Monday, October 08, 2007

Auto Repair 101

Sure, I know things about sports and I work in a male-dominated field, but on many levels, I am still a very girly girl.

I admit, here and now, that I know next to nothing about cars. I haven't the foggiest idea how they work.* I mean, yeah, I know there's a gasoline-powered engine and wheels -- but after that, I'm clueless. So I do all recommended preventative maintenance -- no matter how ridiculous it is. But if something goes wrong, I am left with two options: (1) Asking for help; (2) Paying for services that I don't understand -- and potentially don't need.

Anyone who reads this blog should have deduced by now that I am probably not so good with option #1. And, in all honesty, the males with whom I would consult about an auto-related issue are probably as clueless as I am, but are even more loathe to admit it because of their intrinsic male-ness. But nevertheless, I occasionally take this approach -- usually as a precautionary step to determine whether I'm over- (or under-) reacting.

The car -- my cute little pride and joy -- is six years old, and was just on the threshold of 30,000 miles. Over the winter -- 2500 or so miles ago -- I started worrying about my tires because of the age of the car, but I took the car in for maintenance, they said that the tires were fine. So I stopped worrying.

A couple of weeks ago, when my sister was visiting, my front driver's side tire started to look a little flat. I checked the pressure, added some air, and all seemed fine. It was still fine when I drove to Harrisburg (which was also the day the car passed 30,000 miles). Last weekend, the tire looked a little flat again. I checked the pressure, and it was very low. So I put air in it and went to Target. By the time I got out of Target, it looked low again. I figured that I must have done something wrong, so I drove across the street to the nearest gas station, and repeated the process.

When I went to go take the car out on Friday night, the stupid tire was low again. I emailed a friend to ask how I would know whether I needed new tires. He told me that I should check to see if there was a slow leak by inflating the tire to the right pressure, and then checking it again in a day or two.** I told him that I'd probably wind up taking it to a shop, out of laziness -- but with the knowledge that they would probably try to sell me tires even if I really didn't need them.

So, Saturday, around lunchtime, I took the car to put more air in the tire. It didn't seem to help, so I drove the car to the first tire place I came upon after leaving my house. But to be honest, I made this decision not just because of proximity, but because the place at issue had the word "Tire" in its name. I figured that, like with Dunkin' Donuts, if you advertise something in your title, it should be safe to assume that you're an expert at it.

Anyway, I told the guy at the desk what was wrong, and he went out to take a look at it. He agreed with me, that it looked flat, and that he could have it taken back into the repair bay, where they would charge me $30 to fix the tire, or, in the alternative, would let me know that it was irreparable, and that all of this would take approximately one half-hour. I agreed with this treatment strategy, signed the estimate, and waited in the lobby, where they had Star Wars Episode III playing in the background -- you know, the one where Hayden Christiansen goes from whiny and annoying Anakin Skywalker to crazy Darth Vader.

My car is ready about 45 minutes later -- just as Darth Vader takes his first awkward steps in the big black costume. The tire place goes to charge me the $30, but as I am fumbling around in my bag for my credit card, I ask a dangerous question: "What was wrong with it?"

"Nothing. We couldn't find anything wrong with it. There is no leak."

"Then why does it keep getting flat?"

Instead of answering, the guy starts printing out a new invoice. I have somewhere to be, so I annoyedly thrust out my credit card. He tells me not to worry about it, and he hands me a key, and an invoice that says "No Charge."

I walk out to my car, and the tire looks okay. I drive the mile back to my apartment, park in the garage, and look at the tire. It looks flat again. I am pissed. That afternoon, after various events, I have a friend look at the tire. She concurs, it looks flat. I tell my friend that I emailed earlier the story, and he tells me "You brought it to the wrong tire place."

I am even more pissed.

But, lucky for me, I have Monday off from work, which means one more day I can devote to car care. So, I went downstairs this morning to check the tire. It still looks flat. But according to my tire pressure gauge, the tire is fine.

So what do I do now?

*I do, however, know how to drive a stick shift, since I actually learned how to drive on one. I was never great at it, and I am probably way out of practice -- since the last time I drove one was back in the mid-'90s -- but I'm sure I could figure it out again.

**He also told me that after 30,000 or 40,000 miles I might notice that I'm not braking as well or taking wider turns, which would mean that the tread has worn down. But honestly, I wasn't so concerned about this, given the flatness of the tire. Not to mention that I don't think I could even begin to notice a subjective difference in braking or my turning radius.


mad said...

Very quizzical. It looks flat but isn't. If it's peace of mind you want, I guess you have to replace the tire.

Evil Spock said...

I know crap about cars, but I'm impressed you only have 30K on a 6 year car.

My car is 7 years old, and I have like over 70K on mine.

dara said...

Mad: That's about where I'm at. Especially with winter (snow, ice, etc.) approaching -- at least in theory, since it's 90 degrees here today.

Evil Spock: I live two blocks from the metro, so I rarely drive. My car is a luxury item. I could live without it, but would be somewhat unhappy about it.

And a 7 year old car with 70,000 miles is still low mileage, since you're only averaging about 10,000 miles per year.

Paige Jennifer said...

It's times like this that you just wish you had a big ole nail sticking out the side so you can stop feeling crazy.

This happened to me with my old Jeep. I ended up taking it to the gas station around the corner tha has NEVER wronged me. And the dealer. A total of five times between the two. There was a leak. A very slow leak. And it was found by submerging something in water. That's what they told me. Who knows if it is true. I will say this much, it never had another leak!

dara said...

This was the first time in a long time that I wished I had a husband. Or a personal assistant. You know, so I could delegate.

I know I'm not cray-zee. Really.

tingb said...

I very recently went through a similar situation where I felt the same way...about cars, husbands, personal assistants, etc.

I, too, had a tire that every once in a while looked low, but not dangerously so. I dealt with it for about eight months by periodically adding air to the tire and hoping for the best. My car is four years old (I also have about 30,000 miles on it) but I've also had four flat tires and I didn't keep very good track of which ones had been replaced.

I did a lot of research on tire wear-and-tear but most of the advice pointed towards "home remedies" that I didn't really trust, such as using a penny to see how worn the treads are.

Eventually, I decided I needed at least one tire and some amount of peace of mind, so I took it in, told the guy that I wanted to ditch the leaky tire, keep the two that were in better condition, and get two new tires. I held fast to this in the face of the "you really should replace them all together" speech.

This is a long way of saying that I also think the easiest solution is to replace the tire.

dara said...

My treads are fine -- if it's anything, it's gotta be some kind of slow leak. So I'm going to watch and wait for one more week, and if the tire pressure gets low, I'll replace the tires.

I'd only replace two of four if the tires weren't six years old. But at this point, I'm of the opinion that if one starts to go, it's only a matter of time until the other three follow.

Justin S. said...

I've had situations before where my tire "looked" flat but wasn't. It could just be an illusion, based on the way it's parked or something. Especially if the tire gauge shows it being ok.

Anyway, when you get home tonight, use the tire gauge again... Anyway, if it truly has a leak, and you've left it there all day, it's going to be blatantly obvious when you get home if it's a flat tire.

Also, based on your "a friend" link in this post, I'm confused. Did you ask Corey Haim for advice, or Corey Feldman?

dara said...

I asked both Coreys by submitting to their advice column, but only one responded, and he never did mention his last name.

No, really, I asked the person with whom I shared the awesome flat-tire-in-a-Georgetown-parking-garage experience. I suppose I could have made that clearer, but that would have taken all the fun out of it.

DSL said...

Justin could be right, but it may be worth your peace of mind to take it to a service station (Exxon, Shell, etc.) for a second opinion. They probably won't charge you if nothing's wrong or there's nothing they can do.

dara said...

I've had times where I thought it was an illusion too, but -- except for yesterday -- every time I checked the pressure, it's lower than it should have been.

But yeah, I'll check again tonight. And even if it's fine, I'll still fret about it -- probably until I get new tires.

Matt said...

*This following comment is provided by a guy who knows little about cars, but does catch the end of Car Talk some Saturday mornings while waiting for Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me to start*

Have you thought about Fix-a-flat? Although I think its main use is for emergencies, I believe it can also be used to plug some slow leaks (like it sounds like you have.) You should be able to pick up a can at any hardware or car store.

If it's only a slow leak and you don't drive much, it may save you from buying new tires right away.

Good luck.

dara said...

Oooh, what a great idea!

And, for the record, I love your blog. Another novel idea.

I'm just going to have to disagree on the NPR part -- even their best stuff bores me to tears. (I'm probably going to have to turn in my liberal card for that one.)

DSL said...

Good idea if you can actually find the leak.

dara said...

Isn't that the stuff you just spray in the tire and it fixes it for you? I wouldn't think that would require finding the leak.

Ryane said...

I don't know much about tires, but I do know that some tires can bulge (or look like they are going flat) when it's very hot outside. If this just happened over the weekend, that might have something to do with it.

You might try asking at the dealership, esp if the car is still so new. Good luck!!

dara said...

It might be the weather going from hot to cold to hot to hotter to hottest . . . Maybe I should check again after the alleged upcoming cold front moves through.

It's weird to think of a six-year-old car as being "so new." But I'm sure that if I took it to the dealership, they'd have no problem selling me overpriced new tires that I may or may not need. Heck, over the summer, they certainly had no difficulty with making me pay a ton of money for some treatment to remove the carbon deposits starting to form in the engine, allegedly because I don't drive enough.

Ryane said...

Dara--where do you live, in VA? I would heartily recommend my cousin's shop, but it's in Rockville. If you get desperate and can't seem to find good advice, let me know and I can give you the address...

dara said...

Ryane: I'm in Arlington -- Pentagon City.

My uncle's a mechanic -- although nowadays he focuses on selling racing motorcycles -- so if it hasn't been resolved by the end of the week, I'm going to put in a phone call to him.

Matt said...

Thanks for the blog like. I enjoy your writing as well (which probably goes without saying since I'm here and all.)

And yes, you just spray the fix-a-flat in the tire, if there's a slow leak it plugs the leak without you having to find it.

NPR has grown on me (like a fungus) but I don't view it as required liberal listening. I think you get to keep your card.

Joe Grossberg said...

Just replace the damn tires. All four. And with the exact same type you had before. And go to the dealer.

Don't be so cheap -- you're a lawyer and we're talking new tires, not new car. And tires can save your life and/or prevent you from being a 5'1" white girl stranded somewhere late at night.

dara said...

Joe: While I appreciate your concern, I resent being called cheap. I'm not being cheap; I'm worried about being taken advantage of by auto repair shops -- including the dealership -- because I don't know enough. It's perfectly rational.