Shop Talk- Why do we charge for diagnostic time?

There is a world of difference between a free estimate for known repairs and a diagnostic procedure for difficult, intermittent or technical problems. Accurate diagnosis of your vehicle’s troubles is imperative for precise estimates and to be able to provide economical, accurate and lasting repairs, but it can frequently take a lot of time and resources to get there. These resources we may need to invest are expensive, so we thought we’d explain the need for and the expense of technical diagnostic procedures.

In some cases, diagnosis of a problem can be straightforward and there may be minimal expense arriving at an answer.  Other times, problems are complex, may only appear under certain conditions, only appear intermittently, or may be caused by multiple interacting systems.  The time has passed when someone with basic knowledge and a few tools can properly diagnose or repair your vehicle.  Today’s technical problems require the attention of highly trained and experienced personnel, along with the use of proprietary equipment and data resources. Difficult problems on late model computer-controlled vehicles often require more time for diagnostic procedures than the actual repair time needed to correct them.  For example, we might invest hours testing vehicle systems to ultimately find that corrosion in some buried wiring connector is creating a malfunction, in order to spend just a few minutes cleaning the guilty connector to resolve the problem once identified and located.

If your “Check Engine” light comes on and warns of problems with the engine management, body control, or other computer control systems, code retrieval will reveal trouble codes (if stored), but these codes offer no specific information about causes or corrections and may not reveal the existence of multiple problems.  In some cases there will be no codes or the symptoms may be intermittent. These “no code”, “intermittent” complaints will challenge even the best of the best tools and technicians. Many auto parts stores will retrieve and supply trouble codes for free to sell you parts.  However, a trouble code is not a diagnosis and the parts stores will not allow returns on these “test” parts.  (We have an article titled “The Scan Scam” on our website you could read for more info.)  Many shops do not have the information, equipment or trained personnel to perform proper diagnosis, repair or verification.  They will retrieve a trouble code from the vehicle and then replace likely parts until they might stumble on a fix (all at the client’s expense).  Simply “throwing parts at cars” will never fix certain types of problems; corroded connectors, broken wires inside harnesses, high resistance pathways or poor grounds, or a series of problems, nor prevent repetitive failures if underlying causes are not determined.  We will pull trouble codes for free if requested, but we can’t move from trouble code information to professional guaranteed repair without diagnosis and repair verification.

Maintaining the ability to accurately diagnose technical problems is expensive.  Aside from the labor costs of experienced ASE Certified Technicians, diagnostic equipment and data access are costly.  There is a world of difference between a code reader and a manufacturer-specific diagnostic scanner that can access and record multiple live data streams. Even a good generic diagnostic scanner is expensive, but the manufacturer-specific diagnostic tools we require are $3000 to $9000 each and require thousands of dollars in yearly updates.  As a full-service shop, we maintain OEM scanners for Acura, Honda, Subaru, Toyota, Lexus, GM, Ford, Chrysler, Saab and many other Asian and European vehicles.  (Also see our article in this month’s newsletter about the Right to Repair Act, which if it fails will make our access to these scanners and databases even more expensive.)  Like many shops, we could choose not to do technical work. We could just to do the profitable easy stuff but that is neither our mission statement nor why people use our service.  We won’t just take profit from basic repairs and maintenance services, and then when presented a real problem say “Oh sorry we can’t do that” and send clients to seek help elsewhere, or worse yet pretend to be qualified, stumble around and guess what might be wrong and replace parts in hopes of figuring out what is wrong at our client’s expense.

No one likes to pay diagnostic charges. We understand it is frustrating to hear that we need to charge for time to determine the cause and correction for your vehicle’s problem to even give an accurate estimate for repair.  We spend roughly 20% of our total available time on some form of diagnostic evaluation, and the expense of proprietary equipment and experienced personnel represents major overhead.   Not billing for diagnostic time would quickly force us to change our professional methods.  We prefer to stay equipped, well staffed, capable and honest and to bill our time out fairly and accurately.

This article should give some feel for why diagnostic time is both necessary and a value to our clients. If you ever have any questions about diagnostic charges or any other subject, please feel free to speak with one of our non-commissioned caring Service Advisors.

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