Is $600 for this car repair within the range of plausibility?
December 19, 2012 2:02 PM   Subscribe

My mechanic says the leak from my car looks like it is because a wash plug between the gear box and engine block needs replacing. He says it's not a simple job because he'll have to remove the gearbox. He is quoting me "at least" $600. (Bearing in mind that in this city mechanic labour alone is around $80-100 an hour) does that sound reasonable?

My car continued its usual pattern of being fine for two or three years and then breaking down (leaking water, overheating) the minute my mother comes to visit from overseas. (Seriously, every visit she makes has involved us waiting on the side of the road for roadside assist, and the car never breaks down in between visits.)

The rest of the extended family is arriving on Saturday. Most have never visited Australia before, and I need a car for taking them sightseeing. All the mechanics I called (10+) were booked out until new year, except this guy, who I've never used before, and who gets very mixed reviews online. Some love, some hate. Hiring a car for the whole visit is going to cost around $500, so unless his prices are $500 more than other mechanics, it's worth using him, I guess. But I still want an idea, for future reference, of whether he is ripping me off. He seems nice, and unlike my usual mechanic he is within walking distance of my house, so if it's not a rip-off, I might use him again in future. But to be honest, I was pretty shocked at the $600+ quote.
posted by lollusc to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total)
It's impossible to answer this question without knowing anything about your car.

How about starting with the year / make / model / engine size / transmission type?
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:15 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, it would be helpful top know if this is front wheel drive or wheel rear drive, as a front wheel drive transmission may (or may not) be more work to service than a rear wheel drive trans.

Your description of the issue and proposed solution is very general, however, so it's very hard to pass judgement from here. More details will allow us armchair mechanics to give you a better sense of how this mechanics proposed solution corresponds to the suspected source of the problem. That said...sure, it's several hours to remove and reinstall a transmission, and could be more if bolts or nuts are rusted, as is often the case, so the dollar figure he quotes isn't out of line. But if he's suspecting that the problem is a leaking gasket, seal, or washer, and that suspected part is hidden behind the transmission's bellhousing...well, there are some parts that you can diagnose like that (e.g., a failed rear main seal that's spewing oil), but it's very hard to say with certainly what's leaking if you can't see the direct source of the actual leak. So $600 might be his opening bid, based on a general suspicion of the cause, but he won't know for sure until he removes the transmission, at which point it could be more.

If you're OK with a bit of a fishing expedition, proceed. If you need absolutely reliable transportation for your family's visit, you might be better off hiring a car and dealing with this after they leave.
posted by mosk at 2:24 PM on December 19, 2012

It sounds like you don't have much of a choice, unless you can wait out the holidays. If your car is consistently breaking down, you need to buy a new vehicle.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:25 PM on December 19, 2012

If your car is consistently breaking down, you need to buy a new vehicle.

I respectfully disagree. Two or three years between $600 repairs is completely expected for an older car, assuming lollusc's car is old and she isn't having regular maintenance done.

Lollusc, are you taking the car in for its regular maintenance according to the schedule in the owners manual? Because if you aren't, or are only getting the oil changed and nothing else checked, that explains why this stuff is happening.
posted by InsanePenguin at 2:33 PM on December 19, 2012

Best answer: Is he quoting you the book rate for that work? IANAM, but I have family who repair cars for a living, and there really are some jobs that require hours of labor to replace a thirty dollar part. Ask him for the book rate for the repair in question -- this is the 'standard' number of hours of labor for the repair work in question (in truth, an experienced mechanic will routinely beat the book rate, but that's part of how they make money and afford all those specialized tools that aren't in your toolkit, and allows novice/journeyman mechanics to eat while gaining experience). Beyond that, there's not enough detail here for me to offer you any better advice about the accuracy of the quoted price.
posted by axiom at 2:40 PM on December 19, 2012

My mechanic says the leak from my car looks like it is because a wash plug between the gear box and engine block needs replacing. He says it's not a simple job because he'll have to remove the gearbox. He is quoting me "at least" $600.

I have no idea what a wash plug is. I also have no means of knowing whether that is good value without the following info:

Oil or water leak? How much leaks (size of puddle or loss of liquid)

What year, make, model, etc.

Is time just an issue or are you being advised that the leak means imminent failure of something? My suspicion is that this is a crank oil seal and it is weeping past the seal and dripping under the gearbox split line. You will need to remove the gearbox for this and it is a long job - $600 is high, I think, if that is the case, but not massive. However, if it is a crank seal and oil loss is not significant I'd sure as hell be waiting until my usual mechanic was available if it was me.
posted by Brockles at 2:45 PM on December 19, 2012

Wait, it is leaking water and that seal is between the gearbox and the engine?

Hmmmm. That's surprising. If that is indeed what is happening then that is a core plug (blocks holes used in the casting process for the block) and so it could potentially be more serious than a crank oil seal issue. But, again, how much water is being lost?
posted by Brockles at 2:46 PM on December 19, 2012

Best answer: It'll be welsh plug, not wash plug - and no, AU$600 doesn't sound out of the ordinary for R&R gearbox & replacing the plug, even on a RWD car.

That said, without any further information, it's hard to be sure that diagnosis is correct. Without wanting to cast aspersions on this particular mechanic, I know that 20-odd years ago it was not uncommon to 'diagnose' a cracked/loose/corroded welsh plug in a hard-to-reach place as an excuse to charge $$$ for a simple cooling system flush (if not merely just a coolant change).

Pissing hot water &/or steam from the bellhousing is usually considered to be a diagnostic feature of the problem ;-)
posted by Pinback at 3:02 PM on December 19, 2012

To jump in for the fishing expedition, it might be a freeze plug in the engine that is in the engine block but hidden behind where the transmission bolts onto the engine. If so that price isn't too bad.

BTW Freeze plugs are small holes left in the engine block during manufacturing that are there mostly to allow the molten metal to get poured into the mould and allow air to escape. They also serve a somewhat dubious purpose of poping loose and allowing the ice to expand and not crack the block should the weather get cold enough to freeze the coolant (if you aren't in Alaska or running just water in your radiator, it ain't gonna happen).

Some maintenance items to take care of when doing this:
New clutch and throw out bearing-if manual transmission
new pressure plate (if needed on a manual transmission)

fluid change (on both automatic and manual transmission)
and bushings on the shift linkage on a manual transmission

and for pinback, a welch plug and a freeze plug are the same thing. and they usually go bad because the coolant is never changed over time and the rust inhibitors wear out and they rust. Coolant needs changing about as often as automatic transmission fluid-about every 50k or 4 years whichever comes first (or even more often your owners manual will say).
posted by bartonlong at 3:07 PM on December 19, 2012

Yeah, knew all that - I'm not a mechanic (though I played one in my youth!), and though I knew they were called freeze plugs in cold places, they're almost always called welsh plugs in Aus (where the OP is). That also lines up with the OP's (misheard?) "wash" plugs.

(I once knew a mechanic - nice guy, but if there's such a thing as anti-Aspergers, he had it - who called them "Dutch Caps". I can only guess his usual parts suppliers knew what he meant ;-)
posted by Pinback at 3:17 PM on December 19, 2012

Response by poster: Sorry not to have given enough information (and then to end up stuck away from my computer all day).

The car is a 1999 Suzuki Baleno with around 150,000 km on it. Manual, front wheel drive. It's reliable except for the aforementioned breakdowns (averaging once every two years, at most, and they've only cost around $100 in the past - for things like battery replacement, a broken hose, flat tyre, etc). I get it serviced once a year with full change of fluids, brake pad/hose/seal/filter inspection and replace when necessary, etc.

Thanks for the "welsh plugs" correction. That would explain why I hadn't been able to find enough info via google! The fluid pooled under the car was definitely water (dirty water, maybe tinged with coolant, but it wasn't coolant) - it was a big puddle, sitting under the engine, and it was very sudden. The mechanic had it up on the blocks before giving me the quote, and he did say that $600 was his low-end estimate, and that it would depend on what he found when he took the gearbox out.

A new car is not happening. We would go without a car rather than replace this one. We use it on average once a week, and only that much because we know it isn't great for a car to go for long without being driven. Mostly we have it so we can drive friends and family around when they visit (which obviously is not working out all that well for us. Sigh).

It's good to hear that this estimate may not be totally implausible.
posted by lollusc at 10:28 PM on December 19, 2012

lollusc: "The fluid pooled under the car was definitely water (dirty water, maybe tinged with coolant, but it wasn't coolant) - it was a big puddle, sitting under the engine, and it was very sudden."
OK, that's odd then - welsh/welch plugs, core plugs, freeze plugs, call 'em whatever; when they go, the engine leaks coolant.

Your post & followup are a little unclear - has it leaked dirty water (not coolant) recently, and that's why you've taken it to the mechanic? Check that what's actually in your cooling system is coolant (i.e. it hasn't been diluted / refilled with plain water). Look in the radiator overflow/expansion tank, and make sure the fluid in there is definitely coolant-coloured (i.e. usually almost fluorescent green / yellow / orange - but always definitely coloured, not simply dirty or muddy).

(Big puddle, sudden, under the engine - you sure that this time you're not just seeing condensed water from the aircon?)
posted by Pinback at 1:18 AM on December 20, 2012

Response by poster: Sorry I'm still being unclear. The situation was this:

Two nights ago, I parked the car in the garage, which was dry. My husband went out to it an hour later, and there was a large puddle under it. (About the width of the car in diameter, and a few mm deep. I'd guess maybe a couple of litres worth of liquid. Centred about where the engine is, so it seemed too far back to be the radiator.) It didn't smell of anything. It was not brightly coloured. I dipped my finger in it, sniffed it. It was definitely not coolant. Maybe just plain water. We checked the radiator anyway, and it was almost dry. But I hadn't checked it for a few months anyway, so I didn't know when it had last been okay.

I filled it up with coolant (about a litre) and my husband drove off. Got five minutes down the road and the overheating warning light came on. He pulled over, waited a while, checked the radiator, and it was almost dry again, so he added more coolant. Drove home.

The next morning before driving to the mechanic there was no puddle under the car, but the radiator seemed almost empty of coolant again (I have no idea how this is possible, actually, unless it was just that the stuff we filled it with the night before had contracted when it cooled down.) We put most of the rest of the 4 litre bottle of coolant in, and drove it to the mechanic. The heat warning dial went very high very quickly but not all the way to the danger zone (higher than normal, though). At this point I was assuming we had a radiator leak, and I did not understand how the puddle under the engine the night before could have been water.

Pinback above said, however, "Pissing hot water &/or steam from the bellhousing is usually considered to be a diagnostic feature of the problem". So that fits with what I saw, I guess.

I still don't understand the connection between the apparent low levels of coolant in the radiator, the steam/hot water, and the overheating engine, but I do understand that these systems are connected.

I don't think it's condensation from the aircon, both because it would be a coincidence then that we had an overheating problem, and because we've never seen that much of a puddle underneath the car before.
posted by lollusc at 2:35 AM on December 20, 2012

It is possible that when you put a litre of water in that you didn't fill the cooling system. You need to fill the radiator and then run the car with the cap off and keep topping it off. When the level stabilises you put the cap on (before the car gets hot). It is very easy to get an air lock in an engine - especially when the coolant level has gone low enough for the car to overheat or the system loses pressure and boils - both things that happen with a leak. Essentially you get a bubble of air in the pipe/engine somewhere and you fill up the system above that bubble not the whole system. From your description there was more water on the floor than the litre you used to top it up, therefore I suspect the system wasn't at all full (which is why it overheated almost immediately).

Clearly you had a very sudden loss of coolant (despite what it smelt like). I wonder if the coolant passes through the welsh/core plug as steam and then condenses in the gearbox? That'd be why you didn't think it was coolant as the coolant element is still in the engine...

This does need looking at straight away. I am concerned, however, that you may have done damage to the engine when you drove it with what seemed like very little coolant. Bear that in mind when the repair is performed. I say get the mechanic that has it now to do the repair. His 'minimum cost' is likely in case he finds any actual sign of overheating damage, rather than just a hole in a core plug.

I'd say go ahead with the car, but ask him nicely if there's any way he can make sure the cost stays down. He may take pity on you and if the job goes easily he may charge you for how long it took him rather than book time (Garages quote a standard, average time for the repair. It may take less or more time depending on whether everything is rusted up or comes apart all easily).
posted by Brockles at 6:00 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Could easily just be a leaking hose. Maybe you had too much water or not enough coolant the first time, but if you're blowing through 4l of coolant on a drive and still overheating chances are good it's not a small leak and doesn't sound to me like a welsh plug or only that or you'd hear the coolant coming out under pressure if you got out of the car when it's heated up<. Thermostat? All hoses? Possible radiator leak? Mechanic needs to check the integrity of the entire cooling system.
posted by spitbull at 6:02 AM on December 20, 2012

I'd say go ahead with the car, but ask him nicely if there's any way he can make sure the cost stays down. He may take pity on you and if the job goes easily he may charge you for how long it took him rather than book time.

Not in my experience unless he's your cousin or just opened his shop or you've been with him for years and he is in a Holiday spirit. No point doing cooling system work cheap anyway. While you have it apart, change everything if you really want to keep this old beater.
posted by spitbull at 6:07 AM on December 20, 2012

Oh yeah, first make sure the block and head gaskets are ok after the overheating episodes before spending ANY money on the cooling system. It may be too late on such a worn car, that is, you may need a new motor, at which point you probably need a new car.
posted by spitbull at 6:11 AM on December 20, 2012

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