Are you still selling tune-ups?

April 1, 2019
Most cars don't require valve adjustment but some do and including that operation in your offering would meet the definition of making a "general adjustment," wouldn't it?

Way back in the day, vehicle owners had "tune-ups" performed on their cars every year, or every 15,000 miles or so. The reason was simple. Most of the engine management systems were mechanical and wore over time. The contact breaker points in the ignition system, for example, had to be cleaned (or replaced) and adjusted to keep ignition timing in specification. The idle mixture and choke linkages on the carburetors of the day needed tweaking once a year to maintain fuel efficiency and ease of starting. Today, though, these systems are electronic and computer controlled - never requiring adjustment or replacement.

So if these services are no longer needed, is a tune-up still a valid service to offer?

Tune-up defined

One definition of the term is "a general adjustment to ensure operation at peak efficiency.”  Some sources add "a process in which small changes are made to something (such as an engine) in order to make it work better." By either definition, using the term "tune-up" on your menu board may still be valid — though the processes included in that labor operation may have to be modified to reflect the needs of cars today.

This is one of the more severe filters I've seen. But who's going to check it, if not you?

For example, we aren't adjusting points or timing anymore, but we still service ignition spark plugs. Most cars don't require valve adjustment but some do and including that operation in your offering would meet the definition of making a "general adjustment," wouldn't it? And how about the idea of removing carbon build-up, especially on those models we know are prone to them? Isn't that making a "change" that makes it work better? Based on these few examples, the term is still valid. But is it practical?

There, I think, the answer is a solid "No."

And for a few reasons. First is the impracticality of offering a general service item to fit a variety of applications. You just can't break it down like we used to and offer a 4-cylinder, 6-cylinder or 8-cylinder job. Second is the connotation that surrounds the word. Many customers still come in requested a tune-up, thinking that it will cure whatever ails their car's driveability.

So what do you offer?

The 30-60-90 menu board

An option that gained popularity a few decades ago and still graces the menu boards of some shops is the concept of the "routine service" based on 30,000 mile intervals. Not a bad idea, for the most part, because these services often addressed the maintenance needs of the entire vehicle and not just the engine. Many of those offering these menu items included, at the least, transmission and coolant fluid exchanges as integrated parts of the service.

But this, too, is getting to be a bit archaic. Maintenance needs still exist, though maybe not at the same levels as they used to. Better yet is the idea of setting up a routine maintenance plan for your customer based on the OEM’s maintenance recommendations. These schedules can be found in both OE and aftermarket service information sources. Since they are included in the customer’s owner’s manual, there is additional justification for your recommendations.

Spark plug service is still a normal offering but alone, doesn't make a "tune-up."

If you’re familiar with the OE schedules, you know most list two: one for “normal” service and one for “severe” service. So which do you recommend? To quote one OEM’s criterion:

Follow the severe conditions maintenance schedule if you drive your vehicle MAINLY under one or more of the following conditions:

  • driving less than 5 miles per trip OR less than 10 miles per trip in freezing temperatures
  • driving in extremely hot (over 90 degrees F) conditions
  • extensive idling or long periods of stop-and-go driving, such as a taxi or commercial vehicle
  • trailer towing, driving with a roof rack, or driving in mountainous conditions
  • driving on muddy, dusty, or de-iced roads

I don’t know about you, but my primary driving habits meet at least one!  Recommend using the “severe” schedule to your customers to help them “ensure operation at peak efficiency.”

What if it's not on the schedule?

One maintenance item that comes to mind that is not on the service schedule of some OEMs is the need for brake fluid replacement. It seems that no domestic maker lists a recommended service interval. Europeans, and some Asians, however, do specify service intervals for their vehicles. What should you do?

We all know that brake fluid is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture. As the moisture content builds, the boiling point of the fluid drops. This can reach a point where hard braking causes the water in the system to boil out, resulting in a loss of (or spongy) pedal. Moisture in the system was a problem back in the day but, like every other system now, they are sealed much better and the opportunities for water to enter more often come from the use of already contaminated fluid. Still an important check, but the absence of moisture does not mean the fluid is healthy.

The best way to test brake fluid (and coolant) is to measure the acidity, or pH, of the fluid.

As further studies were done, experts began recommending measuring the copper content of the fluid. This can be done by the use of specialty test strips and provides an indication of the condition of the anti-corrosion additives used in the fluid. But, according to the folks who make the test strips, copper content becomes almost useless if the brake system has had the fluid exchanged already. Why? The copper comes from the copper brazing in the brake lines and if the system has already had the fluid exchanged, those particles are flushed out. Now, the focus is on measuring the acidity, or pH, of brake fluid as a key indicator. A highly acidic fluid is another indication of additive depletion and reason for a fluid service.

Another vehicle fluid that shouldn't become too acidic is the coolant. It, too, uses a type-specific additive package that is charged with keeping the coolant and the cooling system components healthy. Unlike the brake system, however, the cooling system is much more open to outside attack (from poor electrical grounds, improper water selection and undiagnosed head gasket leaks, to name a few enemies) — and premature failure of the fluid results. Here, you may find yourself testing and recommending a fluid exchange to a customer who just had one recently completed. Just be sure to correct the cause of the early coolant demise at the same time.

Assessing the condition of the engine oil is generally not an issue. Most consumers understand the need to change that one routinely, even if it's only because it's become ingrained in our society's psyche. What you may consider offering, though, is from a lesson learned from our Class 8 cousins — have the oil analyzed by a lab. These analyses can often help dial in a customer's individual maintenance schedule as well as detecting trace elements that may point to undiagnosed failures, or pending failures. For example, traces of coolant in the oil could indicate a slight leak in a head gasket that is causing no other problems than contamination of the coolant as I shared above. But, if left unchecked, it could lead to much worse.

Recommend fluid services when the fluid service is required. Sometimes, that's before or after what the owner's manual might say.

Similar is the analysis of the vehicle's transmission fluid, even before it's changed. Some fluids are labeled as "lifetime" but we technicians treat that term with some pessimism. The fluid, if left alone and uncontaminated, may just last the lifetime of the vehicle but we can't help but wonder, what if? An analysis will provide data on trace elements that will help you gauge the condition of the fluid as well as catch any internal issues before they become major problems.

Agreed, these are all more involved and higher scale services than what we may be used to offering our clients. But the vehicles they are driving are also on a much higher scale, aren't they? The cost of ownership is rising, the cost of repair and service is right behind it and helping your customer control that cost as much as possible will only help you earn, and keep, his business.

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