By on October 25, 2013

Martin writes:

Hi Sajeev,

I just wanted to follow up the post with the resolution.  I’m not sure if this is important to you all, but I see that it’s an issue with Bimmers sometimes as well.  I switched the bulbs from right to left.  My passenger side light had been flickering off.  When I switched the bulbs, the issue went to the driver’s side, which seemed to narrow down the issue to a bulb problem.  

Both lights would sometimes flicker as a pre courser to the bulb shutting down.  I replaced the Xenon bulbs with new ones, and so far, the problem is gone. I’m not sure why both bulbs flickered simultaneously as a pre courser to the bulb going out, but it did.  This issue is also gone. I hope it helps someone because initially when I took the problem to mechanics I received estimates including the replacement of the entire light, which is around 1200-1300 bucks, or replacing the ballast which is a 400-600 dollar part, and one indy mechanic even told me they had to drop the bumper cover JUST to get to the light, which is really untrue.

Instead the resolution cost me 150 bucks.


Sajeev answers:

Good to hear Martin, sometimes the easiest answer is the right one! And sadly, if one lacks the time and knowledge to seek that easy automotive solution, they’re gonna get hosed.  Hosed for a normal wear item?  How sad.  So let’s consider more wear items that people tend to neglect:

  1. Fuses: they go bad over time, even when they look good at a casual glance.  Even when tested with a voltmeter/continuity tester! Here’s one from my (LH high beam circuit) Sierra that looked okay at first…but when I shined light behind it…a new fuse and freshly cleaned ground wiring fixed a multitude of problems.
  2. Headlights: they are wear items.  They can flicker (as you know well!) and dim over time. The dimming is so gradual that you’d never know, until you replace them.  I’ve seen 2 year old vehicles need new headlights!
  3. Vacuum lines in particular, rubber parts in general:  Anything that uses engine vacuum (less of a concern today) relies on tubing that gets cracked, brittle, gooey, leaky…so replace it.  Lines connected to PCV systems can get gooey/leaky in just a few years…not decades.
  4. Tires: if they are dry rotted, their performance (especially in the wet) is kinda horrible.  Depending on where you live/park, your tires could be history after 5 years, even with fantastic tread depth.
  5. Brake lines: after a decade, especially if you live in the rust belt, look at your brake lines to ensure they won’t go explodey from rusting.
  6. Wiring: lines get brittle-cracked-shorted, connectors get broken/loose and “Ghosts in the Machine” that are seemingly impossible to trace have a very simple solution: replacement.
  7. Weatherstripping (again rubber): however your car’s doors seal to the body, that stuff will shrink, split, etc. no longer making an air (or water!) tight seal.  And don’t forget leaky sunroofs/moonroofs!
  8. Hinges and Latches:  bushings (often brass?) inside door hinges can wear to the point that doors sag, especially on convertibles.  Similarly, door latches wear, become misaligned, and make horrible squeaking sounds sometimes.
  9. Springs and Shocks: sounds logical, but how many people pony up the cash for these new parts after years of metal fatigue on coils and leaky/coagulated cartridges? Not nearly enough.
  10. Copper connections: similar to #6, if there’s an exposed connection on a printed circuit (probably less of a concern today) that can become oxidized…well, it will. I’ve repaired many a flaky module with a pink eraser (not white, they lack the “tooth” to make a clean cut) from the top of a pencil.  It’s funny the things you learn from people on the Internet.
  11. Batteries, Alternators, Terminals+Cables : as cars get more complex, their thirst for fresh batteries shortens the lifespan of these wear items.  Alternators age, even more so when trying to support a weak battery.  And everything can go bad because your battery’s termainals+cables are crusty and corroded.  The moment you hear your car “chugs” and labors at start up compared to a car with a new battery OR the moment the dashboard electrics goes bonkers for no apparent reason…well, that’s the moment you are officially warned of a simple but important charging problem.

Best and Brightest: fill in the gaps I left.  And have a great weekend.

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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36 Comments on “Piston Slap: Affalterbach’s A-faltering Headlight! (Part II)...”

  • avatar

    Judging by how many I find less than 1/2 full , final drive units need their oil levels checked more often , steering boxes too .


    • 0 avatar

      Good one: how many older cars have clean oil and coolant, but power steering/transmission/differential oil that’s black and smokey?

    • 0 avatar

      Brake fluid, too.

      The last time my wife had her 2001 Odyssey’s front pads replaced about 2 years ago, I told her to have the shop bleed the brakes. They told her it wasn’t necessary. I took a look, and that stuff was nasty, dark and opaque, not transparent or tinted slightly yellow.

      After 10+ years in road-salt country, I wasn’t touching the bleed screws myself. I’ve been using a turkey baster to empty the reservoir and add new fluid at every oil change ever since (3 times a year). While the fluid looks better, it still doesn’t look good.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Ground screws. Tighten them. For problem areas, riv-nuts along with copper washers and star washers often provide the little bit of added contact and current flow to stabilize that shaky gauge needle or flickering dashboard light. Tracing them can be a PITA, but if it’s black, see where it’s connected and if the screw or nut holding it is snug, not stripped.

    Perform this check at least once a year, preferably twice, and whenever a flicker or twitch manifests on the dashboard. They are all over the place on older automobiles, so check the engine bay as well as under the dashboard.

    • 0 avatar

      BMW uses brown for ground. I don’t know if this is BMW-specific or a German thing. Only mentioning it because the pic above the jump shows a Benz and bimmers are mentioned in the letter.

      • 0 avatar

        Brown for ‘earth’/ground is a European thing. We used to export equipment over there, and the AC wiring color coding for ground was also brown. We had to special-order our flexible cords with this color.

      • 0 avatar
        Felis Concolor

        Interesting you should mention that; GM tends to use brown in its car stereo wiring harnesses for the dashboard light signal, and hundreds of thousands of DIY car stereo buffs learned that the hard way, as the dark wire was often mistaken for a chassis ground and functioned in a similar manner – until the lights were switched on, at which point you were lucky to get away with a few blown switches and fuses.

        Thanks for the clarification; I’ll keep that in mind should I ever be tasked with tracing a circuit in any needy friend’s European car.

        Oh yeah, congrats on the (relatively) cheap fix, Martin!

  • avatar

    I would add plastic parts under the hood, especially those carrying a fluid. The fatigue due to heat cycling will shorten the lifespan. For example, under the hood of my car (BMW E46) is a cooling system where 50% of the components are plastic/composite and they are notorious for cracking and exploding without notice. Also, there are plenty of original plastic wire clips under the hood that break if you breathe on them wrong, causing the wiring to sag or otherwise fall out of place. God forbid they fall into the path of the radiator fan or drive belts!

    • 0 avatar

      It may be just my imagination, but I have found that the plastics used in European cars ages more quickly than others. The plastic parts just get weak and brittle with age. The same is true for the rubber parts, but in this case they may go soggy and soft.

      Ordinary cable ties (“zip ties”) work well for cable and hose management.

  • avatar
    Mr Imperial

    GREAT list, Sajeev.

    12. Serpentine belts. Powersteering pumps, alternators, a/c compressors, water pumps, ALL rely on a belt in good condition for proper function. Sometimes, what can apprear to be a faulty electric/alternator issue is a serpentine belt slippling. Check the belt for:
    -Cracks that go across the entire length of the ribbed side,
    -Glazing (if the belt has a “glossy” look to it, it may be slipping or coated with oil/fluid, causing a loss of friction).
    -Chunks/pieces missing out of the side edge of the belt.
    -If rubber fibers are showing, it is time for replacement.

    13. Water pumps. Also a wear item. If the weep hole shows signs of leaking, time to replace the pump.

    14. Thermostats. Over time, the thermostat can stop expanding/contracting in conjunction with the engine’s heat cycle. Engines are designed to be kept in a certain temperature range for optimum efficiency. If a t-stat is stuck in an open position, the engine will take forever to reach operating temp.

    15. Transmission fluid. Most of the time, the fluid can stay for most of a vehicle’s life, but being aware of your transmission fluid’s color can prevent a costly rebuild down the line. In real rough terms: If it’s rosy, transmission is cozy. If it’s brown, flush it down.

    16. Fuel filters. Just like the air filter, it is designed to catch anything that could clog the fuel injection system. After time, these filters will become restricted, starving the engine for fuel. Got a rough idle? When was the fuel filter last replaced?

    17. Spark plugs. Most of the B&B should know the Otto Cycle :) Proper spark and gap are important for a healthy engine.

    18. Coolant. Rust-inhibitors and other chemicals prevent corrosion of your engine’s cooling system. Must-do for any vehicle that has had GM Dexcool. Fresher coolant also has greater heat-transferring capability than old stuff. Check your manual, YMMV.

  • avatar

    Since winter is coming, and thermostats are being spoken of, let me suggest something my Father always did when installing a new one. He would boil a pan of water on the stove with the thermostat immersed, and observe the action over the temp cycle. More than one failed this test, and with the obscure places they are located on modern cars, this is cheap insurance.

    • 0 avatar
      Mr Imperial

      Very interesting…..Never heard of that one!

    • 0 avatar

      I have done the same thing, usually with the ‘old’ and ‘new’ parts simultaneously. I have noticed that many late-model GM thermostats go bad by opening prematurely, resulting in an operating system temperature of 160-170 deg. F instead of 195-205 deg. F.

      Even some of the new, out-of-the-box AC/Delco parts have this same issue.

  • avatar

    On #9, I thought springs typically lasted until the car goes to the crusher. There are certainly exceptions to the rule, especially in areas with lots of road salt, but I did not think springs were considered a wear item.

    • 0 avatar

      Springs sag and/or lose performance well before their home is doomed to the crusher.

      If you really care about that. Which most people do not.

      • 0 avatar

        I had the opportunity at work to swap my 2009 Altima with 70K for a 2009 Altima with 14K. I commute in the high mileage one in/out of NYC on some pretty bumpy roads. The 14K one has not really left the city much. Drive time – the lower mileage car is notably more taut on low speed bumps and highway speed bumps, with much less pitching over big dips at 65 mph plus. Moderate speeds don’t reveal as much of a difference. Lean in turns is also more in the high mileage car. So when anybody says “the struts are just fine” at 100K on anything other than maybe Florida highways they are mistaken. Back to back gave me hard evidence for what I already knew.

        Missed maintenance? Check the air in your spare with a guage, not a squeeze. Every car I checked was at least 50% down….no point in carrying a tire if it is flat.

  • avatar

    That is pretty unbelievable that no one could diagnose a bad bulb. Or maybe they could and just wanted to rip off the op, but I like to think that kind of practice is on the decline with how fast word of mouth can spread through social media.

    Anyway, another symptom of an HID bulb going out is color shifting. A new bulb has an almost halogen-like yellow tint to it, then it moves to white pretty quickly and slowly fades over time, as Sajeev says. Once near death, they can turn pink.

    • 0 avatar

      Why is it so unbelievable? Have you seen who is working on cars these days in most shops? The race-to-the-bottom is going full strength in the auto repair industry as well, with near-minimum-wage 20-somethings doing the diagnosis and repairs . . . (I have good friends in the business which I correspond with weekly)

      AND you have service-writers who are looking to minimize come-backs and soak the customer for as much money as they think they can. If they can minimize their risk (of mis-diagnosis & comebacks) while maximizing their profit by recommending a full headlight or HID module replacement, they will do that in a heartbeat.

      Very few shops are actually looking out for the customer. If you have one that is, treasure it and recommend it to all of your friends so they will stay in business!

      • 0 avatar

        I guess it is unbelievable to me because I have worked with several shops over the last 10 years or so that have all been good about recommending cost-effective solutions.

        For example, I had a brake light out for no obvious reason. Rather that recommend a new wiring harness or whatever shotgun solution a shadier shop might suggest, he jumped the wire from the good brake light to the bad one. No charge. I was even allowed to bring in parts on occasion.

        I think the worst problem I have encountered recently is a shop that didn’t do a repair that I think he should have. It was rear wheel bearings, which can be a pain depending on how bad they are. I suspect he thought it would be a pain and wouldn’t be profitable, so he said they have a little longer to live.

        I think this might depend on where you live. Most heavily populated areas are going to have a lot of competition for auto repair. A shop using the business practices you think are common is not going to be very successful in that environment.

  • avatar

    “… one indy mechanic even told me they had to drop the bumper cover JUST to get to the light, which is really untrue.”

    Sounds about right.

  • avatar

    Springs ought to last the life of the vehicle, and shocks and struts can. I have a friend who is an engineer at Honda and he says they spec theirs to do so and, unless a seal fails, they should. My ’99 Odyssey rode the originals until I traded it at 205K and showed no signs of needing replacement.

    My new to me ’07 Prius has the HID flicker and I read the same thing from Toyota dealers. Bumper must be pulled, bulb replacement is $300, bulb and ballast is $900. I bought the bulb on Amazon for about $45 and found instructions online to replace it in an hour without bumper removal. We’ll see this weekend how it goes.

    • 0 avatar

      Springs might, shocks/struts no. If you did a back to back drive (see my post above) it would be immediately apparent. Certainly at anything remotely near the mileage you state you would feed the difference in the first 100 yards. It’s the frog-in-the-pot-thing. Heat the water up slowly and the frog will never notice it. Same goes for anything that wears out very slowly. In the bad old Malaise era, shocks were made to perform very well, but had an intentional short life. That way a new car would feel much better than a 70K example. And back then, the suspensions went years and years with little meaningful changes.

      I will agree that Honda seems to be one of the manufactures that does get the best life out of struts but they, too, degrade with time and use. I always tell those who plan on seeing things out to 180k or more to divide that anticipated mileage in half and change them at the half way mark. This way you don’t spend the money to only send the car to the yard with 20K on the struts and you get the performance, safety, and comfort that a maintained suspension will provide.

      • 0 avatar

        I’d agree that as they wear, the incremental degradation in performance may be imperceptible. Perhaps they were not performing up to spec. However, even at 200K I didn’t feel like they were needing replaced. No bouncy ride, not extra rebound over hard bumps. I bought a new Mazda3 when the Ody likely had 120K on it and never felt going from one to the other than the van was lacking, nor did the 12K mile Outlook we replaced it with make me think the Ody’s struts were worn.

        I wouldn’t replace them simply by mileage, personally, I’d look for evidence of performance degradation. I found none with the Ody. The ’05 Mazda3, however, has begun to fell off. Too many rebounds over harsh bumps. Struts are on my agenda next spring. It’s at 132K.

  • avatar

    This is all just basic maintenance, which no one ever seems to actually do. When I buy a new to me car, I go completely through it and replace anything and everything suspect. Which is probably why I have driven almost nothing but older European cars my adult life with minimal problems.

    Of course, this approach does have it’s painful moments – see the low-mileage Porsche 924S in my garage that I drove home from Staten Island but has not turned a wheel in over a year since. But once it is done it will be RELIABLE.

  • avatar

    The importance of fresh clean brake fluid in the entire braking system cannot be overstated. If you look in the reservoir and see dark blackish deposits or black fluid, then consider changing it. Brake fluid absorbs water as vapor from the atmosphere. That water in the fluid can boil at 212F while your fluid is made to boil at 450F. If this happens in your calipers it expands as a gas and you will have NO BRAKES when you most need them in an emergency stop. The turkey baster in the reservoir trick is useless. It doesn’t matter how bad the fluid in the reservoir is contaminated. It is the fluid in the brake caliper that counts. You must bleed at the wheels until fresh clear fluid comes out.

    +1 on shocks and springs lasting the life of the vehicle. That is the norm for me, and I dispose of my cars by driving them to the wrecking yard, fully roadworthy.

  • avatar

    On VWs, the shocks definitely wear out. I’d say probably around 100k. On my current 99.5 MKIV Jetta, I replaced them at 150k and they were shot as in not expanding. One side was worse than the other. Maybe it is the mountainous Chicago speed bumps. I reused the springs as I definitely didn’t want to have anything firmer on Chicago streets and it wasn’t clear what was a good replacement for OEM springs on a GLS model.

    Biggest WTF that day was finding out the front subframe has a bolt bonded to it on the inside for the control arm. I broke it loose on one side and had to use a hole cutter to get in the and replace it with something else after Sawzalling off the control arm. Fun times…

    • 0 avatar

      I replaced the front shocks on my GS at about 95 K. Both of them had bad seals and were banging over bumps. The back ones with their light weight load seem to be fine, and still going strong.

  • avatar
    old fart

    Pre 80’s rust belt Fords , add additional ground wires to engine and body. I tried on other old Fords to just clean up where the grounds go but it seems never enough. With age and rust the extra grounds will help on those cold days to keep things working, and don’t forget some grease to shield those clean connections.

  • avatar

    I had to replace the battery to starter cable on all 3 of the Accords I’ve owned. 1st time I learned the hard way (replaced battery, car still wouldn’t start, checked resistance on wire on a whim and it was high). From then on, childsplay

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