Auto Service World
Feature   May 1, 2008   by Matthew Shilton

Knowing what to look for makes emissions systems maintenance easy, profitable

ECM reflashing takes very little time to do and can prevent a host of emissions problems cropping up later on.

It’s a good thing computers are so advanced these days. Every time you turn on your Mac or PC, a little window or bubble will pop up prompting you to update certain programs you have with newer, more efficient versions. The reason is due to the complexity of the software. There are always going to be glitches and features of a program that need updating to become more user-friendly.

Cars, like computers, also have a very complex computer on board, the ECM. The ECM makes sure a vehicle’s complex engine and electronic systems run smoothly. When something goes wrong, the ECM will often trigger the little ‘Check Engine’ light, warning the driver of a potential problem. However, the ‘Check Engine’ light does not tell you anything as to what the problem may be, whether a sensor has failed someplace or something else has gone in a car’s emissions system. In fact, what may be going on is that the ECM needs a bit of updating, much like that home computer needs periodic updating of its operating system and programs. So that that ‘Check Engine’ light might really be saying is to go and plug a reflash tool into the car’s ECM and see what software updates are available. You may be able to solve a complex emissions system problem with a simple click of the mouse or even save a critical component in that vehicle’s emissions system.

Making reflashing a part of the maintenance routine

There are several classic signs that something is wrong with a vehicle’s emissions system. The signs include reduced fuel economy, unusual smells in the vehicle, loss of engine performance, and of course the clincher, a failed emissions test. Typically, however, and emissions system does not deteriorate in ways that are very obvious to the vehicle’s owner, except perhaps that failed emissions test. And sometimes, problems in an emissions system are caused not be a failure of component within an emissions system, but by the ECM’s software becoming out of date.

That is why many in the aftermarket strongly suggest ECM reflashing is a safe and effective way to prevent emissions system problems from escalating into something that can potentially seriously damage a vehicle and put a nice dent in a customer’s wallet.

Ben Johnson, director of global product development for Delphi Corporation suggests technicians should make reflashing a part of a regular maintenance routine.

“No matter what the car is in for, whether it is an oil change or a tire rotation, it takes just a couple of minutes to check and make sure that there are no software updates for the onboard computer,” Johnson adds. He continues that these ECM updates are readily available and a good service shop can build a profitable business of selling regular reflashing. “We’ve got people who are selling a lot of (this) service and making a lot of customers happy, showing that customer that ‘Yes, I’m an aftermarket shop, but I’ve got the technology and the knowhow to solve these complex problems. They’re making a lot of money selling the services and updates.”

What reflashing can do is help fix such things as false MILs and DTCs settings, transmission shift points, fuel trim problems, poor mileage caused by problems with the air/fuel mixture, run-on issues and other drivability issues that can crop up. All of these also affect how an emissions system operates.

“By reprogramming the ECM, you can adjust the fuel delivery to make the vehicle run properly in terms of emissions. It’s a very important part of modern automotive repair,” says John Mills, national technical trainer for SPX Canada. “A vehicle is designed to run with as much power as possible, but with minimum emissions. In other words, if you burn the fuel that you put in the engine and you burn it well, very few pollutants come out of the tail pipe. If the vehicle is not delivering the right amount of fuel to make that take place, then the instructions on the computer have to be modified. That modification of instructions makes the car deliver the proper fuel for good driving and low emissions.

“There are various technologies available to help with ECM reflashing. Blue Streak Electronics Inc. in Concorde, Ont. has the iFlash BSE J2534 Global Programmer, a multi-protocol hardware interface designed to support J2534 and non-J2534 specifications for reprogramming and pass-through diagnostics. Delphi’s Universal Reflash Tool that with a subscription to an OEM reflash can be used on almost all vehicles with reprogrammable ECMs.

Another advantage of ECM reflashing is it can cut down or even prevent a technician searching fruitlessly for problems with other parts of the emissions system that are working just fine.

“The first thing technicians need to do a much better job of is checking technical service bulletins as part of the normal diagnostic process,” says Bob Augustine, senior product manager at Vetronix, a division of Robert Bosch. “With the exception of General Motors, almost all of the calibration updates on all the other manufacturers usually emanate from the technical service bulletin.”

Catalytic Converters, Spark Plugs and O O2 Sensors

Spark plugs, O2 O sensors and catalytic converters play an important role in all emissions systems and like any other automobile part they get tired and old after a while and need replacing.

The traditional catalytic converter is designed to last the life of the car. However, that does not mean it is immune from problems. Sometimes, problems can develop with the rings in the cylinders, or a minor oil or antifreeze leak gets into the converter. While rare, such problems can lead to a blown head gasket, a bad injector or a bad spark plug. To check a catalytic converter, there are two options available to the technician. The first is checking the front and rear O2 sensors with a scanner, then comparing the front and rear readings from the sensors to see what the performance of the converter looks like. Any anomalies found will suggest something is wrong with the converter. The second way is to take the converter off of the car and put a fiber optic camera inside to see if there is anything getting on the catalyst.

For example, if oil or antifreeze from a leak gets into the exhaust system, it can block air passages and create heavy, carbon soot. That soot can coat the catalyst and impact the ability of the converter to reduce harmful emissions, as well as clogging the pores in the ceramic catalyst and blocking exhaust flow. If such a blockage happens, then backpressure is produced and heat and exhaust get into the engine compartment.

“What you’re looking for is something that’s melting down the catalyst, or starting to plug up the catalyst,” says Ken Shafer Jr., certifications manager for the California EPA.

The most common cause of meltdown and the plugging-up of the converter is unburnt fuel getting into the exhaust system which can light-off inside of the converter and causes the ceramic substrate of the catalyst to melt.

Spark plugs and O2 sensors are a completely different ball game — an easier one than catalytic converters. The ignition voltage that comes through wears down nickel type spark plugs over time. The tips of the spark plugs become round and they become harder to spark. On the ground side, the ground electrode receives the voltage that comes through and over time you get what is called gap growth — the gap between the centre electrode and your ground increases, making it harder for the plugs to spark. With precious metal spark plugs, the electrode wears down a lot less and last longer.

While built much tougher than ever before, spark plugs are subjected to harmful engine byproducts like oil or excessive gas. Over time the spark plug will have contaminants build up on the end of it.

“If you do have deposits on the spark plug itself, such as oil, it’s a very good conductor of electricity, it will tend to track down the size of the spark plug to the engine body, and you obviously have a misfire,” says Jef
f Deveaux, senior product manager for NGK Spark Plugs Canada. “What happens is it leads to fouling. Once you have fouling, the sparkplug is too dirty, and you need to replace it at that point.”

Deveaux says spark plug servicing should become common practice. As well, regular inspection of spark plugs can reveal other problems that may be happening in the car’s engine and which can impact the overall emissions system. If the plug has a black heavy wet look to it, then there is an issue of oil blow-by. If there is a brownish clear coloring on it, you have gas fouling, meaning too much gas on the plug.

For O2 sensors, the biggest threat is anything that can poison the ceramic sensing element. This will slow down the response time of the sensor, at which point the ECM changes the fuel mixture. This can lead to serious problems down the road. The O2 sensors are constantly changing the fuel mixture between rich and lean, trying to create a consistent median for the engine to burn. If the sensors are worn out, they are giving the ECM inaccurate data, and the fuel mixture becomes harmful. Sensors are a little harder to judge than plugs in terms of inspections and how often you should change them.

When visually inspecting an O2 sensor, technicians should look for extreme damage to the sensor, such as heavy white deposits which is Celica poisoning, or a heavy black deposit build up, which is lead poisoning.

As is always the case, it is best to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations when it comes to ECM reflashing, spark plugs and O2 sensor change intervals, and catalytic converter maintenance. However, there is nothing wrong with being a proactive technician, and plugging in the reflash tool, and inspecting the critical components of the emissions system on every car that comes through your shop. If you find a problem, you gain business, and if you don’t, you gain a customer who knows that your aftermarket shop is up to date with industry practices.