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A letter from Stew


About The Foreign Service > Newsletters

Newsletter No 34
August 2000


Life at the Foreign Service is never boring. 

Last week, we rescued four abandoned kittens (eight weeks old and all adorable).  Their names are Tiger Lily, Houdini, Beatrice and Little Chester.  Houdini has already been adopted (thanks, Mike!) and we are looking for good homes for the others.

Tiger Lily is a tiger-striped tabby with white markings, and her sister Beatrice is a striking black and white beauty.  Little Chester is (like his happily retired namesake) an orange and white tabby.  They’ve all been to the vet for their first check-up and first round of vaccinations.

If you are interested in adopting one of the little ones, please let us know! 


I know that many of you have kids old enough to drive.  We’ve had many cars in here recently because one of the warning lights came on and the young driver didn’t think it meant anything.

I think it’s a good idea to spend time with your teenage drivers explaining the consequences of ignoring certain warning lights.  Also, every driver should be able to pop the hood of a car and at least be able to check the oil level.  Here’s a brief rundown of lights and consequences.

OIL LIGHT:  If this light ever comes on, the driver should pull over as quickly as possible and shut the car off.   The oil light can have many causes.  One of them is that the engine has lost all its oil.  It only takes seconds to destroy an engine if there is a sudden loss of oil.

If the oil light is coming on or flickering on only when the car is hot and idling, this MAY (or may not) be normal.  If this happens, stop the engine and check the oil.  Fill it if low.  Then check the due date for your next oil change.  You may find that it is overdue.  If these two things are okay, drive it until you can call us for further consultation.

BRAKE LIGHT:  This one is also potentially severe, and can harm more than the engine.  It can have many causes; some of them more potentially catastrophic than others.  A failing brake master cylinder or a loss of brake fluid will trigger this light, and a total brake failure may be imminent.  Checking the brake fluid level is the first place to start.
If the pedal suddenly is feeling different, this is a bad sign.

LOW COOLANT:  Tell your drivers to always keep an eye on the temperature gauge.  If the car starts to run hot (the gauge close to red), the car should not be driven until the problem is resolved.  If the coolant reservoir is low and you decide to fill it, MAKE SURE that the car has been off for at least two hours and always shield your face when you open the reservoir cap (these systems operate under pressure).

CHECK ENGINE LIGHT:  If the check engine light comes on and stays on but there is no change in the driveability of the car, it’s probably okay to drive it until the car can be checked out.  What the check engine light means is that the main computer of the car has picked up a signal that something isn’t right with a component.  When we work on a car whose check engine light is on, we use a tool to “pull codes” out of the computer (each code points to a unique component).  Sometimes the code is a “garbage code” (meaning nothing is wrong, other than an errant signal). And sometimes a component has failed or is in the beginning stages of failure. 

BATTERY LIGHT:  If this starts to flicker or comes on and stays on, the car will strand you sooner or later.  The charging system has developed or is developing a problem with one of its components.  You can drive the car until it turns into a no-start, if you like living on the edge and have a working cell phone!

It would be nice to be more specific about what the lights mean and what you should do when they come on.  Unfortunately, this isn’t really possible, since the different lights have somewhat different meanings between the different types of cars.  Also, the circumstances and associated symptoms will affect what course of action you can take.  When in doubt, call us ASAP.  In a pinch, you can read the owner’s manual.


One of our customers called recently, asking what we thought about the AC conversion kit ($30) on special this week at your local K-Mart. 

Before we discuss the specifics, I’d like to say that I think this is outrageous. These kits are plastered with advice to   “take your car to an AC professional”, but by the very existence of these kits, they’re encouraging purchasers to try and fix broken AC systems; and when that fails, take them to an AC technician.

Don’t think I’m opposed to “do it yourselfers”.  I’ve helped some of my customers work on their AC system, but this is under my guidance and the customers have  experience in other AC fields.  As a matter of fact, the customer who called us has a great deal of experience in converting commercial AC systems to the new refrigerant, and he is still undecided about whether or not he will try this on his own.

Many AC systems still use the old refrigerant (freon, also known as R12).  It is illegal for anyone to vent freon into the atmosphere.  If a car is not cooling very well, this does not necessarily mean that the system has no freon in it.  Freon is invisible and if someone is tinkering under the hood of their car on a Saturday afternoon, no one knows what they’re up to.  Freon needs to be removed from a car using an AC evacuator and a recycling machine.  This equipment costs thousands of dollars!

Secondly, these kits don’t include a new receiver-dryer or a high pressure cut-out switch -- something we recommend in an AC conversion. Why? The receiver-dryer is a filter removing contaminants from the system, and has a lot of R12 in it. The system needs to be as free from R12 and R12 residue as possible in order for R134a to work most effectively.   The high pressure cut-out switch shuts the compressor off if something has gone wrong.  The compressor is an expensive part worth protecting.
You have to remember that if someone’s converting their freon-based AC system because it doesn’t cool, the system most likely has a leak.  Doing a conversion (changing a few fittings and charging it with R134a) isn’t going to fix the leak! This all strikes me as a marketing gimmick, and the likelihood of obtaining a successful (and legal) conversion are slim.


Since we’re on the topic of how to spend money foolishly, how about a “fuel injector cleaning” for the low price of $100 at your friendly neighborhood franchise place?

Don’t waste your money.  Go to NAPA or some other auto parts store and buy a can of Seafoam.  Wait until you need gas, and put the Seafoam in the gas tank prior to fill up.  Total cost to you?  Under ten dollars and it works just as well.

Don’t be tempted to run Seafoam in the crankcase (as the can suggests).  Sometimes this will suddenly loosen up so much carbon that the car will develop severe running and stalling problems until the carbon deposits work their way out.  This treatment is best done in the shop under a mechanic’s supervision.


Severe driving conditions.  That conjures up an image of driving through Siberia, doesn’t it?

Guess again.

If you look at the fine print in your new car manual, you will see that cold weather is not the only definition of severe driving conditions.

Sudden changes in weather (click), city driving (click), “cold” winters (click), salted roads (click, click, click).  I’m kind of wondering who doesn’t fall under the severe designation.

What does this mean, beyond the classification?

Cars driven in severe conditions need more frequent maintenance (especially oil changes) .  In other words, don’t wait 100,000 miles and a ruined cylinder head before you get the spark plugs changed.  There is some improved longevity with the advent of mid-90’s cars, but don’t be fooled into thinking that your car is basically maintenance-free.  And please don’t ignore your oil changes!  Irreparable damage can occur to the engine long before it becomes apparent.  Please have it changed every 3,000 miles or 4 months, whichever comes first.  If you’re using synthetic oil, the interval is 3,000 miles, regardless of the number of months.

Honda owners:  Honda has officially reduced the timing belt replacement interval on their 93 - 97 Civic timing belts from 90K to 70K, in severe conditions.  There have been many reports of premature belt breakage on these cars.

Timing belt replacement is not something you should ignore.  When a timing belt breaks, it may bend engine valves.  Valve jobs are expensive, compared to a timing belt replacement.


If you’re planning a big road trip, please schedule your pre-trip check  accordingly.  In other words,  don’t bring the car in the day before you leave!  We may find safety-related repairs that can’t be completed in the time frame we have.   You don’t want to ruin a vacation by worrying about the reliability of your car.


I’m glad our loaner cars are so helpful, but I need to clarify their availability.

They tend to be spoken for days in advance, and are usually signed out to people scheduling routine maintenance or other repairs.  They are primarily a convenience for people who are planning ahead.  If your car comes in as an emergency, it’s really unlikely we’ll have a loaner car available.

Stop in to visit us, or if you have any questions about your cars, call us at 651-635-0395.


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