Are These Auto Repair Services Actually Necessary?

Car problems are always unpleasant. Not only are they inconvenient, but many are costly to fix. Replacing a failed alternator, catalytic converter, or having a burned out engine valve replaced can cost hundreds of dollars. For this reason, people dread visiting the repair shop.

But even during visits to have routine maintenance items performed (e.g. oil change, brake pad replacements, etc.), the bill can rise quickly. The reason? Because the mechanics recommend a number of services that, according to them, must be done as soon as possible lest your vehicle break down. Are these services truly necessary? Are they critical enough to warrant your immediate attention? We'll take a closer look at several of them below.

The Traditional "Tune-Up"

A lot of repair shops still recommend having your car "tuned up" on a regular basis. But it's important to understand what this service entails to determine whether it is necessary.

The term "tune-up" is antiquated, and has very little to do with maintaining today's vehicles. The service was so named decades ago, when engine performance was controlled by mechanical parts. Back then, these parts needed to be calibrated from time to time. They needed to be "tuned up."

Those days are mostly gone. Today, the operation of your car's engine is controlled primarily by computer (the power train control module, or PCM). A number of other parts influence the assembly's performance, but those too are controlled by the PCM.

If the mechanic suggests a tune-up, ask him to clarify what it entails. Changing the spark plugs and air filter are important maintenance items. But he should also pull diagnostic codes from the PCM, check the condition of the distributor cap, and test the oxygen sensors.

Transmission Flush

There are a few factors to think about when considering a transmission flush. First, this service can help to extend the life of your car's transmission. The fluid breaks down over time, and does a less effective job at lubricating the parts. It should be changed, or flushed, from the assembly. The important thing to note is that this service only needs to be done every 40,000 to 50,000 miles. Doing so more often is a waste of money since automatic transmission fluid (ATF) is formulated to last for years.

Another consideration is the number of miles on your car. If there are over 100,000 miles on the engine, a flush may damage the transmission. The reason is because the process may cause debris that has collected and hardened inside the assembly to become loose. This can affect its performance.

Engine Flush

This is a popular service for a couple of reasons. First, all drivers realize the importance of keeping their engines well-maintained. The engine is arguably the most important assembly under the hood. Second, repair shops maintain a wide profit margin on the service. It essentially involves little more than flushing a solvent through your engine in order to remove sludge. The shop's cost of providing the service is low.

The problem is, it's rarely necessary. As long as you change your oil every 5,000 miles - or do so according to the recommended service interval in your owner's manual - there's no need for a flush. It would essentially be a waste of money.

Fuel Filter Replacement

The fuel filter catches debris before it reaches your engine. Over time, the filter can become dirty to the point that sufficient fuel is prevented from passing. If the filter is not replaced, it will cause engine performance problems. Thus, many mechanics suggest doing so when you have the oil changed.

The fuel filter can last for up to 50,000 miles. Some can last even longer. Replacing it earlier is unnecessary, and a waste of money.

Front-End Wheel Alignment

It's important that your wheels are properly aligned to prevent premature treadwear. Alignment problems can dramatically shorten the life of your tires. For this reason, when wear is evident on your treads, your mechanic may suggest a front-end wheel alignment. But keep in mind, tread wear only indicates an alignment issue when the wear is uneven - for example, on the outside shoulder of the tire. If your treads are wearing evenly, your wheels should be properly aligned.

Don't assume that every service recommended by your mechanic is vital, regardless of how adamant he is that your car will break down with them. Become familiar with each service to decide whether they are truly necessary.
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