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Figuring out what is 'Fair'

Posted by john_g (My Page) on
Thu, May 25, 06 at 21:22

How many times have we seen someone ask about whether a price for some type of auto repair was fair or not?

A 97 Ford Probe was sent to me by the local Ford Dealer. Some of you may know that I am an Electronics/Diagnostics/Emission Control specialist, some of you may not have known that. The Ford dealer isn't the only one that sends me certain cars with problems that go beyond what one would consider a normal failure. Many of the things I have to deal with I have never seen before, and I won't ever see twice. This Probe is a classic example.

It had two trouble codes set, a P0400, EGR system no flow, and a P1410 EGR boost sensor, solenoid problem. The second code is not even listed under the Ford service information. This car has been to four shops before it went to the dealer. It has a new EGR valve, and a new EGR valve position sensor already on it from somewhere else. The rest of the story is that it lost the engine, and the "relatives" that fixed it for him got and installed a 95 engine in this 97 Probe. The computer controls are all supposed to have stayed with the car, so in theory it should have been an easy swap. The first order of business for me was to confirm the codes setting, which I did quite easily. Ford's diagnostic strategies include automated testing that is performed by the onboard computer, as commanded by the scan tool. These tests are performed KOEO (Key On Engine Off) and KOER (Key On Engine Running). During the engine running test, I manually monitor the affected system with an ocilliscope on the solenoids being commanded, the EGR position sensor, and with vacuum gages hooked up in various ways to gain a complete understanding of exactly how the system is controlled, in this case the EGR system, and to see how the computer tests the system which will help me diagnose any faults. BTW this is a strategy that Ford started back in the early '80s and has perfected through the years. No other manufacturer gives a technician this capability, although you will find it on some of the crossover vehicles such as a few of the Mazda's and the Nissan Quest.

Anyway, after about an hour testing the system, and not determining why this car is condeming the EGR system, because it worked just fine. I stopped the diagnostics and proceeded onto other issues both with this car, as well as with other cars in the shop that needed attention. The owner stopped by and I told him I was going to have to do some research tonight because some of the scan information didn't make sense.

Well, I have read enough. I fully expect I know exactly what is wrong with the car. During the engine replacement, who ever did it has accidently missinstalled the EGR Boost solenoid connector with the Fuel Pressure Regulator solenoid connector. The clue was in the Mazda service information, and using it, I was then able to find it in the Ford service information. I probabaly spent a little over an hour reading tonight before I found that. It's so simple it's stupid, but that's the way it goes some times. So here is the dilemma. I have a little over an hour's time in the shop invested. I have a little over an hour here at home studying this system and looking for every scrap of information I could find when I found that. The scan tool that I use for diagnosing this car is almost exclusively only found at the dealership, it just so happens that I have stepped up to the plate and invested the money in the best tools and equipment available so that I can be at my very best all of the time. That's an expense of close to $40,000 in just scan tools and software to support the different cars that I work on that NONE of my competetors are spending.

How do I charge enough to be fair to me for doing all of this, and still be seen as being fair to my customer, when tomorrow I'm going to simply switch two connectors, because they are plugged onto the wrong solenoids?


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Figuring out what is 'Fair'

What's to figure? IMO, fair for a straight forward nuts and bolts type job is flat rate X shop rate + parts. For the kind of job you're talking about, generally it's your time spent X your shop rate + parts. That's whats fair. The tools are part of the shop rate spread across all the jobs you do as well as the cost of the building, electricity ect. The question is when is a car not worth fixing? IMO, the '97 probe became scrap iron when a junk yard engine out of a '95 was considered an improvement. Kudos to you for being able to figure it out. You did so quite quickly imo. I don't even think it would be unreasonable to charge 2x the time you spent on it in this case. You're not being paid for switching a couple plugs. You're being paid for knowing which plugs to switch. If it were me (as a customer) I'd be thrilled I found someone who could fix the thing. jmo


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RE: Figuring out what is 'Fair'

Well John, you've done it again - figured out a mysterious problem that was hidden in plain view. Unfortunately, the $40,000 worth of diagnostic equipment could not positively identify the problem; It took a good diagnsotician to do that.

Who'd thought: crossed wires. Did those wires have the same color, too? This would be funny except for the pain it caused.

With the abundance of differently shaped connectors under the hood, one would think that two connectors in proximity of each other would have been shape-keyed to prevent crossing the connections. Design oversight?


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RE: Figuring out what is 'Fair'

Since you're soliciting opinions, here's mine.
Your diagnostic tester is not a "typical" shop tool so It should not be lumped in with general shop overhead or "the cost of doing business". I think that a charge for the use of the equipment is both fair and in order here.

In addition to the inital cost of a machine like this there is maintenance/software upgrade/ service contracts/ etc.
You should develop a rate for usage of the device and include it on your invoices (in case someone wants a detailed breakdown). Something like $200/use I don't feel is unreasonable in addition to your time. FWIW, I can understand the justification for the old "joke":

shop labor = $x/hr
unless you fix it first, then
shop labor = $2x/hr

john_g I wish you were near me. Based on your posts, I'd bring my car in for sure.


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RE: Figuring out what is 'Fair'

Thanks guys, I appreciate the responses. It's fun being able to write about these things, but in many ways it's "just another day at the office". This diagnostic is going to cost the customer the two hours I put into it at my regular diagnostic rate of 84.77/hr. In other words less than $200. He came by the shop this morning, and when I told him it was fixed and what was wrong. you should have seen the look on his face, PRICELESS!! He has been fighting this problem for a year! By the time he showed up I had already taken this on a road test that was long enough to run the EGR monitor which had passed, confirming the car is fixed. He asked me to go ahead and do the state inspection on it, and also fix the shifter interlock system.

The question still remains though, trying to figure out what is "fair". In almost every way, I can't afford to keep doing work at this level, and keep myself tooled, schooled and up to date without charging a lot more than I did. But if I charge more would I get any work at all? Most of the time I don't even get a chance at doing the work as it is. We lose so many potential jobs right at the phone estimate because there is always going to be someone cheaper. Cheaper does not mean better, it never did.


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RE: Figuring out what is 'Fair'

"I have a little over an hour's time in the shop invested. I have a little over an hour here at home studying this system and looking for every scrap of information I could find when I found that."

"This diagnostic is going to cost the customer the two hours I put into it"

Sounds like you put in 2.5 hours, stop selling yourself short. LOL


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RE: Figuring out what is 'Fair'

In almost every way, I can't afford to keep doing work at this level, and keep myself tooled, schooled and up to date without charging a lot more than I did. But if I charge more would I get any work at all? Most of the time I don't even get a chance at doing the work as it is. We lose so many potential jobs right at the phone estimate because there is always going to be someone cheaper. Cheaper does not mean better, it never did.

Ask yourself this: aside from the "free help" that exchanged the engine, how much did the owner of this car spend in other shops trying to fix this problem? Way more than $200, I'll bet. And they got paid even though they didn't fix the problem. And yet you are the one with the experience and the knowhow and the tools to actually get it working again. How much is that worth? Why is it that two people can pick up the same paint and brushes and canvas and yet one of them can sell everything he touches and the other cannot? Why do people pay $$$ for blue jeans when they can buy 'em for $10 at Wally World or Tarjhay? It's the art behind it. You have an art, too, and, really, coming to you probably costs less in the long run than going to some cheap hack who doesn't know a from e.

Maybe that's a marketing thing. Maybe the shops referring to you need to endorse you publicly to the customers ("Yeah, John's not the cheapest guy in town, but he is the best and if John can't fix it, no one can."). Maybe it's doing more referral work from more dealerships/a wider area. Maybe you need to branch out into some other aspect of car care that is more bread-and-butter, like fast oil changes or installing aftermarket accessories, so you have a broader customer base over which to amortize your costs.

You're d**n good at these diagnostics and you seem to enjoy it. Like sdello said, don't sell yourself short. You do what no one else in your area does. People almost always will ante up for the good stuff. Make sure people know what they're getting from you and that they can't find it just anywhere.


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RE: Figuring out what is 'Fair'

John, you are certianly entitled to charge a portion for your equipment, although you did not use it to make the repair, using it enabled you to eliminate enough to read and get the proper info. Plus you are entitled to a fee for using some damn hard learned diagnostic knowledge, I don,t think any fair minded person would quibble over this. Thanks for a very interesting post


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RE: Figuring out what is 'Fair'

Footnote.

This customer has another car that the check engine light came on. He stopped and asked me about it, and we set an appointment for it. He didn't show up. Word has it he got it done cheaper than he thought we could, or would do it.

(I know where it did go)....


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