A Look Back on Useful Tech Tips

This article is to help you help your customers better identify vehicles that have water damage. Many years ago, I wrote two articles “Water Damage” (originally published in July 1997) and “Used Car Inspection” (originally published in October 2002).

I was talking to Steve Swedberg about his article in Lubes & Greases on what water can do to the mechanical parts of a vehicle — motor oil, brake fluids, power steering fluids, transmission fluids, differential fluids and fuel. All these fluids can be replaced. Where the problems lay is in the gaskets, pads and filters — plus all the mud and other junk.

We have all probably seen it on TV: Vehicles, both old and new, submerged in water or floating downstream. There are well over 1 million vehicles in 2017 that received water damage. Now, some of these vehicles will be crushed, but many will be cleaned up, moved to another part of the country (the dry states) and sold as high-quality used vehicles.

Here’s some advice for customers looking for a vehicle: A very important item is to find a quality dealership. Before a purchase is made, get in writing that the vehicle has not been wrecked or had water damage.

The two articles I previously published about this subject in “Tech Tips” are listed below and may help you to better help your customers in their future vehicle selections.

Water Damage

(originally published July 1997)
A short time back, I discussed with a friend how you can find out if your vehicle has suffered water damage. With all the floods we have had across North America in the past few years, we must be careful when purchasing previously owned cars, and even new cars. Groups go into the flood damaged areas and purchase water damaged vehicles for pennies on the dollar. They then recondition them as cheaply as possible, move them hundreds or thousands of miles away and sell them at blue book values or better.

How can we protect ourselves from making this type of purchase? When purchasing any type of vehicle, take the vehicle to a trusted mechanic. Tell the mechanic to check the normal mechanical items like the engine, transmission, differential and all fluids, but also to look for water damage.

Check for water lines in the trunk, under the hood and inside the door panels. Look for residue like rust or mud under the floor mats or in the trunk. While in the trunk or under the hood check the jack for rust. Have all the floor coverings seat coverings or headliner been replaced? Has the glove compartment box been replaced? While sitting in the front seat, reach under the dash and feel the wiring and any flat areas for residue. Check the title history to see where the vehicle originates from or if it has any classification like “salvage” or “reconditioned.”

Purchase your vehicle from a reputable dealer, and ask for some sort of written assurance that the vehicle has not been water damaged. Also ask for the name, address and phone number of the previous owner. Before you purchase the vehicle, call the last owner and discuss the vehicle with them. Make sure the previous owner is a real person.

Used Car Inspection

(originally published in October 2002)
Occasionally, we in the fast lube industry are asked to look at a used vehicle before a customer purchases it. Here are some tips on what to look for:

The very first thing is to look over the vehicle’s history, especially its service history. Next, ask if the vehicle has ever been wrecked.

For the physical inspection, start with the vehicle’s body. Open all the doors, trunk, gas cap flap and hood. What you’re looking for are the factory-installed decals in these places. If the decals are missing, it is a good sign the vehicle has been repainted, meaning that, more than likely, it has been in a collision and then repaired.

Other signs of repair can be found by looking for color differences in the paint at the edges of body panels. Or, try standing back and looking closely at the vehicle’s sides. If the body looks rippled (what I call “oil canning”), it generally means the panel has been repaired.

Also, rub the top of your hand (not your palm) over the paint finish. It should feel smooth; if it feels gritty or bumpy, there is a paint problem. Specifically, the vehicle has probably been given a fast, cheap paint job.

Next, move on to the tires. Check the tread with the penny method. (Put a penny, head-site out, into the tire tread. If you can see the top of Lincoln’s head, the tread is too worn and the tires are unsafe.) Make sure there are no cuts or bubbles in the tread or sidewalls of the tires. Make sure the wheels are balanced (check for weights), and check that the lug nuts are all there and in place. Also, check to see if one side or the other of the tires is worn. If so, it could mean the wheels (especially the front ones) are out of alignment.

Check the wiper blades. What kind of condition are they in? Are the wiper posts tight? Turn the wipers on, and make sure they work as a pair. Do they reseat themselves? Check the glass for overspray (another indication the car has been repainted) and for cracks/dings that have been repaired.

Now, move now to the lights. Check all the lights: headlights, taillights, parking lights, fog lamps, dash lights, interior lights and backup lights. Also, make sure the turn signal lights work at both the front and rear of the vehicle.

What about the radio antenna? Is it standard or electrically retractable? If it is retractable, make sure it is able to fully extend and retract. What about the radio itself? Is the signal clear? Turn the volume up to drive the speakers. Is the sound clean?

If there is a rattle, the speaker cones are loose and need replacing. Make sure all the speakers are working by adjusting the radio’s fade and balance. Also, be sure that the radio fits where the manufacturer placed it. Lastly, if it has a tape or CD player, make sure it works. (A neat hint: If you want to know what kind of person the seller is, check what radio stations are programmed into the radio. Music says a lot about a person.)

Check the mirrors. Are they all there? If power adjustable, make sure they work.

Moving inside, check the ashtray/lighter. If it looks well used, the car could have been owned by a smoker. Close the doors and windows for a minute or so, then get in and take a deep breath. You should be able to detect the odor of cigarette smoke if it was. If the smell is musty, however, that could be indicative of flood damage. Check the odometer. If it is an analog, roll-type unit, the numbers should be fairly even. If they’re not, it might have been tampered with.

Remove the floor mats and look for carpet damage or discoloration. Check for water damage (another indication the car has been in a flood). Check the seats, interior coverings and headliner for damage.

Open the trunk and make sure the light comes on. Is there a spare tire? Is it in good shape? Are all the tools present (jack, jack handle, lug wrench, etc.)? How is the spare tire being held in place? Is the tire well cover in good shape? Check the spare tire well and the insides of the fender wells for rust or water damage.

Now, let’s move to my favorite part — under the hood. Are there any maintenance records for the vehicle? When was its last service? Look at the air cleaner/ breathers. What is their condition? Check the oil level in the dipstick. Is it full? What’s the color? The color depends on when the oil was changed, generally. But let’s say the records indicate the oil was changed 500 miles ago, yet the oil is black. This could mean a lot of things, none of them good. Best have a certified mechanic check over the engine before recommending a purchase.

What does the dipstick look like? Is it clean, or are their traces of burned oil on it?

Burned oil generally means the engine was not well maintained. Check both the washer fluid and coolant reservoir bottles. Make sure they’re full and that the windshield washer system works. Is the coolant the correct type for this vehicle? (You wouldn’t want to find green coolant in a late-model GM vehicle, for instance.) What color is the coolant? If it is not a pure orange, red, yellow or green, then it is possible something has contaminated it. When was the coolant last changed? Test its freeze point.

Check the power steering fluid (it should look bright), and then start the vehicle and turn the wheels. It should be smooth from lock to lock. Also, check the gasket on the power steering fluid reservoir. It should be clean and tight.

Move to the brakes. What’s the fluid level? Remove the brake fluid reservoir cap and check the gasket. If it seems enlarged, its possible the brake fluid has been contaminated. To fully check the brakes, you should drive the vehicle. Come to a full stop from different speeds. There shouldn’t be any noise. Try breaking from 30 mph with your hands off the steering wheel. Does the car lunge to one side? If it does not, one of the brakes is grabbing. This needs to be repaired before the car is purchased.

If you can, check the exhaust system for rust/damage. Make sure all the correct parts are there (catalytic converters, mufflers, heat shields, etc.). Check the bottom of the car for oil leaks, transmission fluid leaks, coolant leaks, washer fluid leaks, differential fluid leaks and power steering fluid leaks. Also, check for damage to the oil and transmission fluid pans.

Getting back to the outside of the car, push down each corner of the vehicle to check the shock absorbers. If the shocks are good, the vehicle should bounce lightly once or twice, then stop. If it bounces like a ball, the shocks are bad. Start the engine. Listen for any unusual noise. Top noise is generally coming from the valvetrain. Light noises are usually okay, but if it sounds like a rock band under the hood, something’s wrong. Deep, low noises are usually bad connecting rods.

If you hear this, move on to another vehicle or be prepared to spend more money after the car has been purchased. As the engine is running, make sure it idles smoothly. Does it accelerate smoothly when you rev it up? If the engine hesitates or sputters, it might need a tune up — or worse.

With the engine still on, check the fan. Does it come on when the engine is hot? Also at this time, check the air conditioning to make sure it works. Some vehicles have a second fan for the air conditioning system. Make sure this works, too. Turn the heater on. All temperature settings should work, and the car’s inside fan should function at all speeds. Check for a cabin air filter. If the vehicle has one, when was it changed last?

Don’t forget to check the horn.

Once you’ve gathered all the facts and written your findings down, you can present your findings. Often, if a customer still likes the vehicle after the inspection, they can use your findings to have the price lowered if any damage or other problems were found.