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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

June 2000

llustration © Rich Malone
Talk the talk if you don't want to walk. Use this handy log
to track car repairs, remember routine maintenance,
and clue in your auto repair technician.

Illustrations by Rich Malone

Table of Contents
How to order printed copies

Drive your investment

New brakes for your 1995 car: $200. Catalytic converter: $250. Driving a safe, low polluting, well-maintained set of wheels – priceless.

For many people, the expense of buying a car and keeping it in working order is second only to the investment they may make in purchasing a house.

As with any investment, you can make wise or foolish choices. A well-maintained car is a good investment: It costs less to operate. It puts out less harmful pollution from the tailpipe, and it will usually have a higher resale value.

Neglecting routine maintenance increases your operating costs, and you will pay more later for the maintenance you could have done today. What's more, a poorly maintained beater is more harmful to the environment and shortens the useful life of the car. For example:

  • The average car travels about 12,000 miles per year. If a well-maintained car gets 25 miles per gallon, a neglected car may only get 20 miles per gallon. The maintained car would use about 120 gallons less fuel. At $1.50 per gallon, the owner of maintained car saves about $180 a year in fuel costs alone. And burning less fuel also means less pollution.
  • Most manufacturers recommend changing oil about every three months or 3,000 miles under normal circumstances. If the average cost of an oil change is $25, you'd spend about $100 a year protecting your car against excessive engine wear. Choose not to spend the $100, and the likelihood of major engine problems increases. Cost to repair those? Anywhere between $500 and $1,000. What's easier on your wallet, coming up with $25 every three months or shelling out $1,000 at one time?
Illustration © Rich Malone

Every auto manufacturer suggests a maintenance schedule in the owner's manual. Following that schedule is really pretty simple, and regular "check-ups" will keep your car expenses and your money under control.

Table of Contents

No smoke, no choke

If you drive, you have the power to stop people from having asthma attacks – sort of. Cars dirty up the air with several types of pollution that worsen asthma.

If you keep your car tuned-up, it produces less pollution, and that helps clean up the air.

In Wisconsin, the two biggest auto-related air pollutants are ground-level ozone (smog) and particulate matter. Both attack people's respiratory systems and can trigger asthma attacks.

Even people who don't have asthma are susceptible to air pollutants, especially older people, young children (kids breathe more air than adults do in relation to their body weight), and people who work or exercise outdoors. Human health isn't the only issue – these pollutants hurt plants, animals and entire ecosystems.

Ground-level ozone forms when fumes from cars, paint, factories, lawn mowers, boats, and other sources sizzle in the hot summer sun. Two kinds of chemicals make up ground-level ozone: NOx, or nitrogen oxides (combinations of nitrogen and oxygen) and VOCs, or volatile organic compounds – hydrocarbons of hydrogen and carbon created mostly by cars, other engines, and industries that burn fossil fuels for heat or electricity, such as a coal-burning power plant.

Illustration © Rich Malone

Naturally-occurring ozone in the stratosphere (the layer of the atmosphere six to 20 miles above the Earth) protects us from harmful UV (ultraviolet) radiation. But when ozone forms unnaturally down below in our breathing space, it stops protecting and starts causing damage. Ozone will break down rubber, plant tissue and lung tissue.

Burning any fuel – gas in a car, diesel in a truck, leaves in a pile or garbage in a barrel – releases sooty particles. The particles can be large or small, some so small that they are invisible to the naked eye. When you breathe in these fine particles, they clog your lungs. The smaller the particle, the more harmful it is because it can creep deeper into your lungs.

Two other auto emissions worth mentioning are carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO). Burning gasoline, wood or oil produces CO2. Incomplete combustion produces CO as well. Both are greenhouse gases, which means they contribute to global warming. Carbon monoxide is also a deadly poison.

So keep your vehicle in tune, because air pollution doesn't stay where it's formed. It drifts over other towns and regions, even blows into other countries. Air pollution is everybody's problem.

Burn it right
Seeing a dentist on a regular schedule can prevent small cavities from developing into more serious problems. It works the same way for your car. By regularly checking your car's fuel economy, you can often uncover small problems before they become major repairs. Another good way to check your car's health is to have an emission test. In southeast Wisconsin, these checks are required once every two years.

IIllustration © Rich Malone


On older cars, the Wisconsin emission test directly measures the amounts of hydrocarbon (HC), carbon monoxide (CO), and nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the car's exhaust. Newer cars rely on a computer scan of the car's on-board computer to determine similar results. The pollutants measured are compared to the amounts that a "clean" car of similar age would be expected to produce. Cars that fail emission tests are wasting fuel and emitting more harmful pollutants. Cars that pass the test are burning fuel efficiently and emitting fewer harmful pollutants.

An emission test may also include checking the gas cap to make sure it seals properly and keeps gasoline vapors in the tank where fumes can be used, not wasted.

See the light

Blink. Hey! Your car is talking to you. The light on your dashboard may say "check engine," or "service engine soon," but it's your car's way of telling you something is wrong.

Cars built since 1986 have been equipped with on-board computers ("on-board diagnostic" or "OBD" systems) designed to alert you to the first sign of trouble.

OBD systems monitor your vehicle's operation and performance, and give you advance warning to perform maintenance.

Sometimes the warning light (called the MIL – Malfunction Indicator Lamp) comes on for something simple, like a loose gas cap.

Still, any time this warning light comes on, seek professional help. don't wait for your normal maintenance time. If the MIL light comes on, see a qualified mechanic or service technician NOW.

Brain on board

Today's cars are factory-equipped with computer systems that have more intelligence than the spacecraft NASA sent to the moon. From 1986 to 1995, cars were equipped with first-generation on-board diagnostic (OBD-1) systems. Since 1996, cars have been equipped with second-generation OBD-2 systems. Due to several key changes between OBD-1 and OBD-2, today's technician must be specifically trained and equipped for OBD-2 technology to avoid potential costly errors in diagnosing your car's trouble codes and making appropriate repairs.

Like a high-tech nervous system, an OBD-2 system is a complex network of sensors and controllers that continually monitors operation and performance to keep your car running cleanly and efficiently. When the "check engine" or warning light (also called a MIL, or Malfunction Indicator Lamp) on your dashboard comes on, your car's central computer records an internal diagnostic trouble code, or DTC.

Illustration © Rich Malone

The DTC gives a properly trained technician a starting point to begin further testing to diagnose, pinpoint and repair the root cause of the malfunction. There's a modern-day myth among consumers that all a technician needs to do to find a car problem is to plug into the computer. This is miles from reality!

The diagnostic code is only the first step in the process. To extract the code, a technician must attach an OBD-2 scan tool to a data link connector, which is usually mounted on the bottom of the dashboard to the left of the steering column. Beginning January 1, 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has mandated OBD-2 scan testing for all vehicles made after 1996 in all areas across the nation that have an emissions testing program.

Know your techmeister

Small backyard or "shade-tree mechanics" have become a fading image of our automotive past. To effectively service and repair today's high-tech cars, the professional automotive technician must have training and experience in a diverse range of subjects including mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, electronics, chemistry, physics, metallurgy, plumbing, safety engineering, welding and metal fabricating, lubricating and hazardous waste handling.

Today's automotive technician is likely to offer specialized services. Some common automotive specialty areas include:

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  • Emissions diagnosis and repairs
  • Electronic (computer-related) repairs
  • Electrical repair
  • Brakes
  • Exhaust
  • Wheel alignment
  • Engine repair & replacement
  • Transmission repair & replacement
  • Interior repairs
  • Body repairs

Depending on the problem, it makes good sense to choose your auto technician according to his or her specialty. So, for an auto emission problem, visit an emissions specialist. A professional automotive emissions systems specialist will have:

  • Special tools, including an exhaust gas analyzer, a lab-scope, an OBD-2 scan tool and an engine analyzer.

  • Certificates from continuing education courses to stay current with changing technology. Technicians unaware of the recent changes between OBD-1 and OBD-2 technology can cause unnecessary, frustrating, and often expensive errors.

  • Professional certification in emissions repair by ASE (The National Institution for Automotive Service Excellence) with an "L1" ranking. ASE provides automotive repair technicians with a system for professional certification in a variety of automotive applications. ASE-certified technicians must take intense, thorough written exams that test their proficiencies in specific areas. Auto technicians are not required to have ASE certification. However, the time and effort it takes to become ASE certified provides an excellent gauge to measure the professional qualifications and dedication of an automotive technician. ASE Master Technicians are certified in all of the general automotive repair categories. A properly equipped, ASE L1-certified technician is a wise choice for automotive emissions diagnosis and repair.

Do the routine

Certain items on your car are going to need regular replacement no matter how careful you are. Brakes wear out. So do tires, exhaust systems and lights. Although there is no way to avoid these expenses, you should inspect the items that can wear while your car receives regular maintenance.

You don't need to change all the light bulbs in your car every four years, but you should probably change both headlights when one burns out. It's also a lot easier on your wallet to stagger replacement of those items that will wear out.

Use the seasons as a guide. For example, have your air conditioning system serviced in the spring, and have your engine coolant serviced in the fall.

Maybe you've just purchased a used car. It's in good condition, and you bought it for a fair price. You've taken it to your repair technician, who checks it thoroughly and pulls out a laundry list of suggested repairs. You can't afford to do them all at once. So how do you choose which ones to do first?

Illustration © Rich Malone

If you've asked the right questions, this shouldn't be a problem. A qualified technician will be more than willing to work with you to develop a repair plan that meets your budget and will help you rank which repairs truly need to be made first.

At the top of any list are items directly related to your safety and the safety of those who share the road with you. don't put off these repairs until later. Someone whose car has bad brakes, but has decided to fix them "in a few months" is the last person you would want behind you on the freeway during rush hour. Other safety related items include:

  • Steering, tires and suspension – for safe handling
  • Exhaust system and emissions equipment – for your health and everyone else's
  • Headlights, taillights, and warning lights – so you can be seen and see others
  • Car horn – so others can hear you
  • Windshield wipers and washer – so you can see where you're going
  • Rear-view mirrors – so you can see where you've been

Many repairs can be done more economically if they are done in combination. Grouping certain repairs saves extra labor costs that would come from doing them separately. For example:

  • When replacing a clutch, replace the "throw-out bearing"; while the transmission is removed.
  • When replacing a radiator hose, replace both hoses.
  • When replacing a water pump, replace the thermostat and hoses also.
  • When replacing an "inner" belt, replace the "outer" belt(s) also.

Finally, there are some repairs that could be saved until later and combined with another repair:

  • A transmission fluid and filter change can be combined with an oil change.
  • Worn (but not broken) shock absorber replacement can be combined with a brake job.
  • Marginally worn chassis parts can be replaced when CV boots or front struts are repaired.
  • Always schedule a wheel alignment when you replace your car's tires. The car is used to "tracking" on the old worn tires, and proper alignment is needed to correct the change.

Exchange face data

A good automotive technician appreciates a good customer. You play an important role in quality repair. Providing more complete information means your technician will have an easier time diagnosing the problem and repairing it economically. Quality repairs result from effective communication:

  • Listen (really listen) to your car.
  • Keep track of your maintenance.

Explain problems clearly to the repair technician. Helpful information for your technician may include:

  • What specifically is your car doing?
  • Does it only happen first thing in the morning, or does it happen all day long?
  • Is the outside temperature hot or cold when it happens?
  • Does it happen at specific speeds?
  • Is your car leaking any fluid? What color is the fluid if it is leaking?
  • Is the "check engine" light on?
  • When was your car's last emission test? Did it pass?
  • What was your car's last repair? When was it done?
  • Has your car been overheating easily?
  • Have you noticed any problem with your car's exterior lights?
  • Have you noticed any problem with your car's interior lights or accessories?
  • Were any non-original equipment accessories recently installed?
  • When you brake or coast do you hear any unusual noise?
  • Do you hear any unusual noise when you are in park, in gear, or in neutral?
  • Do you hear any unusual noise when you turn a corner? Right or Left?

Make sure the technician listens to your complaints and understands what you want. Ask questions about:

  • The diagnostic procedure used to determine the cause of the failure.
  • What can be done to prevent the problem from recurring.
  • The parts necessary for the recommended treatment.
  • The usual durability of the recommended repair
  • The warranty on the parts and the repair.

Finally, listen to the treatment that the technician recommends, and follow through. With effective communication between you and your technician, your car will have fewer emissions, operate more economically, and have a long useful life.

Scribe it!

Your car provides great freedom and great enjoyment, but you need to be prepared when it needs repair. As you've read here, the process is pretty easy if you've kept good records. Print out this sample log, follow the basic steps to fill it out as necessary, and keep it in your car. Voila! You'll have a record readily available.

To order printed copies of the complete Auto Log, e-mail DNR Air Education requesting publication number CE-271. Include your name, address (no PO box please) and number of copies desired.