Category: Maintenance/Repair

By on July 21, 2012

Just Imagine What I Can Do To Your Car!

Everybody wants a deal. But precious few people are willing to change their habits to make their deal last longer.

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By on January 7, 2010

The New Beetle of Damocles?

Having lead a life of high adventure in my youth, scaling pinnacles of rocks and ice, I never imagined that I’d meet my end, flat on my back crushed beneath a falling car. I was setting a new land-speed record for butt-shoulder-shuffling on my way out from under the creaking, swaying mass of 1999 Volkswagen New Beetle-shaped steel groaning menacingly above my body. Moments before the VW started moving it was resting firmly on my tried, and until-that-moment trusted ramps and jack-stands. But now I was going to die, life flashing before my eyes, staring swaying death in the face as my wife’s “cute bug” transformed into Damocles’ Sword, or Poe’s Pendulum, my garage floor playing the Pit. The tremor ceased as my head cleared the oil pan, and the Beetle slowed, then stopped making the horrific creaking noises as the jack-stands stopped wobbling. I cleared the bumper and leapt to my feet in a single motion, and relief swept over me like the expected post-quake tidal wave should. “Damn, I’m still alive!… in fact… I’m completely unharmed!” Running into the house I yelled at the family: ‘Did you guys feel that?!” … only to be met with a non-chalant: “feel what?”

In retrospect the tremor which scared me out from under the car was only a barely-rattle-the-china 3.2 on the Richter Scale, but it drove home an indelible lesson to this DIY mechanic living in a region where three tectonic plates meet: I NEED to get a lift!

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Product Review: Harbor Freight Hydraulic Scissor Lift Product Review Rating

By on December 17, 2009

Perhaps you’ve seen the advertisement: an Optima battery survives the rigors of a demolition derby, then goes into the vehicle taking it’s owner home. But is it pure advertising hyperbole or is there something to the claim? To find out I tested the Optima Red Top and Yellow top batteries in situations ranging from daily-driving to that demolition derby-in-denial, the 24 Hours of LeMons.

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By on September 18, 2009

The Mityvac 7201 Fluid Evacuator Plus as it arrived at my office.

I’m not a very good mechanic, but I enjoy working on my cars. Part of it is because I’m cheap and don’t like spending money on things I can do myself. Additionally, every time I have any interaction with any part of a car dealership I walk away feeling like a rape victim. Silkwood showers. Haunting regret. The works. Determined to rid myself of that feeling of being used, I made a commitment to gain mechanical skills and free myself from abuse.

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“I’m gonna get you sucka!” Product Review: Mityvac 7201 Fluid Evacuator Plus Product Review Rating

By on January 3, 2008

02871222000.jpgLike most middle aged men, I had a car crisis. So, after convincing my wife that an Imola Red BMW M Roadster isn’t “chick magnet red,” I bought my dream car. Of course, the dream is never the reality. I rarely drove the M. Summers were too wet and hot (real men don’t drive a convertible with the top up and the a/c on). Fall was too wet. Ah, winter in Florida! It’s the best ‘vert weather but… I just got a new daily driver. So Emily became a garage queen. And died.

Yesterday, I went out to drive her for the first time in two weeks. Unlike The Grand National, she’s never failed to start. But this time, key in, quick turn and nada. The dash lights were on but she didn’t even bother emitting the dreaded click click click sound. A dead battery was the blindingly obvious call. So I rolled her out of the garage, grabbed the jumper cables, opened the trunk, removed the battery cover and– remembered that jump starting a car is generally a bad idea.

Jump starting a modern car is two kinds of dumb. First, we’re talking dumb and dumberer, or, if you prefer, the Darwin factor. That’s when you accidentally reverse the cables and/or cause so much sparking that the battery blows. Second, there’s the small matter of an overly sensitive $1k electronic control unit that can up and die from a spike in the voltage transmitted from the running car to the dead car via Old Sparky– I mean jumper cables.

Some jumper cables now include a special resistor to reduce voltage spike. Some manufacturers also include a jumping block off the battery, which should help prevent battery explosions. But, as you’ve read here, no one reads the owner’s manual anymore. And I’m a lawyer; I don’t trust anyone, with anything, ever.

As an alternative, Sears sells several battery chargers. I reckon they’re a must for any vehicle driven less than once a week. So I tested the Sears DieHard 10/2/50 amp Automatic Battery Charger. The unit MSRPs at $64.99, but way-hey! As of December 23, 2007, it was on sale for a bargain price of only $39.99.

The Diehard charger is your basic, garden variety metal box with one analog battery charging gauge, two leads (for power on and full charge) and a three-way switch. It has two plugs, a 110 amp wall plug (not grounded) and two small jumper cable style wires with a red and black clamp. The Diehard does so with a vengeance; the heavy and sturdy block weighs in at eleven pounds.

So, connect the Diehard to your Diehard battery (or similar), red to red, black to black (or brown, as apparently some car companies didn’t get that memo regarding the international colors for positive and negative). Select the style of charge, plug in the device and wait. The Diehard offers spark proof protection in automatic mode, and even includes a Darwin feature for fashion victims who insist on hooking up red to black and black to red because it’s more aesthetically pleasing.

The Diehard Charger offers three settings depending on your needs. The 50 amp setting is similar to a jump from another car and should allow most cars to start up right away (though I would still give it a minute or two, and keep in mind the warning above, though the voltage from the Diehard is delivered spike free according to Sears).

If you’re not planning on driving the vehicle straight away, set the Diehard in the ten amp mode and wait about two hours. A blinking light will advise you when the battery is fully charged. WARNING: the Diehard doesn’t have an automatic shutoff; leaving the charger in ten amp mode for extended periods can damage your car’s battery. How lame is that?

I used ten amp mode for my M. A couple of hours later the car started like a dream, and ran the rest of the day without battery troubles.

There’s also a two amp trickle charger mode. This is the mode I SHOULD have been using for my M before I let her die. A trickle charge feeds just enough juice to keep the battery charged and the electrical system refreshed without overcharging the battery. Since most cars continue to draw power when off, a trickle charger also prevents damage to electrical components that seem to freak at low voltage.

I recently sampled a rarely driven loaner 2006 M5. When I picked her up after a short lay-up, the dash was lit up like a Christmas tree with dreaded engine damage warnings. A flat bed to the dealer later, I learned that the low voltage had falsely triggered the warnings. If only I’d learned to live free and Diehard.

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Sears DieHard 10/2/50 amp Automatic Battery Charger Review Product Review Rating

By on December 27, 2007

sprayrinse.jpgVisit any parts store and you’ll see rows of products that claim to clean wheels. Just spray and rinse! After buying, spraying and rinsing, you end up with half clean wheels that beg you to take out the scrub brush and clean them the old fashioned way. And here’s the really horrible bit: OCD pistonheads keep after the “cleanliness is next to godliness” spray-’n-wash wheel-cleaning Holy Grail until their garages are littered—OK, carefully arranged—with half empty bottles of wheel cleaner. So, is there a genuine no-brush wheel cleaning solution?

No, and for good reason. Any liquid powerful enough to remove all the grease and grime from your wheels without a brush would eat through the wheel’s clear coating or painted surface and leave you with a cancerous catastrophe. However, after years of searching, I’ve found a product that works better than most at cleaning wheels with minimal post-application intervention.

I’m talking about Poorboy’s Spray & Rinse Wheel Cleaner. As you can see, the company takes its brand seriously. The formula is sold in a simple spray bottle with a cheap, glued-on paper label featuring Poorboy’s riff on Monopoly’s Mr. Moneybags. The 24-ounce bottle runs $9.95 at your local auto parts store. You can also purchase a quart bottle online for $15.95, or a gallon jug for $39.95. Since the wheel cleaner requires almost as much spraying as the side of a good-sized house, I recommend you go for the gallon.

Simply spray Poorboy’s Spray & Rinse Wheel Cleaner the on cold wheels. And then spray some more. And a bit more. And then, more. Keep spraying until your wheels are better coated than a Shake ’n Bake chicken breast. Wait a few minutes for the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome to subside and then rinse the wheels with a hose. A jet sprayer is ideal, as the pressure will thoroughly wash off the cleaner and the dirt.

before.JPGThen . . . more spraying! I recommend wiping the wheels with a stiff brush, and then using a needle shaped brush, cleaning the area between the wheels and the lug nuts.  One more spray and rinse and voilà! Your wheels are clean. But remember: don’t let the spray sit on wheels for more than a few minutes. This is some serious shit.

Poorboy’s Spray & Rinse Cleaner Wheel Cleaner is an acid-based product. So some basic, common sense precautions are required. Always spray downwind and use protective eyewear. I know it looks dorky, but if a sudden gust catches the product as you spritz, you may be temped to re-enact the final act of Oedipus Rex. (Been there, done that.) The good news: the human eye is the fastest healing part of the human body.

Another warning: the product should not be used on uncoated wheels. In undiluted form, the cleaner is plenty strong enough to damage an unpainted finish. Poorboy’s recommends diluting Spray & Rinse Wheel Cleaner by 50 percent and spot-testing to see if the solution works like alien goo on your cherished rims. Diluting the cleaner is also recommended if you’re a frequent (not to say obsessive) cleaner, both to protect the wheels and save cold, hard cash.

When I use Poorboy’s wheel cleaner, I also spray the liquid liberally on the inside of the wheel and onto the brake calipers. This helps keep the inside [somewhat] clean, and keeps the calipers looking presentable. However, if you’ve painted your own calipers, just say no. By the same token, the Spray & Rinse Wheel Cleaner may eventually eat through your car’s paint. So I’d definitely avoid over-spraying onto ANY painted surface, especially small areas of the body where the clear coat has chipped away, leaving thin painted or even bare metal surfaces.

after.JPGI also recommend a thorough wash with water on the inside of the wheel, so that none of the cleaner sits on the brake pads or other brake parts. Overspray onto tires seems to have no affect, but Poorboy’s Spray & Rinse Wheel Cleaner is not and should not be used as a tire cleaner.

Since brushing is necessary (despite the company’s claim), I recommend a good quality short hair synthetic brush. Some detailers swear by boar’s hair wheel brushes, which are considered safer on wheels than the synthetic equivalent. However, they cost five times the price, and, in my experience, they don’t make much of a difference. Just avoid aggressive rubbing and have a little patience and you’ll avoid scratching your wheels.

Overall, Poorboy’s Spray & Rinse Wheel Cleaner is an excellent product that comes as close as you can get to a true spray and rinse product. Once your wheels are cleaned, a simple regimen of weekly sprays will keep them looking good, avoiding the dirt, grease and grime build-up that’s harder to remove over time.

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Poorboy’s Spray & Rinse Wheel Cleaner Review Product Review Rating

By on November 27, 2007

cp9135-4.jpgDriving my new 2004 Audi with the family on a vacation to Sanibel Island, the check engine light (CEL) illuminated. We were 125 miles from home. In the past, an engine warning light would trigger panic, confusion and nameless dread. (Owners’ manuals are no help; they simply tell afflicted drivers to take the car to an official dealer.) All I could do was find, phone and visit a local dealer (if they were open) or limp home, knowing that every mile might be making an unknown situation worse. These days, I have an alternative: the OBD-II Actron 9135 scanner.

Modern cars are lousy with sensors. They measure engine function, transmission operation, emissions, fuel consumption, brake operation and more. The sensors report to the ECU (Electronic Control Unit). If the ECU detects a problem with a monitored system, it stores the information until the condition occurs x times over y period of time. At that point, the ECU triggers the appropriate idiot light.

Thanks to the federal legislation, all cars sold since 1996 must include an open access port to the ECU. Anyone– not just franchised dealers– can use this OBD-II port to diagnose vehicle problems.

The OBD-II system is a data collector, not a testing device. A detected fault could be in the idiot light, the ECU, the sensor collecting the data, or the measured device/part/system. Regardless, knowing which part of your vehicle is stricken is extremely helpful. For one thing, many faults can lead to expensive repairs if they’re not addressed in a timely fashion. 

Equally important, an OBD-II scanner provides consumer protection. Even if you don’t have a clue how to fix a reported fault, you can go to your dealer or mechanic safe in the knowledge that they can’t snow you with a bogus diagnosis. In fact, most dealers will charge you more than the cost of the unit ($69.99) just to plug-in their OBD-II scanner.

Like most code readers, the Actron 9135 connects directly to the OBD-II port under the driver’s dash. With the car’s ignition in the “on” position, the battery provides power for the scanner. The scanner takes about a minute to establish communications with the ECU. Once the "ready" signal is displayed on the LCD screen, you can test a variety of systems and functions. 

Pressing the large “Read” button tells the car to return any fault codes stored in the ECU. If you're lucky, you'll see “no faults” on the screen. If not, the screen will report the code and attempt to describe the problem based on the generic OBD-II codes.

The Society of Engineers created these fault codes. While manufacturers license them for diagnostic use, they are not required to restrict themselves to generic codes. That means the Actron (and other readers) may not be able to read some or all of the codes from certain vehicles. Actron offers a free web-based look-up service, as well as a fee-based service to diagnose code symptoms and recommend possible repair solutions.

The Actron 9135 can also test a vehicle’s emissions control systems. With this tool, a car owner can determine if there are any emissions issues prior to undergoing (and possibly failing) a state emissions test. If any of the emission devices are malfunctioning, the scanner will identify the exact problem. If all systems report ready, the vehicle will most likely pass an emissions test.

Now, back to my story…

Since I’d just gassed the Audi, I thought I hadn’t put the gas cap on tightly enough; a loose gas cap will trigger a CEL since the system detects that as fuel vapor leak, and the scanner will return a P0440 code. I re-tightened the cap and hoped for the best, knowing that a loose cap CEL will reset in a few start-stop cycles.

When we arrived at our hotel, I reached for my handy dandy Actron scanner. Anal retentive gadget freak that I am, I’d checked the ECU a few days before the trip. The ECU hadn't been storing any codes (i.e. I was good to go). This time, the Actron immediately displayed a code (P0741) and a short statement indicating that the problem involved a sensor related to the vehicle’s torque converter. Uh-oh.

The Audi is headed for the dealer. No matter how this turns out, I highly recommend the Actron 9135 OBD-II handheld scanner. The oil and grease resistant, field upgradeable unit comes with an eight foot cable and free tech support. It’s a simple tool that offers proof– if proof were needed– that information is power. Oh, and one quick question: why don’t manufacturers build-in this system? Take a wild guess…  

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OBD-II Actron 9135 Scanner Review Product Review Rating

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