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Transcript: Tuesday, January 4, 2005, 2 p.m. ET

At-Home Car Repair

Grease on Your Hands

Fang Huang
Host, Grease on Your Hands
Tuesday, January 4, 2005; 2:00 PM

Fang Huang is a washingtonpost.com staffer and hosts the automotive repair series "Grease on Your Hands". He hails from New Orleans and Beijing and now lives in the Washington area. After coming to the United States, he worked as an automotive technician and has been repairing vehicles for over a decade.

"Grease on Your Hands" is an innovative online series brought to you by washingtonpost.com. The goal is to provide easy step-by-step instructions for simple car repair and maintenance so that even the uninitiated can maintain a car at home.


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Topics for future episodes will be chosen from the "Grease on Your Hands" message boards in the Cars section, a gathering place for auto enthusiasts of all levels to share ideas. If your message is chosen, Fang will feature your vehicle in the show, and you can be his assistant for the day!

The transcript follows below.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Fang Huang: Afternoon Y'all! Thanks for your interest and for logging on and leaving some questions, now how can I help you with your car?

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I'd like to rotate the tires myself at home. Can I just buy one of those 2 1/2 ton jacks I see and come from the side and jack it up to rotate front to back. Or am I causing more damage by doing it that way?

Any other methods if this one doesn't work?

Fang Huang: The best way is to get that jack and a pair of jack stands. Use the jack to lift the tire side that you want to remove and then secure the vehicle onto the jack stand. Remove the front tire. Then go to the back wheel that you want to move to the front and now use the lift that you have freed up since you secured your vehicle with jack stands in the front to lift the backside. Rinse, repeat and voila!

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Rockville, Maryland: I currently drive a 2000 Honda Accord V6, and it has approx. 64K miles. I've always done the simple maintenance (i.e., oil change, rotation, changing front & rear brakes), but when is it necessary to have the "transmission fluid" changed?

Fang Huang: Every 30K, along with your air filter and fuel filter. Also, check you PCV valve for good operation.

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Burke, Va.: I'm considering a 2-seater convertible that is not high priced. I'm thinking Miata. Are they good cars? I've also heard that in fall Mazda will start a new generation Miata for 2006. Is it worthwhile waiting for a 2006 Miata?

Fang Huang: It will be worth waiting for if you're are bent on Miatas. They are fun and practical. Others I might suggest:

Mini Cooper (that's right, they're releasing a soft top)
Honda S2000 (great to drive and fun and fast!)
Nissan 350Z convertible
Toyota MR2
Pontiac Solstice (late this year early next - this will be a great car!)
Ford Mustang Convertible

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Annandale, Va.: The engine light on my Honda Odyssey 2000 LX comes on. Disconnecting the battery works for few weeks and the light returns. Tried replacing the gas cap but did not work. Took the car for a free checkup. Technician says it is the catalytic converter due to vacuum leak. But I've checked the exhaust pipe and did not notice any leaks.

Please give your comments.

Fang Huang: The cat converter is located around the midsection of the car, pretty much right under the front seat positions. Check there but sometimes, leaks are pinhole in nature and cannot be detected with plain sight. Did your mechanic hook up the car to a code-reader/computer for this diagnosis?

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Monterey, Calif.: Based on your experience, which manufacturers offer the best-made cars today in terms of reliability, solidness (no loose screws!), and performance?

Which would you tend to avoid in terms of the above?

Thank you.

Fang Huang: While I cannot officially endorse any particular models, check out Consumer Reports for the best updated reliability data.

I'm gonna catch a lot of flack for this but the only cars I might advise people to avoid are VW's and Audi's (pretty much everything that Volkswagen AG makes). I have heard of and experienced many 'issues' with these vehicles. That being said, they are fun to ride and have the most gorgeous of interiors so there is a trade off there. Besides that, check out CR.

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Bethesda, Md.: I have a '97 Honda Accord that makes a grinding sound when I accelerate. It is intermittent - usually only when the engine is cold - and happens less frequently as the engine heats up. It is only when accelerating more significantly - like when starting up a hill- not when driving at a steady state (even when the accelerator is pushed in for steady state highway driving). Any ideas what that could be?

Fang Huang: There are many things that could be going on. 'Grinding sound' is a very general descriptor and seeing as most moving objects on a vehicle are metal, anything could be grinding. It may be something to do with your exhaust since it occurs under hard acceleration, when your system is most pressurized. Not sure though... need more info.

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Baltimore, Maryland: On my last service a dealer recommended that I change the cabin HEPA filter on my 2001 Volvo S60. I thought the over $100 fee was a little steep. Is this something I can do myself and save some cash?

Fang Huang: Not really, these filters aren't washable and reusable. Feel lucky you have a HEPA filter in your car. They weren't widely instituted in 2000 models. Before that, we were all just breathing stinky air and $100 every 4 years is not so bad. Think about how many times you have had to change the filter on your HVAC system at home or even in your water pitcher in the same time period.

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Washington, D.C.: Rats under the hood!

Rats ate my electrical wires last night, the ones that run from the alternator to wherever they go. I'm having the wires replaced by my mechanic. Apparently this is not an unusual event in the Nation's capital. The mechanic also suggested steam cleaning.

Do you have any other suggestions on how to keep the rats out?

Fang Huang: There are hunting products that either are derived from or imitate the smell of mountain lions and other scary beasts that your rodent friends would not take kindly to and would probably avoid them. I have heard that these are a good way.

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Washington, D.C.: My wife drives a '04 Volvo XC70 wagon with 20K miles. We'd like to keep the car until the wheels fall off. I use Mobil 1 religiously. I am now considering changing the trans fluid and replacing it with synthetic. Do you foresee any reason why I shouldn't do that now? The same question would apply to my '04 Explorer with 7K miles.
Thanks.

Fang Huang: It is not necessary until 30k. I guess you could be extra careful and do it at 20k but it just isn't necessary.

Remember that unless you have one of those $1000 flush machines, when you change the trans fluid, you are only swapping half out at best since the other half is trapped in the torque converter so to get thoroughly fresh fluid, you have to fill and drain a multiple times over a span of time so that each time, your fluid is getting fresher and fresher. (i.e.: 1st time-50% new; 2nd-75% new; third-87.5% new... you get the picture)

Nonetheless, I love your diligence bro and you have the right idea by staying on top of your cars and maintaining them correctly!

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Arlington, Va.: What kind of car do you drive to work everyday? Do you have more than one car? If so, what are they?

Fang Huang: The car featured in our first six videos is my car and that's all I got for now, watch the vids and you'll figure it out.

I'm in the process of taking a wrecked 92 MR2 and converting it into the James Dean Porsche Spyder. Any sponsors interested?

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Washington, D.C.: Hi there. Thanks for taking my question. I'd like to modify the exhaust on my '97 Thunderbird (V8) by adding some headers that I purchased and installing a flow master kit - making it a true dual exhaust. Is this something I should even try to tackle on my own, or if not, how thin will it make my wallet if I have someone else do it. Also, what is the chance that I'll obtain a noticeable gain in HP and sound quality? Thanks for taking my question!

Fang Huang: You will definitely experience a difference in sound quality.

As for performance, beauty is in the eye of the beholder? The problem with modern cars and all of our temperature and cooling systems is that an engine on frame cannot truly be dyno'ed properly, since most cars have temperature and speed sensors that will not allow the engine to run at full capacity when standing still on a dyno.

If you feel it’s faster, its good enough for you. Unless you do a lot of track testing, you will never know, but it will rumble and set off alarms right?

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D.C. Metro area: So what did you think about the auto show?

Fang Huang: It was good for consumers to come peruse vehicles.

Being D.C., we will not get the fanfare and the new product launches that Detroit and L.A. get but it was very informative for people looking to shop. Other than that, I only wish we had more classic and show cars as well as supermodels.

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Annapolis, Md.: Thanks for taking my questions and thanks for your show.

1. A local auto store has a remote car starter on sale for $39. This seems too good to be true. What do you think?

2. My mechanic says that my engine ignition system on my '84 Sentra is shot. Cost for parts is only $1700. Symptoms are -- the car stops randomly, and I've noticed an ammeter drop right before the stops, and I've heard electrical snapping coming from my engine top.

Thanks.

Fang Huang: Not sure about the electric starter but it might just be for a remote unit for cars with the system in place, sounds a bit to cheap to me but hey, if they promise it works and is compatible with your vehicle... why not give it a shot? You can always return it.

As for your second question, it might be the case, though it seems you might have a plain short somewhere that is just a wiring fix. I hope they're replacing a lot of parts because an ignition system on an 84 Sentra was not very complicated.

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New Orleans, Louisiana: I know this is a very basic question, but what routine maintenance do I need to do to my car (a 2003 Ford Escape with 70,000 miles) Is now the time that I have a tune up? Do I need to flush the radiator and fuel systems? When do I do these things?

Fang Huang: Ahhh, a friend from the dirty dirty I see!

To best answer your questions, go to ford.com and check what maintenance items are slated for your car at this juncture. Since you are asking this question, I assume you might not have kept up surely with your maintenance so you might want to take a look at what should have been done in the last 30k or so just to make sure that all of your basic upkeep has been performed.

Enjoy Jacque Imo's, Snug and Tips for me, Yeah you right!

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Dallas, Texas: I have a 2001 Mustang Cobra. This car has 32,000 miles on it. When I purchased the vehicle new, the 1-2 shift was notchy. I think the synchro might not work properly. The problem is most notable during quick shifts (There is a hesitation in the shift like something is in the way). Over time, the problem got worse and seems to be exaggerated in cold weather. The 2-3 shift occasionally acts up too.

I got the dealer to replace the tranny at 18,000 miles, but I still have problems (they began almost as soon as the transmission was replaced). Any thoughts on what is causing the problems? It shouldn't be me as I shift smoothly.

Thanks.

Fang Huang: Great car by the way. Yeah it sounds like you might have a shifter issue but are you doing constant clutch drops on this thing? A tranny every 20k is pretty painful man and I have also heard that Ford's shifters, besides the T56 tremec they use in Jags are generally loose.

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RE: Speaking of VW: I have a '99 Jetta. When I drive it sounds like there is something loose in the bottom of the car - i.e. rattling noise when going over bumps. For a while I thought it was something rolling around in the trunk. A mechanic put it up and found nothing loose underneath - should I get a second opinion? Is this harmless? Do you have any idea what it could be?

Fang Huang: It sounds most likely to be a heat shield coming loose from your catalytic converter. Could be many things but if its is loud, yeah, go get a second opinion but from someone you absolutely trust.

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Reston, Va.: Thanks for taking my question. I have a '02 PT Cruiser, which I love, except for lousy city gas mileage. Would it help to install an air induction system or cat-back exhaust system? Any other suggestions?

Fang Huang: You would notice marginal performance gains at your top end, but no, they would not help your gas mileage. In fact, since these are performance mods, they would probably detract from your 'lousy mileage'. I'm surprised to hear that the PT gets such weak MPGs. Anyway, MPGs are not the best way to look at gas mileage. Look at Gallons per 100 miles (or any other arbitrary mileage figure) to determine best compare gas mileage.

EG: A big truck will get around 12 MPGs while a sedan might get 18 MPGs. These seem comparable or at least he truck doesn’t seem that bad but when stretched over 100 miles, the sedan only requires 5.5 gallons of fuel while the truck is almost 8.5. You can easily translate those numbers into $ for ya...

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Fairfax, Va.: Question regarding petrol octane. I have a 2004 Acura TL, which I bought last August, and the manual recommends 91-octane petrol or higher. I had never seen 91-octane in the D.C. area until a few weeks ago, when I found that the Sunoco at Fairfax Circle dropped the 94-octane they used to carry in favor of a new lineup of 87, 89, 91, and 93 (used to be 87, 89, 93, and 94).

My question is this--since I have filled up the tank with 93-octane since I bought it (as there was no lower-octane alternative available), would I run any risk if I now switch to 91? Put differently I guess the gist of my question is whether a car can develop a tolerance for a certain octane such that it will not like it if you switch to something lower (even if the lower grade is what the manufacturer recommend). Thanks.

Fang Huang: You should be alright for now to switch down, since you are meeting the manufacturer's specs. Yes, your computerized engine makes minute changes to your ignition timing to correspond with the octane of fuel but so long as you meet the manufacturer's specs, you should be fine.

Also keep in mind that fuel quality usage is inversely correlated with the age of your car. Thus, the older the car gets after 60k, the higher octane you will need to gain the same performance.

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Falls Church, Va.: Hi Fang,
I've got a '96 Maxima with a bent antenna. Are these difficult to replace? I've seen the assembly on EBay for cheap.
Thanks

Fang Huang: Pretty easy, just remove the paneling in the trunk and you should have a straight shot at it.

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Arlington, Va.: There is moisture in my car after it rains. The windshield and the windows are very foggy in the winter...what could this be?

Fang Huang: most probably, there is a leak somewhere. If you don't notice any specific moisture spots on seats or ground in the cabin, check your trunk.

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Potomac, Md.: My 2000 Volvo S40 has the check engine light always on and the dealer wants $100 just to check the error code on a computer. Is there anyway to reset the light to check whether it comes back up again? Also what are the small things I should look at as causes for the 'check engine' light to come on?

Thanks

Fang Huang: As referenced in an earlier post, replace your gas cap and unplug your battery with the car off and leave it disconnected for 5 mins. Then replug in the battery with the new gas cap and see if this solves your problem. The computer should have reset so the history of the old check engine light should go way.

If it reappears, it is not a broken/leaky gas cap and you should take it in for service. There is a reason that light came on and something is broken somewhere.

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Washington, D.C.: Hey, hope you can give me some ideas. Great chat!

I have a '94 Ford Probe GT, 89,000 miles. I had to replace the rear brake caliper, a job I've done before. After replacing the caliper and bleeding the system, the brakes were a little mushy. So I bled the system a second time. Only this time, the new caliper's bleeder wouldn't "flow" well -- at best, all I could get was a little fizz. (It flowed normally during the first bleed.)

With a little perseverance it bled OK and the brakes are fine. Still, I'm a little worried about that caliper. Any ideas why that one caliper won't flow well, and how to fix it?

Thanks in advance!

Fang Huang: It is easy to strip the banjo bolt on the bleed valve so that might be a where the strip becomes a jam if tightened too much. Does it leak at all? Besides that, I'd have to drive the vehicle and look at the unit to come up with some more concrete ideas.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for taking my question...it's just general. I am a mid-twenties female and frankly have very minimal knowledge of the inner workings of cars. I can't help but feel I am always being taken advantage of my mechanics. I have gone from dealerships to independent mechanics (on referral) to chain brand mechanics and always end up spending like $1000 bucks, and my car is only like 4 years old. How in the world does one find a trusted mechanic in the area that won't take me for a ride (no pun intended)?

Fang Huang: I think you are coming up against a problem that many people face. I would stick to referrals and dealerships if you can since both have someone to answer to if not. I hate to be demographically stereotypical but you might have it the worse since I know us dirt bag mechanics have a rep for taking advantage of women, especially younger ones b/c of relative lack of knowledge.

Good luck darling.

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Anytown: Hi, My '91 Accord wagon has over 175,000 miles. My speedometer stopped working last year, so I never know how fast I'm going. Sometimes it works and jumps from 0 to whatever speed (45-55).

What do you think could fix the speedometer?
Also the check engine light is on.

Single Mom who loves her wagon.

Fang Huang: Hon, if I had a 91 accord wagon I would love my car too. I hate the fact that Honda stopped making them after '97, they were great and useful cars. You might tell that I am very partial to wagons though!

Alright, onto your question. The check engine light should be treated as I told the earlier respondent with the Volvo, try the gas cap switcheroo trick.

As for your speedometer, does your odometer work? If not, I would have someone check out the linkage of your speed sensor to your dash, since your car is not loggin any miles at that point. This would be a relatively cheap fix and I think your car might have a cable still. If the odometer is working but the speedo is broken you will need a new dash unit. Instead of going to the dealer, try some local junkyards and you should find one for about 1/5 of the retail dealer price.

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