Friday, June 26, 2015

Break up with your mechanic (Honda Pilot and other heavy cars break issues)

For a number of years now I’ve been the proud owner of a Honda Pilot. That kind of size fits me really well, as I’m pretty big fellow. However, there’s one downside to owning the Pilot, which also applies to several other big vehicles. Stopping heavy vehicles takes a lot of breaking power, but many SUVs such as the Pilot are equipped with relatively-small breaks that aren’t really fit for the job. When you break the car, the strain causes the breaks to heat-up, and if you break extensively (for example, if you drive a lot in a hilly area), the breaks overheat and the metal plates known as break rotors start to deform. When this happens, you start to feel the car vibrate when you break. At first, it’s just minor shaking when breaking at high speeds, but as time goes by, it can become noticeable even when slowing down at low speeds.

How soon this happens depends on your driving and where you live. For people who drive a lot down the hill, this can start to happen within a year of buying the car. The “fix” for this is “turning” the rotors, during which the rotors are taken out and get a run-over with a lathe, which grinds a layer off the rotors and returning them to their former smoothness. Unfortunately, this isn’t really a fix, because not only will the rotors heat-up and deform again, they will actually do so faster as they are now (thanks to the turning) thinner and more sensitive to the heat.

A better fix is replacing the rotors with new ones, but if you just get regular rotors, you’re buying yourself a year or two at the most. About half the cost of either replacing or turning the rotors is the labor, as taking apart everything takes about 1-1.5 hours (auto shops often charge 100$ and up per hour). Usually, the deformed rotors also wear-out the break “pads” faster, so most mechanics will recommend replacing these too (some will outright DEMAND it).

When my previous Pilot had this issue, I paid a mechanic about $440 for the whole thing, including parts, labor and taxes. However, when I needed to do this again a year later, I decided to not take the lazy and expensive way out, and researched my options a bit better. Here are my lessons, and hopefully, this can save you too some money and heart-ache.

The 1st thing I learned is that there’s actually an even better fix – Drilled rotors. This is something that’s typically done to Race cars to improve the break’s performance. This entails drilling about 20 holes in the rotor, which allows it to cool faster. With race cars, this improves the reliability of the breaking system, and for us home users, it improves the cooling, which means the breaks can sustain more action before deforming. This doesn’t mean it’s foolproof…if you drive down all the way down from Mr. Rainier, they will still heat up and possibly deform, but for normal driving, drilled rotors will last much longer. Another thing that can be done to rotors is “Slotting”, which entails making deep grooves in the rotor. Slotting also improves the performance, although lesser so than drilling.

This doesn’t mean you drill your rotors yourself, of course. There are many break manufacturers who offer drilled, slotted or Drilled & slotted rotors. Some better known brands are DBA, StopTech, Power Stop, ACDelco, Raybestos and Brembo.

Below you can see regular rotors, slotted rotors and then rotors that are both slotted and drilled:

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If you go to your auto shop and ask, they should be able to get you such improved rotors, but as I’ve found out, parts cost a LOT more at ALL car shops. I’ve literally called up dozens of them, and they all quoted me upwards of $150 per rotor, plus around $35 per break-pad, plus labor and tax. My solution? Buying online!

Sure, buying car parts online is scary. It’s hard to know if the part is good or not, and it can be hard to know if it will actually fit your car. It’s also hard to know if you really bought everything you need, or whether you’ll find out last-minute that you’re missing a part. Well, being Frugal can be stressful, and I can’t recommend this to everyone, but even if you do go and get the parts at a garage, make sure you shop around and haggle down the price. If a set of drilled and slotted rotors and pads can be had online for $190 (shipping included), there’s no reason a mechanic should charge you $500 for it. Their typical excuse is that it’s the price “their computer” gives. This is bullshit, of course…if they stick to a supplier that is charging them twice the market value, they are screwing themselves AND their customers, and they won’t lift a finger to get you a better deal, find another place. Most cities will have dozens if not hundreds of shops, and since replacing your rotors is usually not very urgent, put in the time to shop around. By the way, Amazon’s site can actually tell you whether a certain part fits your car. When you search for stuff like break rotors or break pads, you can tell Amazon which car you have, and it will tell you. Power Stop is a highly rated maker of breaks, and they are very affordable, and also offer kits that include a full set of rotors and pads that’s cheaper than buying separately. Below you can see the fit guide. My kit was this.

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Next thing to consider is labor, of course. Replacing rotors is one of the simplest jobs for a mechanic. It’s not “easy”, but there are really no variables or diagnosis. With the right tools and experience, a mechanic should be able to complete this (replacing 2 rotors and pads) in 1 hour. Without the right tools (for example, without a good lift or an impact-drill to remove the bolts), it could take 1.5 hours, but absolutely not more. A decent car shop should charge no more than $100 per hour, and it’s worth asking explicitly how much labor this job is, and how much they charge per hour. If they want more than $150, then you’re dealing with crooks. Again, to be clear…this isn’t one of those things where there’s “quality”…it’s not like a Doctor doing heart surgery. Replacing breaks is more equivalent to a nurse putting on a bandage, and there’s no reason to pay a lot for it. If the mechanic charges more because he has 80 years of experience…than he’s just playing you for a fool.

Personally, I know how to do this sort of work myself, and I could have stopped there, having spent $190 on a full set of parts, but I decided that at my age, I shouldn’t break my back and risk getting hurt (I’m a tad clumsy with the tools), so I decided to go ahead and pay for someone to do the work.

Most shops I asked don’t want to give up the nice margin they make on parts, and refused to do the work with parts “from dat damn innernayt”, and others tried to deter me by proclaiming they can’t warrant the job if it’s not their parts. I told them all to get lost, as they were quite a few shops that were happy to do the work (in fact, several even SUGGESTED I get the parts myself to save costs). The one I picked was a local company called CTU. Their benefit? They COME TO YOU (hence the acronym CTU). They charged me $90 for the work (which was already lower than most others) and performed this in my driveway quickly and easily. This way, I didn’t have to waste time driving around or waiting around for the job to get done. Furthermore, they actually were happy to do this on Sunday, so my car was getting fixed as I was watching a good episode of CSI.

The CTU I’m referring to works around Kirkland, Washington, but comparable companies usually exist all over the country. You might need to look them up on YELP or Craigslist (type “Mobile Mechanic”). Naturally, they can’t make all kinds of repair on the go, but for stuff like breaks, changing a battery, lights and stuff that doesn’t require specialized equipment or parts, this kind of service is super convenient.

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