Driving away techs with the cost of the game

Jan. 1, 2020
I have two automotive diagnostic tools in front of me, both of which are state of the art and indispensable to a qualified tech.

I have two automotive diagnostic tools in front of me, both of which are state of the art and indispensable to a qualified tech.

The first one is a handheld scan tool capable of reading diagnostic trouble codes from both OBDI-and OBDII-equipped vehicles. According to the instruction manual, it can recognize and interface with any microprocessor-controlled vehicle built since 1981, and it has a printer port so you can show the customer exactly what the vehicle is doing in real time.

Since I'm not a computer whiz or even a trained automotive technician, I can't tell you how many functions it actually performs, but it all boils down to a code that points you in the general direction of what's wrong with your vehicle.

The other tool has a 5-inch by 8-inch analog gauge in a large metal case. Two toggle switches, one push button switch, two calibration knobs and one function selector knob take up the rest of the front panel. It is capable of making three measurements — volts, amps and ohms — and it's up to the operator to interpret these readings and convey them to the customer. Still, it was a pretty handy tool to have back in 1965 when it was sold. It can tell you a lot about what's going on inside your engine bay, and it can also be used in one way or another on just about every vehicle ever built.

My scan tool, however, has a limited range of usage and won't recognize certain codes. It also needs periodic updates to remain useful, and these are an ongoing expense.

As much as vehicles have changed over the last two decades, I think the tools used to fix them have changed even more. A quick look through my own box reveals the usual wrenches, pliers and screwdrivers, as well as specialized tools. I have enough to do routine service on anything I own, and can scrape babbit bearings or service valves in a flat head engine, as well as a few other arcane procedures. It all fits into a relatively small space, and at one time my home garage would have been considered well equipped for the average service station.

By contrast, when I look at the rolling tool condos that the average tech needs today just to service even one particular brand of vehicle, I'm staggered. The cost of the box alone without contents far exceeds what I, or the average DIYer, will ever own. It doesn't surprise me too much then to hear the industry is facing a technician shortage. Along with all the other indignities that good technicians sometimes have to face, just the cost of getting in the game can put you behind the eight ball.

What brings this comparison up is a sale I didn't make on a simple tire pressure gauge. The customer thought that $2.99 was a pretty high price to pay for something so basic, and since I didn't feel like arguing with him I let him walk. If he knew what's just over the horizon as far as tires go he might think differently. I could have showed him the tire pressure sensor tool, used to detect and reset inflation pressure sensors when the tires are dismounted or rotated. Starting with the 2007 model year, the tools for basic tire service will now cost $450 to $900, more than what's been required since the advent of pneumatic tires.

Somehow, though, I don't think this guy would understand that. He would instead think the shop was trying to rip him off if they raised rates to try and amortize the price of that tool over whatever useful service life it might have — updates provided at extra cost, of course.

Mike Gordon, a 20-year counter sales veteran, works the counter at Sanel Auto Parts, Concord, N.H.