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First, The basics Let’s talk diagnostics. Do you follow any kind of diagnostic procedure, or do you just throw darts on a wall, or play “pick-a-part” and hope you fix it before you or the customer runs out of cash. I hope you don’t do that. That might work some of the time, but it’s not a good way to get to the source of problems quickly or accurately. One of the tire shops that I do business with dropped off a 2003 F450 with a 7.3 diesel for me to look at. It’s one of their service trucks that died on the highway. These guys are super, I’ve known them for years, and they’ve got a great reputation and excellent work force. In fact, I buy all my tires there, and they do all my alignments. They try to fix their own trucks “in-house” and sometimes, well……the repair/diagnostics are a little out of their comfort zone. This was one of those times. Now, they don’t try to keep up with the scanning or diagnostics on most cars and trucks. It’s a tire shop that specializes in tires. They stick to what they do best, tires, wheels, and undercarriage stuff. The only “techy” stuff they get into is with the TPM systems. Most generally, when it comes to their vehicles they’ll go with the tried and true…”throw a dart and whatever it hits we’ll change.” Of course they’ll ask around first, but you know, second hand information hardly ever gets the job done these days. They had it at one of their stores in another town for about 3 weeks trying to solve the problem. When that didn’t work they decided to tow it up to another one of their stores, and see if the guys there had a better dart. Another couple of weeks and several darts later, all they had were holes in the wall and no truck running. Then my phone rang. “Can you program a PCM on a F450?” the shop asked. “No, sorry I don’t do those, but I know who does. I’ll call him and see if he can come over and do that for you,” I told them. A day or two went by and the phone rang again. “Hey, this thing still doesn’t start. The guy that programmed it said it sounded like an electrical problem”. Ok, somehow, I’m getting involved now. “Sure, bring it over,” I told them. Well, they towed it over with a strap pulled by an F250 diesel truck. The F250 looked like a toy truck compared to this behemoth. With a push and a shove from the F250 the guys got it lined up and into one of my service bays. The big concern was the IDM relay, it kept chattering like a machine gun. Instead of checking codes I thought it best just to start with a complete wire to wire check to determine if there was some lost signal that was causing the problem, or a wire that was scraped and grounding out. Removing the inner fender on the driver side I could gain access to the Injector module (IDM) and the PCM (Power control module). Seemed easier to start here than any place else. It didn’t take long before I tracked down a problem. On pin #71 of the (new) PCM there should have been 12 volts from the ignition. No voltage at the terminal. Tracing the wiring diagram thru its maze it led back to the in-car fuse box on fuse #22. I grabbed my test light and checked the fuse… (Rolling my eyes about now) the fuse,… oh man… the fuse is blown. Good grief… all this for a blown fuse. Well, I better change the fuse, and see if it starts. Sure enough; it fired right up… sounded great, good throttle response, and no service lights. Now the big challenge, what blew the fuse in the first place? Following the wiring diagram again…. I traced out all the components on the fuse circuit. There was one that caught my eye as the likely culprit. The brake cut-off switch mounted on the master cylinder. (It’s the one that had the big recall a few years ago.) The updated replacement piece was in place but somebody forgot to secure the wires. The replacement piece has a newer style connector and an adapter connector to allow you to attach it to the original style fastener. Which makes it a little longer than it originally was from the factory. It was hard to tell where the new wire and connector started, and the old one ended, because the whole thing was lying on the exhaust manifold, and had melted down to a glob of wire and plastic. Looking around under the hood there were all kinds of new parts installed. The nicest part……they were all installed correctly. There were no other wires out of place, or any signs of scraps or melted wiring. The important thing is that it runs, and the truck can go back to doing what it needs to do. I think the biggest thing that threw everyone on this job was the chattering relay. It sounded bad, sounded expensive… but, all it turned out to be was a loss of proper voltage to the PCM, because a fuse blew from a lead that grounded out. This was due to the improper installation of one small component. The PCM couldn’t spread enough voltage and ground signals to all the necessary systems when it was missing the voltage it needed. As the relay would engage, the voltage drop was too much to keep the relay engaged. The IDM would pull more signal voltage as the relay would come to life. Then the PCM would have to drop the ground signal to the IDM relay to compensate for the loss of voltage. All this was going on very rapidly … on and off, on and off… making the machine gun sound coming from the IDM relay. The guys at the tire store were extremely grateful that I got the job done, so they could use the truck again. For me, it’s another day at the shop. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about the guys at the tire shop. Hey they tried, I’ll give them that. But one thing I wish they would do next time --- CHECK THE BASICS—BEFORE BUYING PARTS! It’s cheaper that way…
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How Long is a Labor Hour?
Did you ever stop and wonder how long a labor hour actually is? I’m not talking about time ticking away on a clock. I’m talking about the actual time spent on a repair vs. the labor guide’s suggested time. Personally, I’ve never had a job that started and finished exactly to the second of the given labor time. It’s not like the labor guide’s hourly chart is set in stone, or that they’re wrong, but when it comes to getting paid it sure seems like they are.
Any mechanic will tell you that a labor hour can stretch to half a day if a lot of research is involved, or it can last 15 minutes. Most labor guides typically don’t take into account how much research, diagnosis, equipment setup, or the time it takes recover your 10mm socket that just fell down into the motor.
Time, as they say, is money. If you don’t think so, take your car to any bodyshop and read off the labor charges. You’ll find the labor time is divided into a 1/10th of an hour. However, in the mechanical repair shop, seldom are the labor costs scrutinized as they are when dealing with insurance companies. Even still, I’ve never once been asked to break down the mechanical repair labor into diagnostic time and the actual physical labor when giving an estimate.
Estimates are usually quoted by the R&R labor time for a particular repair. Generally, that doesn’t include diagnostic time. Even though the book time has been calculated out, it’s still not a complete guide and certainly not the Holy Grail of the repair industries time clock. Try sticking with an estimate for changing a starter that’s listed as one hour job. More than likely the estimate is only going to be quoted straight from book of a one-hour labor charge and not any diagnostic time included.
Even with all the technically advanced diagnostic tools a professional mechanic has at their disposal there are still people who can’t understand why diagnostic time should be included in the labor estimate, even though it’s not part of the R&R for the component. In their mind, (as I’ve been told numerous times), the mechanic should already know what’s wrong when they pull their car into the shop.
What’s worse is the price shopper who calls from shop to shop looking for the cheapest repair. I’d bet to say the cheapest quote is probably nothing more than the R&R labor time for whatever part they’re concerned about. However, nobody mentioned anything about the crusted connections at the battery, or the leaking valve cover that’s coated the starter in oil, or whether you’ve installed aftermarket headers. Not to mention any diagnostic time, because the real problem isn’t the starter at all.
On the other hand there are the stop watch aficionados. You know, the people who literally count the seconds of every minute and are bound to argue over any labor time discrepancies on their invoice. The mechanic’s entire career, (in their way of thinking), is strictly turning bolts and slapping on parts. These tick-tock-time-keepers, watch their timepieces with precision and inevitably use “time” as the only determining factor for the cost of a repair.
For instance, let’s say the book time said an hour, and everyone involved agreed upon the charges, but the mechanic got it done in 25 minutes. The argument has always been that the cost of the job should be no more than the time it took to do it. Should the mechanic be penalized for doing his job proficiently and having completed it early? Where does it say he should give the job to the customer at some discounted rate because he can beat the book time? Doesn’t seem right at all. But, what if the same job that was quoted for an hour has taken four hours to complete? Who pays for the time difference now?
So in a sense, a labor hour isn’t an hour at all. It’s an arbitrary amount of time that may or may not be exactly 60 minutes. If it was as accurate as some people believe, then theoretically you should get an estimate for that hour’s labor, pull up to the repair shop, and walk out in exactly 60 minutes with the job completed. Not a second sooner or a second later. Yea, good luck with that one.
Like most trades mechanics get paid by the hour, however it’s not like you punch a time clock in the morning, work all day, then collect a 40-hour paycheck at the end of the week. Most mechanics work on flag time. Realistically, let’s call it what it really is… piece work, (the piece being the car). Very few mechanics are offered an hourly pay and a guaranteed 40-hour work week, (although there are some places that use a combination of both flag time and hourly pay).
More times than not, a mechanic ends up eating a whole lot of labor time for problem solving. Whether there are rusted bolts, bad connections, illusive intermittent problems or poor information from the get-go, something is going to use up time which eventually won’t go towards a paycheck.
Any time money and people are involved in the same situation, and you’re dealing with something that’s not widely understood, such as the modern car, it’s up to the mechanics and the repair shops to make sure they do. Customers also need to understand that this is a business based on suggested labor hours and not a time clock. There needs to be a reasonable amount of trust in the labor guide estimates from both sides of the counter. Because, it’s hard to say how long an hour of labor really is.
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I've been working on some yearly numbers for taxes - as many of you know we're a small shop just starting to expand. I've heard in the past the work mix should be close to 50/50 but we're finding ourselves at 64/36 with parts being the 64%. I've always struggled billing enough hours. Is this something I should try and adjust towards, and what methods should be used to improve this?
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Save a dime, spend a dollar
There’s trend in “out of shop” repairs I’m seeing more and more of these days. It’s been going on since the very first cars hit the open road, but because of the technical advancements and procedural changes there seems to be a lot more cars that aren’t getting repaired properly than ever before. It seems to have more to do with cost than with a general lack of maintenance, and because of the technical and repair procedure changes fewer DIY’rs are adequately prepared to take on those repairs. So, to save their cash they opt for a side line repair rather than a professional shop. Of course, they might have saved a dime by going “rogue” on the repair, but there’s a good chance they’ll have to spend a dollar just to undo the damage done by these back alley repair hacks.
Take the guy who needed a heater core, but didn’t want to pay the professional shop that diagnosed the problem. What he wanted was a cheaper alternative. The next day while at work, he casually mentioned his predicament to a co-worker. The co-worker said he knew a guy who knew of a guy who has a friend of a friend that’s a really good mechanic and would even come to your house and fix it. So, the guy called this traveling tool box connoisseur and a deal was struck up that he would be over by the weekend to change it out, as long as he had the new part waiting for him.
About half way through the repair the “friend of a friend mechanic” found himself with connections and parts he had never seen before. He then tried to start the car only to find out it wouldn’t. Of course, the wiry mechanic friend had neither a clue, nor an educated guess as to what was wrong. All he had to his credit was a vague knowledge of how to remove a couple of bolts and screws and hopefully not to leave a pile of miscellaneous parts under the seat when he was finished.
Outmatched by the new technology and his lack of taking the trade of automotive repair serious enough to warrant any training or certifications, our weekend nut buster and his little cohort (aka “his tool box”) took off for parts unknown (pun intended), never to be seen or heard from again. Which left the owner of the vehicle high and dry with an even bigger problem than he originally had.
It never ceases to amaze me that even with various repair manuals, internet sources, and parts available at the corner parts store, somebody would be willing to tear into a car without a reasonable understanding of what lies behind the dash. That seems to be the perpetual gap between how a professional mechanic tackles repairs and how the “friend of a friend mechanic” does the same job.
There’s something to be said about being in the trade on a daily basis. Most pros will tell you that even a year away from the business can leave you far behind your competition. More often than not, the professional mechanic has to stay up with the ever changing industry, as well as adopting a few tricks of their own or at least finding easier methods than what the engineers originally anticipated. (No offense engineers.)
However, even then, those tricks and short cuts are often omitted in the corner parts store repair manual or YouTube video. Whether it’s due to space, or because some of those mechanic “tricks” aren’t approved by the manufacturer. The manual writers often have to stick with what is “engineeringly-correct” rather than what professional mechanics have found out in the trenches.
Let’s face it, years ago when most systems didn’t use miles of wire with interconnecting information and calibrated components, a good shade tree mechanic could get by without knowing the inner workings of the actual systems. All they needed to know was what part was bad and where it’s located. That’s not the case anymore.
There’s going to come a day when these backyard mechanics are going to reach a tipping point, and not following all the warnings and directions printed in the repair manual will to lead to a catastrophe. Even those repairs that seemed simple in the past will require extensive training to accomplish. With some of the latest systems in production now it’s safe to say we already have reached that tipping point. But, the dollar is still the deal breaker when it comes to professional automotive service. Then again, the typical person who decided to go the route of finding the cheapest ratchet slinger or rely on a friend of a friend carrying a rusty tool box to do their repairs may find themselves still standing in their driveway with a broken down car.
Sure, there’s still a lot of ways to save money on service repair costs just like you can with any type of service work, and not just the family car, either. The question you have to ask yourself is, “Am I willing to take the risk of a failed repair by not calling a professional, and do I understand that it will probably cost more for the professional to straighten out the mess from the last guy?” If not, you might be stuck on the side of the road like the guy with the heater core looking for another “friend of a friend”.
Save a dollar. That’s always smart thinking. Having diagnostics and service work done by some guy you met at the corner parts store who is moon lighting as a mechanic...? Hey, it’s your dime.
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