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Monthly Archives: January 2017

How To Fix Your Car’s Oxygen Sensor

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.

Top Five Ways to Make Your Car Run Forever

1. Follow Your Vehicle’s Service Schedule: This may seem like a no-brainer, but there are still too many car owners out there who pay little or no attention to the vehicle maintenance schedule as laid out in the owner’s manual. “I follow the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule, not the dealer’s,” says Gordon. “They built the car, so they ought to know what’s best for the car.” Not following the maintenance schedule is particularly inexcusable in late-model cars that have oil life monitoring systems that automatically determine the best time for an oil change. Between the service indicator lights located in the gauge cluster of many new cars and the lengthy intervals between required service (up to 20,000 miles in some models), there’s no reason for skimping on proper maintenance.

2. Check Fluids and Tire Pressure Regularly: Here’s a task that takes about 10 minutes. With a rag in hand and the engine cool, open the hood and pull out the oil dipstick. Wipe it clean, reinsert it and pull it out again for a quick check of your oil — the most important engine fluid. Check the radiator overflow reservoir level and the brake cylinder reservoir. Check the power steering fluid level and, while you’re at it, check the hoses and belts for any signs of wear or imminent failure. Give the air cleaner a look, too. Start the car and after it warms up, check the transmission fluid level. Finally, with the tires cool, use a pressure gauge to make sure each tire has the proper psi, as described in the owner’s manual or in the driver’s side door jamb. Ideally you should do these checks once a week, but in the real world, once a month would be acceptable — except for tire pressure, which really should be checked at least every other week.

3. Go Easy During Start-up: You might have heard this from someone who fires up his car and immediately floors it: “It helps warm it up.” Wrong. A cold engine — meaning one that’s been sitting for more than five hours — will have little or no oil left on the moving parts. It’s all seeped down into the oil pan. It only takes a few seconds after start-up for the oil pump to adequately lubricate an engine. During those few seconds, you should keep engine rpm down to a minimum. Give the engine at least 30 seconds before popping it in gear and driving off. Give it a little more time if it has sat for more than 24 hours.

4. Listen for Odd Noises: Turn off the radio once in a while and listen for any odd noises, both at idle and when under way. Here are a few examples: A clicking noise when you are driving could be a nail stuck in a tire. If it is time for new brakes, you might hear the loud squealing sound of the brake wear indicators. These go off when the car is driving and the brake pedal is not depressed. Similarly, if you hear a scraping or grinding noise while applying the brakes, it could mean that the brake pads are so low that metal to metal contact is already happening. If you cannot pinpoint the source of the noise, take the car to your mechanic to get a more informed opinion.

5. Drive Calmly: Take it easy on the car when you drive it. “Go easy on the brakes and don’t drive it too hard,” says Gordon. The occasional full-throttle acceleration or panic stop isn’t going to hurt anything, but a constant Ricky Roadracer attitude will reduce your car’s road time and add to its downtime.

The same easy-does-it attitude applies to shifting gears, too. Make sure the car is completely stopped before shifting into reverse, and be sure you’re stopped before going back to a forward gear. That will avoid stress on the transmission components. If you need more incentive for calm driving, how about money in your pocket? Edmunds editors tested the tips and found that having a calm driving style improved fuel economy by about 35 percent.

Is Cheap Gas Bad for Your Car?

Gasoline is expensive and you’re looking for every way possible to save money at the pump. You already shy away from premium fuel, knowing that your car doesn’t require it. You’d like to save a few pennies per gallon more by going to an off-brand gas station. But you can’t get rid of the nagging fear: Is the cheap gas going to damage your car’s engine?

Edmunds.com put this question to experts in several fields, including an automotive engineer at a major carmaker, gasoline manufacturers and two engineers with the American Automobile Association (AAA). It boils down to this: You can stop worrying about cheap gas. You’re unlikely to hurt your car by using it.

Because of the advances in engine technology, a car’s onboard computer is able to adjust for the inevitable variations in fuel, so most drivers won’t notice a drop off in performance between different brands of fuel, from the most additive-rich gas sold by the major brands to the bare-bones stuff at your corner quickie mart.

Still, spending a few extra pennies per gallon might provide peace of mind to someone who just purchased a new car and wants to keep it as long as possible. People with older cars might not be as concerned about their engine’s longevity. They can buy the less expensive gas and still be OK.

Steve Mazor, chief automotive engineer with the Automobile Club of Southern California, summed it up this way: “Buy the cheapest gas that is closest to you.”

Recipes for Performance — at a Price
But this doesn’t mean that all gas is the same, even though it starts out that way. The fuel from different filling stations comes from a common source: the “base gas” from a refinery. Workers there mix additives mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency into the base gas in order to clean a car’s engine and reduce emissions. Then, the different gas companies — both off-brand and major brands — put their own additive packages in the gas to further boost both cleaning and performance.

A key difference is that the major brands put more additives in their gas and claim to have some secret ingredients. This extra shot of additives provides an additional level of cleaning and protection for your engine.

But is this extra helping of additives, which jacks up the price, really necessary? And, if you don’t use more expensive, extra-additive gas, how soon will your engine’s performance suffer?

“It’s not like any of the fuels are totally junk,” says John Nielsen, director of engineering and repair for the AAA. “If you buy gas from Bob’s Bargain Basement gas station because that’s all that’s available, it won’t hurt your car,” he says.

The real difference is the amount of additives that are in the gas, Nielsen says. More additives essentially afford more protection — but they also cost more.

Some automakers and oil companies believe that the amount of government-required additives isn’t enough to protect engines. They have created a Top Tier gasoline designation. It means that those gasoline brands sell fuels that provide more and better additives.

Nielsen recommends that drivers look in their car’s owner’s manual to see what the carmaker recommends and, when possible, follow that guideline. People who are still concerned about gasoline quality can ask a specific oil company if it has performed independent testing to substantiate its claims.

Selling the Secret Sauce in Gasoline
The major oil companies spend millions of dollars convincing buyers that their gas is superior by creating ads that feature smiling cartoon cars, lab-coated nerds and sooty engine valves. Buy Shell’s nitrogen-enriched gas, for instance, and you won’t get a buildup of “gunk” in your engine, company advertising promises.

Is all this just a marketing gimmick?

“I am a Ph.D. chemist, a nerdy guy who wears a white coat,” says Jim Macias, Shell Oil Company’s fuels marketing manager. “We really believe there are differences in fuels. We can see it, feel it and measure it.”

Macias says the gunk caused by fuels with insufficient additives can foul fuel injectors and even trigger “Check Engine” lights in as few as 10,000 miles.

But not everyone is keen to talk about gasoline quality and whether additives really make the difference.

Edmunds sought comment from one well-known seller of low-price gas: Arco. Arco also often finds itself targeted as being a lower-quality product. BP, Arco’s parent company, did not respond to Edmunds’ interview request.

The American Petroleum Institute provided background comments about fuel additives and promised to provide an expert for an interview. The API spokesman never called back.

Finally, Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, an independent, nonprofit testing facility, also declined to comment on the question of gasoline quality.

The Skeptics and Their Tests
The Auto Club’s Mazor was more forthcoming, and has some interesting results from a blind test he did on three samples of gasoline from both major and independent gas stations.

“We tested emissions, fuel economy and performance and we could not tell the difference,” he says.

Mazor believes that the driving public has outdated notions about gas. Twenty years ago, onlypremium fuel had detergents in it. Back then, it was beneficial to occasionally buy a tank of high-test gas to clean the engine. Then, he says, “regulations were very lax and there was little enforcement. But all that has changed.”

Likewise, Randy Stephens, chief engineer for Toyota’s Avalon, isn’t wholly convinced by the claims of engine protection afforded by higher-priced gas. He says fuel experts at his company study the effects of different brands of gas on the Toyota engines. Automotive engineers disassemble engines after 10,000 miles of running them on different brands of gas to see if there is a difference.

“Honestly, in the 10 years I’ve been in charge of Avalon, I’ve never seen one come back with any sort of deposit issue,” Stephens says.

How To Wash and Wax Your Car

It may seem counterintuitive, but frequently washing and waxing your vehicle is the best way to maintain its exterior paint finish for years to come, regardless of the constant wiping and rubbing it entails — but only as long as you’re using the right products in the correct order. All major brands of car washes, car waxes and related detailing products are specially formulated to work gently on the clear-coat paint finishes found on every car built since the mid-1990s. They’re ideal for removing dirt above and below the surface, eliminating swirls and other imperfections and leaving a high-gloss shine.

Such obsessive-compulsive labor need not be arduous, however. While there are multiple procedures involved in washing and waxing a car to perfection, it’s not necessary to do them all at once. Some steps should be taken weekly. Others can be employed every few months or annually. If you want to watch some pros using the techniques described in this story, check out the instructional videos from car-care product companies Meguiar’s and Mothers.

At all times, there are some simple car wash rules to keep in mind:

  • No matter which stage you’re at in the car wash and wax process, it’s always best to have the car parked in a cool, shady place.

If the water you’re using to wash the car is hard — meaning that it contains a lot of minerals — it will leave spots on the paint’s finish when it evaporates. That happens more quickly in hot sunlight. And although many modern, synthetic polymer-based car waxes are sun-friendly since they won’t dry too quickly and become difficult to remove, you’ll expend less effort if you use them on a cool surface. For best results, the car’s surface should be no more than warm to the touch.

  • Be sure to have a good stock of microfiber towels on hand for washing and drying the car, and for applying and removing car wax and related car-care products.

A microfiber towel is gentler to a car’s finish than a cotton towel or chamois, which could mar the finish, creating slight scratches or ruts that accumulate over time. Microfiber towels require special care, however. Wash them separately from all other laundry and especially not with linty cotton towels. Use hot water and don’t use fabric softener. Run them through at least one additional rinse cycle in the washing machine. Then dry them on a low-heat setting. Finally, stop using them on painted or glass surfaces when they begin to show their age by, for example, shedding lint. Instead, use them for polishing wheels and, later, for polishing stainless steel exhaust pipe tips.

  • Keep the car’s paint in showroom condition through a four-step process: washing, cleaning, polishing and waxing.

It’s important to use the correct products at the correct stages. This will prevent unnecessary damage to your car’s finish.

Washing
The most critical of the four steps is washing, which removes the loose contaminants that gradually accumulate on the surface of the finish, creating a gritty residue that could cause scratches in later steps if it’s not removed properly first. This requires a genuine car wash product (such as Meguiar’s Gold Class Car Wash, Mothers California Gold Carnauba Wash and Wax or Turtle Wax ICE Premium Care Car Wash). These products are pH-balanced and formulated to loosen and lift surface contaminants without stripping away waxes.

You should avoid normal dish soap, laundry soap and household cleaners. They are designed to remove and dissolve grease and oil, and they will strip away the waxes and in some instances could damage the car’s finish.

Wash the car thoroughly, working from the top down and utilizing a lamb’s wool or microfiber washing mitt. Professional car detailers prefer these because the nap of the lamb’s wool or microfiber draws the dirt particles away from the paint. Re-dip the mitt in the bucket after each panel of the car is washed. That cleans the mitt and ensures that you’re again working with fresh suds.

For soft convertible tops, dip a soft bristle brush in the suds and work the dirt out of the grain using small, circular strokes. If the top is heavily soiled or stained, use a product designed for convertible tops, such as Meguiar’s Convertible Top Cleaner. These products are pH-balanced to safely lift dirt from cloth and vinyl tops without damaging the stitching.

Dry the car thoroughly with a soft, absorbent waffle-weave microfiber drying towel. Do not store the top in the down position if it is still wet, says the Haartz Corporation, a leading manufacturer of convertible tops. Make sure the top is completely dry before storing.

Experts recommend washing a car this way weekly.

For casual touch-ups between washes, you can use a spray-on product called a detailer (such as Meguiar’s Ultimate Quik Detailer, Mothers California Gold Showtime Instant Detailer and Turtle Wax ICE Premium Care Spray Detailer). Detailer products slough off light surface dirt, but don’t offer any protection.

Cleaning the Gunk
Next, inspect the paint, searching for above-the-surface bonded contaminants such as a thin film of tree sap, bird droppings or pollen and below-the-surface defects such as swirls, oxidation caused by the sun’s ultraviolet radiation or etching from acid rain.

Lightly sweep your flat hand along the paint. If it does not feel as smooth as glass, you have above-the-surface contaminants. A clay bar designed for car care (such as the one included in Meguiar’s Smooth Surface Clay Kit or in Mothers California Gold Clay Bar Kit) is mildly abrasive to shear off and remove these contaminants. It should be the first product you use to try to remove them. Rub it over the affected area, kneading and turning it to expose a clean area when necessary.

For below-the-surface defects, you can use a cleaner with mild abrasives (such as Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound or Mothers California Gold Pure Polish). Use a microfiber-covered or foam applicator pad to apply it, using small circular, overlapping strokes. Never use hard pressure.

Cleaning a section of the vehicle at a time, remove the cleaner with a microfiber towel that you’ve folded into fourths. Use one side to break up and wipe away the hazy product, then flip the towel over to a clean side to remove any additional residue. Your paint should now feel smooth and should be free of swirls and defects.

If upon the initial inspection you do not find any defects — either above or below the surface — you can skip the cleaning step altogether and go straight to polishing and waxing. However, experts say that use of a clay bar probably will be necessary every six months.

Polishing
Polishes and glazes add luster but do not protect the finish, so using them is entirely optional, especially since clear-coat finishes are highly resistant to oxidation. Even years-old cars generally retain their shine today.

Nevertheless, products such as Meguiar’s Ultimate Polish and Mothers California Gold Micro-Polishing Glaze can restore the natural oils your paint once had, making the car’s surface more reflective and shiny. Using a polish or glaze once a year may be helpful. Although light-colored paints such as white, silver and tan may not display much change, darker colors such as black, burgundy and navy blue will reflect light like a mirror after proper polishing.

As you did during the cleaning process, apply the polish or glaze by hand, using small circular, overlapping strokes with a microfiber-covered or foam applicator pad on one section of the car at a time, removing the polish with a microfiber towel after the product becomes hazy. Don’t allow the polish to dry completely. Trying to remove dry polish will almost certainly result in scratches to the finish.

Waxing
For protection, you need to apply a car wax, and experts recommend that this be done at least every three months. However, there are varieties of wax that can be used much more frequently. If you’re really obsessive, some can be used as often as every few days.

The newest synthetic polymer-based waxes (such as Meguiar’s Ultimate Wax, Mothers California Gold Synthetic Wax and Turtle Wax ICE Premium Care Liquid Wax) generally provide longer-lasting protection and are easier to use in the sun than older-style carnauba-based waxes (such as Meguiar’s Gold Class Carnauba Plus Wax and Mothers California Gold Pure Brazilian Carnauba Wax).

Normally, the newer liquid or paste waxes provide the longest-lasting protection — usually three or four months if the car is kept in a garage and not exposed to a harsh environment.

When applying a liquid or paste wax, you’ll use the same technique: small, circular, overlapping strokes, using a microfiber-covered or foam applicator pad and working one section of the vehicle at a time. As in the other steps, remove the wax with a microfiber towel that you’ve folded into fourths, using one side to break the waxy surface, then flipping the towel over to a clean side to remove any additional residue.