Nearly every shop I’ve worked in has had a form of some kind that technicians were supposed to complete on every car they worked on. Some called it a preventative maintenance inspection, others called it a vehicle safety check and still others made it a point to brag about how many “points” they were inspecting. Often, the motive was to drum up additional business by finding upsell items. Don’t fool yourself. If that’s your primary motive, it shows when you present those findings to your customer.
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Bring those findings to your customer from that perspective, and you’ll earn their respect and their business. Here are a few areas I’ve found techs overlooking (for whatever reason) over the years.
The braking system should be at the top of the list in any vehicle inspection. It starts with a check of the master cylinder fluid level. Fluid level in the reservoir will drop as the caliper pistons move outward with pad wear, providing a good visual indication of pad loss. When the fluid level is at or near the low mark, recommend a complete system inspection to your customer.
And please, don’t add fluid to a system that comes in low. You’re defeating the whole purpose of the brake warning light sensor in the master cylinder. Brake fluid doesn’t disappear. The components are either worn or leaking if the level is low. Repair the problem and then top off the fluid level.
Disc brakes can be checked for wear by simply looking through most wheels at the pads. But if you can’t see it there, you can usually see the inner pad once the car is up in the air. Drum brakes often have an inspection plug on the backing plate that allows you to see the wear on the leading shoe. If you have the customer’s permission, go ahead and pull the wheels to do a more accurate check. Just keep in mind that some states require that permission before you can proceed. While you’re checking out the underside, be sure to take a hard look at the system’s plumbing, looking for leaks or corrosion damage that may soon lead to one.
Of all the systems on the car that are easily inspected, it’s a wonder that tires still leave many of our nation’s garages in no better shape than when they arrived. Underinflated tires reduce handling, increase stopping distances and waste fuel. The state of California thought it serious enough (from a fuel usage standpoint anyway) to mandate that auto repair facilities check and correct the pressures of the tires on every car they touch, and keep record of it.
Next, run your hands carefully around the circumference of the tire, feeling for abnormal wear patterns. Saw tooth ridges that extend across the tread can indicate alignment issues while tread wear that ebbs and swells like the ocean might indicate a suspension problem. Bulges in the tread or sidewall point to internal separation of the tire’s plies, a potential safety issue that needs to be addressed immediately. Now grab the wheel top and bottom and check for play. Noticeable movement here indicates bearing or suspension wear. Play detected when you’re grabbing the wheel at the 3 and 6 o’clock positions points to steering linkage. In either case, you’ll need to take a closer look to isolate the problem so you can report it to your customer.
Move on to the sidewalls. Checking or cracks in the rubber can indicate a tire damaged by age or ozone. Notice the Department of Transportation (DOT) serial number while you’re there. The last four digits represent the week and year of manufacture. Any tire over five years old is a candidate for replacement, regardless of how much tread is left.
Living In The Dark
Another overlooked item is also one of the simplest to check: the exterior lights. It’s easy to turn the lights on and walk around the car to make sure they are all working.
Only the brake lights take a little effort. After all, you have to hold the pedal down to turn them on. But the brake lights are one of the most important visual indicators we have to warn other drivers of our intentions. I’ve had customer cars come in where one, two, even all the brake lights were burned out.
Worn wiper blades won’t leave your customer in the dark, but they certainly impact their ability to see in bad weather. Torn blades that leave the metal reinforcements exposed on some designs can cause damage to the windshield itself, creating an expensive repair that could have been easily avoided.
Some sources say that the level of emissions leaving the tailpipe are no longer concentrated enough to cause your own demise. More likely, the experience will leave you with a severe headache and a bit of nausea. Even so, exhaust leaks are still enough of a hazard to warrant a good inspection of the system while the car is in the air. Leaks in the exhaust are also a potential cause for drivability issues. Air passing by either oxygen sensor can cause false sensor readings and skew fuel trim.
Look for the visual and audible signs of a leak. The old method of clamping a rag over the end of the tailpipe is still a workable technique for detecting leaks, just not exactly where. If you want to be a bit more precise, a piece of rubber tubing or a mechanic’s stethoscope with the probe removed both work well for making the leak more audible. The same smoke machine you use for evaporative emissions system testing is another great tool for locating exhaust leaks, especially those that are hiding under a heat shield. But get the approval for the additional time from your customer before you get that deep.
Worse yet, wonder who the last guy to look at the car was? Don’t let it be you!
Ideally, you’d start this inspection with a test drive around a standard route near your shop. Check the suspension’s response over bumps and road irregularities, and swerve the car left and right to see how it responds. Each model is a little different so experience plays a role here. For the younger techs out there, ride with a mentor or have a more experienced tech follow behind you if you’re not sure the car is acting normally.
With the vehicle in the bay, follow the OEM procedure for inspecting the ball joints and suspension linkages. With the joints unloaded properly, it should be easy to check for excessive play. Torn boots, allowing lubricant to escape, should be written down as a maintenance recommendation. Worn components, though, should be listed as a repair that requires immediate attention.
Shocks are next. Most shock makers recommend replacement at 50,000 miles or so, and when you figure out how many times that shock has moved over that span of time, it’s easy to understand why. Recommending the repair to restore original performance is not a bad idea. Don’t fail a shock for light fluid stains around the piston shaft seal, but do recommend replacement if that fluid loss is severe.
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