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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Don't Get Scammed by Your Mechanic

It Costs How Much? How To Prevent The Top Five Most Expensive Repairs
by Tom Torbjornsen


Here is one of your worst nightmares if you are an average American working hard to gut out the Recession with one car: You rely on your car or truck for your livelihood, either as a working vehicle or your only option to get to your job. You are just getting by, and can't afford new wheels if the current car or truck dies.

Then, like a punch to the gut, the mechanic tells you your master cylinder is shot, the transmission is a goner, or worse. The bill? It's in the thousands.

There are times when such calamities are going to happen. But there are measures we can take, and should take, that can help avoid the worst case scenario.

Last month CarMD Corp conducted a study and compiled the findings into what they called their Vehicle Health Index. CarMD is a device that plugs into your vehicle's under-dash OBDII data connector, and then downloads vehicle repair data, letting you know what's wrong with your car. Among the findings of the study were the top fifteen most expensive vehicle fixes in the US. Here at AOL Autos we decided to explore the top five most expensive repairs in depth in an effort to give you a tips on how to avoid these common pitfalls.

5. Replace cylinder head assembly and spark plugs

Price: $3608.36

Make it stop! Doesn't anything cost less than $3K?: Cylinder head problems usually can be attributed to the root cause of overheating of the engine. Cylinder heads are typically made of aluminum, a metal that offers overall weight reduction, which is good for increasing MPG, and dissipating heat much better than cast iron. The problem with aluminum, though, is it's very unforgiving when it comes to being overheated. One little bad thermostat valued at $10 - $20 can result in repairs costing upwards of $3000!

Overheating happens as a result of a coolant leak, plugged radiator, stuck thermostat not allowing coolant flow or coolant that has been in the system too long and that has lost it's ability to absorb and carry away heat from the combustion chambers. When the engine overheats, either the cylinder head gasket burns and stops sealing the head to the engine block and/or the aluminum head/s warp or crack resulting in internal coolant leakage and loss of compression (engine power). To repair this, the top of the engine must come off and be refurbished or replaced depending on the extent of the damage; typically the spark plugs are replaced when a repair operation of this nature is done. It's a hideously expensive job.

What you need to do? Again, this is another repair that can be avoided by scrupulously adhering to the scheduled change of oil and coolant, as well as timely replacement of a thermostat.

4. Replace camshaft & lifters

Price: $3077.74

Argh! People are keeping their cars much longer today than days of old. The average car on the road today is between 10 and 12 years old. This means that the vehicles are racking up higher and higher mileage every year. Over time, camshafts and lifters, which are made of metal, wear out, thus the need for replacement at high mileage. The lubricants of today are much better than they used to be, therefore offering better protection over time.

What you need to do: To achieve maximum engine mileage follow the service schedule for oil drain and filter replacement intervals. You may consider starting your new-car engine out on a diet of high quality synthetic motor oil, which is much tougher than petroleum based motor oil. Typically a high grade synthetic motor oil such as AMSOIL (more info on line at: or Mobil One will go double the mileage of petroleum based motor oil.

3. Replace transmission assembly and reprogram ECM

Price: $3699.34

Gadzooks! Automatic transmissions have their own maintenance schedule for fluid and filter replacement. If you don't follow it and leave fluid in the unit for too long, heat and friction buildup will result in transmission failure. If the transmission needs replacing, thi will also involve reprogramming of the Engine Control Module or Drivetrain Control Module.

What you need to do: The transmission fluid typically needs to be flushed and replaced every 35,000 miles. Keep the transmission fluid and filter clean and fresh according to the aggressive maintenance schedule I mentioned above and you will realize trouble-free operation of your transmission for a long time.

2. Replace hybrid inverter assembly. Replace inverter assembly w/ converter

Price: $7391.57

Ugh. Inverters and voltage converters are devices used specifically in hybrid powertrains. Before we explore what we can do to prevent failure of these devices, let's first look at what they do to gain a better understanding of the nature of the beast.

An inverter converts DC (Direct Current) electrical current from the batteries to AC (Alternating Current), which is required to power the electric motor/s of the hybrid powertrain.

A (voltage) converter is a device that changes the amount of voltage (either AC or DC) of an electrical power source. These devices are used to take low voltage and step it up to high voltage for heavy duty work in a high power application where only a low power source is available, and conversely can be used to reduce voltage from a high output source for a light load application.

Inverters and voltage converters operate at high temperatures because of the use of resistors & semi-conductors, which results in high electrical resistance and thus, heat. Typically such systems incorporate the use of a dedicated cooling system including the use of a radiator with pump driven liquid, a fan and/or heat sinks and aggressive ventilation. For this reason the air intake in the front grille of the vehicle must be kept clean of organic debris and unencumbered so maximum airflow is achieved.

What you need to do: If your particular hybrid vehicle has a dedicated cooling system for the hybrid system, do not neglect servicing it according to the manufacturer's suggested maintenance schedule. As a mater of fact, I would err on the side of aggressive maintenance practices and service it according to the severe maintenance schedule. If your vehicle's hybrid cooling system is part of the engine's cooling system, again, err on the aggressive side (severe schedule) of maintenance practices, at the listed replacement prices. Seriously, a few extra cooling system flushes seem trivial in cost as compared to a new inverter assembly, wouldn't you agree?

1. Remove cylinder and inspect for faulty components, replace as necessary.

Price: $8216.97

Ouch. Specifically, this area refers to engine damage, and major engine work or outright replacement. Typically, mechanics see engines fail due to long term wear and neglected maintenance practices. For instance, when oil changes are let go too long between drain intervals and cooling systems are allowed to go too long between flushes and refills, engines tend to develop internal wear from increased heat and friction. Cylinder walls are lubricated by the piston stroking up and down and distributing lubrication on the cylinder walls. When oil is left inside the engine too long, it breaks down and stops lubricating properly, hence heat and friction buildup and ultimately internal failure resulting in massive repair costs. Additionally, leaving coolant in the engine too long results in the coolant losing its ability to absorb heat and prevent rust and scale buildup, which increase engine operating temperatures and friction and thus, increased engine wear and ultimately, failure.

What you need to do: Practice vigorous maintenance, according to the severe service schedule and you will realize greater engine longevity.

Bottom Line

These five problems are the worst you will face without taking the step of replacing the whole car. And, of course, depending on the age of your vehicle, total replacement is going to be a real option. The best way to avoid them, and keep your car on the road is to pay attention, be organized and replace fluids and small parts on a scheduled basis according to the manufacturer guidance. A few hundred dollars may be a lot to some people, but it's a lot less than all of these bad-news repairs.

'Til next time...Keep Rollin'

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