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Spark plugs and ignition coils: when they should be replaced

In Diagnostics by Steves Auto Repair and Tire

When starting a vehicle, we don’t typically stop to think about all of the components and processes that make this action possible. 

Spark plugs and ignition coils are some of the little guys that are working behind the scene.

So, what do spark plugs do? Spark plugs team up with ignition coils and other components to get your vehicle to start. Fuel that is located in the cylinder head is sparked by the spark plugs. Ignition coils lend a hand by producing the voltage.

When to change spark plugs

How often to replace spark plugs has changed. These components have a much longer lifespan today. They used to be replaced around the 30,000 mile mark. This has been extended to between 60,000 and 105,000 miles. 

However, you should consult your manual for the manufacturer guidelines for your vehicle or feel free to contact your local auto repair shop.

If you’re wondering how to tell if a spark plug is bad, here are some indicators:

  • The check engine light turns on
  • You’re having trouble starting your vehicle
  • Your car runs rough when idle
  • Engine misfires (You may feel that your car is chugging when going up a hill or accelerating.)

With today’s vehicles, with OBDII systems if you feel the vehicle not running correctly and the check engine light is flashing you definitely have a misfire that could be causing catalytic converter damage.

Technician working on vehicle.

Because of all the computer systems and safety systems in cars and trucks, if you have an engine running problem it could impact other safety systems, such as traction control and Advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) systems. Since the engine wouldn’t be running correctly, the computer may turn those systems off when you have a problem.

If you are having a misfire, you need to get it diagnosed by your local auto mechanic to actually get to the bottom of the problem. Starting with computer diagnostics and pulling the code that may just show a cylinder misfire doesn’t really help you pinpoint the issue. They may need to perform some testing to determine if it’s a spark plug, coil boot, ignition coil, or an ignition control problem, such as an ECM (car’s computer) or an ignition module.

Types of spark plugs

There are different kinds of spark plugs produced. When replacing them on your vehicle, it’s important that you use the right type and avoid choosing the cheapest option.

We recommend using O.E. manufacturer specific spark plugs over O.E. equivalent, and here’s why:

Certain spark plug manufacturers are associated with specific vehicle manufacturers. For example, Bosch is known for producing parts for European vehicles. Many of these  manufacturers will also make spark plugs for other vehicles, and they may work just fine. However, they also might not for the long haul. This can be for various reasons, like the tolerances being off.

In addition to having spark plugs produced by various manufacturers, you now have different metals being used. There are tips made out of platinum and iridium. This can impact how long a spark plug lasts.

Worn spark plug and carbon buildup on spark plug.

What can cause spark plug problems

There are quite a few issues that can cause a bad spark plug.

Spark plugs could go bad if carbon builds up, which may be a result of dirty air filters or fuel injectors, or if the fuel-air combination is too rich.

The spark plug tip becoming overheated multiple times, and engine oil entering the combustion chamber are other culprits of spark plug failure.

Valve cover gasket and spark plug tube seals.

Overtime, the gap will get bigger, due to the metal wearing away from everyday use.

A lot of engines are designed where the spark plug is located in a tube in the middle of the cylinder head. The gaskets and seals can leak into the spark plug tubes. So, in some instances the fix may be replacing the spark plugs and the spark plug boots and also the valve cover gasket and spark plug tube seals.

How to tell if ignition coils are bad

If you notice that your car is misfiring or stalling, it could be an indicator of a bad ignition coil. Other symptoms include rough idle, misfire during acceleration, and hard start.

Distributor-less ignition system and ignition coils.

This part may stop working correctly if a vehicle has bad spark plugs or plug wires, or if there is an overload with the voltage.

Like spark plugs, ignition coils can be designed differently. Sometimes, ignition boots come separate from ignition coils.

There are four types of ignition coils: conventional, electronic, coil packs, and coil-on-plug. Without getting too much into the weeds, each type of coil has the same purpose of producing high voltage to the spark plug but are designed differently.

Steve’s Auto Repair & Tire is an authorized Goodyear tire dealer located in Woodbridge, Virginia. Automotive repair services are performed on all makes and models, including BMW and Mercedes. Services include oil changes, brakes, alignments, inspections, and computer engine diagnostics.

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Car heater blowing cold air

In Diagnostics by Steves Auto Repair and Tire

If you’re like me, you have or are getting ready to turn the heat on during your morning commute.

When you do it the first couple of times this season, you may notice a couple of problems.

A burning smell is one of them. This can happen if dirt kicks up in an area that hasn’t been used in a while. But if the issue persists, you should have it checked out at a repair shop near you.

The car heater blowing cold air is another common problem, which can stem from several underlying issues. These reasons include:

  • Low on coolant
  • Heater core problems
  • Thermostat not working
  • Blocked or broken heater control  

We will provide a deeper explanation about each possible cause below.

Low on coolant

A car heater not blowing hot air can occur when a vehicle’s coolant level is low. Coolant helps ensure that the engine temperature doesn’t get too high and prevents issues, like your car overheating. The warm air you feel when you turn on your heat is generated by hot coolant from the engine. If the right amount of coolant isn’t in the system – typically the result of a coolant leak – the heater won’t function correctly.

Air distributor box and heater core.

Heater core problems

We mentioned earlier that hot coolant is needed to warm up a vehicle. The heater core is also a necessary part of this process. A car heater not working could be caused by a bad heater core or if the heater core is leaking. Bad heater core symptoms include the vents blowing cold air, and fog on the windows or in the front seats. Debris called “scale” could also be blocking this component, preventing coolant from making it into the heater core.

Thermostat not working

If a car heater isn’t doing its job, there may be a problem with the thermostat, which opens and closes based on the coolant’s temperature. A bad thermostat may cause the engine to become too hot or too cold and lead to the car heater blowing cold air.

Blend door, actuator and heater core tubes.

Blocked or broken heater control

Another possible issue is a blocked or broken heater control. For a heater control problem, it can be a few things. With today’s vehicles having a lot of electronics in them, there are “mode door actuators,” which are little electric motors that move a little door back and forth. That allows the air to go through the heater core, or not, and helps adjust the temperature. You can also have a blend door sensor made out of plastic that can break and won’t move, only allowing you to feel cold air. You can also have problems with heater control cables on some of the older vehicles. Blockages may occur in the air distribution box – where the heater core is located – as well. Mouse nests, papers and other items can prevent air from making it to the heater core.

Air distribution box.

The type of car heater repair needed varies for each problem. Our technicians are able to perform diagnostic testing and replace the parts needed to address it.

Sometimes, if the heater core needs to be replaced the whole dash of the vehicle must be removed. This can take a little bit of time, so if you need a new heater core plan to be without your car for one to three days.

Steve’s Auto Repair & Tire is an authorized Goodyear tire dealer located in Woodbridge, Virginia. Automotive repair services are performed on all makes and models, including BMW and Mercedes. Services include oil changes, brakes, alignments, inspections, and computer engine diagnostics.

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Signs that your vehicle needs a new turbocharger

In Diagnostics by Steves Auto Repair and Tire

A lot of newer vehicles today are coming with smaller engines.

To run the air conditioning, computers, and electronics, extra power is needed. Turbochargers provide that support.

This component takes pressure from the exhaust that spools up and forces air into the intake. That adds power. Then, the car adds more fuel, resulting in more boost.

Sometimes, turbochargers need to be replaced.

We recently installed a new one on a BMW that had its check engine light turn on.

While working on the vehicle, the technician realized that the wastegate had gone bad. As you’re driving down the road, the turbo puts pressure into the engine through the intake. When you let off the gas and are decelerating, that pressure has to go somewhere. The wastegate operates as a pressure relief valve, allowing the pressure from the turbo to go off without damaging the engine.

He determined this was the problem because the turbocharger going bad is a common issue with BMWs. Work had also been done on this vehicle previously.

A couple of years ago, we replaced the wastegate solenoid.

At the time, we thought the turbocharger may need to be replaced at some point. Installing a new solenoid was a cheaper option that we hoped would address the issue.

How to tell if you need a new turbocharger

The check engine light turning on is one symptom that a new turbocharger is needed. This light can be triggered if your turbo doesn’t hit the pressure it’s supposed to.

Keep in mind that a check engine light can come on for many reasons. It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a problem with the turbocharger. 

You may also notice the engine making a whining noise and loss of power.

Blue or gray exhaust smoke is another indicator.

What causes it to go bad?

There are various reasons why turbochargers stop working. 

Not having enough oil and using dirty oil or the wrong type are the most common causes. These newer cars are very oil specific, because the turbo continues to run after the engine is off and it needs to be lubricated.

The turbocharger can also go bad simply from everyday use and if dirt, rocks and other debris enter it.

A “turbo underboost” code could indicate that the turbo is going bad. However, that isn’t always the case. When we get this code, our technicians determine the location of the boost leak by performing a smoke test on the turbo and intercooler.

Sometimes, the turbo is bad. However, we need to check that, because there may be a leak between the turbo and boost sensor.

Ways to maintain your vehicle’s turbocharger

Turbochargers are expensive. So, it’s important to make sure they’re maintained.

Regular oil changes are one way to take care of turbocharged engines. We recommend this service every 3,000 to 5,000 miles.

It’s also a good idea to give your engine time to warm up before heading to your next destination and allowing it to cool down afterward.

Steve’s Auto Repair & Tire is an authorized Goodyear tire dealer located in Woodbridge, Virginia. Automotive repair services are performed on all makes and models, including BMW and Mercedes. Services include oil changes, brakes, alignments, inspections, and computer engine diagnostics.

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My car won’t come out of park

In Diagnostics by Steves Auto Repair and Tire

Getting stranded when you have places to be is no picnic, especially when you don’t know what’s wrong or can’t fix it yourself. 

Sometimes, a vehicle’s gear shifter will get stuck and won’t come out of park. This situation intermittently occurred with a 2013 Nissan Altima, which was brought in to Steve’s Auto Repair recently.

As he worked on the vehicle, Brian found that the shift interlock solenoid would sometimes stick, preventing the vehicle from shifting into another gear. 

We couldn’t just replace the solenoid for this model, so a new gear shift assembly was needed. Replacing the component enabled the solenoid to retract in and the gear shifter to go from park to drive, neutral or reverse.

To replace the assembly, Brian removed the center console and put it back together with some trim. 

Other possible reasons a car won’t come out of park

The shift interlock solenoid sticking is only one reason why a car won’t come out of park. There are other possible causes behind this issue.

Problems with the brake light switch is another one. If the car doesn’t recognize that you’re hitting the brake, it won’t allow you to shift into another gear.

Your vehicle’s gear shifter may also refuse to go out of park if there’s an open circuit on the interlock solenoid.

Other reasons include a bad ignition switch and the parking pawl.

What you can do to prevent this problem

Unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be done to prevent a gear shifter from getting stuck in park.

You should be careful not to spill anything in the center console. Coffee and other beverages could get down into the gear shift, causing it to gunk up. Soda can especially be a troublemaker, because it’s sticky. 

Spilling beverages is one of the main reasons you have problems with that component.

What you can do if this happens

If you find yourself in a situation where the gear shifter is stuck, there is something you can do.

Most cars generally have some way to bypass the interlock solenoid.

On some vehicles – especially those with a gear shifter on the center console – there’s a plastic tab you can press the key down into. This will release the interlock solenoid, allowing you to put the vehicle in neutral. 

If a car won’t start or isn’t operating the way it should, you probably need to call a tow truck. A vehicle needs to be in neutral in order to be moved onto it.

Not all car problems can be prevented. Sometimes, parts go bad unexpectedly. However, it is important to have an auto repair shop you trust and can go to.

That way, if you have an issue or question, they will be able to provide you with recommendations and the information you need.

Steve’s Auto Repair & Tire is an authorized Goodyear tire dealer located in Woodbridge, Virginia. Automotive repair services are performed on all makes and models, including BMW and Mercedes. Services include oil changes, brakes, alignments, inspections, and computer engine diagnostics.

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Common car air conditioning problems

In Diagnostics by Steves Auto Repair and Tire

The hot days of summer are about to roll in.

With them will come 90 degree and 100 degree weather – you know, when there’s 100 percent humidity and anything cold becomes warm within minutes.

During the extreme summer heat, many of us look forward to the cool temperatures our car air conditioning provides.

Sometimes, the A/C may stop working. (By the way, you may want to confirm that it is working before summer really kicks in.)

These are the most common reasons:

  • It’s low on freon
  • The air conditioning condenser is constricted
  • Problems with the Electronic Climate Control System
  • Expansion valve isn’t working
  • User error

You can read more information about each problem below.

You car air conditioning low on refrigerant

The air conditioning system requires freon to function properly. Refrigerant goes from the compressor to the condenser, then on to the drier and evaporator.

Being low on freon is one reason car air conditioning may not be working. This can is typically the result of a leak. Air conditioning leaks can occur in various spots, such as fittings.

The air conditioning condenser is constricted

The fins on an air conditioning condenser can be bent if there is an impact or the condenser isn’t cleaned correctly. This can restrict the amount of air that flows through.

If the condenser is damaged, it probably needs to be replaced. 

Problems with the Electronic Climate Control System

Newer vehicles are coming with different types of controls and systems. One of them is the Electronic Control System, which regulates the temperature for the front seats. 

If your A/C isn’t working, it may be a problem with the Electronic Control System.

Expansion valve isn’t working

The expansion valve is responsible for controlling how much refrigerant is in the air conditioning system. Overtime, this component can go bad.

User error

Let’s be honest, we can become so distracted by our day-to-day activities that sometimes we aren’t paying attention to what we’re doing.

For example, one day I turned on the A/C and it was blowing warm air – a problem that continued after my car had a chance to run for a while. When I looked down, I realized that I had turned the knob to heat.

Before running to the repair shop, make sure that you didn’t forget to flip a switch or push a button. Also, look through your owner’s manual to see if it offers an explanation or suggestion.

Summer is just weeks away. As you start planning vacations and other adventures, it’s a good time to confirm that your car air conditioning is working just right. It also wouldn’t hurt to have a professional look over your vehicle and make sure there aren’t any other problems.

Our technicians are able to work on vehicles that use R-134 and R-1234yf. We invested in a new air conditioning machine for R-1234yf last year.

Steve’s Auto Repair & Tire is an authorized Goodyear tire dealer located in Woodbridge, Virginia. Automotive repair services are performed on all makes and models, including BMW and Mercedes. Services include oil changes, brakes, alignments, inspections, and computer engine diagnostics.