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How To Fix Your Car’s Oxygen Sensor

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If your car’s “Check Engine” light is glaring at you, it’s probably because the oxygen sensor is malfunctioning. That’s right, the oxygen sensor. It’s a little device that’s a mystery for most drivers but its misbehavior is the problem that most commonly triggers a Check Engine light, according to CarMD.com, which sells an automotive diagnostic tool and provides repair information. The oxygen sensor unseats the formerly most common Check Engine light culprit: a loose gas cap. There are fewer reports of that problem because savvy motorists have learned to fix it themselves and consumers now buy new cars with capless gas tanks.

But don’t despair. Replacing your car oxygen sensor will keep you from wasting money by burning extra gas, and the repair isn’t horribly expensive. We know this firsthand. We had to replace the O2 sensor on our 1996 Lexus ES 300, the subject of our Debt-Free Car project, and it wasn’t as much of a hassle or expense as we had feared.

After the dreaded Check Engine light appeared in our Lexus, we plugged the CarMD device into the car’s computer to read the error code. In our case, the code was P0135, which meant that the oxygen sensor in “bank 1” was malfunctioning. It was surprising to learn that something was wrong with the car, since it still seemed to be running fine.

Even though a car seems to be behaving normally, a faulty oxygen sensor will cause the engine to start “gulping down gas,” says Kristin Brocoff, director of corporate communications for CarMD.com. She says this problem can cause up to a 40 percent reduction in fuel economy. Sure enough, when we checked our fuel record for the driving we did while the Check Engine light was on, our mpg had taken a hit.

The oxygen sensor, developed in the early 1980s, is an essential part of the car’s emissions control system, says John Nielsen, director of engineering and repair for the American Automobile Association (AAA). The sensor is about the size and shape of a spark plug and protrudes into the car engine’s exhaust stream. It determines if there is a lot or a little oxygen in the exhaust, so the engine can make adjustments to the amount of fuel being used in the engine to run at maximum efficiency.

Oxygen sensors in older cars fail for a variety of reasons, according to Bosch, a leading manufacturer of auto components. In some cases, sensors are fouled by gasoline additives or oil from worn engines. Newer oxygen sensors can last 100,000 miles if conditions are right, but often problems occur sooner.

After we plugged CarMD’s diagnostic device into the Lexus’ onboard computer port, we connected it to our desktop computer. It accessed a database of information about this engine code and how to have it repaired. Among other things, the report included an average estimate just to buy a new oxygen sensor: $168.82.

At the first sight of a Check Engine light, most owners of new cars that are still under the factory warranty would simply make a beeline for the dealership’s service bay. But car owners on a budget might want to go the do-it-yourself diagnosis route to save money. By using the CarMD device, or any engine code reader, drivers can learn what the problem is, and the skill level required to fix it, before attempting the task.

Modern cars have two to four oxygen sensors, Nielsen says. A V6 engine, such as the one in our Lexus, has one sensor in each exhaust manifold and one after the catalytic converter. The sensors simply screw into place, but reaching them can be a problem for do-it-yourselfers. Additionally, since the exhaust subjects the sensor to extreme heat, it can “seize” (become frozen in place) and be tough to unscrew. A new sensor comes with anti-seize compound to apply to the threads, but the compound should never be put on the sensor itself.

Nielsen says that while a code reader might indicate that the problem is the car oxygen sensor, there are other problems that can trigger the identical code — a disconnected vacuum hose will do it, for example.

As a first step, a car owner can look under the hood to see if there are any wires or hoses disconnected, Nielsen says. In some cases, a wire leading to the oxygen sensor could be broken or burned out. If nothing obvious is visibly awry, it’s time to go to what Nielsen calls “a trusted mechanic.” Reputable garages use an expensive diagnostic machine called a scan tool — not to be confused with an inexpensive code reader — that can watch the operation of the engine in real time and see if the oxygen sensor is actually the problem.

“Most motorists would be well served to find a shop that they trust and take their car there for all oil changes and tire rotations,” Nielsen suggests. “Then, when they have a problem with something like an oxygen sensor, they trust what the mechanic is saying rather than thinking that they’re trying to rip you off.”

In our case, we learned that the faulty O2 sensor was in the rear of the engine and difficult to reach, so the fix seemed above our skill level. Instead, we took the Lexus to Overseas Garage, in Long Beach, California. There, the mechanic told us that the new sensor would cost $117, plus $144 in labor for a total of $261. This was close to the $246 average cost cited by CarMD’s Brocoff.

While many people opt to simply ignore “Check Engine” lights, Brocoff says this can cause bigger, more costly problems later. “So the problem you could have fixed for a few hundred dollars turns into a repair of the catalytic converter, which would be over a thousand.”

Driving back from the garage, it was a relief not to stare at the glowing check engine light. This made us realize that fixing such a problem provides another benefit: peace of mind.

How To Tell if Your Body Shop Did the Job Correctly

When you last saw your car, it was a twisted mess being towed away from the scene of the accident. Now it’s weeks later and the car is parked in the driveway of a body shop. All you have to do is write a check and the car is yours again. But how do you know that everything under the surface has really been fixed correctly?

One key to getting your car fixed right is choosing a reliable shop in the first place. But you should still inspect the work performed before you drive away. To better understand what to look for, here are some insider tips from several knowledgeable veterans of the body shop business.

Have a Clear Understanding Up Front
The process of having your car fixed right starts when you drop it off, says Aaron Schulenburg, executive director of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists. Be clear on what the shop is going to fix and how it will do the repair. Get everything in writing. Ask about the shop’s warranty on its work. When you return, review the paperwork to confirm that the shop did the repairs correctly.

“A reputable repair facility will go through everything with you, walk you through all the steps they took,” Schulenburg says. “Good shops will even touch up bolts under the hood that have been scratched while being repaired.”

Clean Car Is a Must
Appearances matter. When you pick up your car, it should have been washed, cleaned and vacuumed, says John Mallette, owner of Burke Auto Body and Paint, in Long Beach, California. There should be no dirt or dust in the car and definitely no old parts in the trunk. Mallette says he even tries to wash down the engine compartment before he hands over the keys.

It can be a challenge to return a clean car to a customer, says Mike O’Connell, owner of Golden Hammer Auto Body in Los Angeles. With all the dust from sanding, he says, “body shops are the dirtiest places on earth.” He says his workers take precautions to keep the cars clean by using paper and masking tape to protect different areas. And then they carefully wash the car before the customer comes to pick it up.

Closer Inspection
If the car’s general appearance passes muster, take a close look at the area that was repaired. Mallette recommends looking for gaps between body panels first. If the gaps are obviously uneven, that’s a telltale sign of panels not being aligned correctly. Schulenburg says owners should make sure the doors open and close properly with good alignment.

If there was extensive front-end damage to the car, it can be difficult for a body shop to repair perfectly, Mallette says. One way to spot a problem is to look at the distance between the tire and fender. If it is wide on one side and narrow on the other, something wasn’t fixed properly. Another test is to turn on the headlights to ensure that the light beams are aligned.

When a car is hit in the front, the frame may have been bent and required straightening on what the body shop calls “the rack.” The shop workers use it to pull the frame rails until the frame is straight. Mallette says he can look under a car and see “butcher marks” from poor repair jobs.

But visual inspections might be difficult for the average consumer, Schulenburg explains. He says owners should take a look at the automated printout of the frame specifications. A good body shop will measure the damaged area of the car and then measure the frame again after it does the repair. The frame specs should be the same post-repair as they were before the accident. The frame spec printout is a good reference document to make sure the job has been done right.

If you are concerned that a major repair wasn’t done correctly and want someone other than the original body shop to size it up, you can get a second opinion. O’Connell tells us that many people bring cars to him for just this kind of assessment, and he can immediately spot problems that the ordinary consumer can’t.

Paint Jobs: Matching Colors and Consistency
One of the most challenging jobs in a body shop is paint matching. “Punching in the factory paint codes gets you 95 percent of the way to matching the color,” O’Connell says. But the remaining 5 percent has to be done by people who really know what they’re doing. “If we didn’t do this extra step there would always be a little variance,” he explains. “That’s why you see cars on the road that look like they are three different colors.”

Most factory paint jobs have an “orange peel” texture to the finish to a greater or lesser degree. Whether you like that effect or not, most factory paint jobs have this texture, and it can be tricky for body shops to duplicate. Mallette advises that you arrange to pick up a car from the body shop during the day. If possible, look at the car in the sunlight to make sure that the new paint matches the car’s original shade and finish. Also, if the shop repainted several panels, sight along the side of the car to look for color consistency. And finally, examine the paint for runs or imperfections such as hair or specks of dirt trapped in the finish.

When It Isn’t Fixed Right
In some cases, a problem with the repair develops months later. A common scenario is that you notice the car’s front tires are wearing unevenly. This could be a sign that the front suspension hasn’t been straightened and repaired correctly. Find your paperwork and receipt, bring the car back and show the manager the tire’s wear pattern. The shop should fix the problem under the warranty, Mallette says.

Schulenburg agrees that improper tire wear on a car is a bad sign. “Take it back to the body shop,” he says. “There are a whole lot of things that can lead to tire wear. Let them assess what is causing it.”

Many body shops are “fly-by-night,” O’Connell notes, and if you’re dealing with one of them, it can be tough to get satisfaction if the job wasn’t done right. A legitimate shop should stand by its work. He recommends that you make sure you are within the warranty period, which is usually one year or 12,000 miles. Then, with your paperwork in hand, ask to speak with an owner or manager.

“And be courteous, not demanding,” O’Connell says. “If you start making accusations, things can go downhill fast.”