Your Checklist for Quality Auto Repair

On Super Bowl Sunday we aired our investigation of local car repair shops.

Today we  followed up with a phone bank staffed by AAA ASE Certified Master Technicians. The phones wouldn’t stop ringing!

In case you didn’t get a  chance to call, I wanted to post some of the information AAA put together. 

The first is a checklist to make sure you get quality auto repair:

o Determine what type of repair facility is needed. Most vehicles can be repaired and maintained by a full-service repair facility, but if there is a major problem with a specific vehicle system, a shop specializing in that area might be the best choice. Vehicles still under warranty typically must be repaired by the dealer.

o Select a repair facility you trust. Friends, relatives and co-workers are a good source of recommendations. Also, consumers can look for one of the more than 8,000 AAA Approved Auto Repair facilities in the U.S. and Canada. Since 1975, AAA has certified repair shops as a public service. To qualify, facilities must meet and maintain stringent standards for service, training, cleanliness and equipment. AAA also regularly surveys shops’ repair customers to ensure ongoing high customer satisfaction. To locate a AAA-approved facility, visit

o Make an appointment. If the facility manager knows a motorist is coming and has a rough idea of the problem, the right technician can be assigned to the job and allowed enough time to get it done properly.

o Describe the problem. Don’t tell the technician what needs to be repaired or replaced unless it’s obvious. Instead, describe the problem and its symptoms, and let the technician determine the appropriate solution.

o Read the repair order. Be wary of blanket statements such as “check and correct transmission noise” or “fix engine;” They could result in an unexpected and costly major repair. And never sign a blank repair order or tell the shop to “just fix it” or “do what’s necessary” unless the problem is covered under warranty. 

o Get a written estimate. Oral estimates can be disputed or forgotten. Always ask for a written estimate prior to approving work on your vehicle.

o Insist on a call if repair costs will exceed the estimate. Predicting exact repair costs can be difficult, so most written estimates allow up to a 10 percent overrun. However, motorists should make sure it’s written on the repair order they want to be called if the costs will exceed this allowance.

o Carefully consider add-on repairs. If the repair facility calls to say a different part of the vehicle also needs work, it may be best to defer those repairs until a later visit unless the shop can provide clear justification for making them immediately. Don’t hesitate to get a second opinion if the extra work does not appear warranted.

o Ask for replaced parts. When dropping their vehicle off for service, consumers should tell the shop they will want to see any replaced parts. Consumers are also entitled to keep those parts, unless the facility must return them under a warranty or exchange program. Replaced parts and a well-documented repair order can be useful if there is a problem later.  

o Take a test drive. If a problem remains or the vehicle does not run properly after it’s picked it up, don’t go home. Return to the shop immediately. If a problem arises after leaving the shop, make an appointment to bring the vehicle back as soon as possible.

o Get a detailed copy of the repair order. Make sure it specifies the costs of labor and each part. Ask for the facility’s warranty in writing it it’s not printed on the bill. AAA Approved Auto Repair facilities offer a minimum 12-month/12,000-mile warranty.

Techs also took calls on absolute-must maintenance issues. If you can only afford to do a few things to keep your car in good shape, these are the biggies:

10 Car Care “Musts” You Don’t Want to Skip


1. Tire Pressure

WHY: Over-inflated tires ride roughly and suffer premature wear at the center of their tread. Under-inflated tires decrease fuel economy, cause imprecise handling, suffer premature wear at the edges of their tread, and can overheat and fail at highway speeds. Tires typically lose about one pound of pressure per month through normal seepage, and as seasons change, tires lose or gain another pound of inflation pressure with every 10 degree change in outside temperature.


WHEN: Check the tire pressures (including the spare) at least once a month when the tires are cold. Always follow the inflation pressure recommendations in your owner’s manual, or those on the tire information label that is located in the glove box or on the driver’s door jamb. Do not use the inflation pressure molded into the tire sidewall; this is the pressure needed to achieve the tire’s rated load capacity, and it may or may not be the correct pressure for your particular car.


BOTTOM LINE: The correct tire pressure will make tires last longer and delay the need for you to buy new ones. Plus, having the proper tire pressure will help your vehicle’s fuel economy.


2. Engine Air Filter

WHY: Your vehicle’s air filter prevents dust and dirt from entering the engine. A dirty or clogged air filter restricts airflow and will reduce engine performance and fuel economy while increasing exhaust emission levels.


WHEN: Check the air filter every six months or 7,500 miles. Typically, your repair shop will inspect the filter at each oil change. You can check it by holding it up to a 60-watt light bulb. If you can see light through much of the filter, it is still clean enough to work effectively. However, if the light is blocked by most of the filter, replace it.


BOTTOM LINE: Dirty air filters not only affect your fuel economy, but other vehicle systems such as the emissions control system and spark plugs. It might result with problems keeping your car running.


3. Battery Cables/Clamps/Terminals

WHY: Power from the battery flows to the rest of your vehicle’s electrical system through the cables, clamps and terminals. If these components and connections become corroded or loose, your car won’t have the power needed to start the engine and operate other systems.


WHEN: The battery cables, clamps and connections should be inspected at every oil change. If there are signs of corrosion, or you notice other indications of electrical problems such as slow engine cranking or dimming headlights at idle, have your repair shop test the charging and starting system, and clean and tighten the battery connections as necessary.


BOTTOM LINE: No one enjoys walking into a parking lot to discover their car suddenly won’t start. Keeping the battery maintained will greatly reduce the risk of it going dead and help extend its life. 


4. Windshield Washer Fluid

WHY: Rain, insects, grime and other debris on your windshield will compromise your vision if your windshield wipers cannot remove them. A supply of the proper washer fluid will help your wipers remove these contaminants effectively.


WHEN: Check your washer fluid reservoir monthly and more often when you use the washers frequently. Top it up with a washer solution formulated to aid in the removal of insects and other debris, and during winter, be sure to use a solution with antifreeze protection. Finally, test the washer spray nozzles for proper operation and aim.


BOTTOM LINE: Whether your windshield becomes covered with bugs in the summer or ice and salt in the winter, it’s critical to keep it clear for your safety. 


5. Engine Oil

WHY: Without an adequate supply of clean oil, your engine will wear more rapidly and could even seize and be destroyed. Oil doesn’t freeze like water, but its viscosity, or thickness, does increase as the mercury drops. Lighter grade oils reduce the load on your car’s battery and starter, allowing more rapid cranking and starting. Lighter oils also reach critical engine lubrication areas much quicker than heavier oils, greatly reducing wear.


WHEN: Change your engine’s oil and oil filter at the specified intervals, and follow the more frequent “severe service” recommendations if your driving habits meet any of the conditions described in your owner’s manual. Always use the weight of oil recommended by your vehicle’s manufacturer for the existing temperature conditions. Watch for oil leaks beneath your vehicle and have any leaks corrected.


BOTTOM LINE: Oil is the lifeblood of your engine. Not maintaining the proper levels, using the wrong oil or not changing it frequently enough can destroy your engine. Plus, oil that leaks on to a heated surface can cause a vehicle fire. 


6. Windshield Wiper Blades

WHY: Windshield wipers are easy to overlook until you find yourself in a pounding rainstorm. If your wiper blades are worn, cracked or rigid with age, the wipers will not adequately remove rain, grime and other debris that can obscure your vision.


WHEN: Check your car’s wiper blades at each oil change or whenever they fail to wipe the glass clean in a single swipe. The life of a rubber insert is typically six to 12 months depending on its exposure to heat, dirt, sunlight, acid rain and ozone. Streaking and chattering are common clues that the rubber is breaking down and replacement is needed.


BOTTOM LINE: Worn out windshield wipers can not only compromise your safety when you need them, they can even damage your windshield.


7. Antifreeze/Coolant Protection

WHY: The primary task of an engine coolant is to transfer heat from the engine to the radiator where it is removed by the passing airflow. Modern engine coolants also prevent the cooling system from freezing or boiling, protect the engine and cooling system from rust and corrosion and lubricate the water pump seals and other cooling system components.


WHEN: Check the coolant level at every oil change. With a cold engine, the radiator should be completely full and the coolant level in the remote reservoir should be at or above the “cold” level marking. Have the system flushed and refilled with fresh coolant at the interval specified in your vehicle owner’s manual. This can vary widely, from every two years to more than 100,000 miles, depending on the coolant type used. Simple and inexpensive testers are available to check the coolant’s level of antifreeze protection. Always top up the system with a 50/50 mixture of coolant and water to avoid altering the antifreeze level. Be aware that some coolants come pre-mixed with water and others do not.  Some manufacturers require the use of specific coolant types. Check your owners’ manual for the coolant your vehicle needs.


BOTTOM LINE: Maintain the antifreeze/coolant to avoid overheating in the summer or freezing in the winter — both of which can result in costly damage to your car.


8. Tire Tread

WHY: The four points where the rubber meets the road are the only things that stand between you and an accident. In wet or snowy road conditions, having good tires with sufficient tread depth is crucial. Worn tires with inadequate tread are much more likely to hydroplane on wet pavement or lose traction in the snow, resulting in a loss of braking power and steering control.


WHEN: Check the tread depth of your car’s tires whenever it appears low. Insert a quarter upside down into a tire groove. If you can see above Washington’s head at any point, replace the tire. Uneven or excessive wear of the tire tread may indicate the need for suspension repair or wheel alignment, both of which will extend the life of your tires.


BOTTOM LINE: Driving a vehicle with low tread depth puts you at serious risk for a crash. To slow the wear on your tires, be sure to take care of suspension repairs or wheel alignments as needed.


9. Drive Belt Tensioner

WHY: One or more rubber drive belts transfer the rotation of the engine’s crankshaft to various accessories that help your vehicle function properly. Belts that are too loose will allow slippage and reduce efficiency. Belts that are too tight can damage bearings and cause premature component failure.


WHEN: Drive belt condition and tension should be checked at every oil change. Many cars today have automatic belt tensioners that require no maintenance. On others, technicians must use a belt tension gauge to check and adjust the tension manually. To prevent being stranded by a broken accessory drive belt, have your car’s belts replaced every four years or 60,000 miles.


BOTTOM LINE: If a belt comes loose or breaks, it can cause major damage to your engine. 


10. Brake Fluid

WHY: The fluid in your car’s brake hydraulic system transfers your foot pressure at the brake pedal into stopping power at the wheels. An adequate supply of clean brake fluid is absolutely essential for safe vehicle operation. Old, moisture-contaminated brake fluid, or a low fluid level that allows air to enter the system, can lead to brake fade or a complete loss of braking power.


WHEN: Inspect the brake fluid level at every oil change. If the level has fallen below the “low” mark on the fluid reservoir, it usually indicates major brake wear or a leak somewhere in the system; have the brakes inspected as soon as possible. Most vehicle manufacturers recommend that the brake fluid be replaced periodically to flush moisture and contaminants from the system. Every two years is a common interval; check your vehicle owner’s manual for specific recommendations.


BOTTOM LINE: Old brake fluid or fluid at low levels can result in your brakes fading or completely failing.  Plus, a leak in the brake line can cause a vehicle fire if the fluid drips onto a heated surface such as a catalytic converter.




4 Responses

  1. Wow, I just spent 5 minutes trying to figure out why my PC spontaneously started playing the song Greased Lightning over and over. A virus? A javascript gone mad? After closing every single browser window of my 100 open browser windows one by one, I have reached the conclusion that this site is responsible. Thank you for interrupting my web surfing and taking control of my speakers.

    Hey, i like John Travolta too, but I also like the control whether a song should play on my office speakers. having songs play automatically is something middle schoolers used to do on their myspace pages.

    As long as that damn presentation is on the home page, every single visitor will have to put up with it.

    Lousy etiquette, good helpful information.

    Tip: if you really want something to play automatically for a blog post, select the Read More button on your blog software and put it underneath that.

  2. Hey Robert,

    I can only say sorry! I just took the song off. It was the first time I experimented with adding music to a slide show… and I honestly never thought about people logging in from work and getting blasted with the tunes of “Greased Lightning.”

    I thought it was clever. You know the “Greased Lightning” song is about a car in the movie Grease. Hence, the connection to our slide show of our car mechanic phone bank. But then… it also bothered me that every time someone clicked on my blog (even if they weren’t looking at the mechanic post), they heard the song.

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention. The blog is all me. I am a journalist first, and just figuring out this computer blogging stuff as I go. Thank you for your patience. And you can come back. I believe I just successfully removed the tunes!

    Amy Davis
    KPRC Local 2 Investigates

  3. Great blog!! A lot of helpful information, just don’t forget about auto glass maintenance.

  4. Hi Amy,

    Great post I referred my mother to this post. She always get intimidated walking into auto repair shops. The most important thing in my opinion in this hot Austin weather is coolant!

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