Tools I Want for Christmas

No one EVER has trouble figuring out what to get me for Christmas. That’s because one of my favorite places to spend time is in the garage, and like most car guys and gals who consider themselves heavy or light DIYers, or somewhere in between, there’s always a new garage tool or gadget on my wish list.

This holiday season, my tool wants aren’t items I must have to finish any one project, rather they are garage tools that would make my life easier and my work more enjoyable. Those qualities are, after all, hallmarks of a great tool and gift idea, right?

Magnetic Tray

Magnetic Tray

A magnetic tray. If Ralphie had one of these in A Christmas Story, he never would have watched in horror as the lug nuts went flying through the air and into the snow, forever lost. I have a similar problem misplacing small metal parts while I’m working on something in the garage, house or yard. A magnetic tray is a tool I can keep close by while working and makes it easy to contain and keep track of any small parts that are involved with the project.

Truck Light Box

Truck Light Box

Truck box light. My 2004 F150 has a hard tonneau cover over the bed. It’s awesome at keeping everything dry and secure, but it has one downside. When it’s dark out and the cover is raised, it blocks any light from the cab-mounted cargo light, leaving me to fumble around in the dark for a flashlight or my iPhone flashlight app. I tried sticking some battery powered lights to the cover’s underside, but they were designed to be used under kitchen cabinets and the adhesive couldn’t hold up to road vibration or to the cover being closed repeatedly. A truck box light that attaches via a magnet to the bed would be a lot easier and remain in place.

Tool BoxThree-drawer portable tool box. All my tools – and there are a lot – have their place in the well-organized garage pegboard, workbench drawers or large rolling toolbox. When I need just a handful of tools to work on something outside the garage or to help a friend, I can usually fit them in a medium-size canvas tool bag. On larger projects that require more tool power, or for projects that I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to need, I’d like to have something that’s sized between the bag and the large rolling tool cart, but is still portable so I can take it with me. I think a three-drawer portable tool chest is the answer. On a related note, Advance has some tool sets on sale right now!

Three Foot FanThree-foot fan. During the summer, my garage gets hot, and sometimes smells from exhaust fumes, pepperoni and onion pizza, and the occasional small engine fire. A traditional box or oscillating fan doesn’t move enough air to keep me cool or to eradicate unpleasant olfactory sensations. That’s why I want the big blades and cubic-feet-of-air-moving-capacity that comes with a three-foot garage fan. And, when I’m not working in the garage, who’s to say it can’t pull double duty and keep me cool while I’m slaving over a hot grill on the back deck?

Editor’s note: Whether you’re buying tools for yourself or for a family member or friend this holiday season, Advance Auto Parts has the tools, parts and vehicle-related gifts to help you finish the job. Buy online, pick up in store, and get back to the garage.

Five Tools I’m Thankful for and Can’t Live Without

The approaching holiday season is the perfect time to reflect on what you’re most thankful for in life. At work, at home, with your friends and with your family, you’re probably grateful for many things when you stop and think about it.

There’s no reason this gratitude can’t extend to the garage and under the hood as well, particularly if those are places that bring you the most happiness. When it comes to your vehicle and doing it yourself, there are undoubtedly several tools that you’re thankful for and couldn’t imagine completing the job without. What are they?

I have several favorites, including these five.

PB B'LasterPB B’laster – What do a phosphate mine and Florida humidity have to do with this corrosion-penetrating product? Everything. William K. Wesley started the B’laster Chemical Company with its flagship product – PB B’laster – in 1957 as a solution to a friend’s problem. Wesley’s friend owned a phosphate mine in Florida. Phosphate’s highly corrosive and Florida’s really humid. Together the two wreaked havoc on the friend’s mining equipment as the machinery couldn’t be taken apart for repair or maintenance because the parts were welded together by corrosion. From your own experience, you know that nothing slows down the job more than rusted parts. Stripped nuts, busted knuckles, broken tools and jobs that take twice as long as they should are often the result of doing battle with corrosion. That’s why I love PB B’laster’s penetrating magic. I don’t know the science behind it, but I do know it hasn’t let me down yet. For really tough jobs, I spray it on the night before I’m going to work on the parts.

Actron OBD II Pocket Scanner

Actron OBD II Pocket Scanner

Code Reader – The sudden illumination of the dreaded “check engine” light no longer has to induce driver or passenger panic, or necessitate an immediate trip to the vehicle dealer for resolution. Thanks to the availability of handheld code readers and their ease of use, anyone who can insert a plug into an opening can diagnose a check engine light. Surprisingly, the first appearance of on-board computer diagnostics with scanning capabilities was in 1968 when Volkswagen introduced a computer system in its type three fuel-injected models. On-board diagnostics (OBD) didn’t gain widespread implementation however until the 1990s. Today, OBDII plug and play technology allows anyone to quickly diagnose a check engine or other illuminated dashboard light – and save time and money – simply by plugging the reader into the vehicle’s OBD port and reading the Digital Trouble Codes (DTCs) generated. Fixing the problem, however, might be another story altogether.

Mechanix Wear Fast Fit Gloves

Mechanix Wear Fast Fit Gloves

Nitrile and Mechanix Wear Gloves – Remember when working under the hood guaranteed grease under your fingernails and in every crack and crevice in your hands, along with the occasional scraped and bleeding knuckle? Thankfully, those days are gone, unless you’re really into getting your hands dirty. Generations of professional mechanics and DIYers who blazed the path before us didn’t have the luxury of protecting their hands from grease and grime with latex or nitrile gloves. They also didn’t have Mechanix Wear gloves helping cushion the blow that a slipped wrench often delivers. Back then, dirty, damaged hands may have been a badge of courage, but today they’re just a pain when you’re trying to get your hands clean on a Monday morning before work.

GPS Navigation Systems – Getting lost is a lot harder these days thanks to GPS navigation systems in vehicles. Whether they come pre-installed and integrated with the vehicle’s dashboard display, as a separate windshield or dash-mounted unit, or via a smart phone app, paper maps, planning a route and getting hopelessly lost are things of the past. Like cell phones, this is one driving tool we don’t know how we ever lived without.

Tube Bender – Sure, there are plenty of tube benders out there, but this makes bending metal fuel and brake lines super easy. Using just your hands and this spring tool, you can bend soft metal to the configuration you need without collapsing the sidewalls. The Malco Tube Bender is inexpensive and easy to use, especially when you compare it to the cost and frustration of ruining a section of line by crimping it.

Deep Socket Set

Deep Socket Set

Deep Sockets – I don’t know who invented them or how long they’ve been around – I’m sure it’s centuries – but I am thankful for and can’t live without my set of deep sockets. More often than not, whatever I’m working on requires a deep socket and it’s my go-to tool, preferred over a box wrench simply because of speed and convenience.


Aside from being thankful that you have time to work under the hood and wishing for more of it, what tools are you thankful and can’t live without this season?

Editor’s note: Whether you need to replace a favorite tool that’s lost or give someone holiday gift ideas, Advance Auto Parts has the tools you want and need. Buy online, pick up in store, and get back to the garage.

Top Five DIY Annoyances When Working on Your Vehicle

hood up fixing carMany DIYers relish the opportunity to work on their vehicle, whether it’s performing routine maintenance or installing the latest performance upgrade. Sometimes, however, what should be a relaxing and satisfying few hours spent under the hood on a weekend afternoon with the game on in the background turns instead into a knuckle-busting, tool-throwing lesson in DIY frustration.

We’ve all been there – victims of Murphy’s Law. Whatever can go wrong, will, and the chances of it happening rise in tandem with the degree to which you’re feeling rushed or under pressure to get the job done.

Here’s my Top Five List of DIY Annoyances. This isn’t an all-inclusive list, so let’s hear what your biggest frustrations are under the hood.

Plastic engine and under-car covers. Lift the hood or crawl underneath most modern vehicles and you’ll see plastic – a lot of it. Plastic shrouds cover the engine, the battery, and pretty much everything else you might have a need to access under the hood. It’s no better down on the ground with plastic blocking precisely the spot you need to place a wrench. Depending on whom you believe, all that plastic serves a purpose – according to vehicle manufacturers – or it’s been placed there to thwart DIYers. Regardless, its presence makes your job that much more difficult and time-consuming. And, more often than not, the plastic screws or clips holding the shrouds in place break when they’re removed. I prefer a plastic-cover free, roomy engine compartment, circa 1973, in which to perform my best work.

Lost – or as I tell my wife – “temporarily misplaced” tools. It’s a simple job – one that shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes and one for which you have all the necessary tools close at hand. Or so you think. The one tool that you must have for the job, and that you know you do have, isn’t where it should be. In fact, it isn’t anywhere. Did you loan it to someone? Leave it in the shed? Mistakenly throw it away? You now wind up spending more time searching for that tool than it would have taken you to complete the job. Put the tools away where they belong every time.

Fixing that which is not broken, or, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Sometimes you’re unsure exactly what the problem is so you start fixing things that you think may be the culprit, only to find out they’re not. On the other hand, you might be overconfident that you know exactly what the vehicle maintenance problem is so you fix it, and quickly learn it wasn’t the problem. Case in point – the Honda engine on my wood splitter suffered from an intermittent failure to start. I was sure it was the rust build up on the flywheel magnet. It wasn’t. Then it had to be the spark plug. Nope. Followed by the low-oil switch. Wrong again. Finally, I struck gold by cleaning some water and junk out of the carb bowl. Finding the right fix can be time-consuming, costly, and frustrating, but it’s important.

Doing more harm than good. When does a routine carb adjustment turn into a head removal? After you drop something down the intake. In the blink of an eye, what should have been an easy, inexpensive task just turned into an expensive vehicle maintenance nightmare because you deposited a screw, nut, washer or some loose change down there. Sure, you can tell yourself that it fell in the gravel driveway and that’s why you can’t find it. You’ll soon learn the truth when you start the engine. It’s happened to the best of us – good intentions of fixing one part are punished with the realization that you just broke something else, and it’s going to be a lot more difficult and time-consuming to repair.

Other people. Even if you’re living by yourself in a cabin in the woods you still have to deal with other people, and their mistakes, when it comes to servicing your vehicle. Don’t think so? Have you ever been under the hood of a vehicle someone owned before you and found yourself shaking your head in amazement, wondering how and why the previous owner made a repair the way they did? Ever pull up to a self-service car wash or air pump, deposit some coins and only then find out that someone before you broke the equipment? Ever get some bad advice from a well-meaning friend or brother-in-law who “had that exact same model and knows exactly what the problem is.” We’re all human and we all make mistakes. Be ready for it.

Working on vehicles can be a tricky business or hobby and one that’s full of surprises. Expect the annoyances, learn to roll with them, appreciate the time you get to spend under the hood, and share your pet peeves with us. You’ll feel better after you do.

Editor’s note: Whether it’s tools, parts, or knowledge, if you don’t have what you need under the hood, turn to Advance Auto Parts. Buy online, pick up in store, and get back to the garage.

Crucial Cars: GMC Sierra

2016 GMC Sierra

GMC Sierra Photo credit:


From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

For this installment, the Mechanic Next Door does some heavy lifting, delving into the GMC Sierra pickup’s history and looking at the newest model.

Max and Morris Grabowsky may not be household names, but they cemented their place in automotive history nonetheless. In 1901 the Grabowsky duo built a truck prototype in Pontiac, Michigan, and went on to form their company – the Rapid Motor Vehicle Company – a year later. It didn’t take long for the brothers’ truck-building efforts and success to attract competitors’ attention, with General Motors buying them in 1909. Just three years later at the New York Auto Show, the name GMC Trucks would make its debut.

And so begins the story of GMC’s Sierra – a leader in the category of full-size pickups and a nearly identical twin to Chevy’s Silverado truck lineup. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that GMC would debut the name Sierra, using it to designate their trucks’ trim level, until 1987 when Sierra began serving as the permanent name for GMC’s full-size pickups.

GMC’s early, 1960’s-era pickups – before the Sierra name change – were designated as either “wideside” or “fenderside” – the latter corresponding to what many drivers today refer to as “stepside” pickups with fenders that flare out over the rear wheels. GMC also was one of the first to use numbers to indicate its trucks’ hauling capacities using the “1000”, “1500”, and “2000” designations that are common today in one form or another among all the major truck manufacturers. A “K” attached to those numbers indicated a GMC truck with four-wheel drive, and there were just two trim levels available – base or Custom. The standard engine was a 236-cubic-inch inline six delivering 135 horsepower.

Through the mid-1960’s, GMC trucks underwent a suspension change, additional engine options, and cosmetic changes to freshen the truck’s appearance. One of the most notable changes, and perhaps the start of pickups’ migration to becoming more than just work vehicles, was the debut of air conditioning in 1965.

1973 saw GM completely redesign its pickup truck line with longer wheelbases and the debut of a four-door crew cab. Engine choices ranged from a 100-horsepower, 250-cubic-inch inline six on the low end to a 240-horse 454 V8. GM’s next complete overhaul of its Sierra truck line wouldn’t occur until 1988 with trucks sporting a third more glass for improved visibility and a marked focus on more luxury items, such as upholstery and instrumentation.

That 80’s-era “luxury” pales in comparison to today’s model, considering that the 2016 GMC Sierra sports such innovations as advanced safety features and a 4G Wi-Fi Hotspot. The pickup’s evolution from being strictly a work vehicle to becoming a multi-purpose vehicle today is clearly evident on GMC’s site for Sierra, where a review of the vehicle’s interior receives precedence over its capabilities – something that would have been unheard of when trucks were meant solely for hauling and pulling. This old school Sierra’s transition into a show vehicle shows that there’s clearly a lot of life left for these pickups even when their days of doing hard work are over.

That’s not to say that new Sierra’s lack anything in the performance department. Its 6.2L V8 cranks out 420 horsepower, which GMC says is more than any other light-duty pickup. And, according to GM, the available EcoTec3 5.3L V8 engine delivers the best V8 fuel economy available among any full-size pickup. Balancing that power with control is Hill Descent Control, allowing for less nerve-wracking downhill journeys in rough terrain, and the Eaton Locker which automatically locks the rear wheels when slippage is detected.

GMC Sierra

Photo Credit:

Other automatic technology features aimed at assisting drivers include the Lane Keep Assist which helps drivers avoid drifting out of their lane by automatically correcting steering, and IntelliBeam which activates or deactivates Sierra’s high beams based on traffic conditions. Forward Collision Alert provides audible and visual alerts to help prevent collisions while the Safety Alert Seat vibrates as a warning signal to drivers.


GMC Sierra

GMC Sierra Photo Credit:

Technology inside Sierra’s cab that’s aimed at driver convenience rather than strictly safety includes IntellilLink for customizing and organizing a variety of media, Apple CarPlay for syncing phones to the IntelliLink system, the previously mentioned 4G WiFi hotspot, and OnStar’s RemoteLink app to remotely start the vehicle, pinpoint its location on a map, and monitor the vehicle’s mechanical functions.

Available in four trim levels – Sierra Base Trim, SLE, SLT, and Denali, Sierra’s base MSRP is $27,275, and heads higher from there. After decades of popularity among truck buyers and features that give drivers what they want, the Sierra’s popularity doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.


Editor’s note: When you need anything related to your GMC Sierra, turn to Advance Auto Parts first. Buy online, pick up in store, and get back to the garage.

Hatchback Won’t Stay Open? Time to Replace Those Lift Supports!

Hatchback Lift Supports

Hatchback Lift Supports

Worn lift supports could be the reason your hatchback won’t stay open.

On manual hatchbacks, lift supports are designed to help drivers and passengers raise the hatchback from a closed to an open position with minimal lifting effort, and more importantly, to keep the hatchback in that upright position until sufficient force is applied to close it. This is a great system when the twin supports function exactly as they’re designed. Problems arise, however, when these lift supports wear out – and they do – allowing the hatchback to close on its own instead of staying in an open or upright position. Given how many times a car or SUV hatchback is opened and closed throughout the course of a year, it’s not surprising that hatchback failure occurs as these supports eventually wear out and need to be replaced.

Lift support failure can be more than just an inconvenience. It can be a dangerous situation that results in vehicle damage, or worse, personal injury. The supports often fail gradually, exhibiting a diminished ability to keep the hatchback in an upright position, as opposed to failing suddenly and not providing any support whatsoever. This gradual failure is just as dangerous in that sometimes the lift supports might keep the hatchback raised and sometimes they won’t, making it nearly impossible to predict when hatchback failure is going occur, resulting in the hatchback crashing down on someone’s head or hands, or on cargo that’s only been partially loaded, leading to a broken rear window.

Worn out lift supports tend to exhibit failure characteristics more often during colder temperatures. When you notice that your vehicle’s hatchback won’t remain in an upright position, or that it closes too easily – perhaps from a sudden gust of wind – replace the lift supports because the problem is only going to get worse.

Fortunately, replacing the lift supports is a fairly easy, inexpensive job, with new lift supports on this ’04 Subaru Outback totaling a little over $50 for the set, a cost that differs depending on the vehicle.

Hatchback Lift Supports

Hatchback Lift Supports

The supports are connected at the top to the hatchback, and at the bottom to the vehicle. Depending on the vehicle and the type of replacement supports and whether new hardware is included, it may be recommended to also replace any hardware where the supports attach. It’s critically important to replace the lift supports with new ones that are an exact match to those that were original equipment on the vehicle.

To replace the supports, first find a willing helper to hold the hatchback in the upright position. Using material alone, such as a piece of lumber, to prop the hatchback open isn’t the best idea because if the material slips, the hatchback comes crashing down on you.

The supports are under pressure so use care when removing them and wear your personal protective equipment (PPE), including safety glasses. Don’t heat or cut into the supports, or attempt to close them manually when they’re detached from the vehicle.

Many supports are attached via a ball socket that fits snugly over a ball stud. Many supports can be removed by pulling firmly on the support so it pops off the ball stud.

Because there are so many different types of supports and vehicles on the market, just look closely at how the support is attached at both the upper and lower ends, or even find some advice online from any number of driveway mechanics who post their videos online.

It’s also a good idea to take a picture of how the original support arm is installed so that you’re sure to install the new one in the same direction. Also remember to remove and replace the support arm on one side of the vehicle at a time.

Once you’ve installed the new lift supports, be sure to test the hatchback carefully to ensure the supports are functioning properly and that the hatchback remains in the open position. Your head will thank you.

Editor’s note: When your hatchback develops a mind of its own because of failing lift supports, Advance Auto Parts has new replacement lift supports. Buy online, pick up in store, and get back to the garage.

Avoid Back-To-School Embarrassment: 5 Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Vehicle

1975 AMC PacerA surefire way to embarrass your high-school-age or college-bound student is with transportation that’s as cringe-worthy as the Griswold Family Truckster – that pea-green, 1979 Ford LTD Country Squire station wagon made infamous by Chevy Chase in the Vacation movie. Just as humiliating is any older vehicle that not only looks terrible, but has an equally offensive performance to match.

Don’t give your kids another reason to be embarrassed by you because of what they drive to and from high school or around a college campus. Instead, follow these 10 tips for sprucing up an older vehicle and sending them off with a safe, reliable vehicle that isn’t going to destroy their social lives or street cred.

  1. Clean the exterior, the interior and under the hood. Whoever coined the saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover” probably wasn’t a car-guy or girl. If a vehicle looks nasty on the outside, chances are it’s going to be equally offensive inside and under the hood. If you’re a DIYer and don’t mind getting your hands a little dirty, consider tackling this project yourself. Otherwise, take the vehicle to an experienced detailer.

Start by washing somewhere few people ever see – the engine. Cleaning the engine and under-hood area will help prevent you or your child from getting dirty when checking fluids, make leaks or missing or broken parts easier to spot, and improve the vehicle’s value. Then move to washing the vehicle’s exterior. Remove any bugs, tar or other stuck-on road grime using a bug and tar remover. Then proceed to waxing the vehicle to restore the shine that’s been hiding under years of dirt and environmental contaminants.

Next, head inside the vehicle and remove everything that’s been collecting there – trash, fast-food condiment packets, canvas grocery bags, and anything else that’s going to get in the way of a good vacuuming. Use carpet and upholstery cleaner for the floors and seats, glass cleaner on all the windows and interior mirrors, and wipe down every surface, nook and cranny.

  1. Restore cosmetic flaws. Now that you’ve restored the vehicle’s paint, it’s time to turn your attention to black rubber and plastic exterior components. Restore these parts’ original deep black color, luster and shine with products designed to reverse the sun’s and atmosphere’s effects. There are plenty of rubber, vinyl, plastic, wood, faux wood, and leather surfaces inside the vehicle too that will look much better once they’re treated with specialized cleaners and restorers. Outside, remove brake dust and restore the shine to wheels with wheel cleaner and the appearance of other metal parts, such as chrome bumpers or tail pipes, with chrome cleaner. Replace broken or missing parts, such as a radio antenna, license-plate holder or mud flap.
  2. Make minor body repairs. Time, miles, shopping carts and other vehicles’ doors aren’t kind to a vehicle’s exterior. Repairs to major body damage are best left to professionals, but there’s no reason you can’t tackle minor fixes that make a major impact on the vehicle’s appearance. Touch-up paint helps hide any chips and prevents rust from forming. Scratches can be removed with products designed specifically for the job, and dent pullers can help remove minor dents. Replace broken headlight and taillight bulbs and covers with new ones for safety and appearance, and also to prevent water from entering the light fixture through a broken cover and causing costly electrical problems. Restore cloudy or yellowed headlight covers with one of these kits for an improved appearance and increased visibility.
  3. Give it a tune up. If you know of anything that’s broken, about to break, or just not functioning properly, repair it or have someone do the work for you. It’s a lot easier to take care of problems when the vehicle’s close to home and your garage or trusted mechanic, as opposed to in an unfamiliar city hundreds of miles away. Plus, roadside breakdowns can be stressful, dangerous, and add more costs to the repair when vehicle rental, towing or damage to other vehicle parts or systems are added into the final repair bill.
  4. Perform preventive maintenance. Follow the recommended service guidelines in the vehicle’s owner’s manual for advice on when to change spark plugs, belts, filters and fluids, rotate the tires, replace shocks, inspect and replace the brakes, and all the things you won’t be able to do when the vehicle’s far from home. And just in case Murphy’s Law does strike, make sure the vehicle is equipped with a roadside emergency kit.

You don’t have to send your child to school with a brand-new vehicle. A clean car that’s looking as good as it possibly can and is well-maintained will remove any potential embarrassment and reduce teen drivers’ anxiety about whether their vehicle is going to break down.

Editor’s note: If you’re prepping your teen’s back-to-school ride, Advance Auto Parts has the detailing supplies and replacement parts you need to save them from any embarrassment. Buy online, pick up in-store, in 30 minutes.

Wired Up: The Fundamentals of Spark Plug Wiring

spark plug wiring

Not all spark plug wires are created equal. And because moving electricity to the plug to produce a spark is so critically important, using the wrong wires for your vehicle, damaged wires, or poor-quality wires will undoubtedly lead to problems down the road.

As electricity travels along the plug wires toward the plug so it can generate a spark, it’s also looking to do something else – escape. The electricity is looking for any opportunity to jump from the wire and instead head down the path of least resistance. When it finds the escape route it’s been searching for – usually in the form of missing or damaged wire insulation – the results can include engine misfire, poor fuel mileage, hard starts, rough idles and lack of power. Electricity also generates radios waves and if it escapes from the plug wires can interfere with a vehicle’s radio and other electronics.

Accel plug wires pictureThe plug wires’ insulation is what keeps the electricity from escaping, and high-quality wires will have more insulation that’s made from durable components that are better able to resist wear from vibration and heat. Over time, the engine’s heat cycling takes its toll on even the best spark plug wires, which is why replacement is recommended by many manufacturers at 100,000 miles.

There are primarily three types of spark plug wires:

1. Distributed resistance wires are constructed of fiberglass-impregnated carbon. Also known as carbon core wires, they were the standard on about 95 percent of vehicles before 1980.

2. A shift to inductance or mag (magnetic resistance) wires accompanied the rising popularity of Asian vehicles. Featuring a spiral wound core of a copper nickel alloy, the material presents less resistance to the electricity flow, meaning less current is needed to generate the spark, and at the same time the winding pattern and materials help prevent any Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) from escaping.

3. Lastly, there are fixed resistor wires. These are often found on European vehicles and feature steel or copper wire and a resistor inside the plug boot to control interference.

If you think your vehicle might be having some issues caused by faulty plug wires, begin the diagnosis with a close inspection of the wires’ condition. Examine them for heat-induced cracks or abrasions caused by rubbing against other parts. Look for areas where they’ve been burned through because of contact with an exhaust manifold. Also try examining the engine in the dark, looking for visible sparks where the electricity is escaping along the wires, and also listen for an electrical ticking sound, similar to what you hear when you receive a big static electricity shock. Also measure the wire’s resistance with an ohmmeter. One plug wire with a resistance that’s significantly different than the other wires could indicate that’s the problem wire.spark plug wire set photo

When installing new wires, make sure you’re using wires specified for your vehicle. Characteristics such as the wire length or a boot that attaches using clips as compared to a thread-on boot matter when it comes to performance. Also avoid problems by routing new wires in the same manner that the previous wires were, and removing and replacing the wires one at a time.

Using the best spark plug in the world won’t make any difference to your engine if that plug can’t get the electricity it needs, so choose and install plug wires wisely.

Editor’s note: Advance Auto Parts has your car wiring needs covered. Buy online, pick up in-store, in 30 minutes.

Does the Type of Gasoline You Use Really Matter?

gasoline pump photo

If you’re paying too much at the pump, read on as our Mechanic Next Store explores the mysteries behind gasoline pricing and octane ratings.

When it comes to gas for your vehicle, is it all the same? Is there a difference between the “name brands” of Exxon, Mobil, Shell versus the “grocery store gas” at Kroger or WalMart or even the less common “off-brand” names sold at discount stations with odd-sounding names that include “Kangaroo,” “Pure,” or “Liberty”?

And what about the different grades of gas available at starkly different prices. Call it what you will – regular, mid-grade, premium, 87, 89, 93, or even “V-Power” if you happen to be filling up at a Shell station. By choosing one fuel over another, are you risking damaging your engine in the interest of saving money?

Let’s start with the easy answer. Unless the station attendant is bringing your gas out in a metal bucket or dispensing it from a pump with a glass globe on top so you can see the “quality” or lack thereof, like they did at the earliest gas stations, there’s little difference in quality no matter where you buy gas. Gas quality today is regulated and legally required to contain certain levels of detergents, octane, ethanol and other ingredients. And while “name brand” gas might contain more engine-cleaning detergents, there’s a good chance that the gas found at “off-brand” stations was actually produced by the same name-brand manufacturers you know. Save some money and buy gas where it’s convenient for you and easiest on your wallet and comfort level.

The bigger, and age-old question and debate on most motorists’ minds is, “do I need to spend more money on a higher grade fuel, and if so, which one, and why?” There are generally three grades of unleaded gasoline available at nearly all U.S. gas stations, regardless of name, with the price per gallon rising in tandem with the fuel grade. Depending on what you drive, these grades matter.

To make an informed decision, you need to first understand what those numbers mean. The results might surprise you. Spoiler alert – a higher number doesn’t necessarily mean the gasoline supercharges your engine.

The three numbers in question are simply octane ratings, which mean nothing to most drivers unless they’re a chemical engineer, or work in the petroleum industry. When crude oil is refined (cracked) into gasoline and other byproducts, the end results are products composed of hydrocarbon chains of varying lengths. For example, methane has one carbon atom, propane has three, hexane six, and octane eight. Thanks to Mother Nature, it turns out that octane – technically iso-octane – with its eight carbon atoms and 13 hydrogen atoms, resists detonation really well, as compared to, say, heptane, which ignites fairly easily. An 87-octane rating means the gas is composed of 87 percent octane and 13 percent hexane and/or other ingredients. Pushing the “91” button at the pump delivers gas that’s 91 percent octane, and so forth. You get the picture.

Fascinating – but what’s this got to do with your engine, and possibly saving some dollars at the pump? Simply put – as the octane rating goes up, so too does the gasoline’s ability, when mixed with air in the engine’s cylinders, to withstand compression without spontaneously detonating or igniting. In gasoline engines, the air/fuel mixture inside the cylinder is supposed to ignite only when a small flame is sparked by – you guessed it – the spark plug. As that small flame gradually grows and spreads out within the cylinder, the air/fuel mixture should ignite in one detonation. Problems arise, mainly in the form of an audible “knock”, when more than one detonation occurs within the cylinder. And that “knocking” or “pinging,” or “pinking” if you’re in the U.K., can be more than just an annoyance and rob your engine of power – it can also destroy it, quickly or over time.

As that initial flame grows, pressure and heat within the cylinder rise. Under the right circumstances, those increases will cause the air/fuel mixture that hasn’t yet been reached by the flame to detonate, resulting in two detonations – one from the flame and a spontaneous one from the increased pressure and heat. The knocking sound results.

Most modern vehicles have knock sensors on the engine that can tell when a knock is about to occur and can adjust the spark’s timing just enough to prevent the premature explosion. A higher octane fuel is better able to withstand the increased pressure or compression, thus preventing spontaneous detonation.

Does your vehicle need higher octane?

But that doesn’t answer the question of which engines need higher octane fuel. It’s a question with several answers. For starters, high-performance engines need higher octane fuel. That’s because the engine’s designers engineered it to generate higher compression within the cylinder and increased power. Higher pressure and lower octane, however, isn’t a good match.

To help determine what octane rating your vehicle needs, start by looking in the owner’s manual. Other good sources are two lists in this article that specify which vehicles require premium gas and those for which it’s just a recommendation. For example, Acura’s MDX, RDX and RLX are all on the “premium-required” list, as are Audi’s A4 through A7, several BMW models, Chevy’s Camaro and Corvette, the Dodge Viper, and numerous other vehicle manufacturers and models. On the “premium-recommended” list are again Acuras and Audis, Ford’s Escape, Subaru’s WRX and several Volvos. High-performance engines that require a higher-octane fuel and don’t get it will deliver decreased power and performance.Gas prices photo

Still other drivers determine whether they need a higher octane fuel through experimentation. If the vehicle runs great on 87 with no knocking, pinging, or performance issues, and choosing the lower grade fuel doesn’t run afoul of any warranty requirements or specific manufacturer guidelines, why spend the extra money on a higher octane fuel?

Knocking or spontaneous detonation can be caused by other factors as well. For starters, the environment can be the culprit. Areas with high temperatures and low humidity can increase knocking and the need for higher octane. So too can vehicle age. Older vehicles can have a buildup of carbon within the cylinder, creating hot spots that lead to pre-ignition. These deposits can also decrease cylinder volume leading to higher pressures. Other culprits include a malfunctioning EGR system that increases cylinder temperature or an improper or malfunctioning spark plug. Increased load – like those that occur when towing or during steep uphill climbs – higher RPMs, or a malfunctioning cooling system that results in higher engine operating temperatures can also bring on the knocking.

Leaded gas and older vehicles

Many drivers will remember another choice available at the pump in addition to the three grades available today – leaded or unleaded fuel. Around the 1920s, a partnership between GM and ESSO, now Exxon, discovered that adding tetraethyl lead (TEL) to fuel helped raise the octane ratings above what they were listed at by increasing the compression ratio. Leaded fuel also came with the added benefit of helping protect soft valve seats, like those found in many 1970s-era vehicles and earlier.

During engine operation, heat from combustion gases causes valves to temporarily weld themselves to valve seats, if only for a tiny fraction of a second. Each time the weld between the two is broken, minute metal pieces from the soft valve seat are torn away, attaching to the valve. Over time, these deposits oxidize and further harden, inflicting damage on the valve seat as the valve continually hammers down. Lead in fuel helped prevent the two from welding, reducing valve seat recession or wear. Unfortunately, lead – which was spewing from the exhaust of millions of vehicles worldwide by that time – is bad for the environment and devastating to human health, which is why it was gradually phased out beginning in the 70s.

Fuel additives

That begs the question of what’s a 1970’s muscle-car owner to do to prevent damage in the absence of leaded fuel, short of spending a lot of money to install hardened valve seats or replace a cast-iron head with an alloy one? For starters, don’t overwork your engine, turn consistently high RPMs, or let her get too hot. And, consider adding a lead substitute with anti-wear properties to your gas tank.

For the rest of you, consider using one of the countless octane boosters available, most of which are designated as being safe for turbos, oxygen sensors and catalytic converters, if your vehicle needs it.

And remember two things. If you hear some knocking and there’s no one at your door, it might be time to switch to a higher octane fuel. On the other hand, if the vehicle manufacturer doesn’t specify high octane and there aren’t any performance issues, save some money by sticking with a lower octane fuel, and purchasing it where you want.

Editor’s note: Whether you need a lead substitute, octane booster, fuel additives or even a new engine, stop by Advance Auto Parts is here to help. Buy online, pick up in-store, in 30 minutes.

Crucial Cars: Chevy Tahoe

Red Chevy Tahoe 1

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

In this installment, the Mechanic Next Door takes on the feature-rich Chevy Tahoe.

Kelly Blue Book voted the 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe The Best Buy of the Year among full-size SUVs. ALG awarded it first place in the full-size SUV category. Car and Driver named it the Editors Choice in Full-Size Crossovers/SUVs, and the Texas Auto Writers Association selected Tahoe as the Full-Size SUV of Texas (doesn’t it go without saying that everything in Texas is full-size?) at the Texas Truck Rodeo.

The Tahoe has impressive numbers to go along with those awards and accolades. Tahoe sales increased 88 percent in January of this year compared to the same time period last year, and in the large SUV category, Tahoe sales year-to-date in April were nearly double that of its closest competitor – second-place Chevy Suburban.

Clearly, the Chrvrolet Tahoe has what drivers want, especially when gas prices are low.

Tahoe was born in 1994 for the ’95 model year, springing from the Chevrolet Blazer and capturing MotorTrend’s Truck of the Year Award in just its second year. Shorter than its Suburban brother, Tahoe shared until 2000 the similar GMT400-series platform with Suburban, as did the Yukon, Escalade, Blazer and C/K trucks.

In the 20 years since Tahoe’s debut, consumer demands and tastes have evolved, as has vehicle technology – so much so that today’s Tahoe bears little resemblance to its first predecessor, other than its name.

A quick look inside Tahoe’s interior leaves little doubt what’s front and center on consumers’ wants and needs list, and it’s not just cup holders. We can’t live without our electronics, and Tahoe’s amenities ensure we don’t have to.

Available 4G LTE Wi-Fi Technology accommodates the simultaneous connection of up to seven devices so every passenger remains connected, even on the road. All those devices need power, which they’ll have no trouble finding, thanks to 13 charging stations (airport waiting area planners, take note) as well as the availability of wireless charging and a three-prong, 110-volt outlet for laptops and larger devices. Six of those 13 charging stations are USB ports and there’s Bluetooth capability that can also attach up to seven devices with Chevy’s MyLink system.

Controlling MyLink is accomplished with the swipe of a finger on an eight-inch, color touch screen that features customizable icon locations. Hidden behind the touch screen is a secret compartment for storing small items, accessible only by entering a password on the screen.

Yes, Tahoe has class and style, right down to its instrument cluster, which Chevy describes as being “designed after high-end watches.”

When Tahoe drivers need to haul something other than precious human cargo, there are 94.7 cubic feet of cargo space, and second and third-row seats that fold flat. Chevy also boasts that Tahoe has “the fastest power-release second-row and power-folding third-row seats of any competitor.” Because that’s important when you’re in a big hurry to…..remove or fold your seats?White Chevy Tahoe 1

In addition to a hands-free liftgate that opens with a gentle kicking motion thanks to a sensor hidden under the rear bumper, Tahoe also features keyless entry as well as starting, bringing the engine to life with just the push of a button. Passengers will have difficulty hearing that engine, or any other external noise for that matter, as Chevy claims this is “the quietest Tahoe ever.” Sound-dampening material has been added pretty much everywhere, including in the engine compartment, wheel liners, dash and floor, and there’s an “acoustic-laminated windshield” along with triple-sealed inlaid doors.

All this peace and quiet and style sit atop available 22-inch aluminum wheels with premium paint and chrome inserts, or 20 inchers or even 18’s on the LS and LT models.

Stepping up into a Tahoe – particularly one riding on 22’s – is made easier with the by retractable side assist steps with perimeter lighting. While that lighting is a nice touch, the heavy-duty illumination comes in the form of projector-beam headlamps and rear LED tail lamps that really light up the night, with high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps available on the LTZ model.

Even with gas prices being low, fuel economy is still top of mind for most drivers, and Tahoe delivers about what you’d expect for a vehicle of this size – EPA Estimated Fuel Economy of 16 MPG around town and 23 or 22 – depending if you’re piloting the two- or four-wheel drive version, respectively – on the open road.

That 26-gallon fuel tank is feeding a 5.3-liter EcoTech3 V-8 that features active fuel management which takes four cylinders offline when their power isn’t needed, direct injection for more power and fuel efficiency with reduced emissions, and variable valve timing for maximum power and efficiency. All this engine technology churns out an impressive 355 HP and 383 lb-ft torque that are capable of towing 8,500 lbs.

And, let’s not forget what’s most important – safety. Seven airbags, collision alerts, lane departure warnings, automatic front braking, side-blind zone alert, rear cross traffic alert, rear park assist, rear-vision camera, and a theft-protection package help protect and prevent.

Available in three models, an LS, LT, and LTZ, Chevy calls it, “the most advanced Tahoe ever,” and they’re not kidding. But first you’ll have to decide on what you need and what you can afford. MSRP is $46,300 and there is a list of add-on accessories – 58 to be exact – in nine categories covering everything from interior or exterior cargo management to electronics to security and protection.

Tahoe’s all grown up and has class and style, making it a perfect match for drivers with similar qualities.

Editor’s note: Stop by Advance Auto Parts for all you need to keep your Tahoe running right and looking sweet. Buy online, pick up in store—in 30 minutes.

Top Aftermarket Accessories for Cooling Your Engine This Summer

Electric Car Fan photoThere’s one sure-fire way to ruin your day, engine, reputation under the hood, and road trip this summer. It’s fast, requires virtually no effort or planning, and happens to countless drivers every day. All you have to do is let your engine overheat because of insufficient cooling.

In this instance, I’m not talking about the more common, run-of-the-mill catastrophes usually behind a cooling system failure, including broken hoses or belts, insufficient coolant level, water pump or thermostat failure, or foreign object piercing the radiator.

Less dramatic, but equally effective at causing an engine to overheat, are scenarios in which a vehicle’s cooling system can’t dissipate enough heat fast enough to prevent an overheated engine. In most cases, it’s the result of an efficiency issue, even when everything on the cooling system is working properly. In other situations, modifications designed to coax more horsepower from the engine might also require changes to the cooling system because more horsepower usually equates to more heat generated.

Here’s a look at several add-on solutions to prevent engine overheating.

Performance radiator

There’s a reason copper and brass have historically been materials of choice in vehicle radiators. Copper is great when it comes to thermal conductivity, performing 50 percent better than radiator fins made from aluminum. And brass is durable. So why are aluminum radiators becoming all the rage in high-performance engines and even among vehicle manufacturers? Weight. Aluminum radiators weigh 10 to 15 pounds less than traditional radiators. And they compensate for the reduction in their material’s thermal conductivity with increased radiator surface area and coolant capacity, design, fin spacing and even tube size.

The larger the radiator’s surface area translates to greater airflow reaching more coolant which means improved cooling capability. The limiting factor here is the amount of space you have or can create in which to shoehorn in a larger radiator.Car radiator photo

Most radiators utilize a single-pass design – hot coolant comes in one side of the radiator, passes through, and exits out the opposite side. For increased cooling capacity, look at a dual-pass, horizontal-flow radiator. With this design, coolant passes through one half of the radiator, but instead of exiting, it then passes through the other half of the radiator, essentially making two passes instead of one.

Moving to a dual-pass radiator will probably also require a water pump upgrade because this radiator design places more demand on the pump. Which brings us to the topic of coolant speed. An aluminum radiator with larger diameter tubes is going to require an increase in the speed at which the water pump is moving coolant through the system. Your muscle car’s pulley-pump speed might have been sufficient when everything was stock from the factory, but any modifications made might now require changes to that speed and ratio.

In addition to tube size, high-performance aluminum radiators also have more fins, spaced closer together, for increased heat transfer from the coolant to the atmosphere.

Electric fans

Engine-driven fans can get the job done when you’re tooling down the highway at cruising speeds, but when you’re idling or fighting stop-and-go traffic – not so much. For increased cooling capacity, consider installing an electric fan, or two.

Unlike an engine-driven fan, an electric fan is going to generate enough airflow to sufficiently help cool the engine, regardless of engine RPMs or traveling speed. In addition to consistent airflow, electric fans can also net you more horsepower. It’s estimated that engine-driven fans steal about 35 horsepower and clutch-driven fans about half that amount while electric fans only take about one horsepower.

Installing a dual-fan set up enables the entire radiator surface to be covered with cooling air flow. Another option is to use a two-fan system, but with one fan stationed in front of the radiator, pushing air to it, and a second fan behind the radiator, pulling air to it – remembering that pulling is always more efficient than pushing.

As for fan blade style, that depends on what’s more important to you – cooling or noise levels. Curved-bladed fans are quieter than straight-blade fans, but they don’t move as much air.

And in what’s probably beginning to sound like a reoccurring theme, a changeover from an engine-drive fan to an electric one might also require some beefing up of the vehicle’s electrical system to ensure it’s up to the task and increased loads.Car fan photo

Fan shroud

If you’re making the effort of adding an electric fan, make sure you go all the way and include an aluminum fan shroud. The right fan shroud can maximize the fan’s heat-reduction capacity by delivering cooling air to nearly every square inch of the radiator surface, while choosing aluminum helps deliver further weight reduction.

Type of Coolant

When it comes to the liquid flowing through the radiator, nothing’s better at heat transfer than plain old water. Unfortunately nothing also beats water when it comes to freezing in winter and destroying your engine, and corroding the radiator and inflicting a similar level of carnage there. If you are running straight water for coolant – some racing series require this – be sure to also include an anti-corrosion additive to the mix, and to take the necessary steps to prevent freezing before lower temperatures arrive. You’ll also need to research the benefits of using softened water if this is the somewhat risky route you choose to go. If, however, you choose to play it safe by using traditional antifreeze, also consider an additive, such as Red Line’s Water Wetter that prevents bubbles or vapor pockets from forming and helps bring temperatures down.

When it comes to summer driving, just remember – keeping your cool begins with your engine.

Editor’s note: Don’t blow your top…or your radiator cap this summer. Visit Advance Auto Parts for everything your engine needs to stay cool. Buy online, pick up in store, in 30 minutes.