The best of the best tech tips

Jan. 1, 2020
Check out the best of the best tech tips from our year-long contest for Motor Age readers.

Do you remember the very first time you picked up a wrench and began your very first “professional” repair?

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Technical Editor Pete Meier says his first was a simple oil change, working in a three-bay service station in Virginia in 1976. And if your experience was similar, there was an older tech standing over your shoulder, teaching you the ropes.

When we began our monthly Tech Tip contest a year ago, those were the type of tips we were looking for. We received dozens of entries each month from techs who had been in the business for decades and from techs who had been in the business only a few years. Choosing a monthly winner often was a difficult task, so we quickly amended the program to include two honorable mentions and added them to the magazine’s print feature showcasing the monthly winner.

The monthly winner also was sent a small token of appreciation and recognition, supplied by our sponsor Mitchell 1, and recognized in a blog in our AutoPro Workshop community.

When we chose our 12th monthly winner, it was time to select the best overall. This decision we left to you, our readers, and we asked for your votes online. Well, the results are in, and a grand prize winner has been chosen.

David Harmon of Apache Junction, Ariz., takes home the top prize for his tip to help technicians remove spark plugs. Harmon, 71, who works for Pinal County Fleet Services, provided the simple, common sense tip that made many go, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Read on to see not only Harmon’s tip, but the rest of the monthly winners and honorable mentions. These tips might be a great asset to keep near your toolbox, too.

And you know what? The real winners are those out there who have learned a trick or two they didn’t know before, from the tips shared by all of our entrants. Just remember to pass them along to the tech you’re mentoring.

TOP TIP: Give it a Go
By David Harmon, Apache Junction, Ariz.

I have found that when removing spark plug boots from older engines (without damaging the wires), I attach a needle nozzle to my air gun and stick it in between the wire and the boot,” he explains. “Then I shoot air to it, and the boot and plug wire will blow off without damaging either one.”

Stripped Wire Help
By Charlie Cruz, Columbia, S.C.

If you are trying to remove a Phillips head screw where the slots are stripped out, try adding some valve grinding compound to the slots and slowly backing it out. I’ve also added the compound to a socket to help remove rounded off nuts and bolts. Add some fine brake rotor shavings borrowed from your brake lathe to get an even more aggressive bite on hard to turn fasteners.

An A/C Tip
By Paul Stock, Belleville, Ill.

When air conditioning jobs come in, we have a tendency to hook up our equipment to verify that it is indeed low (on refrigerant). We then begin the task of finding the leak. Many times the leak is the port we just sealed with our equipment. We attach a vacuum gauge to each port before and after the hook up to see if the port is leaking. It gives us a visual indicator as to how bad the leak is and we aren’t fooled by the traces of refrigerant that the sniffer picks up.

Staying Intact
By Joe Glassford, Sunriver, Ore.

It is becoming somewhat difficult to determine if an area to be back probed contains a resistor that could be damaged by the back probing T-pin or acupuncture probe. An example would be the Honda 5-wire air fuel sensor. To avoid damaging these resistors or the connectors themselves, and to avoid piercing delicate wires that could lead to future failure, I recommend a procedure I call the hairline test tap.

It is nothing more than separating a single strand from a piece of wire while keeping all the remaining strands intact. Depending on how many total strands there are, the thickness of an individual strand can be as little as 0.0025 inch. I take the separated single strand and insert it into the female end of the wiring connector I want to access. I then fold it back on the connector and hold the wire in.

Good Tips Aren’t Always Technical
By Jeff Willman, Sheboygan, Wis.

Customer service is the No. 1 focus in our shop. Fender covers, floor mats, seat covers and steering wheel covers are always used. To add one more thing we could do for our customers, I thought of a simple idea. When I move a customer’s seat back, I count in seconds to myself (one-one thousand, two-one thousand, etc.) until the seat is back far enough for me to sit down. Then I write this number on the back of the repair order like this: seat-4.

When I park the vehicle, I move the seat back by counting to myself in the same way. For manual seats, I carry a quarter in my pocket that I put on the car floor directly below the leading edge of the seat. Then I simply move the seat back to the spot where the quarter is. To some, this may seem to be overdoing it, but to us, our customers’ comfort and convenience comes first.

Hot or Cold?
By L. Scott Walker, Austin, Texas

Sometimes a hot no start can be caused by a failure in the crankshaft position sensor (CKP) and not set any related trouble codes in the engine control module. The car will start and run fine after the sensor cools. I check the sensor by removing it from the car, attaching my ohmmeter and then heating it up with a heat gun while watching the meter. If the sensor is bad, resistance will rise and possibly even go open.

Repair or Replace?
By Brett Emann, Riegelsville, Pa.

You may encounter a problem with insufficient heating. Before checking the heater core or even the coolant level, first check to see if the temperature control dial is functioning correctly. With the key in the run or accessory position, turn the radio on and press the POWER and SCAN UP buttons at the same time. The radio will display A/C TEMP. If you move the dial and it does not change from 0 (fully cold) to 16 (fully hot), try to push the knob up or in a little. If you then get a correct reading, you most likely have a bad connection at the back of the circuit board that it hooks into.

Remove the radio assembly with the heater control (there is a hidden 10 mm bolt on the driver’s side of the radio you can get to it by removing the cover under the column and then the sheet metal cover). Remove the circuit board from the assembly for the heater control. On the reverse side of the board (where all the connections are soldered) there are three points. If you look closely at them, they will probably look cracked at the base of the points. All you need is a little bit of heat and some more solder. Reassemble and retest with the button combo.

To Err is Human
By Steve Corley, Atwater, Ohio

Don’t discount the possibility that someone else did not cause your problem. I had a 2001 Monte Carlo with unwanted ABS activation. The bearings and harness all checked OK. I found the rubber weather seal on the Electronic Brake Control Module (EBCM) connector missing. The pins corroded in the module, causing the unwanted activation. What clued me in to take a closer look at the connector was the OEM slide lock cover was missing.

Simple Brake Tip
By Jason Washburn, Columbia Heights, Minn.

A trick I use to make brake jobs with banjo fittings cleaner and simpler, I take some old valve stems and plug the fitting with them. It keeps the shop cleaner and prevents any debris from getting in the fittings.

Fun with Fasteners
By Brian Dettle, Dugway, Utah

I cannot remember which one of my mentors taught me this simple, but very useful, trick. If you have a nut or bolt in a very tight spot that would normally fall out of your socket, take a blue disposable rag or something similar, put the nut (or bolt) into a small piece of that rag and then into the socket. This should hold your hardware tight enough to get it where it needs to go.

Tip Saves Effort
By Tony McCarthy, Edgewater, Fla.

If you’re tired of lug nuts falling off the lift arms when you have the wheels off the vehicle you’re working on, get a couple of magnetic parts trays and put one on each side of the lift towers. When you remove the wheel, you can toss the lug nuts on the magnetic tray. When you’re ready to put the wheels back on, you know right where they are with no bending or searching for lost lug nuts.

Learning on the Job
By Alex Diaz, Elmwood, Ill.

The 2006 Honda Civic was cranking slowly. Looking down towards the A/C compressor, I noticed metal shavings. I decided to take the belt off thinking the compressor may have locked up. When I tried to turn the tensioner, it was frozen. So I took off the wheel and the cover. After removing the cover, I noticed the water pump pulley dug a groove ¼-inch deep into the tensioner assembly and the belt was also working its way off the p/s pulley. I jumped the belt off the crank, and as soon as the belt came off, the motor turned over freely. I started the motor and it ran fine with no problems. The mounting bolt for the tensioner assembly broke off in the block and wedged the tensioner against the water pump pulley.


Flying Solo
Having worked alone for many years, I developed a way to test circuits for battery (power) and ground using an aftermarket headlight reminder buzzer. It draws enough current to verify the integrity of the circuit, and it has to be connected correctly to work.

Bill Cox, New York

Never Assume It’s Right
A 2005 Toyota Sienna came in with a complaint of low air flow from the rear A/C vents. We could hear the blower running, but found nothing blocking the air flow. Just before I put it back together, I decided to check one more thing: the blower harness connector. I found the wires reversed in the connector, caused by an updated part installed almost two years prior.

Peter Neilson, Utah

Durango H2O Sensor Damage
We had a Durango come in with repeat H2OS failures. Every time, the harness connector would be full of oil. Check the power steering pressure switch at the pump for leaks. Leaking fluid traveled down the ground wire.

Russell Foster, Texas

Removing Tough Oxygen Sensors
If you’re removing an oxygen sensor or air/fuel sensor and it begins to seize up after a couple of turns, pour some brake fluid on the threads. Screw the sensor back in and wait a minute or two, then remove it. It should come out easily without damaging an exhaust’s threads, and works better than conventional penetrating oil. A large syringe can be used to apply brake fluid to hard to reach sensors.

John Szpakowski, New York

Be a Professional
If you want to be treated like a professional, be sure you act like one. Strive to do the job you’re given right the first time, and give your customer and your employer the full benefit of your training and experience. Think of the impact we could have on this industry if we all followed this advice.

Denny Alvarez, Florida

Glow Plug Test Tip
If you have a short glow plug on light or the controller cycles quickly, the problem most is likely the glow plug. The best way to test this is to remove the glow plug, set it on a non-metallic surface and then recheck the resistance while not touching the plug with your hands. If it passes this check, move to the power test. Hook the ground clamp to the glow plug body and touch a 12v power to the end for a count until the tip turns red. It must be the tip (not on the side or at the top near screws). Test all plugs to make sure the count times are close to one another and replace any that don’t pass these checks. New plugs also should be tested.

John Ryan, Indiana

Finding the Light in the Window
To diagnose a power window problem before removing the door panel, watch the dome light while actuating the circuit. If the light dims, I’m pretty sure the problem is in the motor or regulator assembly, and that the basic circuit components are OK.

Rankin Barnes, North Carolina

Prevent Accidental Oil-outs
A commonly made mistake, especially by younger techs, is forgetting to put the oil back in after an oil change. While servicing a vehicle for an oil change, remember to put the oil fill cap on the hood latch. In case you forget to put oil into the engine, the fill cap will prevent the hood from latching.

Zachary Kowalewski, Pennsylvania

Tighten to Loosen
Sometimes you run across a fastener that just doesn’t want to loosen. Next time, try to tighten it just a little before backing it off. This works well for corroded fasteners, like water pump bolts, as well as exhaust manifold nuts.

Steve Lugiewicz, Pennsylvania

No Dumb Questions
When you begin a task, whatever task that may be, remember to always stick to the process and ask questions.

Andrew Pierce, Minnesota

Avoiding Stripping Plugs
When replacing a set of ignition wires, I like to save the spark plug end boot from a few of the old wires. The longer ones work the best. When replacing the plugs in vehicles with hard to reach or recessed plugs, simply insert the new spark plug into the boot and turn in by hand. This works well even on tight angles, because the boots will allow for flexing around the corners. Torque the plug to spec to finish the installation.

Dave Stierle, New Jersey 

Get Direction
One good way to locate a shorted wire is to get a manual compass and trace the harness with it. Current flow creates its own magnetic field and the compass needle will spin erratically near the area of the short.
Jesus Reyes, Texas

A Frozen Windstar
A customer had a van towed in for a no start. We tried it in the parking lot and the engine acted like it was hydro-locked. We noticed a lot of ice on the engine, pulled the plugs and still couldn’t get the engine to pass one spot. It went back and forth to the same spot. After lunch, I was able to turn the engine over and clear water poured out of No. 2. The cowl was plugged, allowing the water to pour onto the intake. When the engine was cold, the water flowed past a failed intake gasket into the cylinder.

Ron Robb, Canada 

Good Information
Googling enthusiast forums related to the car is another good idea. A lot of these forums can be very informative.

Jared Samuels, Texas

Isolating Diesel Misfires
A quick, simple way to diagnose which cylinder is misfiring in a diesel engine is to access the glow plugs or the wiring to the glow plugs. Separate them into individual circuits and measure the resistance of each individual glow plug with the engine running. The glow plug with the lower resistance will indicate which cylinder is low on power.

Skip Burroughs, New Mexico 

Seized Exhaust Stud/Nut Tip
Editor’s note: Always follow shop safety procedures when using techniques like the one shared here. An experienced mentor should supervise inexperienced techs.

Many exhaust manifold bolts break when trying to remove the manifolds and/or the flange stud nuts. I’ve found even in the tightest spots that using a brazing tip on your torch to get a very small but super hot flame can heat just the smallest area to make the stud or nut cherry red and the break the stud, bolt or nut loose quickly and cleanly without removing the cylinder heads or all of the surrounding parts. Just have your vise grips or the socket ready at your side to attack it while it’s hot.

Tony DeJuliis, Pennsylvania

More Than One Way
On Trailblazers with straight 6 cylinder motors, the water pump calls for 3.8 hours of labor. To cut that time down to less than an hour, remove the bolts from the fan clutch to the fan and install 2.5-inch long bolts instead. Now you can unscrew the clutch from water pump without all the extra labor of moving the radiator. Remove clutch and fan at the same time and remove the water pump -- and it can all be done in less than an hour.

Matt Grandinetti, New Jersey

When ‘Solid’ Isn’t
When working an electrical problem, especially on an older machine, always check the ground connections first. Even when the part in question is bolted directly to the frame, take a moment to see that the ground path is good. I had an older Alfa in the shop with the wiper motor not working. Power was present on both sides of the motor connector, but there was no movement. Well, I thought, the motor is 16 years old and is rarely used. But when I connected a test light to ground, I found the entire motor case was hot.

Even though it was solidly bolted to the unibody, it was not solid electrically. I unbolted the motor, cleaned down to the bare metal on both contact surfaces with steel wool, and reattached the motor. Function was restored on all speeds, and without any hard-to-find parts. I have found the same problem caused a SAAB alternator not to charge, though it bolted directly to the cylinder head. I have seen no ground conditions on switches, relays and too many lights to remember.

My point is that, power or ground, a good mechanical connection is not always an electrical connection. Always check the current path before replacing parts.

William Klamon, Washington, D.C.

Help Installing Heavy Water Pump
Find four 3-inch long bolts with the same thread pattern as the water pump bolts and cut the bolt heads off. Now you’ve made studs. Thread the studs into the engine block halfway. Put gasket sealer on your gaskets and install them on the block by sliding them onto the studs. Then install the pump by sliding it on the studs. Now unthread one of the studs and replace it with one of the pump bolts. Do this until you have replaced all four studs with the bolts. Tighten to spec and you’re done.

Abdel Shahin, New Jersey 

No Room to Drill?
Have you ever needed to drill or tap in a place with straight line access, but no room? Here is a helper that has bailed me out many times. Remove the chuck from a dead drill. Drive a bolt into the back end (usually a 3/8-24 with a 9/16 head). The neat part is that a 14 mm will fit really tight on it. Then you can use a socket extension to reach “that spot” or a drill adapter if you need to drill.

Larry Brautigam, Texas

Rear Drum Removal
When trying to remove rear drums on some applications, it is very difficult to back off the star adjuster through the access slot. A typical example is the 2000 Ford Taurus, where the strut is blocking most of this slot. On these applications, thread a non-locking nut on the end of one of the wheel studs. Rotate the stud to the 3 o’clock position and tap it with a brass mallet into the drum. This effectively will create an access hole which you can use to easily back off the star adjuster allowing the drum to be removed even if it has a lip worn into the braking surface.

Joseph Bacarella, Michigan 

Make Your Own Alcohol Tester
I made a tester from a glass rain gauge, a cheap graduated cylinder. Pour in water until it reads 1 cm on the gauge; then pour in a gas sample from the car you want to test, up to the 11 cm mark on the gauge. Put your finger over the end of the tube and shake. When everything settles down, the water mixes with the alcohol and causes it to drop out of the solution with the gasoline. In the car I tested, the alcohol line came up to the 3.4 cm mark on the rain gauge. That gives us 1 cm water, 2.4 cm alcohol and 7.6 cm gasoline for a total of 32 percent alcohol.

Derek Fenster, Nebraska

New Life for Old Floor Jacks
When you have to use a floor jack and they are a little long in the tooth, you won’t notice it but they are like pulling dead weight around. Tip it up on its side and spray the wheels with a little lube or WD-40, giving the wheels a spin to coat the inside and then do the same to the other side. Then do the handle pivot and give it a couple of free turns, and it’s better than new. Just be careful at first, because it pulls easy and turns so easy you can hit your foot and drop the car all at once.

Bill Levelle, Iowa

6.0 Powerstroke Hard or No Start
If accompanied by low oil pressure, look at the high pressure oil pump. It uses a check ball to seal off a passage on the feed side. If this ball comes loose, you will lose oil pressure at idle with a resulting hard (or no) start. The ball seals a passage that otherwise allows oil to dump straight back into the oil pan.
Chris Riggs, Michigan

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