- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2003

In my work, I travel around the country teaching automotive service people how to talk to you, the customer. Language is a big part of my training, as it isn’t helpful when technicians use terms you can’t understand.

We may be a long way away from all mechanics speaking to their customers in clear, uncomplicated language, but here’s the good news: There are easy things you can do to improve communication with automotive technicians.

And, if you do, you’ll not only feel better, but you’ll also have more power when taking your vehicle in for service. One of the things that will help improve rapport with repair people is for you to learn some basic car terms.

I have an easy-to-understand glossary of those terms. Just like you might learn certain words and phrases when you’re going to a foreign country, you can do the same before you go to a dealership or repair shop.

Using your senses is key to explaining the problem and getting it solved.

• Hearing: Noise is one of the more common ways your car will let you know it’s not happy. Clicks, clunks, hisses, squeaks, squeals, rumbles, roars make up the language of a car in pain. Any of these sounds — or any other unusual noises your car may make — could mean it is heading for a breakdown. If the sound persists, you need to get the vehicle inspected. Isolate the sound. Is it coming from the front, rear, left, right, under the hood, inside the dash, in a wheel well, from the engine?

• Touch: Does the vehicle vibrate, shimmy, shake, sputter, surge, hesitate, stall, or continue running after you turn off the ignition? Is the car hard to steer or does the steering wheel feel loose or sloppy? When you press the brake pedal, does it feel spongy or too hard? Does the pedal slowly sink to the floor after you’ve stopped?

• Sight: Are your dashboard warning lights illuminated or flickering? Is the needle of any gauge out of its normal range? If so, you may have a problem with your battery, alternator, brakes, engine temperature, or oil pressure. Watch, too, for other signs of a problem, such as a leak. To identify where a leak is coming from, slide a piece of cardboard under the vehicle and check it after a few hours. Note the source of the leak: front, rear, middle, left, or right. Keep in mind that many leaks only occur under pressure at highway speeds. What color is the leaking fluid? Brownish-black oil is either engine oil or steering fluid. A thick, black ooze might be manual transmission fluid. Coolant is generally green, pink, or yellow. Air-conditioning discharge is clear.

• Smell: If your car has a leak, you might want to touch your finger to the spot on the ground and sniff the fluid. (Warning: Don’t let any automotive fluids touch an open sore or cut.) Most people can recognize the smell of gasoline. Coolant smells sweet. The smell of burning rubber may indicate overheated brakes or clutch. A sick catalytic converter often smells like rotten eggs.

Something else to remember when explaining your vehicle’s symptoms are these two important words: changes and conditions.

• Changes: Change is often the first sign of a problem. Does your car drink more fluids lately, such as gas, oil, coolant, transmission or brake fluid? Has the way it handles or sounds suddenly changed?

• Conditions: Under what conditions does the particular symptom occur? When you first start the car, or after it has warmed up? When you’re braking or accelerating? When it’s raining? Cold? Only when the heater is on? Only on Tuesdays?

Let’s go back to the senses for a minute. You’ll notice I mentioned only four of the five senses: hearing, touch, sight and smell. I didn’t talk about taste. If you’ve licked, nibbled, or munched on any part of your car, it’s not a good sign and your mechanic can’t help you there.

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