Monday, June 12, 2017

The dirty business of book time

The other evening my wife and I had a couple and their kids over for dinner and drinks and the husband, who owns a successful sprinkler repair company, asked me how we charged people for repairs.  He wondered whether we used a computer program to figure out the amount of time needed for a repair or if we just charged customer for the amount of time each job actually took.  This is of course an excellent question and a horrible trap.  It is also a very common question that I get asked when I work with customers, especially ones who have some knowledge of how to repair their car.

I've skimmed this subject in other blog posts, but I've never really explained how the whole situation plays in both our favor and the in the favor of the customer.  In our shop we use a system called Mitchell, created by the company Snap-On.  If you've ever messed around with your car you are probably familiar with Snap-On and their wildly expensive equipment which is considered the top of the line for anyone in automotive service (it is not considered strange for a standard wrench to cost $80 from this company!  Not a set...a single wrench!).  Because we repair many different makes and models of cars, the software that Snap-On provides tells us exactly how long a certain repair will take.  For example, most brake jobs bill out at one hour which, when done correctly by a fairly new mechanic, is about how long it takes.  For the seasoned technician, this is about double the time it takes. But, some cars are manufactured with brake calipers that require special tools or even scanners to put on something as simple as brake pads.  On these cars, Mitchell has designated longer repair times to compensate for these special tools or procedures.  In these cases Mitchell is the mechanic's friend.  In the case of the customer, this is occasion to yell, "how much for friggin' brakes?"  In other scenarios Mitchell will rebel against its friend, the technician, by designating an alternator replacement as a mere two hours, and in this instance it is the mechanic who may receive the poke in the eye from the sharp stick when, four hours later, they are still putting the car back together.

Of course, as technicians become more familiarized with a particular type of vehicle, even with a four hour alternator job, the work becomes easier and faster.  Now, the four hour job is actually done in two hours or (gasp!) less than two hours.  For technicians on flat-rate, which is to say those being paid by the job and not by the hour, this knowledge is crucial for bringing home the bacon.  If you are a slow technician relying on this pay scale, it is brutal.  I've mentioned that we pay our technicians on salary rather than hourly, and therefore it is the shop owner who eats dirt when repairs go over time. However, when mechanics become adept at repairing a specific type of car, or just doing a specific type of repair, this works out for the shop.  Which brings us back to the original dilemma: to charge for how long the repair takes or how long the books designates the repair to take.

So, for a business like sprinkler repair, there is no book to go by and everything is estimated at how long the owner of the business thinks it will take.  But, for automotive repair shops that do this (and they are the exception not the norm) it is akin to shooting themselves in the foot.  All the time energy and money that has been put into training technicians to do repairs more efficiently helps make up for those years when that certainly was not the case.  Even then, book time is no guarantee that the repair will go as planned.  See below.

That is Glen in that truck, and no, he doesn't sleep there at night, and yes, he is always that happy-looking.  Glen is actually happy because he is paid salary, but the dude taking that picture...he ain't as happy.  This is what happens when a bolt breaks off in an aluminum engine.  So, we went from a fairly straight forward engine repair to pulling the engine completely out of this truck.  Not only that, be we had to buy a specialty $550 dollar tool to extract the bold and insert a sleeve for a new bolt. The customer, however, is only getting charged book time for the original repair.  While this is not really our fault, and we could charge the customer, we aren't.  And, that is just how it goes.  For every job that goes swimmingly and where we make money, there are jobs like this that balance the scales and put us in the hole. Now, there are occasions where the book time is incredibly far off from what the actual repair take, and in those cases we will often cut the labor time down for the customer, but usually the book time is accurate.  The sad part is, the book time doesn't even account for all of the specialty tools and research that is required to do a repair correctly.  The upside is that the longer a shop has been in business, the more of that equipment we have on hand, and the more efficient we can be.  After ten years in business - I think we're doing ok.

Friday, May 5, 2017

I am Lamont!

A while back I was speaking with my older brother who lives in Seattle about my nieces, one who recently became an undergrad student in nursing and the other who aspires to do the same.  I was curious why two girls whose mother and father had nothing to do with the nursing profession would gravitate to this vocation.  His response was that they had a steady diet of Gray's Anatomy growing up which had thus imprinted itself in their psyches. My brother then went on to explain that Michael J. Fox's character on Family Ties, Alex P. Keaton, had somewhat influenced him to become a financial planner.  My parents, who were by no means poor, did face many financial struggles taking care of three rambunctious boys while working full time jobs that didn't pay a whole heck of a lot.  My father, I like to joke, was the most honest, worst paid lawyer in the Denver area.  My mother was a psychiatric nurse who, I can only assume, used most of her education figuring out how to handle the three boys who were constantly at each other's throat.  My older brother was cognizant at a young age of their struggle, enough to make a promise to himself that he would figure out how to save money and never put his family through the stress that our family went through. He was Alex P. Keaton: ever diligent about money, well dressed and pragmatic.  You can call him if you want - he's a good financial planner.  

What this discussion did for me, however, to spark an interest in what television shows may have influenced my decision to open an automotive repair shop.  While I adored The Dukes of Hazzard, I can't say that Uncle Jesse always working on The General was highly influential.  I also loved Knight Rider and it's true David Hasselhoff and I could be doppelgangers (his early years obviously!) but he didn't spend much energy wrenching on K.I.T.T.  Taxi definitely was part of the television archival cannon, but I really loved Tony and not so much Latka. No, I'm actually going with Lamont from Sanford in Son.  He was the voice of reason and sanity, always trying to figure out ways in which to solve problems. Although I'm not necessarily sane, I am Lamont.

A few days after talking with my brother I went on errand to empty out our storage unit in our trusty old truck, nicknamed "punkin" for its stunning mix of color, namely orange and rust.  As I drove along in the rusty bucket of bolts with the broken windshield wiper, bent door, sagging window regulator, and the bed jammed full of trash, the realization hit me like a lightening bolt. Suddenly the Sanford and Son theme was playing in my head.  I snapped this picture of Punkin in front of our sign and sealed my fate - as Lamont.

While I have offloaded my duties at the shop of running scrap metal to recycling yards and picking up used parts, I still have spent a good share of time at junkyards. When I used to go I always asked myself, "is this really what someone does with a college degree?"  But of course the answer is yes, this is what you do, and I actually love it.  I'm not sure if when I got into this profession I knew what was in store for me, but in 10 years I've learned a ton.  I think back to our early days in business and feel slightly embarrassed by our naivete.  But I've made the changes necessary to feel like I've created a good shop with a solid reputation.  Hopefully someday there will be a show based on my life, a sort of Sanford and Sons reboot.  Maybe David Hasselhoff can play the old coot.  Roll credits!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Three things you should never say or do at an automotive repair shop

In the years before I owned an automotive repair shop I said some things that, in hindsight, were regrettable.  We are all guilty of walking into businesses in which we have some modicum of knowledge that leads us to believe that, should we reveal our knowledge to the owner or manager, will convey that we are well versed in whatever trade we are talking about.  Often when we leave these places the employees and owners and managers have a good laugh and say, can you believe that dude?  Did you hear that lady? I'm still that guy if I try and talk to someone well-schooled about wine, or plumbing, or gardening or half a million other things.  And, I'm faced with myself every day at work when people stand before me and do the same thing.  The good news is that now I can tell you a few things to never say or do to an employee of an automotive repair shop and lessen the chances of getting poor service.  Also, I would like to say that when you bring mechanics beer, or doughnuts or some other delicious thing, your car will forever more be treated with love!

1. "I looked on the internet and it looks like you only have to do is ________ to fix the car."

Listen, I don't know what kind of work you do, but I just want you to transpose this sentence to your vocation.  For example, to a lawyer: "I just looked on the internet and all you have to do to write a Will is state that when I die all my stuff goes to Bob." Or, to a website designer, "Hey, I saw on YouTube that all you have to do to make a website is write a bunch of algorithms."  Nothing undermines a job worse than these blanket statements.  Automotive technicians, just like lawyers and computer programmers, have years and years of training and hands-on experience.  By just saying to them you have figured out how to fix the car by watching a 5-minute video may be construed as insulting.  What the person you just handed your keys to is thinking is: if it is so easy, why are you here in our shop?  Just keep this internet knowledge to yourself because you may be right and it will help you understand the process; and if it is wrong you can ask a well-educated question about whatever conclusion the shop does finally come to.

2. "I just went down to the auto parts store and I found I can buy that part for a lot cheaper than you're selling it for."

Yes.  It's true.  You certainly can buy a part a lot cheaper yourself and this is common knowledge. But, as I've stated in other posts, what is it exactly you are getting for the mark up on the part from the repair shop?  What you are buying is a warranty, a guarantee, and an installation by a professional using the right tools for the job. Certainly there are things that the majority of the population can install themselves (batteries, light bulbs, etc.) but it would blow you mind to see the number of parts we've seen installed incorrectly and that have cost customers quintuple the cost as if they had just had it done in a shop in the first place (that halogen headlight you just installed, did you get even a smudge of grease from you finger on it? Well, it's going to go bad on you two weeks from now!).  We had a customer recently who put a wheel bearing on their car and didn't get the axle all the way back in the transmission after the replacement, and that cost him a NEW TRANSMISSION!

3. Do not, I repeat, do not go and watch over the shoulder of the person doing the repair unless you are their good buddy!

I know, I are worried that the fine guy or gal fixing your vehicle may damage it, install a part incorrectly or not do the repair at all.  Believe me, if you feel this way, you need to find another shop with people you trust.  As in example #1 above, just put yourself in same position on your job.  If you are a chef at a restaurant can you imagine the customer you are serving standing right behind you as you cook?  If you are a teacher can you imagine having a line of parents at your back everyday, watching as you teach their children?  What you are doing, by talking to and hovering over the technician performing the repair work, is creating anxiety which translates into poor workmanship.  Fixing cars can be a delicate business requiring finesse, fine motor skills, rational cognitive thought and tons and tons of patience.  If you want to see how the repair was done just go home and watch a YouTube later (see #1).  A better way to handle this is to ask the technician to come out after the repair is completed and show you what they did.  Any tech worth their salt will be proud to show you how they fixed your car.

These are just three examples, and I'm sure I could blather on and on, but I won't for everyone's sake. In future posts all add some other tips about keeping your repair shop on your side and hopefully making the performing of repairs on you automobile less painful.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Fuses: You Know How to Replace Them, Right? Right?

In preparation for this post I had a number of ostensibly entertaining puns, similes and whatnot floating around my head that I thought would spice up this article. But as I sit here writing I realize that putting those in would demean you the reader and make me seem patronizing.  I'm not going to go low brow on you - I aspire to greater heights with my sarcasm; which I'll just save for my daughters who don't understand it anyway.  I use the same sarcasm with my employees but they don't find it amusing because some of them have short...uh...attention spans (See? I didn't do it).

A common refrain heard in my shop, and surely shops around the globe is, "It's not working.  Can you just put a new fuse in there? I'm sure it's just a fuse.  What? You need to research it and there may be some time involved? Ugh! I'll just do it myself".  Perhaps you may have even uttered these fateful words yourself. To answer your question, certainly, you can replace a fuse.  After all, it is just a little two-pronged wire encased in plastic which channels electricity from one wire to another. But before you do your magic, take a look at the picture below.

You see that part that looks all melty and disfigured (yeah I just said melty - what of it)? Well that, friends, is the result of someone putting just a slightly incorrect fuse in their car and burning up a wiring harness that cost them around $200 to repair.  This is just a portion of the wire that needed to be run from the fuse box where it began to the tail light where it ended. To give you further food for thought, this easily could have started a fire in the car because the wire runs under the carpet of the vehicle. To hammer the point home consider this: the customer was really lucky this wire didn't take out the whole harness which would have resulted in a repair in the thousands and not just the hundreds.  All due to a little tiny blue fuse that anybody can replace.

If you think I'm being dramatic, which I frankly wouldn't blame you for, chew on this. We had a similar situation about a year and a half ago where someone replaced a 15 amp fuse with a 30 amp fuse for their dome light.  As a result, there was a fire inside the car where the wire channeled up through the roof of the vehicle, and the car was totaled!  The insurance adjuster who came out to inspect the damage just shook his head in regret.

I bet you're wondering if I'm implying you need to go to the mechanic every time a fuse blows.  Or else you're saying, "this guys is full of sh%&!"  Well, relax! I'm not saying that, but I'm also not full of sh#*. Every owner's manual has the correct fuse listed for those equipped on your vehicle and when you replace a fuse it should be with that or another guide specific to your car, lending you the guidance that is required. Don't just get on the internet and believe everything you see when it comes to this stuff (wait, you're probably reading this on the internet...well, you get the point) - make sure you are using literature specific to your car.  And, if you have to take it to a shop, then just do it and don't feel embarrassed about it.  Nine times out of ten our shop and others are going to replace that fuse for free.  But, if there is a charge to get it figured out, consider it money well spent. More often than not there is a reason that the fuse blew in the first place.  And, for that, you are going to want to find the cause.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Why New Vehicle Inspections Are So Important

Last month we had a customer come into our shop with a Lexus that they had recently purchased that seemed to generally be in pretty good condition.  The body was free of major blemishes, it ran well, the interior was in good shape, it didn't smell like someone had been eating Wendy's in it for a year straight; a solid buy!  Although this particular customer has been loyal to us for many years and has been diligent about getting repairs done, they did not get a pre-purchase inspection performed in this instance as the vehicle appeared sound save for a few oil leaks. They really had no idea, I believe, that a few oil leaks could turn into a huge, expensive headache.

I've pontificated to many a customer the value of getting a new car inspection done and this particular tale illustrates my reason for this advice.  At our shop a new car inspection runs $50 and I believe that at most other shops it ranges generally from $50 up to $150.  When customers have called us about getting an inspection done, and we cannot fit them in our schedule soon enough, I have had no qualms about referring them to other shops with this simple advice: please get this vehicle inspected by a shop, it doesn't have to be OURS! The cost of the inspection will no doubt pay for itself several times over.  I like to think we saved some people from some pretty harrowing purchases.

In the case of my customer with the Lexus it turned out that the items that needed repairing were a timing cover gasket, rear main seal and power steering rack.  If alarm bells aren't going off in your head right now, then they should be and it should coincide of the sound of a vacuum sucking cash out of your wallet or purse.  We are talking about 30 hours of work, which at $95 dollars an hour is a costly undertaking.  It turns out these are common problems with this particular Lexus and it became a $4000 repair.

Why so many hours  you may ask, while at the same time wondering if you couldn't just look up a YouTube video about how to pull the timing cover off a Lexus? below.

The entire engine needs to be removed from this Lexus in order to replace that pesky timing cover gasket. To do this, the subframe must be dropped which is what you see on the floor in the picture. This was taken even before we removed the transmission to get at the rear main seal.  If you are a technician working on this job you start calculating how many back surgeries you will need to be restored to normal  after hunching over this monstrosity for two days (just so you know, we were very considerate not to bother this particular tech during the repair for fear that he would forget where something went when putting it back together).

When you think back to that initial inspection that would likely have caught these leaky components the inspection cost certainly seems worth it.  We do a thorough check of any vehicle someone is considering buying and  if there is some cost involved in getting it repaired, at least you'll be prepared before any money changes hands.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

My Head Has a Problem and It's Not Just Hair Loss

If I had a nickel for every time someone made a crack about the glare off my dome I could probably open another Lube and Latte.  Actually, I'm pretty sure I will...someday! 

But, I'm actually talking about the 'ol "Head Gasket" not my personal head. Unless you are familiar with how cars work or you own a Subaru, you may not be acquainted with this fine piece of material that spells the life and death of your engine.  If you are acquainted and perchance own the aforementioned Subaru you know that this gasket is a money-gobbler. To illustrate: if the top end and bottom end of the engine were the bread of your sandwich, the head gasket would be the world's most expensive piece of salami in between the bread slices. And I've heard that salami gives you colon cancer, so you probably want to veer away from it.  Head gaskets go bad when they crack or "blow" and leak either oil (eh...ain't so bad) or coolant (yer engine's gonna explode).  What stinks about them is that they can leak internally which is difficult to detect at times or externally which is easier to see. Another major drawback is that the whole top portion of the engine needs to be removed to replace them and that repair assures that you'll be putting braces on my daughter's teeth.

Below is picture of a head gasket we pulled off an older Audi 100:

Some of those smaller holes are ports for the coolant that absorb the heat from the engine. The big circles indicate where the cylinders are and where the pistons of the car move up and down.  In the case of this vehicle it consistently overheated because coolant moved from one of the smaller holes into the larger one.  In this next picture, if you look closely, you can see the green coolant pooled up in the ports where the head gasket goes on the engine:
We've done head gasket repairs on all sorts of vehicles but they are an extremely common failure on Subaru vehicles dating from the 90's to present.  Why, you may ask, would Subaru not fix this issue after so long a time? Well, because they are a cash boon for this company!  When the repair is done it is usually with replacement of timing belt, water pump, thermostat, crankshaft and camshaft seals, spark plugs, ignition wires and more.  And the cost can range from $1800 to $3000!  For us, $2200 is pretty much the norm.  So, I believe they have reasoned that there is no point in correcting something brings in so much dough - but I don't speak Japanese so I'm just guessing.  Although, I'm pretty sure the literal translation of "Subaru" in English is "give me some money"*.  

*You may have to consult a Japanese dictionary to confirm this.

In any case, this fault can occur on many different types of vehicles as can be seen from the Audi.  If there is a lesson to be learned it is this: it is vital that you car not be allowed to overheat.  Many customers come in and tell us that there car "went into the red" so the they drove it home as quickly as possible.  Don't do it buddy!  Pull over and call a tow truck instead. It really only takes one good overheat to blow the head gasket or worse, to crack the head itself.  The $80 tow is a fraction of the cost of a new head gasket, head or engine replacement. Even though it is great work for us, I wouldn't wish that repair on anyone and hopefully that one tip will save you thousands!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Air Filters and Cabin Air Filters

** Welcome to the newest upgrade of the Lube and Latte blog! It's been a while since we have posted anything online because, well, we've been busy fixing cars and eating sugary muffins which have impaired our ability to do anything that involves spelling words correctly.  But now we've changed - we swear it - and we'll post and educate and inform and maybe even put up some pictures.  Hope you enjoy reading! **

Air Filters:

Ah the bane of the automotive technician's existence.  No other part on a car is so maligned and oversold as the papery accordion which collects dust and cat hair that is the air filter.  Every time we mention to customers that this $10 to $20 item needs replacement a look comes over their faces like they've just been told that they contracted an incurable disease.  But we understand why.  When this replacement is brought up at nearly every oil change people become wary and disgruntled about the prospect of adding money to their bill.

However, it is important to truly understand the large role this square piece of paper and rubber plays in the car's functionality.  Chew on this: the air filter is the primary protection between all the outside elements and the engine of the car.  Because your engine has vacuum it is constantly sucking in air from around it.  Driving down that dusty road with all sorts of pebbles, dirt and who knows what which is getting absorbed by that $10 to $20 part! If it was not in place all of that material would go right into your engine and quickly ruin it. Imagine for a moment going for a jog in the city and having the inability to close your mouth and thereby sucking all that pollution into your lungs and you'll get my point.

The air filter is intended to be replaced every 15,000 miles and if you live in a dry and dusty environment like Colorado it may be even more often.  What better investment is there in your car that is so cheap?  Oh, and speaking of cheap...don't presuppose that a cheap air filter is of the same quality as a pricier one.  We quite often hear people tell us, "I can get one cheaper at the auto parts store".  I'll bet you can!  When we pull cheap air filters out of cars they are invariably falling into pieces from poor construction.  Well, again, when it is falling apart, where is all of that stuff going? Into your engine my good man!

Standard nasty cabin air filter from a 2010 Acura SUV

Here is a picture of a cabin air filter we pulled out of a car recently.  A cabin air filter is one that lies behind the glove box and filters the air coming through your vents when you turn on the heat or the air conditioning.  This one should be replaced every 15,000 miles too.  You know that fan you hear blowing all that air into your car to keep you warm or cool.  Well, when it super-heats and fails because the cabin air filter never got changed you can pin that $300 repair squarely on the musty, old congested, moldy-smelling paper filter.  The one above is standard - you should see the ones we pull out of cars!

Keep this in mind too: we don't charge any money for labor to replace engine air filters and most cars are less than $40 labor to replace cabin air filters - and this is the same for most shops.  Is it worth it? Heck yeah!