North Fork mechanics adjust to an evolving industry

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Riverhead Ford auto technician Dimitri Kreatsoulas of Wading River, a 2007 BOCES/Shoreham Wading River graduate, works on a 2008 Ford E250 van doing a pre-delivery inspection and oil change.

Not so many years ago, a driver who experienced trouble with his car could lift the hood and often diagnose, if not fix, the problem. Today’s vehicles are more complex, defying the average driver to even know what he’s looking at under the hood, according to mechanics who have been forced into training programs to meet the new demands of high-tech, computerized cars.

“The stuff they taught right out of school was great for then,” said Eddie Hughes, service manager at Riverhead Dodge. He was referring to basic mechanics courses taught at Eastern Suffolk BOCES and post-high school mechanics courses offered by junior colleges or technical schools.

Today, mechanics “have to be able to read and comprehend detailed information,” said Tom Williams, a mechanic at Riverhead Ford. Older mechanics have had to be retrained to handle the technology that repairs require, he said. And all mechanics have to keep up with evolving technology, he added.

Whether it’s using computer technology to diagnose a vehicle’s problems or understanding the sophisticated workings of hybrid or electric vehicles, it’s a brave new world for mechanics.

Hybrids may be easy for their drivers to deal with. “They’ve been problem-free,” said Howie Lucas of Lucas Ford in Southold. He regards them as “low maintenance,” but said all of his mechanics have had to take training to perform even routine service on them.

Scott Tyler of Tyler’s Automotive in Mattituck said the training is “extensive” even though “trouble-wise,” the newest vehicles “seem to be quite reliable.”

Despite their reliability, they are expensive when they do need work, Mr. Hughes said.

“There are fewer light repairs and more in depth,” he said. “Usually, when things break, they don’t break easy anymore.”
These days, after mechanics put in a full day at work, they might have to give up some of their own time in the evening to take training, Mr. Tyler said.

The company gives some time off for the eight to 10 days a year that most mechanics have to devote to training — but sometimes training might extend beyond that cumulatively, and if an employee isn’t willing to give up some of his own time for the sake of his career, Mr. Tyler said he doesn’t want to hire him.

The cost of sending his mechanics to training programs runs between $500 and $800 a day, when lost revenue is added to the tuition, Mr. Hughes said.

Add to that the cost of the special tools and equipment mechanics need to maintain and repair hybrids and electric vehicles, not to mention conventional cars with a lot of computerized innards, Mr. Tyler said.

And then there’s the time that mechanics like Mr. Williams give to help emergency personnel when an accident involves a non-conventional vehicle. With gasoline-powered cars and trucks, accident victims can often be helped out of their cars with low risk to the rescuer, as long as there’s no fire. But in the new hybrids, a rescuer who fails to take precautions can end up with “curly hair,” he said. What might once have been an injury resulting from improper rescue procedures, today could mean death for both the rescuer and the vehicle occupants, he said.

There’s another concern that comes with the newest vehicles. Their greater reliability may be a boon for the sales force, but it can hurt the bottom line in the service department, especially when the economy isn’t great and people are feeling pinched.

More reliable vehicles make it a challenge to stay in business, Mr. Tyler said.

But not all of the drop in repair revenue can be blamed on increased reliability. Some of it follows from owners who don’t want to pay the higher prices for complete repairs if they can keep driving without them.

“People are doing the bare minimum of what it takes to get back on the road,” Mr. Tyler said. Mr. Hughes marks some repair bills with a notice that he considers the vehicle poorly maintained and unsafe and advises that he is not responsible if a driver insists on running such a vehicle.

The other side of the bad economy is that people who once got rid of a vehicle when it began having problems are more inclined today to try to get it fixed and drive it longer, Mr. Hughes said.

The best advice all the mechanics offer is this: Maintain vehicles properly and don’t always assume the manufacturer’s advice about maintenance minimums is on target. Sometimes cars need more tender loving care.

For example, a vehicle driven on the North Fork, where there’s a lot of dust from farm fields, is likely to need an air filter more often than the manufacturer advises, Mr. Tyler said. And check your oil levels, especially in smaller vehicles. The manufacturer may say you need an oil change only every 7,500 miles, but that may not be sufficient in vehicles that run hotter, burning oil faster, he said.

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