By on October 8, 2012

For the most part, I’m trying to avoid the whys and wherefores behind the topics I write about in this column. I’d just as soon hear from readers as to their opinions about the reasons behind. But there are going to be exceptions to that rule, as far as my postulating about motives.

This entry (as with Part One) is one of the exceptions. I still wouldn’t mind “hearing” your thoughts, though

Once upon a time, when my little repair shop microcosm was a much safer and secure place to tread, I would rarely get a customer request for a repair procedure that was unlawful, unsafe, unprofitable, unfair, or just downright unrecommendable. And if their request was any of these, it would take very little effort on my part to dissuade them from their skewed request and get them to embrace my recommendation for properly solving their problem.

Or, did I DREAM that?

Based on a downward trend toward the lowest common denominator of customer requests, which seemed to start shortly after “once upon a time”, I’m wondering if I must HAVE dreamt it!

(As a matter of fact, I think that the next couple of entries are going to relate some of the truly infamous customer requests I have ever received.)

Staying true to theme, today’s entry really centers on my perception of a customer’s motive for making a particular request, and the lengths this customer went to get me to fulfill it.

The customer came to me with a straightforward request to replace his catalytic converters on a early-millennium Pathfinder. Not a request to run some tests to determine why his “Check Engine” light was on (which it was), or even to verify that his cat’s were in actual need of replacement.

When I asked him why he thought the cat’s were bad, he didn’t even try to answer the question, but instead countered by questioning me as to why I couldn’t just fulfill his request and get him on his way.

I informed him that firstly, it was (and I believe, still is) unlawful in the State of California to replace a cat unless it is experiencing a verifiable failure, or has been in any other way damaged internally or externally to the point of inoperability.

I also noted that the replacement units for his P/Finder were quite expensive, and if replacement didn’t solve whatever the problem was, was he going to be able to take responsibility for his request. Or was he going to attempt to make me “eat” the cost (which, based on the State Law just referred to, would have been the case) if the causal symptom wasn’t eliminated?

I reminded him that I really needed to know WHY he wanted me to replace the cat’s, before we could go any further.

He finally coughed up the fact that the “check engine” light was indeed illuminated, and the “dealer” he had taken the vehicle to had told him that the catalysts were inoperative and needed to be replaced.

When I requested a copy of the work order from the “dealer” he had gone to—so I could verify the validity of his request—he again balked, finally admitting that he didn’t have it, and that in fact, there wasn’t a work order at all!

At that point, I told him that I really couldn’t help him unless he let me perform the tests necessary, and we’d have to go from there.

He finally acquiesced, and I saw the ‘finder the next morning.

Sure enough, after interrogating the engine management system, I verified that both left and right side cats were showing “low efficiency”, potentially suggesting the need for replacement.

I decided to go a little further in my testing, and engaged my scanner’s “Troubleshooter” feature to check for vehicle-specific information about the cat failure codes that were present.

I found an interesting “surprise”: Regarding the particular year and emissions group, this ‘finder had a “service bulletin” in connection with the failure codes present. Apparently, there was a potential programming fault that could cause such failure codes when there was no actual problem with the cat’s whatsoever! The recommended course was to have an authorized dealer connect their proprietary equipment to the management system and determine if it was in need of a program update. Once, and ONLY once this procedure was completed, could the need for cat replacement be properly assessed!

I would otherwise be in violation of The Law if I replaced the cats without confirming this procedure had been done!

When I informed the customer of these facts, he seemed more upset than ever, actually saying some form of “It has to be anything but THAT!”

What made this especially puzzling, and confirmed that this customer had some sort of unfriendly “agenda” was that, by taking the course I recommended, he could be potentially saving himself quite literally THOUSANDS of dollars! The math wasn’t difficult: $200 for a check and reprogram, or more than $2000 for a cat replacement!

But, instead of thanking me profusely for the information, he was visibly displeased with the whole experience!

I never heard anything more from this “customer”, and I can only guess at what his “agenda” was.

Was he an agent for some consumer research or “watchdog” agency?

Was he just doing a little private investigation on his own?

Was he trying to score a set of free catalytic converters, at my expense?

Or was he trying to exercise his freedom of expression or “manifest destiny” by requesting a potentially unnecessary repair procedure just because he felt that, in the good ol’ U.S.A., he COULD?

I’ll probably never know.

Had I done it his way, though, I likely would have been in a world of trouble.

As an ASE Certified L1 Master Tech, Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

15 Comments on “Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: “It’s Anything But THAT!”—Detecting the Motive Behind the Exclamation—Part Two...”

  • avatar

    Why is it unlawful to replace cats w/o performing the diagnostic first?

    • 0 avatar

      I believe I recall that the law was written that way to prevent the costly and unnecessary replacement of a very expensive part. By making the owner of the shop liable for a faulty diagnosis, the idea was to keep him from intentionally defrauding the car owner. I’ll skip the political pluses and minuses of manipulating human behavior.

      Cats don’t usually fail on their own for the normal life of the car. Sure, there are cases of broken internals that rattle, or rust holes forming but that usually comes with advanced age. I have had both of those issues, but on cars that were 12 or more years old. The usual cause of cat failure is that the engine was running way rich, overheating, or with a misfire for a long period of time. That is the number one killer of cats, and your mileage by the way. For this reason, if the OBDII system senses misfire, your check engine light blinks on and off. Ignore at your own peril. But for less severe cases, the cat may be slowly killed to the point of check engine light illumination or a failed inspection. If the shop just replaces the cats, the problem will go away for awhile. But it will return. Unless the root cause of the failure is identified and repaired, the cat will die again. The shop has to find out why the thing failed in the first place – for your benefit as well as his.

      • 0 avatar

        As both a Service Advisor and a Parts Consultant I see far too many customer’s explain that “Autozone” said the Cat (or some other part) needs to be replaced because they scanned my car and found P-XYZ code in the PCM. My reply to you is to further your point about replacing a part just because there is a code related to a particular part without finding the root eeeFFen cause. As a parts man i would not sell them the part they asked for, or I would make clear to the customer that the part is not returnable and sometimes they would leave angry. Because as all of us know that work in this field the customer would come back to return said part when it did not solve said problem. Actually the most common part that “needs to be replaced” was one of the O2 sensors. I always ask them why they believe that the O2 sensor needs to be replaced and 99% of the time I get “well so and so said so”

      • 0 avatar

        I thought blowing the head gasket and cracking the cylinder on the exhaust side, allowing water to contaminate the cats, ruined them on the Taurus. But, I just drove it with an expired inspection sticker for a few thousand miles to give the car time to get rid of the crud in cats (it also sat up for four years after I blew the engine.) When they tested it again; it passed.

        A blown head gasket may allow enough water into the cats to crack the red hot catalyst inside; but it appears that was not the case here.

      • 0 avatar

        What if you own a much, much older (late 70’s say) car with obsolescent Cats and want to replace them with more modern and performance-friendly ones? Are you still stuck waiting for them to fail on their own before you can perform the aftermarket switch-out?

      • 0 avatar

        Not to say you shouldn’t investigate a bit further, but some cats do fail on without any engine issue. Some of them have bad build quality and the slightest bump can cause the core to break apart. I replaced many cats at low mileages on VWs. No rich conditions.

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    …because you could be replacing them with a piece of pipe to eliminate them completely.
    it is the face of the world today, do anything which is against the norm ( the ‘norm’ being mass behavioral manipulation i think) and you run the risk of punitive retaliation.
    Dont blame me, I would never vote for anyone whose political agenda would encourage such thinking.

  • avatar
    Carl in NH

    Hmmm, I am in much the same spot as the customer referenced, as this sounds like the “P0420 Low Catalytic Efficiency” code. I HAVE gone through and done the diagnostics myself on my Subaru Outback, and have replaced all the O2 and A/G sensors on the bank that was indicated as problematic, the PCV valve, checked the vacuum, checked for exhaust leaks, etc. No avail.

    Finally caved to the dealer offering a diagnostic service, and they came back and said the cats needed replacement (BOTH sides, 3 cats total, for $3,100 !)

    No thank you sir, I’ll figure out a cheaper way.

    Perhaps this guy came to you at a similar point ? (Except that he did not get the dealer diagnosis, of course)

  • avatar

    As previously said , Human behaviour oftengoes directly against the customer’s best interests .

    FWIW , you’d have been off the hook resposability – wise if the R.O. had been filled out correctly , IE : ” CATALYTIC CONVERTERS REPLACED AT CUSTOMER’S INSISTANCE WITHOUT DIAGNOSIS ” ~ I did this more than once when a customer insisted on some repair I didn’t think necessary nor wise .


    • 0 avatar
      Phil Coconis

      You in California, Nate?

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t think that works for cats and possibly other emissions equipment, Nate. Under federal law:

      1) for pre-OBD-II (1995 and earlier), you can only remove the cat within 50,000 miles if you have a good reason — broken, damaged in an accident, etc. The reason 50K is chosen is because the warranty is generally a minimum of 5 years/50K, and there should be no need to replace it before then.
      2) for OBD-II, you must keep the cat through the 8 year/80,000 mile manufacturer warranty — no need to replace it because the warranty covers it

      In California, I believe the mark is a minimum of 7 years/70K these days (but federal law would override that, and some warranties are longer). The mechanic can only remove the cat with a good reason, as Phil said. The mechanic must also confirm that the warranty on the cat has expired before replacing it. Upon replacement, the O2 sensor can’t be moved, the cat must be in roughly the same place, the number of cats can’t be reduced (or increased for that matter), and the mechanic must fill out the warranty card.

      In California, I believe you can only replace a cat (or any other emissions equipment for that matter) with an OEM equivalent or something that’s otherwise CARB-approved, and there’s a listing of parts available:

      By the way, the law was changed on some of this stuff in California in 2009. Used cats can no longer be sold now, I believe.

      In addition, as a practical matter, why wouldn’t you follow the TSB first? Cats are expensive.

      • 0 avatar

        I see you have litle actual Customer experiance .

        Yes , it’s illegl in many cases .

        No , you cannot legally sell used Catalytic Converters .

        In the end , there will always be a shop that’s going to do whatever the Customer wants .

        The rulebook is one thing , reality is another ~ here in La-La Land , it was normal Dealer PDI to whack the tops of the early vacuum operated ERG valves wit a ballpein hammer so they’d not open as cold running stumbles were a serious issue .

        The fine , IIRC , was $10,000 per car when caught , several Chevy / GM Dealers were caught with rows of brandy new cars with dimpled EGR Valves .

        Later on they figured out to plumb in a thermostatic delay valve.

        Few Dealer mechanics ever give a crap about Technical Service Bulletins , I did and was hassled to death for trying to do a good job .

        I guess you had to be there when these cars were new to understand .

        As other where mentioned , simple repairs (cam gears) to correct late cam timing (most of these cars had a 3 degree retard in the cam timing to reduce smog , obviously it also killed off the power , plus proper tuning techniques , not only woke these barges up but , they typically whistled through the smog test too .

        Many different ways to skin cats , I enjoy reading all the various inputs .

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Perhaps the car was stolen, and the customer did not want to go to a dealer where the serial number would be traced as part of the software upgrade.

  • avatar

    I think personal pride is a big issue in these situations. It is easy for the trained mechanic to rationalize the situation, based on training, and expect the owner to follow suit. However, people in general don’t work that way. I can personally account for my own wrong-thinkings in issues past, due to what I knew HAD to be the problem [Luckily I never voiced those thoughts to a service technician, but only to myself as I was wrenching alone.]. The human ego is a hard thing to break–especially when it has been bolstered by the congruent thoughts of others.

    On a somewhat related note, I enthusiastically read this column whenever a new post comes out. I am striving to open my own motorcycle shop within the next couple years, and your stories/opinions/knowledge are priceless. Thanks!

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • jalop1991: “Our electrification and software strategies will support the shift to become a sustainable mobility tech...
  • ToolGuy: The danger here (for TTAC) is that many Busy People with Actual Jobs To Do scan quickly through the website...
  • SCE to AUX: The only snake oil I’m aware of is the $10,000 Full Self Driving option. No doubt he has said some...
  • Undead Zed: Wow, two articles in a row. Didn’t even bother to find a different photo.
  • ToolGuy: $23 billion USD per year divided by 34 million connected vehicles is approximately $56 per vehicle per...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber