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.
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.
Fang Huang: Hey, hey, hey, y'all! It's great to be here and I'm looking forward to helping you get the most out of your car! Feel free to post your questions. After this Live Online, please visit the 'Grease on Your Hands' show message board for an opportunity to have me personally come out to your house and fix your car, featuring it for our upcoming segments!
I just bought a 1994 Honda Accord on which I want to perform a basic tune-up. I have done tune-ups in the past on my 1988 Honda and 1982 Subaru, but it has been a while.
Please tell me the basic steps (gap and change plugs, rotor, oil, filters, etc) that should be included in a tune-up. I appreciate your help!
Second question: how often should I rotate my tires? How can I determine when they should be replaced?
Fang Huang: A thorough tune up includes:
Checking and/or Replacing-
Distributor Cap and Rotor
Spark Plug Wires
After you are done with checking and replacing the parts, adjust the timing by rotating the distributor cap housing, using a timing light/gun to check the settings.
For your car this can be done but for newer vehicles, they are distributor-less and a computer controls the timing setting and will seek for the optimal setting by itself so you can not change it.
I have a 1998 GMC Yukon. I was recently told that I need to have my catalytic converter replaced, which cost $1500. Obviously, this is very expensive and unfortunately I do not have the money to replace this part right now. How long can I drive my car before I'll need to replace this part? Any suggestions would be helpful. Thank you.
Fang Huang: While you may be able to drive the car indefinitely, this is a horrible thing to do. The catalytic converter burns off any excess fuel that your engine has not used, so it is not released in to the atmosphere. Gasoline is very harmful to the environment and destroys ozone worse than even those CFC's that have been banned in the late 90's. While you may be saving yourself some money, you will never pass an emissions test and you are doing great harm to the air you breathe!
Ft. Washington, Md.:
If your car uses 5W-30 oil, but 10W-30 oil was put in...what will happen? Do I need to have it drained immediately, or can it run through and just ensure to use 5W-30 in the future?
Fang Huang: It is not advisable to use oil not specified by your manufacturer. Obvious reasons could be that you will void your warranty, and certain engine components such as your oil pump might not be built to withstand/utilize heavier viscosity oils. You should not do it. However, the difference between 5w-30 and 10w-30 is not so great, so you might be ok but for future reference, don't do it! There is a reason that manufacturer's specify certain fluids for certain uses...
Thanks for taking my question. Here are my symptoms, and I hope you can help.
1. Car occasionally stops. Engine continues, but at low rate, but the car is only gliding.
2. This happens after around 10-15 miles of running. Maybe more, but I don't drive it very far per trip.
3. Car usually starts right back up, but sometimes takes up to 5 minutes of rest and then starts.
4. Replaced the ignition system ($500) to no avail.
Fang Huang: There are many things that could be going wrong for your vehicle. The most obvious problems would relate to your electrical and fuel systems. It sounds as if you might have a bad ignition coil or spark plug wires, since as the heat up, resistance will increase. These are relatively cheap fixes, both under $100 but it may well even be an old PCV valve, which would only cost you $5-$10 to replace. As you can see, there are many possibilities so you should definitely have this checked out by a professional.
Ni hao. I would like to know if there are any home remedies for scratches caused by small pebbles/rocks hitting your car (especially on the highway, behind trucks) and for small dents caused by such projectiles? For the scratches, I have tried scratch-removal products, but I think the rock(s) ate through the clear-coat and actually chipped some of the paint off. Thanks.
Fang Huang: Hai xing ba! I appreciate the fact that you recognize my heritage... ha ha!
As for your problem, you can purchase some touch up paint that should be able to mask over small scratches, though it will never be as perfect as an original clean paint job. You may also want to look into various car bras and reflectors that will partially shield your car from such projectiles. These are installed on the front of the vehicle, usually on the hood.
My car needs a new taillight bulb, but I feel dumb taking it to a mechanic for something so simple. However, I have no idea how to remove the light covers without breaking them. Any tips on how to do this (it's a 96 Camry, if that's relevant)?
Fang Huang: This will be super easy for you to repair. However, DO NOT TRY TO REMOVE THE LIGHT COVERS FROM THE OUTSIDE! There are hermetically sealed to prevent water and moisture from entering, and thus causing a short. Almost every exterior light on cars open from the inside. In your case, pop open the trunk and remove the plastic/felt backing in the trunk directly behind where the light is on your car. This is held on by 3-4 plastic snap fasteners that should give way pretty easily. You should find some connectors and fixtures very similar to that of your headlights, usually a big plastic locknut that will pop out with some turning. Then. just go ahead and replace the bulb and reinstall.
Rarely, and on older vehicles, the manufacturer might have designed the lights with a removable front plate but it will be obvious for it will have little screws in the front. Nonetheless, if the little screws are there, I would still check first behind the light fixture for they might just be for the manufacturing process and not the for repair purposes, and opening it up from the front might damage the weather seal.
What can be done about belts (i.e., drive) that squeak?
Fang Huang: When your belts squeak, they are actually slipping and losing contact to their pulleys.
The best way to fix this is to inspect the belts for wear (cracking and splitting) and replace them as need be. If they are in good condition, you might just need to tighten them up so they don't slip!
The quick and lazy answer is that you can purchase 'Belt Dressing' from your local auto parts store. This is just some sticky spray that will prevent it from slipping temporarily for a few hundred miles.
Silver Spring, Md.:
A few months ago, I had a nail removed from the rear tire of my 2001 Jetta. It was patched up. However, a couple days ago I noticed that the tire looked low again. I filled it with air, only to see it low again in a day or two. Is it possible to replace just one tire, or should all the tires be replaced to keep them even? There are about 48,000 miles on it. Thanks!
Fang Huang: Sadly to say, the patch is probably still good since they are pretty permanent and it is more than likely that this is nail #2 for ya! If you are replacing tires, it is a good idea to replace them two at a time to maintain parity... thus replace the front tires or the rear tires together so the left always matches the right. Furthermore, you should place the new pair of tires on the wheels that propel the car, thus on the front if your car is Front Wheel Drive and on the rear if it is RWD. If your car has 4WD, there usually is a bias of which wheels under 'normal'/regular conditions that is responsible for most of the burden, and your dealership/mechanic should know.
St. Louis, Missouri:
1998 Dodge Neon head gasket leaks oil into antifreeze. Scanning various forums, it appears that even the replacement gasket only lasts 60K miles. Probably poorly designed, but it seems like a fix should be available in this day and age. Your thoughts please.
Fang Huang: This is not the best of situations and it seems the only remedy might be to try to find a gasket that lasts longer, perhaps made by a third party vendor.
60k is not so bad if you consider the fact that many cars need their timing belts changed that often, which is a pretty intensive replacement.
I have a MB '95 C220 with 280K miles on it. About a year ago, my stepson wanted to try to back my car into the garage and over compensated a turn and banged the driver's side front wheel into the garage. A few months later I can hear constant annoying squeaking noises as the car motions up/down. I recently replaced my driver's side front shock and a new steering damper and new bushings for the shock. I also sprayed lube in all possible places where parts move, but to no avail. The noise is bad and embarrassing. Any advice besides what I've done?
Fang Huang: There are a plethora of issues that might cause this. For instance, you might have damaged the front stabilizer/sway bar. The drive train (axles and hub bearings) could also be out of sync or damaged - in this case you would notice a constantly repeating noise or rattle. There are many things that could go wrong and without inspecting it myself, I could not give you a definitive answer. If you have not luck from these suggestions, it might be time to bite the bullet and take it to a professional. This might be dangerous if the problem does involve the suspension or the drive train.
Smelly Trunk: Hi...a bottle of wheel cleanser was punctured in my trunk and spilled all over the entire trunk area. The smell is horrendous, especially when I drive. What would you recommend to use to get rid of the smell?
Fang Huang: Dear Stinky,
You can remove all of the felt padding and hose it down, dry it out and reinstall it. While you have it out, you can carefully wash down the bottom of your exposed trunk after taking out your spare. There are usually drain holes so the water can sep out, just be careful with the wiring in there.
I have a 1990 Toyota 4X4 PU with 290,000
miles. My wife was driving it the other day
and the engine started smoking and it appeared to leak a small amount of oil.
When I check the oil it appeared to be
mushy as if water had gotten into it.
The truck has not been driven sense we
experienced the problem. What do you think
caused the problem and is it worth fixing?
The truck is in excellent condition other
then the recent problem.
Fang Huang: A possibility is that the oil is leaking on the exhaust manifold and is burning up there. If so, you'll be lucky. If I remember correctly for this vehicle, the filter is installed up in the crankcase and it may be as simple as the seal on the oil filter, thus performing a simple oil change could remedy the situation. If not, you might have a similar problem that our friend with the Dodge Neon had, where a gasket is leaking and mixing up your oil with the coolant water... Yikes!
I have an SUV that has an optional 4 wheel drive mode. When I shift from 2 to 4 wheel drive, or when I start the SUV when it's already in 4 wheel drive, there's a slight squeaking sound, but goes away after driving the SUV for awhile. Can you explain this?
Fang Huang: This means the differential that locks the 1/2 of the drive train into gear during 4WD mode is slipping a bit and not gaining fully optimized engagement. This might be solved as easy as draining and refilling your differential, or could be the sign of uglier problems yet to come. I would try changing the diff oil before I jumped to further conclusions, since repairing differentials is almost as time consuming and expensive as fixing transmissions.
RE: Ft. Washington, Md.:
Thanks Fang for answering my question in such depth! One more piece, for the second portion of my post regarding 10W-30 oil being used instead of the 10W-30 being used. What should I do since I mistakenly put the wrong grade of oil in my car? Should I just let it run through or should I get it drained immediately?
Fang Huang: Once again, this is not a good thing to have the wrong viscosity in your car. Since you insist, the best thing to do would be to change it out at your earliest availability, though others may beg to differ. Check your owners manual since there are many cars that can use different viscosities of oil for different driving conditions (warm/cold) and such.
I have a 1992 Honda Civic H/B 1.5 Liter engine. I have two questions. It runs pretty good 136,000 Miles. I just had the water belt timing belt replaced. The engine has a slight hesitation it wont shut off or anything but you can feel it when you drive in any gear. I thought it may be a fuel problem and replaced the fuel filter, put new spark plugs in it a new cap and rotor to no avail. Also on hot days if I leave the car closed up it will not start until I open the windows and doors and let the care cool off. Can you tell me what may be the cause of this?
Fang Huang: Check out my earlier answer about the other reader with probable electrical problems. You probably have some sort of weak electrical link in your ignition systems that build up resistance in direct correlation to the temperature.
Sounds like bad wires man.
My 96 VW Passat's auto tran slips - 20mph. I've learned to lay off the gas at the right time to avoid a severe gunning of the engine. Have replaced fluid...is she a goner? Don't want to spend $$ on a new tranny. You want it? I'll make you a deal! Thanks.
Fang Huang: That sounds painful friend. Strangely to say, while you should always change Auto Trans. fluid every 30k miles, often doing so will exacerbate problems that existed but had not shown previously so a tip for buying a used car with an auto would be to get its fluids changed to check out the condition of the tranny itself.
Sorry, I'm not interested...unless we're talking about charity here.
This is pretty cool! Didn't know you guys had this kind of stuff. Here's my question, rock flew into my windshield while I was driving on the beltway the other day. It's not that big, and doesn't appear to be spreading. What can I do to make sure that it doesn't?
Fang Huang: There are self-repair kits that exist ($15) that allow you to inject a bit of clear filler into the crack to prevent it from spreading. Also, many glass repair shops can perform a similar procedure for about $20 so I recommend you inquire about it. The professionals will do a much better/cleaner job and it usually will not cost much more than the self-repair kit.
What do you think of the new 2004 Hyundai Elantra GT hatchbacks (design, engines, etc)? I have heard good things about them, especially considering the costs comparisons. Thanks!
Fang Huang: I have heard some really good things about the new Hyundais in general. However, all cars will break eventually, especially if you don't maintain them properly.
When I buy oil, I notice a ton of liquid additives that supposedly add life/mileage to your car. Are any of them worth using?
Fang Huang: Not really, though I would recommend CSL as the only additive that I have seen make a marked difference. Like I always say, there is no substitute for maintaining your car well.
Pay a little now, or a lot later!
Hi - I drive a '92 Jeep Cherokee Laredo 4x4. Sometimes, when I put the car in reverse to back out of a parking space, then put the car into drive and accelerate, I hear a loud 'clicking' noise. Is something terribly wrong with the gears, or is it a result of basic service that I am neglecting? Otherwise, the car runs fine. Thanks!
Fang Huang: You likely have a bad axle/CV joint that is resettling itself as you turn it in opposite directions. Or it could also be just worn out brakes scraping your rotors. I would have this checked out as soon as possible by a professional to avoid further damage to your drive train (i.e. transmission). It will probably be less than $500 but if you let it go, the sky is the limit!
My dealer says that I need to change my power steering fluid and I'm wondering if I really need to get that done. I have 75,600 on my car and that fluid change costs a lot of money!;
Fang Huang: You should get it done. If you gum up your steering pump or rack with dirty fluid that could be up to a $1000 to replace the entire unit. It should not be that expensive to just drain and refill the fluid.
Pay a little now or a lot later!
Can you tell me if the brake fluid was changed when I have my brake job (change rotor and brake pad at the dealer) done (inherently so)? Did I have to tell them to change the brake fluid specifically? The reason is that I did the 60K service myself, except the brake fluid, but I thought the brake job I had early has taken care of that.
By the way, what kind of car do you drive?
Fang Huang: Xiao tu-zhu:
Unless you ask for it specifically or was charged for it, they did not change your brake fluid. You can tell if it has been by whether your fluid is clear or not in the reservoir under the hood, since all DOT brake fluid is pretty clear.
Ok, this sounds pretty basic, but...
My tires indicate to inflate to 51 psi...do you always follow that, or do you do it to something recommended in the owner's manual (if different).
Also - I have a slow leak in one...are those spray cans that inject some sort of sealant with the air worth the money? Do they really work?
Fang Huang: No, never follow what is written on your tires. That is the Max PSI that they can handle. Check on the drivers side door/glove compartment/underneath the center console cover/ owner's manual for YOUR CAR's recommendations. This is set according to your suspension settings and inflating to the tire max will almost always result in poor handling and an over stiff ride.
My 1984 Mercury Grand Marquis has decided that 25 mph is as fast as it will go. When I drove it to work one morning it was fine, 8 hours later it wasn't. When I give it some gas the engine whirrs like it's trying to go faster but can't. Before that happened the car would hesitate when I gave it some gas and jerk a bit before the speed increased and there was a strong odor of gas. I just bought the car about 4 weeks ago. What do you think is wrong and how do I fix it? Thanks.
Fang Huang: Sounds like you have a bad transmission and you can't get out of the first two gears.
I would see if you could return the sucker, there are certain 'lemon' laws that protect a new buyer from major problems such as full drive train malfunction.
I own a '98 AWD Mercury Mountaineer. I have a problem that just started recently. Sometimes when starting the car, it will idle too low-- to the point of almost stalling (and sometimes stalling) and I can feel the power steering give out. Trying to restart the engine works occasionally, but not always. I've put fuel injector cleaner in the tank and this did not seem to help. Any ideas? Thanks.
Fang Huang: Sounds like you have a dirty fuel system and it needs a tune up.
Replace the fuel filter/fuel lines and give it a full tune up (I provided a check list in a previous answer).
Then use a "complete fuel system cleaner" and not just a fuel injector cleaner. STP 'grey bottle' or Chevron Techon seem to work pretty well. If not, the pros have cleaning systems that can blast the system clean for less than $100.
Sorry, but what is CSL and why do you recommend it?
Fang Huang: It is an engine/oil additive that seals the imperfections between the pistons and cylinders created by wear and tear. Look for silver can! It is the only additive that I have had real luck with - hey this is a promo and they don't even pay me...hehe.
Any quick remedies for cracked areas on your car doors with rust?
Fang Huang: Scrape/sand off the rust and seal it with some touch-up paint.
Thanks, so can I do the brake fluid change myself? What do I need to do?
Fang Huang: If you can bleed your brakes, you can do it yourself. Just keep bleeding the system until clear fluid comes out from each cylinder housing. You will need a hose, an empty bottle, a few jars of brake fluid and the same socket set you used to perform your original brake job.
I'm sure this is not a "do it yourself" job, but perhaps you can diagnose the problem for me. I drive a 93 Eagle Vision TSI, 3.5 L engine. Lately I notice that when I'm slowing to a stop, just before I do stop, the engine appears to downshift suddenly. It's very apparent. It seems to maybe make a noise, too-- like a clunk.
Fang Huang: I assume you have an automatic transmission. Sounds like the torque converter is starting to slip a bit. There is not much you can do, just keep maintaining the fluids, perhaps replace the filter if you have one and....
Pray it lasts for a while longer.
So my little 1999 Honda makes a scraping sound when I make turns. What's that all about?
Fang Huang: You could have a bad hub bearing, especially if it occurs more prevalently when turning one way as opposed to another.
You could also just have some worn brakes that grind a bit, but you would notice a similar sound when braking as well if that was the case.
Hello, thanks for taking our questions. I have a '95 Jeep Wrangler that's been having fuel injector problems for a while now (shaking and stalling out, especially in cold weather). It's getting to the point where it's more cost effective for me to get a new car than keep trying to get someone to fix this problem. I had it worked on last winter, but it's still acting up. Any idea how much longer it will last (can I wait until after the new year to get a new car)? Thanks again!
Fang Huang: You may be surprised at what might fix your car. It might be an inexpensive fuel or electrical problem that would cost you less than $500 to fix permanently. Sounds like fuel, and perhaps you aren't getting the requisite pressure to your injectors (filter or lines) or one just might be leaky.
Silver Spring, Md.:
I've got a friend who swears by certain tips, such as
liberally spraying WD40 on belts and hoses to prolong
their life. Does that make sense, and are their any other
similar tips you might recommend that we won't find in
the average user's manual?
Fang Huang: I would recommend against this practice, especially on belts since they are supposed to maintain traction against their pulleys and WD-40 would only increase the likelihood of them slipping and turn burning them out quicker since as they slip, they rub and rip.
As for your hoses or any plastic parts for that matter, a silicon based lube is the most non-abrasive and is the best guarantee for a protectant that will not eat into the new synthetics coming out each day. In all honesty, the people who design these hoses and belts are highly qualified and they should be well enough alone, but if you insist on applying a protectant, use something non-abrasive or specifically made for the component that you are trying to protect. Otherwise, as in the case of the belts, you may be doing more harm than good.
I had the question about switching from 2x4 to 4x4 and hearing a slight squeak. It's normally a rear wheel drive when in 2x4 mode, so when I switch to 4x4 mode, the front wheel drive squeaks, so I don't think it has anything to do with the differential. Could it be that the u-joints on my driveshaft needs grease?
Fang Huang: Could be but remember, your drive shafts are turning even in 2WD mode. They are only disengaged to your drive train at the diff, though when under real power instead of just freewheeling they might exhibit early signs of more serious problems.
My car doesn't start as quickly when my gas tank gets low, even though there's at least 2 gallons left in the tank. I've used a fuel system cleaner and am wondering if it's the fuel filter, which I've never changed on my '98 Honda Civic with 78,000 miles. Any thoughts?
Fang Huang: Sounds likely, try it out. It might also be that your system is not maintain a full seal, so you may have some weak/slightly-leaky fuel lines or something as simple as your gas cap losing its seal.
It definitely sounds like a sealing issue, which should be easy/relatively inexpensive to repair.
I have a Lexus coupe with telescope steering wheels that moves back and forth when putting the key onto the ignition. It just stopped working. What do you think the problem is?
Fang Huang: You may luck out and it might be a fuse. Otherwise, either the motor for the telescoping unit or the control unit just gave out.
About a month ago, I asked my mechanic to please change the belts in my 1985 323i BMW. He took a look at them and said: " The belts are fine, there is really no need to change them". On Thursday, while my mother was driving my BMW on the streets of Quito, Ecuador, she heard a big BOOM, and stopped the car immediately. She opened the hood and didn't see any damage. She tried to start the car, but it will not start!! She had the car towed to the mechanic.
There is a lot of damage in the engine that could have been saved if my mechanic would have listened to me !!!
I am furious, not only because of the unnecessary expense, but because I have taken such good care of this car. It has only 79,000 miles!!!
Should I demand that my mechanic fix the car for free?
Should I demand that he change the engine and not just rectify certain parts?
Now remember that Ecuador is a Banana Republic and people get away with murder over there. My mechanic has a small shop specializing in BMW and Mercedes Benz, he is no a dealer and doesn't have the big $$$. On the other hand he is an experienced race car driver and has been racing BMW since the 70's and should know better!!!
Fang Huang: Enrique, Sadly to say I don't think this was your mechanic's fault. Almost every belt he COULD have replaced would not cause severe engine damage, unless it was the timing belt.
However, if I am correct, the V6 on this car has a chain and does not need regular replacement. If you could tell me what was the actual cause of the breakdown, I could probably give you a better idea of responsibility.
RE: Yukon that needs a new catalytic converter
I'd bet my house that this person got the quote, $1,500, from a dealer. Midas/Meineke/etc. would probably do the job for 1/3 that price or less.
Fang Huang: You must work for Midas... and yes, typically the dealer might be more expensive but you PAY for the expertise, since these guys are trained on fixing your specific car every year or so while guys like me have a general understanding of mechanical issues and might not know a specific problem if it only occurs in your specific vehicle model. Then again, some of us eat and breathe this stuff and keep up with even manufacturer specific developments but I could not really recommend one over the other.
Just keep your warranty restrictions in mind.
I have a 2003 Toyota 4 Runner, and when I tap the gas harder for fast acceleration, I think I'm getting rich combustion since I smell some sulfur in the cabin. I recently replaced the air filter and haven't smelled it yet. Have you heard of such a problem?
Fang Huang: For how new this car is, that's very strange that your mixture levels are out of whack, especially since I'm pretty sure they are regulated by a CPU. Merely replacing your air filter would not fix it if it was, since your computer would make the necessary adjustments in the fuel mixture to prevent it from running over rich. Since it is a 2003, you probably still have it under warranty and I would take this up with Toyota, since you might have a leak somewhere.
Also - caveat- burning transmission fluid can also smell like rotten eggs...
Fang Huang: Thank y'all for your time and questions. It was great to hear from you and don't forget to visit my show - Grease on Your Hands and make a posting on the show message board for an opportunity to have me personally come out to your house and fix your car, featuring it for our upcoming segments!
Y'all be good now!