Mechanic Next Door - Advance Auto Parts Blog

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.

Crucial Cars: The Mini Cooper


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

For this installment, the Mechanic Next Door has some fun peeking under the bonnet of the iconic MINI Cooper and looking at how it’s evolved over the decades.

As the MINI Cooper approaches its 60th anniversary in 2019, its creator – Sir Alex Issigonis – would be equally proud and astonished at the iconic model’s longevity and steadily increasing popularity, and perhaps even a little taken aback that some of today’s MINIs aren’t so mini after all.

The first Mini Mark I rolled off the assembly line in 1959 and went on to become the best-selling British car in history with more than five million Mini’s produced until 2000. That was the year that production under the English Rover Group ended after BMW sold the Rover Group – which it had acquired in 1994 – but retained the MINI brand.

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Fueling the 1960’s Mini craze was its innovative design – despite being small, it offered plenty of interior space for passengers and luggage. That early design included a transverse engine, front-wheel drive, compact dimensions, and a unibody that reduced weight and increased interior space. Mini’s first generation – called the Mark I but better known as the Austin 850 or Morris 850 outside the UK and as the Austin Seven or Morris Mini-Minor in the UK – encompasses the 1959 to 1966 model years.

The Cooper name became synonymous with Mini in the 60s when John Cooper, owner of the Cooper Car Company, added muscle to the Mini by giving it a larger engine and other enhancements. Cooper was already making a name for his company by leading the revolution toward building and winning with rear-engine race cars. His success carried over to the Mini when his versions won the 1964, ’65 and ’67 Monte Carlo Rallies, with a four-year sweep being thwarted only by the Mini Cooper’s disqualification in the ’66 Rally after taking the top three spots.

Mini’s popularity was helped further by the car’s appearance in chase scenes in the 1969 hit film “The Italian Job.” Those Minis represented generation two – Mini Mark II – and featured a larger rear window and redesigned grill, as compared to the first Minis.

Generation three Mini began with the 1969-70 model and the most noticeable change from the previous generation being larger doors with concealed hinges and larger windows that wound up and down, instead of sliding left or ride. Mini Mark IV through Mark VII followed until BMW’s change in 2000.

Throughout the years, Mini continued to rack up the awards, including Autocar magazine’s Car of the Century in 1995, the Number One Classic Car of All Time by Classic & Sports Car magazine in 1996, European Car of the Century by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation in 1999, and 2003 North American Car of the Year, among others.

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Depending on which Mini you’re looking at today, it either looks much like its first ancestor, or only bears a faint resemblance to those early models. As Mini’s popularity grew, so too have the Mini models offered. Today, there are nine Mini models available.

  • Hardtop Two-Door – bears the closest resemblance to the original Mini
  • Hardtop Four-Door – a larger Mini with four doors and more space
  • Countryman – the “Big Mini” features four doors, seating for five, and all-wheel drive
  • Clubman – four doors, a split rear door, and the largest Mini available
  • Convertible – looks like the original, minus the hard top
  • Paceman – two-door hatch seats four and features all-wheel drive
  • Coupe – powerful, sporty two-seater
  • Roadster – similar to the Coupe, but more fun thanks to the soft top
  • John Cooper Works – race-ready Minis that look like they could be a lot of fun, and get you in a lot of trouble

With a $20,700 price tag, zero-to-60 stats that are 2.3 seconds faster than its predecessor thanks to a TwinPower turbo engine, tons of dashboard technology, and world-famous, go-kart like handling, today’s entry-level, two-door Mini’s all grown up, but still a serious toy for thrill-seeking drivers of all ages.

Editor’s note: If you want to keep your Mini looking and running great, count on Advance Auto Parts for all your vehicle needs. 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.

How a Vehicle Alignment Saves Your Tires and Your Money


Proper vehicle alignment saves money and improves handling.

A four-wheel alignment is an important maintenance item that needs to be performed regularly, saves drivers a significant amount of money over a vehicle’s lifetime, and affects vehicle handling and performance.

Too often, however, this maintenance item gets lumped into the category of “recommended vehicle services that just never seem to get done.” You know the ones I’m talking about – shock and strut replacement, washing and waxing, and the list goes on. These maintenance items are often neglected because of cost or drivers’ time constraints, but mainly because some drivers feel they just don’t need to be done. Their philosophy is that the car’s still going to get them from point a to point b regardless of whether it’s aligned.

Before explaining why ignoring the alignment issue is an expensive and potentially unsafe mindset, it helps to understand what alignment is, and isn’t.

Have you ever driven down a straight highway and felt the vehicle pulling to one side or another? Are your tires wearing unevenly with more wear on the outside or inside edge or across the tread face? These are signs that the vehicle is out of alignment.

While a vehicle’s wheels may be out of alignment, it isn’t the wheels themselves where the adjustments are being made during an alignment, simply because there’s nothing there to really adjust. Wheels are bolted on the vehicle, tightened down, and that’s pretty much that. What is being adjusted during a realignment is the vehicle’s suspension.

The three essential, technical elements of vehicle alignment are camber, caster and toe. Camber is the way the tire is angled in or out from the vehicle. If you look at the tires from the front of the vehicle, imagine that the tire’s top or bottom is angled in or out at an extreme angle. That’s camber. To understand toe, imagine you’re floating above the vehicle and looking down on the wheels. The degree to which the wheels turn in or out is toe. Caster or caster angle is more difficult to envision and explain. It refers to the angle of the steering axis and plays an important role in steering and handling.

Modern vehicles in particular have specific camber, toe, and caster specs that need to be maintained in order for the vehicle to handle properly, and so that tires don’t wear out prematurely because of uneven wear patterns. Unfortunately, vehicle alignment can be thrown out of whack easily by the simple act of hitting a big pothole or the curb. Even in the absence of any adverse events, alignment still changes over time. That’s why it’s important to have the vehicle realigned on a regular basis. Many experts recommend an alignment every 5,000 to 7,000 miles. An easy way to remember this is to have an alignment done every other oil change, along with a tire rotation. Some shops offer “lifetime alignments.” This doesn’t mean that the alignment is guaranteed to last forever, because it can’t, but rather that they will realign the vehicle at no cost in the future if it ever needs it. It will.

Alignments, particularly on today’s vehicles, can’t be performed just anywhere, nor can someone tell if a vehicle is aligned properly simply by eyeballing it. What’s required is a specialized alignment machine or rack that measures wheel angles precisely using lasers, and access to the vehicle manufacturer’s alignment specs for the vehicle being aligned. Based on those results, technicians make adjustments to the suspension to properly align the wheels. Most tire shops or mechanics that sell a lot of tires will have the equipment needed to perform alignments. A good time to have a vehicle alignment is when new tires are being installed. Doing so helps protect the sizable investment that a set of tires represents today.

And finally, there’s the option of having a two- or four-wheel alignment performed. Talk with your technician or tire professional to about what’s the best option for your particular vehicle and situation.

Alignments aren’t free, but in the long run, they more than pay for themselves because they increase tire life and improve fuel efficiency.

Editor’s note: When you need tire-care products or anything vehicle-related, 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.

Prepare Your Vehicle For Winter

Now is the time to start thinking about winter, and your vehicle.

The temperatures are still warm, the sun still shines brightly, and even though summer has already begun its inevitable march towards fall, no one really wants to think about colder weather, winter driving or winter storage just yet. But right now is exactly when you should be thinking about winter as it relates to your vehicle. Doing so will accomplish several things. One, if you intend to drive your vehicle through the winter, preparing it now will help ensure it makes it through the colder months. Two, if you park your vehicle over the winter – whether it’s a tractor or SUV – winter prep today will enable it to start easily several months down the road.

Vehicles that are going to be stored all winter

Before you park your baby in the garage or barn for the winter months, carve out a few hours to take care of a few essentials.

Fuel preservation – gasoline doesn’t las forever, and when it starts to break down, it can make starting difficult and even damage the vehicle’s fuel system. Gas containing ethanol makes the problem worse, particularly in lawn and garden equipment. To avoid the problem, first consider switching to a fuel that’s 100 percent gasoline with no ethanol added. Second, add a fuel preservative to the gas tank and follow the instructions for using it to prevent fuel breakdown and engine or fuel system damage.

Trickle charger – a battery that isn’t being recharged regularly through everyday use may have difficulty starting several months later after it’s lost some or all of its charge. Be proactive when it comes to your vehicle power and connect the battery to a trickle charger to maintain the charge over winter. Another option is to disconnect the battery from the vehicle to prevent any power draws and to increase safety on older vehicles or lawn or farm e equipment.

Preventive maintenance – don’t wait to take care of maintenance items or something you know needs to be fixed. If you don’t do it now, the problem is still going to be there this spring, slowing you down when you would rather be using your vehicle instead of performing maintenance. For lawn equipment that won’t see the light of day again until the grass starts to green, sharpen the blades, change the oil and filter, install a new spark plug and check tire pressures. For cars, SUVs and farm tractors, test the antifreeze to ensure it will adequately protect the engine down to the lowest expected temperature.

Vehicles that are going to be driven all winter

Visibility – being able to see where you’re going is a top priority no matter what season it is, but in winter, it becomes especially important, and sometimes challenging. Check all the lights to confirm they are working. If your headlights are older, replace the bulbs with new ones that feature improved technology that enables you to see further down the road and to the sides. Replace windshield wipers with winter blades in climates where snow and ice can be expected, and fill the windshield washer tank with a deicing fluid.

Starting – summer’s heat takes a toll on batteries, and that weakness is bound to show up on the first really cold morning when your car won’t start because of a dead battery. Have your battery and charging system tested and replace the battery if it’s weak.

Heat – you and your passengers aren’t the only ones who need heat when driving in colder temperatures. The heat’s also required to defrost windows before and during travel. If you hear strange noises when you turn on the heating and cooling system, or you don’t feel any air moving, there could be a problem with the vehicle’s blower motor. Proper coolant levels and a functioning thermostat are also required for heat. Replace both according to your vehicle’s maintenance schedule.

Traction – snow and ice call for tires with plenty of tread life remaining. Check your tires’ tread depth or have a professional check them for you and consider adding tire chains to your vehicle’s trunk emergency kit.

Whether you’re driving or parking your vehicle through the winter, now is the perfect time to prepare it for spring. By doing so, you’ll save time, money and aggravation later on.

Editor’s note: Whatever parts and supplies you need to prepare your vehicle for winter, Advance Auto Parts has them. Buy online, pick up in store, and get back to the garage.

Wired Up: The Fundamentals of Spark Plug Wiring

Accel plug wires pictureNot 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.

The 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.

Why You Should Keep Your Engine Clean

Dirty car engine photo

Our Mechanic Next Door runs down the top six reasons–and foolproof steps–for cleaning your vehicle’s engine.

If you’ve ever purchased a new or used vehicle from a dealer or prepped for a car show, you know just how clean an engine compartment can look. The metal gleams, the black hoses glisten, and you can touch any surface and not come away covered in dirt, grease or oil. Conversely, every driver knows that it doesn’t stay that way long as things get nasty under there in a hurry – a fact we’re reminded of every time the hood’s popped to check fluids, do some work, or investigate a disturbing new noise, vibration, or smell.

Drivers clean their vehicles’ interiors and exteriors, but by and large tend to ignore the engine compartment, allowing grit and grime to accumulate over the years and miles. Whether you don’t clean under there because you don’t know how and are afraid you’ll damage something, or you’re a seasoned do-it-yourselfer but just don’t think it’s important, consider these thoughts and tips on engine cleaning.

Why do it?

Sure, a clean engine looks great, but that’s just one of the reasons for tackling this project. Here are some reasons you may not have thought of for cleaning your engine and engine compartment:

  • It’s easier to spot potential trouble before it becomes a major problem. If your engine is filthy, you’re not going to know if that small fluid leak has been there forever, or if it just appeared. Clean engines make leaks, cracks and other problems easier to spot.
  • Remove road salt and debris that can lead to corrosion if they’re allowed to accumulate.
  • Remove debris that can cause hot spots to form on the engine and its components, shortening their lives.
  • Prevent the buildup of combustible materials, such as leaves or oil, that are fire hazards on the road and in the garage.
  • A clean engine is more enjoyable to work on and look at.
  • A vehicle with a clean engine and engine compartment has a higher resale value.

Make it shine.

Ask ten different DIYers how to clean an engine and you’ll get 10 different answers. It’s not rocket science, but it’s also not something you should dive into without possessing some knowledge. Back in the day, the preferred method of cleaning an engine was to steam clean it. Cheap, easy, and it got the job done. Times change, as do engines, and steam cleaning isn’t the best option any longer because of the sensitive electronics in the engine compartment. Fortunately, there’s an alternative today – engine cleaners.

First, browse the various engine cleaning and degreasing products available. There’s water-based, solvent-based, gel, foam, spray bottles, aerosol cans – you name it. I prefer a solvent-based cleaner because it cuts through grease and grime better than a water-based one, which translates to less effort and elbow grease for me trying to scrub away stubborn dirt. I also migrate toward gel-based engine cleaners because I like the way they stick better to vertical surfaces, giving the cleaner’s scrubbing action more time to work on the surface, and me more time to do something else.

How engine cleaners work is a mystery to me, mainly because I’m not a chemist. The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for Gunk Foamy Engine Brite Cleaner includes propane, 2-butoxyethanol, aromatic petroluem naptha, isobutene, and petroleum base oil as ingredients. I don’t know what they do, except work well, but I imagine the solvents and other ingredients break down the grease and grime and reduce its surface tension, making it easier to wash away.

In addition to choosing a cleaner/degreaser, you’ll also want to pick up a drip pan and some absorbent pads. Why? A lot of oil and other chemicals will be rolling off your engine when you clean it and this hazardous cocktail shouldn’t be going onto your driveway, into a storm water drain, or seeping throughout the ground. Instead, capture the dirty fluids on the pads and drip pan, allow the pads to sit in the sun until the water evaporates, and then find a local recycling center that accepts both the used pads and the oily water from the drip tray.

Once you have all your supplies, use an air compressor or can of compressed air to first blow away any loose debris that may have accumulated under the hood.

Next, start the vehicle and let the engine warm up – but just a little. You want it warm to help break up the grease when the cleaner is applied, but not so hot that you can’t touch it and that it presents a fire danger when sprayed with a solvent or when oil and grease start moving around. Also, a hot engine sprayed with cold water is a sure-fire way to damage an engine and other vehicle parts.

Once it’s warmed up and the engine is off, wrap all visible electronic connections and components in plastic wrap or plastic bags to prevent water from damaging them. Cover the alternator and all filters and the air intake as well.

Position the drip pan and absorbent pads under the engine, then apply the engine cleaner – following the manufacturer’s instructions – and wait for the magic to happen. While the cleaner is working, look for any areas that have a lot of grease or dirt and scrub those spots with a plastic-bristle brush or rag.

Once the cleaner has been on there for the recommended period of time, rinse it and the dirt off gently. Engine cleaning is not a job where you want to use a car wash hose or home pressure cleaner because the water pressure is too high and could force moisture into sensitive engine parts. Instead, use a gentle spray from a garden hose, being sure to avoid electronic components as much as possible. Once the rinse is complete, the compressed air will come in handy again to blow any water out of crevices where it may have accumulated.

When you’re satisfied with the appearance, remove the plastic coverings applied earlier, start the engine and let it reach operating temperature to help evaporate any remaining water.

When the engine has cooled, apply a rubber or vinyl protectant to hoses and plastic components. Then, step back and admire your very clean, very shiny, and very satisfying engine bay, and ask yourself why you waited so long to clean your engine.

Editor’s note: Don’t let a dirty engine get in the way. Rely upon Advance Auto Parts for everything you need to clean and protect your engine. Buy online, pick up in store, in 30 minutes.

*Always consult your owner’s manual first. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations to ensure warranties are not voided.