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Make sure you cover all your bases when performing vehicle inspections in your shop.
Thursday, January 1, 2009 - 01:00

Make sure you cover all your bases when performing vehicle inspections in your shop.

undercar repair shop maintenance inspections vehicle inspections safety inspections automotive aftermarket

Shops generally get involved in three types of vehicle inspections: emissions (I/M) inspections, state-mandated safety inspections and customer requested inspections. All three types of inspections share some common elements, and all three should benefit both the customer and the shop.

Consider a wheels-off brake inspection. Aside from moving in the direction it's steered, stopping when the brakes are applied is arguably the most important thing a car does. A brake inspection may be customer requested because of a squeal, brake pull or poor braking performance, or it may be part of a state mandated safety inspection. There's going to be little difference in the inspection performed regardless.

Compare that to a cooling system inspection. A driver preparing for winter or headed out on a long trip might want to make sure their cooling system is up to par. Checking the coolant level, condition and visually inspecting the system may be all that's needed for a customer not experiencing any problems. But if they've come in because of an overheating situation, your inspection might include checking the on/off temperatures of fans, checking the coolant (block test) for combustion gasses, pressure testing the cooling system and cap, and so forth. A safety inspection might not even consider the cooling system.

Customers frequently bring vehicles in for pre-purchase inspections. They can have multiple motives for doing so. One is to avoid buying someone else's problems. Another is to gain information for negotiation purposes. A vehicle with a very minor oil drip may not be worth replacing the rear main seal on. However, it's worth less than a vehicle that doesn't drip any oil at all. Any fluid leakage should be noted on the inspection form. Dirty fluids might indicate a vehicle that hasn't been properly maintained. Low fluid levels generally point to more serious problems. Too-high fluid levels suggest a former owner may have been "topping up," perhaps because of a leak.

Giving them bang for the buck

Experience counts when it comes to inspecting wheel bearings, ball joints, tie rod ends and other suspension components. It's best to compare play in suspension components to manufacturer's specs, using their recommended procedure. If no specification is listed, use the MAP (Motorist Assurance Program) guidelines to assure your customer's satisfaction. You can find out more about MAP at http://www.motorist.org.

Write down the spec and what was measured on the repair order and/or inspection form. Front ends are inspected either for safety reasons or as a result of customer complaints, like pulling or clunks. With today's cars lasting longer and longer, more and more vehicles come in with worn out front end components.

Giving your customer the most bang for their inspection dollar ranks right up there with using inspections to generate upsells. A very important inspection step is observing the MIL (Malfunction Indicator Lamp) illumination during bulb check. A disconnected MIL could cause a tech to miss codes indicating emissions or other problems with the vehicle. Not many techs are going to check codes unless they spot an illuminated MIL, which won't happen if it's been disconnected or the bulb has failed. Similarly, engagement of a vehicle's four-wheel drive system is very important; an inoperative one could pose a major expense for a customer buying a used vehicle. By comparison a burned out taillight or turn light is critical for a safety inspection, but a relatively minor item for a pre-purchase inspection. Even so, if missed, the customer is going to wonder "What else was missed?"

Visual inspection is an imperfect art, and customers should be reminded of that. A part that is about to fail might look identical to one that is healthy. There is no way a crack in a ball joint stud, covered by grease and a boot is going to reveal itself in a visual inspection. Even so, Zerk fittings that don't appear to have ever been greased may give a hint of the cars maintenance, or lack thereof. Other information, like a CARFAX printout, could reveal additional information about the vehicle's history. Body repair work, sometimes only visible from underneath, should be pointed out to a prospective buyer, as well as any recalls or campaigns showing up for the vehicle.

The test drive is perhaps the single most valuable piece of the customer requested inspection. Pulling brakes, lack of power, vibrations and all sorts of other problems will reveal themselves on a suitably comprehensive test drive. Techs drive enough cars to recognize problems quickly, problems an over-eager buyer may overlook. Today's crowded roads make it ever harder to do things like an ABS stop from 60 mph, but hard accelerations and braking will reveal issues gentler driving often won't. While getting to a suitable stretch of road, the tech can play with the wipers, heater, AC, power windows, locks and other systems while watching gauges, listening for noises and, hopefully, keeping his eyes on the road as well.

Checking it twice

Emissions I/M (Inspection and Maintenance) tailpipe testing is quickly going away in favor of OBD testing by states concerned with emissions. If a vehicle can complete all its monitors, it's unlikely to be doing much polluting. Built-in monitors keep an eye on the operation of the catalytic converter, and those systems that would impact emissions, either at the tailpipe or by direct loss through the fuel tank and lines (the evaporative emissions system). Following state guidelines is mandatory.

Battery and charging system tests are unlikely to appear on state safety inspections, (although missing hold-downs are a failure item in some states) but should be an included test on consumer-requested inspections. Batteries often fail with the coming of winter, and load testing will quickly spot a battery with diminished capacity. Catching a weak battery before it fails is almost always a benefit to the customer, who then won't find themselves stranded when it gives up the ghost or buying a new alternator damaged by the defective battery.

Key to all vehicle inspections is the checklist. You may be working off a state supplied safety checklist, an AAA inspection form or something you downloaded off the Internet and modified to your own purposes. No list is perfect. Some items are pretty humorous, such as Pennsylvania's prohibition on frame repairs made "...with tape, tar paper or cloth." Duct tape may be verboten, but tin, bailing wire and balsa wood apparently are not! Another source of information inspection is the OEM itself, which may or may not include inspection items in the vehicle owner's manual.

Customers vary greatly in their desire to perform preventative maintenance indicated by an inspection. Torn boots on ball joints, tie rods and CVs all lead to the eventual destruction of these components. Brake linings may be above minimums when inspected, but you know professionally that there may be only a few thousand miles left before they go below that minimum. Be sure to make notes of these items and advise your customer accordingly.

Should a tech go ahead and lube chassis grease fittings while performing inspections? How about topping off underhood fluids? This depends on the shop's policy, how inspections are charged, as well as the customer's preferences. Some shops adopt a "no tools" approach to inspections while others routinely top off fluids as a customer service. If you do add to these fluids, make sure you tell your customer you did so. After all, most fluid levels don't drop unless something is leaking, and a recheck in a week or so may earn you a new customer.

Upsells should be based on actual need, both current and near future. Review the inspection with your customer to not only educate him or her, but to show that you have their best interest at heart. If shop policy allows, take the customer back to their car and show them what you found. A rusty, OEM fuel filter on a 60K-plus mileage car is a no-brainer. Cracked serpentine belts will eventually leave a motorist stranded, as can mushy or rock-hard coolant hoses. Dirty air filters shorten the life of a motor. Don't forget to check the windshield wiper blades. They may not carry much profit but a customer will relish having a clean windshield on the next rainy day, instead of a streaked, unsafe one. Little things matter.

Among upsells, timing belt replacement is probably the most profitable. If the odometer mileage indicates a required change is near, add it to your inspection list. An interference engine gets ruined when a T-belt lets go. Shops often apply a sticker when replacing a T-belt, but sometimes don't, leaving a consumer completely in the dark as to its condition on a used vehicle. Consumers need to be made fully aware of what is, or isn't known about the T-belt on their car, and the potential financial impact of a failure.

An issue for any shop is performing inspections efficiently. Group tasks together to save time and effort: all underhood items as one group, all under car as another, test drive items as a third, just to give you an idea. Some items are not going to be checked in an inspection unless specifically requested by a customer. An example is engine vacuum and/or compression. A test drive can give an experienced tech a pretty good idea of engine condition, along with how easily it starts, how smooth it idles and so forth.

So what happens when a shop gives a vehicle a pre-purchase inspection, and a month after purchase the clutch begins slipping or the transmission fails? This is where hand-written notes on the ticket can save you and your reputation. Was the level and condition of the transmission fluid checked? Were any noises heard during the test drive or shifting irregularities? Were any leaks spotted on the transmission or clutch cylinders? The best an inspection can do is to give a general indication of the condition of a car at the time of inspection. Has it been maintained or neglected? Are there any obvious problems – or hints of problems? For example, after Hurricane Katrina, shops needed to be on the lookout for cars previously submerged.

Getting unsafe clunkers and gross polluters off the roads is the goal of state mandated inspection programs. Yet, the Internet is full of stories of vehicle owners with generally safe, non-polluting cars, who have ended up in grudge matches with state agencies over minor items like lowering a sports car for better handling. Today, there are extremely few items a consumer can install or remove on their car to improve its mileage or performance. An aftermarket "low restriction" air filter may not trigger an inspection failure, while "chipping" almost guarantees one. Unlike the early days of emissions controls, removing air pumps, disabling EGR or removing a cat isn't nearly as common.

Whether its emissions, safety, pre-purchase or customer service, remember the goal of the inspection...customer satisfaction and safety. Doing so will automatically add to your bottom line.

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