Back in the days when I used large photocopiers, I was always amazed how well the machine could guide me through the process of clearing a paper jam, while at the same time being completely incapable of preventing such a problem.
It always struck me as odd that the manufacturer put all that effort into helping me help myself, instead of simply eliminating the need for help in the first place. Fortunately I spend very little time these days in front of Buick-sized copy machines.
While my copy days are mostly behind me, I seem to be in my golden years when it comes to cars.
Recently, the Nazarian family made a change to our fleet of vehicles. Through a family member, we acquired a 2003 Chevrolet Suburban. Given the rate at which our children are stretching skyward like four first-grade “bean plants in a dixie cup,” we decided to fix up the Suburban and sell our Kia minivan.
The plan was a simple one:
- Take the train to New York City to pick up the Suburban
- Gut the interior
- Replace the carpet
- Paint all the interior panels
- Refinish the leather seats
- Replace the radio
- Install a remote starter
- Deal with the “check-engine” light
- Sell the Kia
Steps 1-7 went pretty much as planned, though after looking at what would be involved, I did have a professional install the remote starter. Steps 8 and 9 proved to be a little more difficult.
I will get to the check engine light in a moment, but I want to briefly sing the praises of a place called CarMax. After tidying up our 2007 Kia Sedona I placed ads on Craigslist, AutoTrader and Cars.com. Bupkis!
I received a few emails and texts that were clearly scams, but no actual people interested in my seven year old minivan with 113,000 miles on it. After a week of waiting in vain, I drove the Kia to two places here in Rochester that advertise they will buy your car for cash.
The Kelly Blue Book trade-in value on the vehicle was $5,400. Before heading out I decided that I would be happy with $5,000. The first place felt a little sketchy from the get-go and after giving my van the once over they offered me $3,300. I moved on.
I got to CarMax (the largest used car reseller in the USA) without an appointment. They quickly got me on the list and with fifteen minutes they were looking at my car while I enjoyed free coffee and Wi-Fi from the comfort of a leather chair in their sunny showroom. They spent forty minutes going over every inch of my well-maintained car. They then offered me exactly $5,000 cash to take it off my hands; deal done. If you need to sell a used car and want a no-hassle, fair deal, I cannot recommend CarMax highly enough.
So, there I was with eight of the nine items on my list complete, but he evil check engine light glared at me like the Eye Of Sauron.
Unlike the photocopiers that gave me detailed repair instructions, modern cars are comparatively taciturn. Could there be anything less specific than a “check-engine” light, especially when the car seems to be running just fine?
For those who don’t know, every car sold in the US since 1996 has something called an ODB-II port. ODB stands for On-Board Diagnostics, and plugging a reader into this little port (usually just above the driver’s left shin) will get you more information about the error that illuminated your conspicuously vague check-engine light. I am very careful here to say “more” information as opposed to “all.”
Now, if you’re not interested in owning such a reader, most auto parts stores will lend you one to take out into the parking lot to read the “error codes” your car is experiencing.
I own a little device that I got on eBay for $15 that sends ODB data to a free app on my iPhone. That’s not a lot of money for the information that it provides. If you’re at all curious I highly recommend picking one up.
“Codes” you say, what are these codes you speak of?
Well, your car does not speak English, it speaks codes and they can be about as clear as mud. In the case of my Suburban, I was receiving the following codes:
P0300 – Random Misfire
P0171 – System Too Lean
This looks like more information than simply “check engine” but when you dig deeper you discover:
A code P0300 may indicate one or more of the following problems:
- Faulty spark plug(s) or wire(s)
- Faulty ignition coil(s)
- Faulty oxygen sensor(s)
- Faulty fuel injector(s)
- Burned exhaust valve(s)
- Faulty catalytic converter(s)
- Stuck/blocked/leaking EGR valve / passages
- Faulty camshaft position sensor
- Defective computer
Similarly, the 0171 code can mean:
- The MAF (Mass Air Flow) Sensor is dirty or faulty
- There could be a vacuum leak downstream of the MAF sensor
- Possible cracked vacuum or PCV line/connection
- Faulty or stuck open PCV valve Failed or faulty oxygen sensor
- Sticking/plugged or failed fuel injector
- Low fuel pressure (possible plugged/dirty fuel filter)
- Exhaust leak between engine and first oxygen sensor
To collectively replace all of the parts mentioned above would cost many thousands of dollars, yet the whole problem could be caused by something as small as a PCV valve that costs only $7.
Looking at all the info before me, I decided to throw in the towel and take it to my local mechanic. He should be able to sort it out right? I mean he fixes cars all day and this is a Chevrolet Suburban; it should be a cakewalk for a professional like him.
Tuesday morning I dropped the truck off, and he promised to give me a call once he’d had a chance to look at it. I gave him a list of all the things I had already tried including the conclusion that the problem was probably not electrical (spark plug, wire, coil).
At 4:00 my phone rang. The conversation went like this:
Mechanic: Hey Steve it’s [mechanic]
Me: Hey, how’s it going?
Mechanic: Well, okay. Not great actually. I took a look at your Suburban and I agree with you that the problem is not electrical. I also checked for a vacuum leak and I checked your compression. All of that looks good. Here’s the problem, this is what I call a “rabbit hole” problem, and I decided years ago to stop trying to fix them. I could start replacing parts and I might solve the problem, then again we could get into hundreds, or even thousands of dollars before we find the problem. You’re going to think I’m ripping you off and I’m going to feel bad about the whole thing.
I have a lot full of cars I know I can fix. Yours, I really don’t know what to do, so I’m going to have to pass on trying.
Me: Okay. I appreciate your honesty. Forget for a minute you are a mechanic and I’m your customer.
Me: So we’re just two car guys talking. I know what my next move would be on this car. What would you do next?
Mechanic: Just two car guys talking?
Mechanic: I’d look at the fuel injectors
Me: That’s exactly what I was thinking
This was 4:00 on Tuesday afternoon. I hopped on the Interwebs to see about my options. New fuel injectors were $120 each and I would need eight of them… too much.
After a little digging I stumbled onto injectorwarehouse.com. For $279, they would send me eight re-manufactured fuel injectors, provided I sent back my old ones. That price included overnight shipping.
Twenty-four hours after the call from the mechanic, the UPS man in the brown shorts walked up the driveway with my injectors.
We finished dinner at 6:30 and I headed to the garage to do the deed. Two hours later I had replaced all eight fuel injectors and faced the moment of truth.
Just to be safe, before pressurizing the fuel system I had just completely disassembled, I grabbed a fire extinguisher. I turned the key and the V8 sprung to life. Immediately I heard a new noise. It was the purr of the AC compressor. A sound I could now hear because the engine itself was so quiet. I cleared the codes that had caused the evil check-engine light in the first place and headed out to pick up my three sons from Boy Scouts.
In the four days since, gas mileage in the Suburban has improved by 50%, the car is as smooth as butter, and the check-engine light remains dark.
Although this story ended well, there is a greater issue here.
We have all become so accustomed to perfect results that even someone who’s job it is to fix things (a mechanic) is unwilling to venture into actual problem solving. Very few people who fix things for a living actually solve problems anymore. They have become an army of challenge-averse parts swappers, nothing more.
In 1993, I slid my car into a curb after hitting a large patch of ice in Hobokken NJ, putting a decent dent in my right front steel wheel. I took it in expecting to pay them to “bang out” the wheel. They refused to fix the wheel, insisting that it couldn’t be banged-out, and had to be replaced.
It was at that moment that I believe the entire service industry “jumped the shark,” and transformed from a group of clever problem solvers into are aforementioned army of parts swappers.
When something isn’t working as it should, don’t toss it out. Try and fix it. You might succeed and you might not, but if you give up before you start you’re guaranteed to fail.
The entire time I worked with the fuel injectors in this story, I heard the voice of Adam Sandler’s “Cajun Man” saying the word In-Jec-Tion, in my head. Although he does not say that specific word in this clip, it is one of my favorites. Click & Enjoy!
Copyright © 2017 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.