The right (diagnostic) tool for the job

May 2, 2019
Code readers, scan tools and crossover products all have a place in the shop.

These days the scanner is less likely to be a standalone tool in the repair shop, but a tool that is integrated into the front office and to the customer's invoice. We are reaching a point where the technician/mechanic is asked to provide much more than a clean bill of health to the customer’s; they must also present a well-documented repair order that shows and tells all.

            Reading the codes off a tool and describing the results to the customer is only a small portion of a repair transaction. As we have all heard more than once, “codes don’t fix cars.” Even so, it’s a good place to start. The real issue is, just how important are those codes, and can you get an accurate repair evaluation just by reading a code number and the description from a handheld code reader? 

            First let’s first get our facts straight. A code reader is not a scanner, and that teen-aged kid at the parts store that leaps over the counter like a gazelle with a code reader in his hand is normally not the most highly trained technician. By the time the customer reaches the shop he or she will have that little print-out with the code numbers on it, along with a list of parts they have just purchased from the same youngster at the parts store. All of this is based on the fact that a certain part was mentioned in the description of the ‘said’ code. This is where the separation between code reading and code evaluation begins.

Instead of dwelling on the characteristics of the person reading and interpreting the code, let’s take a look at the differences between a code reader and a scanner, and how both are important.

Code Readers

            A basic code reader typically only supports generic type trouble codes. Those are codes that have the first numeric number as a “0”. If a code is specific to one manufacturer, the first digit will be something other than “0” such as a “1” or “2” etc. A generic code is a good place to start, and in most cases that’s where the capabilities of a lot of the low-end code readers end. Now, some may offer an explanation (short that is) as far as the description of the code, but I’ve not seen many that can offer real diagnostic information, other than just a basic generic code name or a short version of the code description.

            Code readers are popping up everywhere, from parts stores to Harbor Freight. They are very inexpensive, small and compact, and are generally very reliable in performing the duties they are programmed for. But, be aware they have limitations. David Bradley, senior product category manager for automotive at Harbor Freight Tools says, “As vehicles become more sophisticated, so do the repair requirements for those vehicles. While many of the basic diagnostic repairs can be researched using a code reader, the more challenging repairs will require a scanner with good aftermarket vehicle coverage to determine the repairs that are necessary. With Harbor Freight’s Zurich, shop owners can have both a code reader and a scan tool to provide the service level necessary for these repairs. Plus, the Zurich includes a one-year software subscription good for all supported makes and models, and a built-in DTC Code Search look-up function makes it easy to connect to the internet for diagnostic help, and repair information for additional fault codes.”

When asked what would be the his bet guess on the return rate of the initial investment in the equipment, Bradly replied that will depend on the volume of diagnostic repairs done by a shop and the amount charged for the services. The cost to maintain and/or update the tool as new procedures are developed is also something to take into consideration. Bradley says in general a code reader will cost between a $100 a $1,000 with most falling in the $300 to $400 range. Prospective buyers should take into consideration a few variations on the tool as well, as some are wireless, some are pc-based updatable, and still other code readers work directly with your smartphone. 

            So, why would a professional shop want to invest into a cheap handheld thing-a-ma-jig to do the work of the expensive scanner with all the bells and whistles on it? That’s an easy answer… speed. Let’s say it’s an early morning and the cars are starting to pile up at the front door. How are you going to sort out which ones should go to which mechanic, and which car needs to be checked on the scanner for further diagnostics (we’re assuming they are not DOA or a repair issue unrelated to code retrieval). It’s simple, check the codes first. Send out your latest fry cook graduate with the code reader and see what you find out. Call it ‘triage’ for the repair shop.

            I asked Autel’s Michael Flink – Commercial Sales manager & Trainer for North America -- about comparing cost to functions and this is what he said: “Where cost is a concern obviously the OE scanners are out. To be able to diagnose today’s vehicles (2010 and newer) will require a top level aftermarket scanner. While they will not “need” to go as far as one with programming features, they are still going to need all the bidirectional controls and special tests. In most brands this will be one step below their top tool. Dropping down to mid-level scanners just sacrifices too many abilities needed to diagnose and fix cars in the “CAN” era.”

           The use of a preliminary inspection/diagnostics scanner is also a new trend we're finding in the automotive scanning world. These scanners don’t exactly code the car and spit out numbers that have no meaning to the average customer. They are merely a great way to quickly scan the vehicle and tell the customer in plain English whether or not any further work with a more specialized scanner is needed. These new tech devices can be tied into the shops’ existing POS system and can speed up the process of getting the job sorted out to the right mechanic in the service bay, as well as offer a timely way of keeping the front office and customer informed of ongoing service.


            There is no doubt today’s vehicle repairs almost always involve a scanner for one reason or another. The most common issues are the relearn or flash procedures that need to be carried out after a new part or component has been installed. The other common reason to use a scanner is for the PID’s (parameter Identification). These PID’s can come in handy for several reasons, such as to check the status of a component or switch, or to evaluate the voltage or current levels. Another great feature are the ‘BIAS’ control ability found on a lot of scanners. This will allow the user to manually turn on or off a function as needed while performing a test, or as part of a diagnostic procedure.

            Now, will a scanner read a code? Most certainly, and a lot more, too. Some scanners have every function that a code reader will have, but with greater dexterity and control. The ability to go online and connect the scanner to the manufacturer’s site for the purpose of finding out a bit more information or programming information are all just part of today’s ever-evolving scanner capabilities.

Elbert Chen, operation director at FCAR Tech USA, said it like this: “All the aftermarket professional scanners have their own features. That is why more and more shops have more than one scanner. None of the scanners on the market can cover all the makes on a 100 precent, OEM level. Some of them cover GM’s better, some cover Ford’s better. One-level scan is only working on basic emissions related diagnostics. Pre and post scan reports are perfect example; most data in the report is from OBD, but it still needs to have manufacturer specific data.”

           You probably already know the major differences between a scanner and a basic code reader. What I think is really important to note is the value in the various types of tools, and how you can best utilize them to your advantage and increase your productivity without breaking the bank. 

Crossover scanner/code readers, special considerations

            For the professional mechanic and repair shop there are some crossover code readers/scanners out there that have better than average capabilities. These tools ca enhance your first line of diagnostics and speed up the process of getting the right car into the right mechanics bay.

            Crossover type scanner/code readers have limited capacity and limited access into factory information. But, in a lot of instances you’re not after that factory direct information. Maybe all you need is an oil change reset, or perhaps a window initialization procedure. That’s where these crossover type scanners are cost effective and perform the job very well.

            Of course, the difference in price tags from a basic code reader to a crossover scanner, and then obviously the full-on scanner, can vary widely. What you’ll need to do is research the tool you’re considering and see if it fits your needs for your particular shop.

            Some of the other things to consider are the update and refresh rates on some of these tools. No doubt the cheaper you go the less updates you’ll have with it, if any at all. I prefer the online updatable type. That way each time I use the tool it has the latest software already loaded and ready to go.

            I asked Mike Flink from Autel, "How likely and cost effective is it to maintain the equipment and or update it as new procedures are developed?" He said, “Another misunderstood idea. Updates in today’s world are not just for new vehicles. With CAN the car is a network. OE vehicle manufacturers are adding tests and functions to scanners for older vehicles. On top of that, scan tool manufacturers are enhancing and improving their software regularly. This includes not only fixing “holes” or coverage issues, but making them faster, improving the interface to be simpler, and adding bonus features for easier access or displaying information. Keeping your scanner up-to-date is vital to making it payoff.”

Flink says technicians simply cannot work on vehicles today without a decent scanner. "Think this through this carefully: if you don’t keep up with the scanning issues in today’s vehicles and the needs of today’s customers, you’re risking an ‘Out of business’ sign on the door without the investment." He adds, "A full repair shop must have at least one OE-level aftermarket tool. They can supplement with other good level tools. A shop specializing in under car work (brakes, tires, front end, etc) can get away with a good level scanner if it has the bidirectional functions for their specialty (electronic parking brake resets, steering angle reset, ABS bleeding etc). A code reader is only good for quick checks or verification." Flink says the Autel MX808 is a good example of a multi-purpose tool that can handle a very wide range of tasks. The MX808 or TS608 AutoVIN/AutoSCAN can provide service plus a way to print diagnostic reports.

            Service and warranty issues should be considered, too. Buy from a reputable supplier -- one you know can make a big difference if any problems arise with the tool. Also, should you encounter any cord or software issues, find out ahead of time whether the supplier or manufacturer can help.

             One more thing to add: Those out-of-date scanners still have some value. A lot of times they can be used as a trade-in on a newer model or as a backup scanner. For years I kept an old Monitor4000E around just for those older vehicles that seemed to show up now and then. It was very useful and still worked perfectly, but the cars, well… age and time had put an end to the need for that tool. The cost of repairs vs. the condition of the vehicles basically said it was time to shelve that scanner.  

             All in all, having both a handheld code reader, a crossover scanner and a full-on scanner are all tools that will make your job a lot easier. Having a variety of them also reduces the wear and tear on your main scanner (which, can be a real issue if you only have one and it gets damaged in some way).

What can a scanner offer you and your customers?

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