 

The "Unfixable Volvo S40 (+ the fix )

(or: How I paid $1,000 to buy someone else's headache )

September 15, 2010

A new customer called with what he described as an annoying, frustrating and so far unfixable problem with his 2001 Volvo S40.

He has already taken it to the dealer five times, without success.

Problem is, sometimes, the car just would not start, turns the key, total silence.

I told him that an intermittent problem the Volvo dealer can’t fix on five tries is about the biggest red flag I can think of for potential customer dissatisfaction. I gave him a copy of my “Intermittent Letter”, which is a brief outline of how tough this might be.

One concern I share with him is that no matter what we try, can’t tell if its fixed until after a multi-day test drive. Another concern I have is that the car may have more than one problem.

He related what had been done so far and presented me with a stack of repairs orders and service records from the Volvo dealer. He asked if I could think of anything they hadn’t tried yet. Yes, the immobilizer ring might be capable of causing this. Rare, but possible. OK, throw one in.

I agreed, that in this case, “throwing parts at the problem” made sense. Troubleshooting time would be minimized, and we had a cool customer who had a good grasp of the difficulties involved.

Two weeks later, he’s back, problem still not fixed. Extremely frustrating problem, and he feels that in the worst case potentially dangerous. Did I want to buy this car? Ok, yes, and I did, at a discounted price, sort of taking into account future repair costs.

Now I am the proud but concerned owner of nice looking little car that is exuding more than a faint odor of lemon ...

Let the battle begin:

Installed fuel pressure gauges, scan tool, installed a remote starter button in the passenger compartment, started driving the car to work and home each day.

Did I mention that there were not any DTC’s ? Even in 2001 this car was equipped with fairly sophisticated on-board diagnostics (OBD-II) but it has not thrown any codes. So either we are dealing with a faulty part that’s not being monitored, or, the monitoring system itself is faulty. Sweet this is not.

new spark plugs, coil packs, tightened exhaust manifold gaskets

Drove car daily, not going too far, staying with in short-range-tow-truck distance.

engine de-sludge ( not the cause of no-start, but needed ), fuel filter,

3/10/10, finally some problem! Engine would not crank over ( total silence when key turned )
- would not crank via remote starter
- would not crank in any gear position
- also would not crank with spare key ( yes, I it’s possible for micro-chipped key to fail )
- installed test light
- Discovered test light erratic
- Discovered loose electrical connector, out of sight below brake fluid reservoir, and repaired as needed
- opened connector, sprayed with connector cleaner as needed
- crossed all fingers !

After twenty more days of daily city driving, still no problems and I’m pretty sure we’ve fixed it. Now I’m confident enough to start loaning out the car to a few customers.

The car comes back into the shop of a Thursday afternoon about 5 pm and is parked in bay #2. Just because it’s convenient, I decide to drive it home, but, no start, no crank. This is perfect and I am delighted!

Finally it won’t start, the problem is repeatable, its in the shop, all test equipment still installed, and best of all the auto repair gods and decided it should not break down in the rain, on the bay bridge.

15 minutes of troubleshooting reveal a failed neutral safety switch ( the sensor lets you start the car only if park or neutral has been selected) . The next day we order and install the part ( 3 hour job ). Now I’m really certain we’ve hit the nail on the head. Just to be sure, I drive the car to and from work for another 2 weeks.

Hopefully gentle reader, I’ve been able to convey to you how difficult it can be to predict in advance the cost in labor and parts and inconvenience when dealing with a no-code intermittent.

Thermostat: Best $ Ever Spent

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Thermostat Replacement Thinking & Strategy

The thermostat on your car is basically a small valve inside the engine that regulates the flow of coolant. In most cases, when the thermostat fails, ( and they all fail eventually) it fails in the closed position and the engine overheats.

Option 1:

Replace the thermostat proactively at time and place of your choosing convenient for you.

Total cost for parts & labor approx. $250

Option 2:

Drive the car until the thermostat fails and the engine overheats.

Towing cost: approx. $100
Replace cylinder head gasket approx. $3,000
Or, maybe, replace the engine approx. $7,500

Some thermostat facts:
* disappointingly, the manufacturer lists no mandatory replacement interval for the engine thermostat.
* we can’t tell by looking at it how long a thermostat will last

Except for oil changes, thermostat replacement is our #1 recommendation for smart, cost effective preventive maintenance.

Our shop’s Strategy & Procedure:

During your initial visit we will look for records and ask if the thermostat has been replaced. If we can’t say for certain its already been replaced, then will suggest it as smart preventive maintenance. We will document this in your repair history.

If we can’t determine for certain its already been done, and our customer declines to replace it preventively , then we will raise the issue again (nag) at each subsequent visit.

The cynics analysis:
Repair shops are better off saying nothing, waiting for the engine to overheat and then enjoying a nice juicy repair job.
Unfortunately, what usually happens is that:
a) customer is furious that “we let this happen”
b) they sell the car as scrap and buy a new car
c) we lose the customer

So, in summary, both the customer and the repair shop are better off with course of action #1: Proactive thermostat replacement

A new headlight costs how much !?!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A new headlight costs how much ?!!

How much will it cost to replace one headlight on my Volvo?

Well, that depends....

In the best case we install a new “long-life” bulb and we’re done ( <$40 )

However, starting around 2004, some cars came equipped with bi-Xenon, high intensity discharge (HID) lighting systems, and these bulbs are $125 each.

However, Volvo has a service bulletin regarding rapid bulb burnout that introduces a resistor kit, so if you don’t already have one, it may be a good idea ( $150 with 2 new non-Xenon bulbs)

However, we will always check to see if the reflector that surrounds the bulb is not broken. If it’s broken and wobbling then again expect rapid bulb burnout ( and $525 for one new headlight assembly)

And lastly, one or two time a year  we discover the ECM ( electronic control module ) that sends the signal to the headlight has also failed.  If so, then after about an hour of diagnosis, $750 to $1,250 ( per side)

Our suggestion for smart maintenance is : 
    a) replace faulty headlight parts as soon as possible    
    b) always change bulbs in pairs
    b) install the headlight resistor kit where applicable 

Quote of the Day (from happy customer)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Customer quote of the day:

“The $2,500 we paid today to put my car back in top shape is less than the sales tax would have been on a new car”

( husband of happy customer )

Unfixable Stalling 850 from H**L: Fixed!

I bought a beautiful, low mileage 1995 850 T-5R for a very good price because it had an

"unfixable" intermittent stalling problem

Here is a report of how it took almost six months to resolve

New Fuel Pump:
I started by putting in a new fuel pump, because it was the most common cause of this set of
symptoms, it had never been replaced before and it was 15 years old.

This car was a little behind in servicing, so I also threw a full tune-up at it.

I drove the car around town, to and from work, errands, and it went about 2 weeks before it
stalled again.

Now I've installed a fuel pressure gauge and duct taped it to the windshield to I can see it while

Volvo factory scan tools shows no stored Diagnostic Trouble Codes (DTC's). This is not unusual
or unexpected because in 1995 on-board diagnostic systems were somewhat crude, early stage

I installed a new air mass meter, because the unit appeared original. No real reason to think its
bad, but it might be the culprit. No luck, the car stalls again about a week later.

Next, Seriously "Throwing parts at it"
Installed new fuel pressure regulator, front and rear oxygen sensors, engine speed sensor

Test drove around the city, after about 2 weeks the car stalled again.

On the bright side, I've new begun to see a pattern. The stalling has only happened when
a) engine fully warmed up
b) the transmission is in drive, foot off the gas, coasting down a hill

I ordered and installed a new ignition coil. I don't think I've ever seen one fail on an 850, but not
too expensive, and I've got to try something.

After about 2 weeks the car stalls again, same conditions, coasting down a hill, warm engine.

One of my technicians now recalls that one time, years ago, he had experience with a defective,
brand new fuel pump. OK, worth a try, so ordered and installed another brand new fuel pump.

Weeks go by, stalled again, still not fixed.

Now, (sound of hand slapping forehead here) tech recalls that we have not yet changed the
camshaft position sensor, and its still the original unit. This revelation is a bit frustrating, as it is a
much more likely suspect for this sort of problem. So in goes a new unit.

Two more weeks of test driving, stalls again.

Now we discover several pieces of vacuum hose may have small leaks. As this car is
Turbocharged, only special heat resistant vacuum hose will do, and we order if from the Volvo
dealer. Special order part, means they don't sell it often. It arrives, we install as needed.

One week later, car stalls again.


Another, more senior tech is consulted and suggest the main fuel injection control computer
might be the culprit. No one in the shop has ever seen one of these fail before, and common
wisdom has it that when they do fail, the car just won't run at all. Regardless, we order and
install a fuel injection control computer.

Interestingly, and very encouraging is the fact that the engine seems to start a tiny fraction of a
second faster now !

I test drive the car around the city for 2 more weeks, just looking for places where I can coast

Oh, did I mention before that when the engine does stall, it won't start up right away? It will
crank over but not start, just like it ran out of gas. This means that I have to choose my test drive
very, very carefully. Don't want to stall on the Bay Bridge, or Market Street in rush hour, eh?

Two more weeks of test driving and I decided to re-install several of the original parts that were
probably OK from the beginning.

After two more weeks of daily driving and I now feel it really fixed.

Can you imagine just how difficult this would have been to sell this package of repairs to a
paying customer? They would have to have the patients of a Saint and the wallet of Bill Gates!

How about to a new customer who does not yet built up a relationship with the shop? I can
imagine that situation because I've been there, more than once. Intermittent problems are not
unique to any particular make or year or model. But they always pose a unique challenge for the
owner and the repair team.

In Hindsight / "Next time"

Many months have now gone by and the problem is resolved with certainty .

The fuel pump is still the place I'd start. We have seen old fuel pumps fail time and again. Never
a code and usually intermittent.

Changing the fuel control computer is simple (if you don't count the cost of parts). And maybe
some customers would be willing to accept the risks involved with test driving ( and getting