Auto Service World
Feature   December 1, 2008   by Mike Cleary

Tips For “Brain Burners”

What do you do when you take a job in from another shop or from a customer who has been to multiple shops? The vehicle that eludes all diagnostic repair attempts. You know, the job that is the dreaded...

What do you do when you take a job in from another shop or from a customer who has been to multiple shops? The vehicle that eludes all diagnostic repair attempts. You know, the job that is the dreaded “brain burner.”

We’ve all run into this scenario before. You take on a vehicle that “nobody else can figure out.” You welcome the challenge. You look forward to something different. Something exciting. It’s your chance to be the hero.

Let’s start from the beginning: Customer calls up and asks if you will take a look at his (insert vehicle make here). The customer tells you his brother, mother, sister, brother-in-law friend, or all of the above, have recommended you because you are the “go-to-guy” for car repairs.

Immediately you are interested in his story. You’re very good at what you do, have a well-established relationship in town, and like the rest of us, have at the least a little bit of an ego. The customer continues, letting you know that it should be simple to fix; that it is “just a misfire problem,” but the vehicle is driveable. He tells you how many other techs have worked on it, what repairs have been done, what repairs haven’t been done, and sometimes may even tell you what he thinks is wrong with the vehicle. He can’t understand why the other guys couldn’t fix something so simple.

You agree to look at it. The horror movie is about to start. You will be playing the part of the victim.

The big day arrives, and the vehicle is towed in to the shop. The customer doesn’t arrive with the vehicle. After the tow truck leaves, you try to start the vehicle in order to park it, but it won’t start, it just cranks over. You wonder what happened to the vehicle that was drivable with just a misfire problem. You do notice the PCM and multiple blown fuses lying on the floorboard, along with some aftermarket repair manuals. You call the customer, but get his voicemail and you leave a message. Later that same day you call and leave another message.

The car sits all day without your phone calls being returned. The following day, the scenario is repeated: multiple phone messages by you and zero calls returned by the customer.

The following morning (Day Three) you arrive at the shop with someone waiting there for you to open the doors. It’s him. He was out of cell range and didn’t get your messages until late last night. He wants to know if the car is ready.

You explain to him that you wanted to ask him before working on the vehicle why it was towed in and how a simple misfire problem turned into a no-start, as well as giving him an estimate for diagnostic charges. He says he doesn’t know and that it ran when he left the vehicle at the other shop, and that you should call the other shop to find out what happened. He says he spent $300 at the other shop for them to test a “bunch of stuff” and make some repairs it didn’t need. You ask him why he paid for a bill that didn’t fix what was needed. He tells you he just “wanted it out of there.” You ask for copies of the prior repair orders, to check prior repairs. He doesn’t have them with him. He tells you that you don’t need to test (insert multiple components and systems here), because that was all checked and paid for at the other shop, and was all OK. Oh, and by the way, he doesn’t know anything about the PCM or fuses. As he leaves, he makes it a point to tell you that he is in a hurry for the vehicle to be fixed because he uses it for his business. He also states that he knows you will be the only guy in town who can fix this problem and that he will bring all his cars to you from now on.

You agree to look at the vehicle. You tell him you will reconnect everything and start from the beginning in order to get a baseline to work from. But you will call the other shop first.

As expected, the other shop’s version of the story is markedly different than your newest best customer. The other shop claims the customer pulled the plug in the midst of ongoing repairs. There was an intermittent short that damaged the original PCM, and that because they were having trouble finding it, they notified the customer that the final repair bill could be expensive. They also stated that the customer told them that he was out of money.

I think it’s safe to say that all of us have encountered some semblance of this scenario.

By now you are probably wondering as you read this: “What does this have to do with diagnostics?” The answer is plenty.

Vehicles that are difficult to diagnose and/or have been referred by another facility are some of the most challenging and possibly aggravating scenarios you will face as a technician. At the same time, they can also be the most rewarding. Don’t you remember the feeling that you experienced the first time you brought a dead vehicle back to life, particularly after several other diagnostic attempts had been made previously.

With this in mind, here are some tips to avoid the quagmire that these vehicles have the potential to become.

Rule #1: Start from the beginning. It’s entirely possible that some of the prior technicians overlooked something simple that may be the root cause of the trouble at hand. It’s safe to say we’ve all had tunnel vision at some point during a diagnosis and missed something obvious.

Rule #2: Check for Technical Service Bulletins and Manufacturer’s Special Service Messages that may apply to the situation at hand. You may find the fix without even lifting a scan tool.

Rule #3: Don’t rush. In most cases, if the events in Rule #1 haven’t occurred, this is going to be a “brain burner.” Take your time and be thorough. Don’t let outside influences (like the customer above who is in a hurry) pressure you to rush and miss a diagnostic step.

Rule #4: Don’t take anybody else’s word for it. Recheck everything. Just because one of the previous technicians stated that he checked something and said it was OK, doesn’t mean it is. Maybe they tested it wrong. Or maybe they read the spec wrong, or the spec itself was wrong. Or as stated in the scenario above, there are two different versions of the story, the facts being somewhere in between. Proceed as if you are the first person to look at the problem.

Rule #5: Don’t let the customer’s situation affect your diagnostic procedure. In the scenario above, the customer claims he’s out of money. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. In a lot of shops I have worked in or visited on diagnostic consultations, the customer has a direct relationship with the technician. In some instances it has been a very long relationship. But you can’t let your customer’s current situation in life alter what you do on the vehicle. Sure you would like to help them out, but not at the expense of shortcutting diagnostics.

Rule #6 This is a difficult one for some shops: Try to stay focused on the vehicle and avoid interruptions. Let everyone else know that this one is going to take some time and effort and you would like to not be sidetracked.

Rule #7: Avoid Pattern Failure Diagnostics. This is one where you have seen the same problem over and over again on this type of vehicle and you already know what the fix is, because you have fixed a “million of these already.” What if this vehicle is that one in a million vehicle?

And finally:

Rule #8: Exercise humility once you have the problem corrected. You are only as good a tech as your last repair. Just sitting out in your shop parking lot right now may be your next diagnostic headache, and then it may be your turn in the barrel.

Now you’re dangerous.


Mike Cleary, a certified Ford Motor Company Senior Master Technician and Diesel Specialist, has 25 years of knowledge and experience working in the automotive repair industry. Currently, Mike serves as Driveability and Electronics and Diesel Specialist, Shop Foreman and Technician Training Coordina
in a California Ford dealership. He can be reached through his Web site at or at

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