Servicing saves money … if it is done properly

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In this competitive world of winners and losers, one man's gain is usually another man's cost. A notable exception is good vehicle maintenance.

Though keeping a vehicle well serviced is not cheap, it's a lot less expensive than neglect. In the whole buy-run-resell cycle of a car, the person who spends little or nothing on maintenance will pay more than the person who pays a premium price for excellent service.

The problem, then, is how to keep a vehicle well serviced.

Every Kenyan motorist is familiar with the terms "Major" and "Minor" with regard to having a car serviced. Most also know that they should have their car serviced at least once every 5,000 kms, alternating between "Major" and "Minor" on each occasion, so the items on a minor service get done every 5,000 kms, and items on a major service are attended to every 10,000 kms.

But very few know exactly what items are involved in these processes, and leave the decision to the garage. The problem is many garages don't know what needs doing, either. And those that do know, don't always do it.

Your choice of where to get your car serviced ranges from a pet mechanic to a corner garage to the official agent for your make of car. The costs vary from high to higher, and the  results you get range from bad to worse. The sorry fact is that your chances of having the job done fully, thoroughly, properly and at a fair price are not great. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, the motorists most likely to expect high standards, and who can afford to demand them, own new cars. Modern new cars. Today, labour costs (in the big motor markets) are so high and technology is so clever that cars are designed to be almost maintenance free. Most components are set for life, sealed for life and warranted for life. Life means about 5 to 7 years. After that cars are junked and replaced. Meanwhile, a few regular service parts are clipped out and new ones clipped in with robotic routine. The whole process is managed by computerized diagnostics.  Service intervals are 20,000 kms and rising. Cars are no longer really serviced, because they are no longer really serviceable.

That approach works well enough in super-smooth motoring environments, for the no-maintenance design life of 7 years. It is nowhere near adequate for maintaining a car in tip-top condition on Kenya's bruising thoroughfares, but by the time the symptoms of inadequate service start to show up (after about three years) the new car owner will have sold the vehicle and bought another - new - one.  So no pressure for better service from him, and no compelling reason for his garage to take extra time, trouble or expense in doing its job exceptionally. The resultant service culture is not difficult to predict.

Second, the person who buys the three-year old car does not expect perfection; he tolerates a few rattles and squeaks and little quirks; he accepts that he'll have to replace a few parts. He's a bit more price sensitive than the original owner, so he's ironically quite pleased if the service bills are modest, rather than distressed that the garage cannot possibly have done the job right at that price.  So there's actually a commercial incentive for the garage to do a superficial job, and that service culture will keep the car going well enough until the second owner, too, sells it as a six-year-old. 

So third, the buyer of the six-year-old car has just invested in a vehicle that is about to have lots of problems.  But as he's usually fairly well downmarket, he often doesn't know how good the car once was - or could still be! - if it had been properly looked after, so he's one level more tolerant of one level less reliable.   As the car disintegrates, it will need attention to more and more severe defects every time it goes anywhere near a workshop, and garages will be only too pleased to have the profitable business of fixing it.

And so the pattern continues, as the nine-year-old car gets a fourth owner, and the 12-year-old car gets a fifth...down, down, down go the expectations, up, up, up go the problems, and the car either becomes a rattling deathtrap or the owner’s wallet screams ouch.

And nowhere, in this cascade, is there either a powerful commercial incentive or a customer pressure for standards of real excellence in service.   Develop this culture over time, and add a market where economic pressures are making the "cheapest" the most popular choice, and you've got...well, take a look!

And of the many less than edifying sights and trends you will see is that there are fewer and fewer individuals or institutions who CAN service a car properly, even if they want to.

Cynically speaking...

A minor service usually means a change of oil and oil filter, a quick blast of (damaging) air through the air cleaner, perhaps a squint around the engine compartment and underpan.

A major service means a change of oil and oil filter, a change of air cleaner and fuel filter, change the plugs (and points if the car has them), a quick look at the brakes (and maybe a bit of sanding or a new set of pads), grease the wheel bearings while the wheels are off,  check all the other fluids, and a cursory dabble in other areas while looking to see if there's a more expensive fault that needs fixing - at a price.

More optimistically speaking...

There are quite a number of garages who try to be more diligent than that, and some who are.  There are few, very few, who combine that diligence with ability and consistent discipline.  The ones who give you a clear menu of jobs they will do, and where the work is evidently supervised, are most likely to be the most thorough and the most competent.  Main agents often (if not always) fit into this category.  It is in their interest to sustain your loyalty to their brand with reliability, and to maximize your resale value. Their prices are often (but not always) higher, but in real value for money they are actually less expensive than cut-price independents.    

If they are specialists in your particular make of car they are more likely to have the right tools for each job, more experience in particular areas of weakness to look out for in your model, and they should have a manufacturer's schedule of long-distance checks and replacements - not just the regular 5,000 and 10,000 km items, but components that are designed to be preventively changed or essentially adjusted at 30,000 or 60,000 kms etc.

But even those, even on a good day, don't all service a car properly.

Proper service should, short of substantially dismantling the vehicle (this is known as blueprinting), check every single function of the vehicle's operation.  And SERVICE it. Check it, clean it, adjust it, lubricate it, tighten it, tune it, replace it - whatever is necessary to enable the garage to put its hand on its heart and say to you, either:

  • everything (and that means everything!) is in good working order, and should give you no trouble at all for the next 5,000 kms of normal use.

or

  • Such-and-such an item has such-and-such a problem, and should be attended to before ...

A really skillful diagnostic mechanic should be a passed master at spotting incipient faults, quickly, perceptively and accurately, and he should be able to prevent/rectify the vast majority of them, on the spot, at next-to-no cost, or be able to give you advice on repair work that will give you optimum value and security.

If that was done to a car every time it was serviced, from new, it would not be a rattling deathtrap when it was 12 years old.  It would still be in outstandingly good running order.

The extra cost of this diligence at each service would be minimal. Indeed, by pre-empting faults, each service would be cheaper than repair of earlier slipshod work. The saving in the long run would be considerable. But it doesn't often happen.

Anecdotal evidence suggests you could introduce 100 deliberate faults in a car, ranging from obvious to obscure, have the vehicle serviced at one of the "better" garages, pay a hefty price, and get 99 per cent of your faults back, unattended to and not even mentioned. Not mentioned because they have not been noticed.  Not noticed because your car has not been properly serviced.

So seriously challenge your garage to do the job properly. Ask them for a detailed list of what they've done.  And then challenge items on that list.

For example, a less-awful-than-most garage might  bill a shs 800 item called "tune-up".  But the term "tune-up" has so many possible meanings it is quite meaningless,  so ask the workshop foreman exactly what work this "tune-up" involved - it could be anything from re-setting mechanical parts deep inside the engine to almost any part of the ignition and fuel systems.

You might get an expansive reply about dwell angles and timing and tappet clearance and carburettor jetting, "balancing" the air-fuel ratio etc etc.

But if you ask the mechanic who conducted this work what he actually did, the answer will be close to nothing whatsoever, except perhaps adjust the idle screw on the carburretor, changing it from correct to slightly wrong. A job, which, even if necessary and done correctly, should take about 30 seconds. That means the mechanic was being charged out at shs 96,000 per hour.

So, with this example in mind, do start your service schedule for the year by asking for a complete list of work done; do ask for an explanation of every item on that list.

To at least some extent, it will put your garage under pressure to  do the jobs they actually do more carefully, and not to charge you for jobs they don't do.

And if some part they are supposed to have attended to goes wrong between services, you can take the list along and tap the relevant entry with your forefinger while giving the foreman a meaningful look. If your own mechanical knowledge does not extend to being able to debate the technical merits of the case, you will at least have something in writing to hand on to an arbiter.

The more thoroughly you check the mechanic, the more thoroughly he will check your car.

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Lang’ata South Road, Nairobi
Box 15300 Nairobi 00509
Tel: 0720 274365, 0733 692032
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coa@churchorr.org