Estimates vs. Diagnostics

“Do you give free estimates?”


This question is put to us almost on a daily basis.  Whenever it is asked, rather than being able to give a direct “yes” or “no” answer, we first have to clarify what the asking party means by the word “estimates”.  To us, an estimate is simply a calculation for the price of a particular service.  To many callers, however, the word “estimates” is synonymous with “diagnostics.”  So when a person asks if we give free estimates, he or she is often really asking if we will diagnose a problem for free.


So, to be clear: yes, we give free estimates.  NO, we do not give free diagnostics.  Estimates and diagnostics are two different things.


If you want an estimate for a particular service (for example, a timing belt replacement), we will be glad to calculate that figure for you.  Of course, this requires having the proper vehicle information, since year, make, model, engine size, and numerous other particulars about a vehicle can affect an estimate (please see a previous note about the cost of an oil change, particularly the Honda Civic with three engine options, each requiring a different oil, and therefore costing a different amount).  Given the necessary vehicle information, we can certainly do the research and calculations to provide you with an estimate for a particular service in which you are interested.


However, if your vehicle has a problem that could have one of a dozen different causes, it will first need to be diagnosed.  For instance, a starting problem could be any of the following: battery, alternator, fuses, wiring, fuel pump, spark plugs, ignition coils, water in gasoline causing icing, carbon buildup in the fuel injection system, neutral safety switch, throttle position sensor in clear flood mode (not allowing for fuel injector operation), dirty or faulty mass air flow sensor, ignition switch, ignition tumbler, starter, brake switch (not enabling ignition function), starter relay, computer failure (there are many on newer vehicles!), communication errors between computers, temperature sensor overrides from overheating, etc.  The list goes on and on.  If you have a suspicion as to what you think might be causing a problem, and want an estimate on that particular cause so you can budget for it, we can certainly provide you with an estimate for that.  However, that may not be the actual cause, and the problem will still require a diagnostic before a repair can be performed.  Otherwise, parts would be replaced that don’t need replacing.


The analogy is a bit overused in the industry, but we often compare properly trained automotive technicians to properly trained doctors.  Doctors, although having numerous ailments to diagnose, have just two models to work with: male and female.  Automotive technicians also have numerous ailments to diagnose, however they also have a numerous and annually-growing number of models to work with.  As quickly as automotive technology is progressing (and you can thank the manufacturers and the United States government for that technology), technicians are constantly having to keep up with new and changing systems.  It’s no longer a simple “adjust the carburetor and you’re back on the road” kind of industry.  Computer technology is complicating EVERYTHING having to do with automotive systems, and the ability to diagnose and repair these systems requires extensive training and experience.


When you bring a vehicle in to a repair shop for a diagnosis, you are relying on the technician’s training and experience in order to diagnose the problem.  That training and experience costs money, therefore a shop charges for diagnostics, just like a doctor (with all his or her extensive training and experience) charges for office visits.  The more computerized vehicles become, the more training is required to properly diagnose and repair the ever-growing list of issues a vehicle can have.  Back in the good ol’ days, the majority of shop time was spent repairing, since diagnosing wasn’t nearly so involved as it is now.  These days, the majority of shop time is spent diagnosing, and once diagnosed, the repair is usually relatively straightforward.  The times have changed, and technology along with it, and we are constantly having to learn and adapt to the trend of the industry.  Not to mention, the more computers that get put into a vehicle, the more of a rats’ nest there is to untangle.  Some German models have upwards of 120 computers on board, all constantly reading systems and communicating with one another, so when one goes down or picks up a problem, trying to trace the source of the problem can get very involved!.  Then throw in hybrid technology and it becomes even worse!


Cars are not what they used to be.  They’re certainly more comfortable, more fun to drive, and have a lot more neat features than they used to (heated seats, navigational systems, traction control, etc).  Keep adding features, though, and more problems can arise, and more diagnostics are required.  So when you have a problem, keep in mind that a diagnostic will have to take place to properly trace the source (or sources) of a problem before it can be estimated and repaired.  And yes, there will be a charge for that diagnostic process.


But if you just want an estimate?  Give us a call.  We’ll be happy to assist you.