Archive for the ‘Industry Insights’ Category

Why shopping around for the cheapest labour rate doesn’t make sense.

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

affordable mechanic airdrie

By Chris Dekker


“Hello, what is your labour rate?” We must get this phone call two or three times every day. We understand what the person on the phone is attempting to do: they’re trying to gauge how expensive we are (or aren’t). What these people don’t realize, though, is that if they’re looking for the best overall value, then they’re going about this all wrong.

Auto service businesses in our area all charge around the same labour rate, usually within $20/hour of each other. Yet prices for a given repair can vary wildly from shop to shop; sometimes a $350 repair at one business will cost $500 at another. Why is this? It’s because there are other factors at work – factors that are much harder to measure – that have a much larger affect on the overall price. Let’s explore some of these:


Parts pricing:

Believe it or not, our labour rate alone isn’t enough to pay our bills. Our industry’s hourly labour charges are actually quite low compared to other professional services who have similar operating costs. In order to actually turn a profit, every auto service business purchases parts at a wholesale discount from their suppliers, and then re-sells them for a retail price. However, that wholesale discount varies from shop to shop. While we’ve negotiated a rock-bottom cost on parts with our suppliers, many other businesses pay a higher price in exchange for rewards programs; warranty programs; and kickbacks like free vacations for the owners, etc. Obviously this cost gets passed on to you, the customer. The actual parts mark-up will vary as well; with some shops charging a higher percentage than others.


Extra fees:

We don’t charge any additional fees on top of our labour rate, but this is pretty rare in the industry. Most businesses charge another $5-$10 per hour in “shop supplies” or environmental fees, so you’ll want to make sure you know their true effective labour rate including fees.


Labour times:

To arrive at a labour quote, we multiply our labour rate by the labour time for a given repair. We discuss labour times more here. Most of these labour times come from a labour guide; a sort of industry standard that most business use. However, the guide is just that: more of a general guideline than a rule; and businesses can charge for as many hours as they want. Because the labour times are based on brand new vehicles, we may occasionally charge extra labour when rust, corrosion and other age-related issues make a repair much more time-consuming on an older car, for example. We’ll sometimes also charge a lower labour time on repairs that we know won’t take as long as the guide suggests.

Some auto repair businesses in Calgary charge absurdly low $60-$80/hour labour rates to attract customers, but charge twice as many labour hours for a given repair, so the final price ends up the same. Just remember that even if two businesses have the same labour rate, the labour charge you pay may still be different.


Labour overlap:

What happens when doing one repair makes it easier (and quicker) to do another, separate repair? That’s what we call labour overlap. Here’s an example: on a 2005 Chevy Silverado 1500, the published labour time to replace one front wheel bearing is 1.3 hours, and the labour to replace both front brake rotors is 1.0 hours. So, if we’re replacing both rotors and a wheel bearing, is it fair to charge you to total combined time of 2.3 hours? We don’t think so, since one of the brake rotors must be removed anyway in order to access the wheel bearing. However, many businesses in our industry do not pass this labour savings on to their customers; and this can have a huge effect on the price.


Diagnostic ability:

Here’s another one of those little things that you may not think about. Will you be charged for two hours labour to diagnose a problem that a more qualified technician could find in one hour; or will a misdiagnosis leave you paying for parts that you didn’t need? The pace of change quickens every year in our industry, so this should be an important consideration as we continue to move away from internal combustion engines and into the age of autonomous electric vehicles, with technicians who can’t adapt getting left behind.



This one is huge. As we explain in this blog post, honesty is the number one way that we save people money every day. We often say that a great price for a repair that you don’t actually need – or need yet – is still a bad deal! Whether it’s being honest about what your vehicle needs; how urgently you need a repair; owning up to a misdiagnosis; or being up-front about a mistake, our policy of uncompromising honesty ends up saving our customers a lot of money every year.



One final consideration when determining overall value is the warranty that an auto service business provides on their repairs. Unfortunately, repairs sometimes fail; most commonly due to a parts failure, but occasionally due to a mistake on the part of the technician. A longer or more comprehensive warranty will provide some security that you won’t pay twice for the same repair. A business that provides a better warranty may be more mindful of their quality of work, and likely chooses better quality parts for their repairs.

Another important question to ask is regarding collateral damage. Here’s an example: Let’s say you pay to have an alternator replaced, and the new alternator seizes up, breaking the serpentine belt. Will the installing business only replace the faulty alternator, or will they also replace the broken belt that resulted from the failure?


When the cheapest price isn’t always best:

We always tell customers that if our price is noticeably higher than another business, it’s time to start asking questions because they likely aren’t “comparing apples to apples”. For example, our price to replace a power steering pump will almost always be higher than our competitors, because we’ll only use OEM (from the manufacturer) pumps, while many shops are installing poor quality rebuilt aftermarket units.

You also don’t want to seek out the cheapest business around, because delivering the expertise and service you expect costs money. A shop that’s not charging appropriately likely won’t be able to afford to pay the most skilled and caring technicians, or provide you with a quality warranty and service after the sale.

Making the right decision, not the profitable one.

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

By Chris Dekker

airdrie mechanic

“Don’t tell them about the loose ball joints; we don’t want to lose the brake job.” These were the words from my manager, at an auto repair shop that I worked for years ago. A customer had brought their vehicle in for a brake repair and agreed on a price. Once we brought the vehicle inside, we noticed the lower ball joints were very worn and loose. Besides being a safety hazard, this was also going to be an expensive repair. My manager made the decision to tell the customer about the ball joint issue after we repaired the brakes, for fear that the more expensive estimate “scare the customer off”, or lead them to not fix the vehicle at all. He didn’t want to lose the revenue from the brake repair.

Is this right? Of course not! But you’d be surprised at how often stuff like this happens in our industry.

Before I get too carried away, let’s change gears for a minute. This week, I met with a fellow to discuss some new shop equipment. He marveled at how quickly our business had grown over the last few years. He asked, “How, after only 4 years, are you so much busier than these businesses that have been in Airdrie for over two decades?”

I wasn’t really sure how to answer that question at first. We haven’t really tried to grow this quickly; we just do our best for our customers every day, and it kind of happened on its own. After I thought for a while, though, I was able to pick out what I feel is the principle driver of our growth: our reputation for honesty. We’ve worked very hard for this reputation, and continue to every day. I told the man, “It really comes down to all the little decisions that we make every day; decisions that aren’t always the most profitable for us, but they’re the right thing to do.”

That’s truly what it comes down to. Running our business the way we do costs a lot of money. It means that our profits on a given volume of sales will be lower than competitors, and lower than what is normal in the automotive repair industry. Every day in this industry, you find yourself in situations where you need to choose a path: The path that earns you the most profit, or the ethical path that usually means less profit – and sometimes a loss of money. You’ll be happy to know that we always choose the latter; and put our customers (and our reputation) ahead of any short-term financial gain.


Examples of these situations include:

1.) The “Sell just enough work that we can still get the job” routine:

The aforementioned scenario, where a customer will bring their vehicle in for a repair, and you notice other important issues that (if we were the customer), we’d want to know about first. If the issues are serious, we always stop work immediately and get in touch with the customer before proceeding. Quite often, even if the customer doesn’t want a full inspection, we’ll do a complete check-over on a customer’s vehicle before starting a big job – usually at no charge to them. This helps prevent us from doing a repair on a vehicle that’s not worth fixing, and we’ve actually talked a few folks out of fixing their car because of these inspections.

2) The botched diagnosis:

Even though we’re very good at what we do, we’re also human beings; and we make mistakes. Let’s pretend you bring your car in to diagnose a misfire, and we tell you it needs a fuel pump. You agree to the repair, and we replace the pump. However, we start the vehicle up afterwards and it’s still misfiring! Clearly we got it wrong, and something else is the issue. Let’s say that further testing reveals your problem is actually the spark plugs. This is a much cheaper repair than a new fuel pump. Here are two ways that some automotive businesses often handle this situation: 1) Discovering their mistake, the shop replaces the spark plugs and doesn’t tell the customer. The customer, none the wiser, picks up their smooth running car and believes the fuel pump fixed the issue – even though the correct repair would have been half the cost. 2) The shop calls the customer and tells them that their vehicle is “Better than it was”, or “Has a different problem now” and sells them the spark plug repair as well. They might even go so far as to make up a silly story about how the faulty fuel pump must have “taken out” the spark plugs. The customer pays for both repairs – the ones they did need, and the one they didn’t.

Now here’s how we handle this situation: We usually call up the customer right away, and inform them that we’ve made a mistake. We explain why we thought the fuel pump was the culprit, but that it didn’t fix the problem. We also tell the customer that they aren’t going to pay for that new fuel pump – but they can keep the new part. (Parts like these are usually non-returnable, and we’d lose even more money paying a technician to change the part again, anyway.) We then explain that the actual repair (the new spark plugs) was much cheaper and the customer usually picks up their vehicle feeling pretty happy.

3) The botched diagnosis, part 2:

Take example #2 above, but pretend that instead of needing new spark plugs, we discover the vehicle needs new fuel injectors. Let’s pretend that new fuel injectors cost even more money than a new fuel pump. Maybe the fuel pump replacement was $800, but the injectors would cost $1000; meaning the correct repair actually costs $200 more than we’d originally quoted. Now what? Well, as you may already know, all of our diagnostics are guaranteed. This means that it we told you it’s going to cost $800 to repair your misfire, that’s what it’s going to cost – and this customer just got a free fuel pump, plus a $1000 set of injectors for $800. It’s just the right thing to do.

(Obviously, there are cases where a vehicle does indeed have multiple issues; or one issue must be repaired first before you can tackle another one. This is different. But you can always count on us to own up to our mistakes if we make one, and be honest with you in these situations.)


We always believed that running our business this way would pay off in the long run, and now we’re seeing the payoff that we knew would come. Sure, we aren’t making the money that we could be making, but we’re OK with that. We’re very proud of our outstanding reputation in the community, because we’ve worked very hard – and made a lot of sacrifices – for it.

I’ve mentioned the “making the right decisions” thing before, so hopefully this helps give you a behind-the-scenes look at our management style, and how Tim & I have decided to run our company. We sincerely appreciate you and every one of our customers who support us. We know you have a lot of choices out there, and we don’t take it for granted that you choose us for your automotive needs. We also know that we’re not perfect. There are situations where we’re still learning; where we make mistakes; or where there is a breakdown in communication. We ask that you always bring these situations to our attention, because we really do care about our customers and we might be a lot more eager to “make a bad situation right” than you might expect!

Thank you from everyone at Tools in Motion for letting us help keep you on the road!

Our new policy regarding power steering pumps, and why we’re adopting it.

Friday, June 3rd, 2016

airdrie auto repair

We’ve decided to start installing only OEM (original equipment, or factory) power steering pumps in our customers’ vehicles. Here’s why.


A major part of us providing you with a lasting, quality repair is choosing the right replacement parts for your vehicle. Our years of experience help us understand what types and brands of parts will work best in different situations. We know where you can save money by going with an aftermarket part, and where only an OEM part will do. (In some cases, the aftermarket part is actually an improvement over the stock design, and we’ll inform you of this, too!)

We’re continuously evaluating the work we do, and looking for ways to bring our customers a better repair while balancing the need to keep things affordable. While our pricing is definitely competitive, we’re competing just as much on quality and service; and we want to protect our hard-earned reputation for quality, honest work. One area where we feel like we can make an improvement (when it comes to quality) is with power steering pump replacements.

The power steering pump can be a fairly common failure part, and we probably replace a few of them every week. In the past, we’ve primarily used aftermarket power steering pumps because of the very large cost difference between an aftermarket and an OEM pump. For the most part, they’re what every shop uses. For a 2005 Dodge diesel truck, as an example, an OEM pump costs over $1000 but an aftermarket unit is less than $200. The price difference on other vehicles isn’t as drastic, but it’s always there. However, this is where it’s important to recognize the difference between price and value. While it’s true that we’ve installed lots of aftermarket steering pumps for customers who have had good service from them, the failure rate of the aftermarket units is higher than we consider to be acceptable. Even with our top quality install and a thorough flush of the steering system, we are seeing too many aftermarket pumps failing within the first couple years.

We really wish the aftermarket power steering pumps were better. Unfortunately, no matter where you buy an aftermarket pump, they mostly all come from the same supplier: Cardone Industries. Cardone rebuilds pumps for Auto Value, Napa Auto Parts, Bumper to Bumper, Partsource, Canadian Tire, and most of the other large auto parts retailers. Cardone builds many good quality products, but their remanufactured steering parts aren’t up to our standards – and this is a feeling shared by many in our industry. It’s pretty much impossible an alternative to the Cardone pump in the aftermarket world, though.

We are not okay with installing a part that we can’t be 100% confident in, or that we suspect will need replacing again in the coming few years. Even though using an aftermarket power steering pump might be cheaper in the short term, paying for the repair multiple times will quickly get more expensive than just fixing the issue once – the first time – with a better quality part.

Even if a power steering pump fails within our warranty period, and the repair is free to you, it’s still a bad thing. A breakdown is inconvenient; could leave you stranded somewhere; and could leave you having to pay for a tow. A failed part also makes our quality of work look bad. It’s just not worth it. This is why we’ve made the decision to stick with the OEM pumps from now on.

It won’t always be the most popular decision. We know that in the event a customer is calling around comparing prices for a pump replacement, our pricing will likely seem very high at first. We’ll have to explain that the competitive shop is likely quoting an aftermarket pump. But we feel that, as with our commitment to only using OEM-approved fluids – and all of the other little things we do differently – we’ll be able to explain the benefits of doing the repair right; and doing it once.

What are “Labour Times”?

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

Insight into how an automotive repair business comes up with the price you pay.

honest mechanic calgary

By Chris Dekker


So, you call up an auto repair shop, looking for a price on a given repair. The person answering the phone might tell you that the repair in question is a “4.7 hour repair”; or a “2 hour job”. Where do these numbers come from? Read on…

An automotive repair business such as ours needs a way to price out repairs with consistency. As an example, we don’t want to charge one 2010 Chevy Malibu owner one price for a tune-up, and then charge the next 2010 Malibu owner a completely different price! Also, because we service hundreds of different vehicle models, each with hundreds of replaceable parts, there’s a good chance we might be quoting a specific repair that we’ve never done before. We need a way to determine roughly how long that repair will take. This is where labour guides come in.

A labour guide is a program or document that lists all of the common repairs, adjustments and maintenance services for a vehicle, with an estimated time of how long each repair will take. Companies that develop these guides come up with these labour times a variety of different ways. Some will have multiple technicians perform a repair – often repeatedly – and select an average time, or the fastest time from that group. Many of the labour times also come from the vehicle manufacturers themselves. We mostly use the Mitchell labour guide, a sort of “industry standard” that most auto repair facilities use, when estimating the cost of repairs.

For example, let’s take that 2010 Chevy Malibu. The published labour time (from the Mitchell labour guide) to replace the water pump is listed as 1.6 hours for the V6 engine, but 4.0 hours for the 4 cylinder engine! That’s good information to know when pricing out a repair. Of course, the guide is just that: a guide; not a “labour rule book” or “labour law”. All businesses are free to interpret the labour times however they wish. Some businesses lure in customers with a low advertised labour rate, but then “inflate” their labour times to make up the difference. Other businesses may charge lower labour times in an effort to stay competitive, and others may increase the times to boost profit a little. One must also remember that these labour times are determined when a vehicle is brand new. Many repairs take longer as a vehicle ages: bolts rust and are prone to breaking; plastic becomes brittle; electrical connectors become filled with dirt and hard to disconnect; etc. One broken bolt in a tough spot can turn what is supposed to be a 1 hour job into a 5 hour disaster!

We typically follow the labour guide quite faithfully, but apply a formula that reduces the labour times for some repairs on newer vehicles, and adds to the labour time as vehicles age, to make up for the issues noted above. We’re very committed to honoring our estimated price, though, and will often end up “eating” extra time when things go wrong, like an inadvertent broken bolt. We don’t have to – and can’t always – do this, but we do our best to help our customers out as much as possible.

Here’s something you might not know about labour timesThere is a widespread public belief that most published labour times are excessive or biased, and designed to bring auto repair shops extra money. The truth is that the system actually favours the customer, by a factor of about 20 percent. How so? Let me explain. One of the numbers that every auto service business owner/manager looks at is productivity. Productivity is the ratio of billable hours of work a technician can complete, vs the number of hours the technician actually works. Once you calculate this for each technician, you can then average the numbers and figure out the productivity level of the entire shop. What kind of numbers are most businesses seeing? You might be surprised by the answer.

The average independent auto repair business such as hours, employing hourly-paid (not commission-paid, such as in a dealership or “chain store”) technicians is shooting for an average productivity of 80 percent. This means that if a technician works an 8 hour shift, they will complete 6.4 hours of billable work. And this is just the goal! But the Automotive Industries Association of Canada reports that in most years this goal is achieved on average, or at least almost achieved.

Why just 80 percent? There are a bunch of reasons why 100% productivity can be hard to achieve:

  1. Doing a job well, and doing all of the little things right, often takes time. A technician who puts a lot of pride into their work will usually take longer than a sloppy technician who is in a hurry.
  2. In an independent business such as ours, which services most vehicle makes and models, we do a wide variety of repairs. This sometimes prevents us from getting the repetition that breeds speed. You can imagine how your second time doing a given repair will usually be quicker than your first; and your 10th time even faster yet! The labour times are often based on a technician who has done that given repair over and over.
  3. Technicians sometimes spend a lot of time doing things that the labour guide does not account for, like test driving a vehicle to make sure the customer’s problem is gone; or thoroughly cleaning the underside of a car following a leak repair; etc.
  4. Sh*t happens. Bolts break, or can’t be removed. Parts sometimes do not fit correctly. The wrong parts might show up. Customers sometimes show up late for an appointment, or do not show up at all. There are all kinds of things that can throw a wrench (no pun intended) into a perfectly-planned schedule.

Someone might tell you that they were charged 2 hours labour for a repair that only took a technician an hour and a half, and they wouldn’t be lying. But odds are that sometime in that person’s recent auto repair history, they were also charged 2 hours labour for a repair that took 3 hours to complete. The difference always comes out in the wash; and usually ends up slightly favouring the customer at the end of the day.

Sometime else to consider when discussing labour times is labour overlap between related jobs. Let’s use the Chevy Malibu water pump repair as an example. The V6 water pump is listed at 1.6 hours. Let’s say the car also needs a new serpentine belt tensioner, which is listed at 0.8 hours. If we’re doing both repairs together, should we charge the sum of the labour times, or 2.4 hours? We don’t think so; because there is labour overlap between these jobs. In order to replace either part, the serpentine belt and several other parts common to each repair must be removed, so there is a labour savings when doing the repairs together. In a case like this one, we would likely quote the water pump repair at the original 1.6 hours, and then the belt tensioner as a combination repair at 0.3 hours or so. Not every business does their pricing thing way, but we feel it’s the right thing to do, and part of what sets us apart in the industry.


Hopefully this gives you some insight into how we run our business every day. Do you have any questions about labour times, or any part of the pricing process? Please shoot us an email using the contact link above; call us; or message us on Facebook! We’d be happy to share any information we can.

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Chris investigates: What’s going on, Yelp?

Friday, September 25th, 2015

honest mechanics airdrie

By Chris Dekker

Most people are familiar with the website Yelp. I used to use the site a lot, myself. I trusted their user reviews when trying to make decisions about which restaurant to go to; things like that. However, recent experience as an owner of a business listed on Yelp has changed how I feel, and I’ve learned that their business ratings and reviews are worth a lot less than I’d thought:


Recently, a customer brought it to my attention that we had a negative review (and a 1-star rating) on Yelp. This was a major concern, as no single part of running my business has ever been more important to me than taking care of the customers. I literally can’t get to sleep in the evening if I feel like a customer is upset with us for some reason!

In the case of our bad review, a customer had their radiator replaced with us, and their water pump started leaking 3 months later. They were upset that we wouldn’t replace their water pump – a totally separate part – for free (under warranty, somehow?) and posted a negative review on the site.

When I checked out our Yelp page, I found that we also had a 5-star review from another user. However, this review wasn’t factored into our overall rating because Yelp’s automated software that looks for “quality reviews” had decided that this review shouldn’t be recommended for some reason. Non-recommended reviews are not included in a business’ rating, and are hidden from their main page.

I decided to do some looking around on Yelp, and see how our competitors were being treated by the website and its users. I found some rather large variations between different businesses’ scores, and how Yelp came up with these scores! Check out how some of the other local auto repair shops have fared:


  • W&B Automotive has one positive review and one negative one, just like us. However, they have a 5-star rating because Yelp is hiding the negative review and showing the postive one – the exact opposite of what has happened with our page.
  • Fountain Tire and Smart Automotive each have one positive review, but Yelp is hiding both of them, so these businesses have no rating.
  • Davis GM has a 2-star rating, based on a single review. However, Yelp is hiding a 5-star review from another customer, which would have improved their score to 4 stars.
  • Airdrie Dodge has a 3-star rating, based on 4 reviews. However, Yelp is hiding eight additional 1-star negative reviews, which have not been factored in.


Do you see the pattern there? You shouldn’t, because there isn’t one. There seems to be no logical explanation for why Yelp’s software recommends some reviews and not others.

The biggest laugh came when I viewed Highland Automotive’s Yelp page. They have a 1-star rating based on one review, and the review isn’t even for their business! You won’t believe why someone posted the review, either. The customer thought they called Highland Automotive about a custom exhaust job, but actually called Stand Fast Auto Repair instead. The boys at Stand Fast told the customer that they weren’t set up to bend and build custom exhaust (neither are we) and referred them to an exhaust shop in town. The customer had a bad experience at the exhaust shop, and left Highland Automotive a bad review because of this!

Yelp boasts that businesses can’t pay to alter or remove negative reviews – and this is true. Unfortunately, this rule extends so far that, like the poor guys at Highland, companies can’t even remove reviews that were meant for a different business!‎ Yelp employees also cannot change which reviews are recommended and which are not; once their software makes a decision using its pre-programmed algorithms, those decisions are final.

One thing Yelp employees can do, however, is call businesses and try to sell them advertising – and boy do they call. And call… every month. It isn’t actually advertising, though – or not what I would call advertising: Yelp actually places ads for our competitors’ businesses on our page, and then wants us to pay a monthly fee in order to remove them!

Thanks Yelp, but I think we’ll pass.

Bragging about our customers!

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

It’s Christmas party season this time of year, which in our world means meeting with lots of technicians, service advisers, and fellow shop owners.

Inevitably, the conversation often turns to work. Naturally, most of the shop owners and managers out there are proud of their business, and they should be. Chances are that they’ve put in many years of hard work and long hours building the business, sacrificing time with their families while their employees made a lot more money than they did themselves.

What struck me as funny, though, is just what some of these people are the most proud of. We talk about our facility itself, our hoists and equipment; maybe that fancy scan tool we just bought, or that new $48,000 alignment machine.  Lots of guys are most proud of putting together a great staff that works well together and is highly productive – which is definitely something to be proud of.

But for me, it’s a little different. I get some strange looks when I start bragging about what I’m the most proud of: our customers. Specifically, the relationship we’ve built with many of our customers. Some owners and managers have been in the business so long that they’ve lost sight of where our paychecks really come from: the customers that choose to use our services over the competition! Some seem to think that if you build a beautiful shop and fill it with top of the line equipment, you’re automatically guaranteed to make money.

80% of the customers who visit us every day have been using us for years, and (we hope) will continue to use us for years to come. They know we’re on their side. They know we recognize that if we take proper care of them, all of the other aspects of running a business pretty much fall into place. Sometimes, things don’t always go according to plan – “shit happens” definitely applies in our trade – but they trust in our honesty and commitment to make things right every time, and that we will always stand behind our work. We have many customers; even large companies, that we don’t call for approval of a price before starting a repair; they trust us to look after their best interests, and know we won’t abuse that trust.

Words do not describe how proud I am of owning a business like this.

So this Christmas, a big THANK YOU from Chris, Tim, Eric, Kent and Klayton here at Tools in Motion to our awesome customers. Thank you for letting us come in every day and make a living doing what we love to do!

Explaining the Diagnostic Process

Sunday, October 12th, 2014

Airdrie Automotive Diagnostics


The other day, a customer called us to ask if we had “one of those computers that tells you what’s wrong with the cars”. I was tempted to make a goofy response like “Yes, and I have robots that fix them for me, too!”, but I knew what they meant. The customer was talking about a scan tool. And of course, we do have scan tools; four different ones, in fact.

Scan tools have been around for decades and became a very necessary tool in the 1980s as vehicles switched from carburetors to fuel injection, which of course meant they now had an on-board engine computer. Today’s vehicles have between 5 and 50 on-board computers; the scan tool is a device that lets a qualified technician communicate with these on-board computers in order to diagnose problems, test systems, and make software changes. Today’s scan tools – many of which aren’t actually “tools” anymore, but laptop-based programs – are pretty advanced. That being said, most customers don’t realize how little the scan tool actually contributes to an accurate diagnosis, and how quickly in the process the human brain must take over from the tool.

One of the more regular things that we use a scan tool for is to diagnose a warning light, such as a Check Engine or ABS light. Whenever a warning light comes on, this means that an on-board computer has detected some sort of problem, and stored a “trouble code” as a result.  In the case of the Check Engine light, these codes read something like P0302 or P0171. Any code starting with P0- is universal between most vehicles, so the scan tool will usually add a definition so they read P0302 – Cylinder #2 Misfire and P0171 – Fuel System Lean, Bank 1.  Retrieving these trouble codes from the vehicle is usually a quick process, and this is where two common customer misconceptions (and sometimes, sources of frustration) come from:

  1. Because the code retrieval process (which is only the start of the diagnosis, as we’ll get to in point #2) is so quick, customers sometimes feel ripped off when they are charged $100-150 for this service. This is partially our fault, as most shops will show the service as a one hour charge on the invoice. If the service doesn’t take this long, it’s only natural for customers to get upset. It’s very important for us to explain that we’re billing customers for a $120 charge vs one hour’s labour. This might be the same dollar amount, but we need to justify the charge for what it really is: in part, a way to earn back the purchase cost of the scan tools being used. In total, our four scan tools cost over $25,000 and require another $3500 in software updates every year.
  2. Many customers also don’t realize that retrieving a trouble code is only part of properly diagnosing an issue. This is partially because we as professionals haven’t done a good enough job educating consumers; parts stores that will “pull a code for free and then sell you a part” aren’t helping the situation. For example, what’s causing that P0302 – Cylinder #2 Misfire? Is is a spark plug? A plug wire? It could also be an ignition coil, a fuel injector, a wiring problem, a bad sensor, a vacuum leak – even a mechanical condition such as low compression on that cylinder, a sticking valve, or broken valve spring. This is where a properly trained technician – and a whole bunch more test equipment – are required to narrow in on the real problem.


Here are some of the steps a properly trained technician will take in order to diagnose most Check Engine lights, once the easy part (pulling the code) is complete:

  • Using the scan tool, monitoring the PIDs (or parameter IDs) for the affected module. These are hundreds of numbers that the scan tool spits out in real time, constantly updating them many times per second. These can be temperature readings, voltages, duty cycle (on/off time) numbers, resistance values and more; and they have confusing names like B1S2 Ho2S, VGT DUTY % and VREF, etc:
    Airdrie Auto Diagnostic Numbers

    Some basic engine PIDs being graphed

    None of these numbers really tell you anything by themselves; it takes a skilled technician to know which ones are relevant to the problem being experienced, and to understand the relationship between these numbers. (When number A increases, number B should increase at the same rate, while number C decreases at half that rate, etc.) Interpreting all of these numbers will help the technician understand what’s going on inside the engine, and narrow on on which part of the engine is having trouble.

  • The technician will likely also consult published service information from the vehicle’s manufacturer – which we subscribe to – in order to familiarize themselves with how certain systems work, what readings to expect, etc. It’s impossible to remember everything about every single vehicle on the road, which makes the tech’s ability to understand service information, diagrams and wiring schematics very important. These service information subscriptions aren’t cheap, either – but like the scan tools, are a very necessary part of a shop’s tools and equipment budget.
  • The tech will probably also check for Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs). These bulletins, released from the auto manufacturers to service facilities like ours, serve to alert us to common issues we should know about. They may also contain information on updated test procedures, updated fluid recommendations, new specialty tools that have been released for a given repair, revised/improved parts that are available to fix certain issues, and more. A quick check of the TSBs will help the technician ensure they aren’t missing any important information that they need to diagnose an issue accurately and carry out a proper repair that lasts as long as possible.

At this point, the technician has probably exhausted all of the information that the scan tool, and their computer, can give them. Finalizing the diagnosis will probably require some hands-on testing with a variety of other tools. Sticking with the P0302 – Cylinder #2 Misfire, the tech may use:

  • An ohmmeter and spark tester to check the spark plug wires and ignition coil.
  • A fuel pressure tester and injector pulser/balance tester, used together to test the fuel injector flow rates.
  • A multimeter, test light, noid light, oscilloscope or other tools to check for wiring issues associated with the sensors, ignition coils and fuel injectors.
  • A vacuum pump, vacuum gauge or smoke machine to rule out the possibility of vacuum leaks.
  • An exhaust backpressure gauge, or pressure transducer to check the engine’s air pumping action and rule out a restricted exhaust system.
  • A compression tester, cylinder leakage tester or borescope to check for internal, mechanical engine problems.

Depending on the situation, there may be more – or less –  tests and tools required, of course. We feel that all of the additional work that comes after “pulling the code” is part of the proper, complete diagnosis, and it’s included whenever you pay us to diagnose a warning light on your vehicle. We hope this insight into what we do every day will help our customers recognize the value in the diagnostic charges that they are billed for. After all, by the time we’re done, we should be able to tell you exactly what your vehicle needs without any guesswork. It’s what we’re known for, and our reputation depends on it!

Our Industry’s Oil Filter Mix-Up

Sunday, July 13th, 2014
airdrie oil changes

They might all look the same from the outside, but there are some very big differences in how oil filters are constructed inside!















Part of setting up our new shop included ordering thousands of dollars of inventory (parts, fluids, etc) to build on what we already had. Part of this process stunned and disappointed me, though: many of the auto parts representatives we spoke with were surprised that we wanted to stick with the premium line of oil filters that we’ve been using in the past. “That’s not what most guys in town are buying”, we were repeatedly told.

You see, most automotive filter manufacturers offer a “wholesale” line of filters, which are not usually available to the public, and are usually much cheaper than the lines sold in-store – but for good reason. They employ much cheaper construction methods and are usually inferior to the original equipment or factory filters in most ways. These filters are typically not recommended for oil change intervals over 5000 km; which is the same as saying they aren’t recommended for 90% of today’s vehicles! (See our post “Stop Changing Your Oil” for more on oil change intervals.)

Here are some of the differences between a premium oil filter – such as the WIX line that we carry – and these economy filters:

  • Better filter media incorporates synthetic and polyester fibers to reach filtration efficiency of up to 99% – vs around 80% for cellulose (paper) alone in cheaper filters.
  • Metal instead of cardboard end caps hold the internal filter element together.
  • Silicone anti drain-back valve seals better and stays working longer than cheaper rubber valves. Some economy filters do not have a drain-back valve at all, which means “dry starting” the engine every time, greatly accelerating engine wear.
  • A true internal coil spring, instead of a flimsier leaf spring, keeps everything in place.
  • Actually designed to last for the length of time the filter will be installed on a modern vehicle.


Most of these parts company sales reps only wanted to talk about how using these cheap filters could help us maximize profits. A popular line seemed to be “But think about it; if you save 50 cents per filter, multiplied by 5000 filters…” – it’s like they’ve completely forgotten why we do this job in the first place; that our job is to help our customers maintain their vehicle to the best of our ability. How has it happened that the auto repair businesses are the ones buying the cheapest oil filters available, and the higher quality lines are mostly purchased by do-it-yourselfers? Aren’t we supposed to be the professionals?

In our industry, those of us who care more haven’t done a good enough job educating the driving public, many of whom believe “an oil change is an oil change” and don’t give basic maintenance much thought. Unfortunately, the fact is that when you drive into a shop and replace your oil and filter with parts that are inferior to what the vehicle originally came with, you’re making your vehicle worse, not better! Our oil changes will probably always cost a little more than many shops charge, but the value you receive for your money will be unmatched. We’ll do the very best job we can for you, and leave the “oil filter roulette” to our competitors.

How Your Mechanic is Paid – It Should Matter to You

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

airdrie auto mechanicThis week, something strange happened. We charged a customer to diagnose and repair an issue that was 100% covered by their new vehicle warranty. Normally, we just wouldn’t feel right about a situation like this, but the customer was happy to pay because they had taken the vehicle into the local dealership multiple times for this issue, but the dealership was unable to correct the problem each time.

The customer – let’s name him John – was pretty upset about his experience at the dealership, and questioned the capability of the technicians working there. I stopped him there, and tried to explain to John that the dealership’s technicians were likely very capable, but the technician assigned to his car simply wasn’t getting paid to find his problem!

What? Let’s rewind for a little explanation! The dealership in question (along with most dealerships, and most big name chain stores such as the “____ Tire” franchises) pay their technicians using a system called flat rate. Under this system, the technicians receive no hourly wage, and are 100% commission paid. Every repair job has a “book” or labour guide time assigned to it, and the technician is paid the listed number of hours for each repair they complete. As an example, replacing the front brake pads on John’s car is listed at 1.0 hours, so a flat rate technician would be paid 1.0 hours at their regular wage to replace these pads. If they can do the job in half an hour, they are still paid for one. Of course, it works the other way, too: If the technician runs into problems and the job takes two hours, they are still paid for one.

Understanding how flat rate works, let’s get back to John’s experience. In an effort to reduce warranty costs, many vehicle manufacturers have modified their labour guides in recent years so technicians do not receive any credit for their time spent diagnosing problems that are covered under warranty. Technicians working on these vehicles must hope to be able to find the problems fast, and then “make back” their lost diagnostic time by completing the repair very quickly (which is a challenge in itself, since warranty repairs are paid out at reduced “warranty times” that are much lower than the regular labour guide times). As a result of all of this, many dealership technicians will only spend a little time looking at a problem like John’s, before “giving up” or replacing a part at random, in order to move on to the next repair – which is hopefully a better paying one. Is this right? Of course it isn’t. But can you blame the technician? Maybe not.

Just think about it: Imagine that your boss handed you a folder. Inside the folder is a report that needs to be completed, but your boss tells you that you won’t be paid for any time you spend doing the report. How much effort would you put into this report, especially if you knew there was a rack full of reports waiting outside your office that you would be paid to complete?

It’s a broken system, and customers like John – who, ironically, are paying for the whole system – are losing out.

So why would a business owner choose to pay their technicians on flat rate? For one thing, it makes management’s job much easier. Flat rate can allow a poorly managed or disorganized shop which normally wouldn’t turn much of a profit to do quite well, since technicians are 100% commission paid. If there are no vehicles for a technician to service because of scheduling errors, incorrect parts or other problems, there are also no wage costs to cover. Plus, it has been proven that most technicians will work faster with some sort of incentive-based pay system in place. Unfortunately, it’s also a fact that some mechanics will cut corners in order to beat the book time; some of the “shortcuts” we’ve seen would make most customers quite upset.

Ten years ago, a customer would never ask a shop how their mechanics are paid. But today, more vehicle owners are starting to understand how pay systems like flat rate negatively affect the quality of diagnostics and repairs that they are paying good money for; and we’re glad that customers are asking. Many of you already know that we do things a little differently at Tools in Motion, and this includes something that almost nobody else is doing: We pay our technicians a straight hourly wage, with no incentive-based pay system in place at all. Our focus is on quality over quantity, and we have hand-picked an awesome group of technicians who are doing their jobs for all the right reasons.

We work hard, and as a team, because we really love what we do.

Examining Auto Repair Pricing: The Value of Honesty

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Happy Customers - Airdrie Alberta Auto Repair

Our industry is funny one. While most people understand that regular maintenance costs are a normal part of owning a vehicle, the average customer doesn’t exactly look forward to spending money on servicing their car. (I have a friend who works in a golf store; many of his customers are thrilled to spend their money with him, lucky guy!) Because of this, we receive many inquiries from customers about pricing.

In an attempt to determine how expensive we are, (or aren’t), most customers ask about our labour rate. This is when we try to illustrate the difference between price and value. Price is measured in dollars and cents and easy to understand. Value, however,  is a little trickier. Let’s dig deeper.

At first glance, our labour rate looks about the same as most local auto repair businesses. However, because we do not charge a “shop supplies” fee on top of the labour rate, our effective labour rate is already $10-15 lower than most competitors. There are also many other factors that affect the overall value – see “What is your labour rate” in our FAQ section for more on this.

I want to talk a little more about one of these factors: honesty.

This week, a customer brought us an estimate from another auto repair business. They had been quoted around $2500 for a list of repairs and services required to bring their vehicle up to mechanically 100%, and were wondering if we could offer a better price for these repairs. As it turns out, we could; but not for the reasons you might expect. When all was said and done, we got the customer’s vehicle to 100% mechanical condition for around $1300.

It’s important to note that with the 6 items we repaired on this vehicle, we only saved the customer around $100 over what they had been quoted previously for these 6 specific repairs. So where did the other $1100 in savings come from? This is where the honesty factor comes in.

We did not perform 5 of the repairs listed on the customer’s original estimate. These were two maintenance services that had been recommended well before the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule called for them; one repair that had been recommended as a result of a misdiagnosis and would not have fixed the customer’s issue, (we made an adjustment that corrected the problem); and two other repairs that (in our opinion) were not required at all.

We hope that this example helps to illustrate the real value that an “auto repair business that really cares” can offer you.