The high cost of new vehicles has its counterpart in rising dealership labor costs. Shop labor has crept up, and more consumers find themselves working on their own vehicles. This starts with basic lube and oil/filter changes, spark plugs and an air filter. Then comes the transmission filter and the cooling system flushes. AutoZone, NAPA and O'Reilly's, much like Home Depot and Lowe's, cater to a growing number of DIY customers. Expect this trend to continue.
As vehicles fall out of factory warranty, consumers make choices. While the average wage for American workers is now $24.57 per hour, the labor rate for an automotive dealership can vary from $80-$130 per flat rate hour on major service work. Minor service procedures like a lube-oil-and-filter feature deeply discounted rates, making the dealership more competitive with Jiffy Lube and a host of other fast-service outlets. Dealerships also use the lube rack as an opportunity to generate additional service work. Many gulp at paying $80-$130 per hour for service when their own wages are a fraction of that amount.
Let's reflect for a moment. Compare the difference between workplace hourly wages and the dealership or independent shop's hourly labor flat rate. The professional shop justifies its rates by considering the wages and benefits paid to employees (including hourly wages or a percentage of flat rate plus half of the technician's FICA rate). The dealership is also required to pay for disability and garage liability insurance plus an attractive medical benefits package, possibly a retirement contribution, supplied uniforms plus a work environment that includes service bay lifts, a lube rack, cabinets, a tool room full of factory service tools, the facility's buildings and their overhead, electricity and heating/AC utilities, shop equipment like computers and the air system, advertising and those shop supplies not charged to customers.
The tool room with diagnostic equipment and specialty tools is a large expense. An OBD-II era DRB-III scan tool alone is a spendy item. At the end of the DRB-III era, SPX rented the last of the DRB-III scan tools to shops and consumers with a $6000 credit card deposit. That was the cost of replacement for this diagnostic tool set and its accessories. Fan through the factory service manual for your vehicle and note all of the required tools. Imagine a dealership with various makes and models, each requiring a long list of specialty tools and diagnostic testing devices.
So it's realistic to believe that the dealership has some level of justification for today's high hourly flat rate. Some shop personnel get paid on a flat rate basis, typically 30%-40% of the hourly flat rate, sometimes less or more. In the long run, the dealership does profit from the Service Department, which also serves as the number one customer for the Parts Department. Rather than condemn the hourly flat rate, however, consider whether you can save money by performing your own service work.
Equipping Your 'DIY' Shop
If you're serious about performing your own service work, the first item on the tool list should be the factory workshop manual for each of your vehicles. There is no sense performing work without clear safety standards and step-by-step service guidelines. These books or CDs will also help determine what work you are capable of performing and the tools required. Immediately clear, you will be subletting engine machine work to a competent machine shop. An automatic transmission rebuild may be within reach for some, but the tools required for a one-time job could tip the scale in favor of subletting the job. Perhaps the removal and replacement work can be a DIY task. Weigh the cost and safety equipment needed for R&R work, too.
There are often universal service tools that can work in place of niche factory service tools. Harbor Freight and others now offer a variety of minimal use tools. Why pay $300 for a set of professional grade Snap-On impact sockets when the $20 set at Harbor Freight might last for many years given your occasional use of these tools. My mixed medley of socket brands includes U.S. and metric Pittsburgh (Harbor Freight) brand deep impact sockets. At the tool section of the forums, we can discuss professional tools and the less costly alternatives.
Diagnostics tools are the same way. For some EFI/MPI work, a $20 OBD-II transmitter and software package for Bluetooth or Wi-Fi can work with your laptop computer or cell phone. Many of these kits get rave reviews at Amazon and can provide a wealth of diagnostics information. Such a "scanner" is actually reading the stored or live data from the vehicle's PCM/ECU/ECM diagnostic port. This information is only reliable if the powertrain controller is functioning properly. The next step up is often a used Snap-On or OTC scanner with software and adapters. Sold at eBay or Craigslist, these scan tools can include newer versions or even used factory diagnostic tools. Sometimes, creative troubleshooting with a quality digital volt-ohmmeter can get the job done.
Equipping your home garage or an independent shop is a constant juggling act between safe work and professional results—while not breaking the bank with tools that will seldom see use. Sometimes, one-time use suggests alternatives like renting the tool(s) from AutoZone or removing the component to have a specialty shop rebuild it. Sublet rebuilding was once common with alternators, generators and starter motors. Local radiator shops hot tanked, rodded or replaced radiator cores.
Today, everything electric or electronic has a rebuilt/exchange program or is replaced with new parts. When I worked for Cunningham Pontiac-GMC in the early 'eighties, a defective S/T truck alternator under warranty required bench rebuilding to replace the rectifier bridge or other parts. (Flat rate time for the alternator R&R was 0.1 hour; the rectifier bridge changeout paid an additional 0.2 hour.) A power steering gear or transmission was also rebuilt on a dealership bench. Every vehicle manufacturer now uses a rebuild/exchange program for warranty parts.
There are instances where improvising or substituting tools may be possible. Many aftermarket tools meet generic needs. When I operated a mechanical restoration shop for classic and muscle cars, service tools for pre- and post-war cars were obsolete. I made many tools from scratch, using factory tool images from workshop manuals as my guide. You can do this, too, and the cost savings can be dramatic.
Common items like floor jacks, an H-frame press or jack stands can be generic. I trust many of the Harbor Freight products, the suppliers often build equipment for major brand manufacturers. I apply my own "overkill ratings" for safety equipment, like using two four-ton rated HF floor jacks to lift the Ram truck's 5,000 pound front end. I support the truck's axles on HF 6-ton rated stands. My 20-ton HF press is good for at least 10-15 tons when following my safety margin. I expect my Harbor Freight equipment to perform safely at 50-70% capacity. These tools last a long time with this kind of usage.
I also have chests with prime, spendy tools. For precision work, always use better quality measuring tools. I purchase professional grade instruments from the nearby MSC warehouse. When safety and preserving parts is essential, I use the right tools and suggest that you do, too.
Taking the Plunge to the 'DIY' Lifestyle
My DIY work dates back to age 14 and my Cushman/Allstate scooter. With a factory shop manual in hand, I was on it! That strategy has stayed with me ever since, and today I'm still curious and interested in new tasks. My confidence grew with experience and tool savvy. Your confidence will build on successful results and learning which tools can perform the job properly.
Becoming an accomplished DIY mechanic means doing professional grade work. Without the demands of flat rate time, you can wade your way through unfamiliar territory and get satisfactory results. Time is a concern, as you will spend a great deal of time learning how to perform quality automotive service work. Time can even be a deal breaker. While tools and parts cost, your time is also valuable. Family will quickly let you know when the clock has run out.
Yes, you can save a considerable amount of money by performing your own service work. The rewards and satisfaction can be substantial if you enjoy this work. Account for your time as well, however, when deciding whether the savings are worth it. Consider the learning curve, you're developing a second career if you take this work far enough. For major tasks, there's no half way. The work is too demanding, and your safety is at stake. Repairing your vehicle's ABS brake system or troubleshooting a Ford E4OD automatic transmission is way different than replacing your home's screen door or garbage disposal.
There are many benefits and rewards when doing your own automotive repair and service work. Troubleshooting can be a great test of your analytical ability, at least as good as working crossword puzzles. Safety is always a concern, as pinning yourself to the floor beneath a vehicle could be catastrophic. The first order of business is shop safety for yourself, any children in the area and your spouse/helper. Gasoline is flammable. Electricity can shock. Knocks, burns, crushed fingers and lacerations that require E.R. attention are simply not acceptable.
I plan to produce a full series of streaming videos for the magazine's Vimeo On Demand catalog. How-to subjects will include setting up a DIY home garage or a small independent shop, emphasizing the use of common and specialized service and diagnostics tools. Meanwhile, become familiar with shop manual language and procedures. Review the magazine's how-to videos.
When we were in kindergarten, it was common to take a watch apart—and not get it back together. Some of us, not content with things that no longer worked, went on to fixing things instead of just taking them apart. Toying with mechanical things versus putting things back together properly is for most a clear fork in the road.
In my early childhood, I was fascinated with all things that rolled: trucks, cars, bicycles, motorized cycles, locomotives, take your pick! By age eleven, with the go kart and mini-bike craze in full swing, a neighbor built his sons a gasoline powered, wooden cart with a Briggs & Stratton lawn mower engine that had a rope starter…I was hooked. On my birthday two years later, my folks found a used Bug Kart with a bent front axle and a Clinton 2.5 horsepower two-stroke engine. I witnessed my first oxygen-acetylene welding repair when a family friend, Paul Starjack, restored the front axle with a fresh piece of new chrome-moly tubing. The task could have been a candidate for TIG, but Paul's adept skill with a gas torch made quick work of the 4130 chromoly welding repair.
55 years ago, I had a Bug Kart similar to this one. Mine came with a bent front axle tube. Watching a skilled welder replace that tube with a fresh 4130 piece taught me the the merits of welding! The end result and a fresh coat of paint made my cart look and run great.
By fourteen, other mentors crossed my mechanical path. Joe Bruns ran a traditional postwar garage at Gardnerville, across the street from the Hancock gas station where I held my first job. An $8 street legal Cushman/Allstate scooter occupied my time and money that summer, and when the magneto would not fire, Mr. Bruns taught me the intricacies of a condenser on his grease-covered work bench. The dimly lit, acrid oil wafting shop, full of old cars like a Graham-Paige, a Willys-Knight tow truck, a Hudson Terraplane and a Packard, captured my imagination.
This beautifully restored 1955 Allstate (Cushman) Deluxe scooter is the 'as new' version of the $8 "beater" that I bought in the summer of 1963 at Gardnerville, Nevada. Mine came with a rod knock and white paint job that looked like it had been applied with a broom. Nevada's Scooter Law enabled riding at 35 mph maximum on highways with a "basic speed law". It was not uncommon for cars and trucks to legally pass scooters at 100 mph on Highway 395. (Photo courtesy of the owner's posting online...Thanks, it's gorgeous, and the mountain backdrop looks like Carson Valley!)
I grew up around older Buicks and Packards in our family, which drew me to the C.O.D. Garage (Chevrolet/Buick/Jeep® dealership) at Minden, Nevada. The dirt field across the main drag was the dealership's parking lot for Depression Era, 'forties and 'fifties cars and trucks that made their last run into Carson Valley on a tow hook. Rolling into valley from California and nearby rural Nevada communities, these vehicles had died unceremoniously from overheating, cracked blocks, throwing connecting rods or frying transmission and axle gears.
I worked at the community’s service stations under the tutelage of full-service mechanics, in those years men who performed breaker point tune-ups, chassis work, tire busting and detailed lubrication and fluid changes. An oscilloscope tune-up was the hallmark of the era, and working at Bud Berrum’s Minden Chevron Station schooled me at vehicle light service and lube room repairs. This would prove ground school for my early automotive trade employment as a light and medium duty truck fleet mechanic.
From age 14 to 18, I had my share of four-wheeled “project” vehicles plus numerous trips to Werner's Machine Shop at Carson City. Bill Werner smiled each time I showed up with a Ford flathead V-8 block. Several of these blocks failed the test for machining and landed in the iron scrap pile. Most often, they had cracks from freezing or cylinder wall weaknesses that opened up during the boring process. Bill was relieved when I moved to mid-'fifties Chevy small-block OHV V-8s.
There were many other “teachers”. My Douglas High School Ag and Welding instructor, Mr. Gray, taught me the foundation skills for welding that led to my lifetime interest in metallurgy and all forms of welding and brazing processes. The Odom brothers at the East Bay, George Zirkle at the Nevada City NAPA machine shop, veteran truck fleet mechanic colleagues and service pros, machinists and chassis/alignment experts each deserve their due. When I served an apprenticeship with Local 3 of the Operating Engineers Union, old hands taught me the new and old school repair, welding and operator’s skills around heavy equipment…To all of these folks and any not named here, I am grateful.
The learning was typically hands on, often accompanied by patient discussion, and I looked over many shoulders before performing work myself. Years later, after 15 years of hands-on professional work as a journey level truck fleet mechanic, motorcycle tech and 4x4 restorer, I worked at Cunningham GMC/Pontiac in El Cajon, California, representing the service department at the General Motors Burbank Training Center and bringing that information home to be shared with the dealership's techs.
Just prior to working for the Cunningham family and fresh out of the University of Oregon, I had my first taste of teaching at the San Diego Job Corps. That was my original stint of “giving back” through teaching, passing along those years of exposure to top professionals. My next step along the path was journalism, writing technical articles and columns for a broad range of enthusiast trade magazines and newspapers.
Learning to Teach
When I taught at the Job Corps in the early ‘eighties, the breaker point ignition era was barely ended. Electronic fuel injection was the lofty undertaking of German engineers at Bosch. That quickly changed, and by the mid-‘eighties, American vehicle manufacturers brought the internal combustion engine back from the edge of emissions extinction with the use of EFI and electronic spark management systems. All of us went back to the drawing board, up the learning curve, and became familiar with the new electronic technology. I held California smog equipment Installer and Inspection licenses during that period.
Learning EFI/spark management required a foundation at automotive mechanics and the willingness to read. I was writing simultaneously to the tune of 880 published pages of magazine articles per year by 1989 (not to be confused with manuscript pages). 1990-1998 became a period of book projects alongside my continuing flow of magazine and newspaper assignments each month. Consulting to 4x4 truck, Jeep® and SUV manufacturers, plus new book editions, involved even more writing.
After an intensive career at photojournalism, tech column writing, book authorship and building magazine 4x4 projects, I took a detour and returned to the classroom from 1999-2004, five teaching and administrator contract years. Working with the Rite of Passage program, first as an Automotive/Diesel Technologies instructor then as the Director of Vocational Training for four Rite of Passage campuses, we taught automotive, welding, construction trades and IT.
Within the Rite of Passage training process, I was as much a student as teacher. Sure, I brought over three decades of profession level trade skills to the classroom, but my effectiveness at teaching was only as good as the delivery. What I quickly discovered in the era just before the onslaught of internet information, was that students without a clear direction and foundation in a subject were as apt to “take the watch apart” as to fix it. When left to their own devices, some students were perfectly happy dismantling mechanical things with no sense for how to put them back together—and not an inkling of academic ambition nor the curiosity to read a manual or textbook! Lectures or audio visual training tapes could easily put a non-invested student to sleep.
These young adults provided the humbling lesson that without context and a drive to learn, human beings are capable of remaining kindergarten level performers forever. And that pre-internet learning environment was merely a portent of things to come, heralding Toffler's glorious, consumer driven Information Era.
Along Came the Internet
The fledgling internet and its information exchange showed promise. Maybe the Tofflers' predictions in their 2006 book Revolutionary Wealth were true. Alvin and Heidi Toffler predicted that the internet's wealth of “free” information would lead to a society of consumers who were less dependent upon paying for services and far more self-reliant. The emerging age would be a virtual barter system of freebie facts and answers meeting consumer needs, essentially a way to circumvent the increasingly pervasive co-dependency on corporations and professional service outlets.
This idealized view of the internet, a virtual blueprint for opting out of consumer dependency, was the optimal solution to the rising costs of consumer services. In fact, outsourcing and subletting labor costs, using automotive “professional” services as just one example, have skyrocketed over the last dozen years.
At North America, there is no more glaring example of consumer dependency than the automotive consumer market. Imagine paying $75,815 for a new, decked out Ram 4x4 with a Cummins 6.7L diesel. Now add to that the maintenance costs at the local dealership. CANBus troubleshooting and diagnostics equipment, exotic transmission filling and draining methods plus a host of other "specialty equipment" requirements compel many DIY consumers to reluctantly creep back into the dealerships' service lanes. Once the warranty period ends on the vehicle, consumers often try the nearly as expensive independent shops, aware that second tier aftermarket diagnostic equipment may not be up to date. A dealership's labor rate can be $110 per hour or higher. Independent shops are at least $75-$90 per hour.
So given these conditions and the potential information available online, what if you could get diagnostic and troubleshooting information—or even actual how-to repair steps—for free online. Yes, how about gleaning information gratuitously placed before your eyes by simply participating at a free forum? Many believe this is possible, and to such an extent that they cannot envision paying for any kind of automotive information.
Of course, we do want to avoid the high cost of labor and limited parts choices, i.e., the additional and arbitrary cost for dealership provided parts. Do we also expect to become independent mechanics without scaling any kind of learning curve or paying for schooling? As a point of interest, aside from earning a Pac-Ten university four-year degree with Dean's List honors and all the textbook costs that entailed, my library of classic and contemporary professional automotive factory and trade service manuals, plus a dozen welding instruction and metallurgy books, would today cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $7,500.
I bought the Tofflers' book as an audio CD version and played it in my shop while performing professional restoration work on vintage transmissions, steering gears, engines, engine peripherals and axles. The book's theme was captivating, suggesting that we could be energy independent (off the grid) and consumer self-sufficient, sidestepping the endless grind of societal consumerism in America. Pondering just how well that would work with automotive service or IT needs, it took little thought after four decades in the automotive trade (when this book came out) to realize that bartering information, or even information in itself, is not enough to get the job done!
So Where Do You Get Your “Free” Information?
For automotive service work around sophisticated powertrains with 8-speed automatic transmissions or variable cylinder EFI/MPI systems, where do you barter for your free service information? Consider the bevy of diagnostic tools needed to service a vehicle and the $200-plus CD set that makes up the factory service manual for a particular model. Do you know a trained service professional who has spent $10,000 or more on equipment and data and wants to freely offer that investment to total strangers surfing the internet's Google Search engine?
According to the Tofflers theory, the model would apply better to pouring a garden foot path and needing information on how to set forms. This kind of information can be found at the Lowe’s or Home Depot professional contractors desk. It’s not critical, "permitted" work and does not require meeting code. Seldom will anyone get hurt by a DIY foot path project or improperly laid sidewalk pavers. These two retailers will gladly offer free information since they will be providing the materials you need for this job.
Now let’s fast forward to your automotive project. A motor vehicle is built to SAE, DOT, NHTSA and EPA standards. Whether an owner elects to honor the EPA requirements, the SAE, DOT and NHTSA standards for brakes, steering and safe suspension are something not to be ignored. There are sanctioning bodies like ASE and dealership tech training programs, apprenticeships, military training schools and college trade programs intended to support these professional standards for automotive service work. Why? Simple: Because your life and the lives of family members and others on the road depend upon vehicles that perform safely and reliably. This includes brakes, tires, chassis members, steering, suspension, the engine/powertrain, axles and electrical/electronic systems.
So that begs the question: Where do you get your automotive service recommendations? Exactly who is at that forum with years of professional experience, mentoring, college level courses, military training schools, apprentice training or dealership training? If they have that level of schooling and experience, why are they at the forum giving away information for free?
The Toffler paradigm may apply to shoveling and forming the ditch for a garden path footing or macramé, but do you really want to fix your brakes or troubleshoot that engine issue without a service manual, a basic knowledge of automotive mechanics or a “mentor” with some trade experience? I taught adult education level automotive and diesel mechanics plus welding for seven years. As of this month, I have a half-century of professional experience at mechanics, yet I still pull a professional trade manual or “FSM” off the shelf for any work I perform on my vehicles.
Who’s Paying for My Experience?
When Facebook and LinkedIn became supposed “musts” for any professional, including automotive based magazine publishers. I willingly stepped up and established a Facebook page for 4WD Mechanix Magazine and signed on to LinkedIn. When I shared at Facebook that my HD video streaming rental for Jeep® YJ/TJ Wrangler and XJ Cherokee brake work was available at Vimeo On Demand, colleagues derided me for “spamming” my page. A Jeep® club member said that she had no intention of paying for such information! The streaming one-hour long rental with 30-day access had a $1.99 fee. Meanwhile, my commercial training videos under contract to major corporations were generating fees from $275-$450 per edited minute of video.
As a book author with Bentley Publishers, I generate royalty income, and informed consumers have placed a value on the content. All of my Jeep® titles received manufacturers’ part numbers and endorsements from Chrysler (passing legal and engineering approval). Similarly the GM truck book and Ford F-truck book each received part numbers and endorsements from GM Motorsport and Ford SVO, respectively. The Jeep® Owner’s Bible™ became a book trade “best seller”, enjoying the largest volume of sales for a Bentley Publishers book to date.
Then came the internet digital publishing world. In the internet realm, everything is presumed to be “free”. For the first seven years of 4WD Mechanix Magazine, I provided a massive quantity of free information to faceless readers and viewers. My expenses and time compensation were paid by advertising/sponsorship from major aftermarket vendors and manufacturers, and this came at a high price. I continually produced new product promotions, product installation how-to videos and on location event videos on behalf of each sponsor. Evidence: Scroll through the 400-plus videos available for free at the magazine website.
This intensive time allocation means continually currying advertising/sponsorship revenue streams while satisfying the needs and expectations of forum readers and the magazine’s viewer/readers. Sponsor coverage has included annual treks to the Moab EJS for bell-to-bell filming with a video camera, filming Tierra Del Sol 4x4 Safari, filming the Off-Road Expo, filming each year's SEMA Show, filming at King of the Hammers, supporting a tire sponsor at Baja plus several trips over the Rubicon Trail—on foot with a video camera. For consumers these events are exciting and adventurous. For a focused videographer on assignment, it's all seen through the lens...When advertising revenue flows, it always comes at a price.
Sponsors want things like traffic numbers with a demographic group's affinity for their products. Consumers need reliable information with vital facts about their technical issues. Eventually, it dawned on me that the folks who need to value the forum exchanges and answers to pressing technical issues and how-to instructional are the end users and consumers. Yes, all things Toffler should not be free! To be there for consumers' needs, engaged in a useful dialogue at the forums and magazine, doing research and making my extensive library and a half-century of professional experience available, the forum participants need to place a value on the content.
We all find the anonymity of free internet content opportune, surfing away, seldom aware of the information source, quickly moving on if we're not immediately satisfied with the content. For improving your skills, however, we need a dialogue...and you need to make a modest investment. Unless you grow organic produce or have some kWh of solar energy for my welder, $12 (U.S.) per year is a sensible trade off. My personal 3,200-plus topic/replies, a number that just keeps increasing, is proof that I'm willing to share.
This is the reason for the shift to a Subscriber Membership at the forums. To deliver the value and content that members deserve, I have pared down on advertising and narrowed the field of sponsors to those who best identify with the consumer interests and direct needs of our forum members. The subscriber platform benefits those who gain most: consumer members!
So, I’m banking on subscriber users valuing the forums content. Internet searches can lead elsewhere for “free” information. But if you need my experience, my access to an extensive library and my earnest interest in helping you build the safest, best performing 4x4 possible, then justify the $12 per year (the cost of one replacement oil filter for a 5.9L Cummins engine!) to get your questions answered. Help make the forums an interactive learning community that respects your desire to fix things properly. Join us!