Apples to Apples

Alternators, Starters, Voltage Regulators, Window
motor assemblies, Light Bulbs, Serpentine belts, the list
goes on and on of the various cheaply made replacement
parts out there.  Being able to distinguish what parts are
good or bad is part of being a professional in this crazy
world of automotive repair. 

A customer calls in wanting prices on a certain job,
and more than likely this isn’t the first phone call they’ve
made today.  The way I can tell this is by the way they
answer certain questions I ask. This is in order to narrow
down the options on that particular part or job. “What’s
the motor size, is it 2 or 4 door, automatic or manual?”
If these questions aren’t a hit and miss answer chances
are they’ve been through this before, and have a pretty
good idea what the cost is… or at least what they’ve found out from the auto parts cheapo depot.

“Yes, I need a price on an alternator for my car,” the caller asks.

I give them a price for the brands I sell, and before I'm even finished they'll tell me how much the last guy would sell the part for.  That's fine, I know everyone is looking for a bargain, and shopping around for prices is all part of it.  However, let's compare apples to apples… not just prices to prices.

A perfect example of this is the common external regulator for a Ford product.  The prices will range from just a few bucks to as much as 30 dollars.  The difference is the quality, of course. You can tell the difference for yourself by just picking them up.  The cheap regulator feels like a feather compared to the more expensive one.  The question is... do they both work?  Yes they do, but there's no doubt the cheaper one will not take any abuse, or a fluctuating signal, or load variations as well as the better made part.  No doubt the cheaper one is going to need replaced sooner than you think. 
From the professional side, it takes just as long to diagnose a problem and make the repair with a well manufactured part as it does to put on one of those bottom of the barrel parts.  The big difference is you only have to do the job once, rather than over and over again.  That eats up diagnostic time, shop time, and doesn't make for a very happy customer.

Over the years the number of times I've had someone bring a car in and tell me they have put five or six alternators on the car, and it still doesn't work is beyond comprehension.   The unsuspecting customer will almost certainly have the same reaction on the phone or at the service counter.

“There has to be something electrically wrong with the car,” they’ll say.

  Even though I haven’t checked the car out yet, I’ll still ask them, “Where are you buying your parts?”

Nine chances out of ten they are buying the cheap knock off brands because of the cost, and under certain applications these knock off brands fail constantly.

By the time I get the car in the shop and run the needed tests, I'm already stretching their pocket book just to give them the answer I already assumed it would be.
“It's a cheap part that's causing the problem,” I’ll tell them, and when I give them the price of the “quality” part I know I'm in for an argument.

“It shouldn't cost that much.  I'll just go get another one myself,” the now ticked off customer will tell me.  It could be they really wanted me to find something else wrong with it, because they know it can’t be the part. Then again, it could be because they don't want to change it again.  Whichever the case may be... I'm the lucky guy taking the brunt of the customer’s melt down at the front counter.

Why is it that the second largest purchase most people make in their life time is left to using cheap discount parts as a way to keep their family truckster on the road?  You know, if the original manufacturer used some of these discount parts most of those cars wouldn't make it from the manufacturer to the show room floor without breaking down.

One morning when I arrived at the shop a customer was waiting for me with a rear main seal for me to see.  I had just replaced the seal in his car a few weeks earlier.  There wasn't a problem with the car, his problem was that he believed that I over charged him for the seal.  While he was at one of those discount parts stores he purchased a rear seal himself, and after having some time to think about it he figured I should know just how ticked off he was.  Needless to say, now he's thinking every bit of the labor cost must have been exaggerated as well. 

There was only one way that I could think of to solve this problem.  I called my supplier and had them send down another seal just like the original one I had purchased.  With the customer standing in front of me, we took both of the seals out of their boxes and laid them on the counter.

“You see, they are actually the same,” the aggravated customer tells me, “They're the same color, same design and obviously are identical, you over charged me!”

I'll admit they looked the same, and I was getting a little worried that I wouldn't find a difference between the two of them.  I wanted to prove my point that not all parts are created equal, but how?   As this anger management class dropout started to get even more steamed up, he started to make his point known how he felt about mechanics in general, parts stores, and the world at large.  I picked the two seals up while he was standing on his soap box proudly putting down anyone who had anything to do with the car business. When I gently snapped the actual seal area that touches the crank shaft back and forth ... I had the answer... the difference was obvious.

“Sir, if you'll calm down a minute I'll show you the difference.  The one you brought from the discount part store has fewer coils on the retaining spring.  This spring is what keeps the rubber seal up against the crankshaft to prevent any leaks.  Look at the one I just purchased, and you'll see it has twice as many coils on the spring,” I calmly explained to him.  (OK, I “tried” to say it calmly)
After a bit of scrutiny on his part he did see the difference between the two so called “exact” parts.  He apologized for all his belligerent ranting, and said he would make good on his promise not to buy any more parts based on the dollar amount.   I hope so... sure would make my day go a lot smoother. 

These days with even more parts coming in from different parts of the world, and at different quality levels, the tech has to be on his toes to make sure what they are installing on a customer’s car is actually a decent component.  Even today, I'll do my best to sway the customer into buying quality parts rather than going the cheap route.  If they insist on using a cheaper part, I'll be the first to tell them what the results will be.

Comparing apples to apples is still a good method of explaining things to someone who might have a difference of opinion.  One bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch, even good parts fail sometimes.  But I'd put my money on a quality part any day of the week.  Service is the name of the game in the automotive repair business; knowing which “apple” is the right one for your car is just another part of the service good shops provide.  There are plenty of apples out there in the orchard, and sorting out the bad ones aren’t about who has the best TV commercial or newspaper ad.  Ask a mechanic, he’ll know the difference between good parts and bad ones.  As the old saying goes; “Ya get what ya paid for.”