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I'm sick of La Place, LA.
November 2, 2006 12:21 PM   Subscribe

Did this mechanic try to "trick" me into a repair that costs more than the car is worth?

I'm on a road trip and am currently in Louisiana (from MN). My car overheated on Sunday night and I had it towed to the mechanic. The car started again after adding coolant, but there was a lot of white smoke coming out of the exhaust, which the tow truck driver thought meant the headgasket was blown. This is a 1997 Ford Taurus not in the greatest shape, so a $1500 or so repair on a $1500-$2000 car isn't really worth it.

When I called them the next day they said it was probably the headgasket, but after looking at it, they said the headgasket was fine, but the coolant tank was cracked and a cam sensor, a cam synchronizer and the coolant temporature sensor needed to be replaced.

For a long time the Service Engine Soon light has been on, but according to the owner's manual, that meant that there was a problem with the exhaust system, so I haven't bothered getting that looked at. Doing some research online while I've been waiting for them to do the previously mentioned work, it sounds like that could have come on because of the cam sensor/synchronizer problem.

Yesterday, they said they finished all the work and it ran fine, but they had broken an EGR tube, which apparently runs from the manifold to the exhaust system. The grand total would be $700 for all the work.

Today after replacing the EGR tube, they said that it turns out the headgasket actually is bad and that it'll be $1500 total (since they're giving me a break on the labor. Gee, thanks) and that I won't get the car back until the middle of next week. When I asked why they didn't figure that out when they first looked at the car and thought the headgasket was bad, they said they thought it was OK because the compression was fine. According to my brother, there are ten easier and more reliable ways to tell if a headgasket is blown.

So my question is, did they do the other work to get some of my money invested in the car so that I would actually pay for the headgasket repair at a later date?

A side question: I have about $1500 to my name, so I could get it fixed, but I would have to fly back down at a later date to pick it up and would have to borrow a little money from friends or family to get by until my next paycheck. Or I could cut my losses and rent a car to get home for about $200, plus gas and one night's lodging. Plus I'd have to buy another car when I get home.

I'm not exactly confrontational or assertive, so any advice on dealing with the mechanic regardless of which way I go would also be helpful.

In case somebody happens to live in the area and can testify to the trustworthiness of the mechanic, it's Mr. Fix It in La Place, LA.
posted by hootch to Travel & Transportation around Lawrence, MA (9 answers total)
 
Wait, they wanted to charge *you* for the EGR tube, that *they* broke? That's horseshit.

The service engine light being on can mean many more things than an exhaust leak, so those problems may be on the up-and-up.

However, like you said, it's not worth it on this car. Get a rental. If you stop in St. Screwy, you can stay at my house (g/f willing). Email in profile.
posted by notsnot at 12:59 PM on November 2, 2006


Tell them you're not paying them a dime more than $800. The car is worth $1600, and it's their fault that they're incompetent and they misdiagnosed the problem and broke the EGR tube. If you'd known the headgasket was broken you'd never have paid for any repairs, you'd have just bought a new car. If they're honest men they'll take your $800 and fix everything and call it a day. If they say no, get the hell out of dodge and put that $1500 towards a new car.
posted by nixerman at 1:22 PM on November 2, 2006


I disagree with your brother that there are ten easier and more reliable ways to tell if a head gasket is blown.

A compression test involves removing the spark plugs one at a time and putting a pressure guage in its place, and then cranking the engine a few times to see what the pressure in each cylinder is. If the gasket between the head and the block is shot, typically air will leak out of one of the cylinders, wherever the break in the gasket is, leading to very low or no compression in that cylinder and possibly the one(s) adjacent to it. It's a pretty simple process, only takes about 15 minutes. I have a new rule that I do one myself on any used car before I buy it. I recommend the same to friends.

Other things to do would be a leakdown test - this involves hooking up an air compressor to the motor and pressurizing it, then listening for air leaks. Generally more of a pain than a regular compression test. You would also look for oil in the coolant reservoir, as a failed HG can allow the oil inside the engine to get into the coolant journals around the cylinders. And finally, yeah, a whole lot of smoke in your exhaust would probably mean that coolant and oil were mixing inside the cylinders. That would indicate that the HG failed between two cylinders (I think), but not between a cylinder and the outside. Thus, compression wouldn't be affected.

I agree with others that a) you should not be charged for repairing the EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) tube if the shop broke it, and b) at this point your car isn't worth fixing. I would pay for the initial work (sensors, etc), refuse to pay for the EGR work, and scrap the car.

When you get your next car, don't ignore check engine lights. What they indicate is that a sensor related to the exhaust system (those cam and coolant sensors, in this case) are reporting data that's out of normal range. That's what happens when the sensors fail, or when something else is wrong with the engine. It doesn't just mean that your exhaust is maybe not as clean as it should be or something along those lines.
posted by autojack at 2:05 PM on November 2, 2006


notsnot writes "Wait, they wanted to charge *you* for the EGR tube, that *they* broke? That's horseshit."

EGR tubes are notorious for breaking on many models. If the repairs they made required removing the tube and it broke at that time practically all mechanics are going to bill at least the part.
posted by Mitheral at 4:38 PM on November 2, 2006


Did you sign any agreements with them? If not, I would just say "hey guys, welcome to your new Taurus, I'll send the title when I get home." Max I would do is pay SOME of the cost of the mis-diagnosed stuff.

Personally, I do think they set you up, but it may just be incompetence. Coolant in the exhaust is almost invariably a blown head gasket. Heck, one blown that bad would be apparent the minute the spark plugs were pulled, in most cases.
posted by maxwelton at 4:38 PM on November 2, 2006


Wait, they wanted to charge *you* for the EGR tube, that *they* broke? That's horseshit.

They did offer to eat the cost of the EGR tube. I only mentioned it in case it was related to the other problems and to give an overall picture of the process and how they'd been dragging their feet (I had to wait an extra day while they waited for the EGR tube to show up).

Tell them you're not paying them a dime more than $800. The car is worth $1600, and it's their fault that they're incompetent and they misdiagnosed the problem and broke the EGR tube. If you'd known the headgasket was broken you'd never have paid for any repairs, you'd have just bought a new car. If they're honest men they'll take your $800 and fix everything and call it a day.

Even if they agreed to do the work, I need to be back in Minnesota before the work would be done. The car is also in my brother's name if they resort to legal means and I don't want to get him in any trouble. The other problem is that I still have some belongings in the car that I need to get out.

And finally, yeah, a whole lot of smoke in your exhaust would probably mean that coolant and oil were mixing inside the cylinders. That would indicate that the HG failed between two cylinders (I think), but not between a cylinder and the outside. Thus, compression wouldn't be affected.

So it should have been obvious to them that it was failing between two cylinders? Can that be repaired without replacing the entire headgasket? If so, I don't fault them. If not, passing a compression test shouldn't have lead them to the conclusion that the headgasket was OK if it was also generating a lot of white smoke, correct?
posted by hootch at 5:10 PM on November 2, 2006


I also sent the following response to hootch via email, after he contacted me that way in hopes of increasing response time. Just wanted to have it included here, for the record:

I can't really speak to what would have been obvious or not to the mechanics. White smoke in your exhaust does generally mean that coolant is mixing with it or otherwise getting burned, but I'm not positive whether "blown head gasket" would have been the only possible diagnosis.

The head gasket is basically a piece of metal or high-strength rubber (I think) that sits between the head (where the valves and spark plugs are) and the block (where the cylinders and pistons are) in your engine. You can't only replace part of it, it's just one big piece (or maybe sometimes two, but still you don't just replace half - the gasket itself costs a few bucks, it's the head removal labor that kills you). Furthermore, almost anytime you remove the head of an engine, you need to replace the HG.

I'm NOT a mechanic, I've just had a bit of experience with cars and specifically engines blowing up. If I were diagnosing this problem, I probably would have gone through similar steps to what they did. White smoke? OK, maybe head gasket. Compression? Hmm, looks good. Oil in the coolant? No? Coolant in the oil? No?

Let's discount the EGR pipe breakage and focus on the rest of it. You bring in the car, it has overheated and it's producing white smoke when coolant is added. They checked compression and it looked good, but they found a bunch of failed sensors, including a coolant temp sensor. The logical, cheap thing to do is replace those failed sensors first. You would have wanted to replace them anyway, and in fact the car may not have been legal to drive, emissions-wise, without them working.

You can see a head gasket here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head_gasket

These guys sound a little on the incompetent side for sure, but I'm unconvinced that they were deliberately trying to rip you off. Really the only question I would ask them is, if you didn't think the head gasket had failed, what was your theory on the cause of the white smoke? If they had none, and were just replacing the sensors hoping that would fix it, that's bad. If there were other possible causes, especially perhaps related to the things they fixed on the first go-round, then you can't really fault them for starting with the cheap repairs. This is where my engine repair knowledge breaks down a bit, I'm afraid.

Be glad you didn't find yourself in my position. I burned a valve in my car, and had all the exhaust valves replaced (removal of head, machining of head mating surface, replacement of head gasket all required there). I asked at the time of the cylinders and rings looked OK, because I suspected oil leakage into the head area gummed up a valve and caused it to stick open. I was told, "nope, no surprises." Drove the car 10k more miles and burned another valve. This time I replaced the engine (on the cheap, and got one with 1/3 the miles), then disassembled the old one. The first thing I found was that the shop didn't replace all the exhaust valves, but charged me for them. The second thing I found was that the rings were indeed shot in one cylinder, and probably had been for some time. Had I known this, I would have replaced the motor the first time around. That was a $2000 lie they told me, basically, but I ignored the symptoms of a larger problem (oil blowing out the exhaust) for months.

If you've only paid a few hundred dollars for the replacement of these sensors, chalk it up to stupidity tax (I don't mean that in a rude way, it's a term I use on myself all the time, _especially_ when it comes to all my car problems - I'm a bit legendary among my friends for them) and call it a day. It sucks, but this is the nature of car ownership. A coolant temp sensor is about $30, a cam sensor synchro is about $30, a cam position sensor is $15-30, and a coolant bottle (I assume this is what you mean by coolant tank - the coolant overflow res) should be about $10.
posted by autojack at 6:02 PM on November 2, 2006


I disagree that a blown head gasket would be difficult for a "real" mechanic to suss out: Let's see, car overheated, and on restart, lots of coolant in the exhaust. What's the simplest explanation? Blown head gasket slowly sucked the cooling system dry, overheating warped the head, on restart "lightly blown" gasket was now a corker.

You can smell, see, and "feel" the difference in the exhaust between oil (blue smoke and acrid oil burning smell, smoke lingers), too much fuel (sooty black smoke, gas smell, disperses fairly rapidly) and coolant (white steam, glycol smell, disperses rapidly).

Pull the plugs and examine them (in all likelihood one will literally be steam cleaned), examine the piston surfaces (ditto), look for bubbles in the coolant, look at the oil (though if the oil passages haven't been broached there may not be much sign).

None of the items they mentioned would lead to steam in the exhaust. That's what has me riled. Those repairs may have been mandated based on the condition of the items, but they had nothing to do with your problem, and they certainly don't need fixing on a car destined for the breaker's yard. The garage almost certainly knew that the head gasket needed fixing immediately and wanted to get some cash out of you before you said "forget it."

Coolant in the cylinder means the gasket blew between the cylinder and one of the coolant passages, though it can also blow in a number of places. Sometimes it's sudden, a lot of the time it's gradual.

Head gaskets are typically composite or plain steel or copper. Rubber wouldn't last long at the temperatures involved.
posted by maxwelton at 6:33 PM on November 2, 2006


I don't think they tried to trick you. I think they found some things that they thought were broken. Possibly they were in fact actually broken. In any case they replaced them and it didn't fix the problem. It means they weren't right the first time; but they're not gods, they're auto mechanics. They're not going to be right every time.

I think if you're going to take a road trip in a car with a book value of $1500, you kind of have to think something like this might happen. Goes with the territory.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:57 PM on November 2, 2006


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