It all starts with the right information

If you take a moment and look around your shop, can you identify which tool is most important? At first, you may feel it's your engine analyzer, scan tool or DVOM. Then again, maybe it's your trusty four-wheel alignment machine, or perhaps the brake lathe or wheel balancer.

No matter what kind of work you do, information is really the most valuable tool of all. It is this precious commodity that makes effective and profitable repairs possible. Because, without the right information, guesswork and comebacks increase, along with customer dissatisfaction.

As proof, think of the times where you've said, "If only I knew that before," or "I'll know the next time," after you struggled to make a repair after previous unsuccessful attempts. Or maybe, it was as simple as misjudging on an estimate where you lost your shirt on a certain job.

It all boils down to the fact that your hardware (tools and equipment) won't do you much good unless you have the right software (information). Depending on the task at hand, the right information may be something as simple as proper training on a certain vehicle system. Or, how about the time a technical service bulletin saved your hide because it uncovered the quirks of a certain problem, then steered you in the right direction for a fix?  

This issue's Tool Q&A is dedicated to the cause of finding the information you need to do your job—whether it’s on good old-fashioned hard copy, or via the information superhighway. We’ll list various resources that can give you the information you need, when you need it. Clearly, you need tools of the mind as much tools for the hands.

Q. Our shop focuses on air conditioning work, so knowing all the latest rules and regulations is critical to both legal compliance and our success. Where can we find this sort of information?

A. The USEPA Stratospheric Protection Division's site at www.epa.gov/ozone/title6/609/ offers a wealth of information related to motor vehicle air conditioning. There, you’ll find information in a context presented for both service technicians and motorists, as well as regulatory status updates and federal register notices. With the introduction of HFO-1234yf refrigerant coming soon, you will also find a copy of EPA's final ruling on that refrigerant posted on the site.

Q. When comparing information subscriptions, which is better, paper or electronic?

A. Although electronic service information has become most popular because of its search and update efficiencies, the traditional print format is still a viable way to get information. For example, print information works well for simpler information needs like looking up the specifications related to performing an oil change. Overall, you may find that the best information library for you consists of electronic and paper sources. 

Q. How do technical service bulletins (TSBs) fit into the overall service information picture? Some of my guys here say they only apply to dealers. Is that true?

A. No, that’s not true. Technical service bulletins, or TSBs, provide a supplementary source of information that goes beyond manuals. TSBs often replace published procedures, specifications or capacities used during vehicle service and may also address in-service problems. For these reasons, you should always consult TSBs prior to beginning work. TSB’s can also generate additional service opportunities for your shop and help build customer confidence.

Q. Even with the best service information resources, we need help with the really tough problems from time-to-time. Sometimes we just need additional expertise!

A. Auto repair is a vocation of many battles; each against an elusive opponent that has different characteristics and countries of origin. On Monday, you may have outfoxed all of your foes using your diagnostic prowess to its fullest. Ah, yes, on such a day life is good and your confidence grows to new heights. Come Tuesday, though, and you could be in for a humbling experience. Fact is, the battlefield of auto repair has an area akin to a minefield that can explode on any given day, destroying the chances of performing a job profitably, or to the satisfaction of the customer. No matter how much experience you've accrued or the extent of your training, you will wander into the minefield from time to time and will find yourself trapped, looking for a way out.

That's where the secret weapon called the diagnostic hotline comes into play. With such a service, you can summon the collective expertise of diagnostic experts that can give you the proper coordinates to escape the minefield safely, and save the day. One advantage hotlines have over some of the other information resources is that they have a self-developed database of problems and fixes based off real-world work experience. In other words, a hotline may be able to help you with a field fix long before a service issue ever makes it into a service bulletin or other document.

Q. Is there any place online I can network with my peers to “compare notes” about the challenges we face in our shop from day-to-day?

A. Although there are numerous online forums for auto repair professionals, the most esteemed network for service professionals is the International Automotive Technicians' Network (iATN) found at www.iatn.net. Representing the largest network of automotive repair professionals in the world, the iATN consists of approximately 74,500 professionals from 156 different countries. The members of this group exchange technical knowledge with their peers around the globe, sharing their combined experience of over 1.7 million years. PTEN sponsors the iATN as a showing of support for you, the service professional.

One quick tip for using the iATN: Don’t get the impression that you can use this network for help instead of service information. The intent of the iATN goes beyond that, when professionals have already sought out the proper technical information, but still can’t get to the bottom of the problem.

Q. We’re actively involved with onboard diagnostics (OBD) and our state emissions program. Is there a central resource we can use to learn more about OBD and I/M programs throughout the country?

A.  The National OBD Clearinghouse, at www.obdclearninghouse.com, is hosted by the Center for Automotive Science and Technology at Weber State University.  The site features an all-things-OBD approach, covering topics such as I/M program information, a vehicle OEM database of DLC locations and TSBs related to I/M, and the status of programs throughout the United States—and a whole lot more.

Q. What do I look for when shopping for and comparing various service information systems?

A. Without question, opinions vary if you were to ask which system is the best. One shop may find that one brand of system works best for their specific needs, while another shop may find another system is a better fit. That’s because there are numerous variables that go into the selection equation, with each one being unique to your particular situation. As some examples, consider available formats (paper vs electronic), Internet vs. disc, the vehicle applications you service most often, the type of work you perform (electrical work requires good schematics), frequency of updates and subscription terms. Of course, there’s the price tag, but try to look at your service information subscription from a value standpoint. That is, which system—given your shop’s specific needs—provides the best cost/benefit ratio? Whatever you do, don’t buy based on promised feature content alone. Try each and every system you’re considering by researching the type of work you perform on vehicles day-in and day-out.

Q. We’ve found that for some vehicle applications we absolutely must have service information from the OE vehicle manufacturer. Where can we go to find out what’s available?

A. Visit the home page of the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF) at www.nastf.org and click on the OEM Service Websites link on the left. This will take you to a page with links to service information availability for each of the different manufacturers. While you’re there, make sure to check out the section on Vehicle Security, and to learn how to become part of the Secure Data Release Model registry.  

Q. We do our best to keep our technicians trained, but need to be aware of sources of where they can get training. Any ideas?

A. Technician training can come through a multitude of avenues, ranging from professional training organizations, tool and equipment vendors, parts suppliers, all the way to manufacturer training. As a strong nucleus for training in your area, always check with the local community college for what's offered there, as well as in the area. NASTF can also help with technician training. Just download the training matrix document from the NASTF website. It gives specific training program availability from the OE manufacturers, including what's available to each audience.  

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As daunting as flying blind without information can be, you can soar to new levels of success if you harness the right information resources. Remember to look it up, learn about it, and then get started with the job. 

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