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Thank You Uncle Sam - Hey, you started this...now what?

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Thank You Uncle Sam


Before we had so many federal mandates and EPA regulations, cars and trucks were belching out gobs and gobs of environmental pollutants, and occupant safety was just a thought. At first, Uncle Sam wanted crash tests, tire tests, and seat belts. In the 70’s it was the crash bumper debacle. Then the emission systems came along with their smog pumps, miles of vacuum hoses, and EGR valves. All these “improvements” on the family car forever changed the way mechanics serviced them, and it also brought one more thing… the check engine light. Today, with even more state of the art innovations such as drive by wire, variable cam timing, and a whole lot more… well, let’s just say, “It ain’t like it used to be.”


When the first check engine lights starting appearing on the early 80’s models the light wasn’t taken very seriously by most consumers. It was treated just like the old “idiot” lights that were common on earlier vehicles. Unless the car was over heating or making some terrible noise from under the hood, a lot of people would ignore it. But, as time went on that little service light’s job gained more and more responsibility. Soon, the little “Service Soon” light took on a whole new meaning than it did back then. Originally, there were just a few codes. Most of the original codes were only two digits long and could be accessed with a paper clip or a grounded connector. Now, there are four or even more digits per code, and there are hundreds and hundreds of them, and not just for emissions anymore. The paperclip days are all but gone, these days most codes can only be accessed with a code reader. Even the code readers themselves are different from one to another. There are code readers that can only read generic codes, the kind that are for those federal regulations, and then there are code readers that will read manufacturer specific codes. It all depends on the quality of the code reader and who manufactured it.


The service light was never intended to be the golden answer to what was the problem, but merely a direction or description of the symptom in regards to emissions. While the importance of that little light has far surpassed the original intent, retrieving the information has changed drastically. Since the check engine light has taken on such a variety of duties, this has led some people to believe that the glowing light on the dash is the answer to all car problems. And, yes, there are “code shoppers” out there who are looking for a bargain for interrupting those codes. Leave it to those national discount part stores, the ones that sell every part from A to Z, to come up with a marketing plan to get people to shop at their stores… free code reading for the consumer.


Sure, give somebody something for nothing and they’ll jump right on it, but seriously… do you really get anything for free these days? You drive up to one of these places, they send some guy from behind the counter out to your car with some nickel and dime code reader, who then plugs it into the car and checks to see what code is stored. Rather than have it diagnosed any further the code is deciphered into what component it is referring to, which just happens to be one of the many parts they sell. Ya might as well buy the part while your here, right? Makes sense doesn’t it? They read the code for ya, and they’ve got the part too! How much simpler can it be?


And I’m sure some people are thinking, “Ya don’t need a trained technician with several years of schooling and OJT to figure out these new cars, heck no… a guy at the parts store can do it.” (Apparently I’ve been doing it the hard way all these years. I guess there’s no need in attending all these advanced classes, or buying these expensive scanners to diagnose the modern car, my bad.) With all the regulations, emission controls, safety features and electronics on today’s cars, apparently they’ve made the cars easier to repair. This is where I’d like to thank Uncle Sam for his superb effort of protecting our fine citizens from harmful emissions on newly manufactured cars. But, after the original sale is over, it’s obviously not that important to all the guys and gals in Washington.


I think it’s ironic that the same people who pass these laws to make the car a much safer form of transportation and environmentally friendly than ever before, are the same people that can’t see a problem in leaving the consumer to believe anyone with a code reader is qualified to properly diagnose these vehicles. I’m sure this would start a debate with some congressional committee that it is the consumer’s choice in how they chose to have their car repaired. I understand that not everyone can afford OEM original parts, and I’m not saying there are not great aftermarket parts that far exceed the OEM requirements… there are. I’m just not sure the general public has any clue as to the variety of cheap second rate components that are out there at these discount part stores. Uncle Sam in all his wisdom hasn’t seemed to notice that all their legislation for better cars just flies right out the tail pipe once the consumer makes the decision to have substandard parts installed. Which leads back to that little check engine light and how it has become not a reference for a repair, but in some people’s minds… it IS the repair.


There are a lot of states that require a full inspection including the service light to be in tip top shape before it will pass, while other states don’t have a thing in the way of inspections. (I guess our elected officials think those emission fumes stop at the state lines.) I’d like to think these part store code readers are actually helping the consumer, and I suppose in some way they are, but not every time. My biggest problem starts after a consumer has tried the free code read and tried the cheap part, and it still hasn’t fix their car. Then they end up at a professional shop, and what do they all say at the service counter? “I’ve already had it checked out.” This of course, causes even more issues at the counter. Now somebody has to explain to the owner that codes don’t fix cars, mechanics fix cars; codes are just one small part of finding out what needs to be done.


I’d like to tell Uncle Sam just how much I appreciate his involvement in creating a better car, a better environment, and a much safer driving vehicle. To all the congressman, senators, committeemen, legislators, and politicians, you’ve done a fine job so far. Although, it might be time Mr. Politician, to check your own service light… I think it’s on.




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Very well written! A real touchy subject that we all can relate to. Our future depends a lot on the consumer perception of what we do. I see more and more people having a hard time understanding the value of what we do. Can you blame them with all the ads on TV and Radio? Just look at the new Midas ad?


The auto repair industry has come to a crossroad and the choices we make as an industry will impact our future.


Thanks, great article, as usual!

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Well if you think about it for the most part if we didn't have all these EPA regulations there would be cities in the us where you could not breath the air. Like it or not we needed this, but the price we have to pay for all this is overwhelming! But some of it is more then just to keep our air clean. That's the part I could do without.

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  • Have you checked out Joe's Latest Blog?

      Most shop owners would agree that the independent auto repair industry has been too cheap for too long regarding its pricing and labor rates. However, can we keep raising our labor rates and prices until we achieve the profit we desire and need? Is it that simple?
      The first step in achieving your required gross and net profit is understanding your numbers and establishing the correct labor and part margins. The next step is to find your business's inefficiencies that impact high production levels.
      Here are a few things to consider. First, do you have the workflow processes in place that is conducive to high production? What about your shop layout? Do you have all the right tools and equipment? Do you have a continuous training program in place? Are technicians waiting to use a particular scanner or waiting to access information from the shop's workstation computer?
      And lastly, are all the estimates written correctly? Is the labor correct for each job? Are you allowing extra time for rust, older vehicles, labor jobs with no parts included, and the fact that many published labor times are wrong? Let's not forget that perhaps the most significant labor loss is not charging enough labor time for testing, electrical work, and other complicated repairs.  
      Once you have determined the correct labor rate and pricing, review your entire operation. Then, tighten up on all those labor leaks and inefficiencies. Improving production and paying close attention to the labor on each job will add much-needed dollars to your bottom line.
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