The Truth Behind the Trade

What Really Happens to Your Vehicles in the Shop

Auto repairs can not only be expensive, but they can also be stressful if you don’t trust the company performing them. Putting blind faith, along with your hard-earned dollars, into a service can be as risky as setting chips on a roulette table. You just don’t know how it’s going to turn out.

As an owner of a long-standing reputable automotive repair shop, I’m going to share some facts about our industry that many of you might not know—the things that happen out of sight once your vehicles are pulled into their service bays. If certain procedures are not followed, the longevity of your auto repair or the safety of your vehicle can be jeopardized.

As consumers, we hire professionals to help us in areas we cannot do alone. This hiring process happens daily—with doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians, etc. We hire professionals because we assume they will do a good job. We expect a roofer to properly replace the roof; the plumber to properly fix the sink. Sadly, for many automotive repair shops, a “job well done” is not always the case.

I can’t speak for other trades, but I can speak from the 30 years of experience I’ve spent running my own repair facility and reviewing various other repair shops across this great nation. I’ve seen dilapidated facilities using equipment so old, it has no value to the customer, and I’ve also seen the Taj Mahal of facilities, efficiently run by professionals who understand the right and wrong ways of performing services and repairs.

Tire Repair

Speaking from what I’ve encountered, I’m going to share with you a couple examples of services that many repair shops may not be doing correctly.

The first task that some automotive services do incorrectly is removing a wheel. A wheel must be removed from a vehicle to perform numerous repairs. The problem often arises when reinstalling the wheel to the vehicle.

Torque Sticks

Wheels are held on by four to five lug nuts (up to eight or ten on large vehicles). These nuts must be tightened to a specific torque measurement, or foot pound, and must follow a certain pattern to ensure proper pressure against the hub.

Forgetting to torque the nuts to the specifications required by the manufacturer can lead to overheating or warping of the brake rotors. It can also cause the wheel studs to break on their next removal.

Have you ever seen a technician in a service bay using a loud gun to hammer down these nuts before lowering the vehicle to the ground? These guns cannot be set to a specific torque and rely solely upon the shop’s supplied volume of air-pressure to work.

Some shops use special color-coded torque sticks that work in conjunction with air guns to deliver a specific range of torque when pulling the trigger. Unless these sticks are replaced frequently, they can be inconsistent. The most accurate way to confirm the proper torque is by using a handheld, calibrated torque wrench. Since a torque wrench can be set to the vehicle’s specific need, it can ensure that each nut is receiving consistent pressure.

Though we can all agree that using torque wrenches is the best way to replace wheels on a vehicle, why do many technicians choose not to follow this procedure? The answer is simple. . . it saves them time. Hand torqueing each nut takes much longer than using a gun does, and many auto shops assume you’ll never know the difference.

Let’s take this a step further. Let’s say that you visit a repair shop and have your tires rotated. The technician reinstalls the wheels without torqueing the nuts to proper specifications. You leave and don’t notice anything different.

“My wheel didn’t fall off, so it must be on correctly,” you think. You continue to drive normally for weeks or even months without problems when suddenly you start to notice a pulsing in the brake pedal when it is used—maybe even a shimmy in the steering wheel when applying the brakes on downward slopes or when decreasing speeds off the freeway. This pulsation is generally due to warping metal discs or brake rotors that attach the wheels to the vehicle.

To be fair, brake rotor warping can happen for many different reasons (braking too often, stopping continually at high-speeds, forgetting to replace worn-out brake pads). However, this problem can also be attributed to the uneven torqueing of the wheel nuts.

Let’s say that you decide to return to the same repair facility and ask them to find the reason for the pulsing brake. A technician inspects the vehicle and determines through measurements that the rotors are warped and need to be replaced or resurfaced. You assume this problem is different from your previous visit (or they may tell you that it is). Thinking nothing of it, you pay for the repair.

If the proper wheel torque had been applied during your first visit, you would have saved time and money, but now you are paying more for a technician’s negligence.

Another type of repair that some repair shops slack on is replacing a spark plug.

Spark plugs must be replaced at certain mileage intervals, as specified by the vehicles’ manufactures.

Torque Wrench

Today’s plugs are made of metals such as iridium that could last up to 100,000 miles or more before needing to be replaced. In older vehicles the spark plugs used to be very easy to access and easily replaced when needed. Sadly, today’s vehicles aren’t built the same way because of fuel standards and Federal and State emissions. Some spark plugs are difficult to reach since they require the removal of upper intake manifolds to gain access.

Because removing the parts necessary to reach the spark plugs on a vehicle can be time consuming, some technicians might forego minor steps and endanger the longevity of the new spark plugs they are installing.

A spark plug has two ends, one that threads into the engine and one that attaches to a wire or coil to conduct electricity through it.

Spark Plug

Both ends are exposed to high temperatures, moisture, and chemicals. The threaded end screws into a metal or aluminum housing and may become stuck from extended mileage. To prevent these threads from sticking, a small amount of anti-seize can be applied to work as a release agent, providing resistance during spark plug removal. The opposite end must be coated with a dielectric grease to keep moisture away from the high-output spark.

Both steps of applying chemicals to the spark plugs only takes a few minutes, and the cost for the products is low. Why, then, do we still see many technicians in auto shops replacing spark plugs without these chemicals? You guessed it. . . it saves the technician time and saves the business the costs of chemicals.

My list of shortcuts repair shops take to improve their bottom line or to offer cheaper prices could go on. Some of these shortcuts can greatly affect the longevity of a repair. They also explain why some facilities offer minimum warranties.

My recommendation to you is to research the repair facility before visiting. Even if a dealership recommends a certain automotive facility, always ask for a second opinion. Many times, I have seen dealerships recommend poor services.

While researching, plan questions to ask the technician, such as “What’s your philosophy on the types of fluids and parts you use and their warranties?” You can also ask about the quality and performance of replacement parts or the Ask about the qualifications of the service technicians. and their history, and look at reviews for the facility.

Now that you are aware of the shortcuts many auto repair shops take to save themselves time and money, you can learn to avoid them. Remember to research ahead and always have a keen eye for shoddy behavior.


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