The top tools of 2017

My personal favorite tools for every home garage.

If you have decided you are confident with doing your own maintenance and some repairs on your own cars you will need to have some basic hand tools to get you going. There is no doubt most professional mechanics invest tens of thousand of dollars on hand and power tools for their career. Most are quite expensive and often specialty tools that are out of the budget for the average car owner.

But there is no need to make that kind of investment for taking care of your personal vehicle. In fact you can set your home garage up relatively cheap with a variety of tools to accomplish simple repairs and maintenance. I have done some of the work for you to make this a little easier. Some of these tools are a must. What we in the field call essential tools. If you own nothing else you should have at least the essential tools I suggest. As a rule you should never have to borrow a tool from any one more than once. If you need it a second time you should own one of your own.

In an earlier post I mentioned the very minimum you should have in your garage is a tool set that includes and wenches, ratchet and sockets, as well as a set of screw drivers. These can be purchased individually but can add up pretty quickly. WORKPRO W009044A Mechanics Tool Set with 3-Drawer Heavy Duty Metal Box (408 Piece) is a nice 408 piece tool set that includes everything I recommend in one kit with a box. It is relatively inexpensive and takes up minimal space which is nice if you have a crowded garage. The tools themselves are a decent quality and should hold up to whatever maintenance and light repairs you will be doing on your personal vehicles.

If you are like most homeowners, the lighting in your garage leaves a lot to be desired. It is adequate for looking for that box of Christmas decorations tucked in some corner. But to perform any kind of car repair it pretty much sucks. A good drop light is essential for doing any kind of work. Drop lights have come a long way. In the past they were clumsy and gave off a tremendous amount of heat. Newer drop lights are rechargeable and give off minimal heat. Neiko 40464A Cordless LED Work Light, 350 Lumens, 5 Hours Run Time, 4,000 mAh Rechargeable Li-ion Battery, Multi Purpose is one of the best I found because of its 5 hour run time meaning you won’t be tripping over an extension cord while trying to lean over a car. It provides ample lighting and takes up very little space.

In the past I mentioned if you plan to work under a vehicle, never do so on a car or truck supported only by a jack. This is like playing Russian roulette with a 2 ton weight. Torin T43002A Big Red Double Locking Steel Jack Stands: 3 Ton Lift Capacity, 1 Pair is an inexpensive set of jack stands that take up very little storage when not in use. Not only to they support the weight of any car or SUV, they double lock to ensure your chest won’t be supporting the weight of the family car.

These are my recommendations for car owners choosing to do their own maintenance and light repairs. I have personally studied these myself and believe they are the right fit for any home garage. Feel free to drop me any questions or comments you have regarding tools.

 

My car needs a tune up

Your car needs a tune up? Why?

When it comes to vehicle maintenance I can’t think of a more misused term than tune up. If I were to ask ten different people how they define an engine tune, I would probably get ten different answers.

For the sake of this topic I am going to assume most car owners think of a tune up as replacing the engine spark plugs as well as the air and fuel filters. Some may also believe this includes any adjustments that can be made to the engine to restore the performance and economy to optimum levels.

Unfortunately asking a repair shop for an engine tune is akin to asking them to have their way with your wallet. The definition of an engine tune differs from garage to garage much the same as it does from car owner to car owner.

Up until the mid 1980s and most cars still used moving parts to deliver spark and fuel to the engine. And, these parts did indeed wear and require periodic replacement or adjustment. At that time spark plugs were made of copper tips and lasted somewhere around 30,000 miles. The spark plugs could be removed, cleaned, and the gap adjusted if worn but it was often more cost effective to replace them. Filters also required frequent replacement which was also part of an engine tune at that time.

Newer cars use no moving parts to deliver spark and fuel to the engine. Thus, there are no adjustments to be made as part of routine maintenance. Spark plugs are now designed with platinum or iridium tips and will generally last for 100,000 miles. Air and fuel filters do not require replacement with the same frequency they did just 30 years ago.

In an earlier post I suggested digging your owner’s manual out of the glove box and becoming very familiar with it. Inside the owner’s manual is a list of maintenance recommendations that includes specific intervals for the air and fuel filters as well as the spark plugs. Most maintenance schedules are divided into two intervals; severe and normal driving conditions. For most car owners normal driving conditions apply. However I live in the hot southern California desert where hot and dusty weather make my conditions a little more severe.

If you don’t have the owner’s manual anymore I recommend going to the local auto parts store and buying a paper back copy of the repair manual for your specific vehicle which also includes the manufacturer’s service schedules. This is a good investment even if you have the owner’s manual. Not only does the repair manual include the service recommendations it also explains how to change the filters and spark plugs yourself.

So what do you do when the car seems to be a little under the weather? Throw a bunch of filters and spark plugs into the engine and hope for the best, and call it a tune up? It may or may not solve the problem. It may also be a terrible waste of money. Platinum tipped spark plugs are not cheap. Filters can also put a significant dent in your pocket depending on what you drive. However this is where you really need to look at the maintenance intervals listed for your particular car and decide whether or not it needs new filters and spark plugs. A simple fuel filter may solve the problem if it hasn’t been changed within the recommended interval. There would be no reason to install new spark plugs if the engine is well under the mileage recommendations. To put it another way the service schedule for my particular car lists a fuel filter replacement at 20,000 miles, and the spark plugs at 100,000 miles. If I follow the recommended schedule I would replace the fuel filter four times before replacing the spark plugs once.

There are additional considerations that I plan to cover in future posts. Fuel injector cleaning. Is that part of a scheduled service? Will it make the car run at peak performance? I plan to look into that and other snake oil recommendations.

In the mean time stick with what is recommended by the manufacturer for the best performance and reliability from your car.

 

 

Do you need a Diagnostic Scan Tool?

You are cruising along the open road. Traffic is light and you are making good time toward your destination. The stereo is blasting your favorite tune and the kids are behaving in the back seat. Then without warning that ugly amber colored warning light comes on: CHECK ENGINE. Or some variation such as Service engine soon.

Is it time to panic? If you have seen this light before you may be familiar with what to do next. If its the first time you have seen this light come on while driving you might become a little worried. The light may or may not accompany a change in engine performance. In other words, the car may continue to run fine as though nothing is wrong. In some cases engine power may be reduced while the light is on. In either case what do you do?

Most all other warning lights in the car such as BRAKE, TEMP, or OIL are red when they illuminate. This of course means to stop the vehicle immediately. The CHECK ENGINE light is amber in color meaning caution. There is no immediate danger to the vehicle however it needs to be serviced as soon as possible. But what exactly does this light mean?

All modern cars use an onboard computer to control engine functions such as fuel delivery and spark. Newer cars have several onboard computers however the one responsible for controlling the engine is known as the Powertrain Control Module, or simply known as the PCM. The PCM receives input signals from various electronic sensors on the engine and the exhaust system. These sensors measure such things as the temperature of the engine, the angle of the throttle (How much you have your foot buried into the gas pedal), the amount of fuel in the exhaust, and the speed of the car. There are as many as 15 or more input sensors on modern cars and all these sensors report their reading to the PCM. In return the PCM uses this information to determine output controls such as how much fuel the engine needs and when to fire the spark plugs. This allows the engine to perform with the best possible performance, fuel economy and lower emissions. In a future blog I plan to cover this a little more in depth.

The PCM has a strategy built into it. In other words the computer compares the signals it receives from all the sensors to the strategy programmed into it. If one or more of the signals sent to the PCM doesn’t jive with the strategy a code is logged for that failure and the check engine light is turned on.

Using a Diagnostic Scan Tool a mechanic is able to connect to the PCM and read what was logged in the form of a Diagnostic Trouble Code (DTC). This code identifies the sensor and circuit that is sending the funky reading that doesn’t match the strategy programmed into the PCM.

Can you as the car owner do the same thing? Most certainly. Diagnostic Scan Tools are available at almost all auto parts stores and have come down in price. A nice hand held scan tool capable of retrieving and clearing DTCs can be found for as little as $50 online and at some parts stores. This is compared to several hundred dollars just a few years ago. Some auto parts stores may even loan you a scan tool or offer to retrieve the DTC for you.

But what information does this provide you? There hundreds of Diagnostic Trouble Codes capable of being stored in most PCMs to cover just about any failure logged into its memory. Some of these are fairly straightforward, others a little more complicated. If you plug a scan tool into your PCM diagnostic connector the code or code you retrieve will only tell you the sensor or circuit responsible for turning on the CHECK ENGINE light. As an example you might retrieve information on the display such as: P0320 Ignition/Distributor Engine Speed Input Circuit. 

Where do you go from there? Once a trouble code is retrieved there is additional diagnostic information to trace down the cause of that failure. Is it a sensor? Is it the wiring to a sensor? Or something else?

There are many publications online as well as in books to help diagnose DTCs retrieved from a Powertrain Control Module. But this is only the beginning. The Diagnostic Scan Tools owned by professional repair shops are capable of retrieving the vast amount of information stored in the PCM to aid in diagnosis. These often show live data while the engine is running as well as the data that was stored when the fault occurred. The scan tools capable of providing this information start at about $2,000. A diagnostic flow chart and a scan tool capable of reading data are a must when diagnosing the cause of a CHECK ENGINE LIGHT.

But should you own a hand held scan tool capable of only retrieving Diagnostic Trouble Codes? In my opinion it is not a high priority as it is only good for information. Your money may be better spent on other tools. However it is handy to have to retrieve the Diagnostic Trouble Code before taking it to the shop. This may help you understand what the repair shop is dealing with. This may also give the shop a “heads up” that you are a car owner with some kind of knowledge of their car. If the Diagnostic Scan Tool has a feature to clear the code and turn off the light, do not and I repeat DO NOT clear the code after you retrieve it. This may also clear any data that was stored when the failure occurred. Doing so will make your mechanic dislike you very much and this may be reflected on your repair bill.

 

Charge it? (Please don’t!)

For those of us living in the southern California desert, it is impossible to imagine driving a car not equipped with air conditioning. Summer temperatures can easily exceed 110F in this part of the country.

At one time air conditioning was considered an expensive option on cars sold in the US. The early systems were clumsy and often crippled the fuel economy of a standard car because of the added weight of the components along with the power needed to operate the compressor. Newer systems are much lighter and less energy is wasted driving the compressor.

The cost of HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) systems on a modern car can be pretty expensive. Yet most car owners do not have the expensive equipment needed to repair their HVAC systems at home. This is one of the few areas of a car where I discourage anyone unfamiliar with a car to attempt their own repair.

In recent years several automotive parts stores started selling kits to allow car owners to recharge their air conditioning systems at home. I have also seen these same kits sold online as well as large department stores. For about $20 a person can by a can of refrigerant with the tool needed to connect to the low side charging port of the HVAC system. The advertising for these kits show a happy car owner sitting inside their frigid car after recharging the system on their own.

This is one of the worst products I have seen offered to the general public. Not only are they dangerous, the kits offer no fundamental information on how an air conditioning system works. Furthermore, the refrigerant in the kit is often mixed with other chemicals that promise to seal small leaks. Essentially this is introducing a product to the vehicle that was never designed for the car.

A low refrigerant charge will certainly reduce the performance of the HVAC system. If the refrigerant charge is low enough the system will quit working altogether. Yet this isn’t the only thing that will keep an air conditioning system from operating properly. In modern cars there are several electric sensors within the system to help control the compressor’s operation. If one of these sensors fails or receives a negative signal it may shut off the compressor even if the refrigerant charge is sufficient. This is why a professional evaluation of the entire HVAC system is necessary before adding any refrigerant.

Adding refrigerant to a system that is already full can damage the system. Not to mention an overcharged system will also keep the compressor from engaging. Adding refrigerant to a system that is empty can be a waste of money. If the system is empty of refrigerant there is a leak. Recharging the system becomes a waste of money as that recharge will eventually leak out of the system.

Handling refrigerant without the correct equipment can be dangerous. Refrigerant can blind a person if it gets into their eyes. It can also cause freeze burns to the skin almost immediately. The biggest danger however comes when the can is connected to the wrong charging port of the HVAC system. Although this is difficult, it is not impossible. With high side pressures reaching nearly 300psi, a can of refrigerant can burst like a hand grenade.

To correctly charge an HVAC system the refrigerant must me weighed. A professional repair shop will often pull the HVAC system of the car into a vacuum. This will pull any moisture from the system before a charge. Once the vacuum is achieved the mechanic will often make certain the system is able to hold the vacuum. If the system can’t maintain the vacuum, then the system has a leak. Once it is certain the system can hold a vacuum, the mechanic then weighs out the correct amount for the system and begins to charge the system to the correct amount. All of this is performed with a machine that recovers, recycles, and recharges the air conditioning systems on most makes of automobiles. This machine is several thousand dollars and must be inspected and re-calibrated every few years.

While I encourage any owner to take on most repairs they are comfortable with, the HVAC system is one best left to professionals.

 

Where do you begin with your car

Are you capable of maintaining your own car? Should you leave this to a professional? Do you pay a friend?

This depends on several things. For most people the time off from their job is best spent taking care of the household and children. Or simply relaxing. Some car owners simply don’t have the time to take on an additional chore. The car sits quietly in the garage resting from countless trips to the soccer field or supermarket. Spending time on the car simply does not fit into an already full calendar.

But lets assume for the time being you have the time. You have a couple extra hours a month to spend on your second largest investment. Are you up to it?

When most car owners purchase their hot new ride there is so much excitement that many important things get ignored. Most importantly the owner’s manual. It often sits in the glove compartment going largely ignored until something specific is needed. Like how to set the clock on the stereo. Or how to adjust that driver seat that has four switches on the side. Apart from that the manual goes back to its home in the dark glove box under the multitude of napkins lifted from the nearby fast food restaurant.

If you are considering maintaining your own car, now is the time to pay attention to that owner’s manual. Where is the fuse box located? How often should you rotate the tires? Where is the jack for changing a flat tire? The information is in the owner’s manual waiting for you to discover it.

The next consideration is the  tools necessary to take care of certain tasks. I’m not talking about that crowded all purpose drawer in the kitchen with a hammer and screwdriver sharing space with the small junk that has no other place in the home. A good assortment of hand tools can be purchased from a number of places. I will get into the details of what should be in your tool collection further down.

Before taking on any task involving your car I also recommend purchasing a repair manual. Most parts store carry a variety of paperback repair manuals specific to most vehicles. This is a very good investment that will set you back about $25. This information can also be found on different websites on a pay as you go basis. However I always recommend an actual paper manual to read just about anywhere. Holding a tablet or laptop at the side of a car is not always practical. Not to mention the book can be kept in the trunk should you find yourself on the side of the road in need of information. The books are easy to read and chocked full of pictures and diagrams. Even if you choose not to do your own repairs, you can easily read on what the mechanic suggests.

I also want to address PPE (personal protective equipment) most mechanics have suffered an eye injury or a nice hand wound that could be easily avoided. A pair of safety glasses is a must. Yes they look goofy, but so does an eye patch. Gloves are also recommended if you don’t care to be burned or have a knuckle gash. Bump helmets are also nice to have when working underneath the car. Some of the best swear words Ive learned have come after busting my head on a bolt. Bottom line, get this PPE together and keep it ready to use.

Earlier I mentioned tools. I could spend hours recommending what tools you should on. Most of it depends on how extensive your willing to tear into your own car. But for the sake of this blog I am going to recommend the basic tools you would need for simple maintenance tasks. Most tools can be purchased in a set. Several retailers offer tool sets that come with the most basic hand tools. This is the best investment. The most basic tool set should include: Combination hand wrenches in sizes 8mm to 19mm. Some may also include fractional wrenches from 5/16″ to 3/4″ however most car manufacturers have gone to strictly metric fasteners. A good tool set should also include a ratchet and socket set with the same sizes as the hand wrenches. A set of screw drivers should also be an essential part of your tool set. Both standard and Phillips tips. Some may also include specialty tips such as allen an torx tips.

A good tool set with all these components will probable hit your credit card for about $150. But are well worth the investment.

Finally a good floor jack and jack stands are needed should you choose to work underneath the car. Never and I mean Never ever work underneath a car without it being supported by sturdy jack stands. I can not stress this enough. If you have a jack but no jack stands, don’t even use it.

While you are getting all this together, I will be preparing additional tips to get you started. I look forward to being your pocket mechanic.

 

What is yourpocketmechanic?

I have been an automobile mechanic for 34 years focusing on the maintenance and repair of cars and trucks. 20 years of my experience comes from working in the retail automotive business. The other 14 years have been spent working with fleet repair for a major utility company.

I am hold an ASE master certificate in auto repair as well as an ASE master certificate in heavy duty truck. These must be renewed every 5 years as I have done since 1984.

The cost of repairing and maintaining a car has grown exponentially in the last 20 years. The average repair for a simple breakdown can cost a thousand dollars or more. Maintaining a car or light truck is no cheap task either. Many car owners are at the mercy of the growing number of “quick service” businesses that lure the person in with a deal to good to be true in hopes of earning more money of recommended repairs.

I would like to help owners take care of their own vehicles with suggested ideas on how to do some of this maintenance on their own as well as offer ideas on reducing the cost of having this work done elsewhere.

I want to answer some of the questions that come to a car owner’s mind. Though I may not be able to answer all questions. I will do my best to appeal to a wide variety of topics.

I am your pocketmechanic.