Because auto manufacturers have been steadily reducing scheduled maintenance requirements, many shops have experienced a reduced number of repairs sold during a routine lube bay visit. Auto manufacturers have reduced the required number of annual oil change visits by using the engine’s Powertrain Control Module (PCM) to estimate engine oil life.
If the majority of miles are extended highway driving, the PCM turns on the “Oil Change” warning light much later than if the majority of mileage is short-trip, cold-engine driving. Other factors, including vehicle speed and engine load, also enter into the PCM’s oil change interval calculation. In any case, the traditionally recommended 3,000-mile oil change interval is now rapidly becoming part of automotive history.
Modern Engine Oils
While we’re on the subject of the PCM calculating oil change intervals, it’s important to install engine oil that’s compatible with the extended oil change requirements programmed into the PCM’s software. In many cases, the owner’s manual will include a manufacturer-specific oil specification for that vehicle. Even if the viscosity rating is the same, many conventional oils simply don’t have base oils and additive packages required to meet the extended service requirements.
Many manufacturers have also established quality thresholds on engine oil to address scuffing, gelling and sludging issues on specific engine applications. So, in addition to the traditional API, ILSAC and ACEA ratings, make sure that the engine oil you’re using also meets the OEM’s requirements.
Last, many standard oil filters will generally clog and start by-passing dirty oil at 5,000 miles. So make sure that the oil filters you’re using meet OEM standards, or at least have the capacity to filter oil for at least 7,500 miles.
Because lubrication intervals are now electronically calculated, many shops are seeing their customers less frequently. All too often, that customer disappears into the franchised quick-lube network and never appears at his independent shop until he experiences a major mechanical failure. To counter the influence of the quick lubes, many independents have utilized newsletters and maintenance reminders to stay in closer touch with their customers. Some independents have also adopted the quick-lube approach of offering quick service, coupled with a choice of basic- and premium-level “oil changes.”
I put “oil changes” in quotes because any qualified technician or shop owner knows that changing engine oil is only part of any scheduled maintenance procedure. Instead of selling marginally profitable oil changes, many shops are now basing their recommendations on the auto manufacturer’s suggested inspection and maintenance schedule. In any case, I’m going to add to that list by suggesting inspections that will increase the overall profitability of the typical import specialist shop.
A visibility inspection includes an inspection of the front and rear windshield wipers, wiper fluid reservoir levels, washer/wiper motor functions and windshield glass condition. A quick test of the wiper and washer functions will usually reveal badly pitted or extremely dirty windshields. If you market in extremely cold climates, make sure that the wiper fluid is properly formulated for sub-zero operation.
A second level of visibility inspection would be to check all exterior and interior lighting functions, including the emergency flashers. Keep in mind that because exterior lighting is often controlled by one or more body control modules (BCMs), a scan tool might be the appropriate tool for diagnosing exterior lighting malfunctions. Lenses should be inspected for brightness and damage. Headlamp covers should be inspected for weathering and water leakage. See Photo 1.
Fluid Inspection and Replacement
Although auto manufacturers have nearly eliminated all scheduled fluid replacements, vehicles should still have the axle oil changed after extended exposure to high water levels encountered on off-road fording or flood-stage conditions. Automatic transmission fluid change intervals should also be shortened if the vehicle is used for heavy towing or has been exposed to flood-stage water.
Most coolants are now long-life or “lifetime” formulations. Here again, the experience of the shop’s techs comes into play if it encounters premature cooling system corrosion and other fluid deterioration situations. Always install a coolant that’s compatible with the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Brake fluid flushing is recommended by some manufacturers and can also be justified by using brake fluid test strips or spectrometers to determine moisture levels. Power steering fluid should also be replaced if it appears excessively dirty, contaminated or oxidized. Keep in mind that, while some fluids are suitable for “topping off” fluid levels, they don’t meet “replacement” specifications. All replacement fluids should meet OE specifications.
Belts and Hoses
Because modern rubber formulations are far more durable than in years past, it’s difficult to recommend specific replacement intervals. In most cases, hoses are still serviceable if they are pliable and not cracked or swelled at the connections. Because modern EPDM technology has nearly eliminated cracking in drive belts, the belts should be tested for wear with a simple tool available from various manufacturers. See Photo 2.
In some applications, even a minor amount of rib wear can contribute to a loss of tension and slippage. Timing belts should be replaced according to the manufacturer’s suggested intervals. If a timing belt replacement is recommended, accessory drive belts and hoses should be considered for replacement, especially on high-mileage vehicles.
Because electronic engine controls and permanent-magnet starters dramatically reduce cranking amperage, a bad battery can survive well past its normal service life. Unfortunately, a bad battery fails only when the vehicle owner least expects it. Electronic battery testers can quickly test battery capacity, starter condition and alternator output. If on-board electronic interference prevents the use of an electronic tester, the conventional carbon pile load tester is a good substitute for testing a suspect battery.
In most cases, battery reliability rapidly declines about four years after installation. In addition, extreme heat and vibration will dramatically shorten battery life. If nothing else, check the installation date on the battery and make recommendations based on your own experience. See Photo 3.
Wheels and Tires
Because of tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) requirements, tire pressure should be adjusted to manufacturer’s specifications. If the TPMS warning light is illuminated, the vehicle has a leaking tire or valve stem. Tires should be visually inspected for excessive tread wear, cuts, uneven tread wear, excessive weathering and casing defects. Tires should also be inspected for mismatching sizes and diameters. In some cases, one or two inches difference in the rolling circumference of the tire can prematurely wear viscous couplings in all-wheel-drive vehicles and the drivetrain in four-wheel-drive vehicles. Tire mismatches also might interfere with correct operation of the vehicle’s anti-lock brakes and stability controls.
Wheels should also be visually inspected for physical damage. Re-torquing the lug nuts to specification is always recommended. See Photo 4.
Steering, Suspension & Exhaust Inspection
Most import manufacturers specify undercar inspections in their maintenance schedules. Visually check for loose bolts, torn axle shaft CV boots, swollen or leaking steering rack bellows, leaking shock absorbers or struts, worn rubber bushings, and rusted or damaged exhaust systems.
With the wheels suspended, grasp the tire at the 9 and 3 o’clock positions and alternately turn it right and left. The steering linkage shouldn’t show any looseness or binding as the wheels are turned. Next, grasp the tire at the 12 and 6 o’clock positions and attempt to tilt it in and out. The wheel shouldn’t show any looseness in the bearings or ball joints.
Last, test the suspension for rebound by placing your hands on the radiator core support or bumper. Placing hands on the hood can dent the sheet metal. Suspension travel should be smooth and quiet and rebound should recover in one cycle.
A shop should have the customer’s permission to remove the wheels for brake inspection. But an alternative strategy is to inspect the master cylinder reservoir for low fluid level. A low level might indicate excessive brake pad wear or a system leak. See Photo 5.
If the fluid is opaque, the system should be flushed. Excessive brake dusting or metallic deposits on spoke wheels often indicate metal-to-metal contact at the brake pads. In most cases, worn pads can be detected by using a flashlight to check brake pad wear. Last, check brake pedal height and firmness. If applying the park brake remedies a low brake pedal, the ratcheting assembly in the caliper pistons might be seized.
The Power of Observation
Most of the above procedures are based upon the powers of observation. Consequently, it’s important to have experienced people manning the lube bay. One shop I visited years ago, hired two semi-retired mechanics to service vehicles and perform lube-bay inspections. Those two men kept a five-bay shop busy with mechanical repair work. See Photo 6.