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A letter from Stew


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Newsletter No 41
September 2004


You might think that the unusually cool summer would have been easy on our AC systems.  I would have thought so too, but it dawned on me the other day that we had a larger than normal number of complaints about smelly air from the vents.  With the benefit of hindsight, the reasons become obvious.  

If the air coming out of the vents of your car is smelly, it is usually due to mold and mildew growing on the evaporator.  Why is that,  Mr. Science?  Most of the energy that goes into the AC system goes to dehumidifying the air , not cooling it.  The  cooling and dehumidifying take place on a part called the evaporator.  So, whenever the AC is on, the evaporator is very wet.  If you are using the AC nonstop, the evaporator stays very cold and the mold doesn't grow as much.  This summer, AC usage was not as nonstop as normal.  So when the systems slowed down a bit and stopped working so hard, mold growth took off.

If you have been afflicted by this problem, you know how annoying it can be.  And you may know how difficult it can be to resolve.  The best fix is prevention.  Just turn off your AC a couple of minutes before parking the car; it will give the evaporator time to warm up and dry off, cutting mold growth significantly.  You will continue to feel cold air coming out of the vents even with AC off, so your comfort will not be affected.


Have you ever noticed how frustrating it can be, using the phone these days?    For example, it seems that  every time you call a company, you get an undecipherable menu of choices (none of which seem to fit your situation).  It used to be that once you worked your way through that mess, you at least got someone to talk to.  Now, when you finally do get a real person, they either have no idea what they are talking about, or they barely speak your language, or they just plain can't help.  Is this some great conspiracy to make us  communicate via the internet – by  making it impossible to do business by phone?  And what about the quality of the customer service at the other end of the line? 

I recently called a well-known computer company about a problem  that I was having with one of their network components.  I spent an exasperating hour with their "support" person.  It might have been easier if his grasp of English was better, but I certainly can’t fault him for that.  After wasting an hour on this call to India -- what does a call to India cost anyway – I  still had a broken network.  How does a guy work a tech line at three in the morning (in India) anyhow?

And how about a guy we’ll call poor Dave (not his real name).  He woke up one morning and discovered his car had a flat tire.  A quick call to his motor club should have resulted in a tow truck or someone to fix the flat, right?  This ordeal went from being a call to who knows where, to having some guy show up in a tee shirt wielding an old cross-style lug wrench.  When this guy showed up in a passenger car, not wearing a uniform,  Dave wasn't sure if he was getting robbed or rescued.  When Mr. Tee Shirt  couldn't even get the wheel off, Dave went 'off'.  Eventually a real truck was dispatched and Dave got to work (very late).

And why can't you  call a store to see if they have something you need?   I made  a call looking for a simple bracket to finish a computer upgrade.  I can't even imagine how far away that call got routed.  I was told that the bracket is available on the company’s web site.  Gee, great!  The service techs in our local store probably have a bunch of them sitting around, but there is no way for me to call and find out.

One last thing.  Maybe it shows my age, but I remember when you could actually DIAL a phone.  Remember the old rotary dial phone?  In fact, I still have one of those in my closet.  I get it out every now and then and pretend I am dialing a number.  Sometimes, in mock anger, I grab the handset in one hand and heft the phone in the other.  I shout at the mouthpiece and wave the cradle around.  Then I drop the cradle onto the desk and fall back into my chair while the ring of the little bells trails off.  For a moment, the pure sound of the bell fading into silence makes me ignore the hum of modern life.  Just for a moment...


There is big news in the field of tires.  For the first time in history, there is an all-season tire that is truly all-season.  By that, I mean that the tire works very well in winter’s snow and ice, and performs just as well in the heat of summer.  And, most importantly, the tires have a long lifetime, unlike the current crop of so-called all-season tires.

If you know me, you know that I am very picky about tires, and am a strong advocate of having a separate set of winter tires.  Until now, the drill has been that you buy an extra set of wheels and put the winter tires on them.  For many folks, the hassle of storing and changing the wheels twice a year made this an impossibility.  Now that is no longer a problem.  You can use the same tires and wheels year round, without driving on dangerous tires when the roads are slippery.

You may be wondering why it took so many years for someone to figure out how to do this.  It is a combination of technical advances and government regulation.  The Finnish government is responsible for this one.  They require that any car driven in the winter be equipped with tires that meet minimum traction standards. These standards, in the past,  could only be met by snow tires and winter tires, but I am sure that the Finns complained about having to store and change their tires, too!  Hence a demand was born for one tire that really could be used year-round.

Recent advances in rubber technology and tire design have allowed Nokian Tires to make this tire, the WR, do it all.  They even back it up with a 50,000-mile tread warranty.  We recommend that the next time you need to replace your existing tires, or if you’re considering winter tires, call us and get a quote on a set of Nokian WR’s – the only tire approved by the Finnish government for year-round use!


Most newer cars have keys that include tiny radio transmitters in addition to the metal blade that does the mechanical locking and unlocking.  The transmitter “talks” to the computer when the key is inserted into the ignition, and if the codes agree, you can then start the car.  If the codes do not agree, you are stuck.  You need to know if this is true for your car – ignorance can be really expensive.  I recently read a story of a Camry owner who lost both of his keys.  He ended up spending $3,000 to have replacement keys made.  How’s that?  These keys are electronically coded to the car’s computer.  If you do not have a coded key, you cannot have a copy made from scratch that will be able to communicate with the, you have to replace the computer and get new coded keys.  Besides, it’s always dangerous to have just one car key.

Expect to see more keys that eliminate the metal blade entirely.  Several cars have this already, including many of the new Prius cars.

The key only needs to be with you-in your pocket, for instance.  The car will"see" the key coming and unlock the doors.  Then it will let you start and drive away with the push of a single button.


We are pleased to announce the return of that rare but popular newsletter feature –
the Foreign Correspondent is back in town.   

Dear Correspondent:  The battery in my 99 Honda Civic is five years old.  It got through the summer just fine.  Do you think it will get through the winter okay? Hopefully,  Marge A. Nil

Dear Marge:  Any battery older than four or five years is unreliable.  Contrary to what a lot of drivers think, summer can actually be harder on a battery than winter can!  My advice would be to replace it before it fails.  Look at it this way:  if it does fail, the cost of towing the car will probably be the same as the cost of the battery, and you’ll need a new battery anyway.

Dear Correspondent:  My owner’s manual says that my Subaru timing belt was due at 60,000 miles.   Can’t you just look at my timing belt and tell me if it needs to be replaced, like you can with an accessory belt?
Yours,  Brent A. Valve

Dear Brent:  We can look at a timing belt and tell you if it looks extremely old, or if it is cracked, weathered, etc.  However, some timing belts age very well, and an older belt can look fairly new.  Remember too that there is no way of predicting if a timing belt will jump (off its toothed cog), leaving you stranded.  We recommend following your manufacturer’s advice on replacement interval.  If your owner’s manual doesn’t mention timing belts, never assume that you don’t have to replace it!  Give us a call for a mileage recommendation.

Dear Correspondent:  The air conditioning in our 96 Volvo just stopped working!  Can we bring it in for a quick recharge?
Warm regards, Ben Friezen & Bjorn Kuul

Dear Ben and Bjorn:  Well, we could just recharge your AC, assuming that it’s low or empty of refrigerant.  But if the system has developed a leak, it would be wiser to find and fix the leak!  Any refrigerant dumped into a leaking system is just going to leak out, the system will get warm again, and the money you spent on the recharge will have been wasted. 

Dear Correspondent:  The “check engine” light in my car is on.  Can you give me an estimate on fixing it?
Signed,  Maya Leitsaan

Dear Maya:  The short answer to your question is no, because we can’t estimate a repair until we know what the repair is.  A car’s “check engine” light or “MIL” (malfunction indicator lamp) can be triggered by many different things.  The reason the light comes on is that some component has told it to, via a computer signal.  For example, if the car doesn’t like the way you put the gas cap back on at the fueling station, it will sometimes set a code.  Or you could have a failing oxygen sensor, or an oxygen sensor that thinks it’s failing but really isn’t... Confused?  We always test a suspect component before we recommend replacement.  Modern car computers are extremely sensitive, and sometimes we just need to record and then erase the codes and send you on your way.

Dear Correspondent:  I have a 2001 Saab.  I want to learn more about my car, like what pattern failures it might have.  What do you recommend for a good on-line information source?  I know that a lot of stuff on the web is garbage! 
Sincerely, Dewey Yurcellpher

Dear Dewey:  I’d recommend that you check out  All-Data is one of the top providers of automotive information to professionals and to individuals.  You can purchase an information subscription for $24.95 per year.  Three carmakers don’t make their information available to the non-professionals – Honda, Acura and BMW.

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


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