Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Just Enough to Be Dangerous

Knowledge is one thing that I love to share; whether it's about Jesus, cars, children, or my day job it does no good if you can't teach others what you've learned. However, knowledge is simply knowing something. Unless you apply it, it could be embarrassing at least and dangerous or deadly at worst. Customers and technician wannabes can get into serious trouble trying to diagnose and fix their own heating and cooling systems.
What really brought this into focus was a call one of my coworkers got last night. They declined for him to come over, but insisted that either the board or igniter had failed. A talk with the homeowner and her boyfriend confirmed this as I made my way to their home. I was there a year ago, and knew the furnace was on its last leg last time I went over there. It was 20 plus years old and had a faulty igniter (I noticed the customer replaced this part after my last visit). A little poking around the cabinet and I found that the limit to the vent had tripped and I immediately sensed trouble. I reset the limit and the furnace came on. As it did, the   vent got really hot and I decided I've better get the combustion analyzer. The readings in the vent were over 350 degrees F for an 80% efficient furnace and the carbon monoxide level was over 50 parts per million. A check for carbon monoxide in the duct work was 15 parts per million, more than enough to be dangerous with exposure over time. 35 ppm is enough to give you a headache and dizzy in 6 to 8 hours, but any exposure will  cause permanent damage over time.
I couldn't find any cracks at the heat exchanger and offered the customer to use our infrared camera (a $3000 piece of hardware) but she elected to replace the equipment. Any carbon monoxide over the furnace isn't good and from experience, not all heat exchanger problems are visible depending on the construction. I've had to fill some with water to prove a problem.
Lesson hopefully learned; unless you've been through some experience and training and do this for a living you may want to gracefully decline diagnosing this yourself. The gentleman who did this would have been swapping parts and the furnace still would have cut out. Worse yet, he could have tried to bypass that limit and really run into some problems where the outcome would have too grim to think about. I've been doing this for almost twenty-seven years and can't claim to know everything, or even come close. Between me and my employer we have over five thousand dollars per tech in diagnostic equipment and much training and knowledge to bear on a problem. A layperson trying to solve a problem is going be hit or miss at best. To put it another way, you wouldn't want me trying to settle a legal dispute, or performing open heart surgery as my results wouldn't even be fair to midland. Who wants fair to midland with legal or medical issues? You shouldn't settle for a mediocre result on your home comfort equipment either. Call a pro and have it done right.
Yes, I do offer fixes, but only after diagnosing and ruling out other issues that could put you and others at risk. I can't stress enough that you and you alone are responsible for applying knowledge in reasonable and safe manner. Besides, the internet is no substitute for a competent heating and cooling technician with the proper tools, knowledge and the wisdom to apply them in a given situation. Maranatha!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Avoiding a Used Car Crisis, Kicking the Tires

Okay, I'm carving this up into manageable bits for you to read, digest and enjoy; or at least use an excuse to use your nausea medication. Car dealers and curbstoners (those people who buy cars and fix them up to sell) have your number the minute you enter their domain. They're going to portray that vehicle in the best light possible and even a reputable dealer isn't going to know the history of same. To make matters worse, they're going to clean out all those receipts and service records and steam clean all those pesky oil drips from underneath.

I've even heard of people buying a truck, removing the interior, and the odometer, driving it to death, and then re-installing the odometer and interior that look brand new. Ideally, you should take the car to a mechanic not in cahoots with the dealer. He or she should look for problems and will charge you some money for the service, but will be well worth it. If you want to do this on your own, you're crazy, but it can be done. First of all, check the tires. If they're brand new on a two year old car, the alignment is likely off due to frame damage or other problems. If the tires aren't new, check the tread for evenness and make sure the wear bars aren't showing (they're perpendicular to the tread if the tire is worn). Any uneven wear means that suspension parts are worn or the frame is damaged. Look at the underside next for rust and rot (anywhere salt is used to deice roads).

You're also looking for new or broken parts. On a two or three year old car, the exhaust, steering and suspension should be original to the vehicle and have the same patina as the rest. Ball joints and tie rods usually, but not always last at least 100,000 miles and the originals will not have grease fittings (this is the industry standard). New parts could mean more wear or miles than the odometer might suggest (In Michigan, where our roads are the pits, it could also mean normal wear and tear). Exhaust systems usually last at least 200,000 miles or more, so new exhaust parts mean the same thing.
While you're under there, look for any parts with "junkyard tattoos." These are those yellow marks made when parts are purchased used and also denote wear outside of the norm. It could also signal damage that the dealer or someone else is trying to cover up.

 Starters, alternators and other parts should also last 100,000 to 150,000 miles. Replacement parts before this time frame can also signal problems with the electrical system someone tried to diagnose. The only thing you should see brand new, or aftermarket under the hood is the battery. These seldom last more than three or four years. Look for leaks on the engine, transmission, differential and steering. These are time consuming and expensive to fix. Also look for burned and corroded wires and harnesses, and especially for anything not in an original harness. Wiring repairs are fine, but improper repairs are not. If the car has or had an aftermarket stereo installed, think long and hard before buying this heap. Amps, subwoofers, capacitors and the like put a huge strain on the alternator and electrical system. All that thumping is also hell on the bodywork.

Speaking of bodywork, look for excessive rust and body filler. Take the car out and wash it, checking for water leaks in the cab and cargo area. There should be no rust holes or missing body sealer and certainly no water lines in the floor, carpet or anywhere else. If there are any water leaks or damage, reject the car. Body repairs are more expensive than you might think, and can cause expensive electrical issues. Make sure all the electrical accessories work. Drive to a dark area and check the dash lights to make sure they work (An automatic car wash is great for this). These are expensive to fix on a newer car. Run the heater and air conditioner, making sure there are no strange sounds or smells. The steering, brakes and transmission should also have no surprises and operate smoothly with no noises. The engine should accelerate smoothly without missing, knocking or pinking. Check the gauges and make sure all the warning lights come on. Pay attention to the airbag, antilock brakes and brake warning light. If none of these light, or stay lit, reject the car. The airbags should be intact and the covers firmly attached. Some will sell a vehicle with blown airbags, packing the cavities with rags or paper towels. This means they'll not work when you need them most. Don't buy the car. Another one of my pet peeves is auto glass, especially the windshield. the windshield should be original to the car or at least installed correctly. Rust around the glass means the windshield will leak or pop out in a crash. They also need to be installed with a urethane caulk and bonded on a molecular level. Feel around the inside edge of the windshield and if there's anything sticky, this means someone could have used butyl to secure it. Butyl will not hold up in a crash and neither will silicone. Move along.

Now raise the hood and check the engine compartment. Look for leaks, junkyard tattoos, shoddy work, redneck repairs and excessive rust, especially on the strut towers. This is very common on Chrysler minivans 1996 through the mid 2000's and means the vehicle has to be scrapped. Excessive rust on anything structural also means the car is nearing the end of its useful life. Check the oil, which should be a clear amber color and look under the oil cap with a flashlight. Black gooey sludge means the oil hasn't been changed in a long time. Automatic transmission fluid should be a deep red in color. If it's brown or black and smells like varnish, this means it's burned. Also look at the coolant to make sure it's clean and consistent in color. If it's muddy, the cooling system is suspect. Yes, I understand there are many colors of coolant out there, but most are either green, yellow, pink or orange in color. Cooling system repairs are also annoying to expensive to fix and are the main reason motorists get stranded. Any and all cooling fans must work as these are expensive as well. You also want to walk around the car with the engine running and the lights on. Bulbs that are out aren't a huge issue for the most part, unless they're L.E.D.s or H.I.D. headlights. Blue smoke out of the exhaust pipe means the engine is burning oil and white, sweet smelling smoke means the cylinder head is warped, cracked or head gasket is checking out.  Also look for obvious body damage and new parts that might indicate a crash. If so inclined, go ahead and try Carfax, but these services are a lot more limited than most are lead to believe and easily circumvented. Better to have a mechanic inspect your prospective vehicle. This is much better than any extended warranty and will save you gobs of money and time in the long run. Maranatha!

Avoiding a Used Car Crisis, Terms and Conditions

Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm not a car expert. I'm a handyman and fix and install heating and cooling for a living. I don't live in a fancy house by the beach and wife isn't high maintenance. This is my lot in life; not a lot, but it is my life. I also love my spouse and that goes double for Jesus. I also want to share my years of experience and my mistakes with you in a non judgmental manner. Car loans; the terms and conditions are probably the most insidious part of making a major purchase and can wreck your credit, finances and your personal life in short order. If you have to make payments, they must be affordable even if the car is going to be a lawn ornament. If you have to buy a service contract to help you fix it, my advice is to buy a less expensive car to repair, or one that you can fix yourself. Service contracts also have different terms and conditions and will pay for certain repairs up to the mileage and time frame stated on same. This is usually rolled into the balance of the loan and you'll still be paying on it when the contract expires. This is something you need to be aware of when buying same. It doesn't mean you won't be fixing the car, but it does mean that certain repairs will be covered in a certain time frame. They're a way for the dealer to make money for sure, but not a bad investment if the car you buy is borderline.
Car loans are using the bank's money to make your purchase. They usually charge interest at an annual percentage rate, which means that they charge interest on the yearly amount you owe. It also means that your  first year or two will be paying interest on the loan, and then on the principal or the amount you've borrowed to begin with. Even at a 6% interest rate, an $11,000 amount will exceed $16,000 over the life of the loan. This is something that comes due, even if your ride is on blocks and your house is one wheels. If you're delinquent on your loan, then add repossession fees and the fact that these guys will break something taking your vehicle. This is a good reason to save up for the dad blamed thing, but if you must borrow, it's something to consider. Maranatha!

Avoiding a Used Car Crisis, A Little Research

When looking for a car, or truck, the first thing you need to ask yourself is "am I feeling lucky?" Well are you? Of course you don't, but to be honest, when can you say you've been really lucky with a used car? Luck has nothing to do with it, but a little planning and even some risk management can help you avoid a jam, and get you though when you do get jammed.

First of all, most of us are going to have car payments of some sort, but the vehicles I've had the best "luck" with and have had the longest life for the least amount of money are the one's I've paid cash for. My Rendezvous has already outlived my Intrepid miles wise and I've had it almost three years. Even though I've had to replace an air conditioner compressor, a steering rack and struts and have had to pay for them, this is still less than a loan on a newer vehicle. I've also avoided a lot of extra expense by being able to fix minor repairs myself. A little creativity and research has saved me thousands of dollars over what a dealership would charge. This is what I mean by risk management. Before you even consider buying a used car, research what you want. Consider yourself driving, paying for the gas and fixing it. If you can't visualize yourself doing all three, then you need to reconsider buying the car. If you can't visualize yourself driving this off a cliff without hardship, then you need to reconsider buying the car.

Go to any local auto parts store website and find out how much parts are to replace. Then compare them to your current vehicle. The prices alone may be enough to make you consider another model. Ask a few local independent mechanics what they think of repairing it. More often than not, they'll gladly offer their opinions on same. If you have time, watch a few videos on You Tube or other video sharing site on what it takes to fix the car you want. Notice this is before you set foot in a dealership, not after. You will save yourself hours of frustration and hundreds of dollars by rejecting a vehicle before you darken their doorstep. Maranatha!

Avoiding a Used Car Crisis: The Attitude.

Buying a car is probably the worst purchase you can make from an investment standpoint. The moment it drives off the lot, it loses ten to twenty percent of its value and depreciates like mad thereafter. By the time you pay a twenty thousand dollar loan, the car is worth about a tenth of what you paid for it. Despite this, people will still funnel their hard earned money into them and many will be paying on a paperweight by the time they're done. My Intrepid was a case in point. I took out eleven thousand plus a grand and a half for a service contract. Even though the contract paid out over thirteen thousand in repairs, the car was worth $200 to a junk dealer plus the tow by the time the loan was over. I had barely driven the car forty thousand miles because it spent the last year and a half in the parking lot, with a failed engine and steering gear.
Granted, this was not a new car. For most of us, a used car makes fiscal sense as the depreciation has already been paid by someone else. Cars are a lot more reliable then they have been in recent years, despite  all the technical wizardry they have. Even with that, parts will still break and they're a helluva lot more expensive than they were in years past. Labor has also gone up 300% in past 26 years of my driving career.  Mandates for safety, emissions and theft protection are also increasing. All of these add layers of complexity, as well as making problems more difficult to diagnose and fix. Airbags, seat belt pretensioners, express windows, struts and other components found on modern cars also present an element of danger that must not be ignored. These are the bare essentials. If your vehicle has options such as four or all wheel drive, power accessories or anti-lock brakes, these layers are added even more.
What I'm trying to say is that buying a used car is more than going to the dealer to pick out your ride and sign the paperwork. You need to add some street smarts and understand that the simpler, the better. I'm going to go out on a limb and say to stay away from any hybrid, luxury, a turbo or supercharger, or vehicle with all wheel drive and you'll avoid most issues straight away. Unless you're well off, stay away from any diesel pickup truck as repairing these engines is in the tens of thousands and usually involves pulling the cab off to fix a major part. If you want to disagree, that's your opinion and this from my experience. I like diesels and know how they work, but the emissions controls are what kill them nowadays. Continuously Variable Transmissions or CVT's are more common, but reliability is spotty. Modern automatic transmissions are also expensive to fix, but you can head these off with maintenance.  Most cars also come with power locks and windows standard, and these cost more to fix but not by much if you know what you're doing. Power and heated seats are nice when they work, but expensive to fix. Navigation systems, Bluetooth, and remotes are also nice while they work. Kitschy options such as mood lighting are really from the bygone era of conversion vans and really don't belong in a car. High intensity discharge lights are also in the hundreds of dollars to fix when they burn out. Again, when buying a used car, or even a new one, keep it simple. A vehicle is a means to an end, for you and carrying friends, family and groceries in relative safety and comfort. Cars should not be status symbols or a retreat and asking for anything besides basic transportation is asking for trouble. Sorry if this is rambling, but from the problems I've seen out there , a needed one. Maranatha!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Buick Rendezvous Spare Tire Carrier Fix.

PLEASE READ BEFORE YOU COMMENT!!! This is an alternative to replacing a broken spare tire winch on your vehicle. If you feel the need to make snide remarks, be warned this blog is moderated and your comment will NEVER see the light of day. I will BLOCK YOU!

For anyone who's ever owned a GM "U" body van or crossover, you will have a problem with spare tire winch. This isn't a matter of "if" but "when" and that "when" is usually sooner than later. In the best of circumstances, these winches are a pain to use and hauling a dirty spare tire out from underneath won't make your day better. You'll still have to put the full sized spare inside the cargo area if you own a Rendezvous or later model Aztek. This is because the aluminum rear suspension will get in the way. Usually, there's a D ring in the cargo area to mount these, along with a hook and nut molded into the cover for the jack and lug wrench. These are more than adequate for holding a full sized spare, but not the doughnut if the spare tire winch breaks. This is because the bolt will protrude through the narrower spare, snagging on anything and everything, not to mention injuring anyone getting in the vicinity of same.

Newer cars forego the spare tire and pack a pump and tire sealant. This isn't a bad idea if you're careful, have towing coverage and if and only if the tire carcass is still intact.. From my experience, a flat tire isn't the only reason you need to swap out a wheel on the side of the road. I've damaged a wheel striking a curb. No amount of tire slime will fix a bent wheel or injured sidewall.

As always, there is inherent danger in any modifications to a car or truck. Vehicles are crashed tested in their original equipment configuration and thus conform to federal safety standards in same. Any modifications, no matter how subtle, can cause injury, death or property damage. It is the responsibility of the vehicle owner to insure that all work done to their vehicle will not cause or further an unsafe condition thereof. Do this and any other modifications to yours at your own risk. I have no control over the quality, or lack thereof of your work. Even the original equipment spare tire carrier can expose you to liability if it fails, and this is why most remove or simply don't use them.

The fix is simply a revision to the method of securing a full sized spare in the car after changing out a flat tire. You'll need a 5/16" threaded hook, the OE nut from your cover, or a wing nut and fender washer if not available. You'll also need some dense polystyrene or similar foam about 2 to 2 1/2" thick to go under the doughnut over the carpeting (you could also make this spacer out of wood, rubber or plastic, but it has to fit under the tire and support its weight). If you're using a full sized tire (not a bad idea) then a mat will work. Cut a 2" hole in the center of whatever you're using. This goes over the D ring I told you about. That 5/16 threaded hook will have standard thread, while that nut that came with the car will have metric thread. You can have this tapped out to accept the standard thread without too much issue. If not, you can opt for a fender washer and wing nut and put the threaded part through one of the lug holes on your wheel. Put your foam to fit over the D ring, and use the hook end of the threaded hook on the D ring. Center the tire over it install your nut on top of the foam. If the threaded part sticks over the spare, mark and trim with a hacksaw and file or grind off the burrs. The Idea of the foam is to protect the carpet and allow you some room to get the full sized tire in there in a pinch by removing the foam.

If you really want to get fancy, you can find or make a spare tire cover out of some carpeting and a piece of plywood to fit over the spare and clean up the cargo area. Obviously. if you have a tray or third seat, this fix isn't likely to work. You'll have to bite the bullet and buy the faulty GM tire winch, take the risk of driving without the spare, get rid of the car (preferred), or find your own creative solution to this problem. I can't think of everything, but at least this gives you pause to find an alternative to buy dealer only parts. The manufacturers charge more than enough for a car or truck that barely outlives the payment book and then turn around and charge ridiculous amounts for their parts that seldom last. Instead of close to $200 for this winch, the parts I used cost me less than $10, minus the snazzy cover (which I don't have). Maranatha!