by P Sanchez
Whether it’s appliances, smartphones or automobiles, the high-end market is the proving ground of market-readiness for many technological advancements. Consumers in this segment are often first adopters and enthusiasts, willing and able to afford the expense of new technology that had not yet benefited from the economies of production scale. Remember when variable valve timing and turbos were still exotic options? Now those technologies have tricked down to the masses, seen standards even in the entry-levels of some car makes.
Today we’re looking at a few updates made to the venerable internal combustion engine as found in high-end models and luxury brands, each new tech promising better and more sophisticated performance for the everyday cars of tomorrow.
By P Sanchez
If you’re running a newer, practical-sized car like a sedan that’s less than 5 years old, it probably has a host of technologies that help it run efficiently and get the most mileage with every ounce of fuel. We’re talking about stop-start technology, complex ignition systems, advance engine management, and maybe even an electric motor to help the car move along.
But according to studies, the average car on the US road today is about 12 years old. Chances are, your car’s electronic fuel injection system is its most advance feature. But that doesn’t mean you can’t retrofit your old car with newer technology that will (in a way) make it run better.
Again, I’m not referring to any of those add-on to the engine gadgets which instantly saves you fuel and money, lower emissions and bring miles to the gallon (I’m looking at you this time fuel line magnet). Those devices have long been busted as scams.
The tech I’m recommending improve fuel economy by largely informing you, the driver, of parameters about your old car so you can respond appropriately and maintain conditions of highest driving efficiency. It sounds like a cop-out but realize that the driver has the biggest influence on the performance of his vehicle and the more informed a driver is, the better his decisions are at driving.
You can’t talk about improving gas mileage without bringing up the need to keep your tires properly inflated (like I did in my previous blog). Checking tire pressure is a straight-forward procedure: you can use a tire pressure gauge if you have one handy, use an air machine at the gas station (which is basically an air pump that can also electronically read your tire pressure), or have your trusted mechanic to check them for you.
The recommended frequency of checking your tires is once a week but if this is too often for you to do yourself (and far too often for trips to your auto mechanic) or you’re completely OCD about decreasing rolling resistance (I know I am) then installing a device that monitors your tire pressure in real time is one solution for you.
Called TPMS or tire pressure monitoring systems, they do exactly what their name suggests. Newer cars may have this tech built-in but for older cars, a number TPMS devices in the aftermarket are available. Installation is simple, the device comes with four monitors that you screw on each wheel’s air valve and a central display device that plugs in your car’s lighter socket. The monitors send the tire pressure data wirelessly to the central device and you get a real time read-out on the tire pressure of each tire.
The beauty of such a system is not just knowing when it’s time to top up on air but it also helps identifying a problem tire, like one that’s leaking faster than the rest which may need inspection or even replacement. The disadvantage of the system is: it’s another electronic device leeching-off electricity from your system, as well as another device taking-up your lighter port. But if you’re all about saving gas or saving your expensive low-profile tires and fat-rims, installing a TPMS is the way to go.
ODB connected HUD displays
Feeding-back system stats to the driver is important that’s why we have gauges on the dash. Newer cars show a host of metrics that help the driver be aware of engine performance, such as vehicle speed, engine speed, mileage of current trip, miles per gallon, how many miles are left in the tank and a plethora of other lights to warn of system issues. And if it’s a hybrid or an electric car, the dash also shows charge/discharge states, battery levels, and available range.
But middle-age cars, all you get to monitor performance with is a speedo, a tach, and the fuel gauge. So what’s wrong with a good old dashboard? Not much because they perform as they should, giving cursory info of the car’s performance at a glance. However, if you need to be mindful of your stats all the time, watching the dash becomes a dangerous driving occupation.
Enter aftermarket Heads-Up Displays or car HUDs. These are devices that are placed on top of the dash, take car performance data via connection to the ODB slot and project the data either to a small see-through glass or directly to the windshield. This means you can monitor your car’s stats without taking your eyes off the road. They can also be a smartphone app paired with an wireless ODB dongle that turns your cellphone into a projector. Aside from dashboard data, these apps allow you to project maps and driving directions too, technologies that are probably not yet baked-in to your old car.
These devices and apps have customizable displays, allowing you to choose which data you want to monitor. Most of them also have limited scantool capabilities. They won’t replace the dealer-grade scantools used in reputable auto repair shops for in-depth diagnostics, but at least they can give you a little more information to work on when you’re having car trouble, compared to the catch-all check-engine light .
If you want better gas mileage but don’t want to be bothered by a barrage of incoming data constantly reminding you to adjust your driving then this next type of device will probably fit your bill. Electronic throttle control (or throttle response control devices) work by changing your vehicles throttle response automatically.
Most of them are palm-size modules with built-in displays that have a long wiring harness to connect to the throttle’s external electronic inputs. Much like with late model cars, they provide driving mode options, like sports or economy modes with a few button pushes, and they work by retarding or advancing the throttle with respect to the gas pedal. It’s a set-and-forget affair that works. Just make sure your expectations are correct: they don’t magically improve on all fronts at the same time. Economy modes sacrifice on performance, Sport modes use more gas.
by P Sanchez
Whether it's about counting pennies with every trip at the pump, or being legitimately concerned about the environment, saving on fuel is practically on everyone’s mind. Sure, the government already has in place strict emissions laws for manufacturers to follow (which makes for ever-more fuel efficient vehicles), but you are wondering how much you can do to make the EPA of the car you already have, better.
We’re not going to talk about aftermarket gadgets and gizmos that claim will put 50 more horses for just $15 (I’m looking at you Turbo Air Intake Gas Fuel Saver Supercharger Fan) but practical tips that won’t cause you a dime but have real-world benefits.
Keep your Tire Pressure Up
A favorite tip among car experts is keeping your tire at the OEM recommended air pressure. This practice has a host of benefits, not the least improving fuel economy. According to the Department of Energy, every 1 PSI drop from the recommended tire pressure lowers the gas mileage by 0.4%.
The percentage seems trivial but consider how difficult it is to judge how under-inflated your tires are without the proper tools. A tire that’s only at 22 PSI looks almost the same as one in 32 PSI, and that’s already a 4% inefficiency on one tire.
Keeping the tire pressure right also means making your tires last longer because under-inflating or over-inflating tires will cause uneven tire wear which will shorten the tires’ service life. Additionally, since it takes more energy to move a car with under-inflated tires, this translates to undue stress to your cars’ wheel bearings, axle joints, transmission, and engine. Tires cost a few hundred dollars per piece, engine repairs a few thousands.
So remember to have your tire pressure checked once a week at your local gas station or auto repair shop (or purchase your own pressure gauge since they’re relatively inexpensive). Quick Tip: You can find the information about the recommended tire pressure for your car near the door latch of the driver-side door or under the hood.
Improve Your Aero
I don’t mean doing eco-modding extremes like grille blocking, adding wheel skirts, or constructing boat tails. Sure, those modifications work especially if you’ve got a knack with fiberglass-making and you don’t mind the odd looks but we’re talking about more practical things you can do. And when it comes to improving your car’s aerodynamics, you can do two simple things: roll-up your windows and lose the roof rack.
Wind resistance increases exponentially with vehicle speed and at over 55 miles per hour, most of your vehicle’s effort goes into overcoming the wind. At 65 mph, estimates show that wind resistance uses 90% of your car’s energy even if it’s a sleek modern sedan. An open window increases a car’s drag coefficient by 20% more so you actually save more gas keeping all your windows closed at highway speeds, even if it means using your car’s power-sapping AC.
According to fueleconomy.gov, roof racks and luggage containers cause additional drag and lower fuel economy by at least 2% in city driving and as much as 25% on the highway. In fact, any protruding part of a car that interrupts the flow of air around the vehicle will contribute to drag. These would include side-mirrors, windshield wipers, outboard radio antennae, and even spoilers (at least the ones installed for “show”). So shelf the rack until your once a year vacay.
Stop Driving Like a Maniac
The last practical tip to increase fuel economy is changing the way you drive. Experts agree that driving conservatively brings the highest improvement in fuel mileage and promotes a longer service life from your car.
It is known that rapid acceleration uses more gas than slower acceleration for the same mileage. The faster you want to overcome inertia, the more force is required, therefore more energy. It’s simple physics. In the operation of your car, this means lingering at the higher rev-range of your engine which uses a lot of gas. Rapid deceleration and braking also decrease fuel economy by wasting a lot of the fuel-fed motion to heat.
All these rapid fluctuations in vehicle speed can increase fuel consumption anywhere from 20 to 50%. Staying in the lower rev-range and getting up-to-speed through proper gearing of the transmission saves the most gas as well as coasting to a stop or slower speeds.
At slow speeds, you’re probably revving the engine too much at low gear, while at really high speeds you’re fighting against the wind. Experts say the sweet spot is keeping a consistent speed between 30 and 50 mph as much as possible.
If you’re not in a big hurry, ease off the gas pedal. Besides, how much time are you really saving overtaking cars and doing jackrabbit starts? Plan your routes, leave early and cruise the highways. Your car, as well as your wallet, will thank you for it.
By Pep Sanchez
Whether it’s engine oil, coolant, or fuel, the engine seizes to function with the loss of its fluids. That’s obvious enough. But what happens exactly? In this installment of Auto Repair Blogs, we’ll look into how an engine breaks down when fluids dry up.
Engines, being the complex machines like they are, have quite a number of adjoining components whose surfaces slip, slide, push, pull, mesh, brush, and grind against each other. Between these surface, kinetic energy is lost to heat because of friction, and no matter how much these surfaces are mirror-polished, they’re still as gritty as sandpaper at microscopic levels.
This is where lubrication like engine oil plays its importance. Oil molecules buffer between two mating surfaces and behave like microscopic ball bearings greatly reducing friction. Less friction, less wear-and-tear and also less heat generated. Engine oil also has the additional function of carrying away heat and accumulated particles that could worsen wear on parts. That’s why an engine should always be sufficiently lubricated with the right grade and right amount of oil.
How does an engine destroy itself in the absence of lubrication? Most mechanics observe initial destruction in the following areas.
One is the main bearings of the crankshaft where the piston rods are connected to. These bearings depend on having a thin film of oil between their surfaces and keep the surface from rubbing while the piston pushes the crank around at several thousands of revolutions a minute. Without oil, excessive wear and hot spots are generated on the mating surfaces, eventually leading to intense vibration and fracturing of metal parts.
Another critical area for lubrication is between the piston and cylinder walls. These are precision machined for close to perfect fit and lost of fluid will cause the surfaces to wear away to a point when the piston rings will fail to seal the cylinder for compression, or the surfaces could just melt, seizing the piston.
Valves can also get “welded” into place then properly crushed by the closing pistons. Cam lobes get scarred, drive chains snap-off, and head gasket seals broken. A car will actually run with just the residual oil left on its internal surfaces but only for a few minutes. After that, expect engine parts to get blown out of the engine in spectacular fashion.
You’re unlikely to experience unintentionally running your car with absolutely no oil but running your car with an inadequate amount of oil (like when your car excessively burns oil or has a leak) or running your car with old dirty oil (not changing your oil enough) will have the same effect in the long-term. So make sure your oil levels are up to OEM specs, change your oil regularly, and if you’re losing oil as you drive, have your car checked by a trusted auto repair shop.
Running your car with no coolant will also be detrimental to the engine (but with less spectacular effect than running with no oil). In fact, most engine management systems will allow you to run your car with low levels of coolant in “limp mode” to give you a way home or at least, to the nearest auto repair shop. In some systems, the engine is shut-off from doing further damage to itself when you’ve totally lost coolant.
But if these fail-safes are defeated or unavailable, several things can happen to an engine for continuously running it in high temperatures. Cylinder heads can get irreparably warped or the head gasket can melt, causing a vacuum or fluid leaks that will stall an engine. Lack of coolant can also cause the engine to burn its own oil, making the oil lose its lubricity and eventually causing the internal mechanical parts to fail.
If somehow the engine and its oil remain intact, the high operational heat will surely cause plastic and rubber parts to melt, like that of electrical wiring insulation, fuel injectors, and hoses. In turn, this will either cripple an engine or worst, start a fire.
There’s a lot of reason why you could lose some or all of your coolant. Your radiator can spring a leak due to corrosion or front-end collision, radiator hoses can leak or snap-off, sometimes engines can bleed coolant internally. If your car shows signs of overheating (like the temp gauge maxing-out to “H”), it’s time to have your car checked by a reliable mechanic.
Most fuel misers will recommend not filling up the tank but instead, run on low but take frequent trips to the gas station. You save on fuel by saving on weight. But this strategy risks running your car on empty. Question is: Is it bad to run your car on empty? Most mechanics will say yes, and here are the prevailing reasons why.
One, sediments will form in the gas tank over time. These could be made of impurities from using low-grade fuel, or corrosion that had developed in the inner walls of the gas tank that have dissolved in the gasoline, or microbial contamination in certain types of fuel.
There are no drain plugs or removable pans in the underside of fuel tanks and so removing accumulated sediments is a difficult procedure that’s rarely pursued. Most of these impurities settle harmlessly to the bottom of the tank and if any impurities are picked up by the fuel pump, the fuel filter does its thing to keep them out of the rest of the fuel line.
But when you run on empty, there’s a tendency for the fuel pump to siphon gas with a higher concentration of impurities. This will not only clog the fuel-filter prematurely (which would starve the engine of fuel) but increase the likelihood that impurities will get pass the filter and clog the fuel injectors.
Another risk is that most modern fuel tanks are made of durable plastic or aluminum, but if your fuel tank is made of steel, carrying low amounts of gasoline means the inside walls are bathed less on fuel, which increases the risk of corrosion to develop and therefore more impurities into the mix.
One final risk of running your car dry on fuel is damaging the fuel pump. The fuel pump is a sealed electric motor that’s cooled by the flowing gasoline it pumps. Prolonged use without its coolant may cause it to burn-out. Being sealed, it’s unlikely that a burned-out motor will start a fire but getting to the pump and replacing it, is usually a very involved and expensive ordeal.
So never run on empty. Remember that fuel is actually cheaper in the long run than the cost of repairs.
Last time we revisited two promising automobile developments from a few years back that promised great strides in fuel economy. But in spite of having sound engineering, scalable designs and even having working prototypes, neither technology made it into the mainstream.
Today we’re going to look at two more automobile technologies that have also been around for a while but only in very niche circles although we feel that these techs deserve wider adoption in the industry.
Electric superchargers (e-superchargers for short) are forced induction device similar to regular superchargers and turbochargers. But unlike a regular supercharger which is powered by the engine via belts, chains or gearing, and also unlike a turbo which is spun by exhaust, an electric supercharger is powered by an electric motor. The biggest benefit is instant boost like a supercharger without sapping power from the engine and none of the lag of turbos.
It’s part of a growing trend of electrifying most sub-systems in a car. Hydraulic systems like power steering and brakes are being replaced by actuators while peripheral systems that take power directly from the engine like the AC compressor and supercharger are getting their own electric motor. This means more of the engine’s power go into the drivetrain. And for the new kind of supercharger, getting power from a dedicated electric motor means boost availability across the whole rev-range.
The benefits of an electric supercharger are particularly compatible with small engines. As engineers are now utilizing forced induction to increase both power and efficiency of smaller displacement engines, they run into problems powering the blower with the lower pressure exhaust. Electric motor powered superchargers do get around this.
The challenge is that the current 12-volt standard is fast becoming inadequate in providing for the demand of an increasingly electrified system. 24, 36 and even 48 volt systems with ever larger battery capacities (which are common in electric and hybrid engine systems), will need to be the norm to support electrifying engine peripherals including e-superchargers.
As battery production rises and the prices of batteries continue to drop, electrified components like the e-supercharger will be the first to be standardized in regular production cars, even before hybrid engines become the norm. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Aerodynamics: Vortex Generators
In the automotive aerodynamics, car design is always a compromise between wind-cheating, engineering, safety regulations, practicality, and consumer tastes. That’s why most automobiles are shaped less like flattened tear-drop shapes and more like aggregates of rectangular boxes with rounded corners. Now you know why most new cars look alike.
Going a bit into Aero101, much of your car’s effort goes into overcoming wind resistance at higher speeds. Current auto design leaves a substantially low-pressure wake behind a vehicle as it moves ahead. Higher head-on pressures with lower back pressures around a fast moving car body mean the engine has to work harder to make the car plow through the air.
Ideally, car designers want to keep the flow of air around the car as “together” as possible, minimizing turbulence as the flow lines converge behind the vehicle and keeping the negative pressure wake as small as possible. This is a tall order considering the steep drop-offs in the trailing body lines of cars.
One way to help keep airflow together is with the use of vortex generators (VGs). These are usually small shallow fins or protrusions placed across the moving body’s surface, transverse to the airflow. They create a layer of narrow vortices on the body’s surface that has a net effect of attaching the surrounding airflow to the body shape more, lessening the turbulence created in a moving body's wake.
Vortex generation for fluid dynamics advantages have been observed in nature and the application has been long used in aeronautical wing designs. Although there has been application of vortex generation in the automotive world, they have been niche at best. Example are underbody diffusers in racing and street modification, tack-on aftermarket accessories, and modest applications with a few performance production cars.
VGs are simple designs and pose little manufacturing challenge. They can be stamped on to body panels or individually fixed on surfaces. Their improvement on the aerodynamics of vehicles - and therefore overall fuel economy - vary, but even the conservative figures put it to 11percent, a significant number.
Why are we not seeing more production cars fitted with VGs? Because they are subjectively unsightly and difficult to incorporate seamlessly in a cars overall outward design. Sadly, it’s a case of design tastes taking priority over function; a design challenge quite doable but had not been taken seriously enough.
It’s a fact that rising fuel prices, increasing concern with the environment and ever stricter emission laws heavily influences the design and development of the modern automobile.
It started in the 70's when the surge in crude oil prices started the shift of public preference from gigantic gas-guzzling land yachts (think Ford Thunderbird or Chevy Chevelle) to cheaper but more pragmatic fuel-sipping little “puddle jumpers” led by the new Japanese players like Datsun, Honda, and Toyota.
The quest for better fuel economy continued in the 80's, with domestic and import cars taking design cues from their European brethren, dropping their boxy body designs for sleeker and more aerodynamic aesthetics.
The real game changer came in the 90's as the venerable carburetor bit the dust with the widespread adoption of electronic fuel injection and computerized management system in engines. Smaller and thriftier engines started giving out more power than older engines twice the size and number of cylinders.
Advancements in the name of better fuel economy feverishly continue to this day. We see examples like turbocharging of engines with ever-shrinking displacement as well as variable valve timing approaching ubiquity. And we haven't touched on the topic of hybrids and electrics just yet.
Unfortunately, not all developments for better fuel economy took off as well as the previous examples, however promising they seemed. Today we’ll look into a few of my favorites that left me scratching my head and asking “why are we not seeing more of this technology in newer cars today?”
The Bolt-On Hybrid
Probably the technology that gives the most dramatic improvement in fuel economy is hybridization or the use of an electric motor and battery system, either to augment the internal combustion engine (ICE) or provide the main power while the ICE only backing-up when needed. This marriage provides fuel mileage far exceeding any ICE technology on its own while giving none of the range and recharging limitations of pure electrics.
However, hybrid technology is still an expensive option. Prices may not be as prohibitive as an all-electric but buying hybrid model cars easily cost twice more than their gas-only versions.
If full-on adoption of built-in electrified options are probably a decade down the road in terms of affordability, what are we to do with the cars we already have? One option is hybrid conversion.
The appeal of hybrid conversion is that you retain most of what you love about your old car: the looks, comfort, and its good old reliable gas engine, while greatly improving performance and fuel economy at a fraction of the price of buying a new car.
There are a few options available in the market like DIY conversion kits, futuristic retrofits, and commercial level upgrades. However, these options may prove to require a too involved installation process (at least for the average car owner), may have questionable reliability, too expensive, or compatible only to certain vehicle types.
But going back to our topic of promising car tech that never caught on, let me revisit an early attempt on easy and inexpensive hybridization that I thought was smart but never saw the light of day of mass adoption.
Back in 2011, the Department of Engineering Technology of Middle Tenessee State University introduced to the public a hybrid conversion technology that would fit most vehicle types promising the easiest installation I’ve seen in a hybrid retrofit kit. The "Plug-in Hybrid Conversion Kit" (as it's called) uses a flat electric motor that will fit between the wheel hub and tire rims. Basically, if you know how to change a flat tire, you can also easily slap one of these to your car. It’s powered by a battery pack that you load in the trunk and it operates without having to be electronically connected to the car’s controls.
The school apparently released a few working models and the technology got a lot of internet coverage in 2012. But plans for full production or licensing of the technology went nowhere without much explanation and news of the tech pretty much died down after 2012.
The 5-stroke Engine
Even if you’re just slightly into cars, you’ll know that most internal combustion engines are also called 4-stroke engines. So named because the pistons in the engines do four different kinds of strokes to complete a combustion cycle: intake of air and fuel, compression of the air-fuel mix, ignition and expansion (power stroke), and expulsion of the spent gasses (exhaust). Diesel engines have their own 4 stroke that works very similarly.
Even with the advancements in automotive technology, the internal combustion engine is by and large an inefficient system. Results in studies vary but the amount of energy an engine and translate to forward driving motion is just around 10 to 20%. As much as 60% of the thermodynamic energy is wasted out the exhaust.
The only technology in vehicles that scavenges waste energy from outgoing exhaust are turbochargers and the work they produce go into compression of the air prior to intake (allowing the engine to burn more fuel and produce greater power). Turbos do not directly transfer the energy they recoup to driving the crank. Turbos may allow for the efficient combustion of more fuel per cylinder volume but that’s still more fuel.
One tech developed for the internal combustion engine that greatly extends the usage of expanding gases in the engine is the 5-stroke engine. It runs the same first three stroke of a four-stroke cycle but instead of releasing the still energy-rich gas out the exhaust after the power stroke, the same gas goes into a bigger adjacent low-pressure cylinder, pushing down another piston that cranks the main shaft some more before finally spewing the gas out of the exhaust (which could still be used for turbocharging).
Current developer Ilmor Engineering has developed a working gasoline engine model as far back as 2012. Based on their testing, their 700cc turbocharged 5-stroke model has a peak power 130 bhp @ 7000 rpm, peak torque 166 Nm @ 5000 rpm, and fuel consumption of only 226 g/kWh. To compare, Fiat’s award winning TwinAir engine is a slightly larger two-cylinder at 875cc and also turbocharged. The TwinAir makes a maximum of only 85 bhp and 145 Nm @ 1900 rpm.
Granted that the Twin has the advantage of having its peak performance readily available at lower RPMs, peak performance of the Ilmor 5-stroke engine happens in a rev-range similar to any other 4-stroke gasoline engine but with comparable fuel consumption as the TwinAir. Additionally, the 5-stroke is able to perform well without having other common technical advantages like multi-valve intakes or variable valve timing.
Having an extra expansion cylinder is not new technology. In the past, steam locomotives have compound engines that have secondary and tertiary cylinders that perform the same way. A 5-stroke design is not a complex addition to current engine designs neither does it need a new manufacturing process, so as to why it has not been adopted on any vehicle make is a little beyond me.
On the next installment of this blog, will take a look at a few more seemingly practical advances in car tech that promised to improve fuel economy but are curiously relegated to niche circles or just now regarded as technological curiosities.
by Pep Sanchez
Last time, we talked about the nuances of scheduling your oil changes and the expose on the purported benefits of high-octane fuel (riveting, I know) but today, we will continue talking about a few more of car care techniques that had proven to be scandalous lies (or at least plain outdated if we have to be less dramatic about it).
Once more, let's dive in.
Warming-Up Your Engines.
Here’s a favorite: you need to warm-up your car engine before driving. So is this true? On modern gasoline cars, no it’s not needed. Understanding why this notion is prevalent, a short history lesson is in order.
Warming-up your engine is a throwback of the times when cars had carburetors. Carburetors is basically a device that allows fuel to leak into the intakes (that’s a rather clumsy shorthand explanation but you get the idea). When the engine is starting cold, fuel does not vaporize well enough in a carburetor to make for a good air-fuel mixture needed for efficient combustion.
An engine warming-up will run rich in fuel at first (via a mechanical process called choking) in order to reach a higher operating temperature and run better and smoother.
But with the advent of electronic fuel injection and advanced engine sensors measuring a plethora of variables such as ambient temperature, intake levels, air-fuel mix and exhaust oxygen levels, engines can now compensate with cold conditions when starting up, making warming-up the engine a thing of the past.
Another reason why people insist with warming-up the engine is the notion that cold engine oil needs to be heated to lower its viscosity and provide better lubricity. It also allows the engine to wash its internal with engine oil before having it do the demands of driving. Sure, you may want to give the engine a few seconds to circulate oil to its parts for initial lubrication but modern engine oil itself is stable and useful from the cold in most environments. Just make sure your engine has the correct grade oil as recommended by the OEM.
There are reasons why you would want to leave your car several minutes on idle before driving off to your destination, like warming or cooling the car interior for passenger comfort, but it's unnecessary if you’re doing it for the engine’s sake. So unless you’re driving a car that was made in the mid-90s or older (right about the time EFI became standard in gasoline-fueled cars), your car is always good to go, even from dead cold.
Another automotive car care practice still thrown about but doesn’t really hold much water nowadays is the term engine “tune-up”. It’s a catch-all maintenance term at best, and at worst, a misnomer: another throwback of the time when good ol’ cars ran on carburetor and mechanics didn’t need a degree in computer programming (that last bit is a stretch but I’ll get to my point).
Back in the day, the variables of a car’s normal operation, such as idle speed, ignition timing, air-fuel ratio, were all governed by mechanical systems. These often need periodic manual adjustments by a mechanic to ensure that the engine would run most efficiently.
But in the modern car, all these variables are monitored and controlled by computer systems. Also called electronic engine management system, this comprises of a multitude of sensors for monitoring operating aspects of an engine, a central control module which interprets the data and makes hundreds of split-second adjustments via an array of actuators in the engine. Examples of parts controlled via actuators are the fuel injectors of the fuel system which pretty much replaced the carburetor in the modern engine.
This means a modern engine tunes itself to run optimally every time, all the time. So if a tune-up is an antiquated procedure, what do people (and sometimes even mechanics) recommend it for your modern car?
Going for a “tune-up” now means having the physical parts of your engine checked for wear-and-tear. It may include having your spark-plugs or fan-belts inspected for wear, electrical wiring and battery condition tested, and if your auto repair shop really cares for your car and personal well-being, brakes, window fluid and wipers, tire condition and other basic safety features would be all checked as a standard procedure.
So the next time your mechanic or local auto repair shop advise that your car needs a tune-up, see what they exactly mean by it just to make sure they know what they’re talking about.
by Pep Sanchez
If you were asked how much water should you drink in a day, the answer would be fast and easy: eight. Or more accurately, eight of 8-ounce glass. Most folks take the “8x8” as fact, or at least reasonable. I mean, wasn’t this a recommendation of the Surgeon General sometime before?
(I’ll get to the car talk so bear with me)
But most nutritionist nowadays will say differently. Without going too much on the science details, minimum hydration will depend on a lot of factors, like your weight, lifestyle, activity level, even the climate where you live.
The point is: life is full of these factoids: assumptions or speculations that are reported and repeated so often that they have become accepted as fact and the automotive world has its own share of these.
(I'm talking about cars now, like promised)
Today we will look into a few popular car care tips, practices and beliefs, see how they became commonplace. and bust them with the truth! (or just know that they need to be taken with a grain of salt).
Part 1 will deal with two of the most common car maintenance topics that all car owners deal with.
Part 2, will cover two other car maintenance terms that made sense decades before but are still in used now.
Let’s dive in to Part 1
The Oil Change.
Most experts say that if there is one engine maintenance job car owners should not neglect to do is changing the oil. Engine oil provides lubricity, absorbs and carry away excess heat, and remove impurities within the engine. But engine oil, no matter how good (whether conventional or synthetic), will eventually get too dirty or cooked, at which point it will start to lose much of its desirable properties.
So how often should you change the oil? Easy again, just follow what's in the service manual of your vehicle. The period of time or number of miles that will mark the time you should do the task will vary with each make and model but it's always spelled out in the owner’s instructions.
But if the engineers have figured it all out and you should take OEM recommendations like gospel, where’s the fallacy there? Well, there’s some wiggle room for interpretation.
Engineers base their recommendations using driving averages. This means that the frequency of your oil change will also depend on your driving, your car and your driving situation, and there will be situations when you'll need to change the oil more frequently, or cases when you'll still be forgiven for a delayed oil change.
If you have an older car model, do almost exclusively city-driving (because the frequent starts and stops stress the engine more), red-line your rpm a lot, have a more complex engine system (like turbocharging or direct injections), or there’s a known long-term reliability issue with your car brand’s engine, -- then you’ll certainly need to do oil changes sooner and more often than recommended in order to extend the service life of your engine
Conversely, if you have a newer car model (especially of a reputable brand in terms of long-term reliability), or you get most of your mileage driving on the freeway (or maybe just the opposite of hardly putting miles at all), or if you are a very conservative driver -- then a larger interval than factory spec won’t do your car harm, at least not in the short term. Following OEM bare minimums is still recommended but all I’m saying is that don’t lose sleep if you found out you missed your scheduled oil change by a few months.
Last point on oil change, engine oil and having your local auto repair shop change your oil is a lot cheaper and more convenient than having your engine repaired, rebuilt or replaced. If you can afford it, change your oil a little more often than required. Your engine will thank you for it.
Premium vs Regular
Does your car need premium gas to run properly? Does premium gas provide better performance benefits over regular gas? Most car owners would think so and we can thank years of effective marketing from our big-name gasoline brands for that.
We’ve heard about the “high-octane engine performance” that premium fuel purportedly brings but what is it all about? A quick talk on what octane rating is in order.
Without going too science-y again: the higher the octane, the more resistant the fuel is to self-ignition when subjected to high compression. This is because a higher compression ratio makes for a hotter air-fuel mix. An air-fuel mixture that prematurely ignites in the cylinders (even before the spark plugs get the chance to ignite the mix) is called a “knock” and it can break an engine. So higher octane fuel is usually recommended for turbocharged or supercharged engines. These systems would need higher octane fuel to achieve their best performance and avoid self-destruction.
On the other hand, numerous third-party tests and even the Department of Energy have repeatedly shown that higher-octane fuel used in engines designed for lower-octane regular fuel (like the naturally-aspirated engines found in most passenger cars) do not bring any perceivable performance enhancements. At best, you’re only throwing money away getting the more expensive premium gasoline. At worst, using the less-flammable fuel would not only reduce performance but some expert also suggest that the unburnt fuel could trickle into the engine oil, diluting the oil, and over time, make the oil less effective. In turn, this would lead to premature wear-and-tear of the engine.
The best fuel-grade for your car is still whatever is recommended by the OEM.
Tomorrow, we’ll shed some light on a few more car care practices that may very well be auto repair and maintenance faux-pas.
Whether it is for maintenance or repair, taking your vehicle to an auto repair shop is an inevitable occurrence for a car owner. If you’re a first-time car owner or you’re new to a place, finding a shop where you can entrust your most prized possession may seem to be a daunting - if not stressful - affair.
More than likely, you seldom think about the inner workings of the modern car, let alone understand them. So when things about your car go bad, you become dependent on a mechanic’s “expertise” for diagnosis and repair. You worry because you want to find someone who not only knows what he’s doing but somebody who is also a true professional that would not take advantage of your plight, or your mechanical ignorance.
To help you with your search, here are 5 of the most common things to look for when finding an independent auto repair service that you can trust.
1. Word of Mouth
You have to do your research beforehand, long before you would actually need the services of a mechanic. Word of mouth is perhaps the best way to find a good place that services cars and also a great way of knowing which places to avoid. Do family and friends have personal recommendations? Would your close circle have a suggestion particularly to the make of your car (some repair shops have brand or vehicle type specialization)? When it comes to determining the right place to go, nothing beats the actual experience of others.
2. Online Presence
An auto repair service having a good amount of online presence give discerning customer two valuable information. First, having a website or a business account in social media shows that a company is up-to-speed with the latest. This is an indicator of their attitude towards technology not just for marketing but more importantly, the latest in in automotive technologies, diagnostics, and repair methods.
Second, having an online feature helps customers determine credibility whether its reviews from other customers or ratings from regulating groups. Though nothing beats the depth and weight of personal recommendations from people you know based on their real-life experience, but information online does help.
3. Certification and Associations
A mechanic and shop should be certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. Having ASE certification shows that a car repair service and personnel has the necessary technical expertise needed to perform their services.
Other memberships that show professionalism and good services are: accreditation or at least, listing on the Better Business Bureau (bbb.org) with accompanying good ratings; AAA-Approved Auto Repair status; membership with the Automotive Service Association; and local community service awards and recognition.
4. Ocular Inspection
In finding the right place for getting your car fixed, most experts will also recommend doing a site inspection of the place of repair. Whether it’s a small garage or vast shop, you’re looking for organization in the operation. Equipment are well-maintained, tools and supplies organized, evident work-stations and workflows in place, even the shop floor should look reasonably clean in spite of constant repairs of leaky cars. Again you’re not just looking for experts but also professionals who take pride in their work and their work-space.
5. Building Customer Relationships
Another pro-tip in determining a good auto repair shop is having a simpler service done to your car (like an oil change for example). This is to test the water. Not only will the small-job give you an opportunity to check the premise and maybe even talk to other customers for feedback, but it will also give you a first-hand experience on how the service treats its cars and customers.
You want a car repair service that values building customer relationships. This is an important aspect of any business and there are many ways to tell this with an auto repair service. For example, a good repair shop helps with the education about auto repair particularly with helping clients understand how an issue was found and why a certain repair procedure is needed. A good auto repair service also gives good advice to clients in order to help them decide if a certain repair procedure is worthwhile especially if it might prove costlier than the value of the car. Receiving a warm, friendly, assuring and accommodating attitude from the shop’s personnel is also a strong point.
Maintaining good customer relationship is more than a gesture of goodwill or an appreciation of bringing your business to them. Equipment, expertise, and experience get the job done in the first place but by also treating the customers right, trust, reliability and reputation are realized.
If your brand new car is of a fairly reputable brand in terms of reliability, is driven conservatively enough (no burn-outs or impromptu drag races at the stop light), and required maintenance is done to it as prescribed by the manufacturer (such as changing the engine oil periodically), then you should enjoy a trouble-free service life from your vehicle up to hundred thousand miles of use, perhaps even more.
Beyond that, expect symptoms of wear and tear to begin to rear its ugly head. Some of these symptoms are not bad enough to trigger warning lights on your dash (at least not yet) but left unattended, they could lead to bigger issues. The secret to prolonging the service life of your vehicle is spotting these trouble signs early on and having a professional attend to them right away before the trouble becomes too costly to fix.
Here are 5 of the most common symptoms that should tell vehicle owners that it’s time to see the car doctor (a.k.a. your trusted auto mechanic.)
1. (Not) Getting It Going
Performance issues come with age and it’s true with cars too. As the miles pile up, your car will perform less than it used to. You’ll notice an increasing sluggishness with the acceleration, a delayed response with gear shifting (particularly with automatics), or an increasing frequency with the visits at the pump.
Unfortunately, there’s no blue pill that can magically return the original vigor of your car. There are a lot of possible reasons why performance slowly goes down the drain. Piston seals can wear out making it difficult for cylinders to do compressions. Fuel pumps can start to fail or clutch bands in the tranny can start to slip. The list goes on.
But more often than not, decreasing power or increasing fuel consumption is caused by the engine internals needing some “spring cleaning”. Filters and sensors can get dirty, sludge can accumulate in the oil pan, spark plugs can get worn and burnt. These are issues that are easy to address, even a technical novice can find the information on how to DIY these particular maintenance jobs.
But why get your hands dirty when you can have your local auto repair shop do it for you for not a lot of money. Plus, any underlying issues can be uncovered when pros do their diagnostics, that is if your auto repair shop is a well-equipped and its mechanics well-trained.
2. Spotting Spots
Starting to see oily spots and puddles on your driveway where your car is parked? Save from the condensation drips from your AC (which is normal) your car may have sprung a leak.
Now oil (or in the case of the radiator, coolant) is like the lifeblood of the car: it permeates most of its major system. Engine oil flows through its internal parts, keeping the piston, crank and cams lubed, and transmission fluid keeps your gearbox from wearing out prematurely. Most power steering and braking systems are hydraulic in design and use specialized oil-based fluids for actuation. Even shock absorbers use an internal fluid to dampen the suspension system.
But with time, seals, rubber tubing and plastic parts grow brittle, metal fittings corrode, and oil can start seeping through the cracks. The amount of fluid lost may seem trivial at first, you could still drive your car with seemingly minimal impact in performance. However, things can only turn for the worst and a significant loss of fluid from any of these systems will eventually lead to catastrophic failure in the long term. And in the case of the brake system, any amount of leakage can prove fatal.
The challenge is spotting where the leak is coming from. Most car underbodies and the surfaces of the engine are dark, dirty and often greasy to begin with, and parts are often in cramped spaces that are hard to access and inspect. To do the job, you would need special UV dyes and vision equipment to pinpoint the leak, electronic diagnostics tools to check the extent of the issue, specialised tools to work on special parts, as well as heavy lifting equipment to raise the car in order to do the underbody visual checks and necessary repairs.
In short, it’s best to have your car checked at your nearest auto repair which should be fully equipped to handle any type of automobile inspection, as soon as you spot fluid leakage.
3. Shake, Rattle, and Roll
Remember the time when your car operated smoothly, compliant to your slightest command on the steering, with the whole vehicle behaving like an extension to your body? Now that you’ve racked up the miles, your car seems to have developed a driving personality of its own, less subservient and increasingly ill-tempered.
If your car develops shaking and rattling at the wheel or body, whether you’re just taking off from a dead stop, rolling down the freeway, or when braking, don’t call your exorcist just yet. More likely than an errant spirit commandeering your car like a rental, there are more earthly reasons why your car is exhibiting a less than desirable temperament.
Rough idling and shaky acceleration are often caused by something off in the cycling of your motor. It could be a sign of bad spark plugs, clogged injectors or your engine developing a vacuum leak. If the vibration happens at higher speeds, an unbalanced wheel is a likely suspect. Does the car have a tendency to veer off to one side even if you’re keeping the steering wheel straight? Your suspension alignment could be off. And when shuddering happens when braking, your brakes pad may have worn unevenly or worst, your rotors have warped.
Whatever the case is, whether your car exhibits rattling, shaking, wobbly movements or other kinds of vibration, take it as vibes to get help. Get your car checked by a reputable auto repair shop. Well trained and experienced shop mechanics can pinpoint and repair whatever ails your car.
4. Squeak and Squeal
If you start hearing squeaking, squealing and squawking from in and around the car, getting pest control for inspection is an understandable mistake. Sure, critters could have made your engine bay a nice warm home for the winter but a likelier suspect is your car showing its age.
Some of the noises that creep-up are from body panels coming disjointed or misaligned, with parts and surfaces scraping, grating and rasping. Obnoxious, yes but not necessarily something that would break your car. Unless the noises are coming from more critical systems of your car.
Squeaking on uneven roads may indicate that the shock absorbers could be shot. Pronounced chugging sounds from the engine could be a sound of cylinder misfires. Clacking sounds that get faster with speed indicate possible problems with the axle joints and grinding sound from the transmission should be a serious concern too.
The challenge really is isolating where the undesirable sounds are coming from and determining the cause. Some of these odd noises can even bewilder average mechanics. So a thorough inspection by expert automotive technicians using latest electronic diagnostics equipment and years of practical experience is needed to determine what these noises really mean, whether if it’s something that needs to be immediately addressed or something that you can live with for a while.
5. You Smell That?
Any burnt smell in the interior should raise the alarm. It could be electrical shorts happening or the AC motor burning out. Either way, these are fire risks and its best to get your car towed for repair.
A burnt smell from the underbody could mean clutch trouble. A botched clutch may need replacement and although replacement parts could be cheap, getting to the clutch assembly is a very involved process, thereby an expensive ordeal.
The smell of your car’s exhaust fumes is another way to gauge your engine’s health. A gasoline engine on idle will smell almost odorless. If the exhaust smells too much of gasoline then your engine is running rich and not burning fuel efficiently. Or fumes could smell like burning oil which means engine oil is leaking in the cylinders. Again, these are signs of an unhealthy engine that needs attention from a trusted mechanic.
Signs of looming car trouble can hit any of your senses. If you think something is not right with your car, odds are something isn’t. But the best way to tell for sure is taking your car to a trusted auto repair shop and having a professional ASE certified mechanic check it out. As the old automotive adage says, an ounce of preventive maintenance is better than a ton of repairs.