Complete Car Care Guide, Part I & II

Posted on August 1, 2003 by LCT Staff - Also by this author

There is a lot to be learned from mechanics who must keep commercial vehicles on the road under the most severe weather conditions.

Depending on the climate, a maintenance schedule may vary by frequency of service or require heavier duty components – but for the most part, the basics are the same. It all comes down to the engine, cooling/heating system, charging system, suspension, brakes and tires.

Regardless of whether an operator is in Newark, Kansas City, San Diego or Anchorage, preventative maintenance is essential, not only for keeping vehicles running smoothly but also when it comes to preserving resale value.

Five Mistakes That Reduce the Life of Your Vehicles
1.Ignoring minor noises can lead to bigger problems
2.Ignoring slow starts can wear down your entire charging system
3.Forgetting to regularly check tire pressure
4.Waiting for brake-squealing sounds to turn to metal-grinding noises
5.Skipping important scheduling procedures

Five Ways to Prolong the Life of Your Vehicles
1.Stick to a strict maintenance schedule
2.Have chauffeurs report on anything irregular they see or hear
3.Prepare your vehicles for winter and summer each year
4.Keep battery cables free of dirt and corrosion
5.Regularly blow out debris from the trap in front of the radiator

Cold-Weather Maintenance: Look to Canada for Advice
Operators throughout the Northeast complained about the heavy snowfall and icy weather this past winter – but few could imagine the cold conditions faced by Jim Murray of London Limousine during a typical winter in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

Murray, a mechanic for more than 20 years, described temperatures plummeting to 30 degrees Celsius below zero overnight [about -20 degrees Fahrenheit] every night for weeks in a row, and that’s without wind chill.

The Charging System These kinds of temperatures play havoc on an engine and charging system. While most operators probably don’t need engine block heaters for every vehicle, London Limousine’s Murray recommends starting vehicles daily during a harsh winter and letting them run for 10 to 15 minutes. This is especially appropriate for operators who do mostly weekend work and might have vehicles sitting idle for days.

"If your engine and battery are both cold, you only have about 40% of your battery’s charge working on a given day," Murray notes. "So you need to keep things charged up and ready or you risk an unpleasant surprise come morning."

The Radiator
As part of a preventative maintenance schedule for cold weather, mechanics must also be vigilant in monitoring antifreeze. A simple and inexpensive tester can make sure the antifreeze is rated to 35 degrees below zero, even if a typical night only dips into the tens.

Under normal conditions, the life span of antifreeze is usually about two years. Commercial vehicles racking up more mileage or operating under particularly harsh conditions should be changed in half that time.

Changing antifreeze requires draining and replacing it with a new mixture of equal parts of water to antifreeze.

Keep in mind that antifreeze travels through rubber hoses, the water pump, radiator, heater hoses and heater core, as well as the engine itself. All these systems should be flushed clear of old fluid and debris.

Important note: Never remove the radiator cap or any hoses unless the engine is cool. Doing so can result in serious injury from burns.

It’s also important to note that antifreeze is toxic and must be disposed of properly at a fluid-recycling center. Keep it away from children and pets, avoid skin contact and avoid spilling it on painted finishes.

Overheating? It’s Probably the Thermostat
While the winters in Toronto are typically less extreme than those in Winnipeg, Gary Warner, head mechanic for Rosedale Livery, follows many of the same standards as Murray.

When it comes to maintaining a vehicle’s engine, Warner, who has trained Ford mechanics on limousines, suggests changing the thermostat when changing the coolant. A vehicle’s thermostat is relatively inexpensive and a sudden failure can be devastating, he notes.

"If you’ve been having any problems with overheating or you are not getting enough hot air, it’s probably the thermostat," says Warner, who oversees 70 vehicles. "A problem thermostat can even affect fuel economy and it’s tough to tell when one is going bad – particularly if you have a temperature light rather than a gauge."

Stay on Top of Noises and Leaks
London Limousine’s Murray checks all fluids daily and hoses and belts every week throughout the winter. While this might be excessive for most operators, he notes the importance of having mechanics working closely with chauffeurs.

Chauffeurs need to listen for and note any irregularities that occur, including slow starts, engine noise and rattles. They should also look for any leakage coming from underneath the vehicle, even if it’s just a small puddle.

Be Prepared With Extra Parts
London Limousine’s Murray suggests keeping extra parts – including batteries and alternators – on hand. He keeps a dozen batteries and four alternators on hand all winter, in a heated room.

If he didn’t use block heaters overnight, he would also keep a couple starters in stock as well. Keeping the engine warm over-night reduces the damage done to starters, says Murray.

Another Kind of Inflation
When it comes to tires, Rosedale Livery’s Warner recommends going with the more aggressive tread of a snow tire beginning in November in Toronto. By switching back to a regular tire in the spring, two sets can last two seasons.

London Limousine’s Murray uses all-season tires year round in Winnipeg but checks inflation and tread wear at every oil change. He notes that over-inflating tires is better than under-inflating them, but adds that neither is wise.

Hot-Weather Maintenance: The Secrets of the Summer Desert
While Phoenix is clearly at the other end of the thermometer from Winnipeg and Toronto, a strict maintenance schedule is just as important. Summer highs routinely soar to upwards of 115 degrees, with the heat radiating off the pavement approaching 150. In this sort of weather, the air conditioning and coolant system is all important.

Invest in a good A/C
Buy a vehicle equipped to handle the elements, notes Mark Gilmore, fleet manager at Carey Phoenix. He personally works on each of the company’s 36 vehicles at one time or another.

Gilmore asks for the "Arizona Package" when ordering a limousine. This means the car is equipped with more of everything that keeps the air conditioner running strong and the engine from overheating.

Carey Phoenix’s limousines must be equipped with dual alternators, dual evaporators and two additional cooling fans in front of the condenser. "If you don’t ask for them, you won’t get them," says Gilmore. He suggests never ordering vehicles with "roof air," where the air ductwork runs through the roof.

"A car sitting out in the heat with the air running through the roof just never gets cool," he says. "Make sure your coachbuilder builds the venting through the side of the vehicle. Otherwise it just won’t cut it.”

A/C Maintenance
Carey Phoenix’s Gilmore starts his preventative air conditioning maintenance in January by draining the system’s fluids and recharging the freon with a half-pound more than the manufacturer recommends. He also changes belts, hoses and coolants then. The oil is changed every 3,000 miles in the summer and 6,000 miles in the winter.

Gillmore reduces the amount of oil he adds through the condenser, evaporator, accumulator and compressor by 20%, or two ounces (whichever is greater) and makes up the difference in freon, since the air coming out of the vents must run at between 35 and 45 degrees in order to keep the passenger compartment cool during the peak summer months, he says.

During spring and summer, Gilmore washes out the radiator and condensers once a month and cleans the ducts and screens close to the evaporator to get more flow. He also checks the heater shut off valves to make sure none of them are bypassing any coolant.

"Most of the time, they have a vacuum-operated valve," he explains. "I take those off and put in a manual shut off. In the summertime, I shut the manual valves off to the heater core and my A/C drops another 10 degrees."

Stay on Top of What’s Down Below
With searing temperatures coming off the blacktop, Gilmore also checks every component under the vehicle every month.

"We grease everything constantly because the heat breaks down the grease," he says. "The radiant heat is going to take out all those components underneath the vehicle, so we check it all. Any kind of rubber component under the car will crack real fast if you don’t stay on top of it."

For brakes, Gilmore uses a severe-duty brake pad on all limousines. It typically lasts between 10,000 and 45,000 miles, depending on the vehicle weight and driver. He replaces rotors twice a year because they crack and wear out faster than the pads.

To help identify potential problems, Gilmore uses a Ford Rotunda diagnostic tool, which he says cuts his diagnostic time in half. The tool, which costs several thousand dollars, quickly pays for itself, he adds.

Wet-Weather Maintenance: Grease Is Your Friend

Although it generally doesn’t reach 110 degrees in South Florida like it does in Phoenix, temperatures stay in the mid-90s, with 90%-plus humidity, which can feel even more uncomfortable.

In Delray Beach, where Jerry Ciambrone runs Flawless Automotive Repair, summer downpours nearly every afternoon do little to cool things off. They create massive puddles that can cause problems of their own.

With that kind of heat and humidity, clients will break into a sweat walking the 15 feet from the doorway to your vehicle, and operators need to follow many of the same air conditioning guidelines listed in the section on heat-related maintenance.

Guard Against Moisture
According to Florida’s Ciambrone, who repairs a half-dozen limousines every month, moisture is the enemy. It can rot components with rubber parts and turn iron to rust. While the corrosive elements in the salt air found near salt-water locations certainly don’t help, Ciambrone says he is more concerned about the puddles from rainfall, which can inundate the undercarriage of cars. Limousines are generally equipped with boots meant to protect key components, but they are not waterproof, he adds.

In response, vehicle components need to be lubricated and fluids changed twice as often as they are in a more-temperate climate, he notes.

"The front end should be greased every time your car gets an oil change, which should be no less than every 3,000 miles," Ciambrone says. "You have to get in there and grease the actual knuckles, balls and ball joints that actually do all the work."

Other Wet-Weather Tips
• Change the differential fluid every three months, particularly with longer limousines.
• Transmission fluid should be changed every six months, instead of every year.
• The air filter should be regularly checked. Water from a splashing puddle can ruin it.
• Rinse the undercarriage to get the dirt and salt off of key components when washing vehicles.

All-Weather Maintenance: Back to the Basics
Even if a vehicle won’t have to endure extreme elements, it’s crucial to follow a strict preventative maintenance schedule or risk mechanical problems. Here’s a breakdown of recommendations from several veteran mechanics from across the country:

Tires: The two key factors in checking tires are tread wear and inflation. Uneven wear is generally a sign of poor alignment or improper inflation. Either can adversely affect handling, reduce tire life and/or potentially result in blow outs or decreased gas mileage. Tire pressure should be tested at every oil change.

When checking wear, look at the depth from the top of the tread to the wear bars. Look for uneven wear and ridges. Tires often wear unevenly along the edges, but may wear in the middle as well.

Bad shock absorbers can cause excessive wheel bounce that also affects tire wear.

Air conditioning: Sold by companies like Manex and Modern Technologies Group , a limousine’s A/C system should be checked prior to the summer months and rechecked on a monthly basis.

In addition to making sure that a unit can reach cool temperatures quickly, the condition of the vents should also be checked.

Each year, the return-air system should be vacuumed out and sprayed with a solution that kills mold and keeps it smelling nice.

Manex, based in Dallas, can be contacted at (800) 527-0481. MTG, based in Medford, N.J., can be contacted at or (800) 362-6224.

Batteries: Inspect the cables and terminals for corrosion and make sure they are tight. Limousines often have a battery in the rear that is not always easy to locate; it should also be checked regularly.

To keep terminals clean and prevent corrosion, spray them with a cleaner fortified with a protecting agent.

Russ Iurato of RWI Limousine Repairs, of Garfield ,N.J., offers this simple advice for testing the strength of a limousine’s rear battery: "Turn the key on and turn the rear power on and leave it on for a couple minutes. If it dims or things start turning off quickly, that’s an indication the battery is failing. Driving the vehicle like that really beats the alternator up," which is much more expensive to replace.

Brakes: A visual inspection should be done at every oil change, although you don’t necessarily need to take off the wheels each time. A more thorough check should occur every few months or whenever the visual checks indicate a brake wear problem. Make sure calibers are sliding freely every 30,000 miles and lubricate where the pads sit. Avoid cheap pads, particularly with limousines.

Front End: If a noise sounds unusual and it’s coming from the front of your vehicle, have it checked out, he says. Ignoring front-end problems can have a devastating effect on your wallet.

"The bigger and heavier a vehicle is, the quicker [the front end] is going to wear out," notes Russ Iurato, whose company repairs or performs maintenance on between 10 to 15 limousines per day. He recommends an inspection once every 10,000 to 20,000 miles.

Air Suspension: Watch for a limousine that is sitting unevenly on its suspension when you go to start it up in the morning or after it has been sitting for some time. If it "settles" overnight, it’s a good indication of leaky air springs.

Putting the vehicle up on a lift and coating the suspension with soapy water can confirm leaks.

Cooling System: Radiator fluid can easily be tested for its ability to handle the elements with an inexpensive kit. The fluid should be inspected, as well as the firmness and wear of belts and hoses, every time you perform an oil change.

To ensure maximum cooling power, radiator fins need to be cleaned regularly. Clean all dirt, leaves, feathers, etc., from the front of the radiator with a high power hose every three months.

Cooling fans - many of which have two speeds - must be tested to ensure total functionality.

Differential: A vehicle’s rear axle/differential service should be performed approximately every 50,000 miles.

--Neil Weiss ____________________________________________________________

What Limousine Operators Need to Know about Detailing

by Bud Abraham

Call it detailing, reconditioning or car cleanup, it still means one thing to limousine operators – a necessary part of your business. It can be viewed as an expense you’d rather not have, an annoyance or an irritant that never goes away. But like any challenge, it is something that can be conquered and managed.

This article will provide some basics on setting up and managing a detailing operation. Large operators can use the information as a blueprint for an in-house operation. Smaller operators who farm out their detailing work can use the information as a benchmark for judging the detailing shops that work on their vehicles.

The Detailing Facility
The available detailing space must allow the workers to move around the vehicle quickly and effectively. You need to have good lighting to ensure that they can see the paint finish problems and the corrections and inside the vehicle to clean the interior properly.

If you plan to wash cars and clean engines, you need to be aware of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirements for the discharge of wash and engine cleaning water. You cannot discharge the water from car washing or engine cleaning into the storm drain or onto the ground. This is a violation of the U.S. Clean Water Act.

This type of water must either be collected and then transported to a proper disposal place or you must have a grease trap that separates oil and water with a connection to the sanitary sewer. If you do not have this system and you wash cars or clean engines, you are in violation of the law and subject to fines and clean-up charges that can bankrupt you.

One new-car dealer was cited for discharging chemicals, oil and grease onto the ground and was forced into bankruptcy because the fines and cleanup costs were more than $300,000.

The problem stems from the fact that the EPA requires states to enforce the Clean Water Act.

The states pass authority to local authorities, who are not consistent with enforcement and give those in the detail business, or businesses like yours who do detailing, the impression that it is okay to discharge waste. But make no mistake, washing cars and cleaning engines generates hazardous wastes, and these must be disposed of properly.

If you do not have a grease trap and oil-water separator and do not want to pay the cost to install one, there is an inexpensive alternative: The Mat is a reinforced vinyl mat that is 10’ x 20’ with a berm around the edge to hold in water.

You drive the limo onto the Mat, wash the car and clean the engine. Then either pump out the water or vacuum it up with a wet-dry vacuum. The Mat costs about $1,200.

You can store the water in a holding tank or 55-gallon barrel. For disposal, you can have a company that empties septic tanks pump out your holding tank or barrels.

Detailing Equipment
The equipment used in most detailing operations is primitive at best. That is why customers are often dissatisfied with the quality of the work done on the vehicle.

Don’t you think your $50,000-plus limo requires more than a shop vacuum, a 10-pound electric buffer, a few plastic bottles and a hose and bucket?

If you want to improve the quality of the detail work, increase productivity and reduce labor, you will need to use the more-advanced technology that is available today in the detail industry.

For example, you must have a pressure washer with minimum pressure of 1,000 pounds per square inch to speed up the cleaning of engines and wheels and improve quality. It also uses less water than a hose; three to four gallons per minute versus 10 to 15 gallons.

A carpet and upholstery steam cleaner, also known as a soil extractor, is absolutely necessary to clean carpets and fabric upholstery to help eliminate the wet and smelly carpet and upholstery that the typical detail processes create.

For example, a typical detailer shampoos carpets in this way: A five-gallon bucket is filled with water; a lot of chemical is poured in, the mixture is sloshed all over the carpets and the detailer starts scrubbing. When done, he grabs the shop vacuum to suck up the moisture.

The problem with this method is that the detailer has put far too much shampoo on the carpets, getting them far too wet. The shop vacuum will not vacuum up all of the moisture or residue, leaving lots of residual dirt and shampoo in the carpets and causing carpets to get dirty again in a few days.

You should have an air compressor to more quickly and efficiently clean interiors by blowing out dust and dirt from impossible-to-reach cracks and crevices. The air compressor allows the detailer to use lightweight air buffers, small air-powered rotary shampooers and air mini-orbital waxers that allow the detailer to wax a car in five minutes instead of by hand in 30 to 45 minutes.

A good vacuum is a necessity. While a cheap shop vacuum is okay, they usually fail after a few months of regular use. An investment in a higher-quality vacuum is well worth the $200 to $300 one will cost. They will last longer and perform a better job.

If you have the space and budget, you should consider a Central Vacuum System like car washes use. They are mounted in an equipment room or outside, and only the hoses are in the work area. These vacuums, depending on horsepower, can handle as many as eight hoses at one time.

Interior drying units will help to quickly remove the moisture and wetness from interiors. These units will generate airflow to dry an interior in about 30 to 45 minutes.

To eliminate odors of any type from interiors or trunks, you will need an Ozone Generator. This odor-removal system is set inside the car or trunk, turned on and left from 30 minutes to several hours, depending on the odor. It generates ozone, which turns the bacteria that causes odor into harmless gases. A good unit can be purchased for about $600.

Detailing Chemicals and Supplies
Chemicals and supplies are areas of detailing where you will pay far too much money without realizing it because chemical suppliers are in the business to sell chemicals.

If you depend totally on your detailer to make the purchases, this is like giving a compulsive shopper a blank check. The detailer will buy anything and everything that every detail supplier has to offer.

On top of that, most operators don’t know what has been purchased or what is used up. This offers an excellent opportunity for the detailers to stock their own weekend detail businesses with your chemicals and supplies. And they do it.

What you should know is what chemicals are required, what is purchased and what is in inventory at all times. Some car dealers have been able to reduce their chemical and supply costs by nearly $1,000 a month with an inventory control system.

Beware: The chemical suppliers might try to sell you far more chemicals than you need.

One favorite trick of chemical suppliers is to sell you a 55-gallon drum of water-based engine degreaser and tell you it can be used for everything: engine cleaning, wheels, carpet shampoo, leather/vinyl cleaner and even glass cleaner. You can’t use one detailing chemical to do everything. You must use chemical products for what they are formulated to do and nothing else.

However, you can use the same water-based dressing for engines, interiors and tires.

You may want to consider keeping specialty chemicals like black paint, adhesive remover and various spot/stain removers on hand. And, a fragrance or a biological odor eliminator is recommended, especially if you do not have an ozone generator for odor elimination.

A final word on storing and handling chemicals: The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act requires that employees be knowledgeable about all chemicals they are using and what to do if they are sprayed with the chemical. This is what OSHA calls a “Hazardous Communications Program.” You must have one or risk being fined by OSHA.

Bottles, buckets and drums of chemicals with no identification labels is a major OSHA violation and something you would be severely fined for allowing. Yet, it is commonplace in almost all detail operations.

Buffing Pad Technology
Do you ever wonder why so many of your vehicles have swirls in the paint? It is because the detailer used a combination of the wrong chemicals and the wrong buffing pads. Many are still using the old, 100% wool buffing pads that were designed for lacquer paint finishes that sprayed dull and had to be buffed with heavy compounds and wool pads.

You do not want to use something as aggressive as a wool pad with today’s clear-coat paint finishes because this only creates more damage. Check that the detailers are only using foam cutting and foam-polishing pads on your paint finishes.

Do You Know Your Detailers?
In my 20-plus years in the detailing business as an operator and a manufacturer who has set up detail shops all over the world, the one unequivocal thing I can recommend is don’t hire experienced detailers. Why?

Their experience is only good if you let them do what they want. Which means that they are in control of your detailing operation, not you. Further, many people who call themselves detailers may have spotty employment histories, since employers usually don’t check references and tend to pay very low wages.

For the most part, hiring the wrong people causes many of the problems found in an in-house detail operation.

What you need to do is find a quality person you can depend on and then contact a chemical supplier or a consultant to the detail industry and ask for training assistance.

Detailing is not hard to learn if you hire quality people and a good trainer.

Managing the Operation
You will not need a detail manager if your operation is small. But you will need someone to oversee the detailers and what they do. Not a babysitter, but someone who will set operational standards and ensure they are followed and achieved. If you do not do this, the detailers will be in charge, and you may have problems. If you have a larger detail operation – and if you are selling detailing to other operators or to the public – you will need a very competent shop manager.

This person might detail, but first and foremost, he must be a manager. He must know how to motivate people and he must understand profit and loss, production, labor laws and other topics.

You also will need to have someone manage the manager, set standards and review the shop’s performance. And make sure you provide incentives for exceeding standards and sanctions.

Contracting with detail shops
If you farm out the work you need to be concerned about these issues:
• Are the detail operations reliable? Have they been in business more than a few months? Do they have dealer references?
• Do they have insurance?
• Is their staff qualified to do the work? In other words, what training do they have?
• Do they have the capacity to give you fast turn-around? Limos in and out in one day?
• Price is always a factor in any decision, but, remember, you get what you pay for.

In-house operation
Depending on the volume of work, you need at least one work bay and an area where you can wash cars and steam clean engines.

You also will need:
• The proper equipment. Not just a shop vacuum, electric buffer, a few dirty pads, brushes, buckets and spray bottles.
• The proper chemicals and detailing operating supplies.
• Qualified personnel to perform the work.
• Someone to manage what is being done.

The power of science:
Here are the primary chemicals you need to detail or recondition any limo:

Cleaning chemicals:
• Carwash shampoo
• Water-based engine degreaser
• Wheel cleaner (do not use hydrofluoric acid wheel cleaners)
• Tar and grease remover
• Carpet & upholstery shampoo
• All-purpose cleaner
• Extractor shampoo
• Glass cleaner
• Dressing for engines, interiors and tires (one type, not three)

Paint finishing chemicals:
• Heavy compound (one quart)
• Medium compound (one quart)
• Light compound (one gallon)
• Micro-fine compound (especially designed for clear coat paints, one gallon)
• Swirl remover/polish (one gallon)
• Paint sealant/wax (one gallon)
• One-step product, which corrects, polishes and waxes in one step (one gallon)<

Do You Bring Detailing In-House or Out-Source It?
The question of whether it is better to set up an in-house operation or out-source to a detail shop is one that only you can answer.

Even a large operator with scores of cars may believe that it is just too much trouble to worry about detailing in-house and would rather contract with an outside source.

On the other hand, an operator may believe that while he could financially justify hiring a detailer and setting up an in-house operation, he would rather avoid the labor, regulatory and other issues he would have to deal with.

An operator’s general business philosophy should also be factored in: Do you prefer to keep all aspects of your operation firmly in-house and under your tight control or do you prefer to find outside professionals and trust them?

Here’s one rule of thumb that might help you decide: Not every car will need a complete detail job. Some jobs will be touchups on the interior; others a wax; some a buff, polish and wax, and still others a complete detail.

Start by estimating how many hours per day and week it will take to keep your vehicles spotless. Can you keep someone busy 40 hours a week?

--Bud Abraham

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