How to approach vehicles with a laundry list of needed repairs

June 2, 2017
Whenever we get a vehicle in for one simple service and find a lot of other stuff that needs attention, any well-trained, reliable technician will make a list of the needed repairs for the customer, putting the safety-related ones at the top.

Whenever we get a vehicle in for one simple service and find a lot of other stuff that needs attention, any well-trained, reliable technician will make a list of the needed repairs for the customer, putting the safety-related ones at the top — loose front end parts, failing brakes, expired or worn out or expired tires, and so on.  The caveat is that if a customer is shocked by a large estimate of needed repairs they didn’t expect, they’ll tell all their friends your shop tried to sell them the moon. And today, it doesn’t take many needed repairs to produce an estimate that climbs off the chart above what some customers can afford to have done. Even if they can afford the repairs, some savvy customers will opt to get a second opinion, so honesty is always key when making a list like that.

Show and tell is the best way to handle those situations. And your communication skills must peak in situations like this. Someone has quoted Einstein as having said, “If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself.” And we all know some customers are sharper than others when it comes to absorbing what you’re telling them.

This canteen green Pathfinder hadn’t darkened our door before, but we had done numerous jobs for these folks on their other vehicles.

The other way the laundry list estimate goes is when they bring one with them when they come, and in my department, we get that regularly. These folks are typically the busy drivers who have been putting off first one repair and then another one for quite a few thousands of miles and then they’ll decide they want all those problems handled all at once. And some of their repairs aren’t quick and easy, either.

One of the recent ones we got was a 2005 F-150 with an inoperative moon roof that was stuck in the open position, no taillights, inoperative outside rearview mirrors and an erratic gas gauge. That same day we got a 2009 Chevy C2500 with a “fix whatever you find wrong” order, and there was quite a lot we had to do to that one. Then there was the 2005 Nissan Pathfinder with a laundry list that was a knuckle-busting adventure from beginning to end.

Happy customers

This family loves the work we do, and they tend to bring us most of it, but this was the first time we had ever seen the Pathfinder, which had 185,654 miles on the odometer. On the phone, the owner told me the instrument cluster was acting crazy, and I figured that’s all she wanted done initially, but then by the time her husband got there with it, she also wanted the heater core replaced – what an afterthought that was! It had long ago been bypassed.

As for the instrument cluster, it was doing wacky things. The temp gauge, the tach and the speedometer would come and go, and the brake, ABS and VDC warning lights would flash on and off just as randomly. The scan revealed a network code or two, but not much else. One thing we did notice is that the cluster couldn’t communicate during the dead-needle times. Filing that away mentally, I had Thomas launch into the heater core job.

In the meantime, the two other laundry-list vehicles rolled in. That 2009 2500 series Silverado mentioned earlier had been neglected for many a mile and year, with StabiliTrak and Tire Pressure Monitor messages, a gaggle of inoperative and busted lights and inoperative door locks. The 2005 F-150 was one a police officer brought in with an inoperative moon roof, tail lamps that didn’t work and a squirrely gas gauge.

The 2009 Silverado’s “StabiliTrak” problem called for this steering angle sensor, which wasn’t such a terribly bad job, but it took several wrenches and most of an hour to get it done. The Silverado’s door lock switch had been wet, and when we replaced it we got two operative locks – it’d need door lock actuators on two doors.

The Silverado wasn’t all that interesting, except for the StabiliTrak message displayed on the cluster. The DTC and the troubleshooting led to the replacement of the steering angle sensor, which was fairly involved because of the rusty, dusty fasteners. Robert jerked the steering column out, put it in a vise, and did the surgery – that took care of the StabiliTrak. The rest of the repairs were fairly straightforward, but we did need to mount a couple of universal tag lights in the rear bumper – you can get a traffic ticket in these parts if your tag lights are out. We also replaced the busted CHMSL/Cargo lamp assembly. We replaced the driver-side power door lock switch for corrosion, but then found two of the four door-lock actuators were dead, along with two of the tire pressure monitor sensors.

The 2005 F-150’s moon roof was open and wouldn’t close (not good on rainy days), and so when we ran through the process of checking switches and wires we found a bad moon roof motor. We left the permanent magnet casing off the motor, remounted it and turned the armature with fingers to close the moon roof, because he didn’t want to spend the $300 on a motor. The issue with the gas gauge and the taillights had its roots in an oddly melted connector shell just outside the frame rail on the left side. The wires leading into the front side of that connector looked like a flame had been held under them — the tape and insulation was melted, and that side of the connector was, too. We could twist and wiggle the connector and get taillight and gas gauge normalization, and so we opted to clip that connector out and bypass every wire with solder and heat shrink. It was a good repair, because even if we were to find new replacement connector shells for this, they’d be too expensive.

On the 2005 F-150, this oddball melting almost looked like somebody had built a fire under it at some point – when we wiggled it, the tail lights and the gas gauge would go nuts, so we removed the connector and made the harnesses one at that point.

A patch job and a no-fueler

One of our directors owns a fairly decent little 2001 Tacoma he uses for deer hunting, and he came to me one day because he was having to add a gallon of water a week to keep the cooling system filled. It turned out that the coolant was making its way into one of the cylinders and out the tailpipe — one of the spark plugs was ultra-rusted. He made it plain that he didn’t want to start with a head job on that deer hunting truck, and so he asked if I had any other ideas. For his purposes, we decided to run some head gasket sealer through it, carefully following the instructions on the bottle for time, then we refilled it with coolant mix. About a month later he came by and told me that he hadn’t had to add any more water. Take that for what it’s worth.  When somebody’s in a bind, we do what they ask if it’s not dangerous.

This was the rusty plug from the Toyota Tacoma that fingered the cylinder head gasket as the cause of coolant loss. The liquid head gasket sealer paid off on this one. We’ll see how long it lasts.

About that time a 1999 Lexus rolled in that wouldn’t take gas at the pump, which can be one of the most frustrating issues known to man, and we found a plugged vent hose. Some insect lost his homestead and that customer was a lot less frustrated the next time he pulled up to the pump.

Even in the south, we get seized parts, and they’re always fun to deal with. One thing we do get a lot of down here are dirt-dabber nests in annoying places – the Lexus wouldn’t take gas with this clog.

Back to the Pathfinder

With the heater core in place on the Pathfinder, Thomas came to inform me that the brittle heater pipe manifold under the hood had broken when he was reattaching the hoses to the heater core, and this wasn’t something we could fix, so we ordered the $220+ manifold with its built-in plastic water pump and did that job up right. Filling the cooling system was challenging, but with the front jacked up, we managed to make it happen.

Before we re-attacked the cluster issue, we figured we’d do the alignment, and Thomas started out with the rear wheels because we always align those first if there are adjustments. The problem was that the adjustment bolts were rusted to the bushing sleeves on one side and the first bolt he fought with popped off right below the nut, which had become an irremovable part of the bolt. This was becoming difficult and irritating beyond words.

The rear control arm adventure was quite the knucklebuster. We attempted to drill this (didn’t have a Rescue Bit® on hand), but it was pointless. We opted to engage the high speed cutter, get some replacement cam bolts, and put a new control arm on it.

I called the owner to enlighten her, and she told me the Pathfinder had found most of its early paths at the beach, because that’s where it lived for the first five years of its life. Yeah, I know you Northern wrench guys see this every day, but we aren’t used to it down here in the south, although we do see some rides from up your way now and then. We ordered replacement cam bolts from Nissan and a lower control arm from the parts store, but to get the old control arm out of there we had to use the high-speed cutter’s 4-inch wheel to clip the adjustment bolts just inside the flanges.

Got that part of the job done, finished the alignment, and then we went after the cluster. Checking the network with the Pico, we found a pattern that was somewhat noisy, but after eliminating first one module and the other to no avail, we decided the cluster itself must be at fault because sometimes it’d talk and sometimes it wouldn’t.

The Pico pattern always looked pretty much the same, so after disconnecting every module on the network (one at a time, we decided to replace the cluster and that’s all it needed to normalize the needles.

This cluster is a plug-and-play unit, and when we told the customer what we had decided, the owner found a used one for $75, and when we popped it in there everything was peachy keen.

The 2009 F-150 transmission problem

In and among all these jobs, we had a 2009 F-150 with intermittent 6R80 transmission problems. The symptom was that the truck would have spells where it wouldn’t back up and during those times it would also stick in third gear until you cleared the codes. We were told that a transmission shop had pulled the pan and found good fluid and no debris, and they were kind of stymied as to what needed to be done next, so they sewed it up and the owner brought the truck to us.

We got a Transmission Range sensor code, but that was pretty much it. In the years that I’ve done this, it’s a pretty good bet that the transmission control module (or PCM) is suspect if the transmission starts acting strange and wiping the codes clears it up for a while. This is obviously not always the case — sometimes the transmission controller will go into limp-in mode for other reasons. With zero experience on this 6R80 gearbox, I called one of my guys who does them all the time — only he’s accustomed to the newer ones. He told me we’d need the “leadframe,” because he has to change them regularly for this kind of problem. That device looks like a big hard-wire harness with the speed sensors built in, but it’s actually the Transmission Control Module. Why they call it the “leadframe” is beyond me.

This is the “leadframe” as Ford calls it that actually turns out to be the TCM.  We wound up having to replace the whole valve body on this 2009 F150 – when we first removed the valve body we found this broken adapter and replaced it. And every time, we were careful to use a torque wrench when reinstalling the valve body.

My guy decided to help out and called the parts department to ask if they had one, and then I called, gave them a purchase order, and they billed it out at $125. The way this went down was a perfect-storm situation, because the year model was lost somewhere in the process of passing information from pillar to post, and it cost us some work.

When we pulled the valve body to replace the leadframe, we saw that the plastic-and-rubber adapter between the valve body and the pump was cracked, and so I got another one of those from my guy at the Ford place. The only problem was that when we put everything back together put the fluid in, we found that the transmission wouldn’t engage at all and the TCM (leadframe) wouldn’t talk to the IDS either. But we could plug the old leadframe into the wires and let it swing and it’d talk to the tool just fine.  What was going on here?

This was strange to me — for years Ford told us that electronics couldn’t cause a no-engagement issue, but here it was. Things have obviously changed. With the absence of electronics, this one dumps the pressure instead of raising it.

It was then we discovered you can’t buy a leadframe for a 2009 model — you have to buy the whole valve body, leadframe and all ($1,000). And even though the later leadframes look identical and are replaceable separately, they won’t talk to the IDS and they won’t function on a 2009 model. So we got a whole valve body, installed and torqued it, did the fluid fill, and fixed the truck. It was messy but fun pumping transmission oil into that one through the hole where the dipstick tube used to go and checking it with that tiny plastic dipstick right next to the catalyst with the engine running and hot. That was a knuckle-BURNER. One way or another, we won that fight and all the rest of them on this round, with busted and burned knuckles galore. Who knows what we’ll see next week?

About the Author

Richard McCuistian

Richard McCuistian is an ASE certified Master Auto Technician and was a professional mechanic for more than 25 years, followed by 18 years as an automotive instructor at LBW Community College in Opp, AL. Richard is now retired from teaching and still works as a freelance writer for Motor Age and various Automotive Training groups.

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