Auto Service World
Feature   March 1, 2007   by Dean Askin

Signs of maintenance

With sophisticated diagnostics under the hood and onboard technology such as global positioning systems (GPS), today's vehicles are more complex than ever. But it's still the internal combustion engin...


With sophisticated diagnostics under the hood and onboard technology such as global positioning systems (GPS), today’s vehicles are more complex than ever. But it’s still the internal combustion engine that powers the average vehicle and that means one thing hasn’t changed: components still need to be maintained regularly and technicians have to know what to look for when it’s time to replace a belt, filter, fluid or sensor.

“Regular inspection and maintenance of filtration products is very important because their function is to filter out the contaminants that can cause wear, tear and damage to the vehicle engine in addition to filtering out airborne particles from the passenger compartments,” says Ramon Nunez, director of filtration for Robert Bosch LLC at its Purolator Filters NA LLC arm in Brentwood, Tenn. “Inspection and replacement become an integral component of the vehicle preventive maintenance process.”

Randy Chupka, marketing manager at Brantford, Ont.-based Gates Canada Inc., says the same thing applies to all belts under the hood. “Regular inspection of drive belts should definitely be part of the technician’s routine maintenance checklist. Surveys have shown that upwards of 19 per cent of all vehicles on the road today need a belt replacement.”

Make checking the sensors part of the regular maintenance work you perform on vehicles, advises David Pankonin, group product manager at Robert Bosch LLC in Broadview, Ill. “For vehicles prior to the 1996 model year, it’s very important to inspect and test the O2 sensors. These vehicles don’t have the more sophisticated OBD-II diagnostics, so they don’t accurately detect and compensate for degraded O2 sensor performance.”

If it’s not broken — replace it anyway

There’s that old adage: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” — which doesn’t necessarily apply to making sure preventive maintenance is done properly. Gates Canada, for example, recommends belts should be replaced as part of routine maintenance and inspection, before they fail.

“Today’s belt drive system operates several key components: the water pump, the A/C compressor, alternator, power steering pump and more,” notes Chupka. “If a belt should fail, chances are that the car will not make it to a service centre, leaving the driver stranded. The old saying that ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ is true. The last thing you need is a roadside failure caused by a broken belt.”

Fluids — motor oil, gear oil, brake and transmission fluids — are all vital and need to be changed regularly. Over time, transmission fluid gets dirty and picks up metal shavings. Similarly, motor oil changes from translucent to something that is black and sludgy. In both cases, these fluids are no longer performing the vital cooling and lubrication they’re designed to do — and this can lead to an engine or transmission failure. Valvoline Canada provides a range of synthetic and high-performance fluids designed to provide engine protection and improved performance — but these fluids need to be changed regularly. It’s important to educate consumers about the importance of regular fluid maintenance — and checking fluid levels in between vehicle services.

Recognizing the warning signs of wear

Every component shows signs that it’s time to replace the part before a costly failure happens. With the O2 sensor the ‘check engine’ light will usually tell the tale.

“In newer vehicles, the ‘check engine’ or ‘service engine soon’ dashboard lamp will illuminate and codes indicating a sensor malfunction will be stored by the engine control module (ECM). In older vehicles, poor drivability, increased fuel consumption and failed emission tests may be caused by sensor malfunction,” says David Pankonin.

Pankonin notes, there are 550 million oxygen sensors in operation in the U.S. and Canada. Occasionally, a few may fail. “Many of the failures can simply be attributed to old age,” he says. “Sensors can also become clogged by soot from an engine running too rich or with residue from an engine that’s burning oil. They’re also susceptible to poisoning from sulfur or lead in fuel and from silicon found in gaskets and antifreeze. All of these latter failures point to engine conditions that must be fixed prior to replacing the ‘failed’ oxygen sensor.”

Follow your nose for signs that a filter needs replacing, suggests Ramon Nunez. “How about the smell of the exhaust system from the vehicle driving in front of you? That’s a good indicator. When a vehicle’s oil is in continual need of replacement, there’s a leak in the system somewhere that must be checked and repaired.”

NGK Spark Plugs (USA) Inc. also has an extensive line of oxygen sensors, the NTK line which are manufactured to meet OEM specifications and are supplied to service providers with factory-fitted, waterproof OEM connectors for easier installation in vehicles.

When belts are wearing out, there can be up to eight different visible signs of wear technicians need to keep an eye out for: rib cracking, chunk out or separation; pilling; gravel or sand penetration; fluid contamination; uneven rib wear; and misalignment. Gates Canada offers a point-of-sale troubleshooting display that illustrates and explains these common signs of belt wear.

Gates Canada marketing manager Randy Chupka emphasizes tensioners are often overlooked during belt replacement and should be replaced as well, in the name of proper maintenance. “Today belt to tensioner replacement ratios are running at about eight to one,” he says.

If a maintenance check reveals things such as continuous movement of the tensioner arm; squeaks or rattles; play in the arm or pulley; binding or grinding; or rust, then it’s time to replace the tensioner.

Gates Canada has started a tensioner awareness campaign to educate shops and technicians about the importance of replacing tensioners and belts with parts that match original-equipment parts in form, fit and function; and that replacing both components is profitable. The campaign includes POS material for counter displays.

With fluids, the signs of wear and that it’s time for a change are visible right away: dark, dirty and full of contaminants.

Pay close attention to driving patterns

It’s important to ask about driving patterns during a maintenance service. “The driver and driving patterns are very important,” says Nunez. “Someone driving 10 miles to work every day in bumper-to-bumper traffic is more likely to need filter replacements sooner than an individual who drives 50 miles to work in the straight-away. The continuous grind on engine components of stop-and-go driving is much more damaging than driving without touching the brakes.”

Bosch’s David Pankonin says driving patterns can affect the lifespan of the O2 sensors. “As with other drivetrain components, frequent short trips may shorten O2 sensor life due to rapid heating and cooling of the oxygen sensor ceramic, as well as the ceramic being bombarded on startup with water that has condensed in the exhaust system.”

Today’s vehicles perform a lot of self-diagnostics — but that doesn’t mean you need to be any less diligent about maintenance and replacement. Says Nunez: “The more modern vehicle engine typically runs at a higher temperature which can break down the oil at a faster rate; that’s why we have so many additives to help the oil. Additionally, the engines are put together with much tighter tolerances, so when contaminants are not filtered out of the oil the engine will not function as designed.”

Part of that diligence is in asking the right questions when customers’ vehicles are in for servicing, say OE suppliers: What kind of driving do you do? When’s the last time your filter was replaced? Have you heard about the maintenance special we’re running? Have you had any driveability problems?

Breathe easier and check the air filter

Nunez believes that down the road, when it comes to vehicle maintenance,
cabin air filters are going to need a lot more exposure by the automotive service trade, and more consumer awareness.

“Baby boomers want to live longer and they’re seeking ways to maintain and improve their health,” he says. “The car companies are ahead of this curve and equipping new cars with more and more cabin air filters. We the installing trade just need to learn to communicate to consumers that cleaner air means better health. The population seems to grasp this concept relative to big-city smog but hasn’t quite translated that same thought to what’s inside the vehicle.”

Technicians need to educate themselves about what cabin air filters do, and inspect the vehicle properly during maintenance, Nunez says. “Inspection of the vehicle is important to identify the requirement or discuss the topic with the consumer.”

OE suppliers say you can apply the minimum/maximum rule to preventive maintenance of fluids, sensors, belts and filters. At a minimum, never let a consumer go beyond the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended intervals. At a maximum, replace components early for good preventive maintenance.

And if customers are hesitant about footing a higher bill for preventive maintenance, educate them about the costs they could face if a crucial component fails when they least expect it.