"They always fuck you when you take it to Pep Boys."
-- Apologies to Joe Pesci

Ethical Bankruptcy
How Pep Boys Makes Money

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Today's cars can be complicated things.  Computers, sensors, wires, the typical backyard mechanic can't keep up with it all, and service costs are ridiculous.  Fortunately for me, my combination of geek hobbies (computers and cars) makes it easier to keep driving cars that many drivers would have sent to scrap long ago.

One fact the driving public is kept unaware of is that any fuel-injected car, if well-maintained, will always pass its annual emissions test.  If it fails, there's something broken.  Typically, the worst smog offenders are Grandma's 1994 Taurus with a clogged air filter originally installed at the factory.

At any rate, the time came for me to get my 1986 Mustang GT smogged again.  (Actually, I was well overdue, but that's another story.)  I took it to a local Pep Boys station for service.  It failed the safety inspection; the rear brakes needed adjusting, the front brakes were "loose", and the rear marker lights were burned out. 

(Oh, by the way, a 1986 Mustang does not have rear marker lights.)

It also failed the smog inspection; the HC (hydrocarbons) were way too high.  I kind of expected this, since the car barely sneaked by last year for HC.  Now, in PA, if you fail for smog you get 30 days to fix the thing and get a free retest.  The gave me a sheet (printed out by the smog-test machine) with a list of parts that could cause high hydrocarbons.  It all seemed reasonable (except that Throttle Position Sensor was listed twice).  They also tried to tell me that if they didn't do the repairs for the safety inspection that I'd have to pay for the safety inspection again ($25).  They "strongly hinted" that if they didn't fix it that they'd find something else wrong the next time and I'd fail anyway.  No thanks, I'm not paying someone $130 to turn two bolts and replace light bulbs that don't exist.

They also noted that if I spent $150 (or more) in emissions-related repairs, that I'd get a "waiver" so even if I still failed, I'd get a sticker.  I had heard of that in CA and NJ, but that seemed reasonable.  I still wanted to fix the car, though.

So, I started fixing my car.  The intake manifold gaskets were leaking, the fuel injectors were slightly clogged, the ignition system was worn out, two sensors were bad, all kinds of stuff was wrong.  It turned out the biggest problem was a set of Taylor plug wires, three of the eight showed infinite resistance (instead of around 600 ohms), but the MSD 6A ignition was covering up the problem.

I dutifully saved all my receipts and documented my repairs.  In total, I spent a little under $250 repairing my car, but it ran a hell of a lot better.  I even have a fancy Equuis code reader that asks the car's computer what's wrong.

The big day was Saturday, December 20: I woke up early and went down into the garage to finish up the car.  I changed the oil, checked the brakes again, and ran another diagnostic test (using the code reader) just to make sure everything was fixed.

It was.

So, I take the car and all my receipts up to Pep Boys for my free smog re-test (and another $25 safety test).

Sunday afternoon, it's done.  It passed the safety test (despite my not replacing those two phantom marker lights), but now it's failing due to NOx (oxides of Nitrogen).  Usually NOx means your EGR valve is dead.  Well, I'll fix that later, I've got the waiver, right?


Apparently, in Pep-Boys Land, not all of the parts I purchased count towards a waiver.  Specifically, the intake manifold gaskets and sensors.

Fortunately, I don't live in Pep-Boys Land, I live in the Great State of Pennsylvania.  In the Great State of Pennsylvania, the law says:

The cost of hoses, gaskets, belts, clamps, brackets or other accessories directly associated with these components may also be applied to the waiver limit.

067 Pa. Code § 177.281. Issuance of waiver,
paragraph 4(ii).

Of course, the service manager DID tell me that if I paid for a diagnostic, maybe they could fix it...

That's nice.  I want my god damned car back.  So, I print out a copy of the law and drive as calmly as possible to see Manny, Moe and Jack.

I get there and show the law to the guy who's playing service manager.  (Real Managers don't work on Sunday in Pep-Boys Land.)  He looks it over and is flabbergasted.  I guess not many people know their rights and obligations under the law in Pep-Boys Land.  My lovely bride Liz, meanwhile, is dutifully jotting down names.

He goes into the service area to talk to the tech who worked on my car.  The tech's name is "Ed", but the name on the smog printout is "Anthony". How odd.  He comes back a few minutes later, and starts quizzing me on how I diagnosed the problem.  Kind of funny, I had to explain my diagnosis to him, he didn't understand it at first.  They must have skipped that chapter at ASE Master Mechanic school.

(Note that I have the highest respect for ASE Master Mechanics, it's Pep-Boys that's the problem.)

Then he starts telling me that the gaskets don't count because I have no way of proving that they actually needed replacement, and maybe I was just throwing parts at the problem.  I guess they didn't teach Logic at Pep-Boys Assistant Manager school either, because he couldn't tell me how I could prove that the things he said DID count (spark plug wires, fuel injectors) were defective.

So, we went back and forth for a half hour or so, and he promised that he'd call the state inspection referee station to resolve this on Monday.  He wanted me to leave my car there.  No thanks, chief.  He also eventually admitted that he wouldn't be making the call, someone else would.  Yeah, right.

So, I got in my car.  It's wasn't running very well, the idle was kind of choppy.  I started to get suspicious.

I drove the car the half mile home, giving the engine plenty of time to warm up.  I plugged in my Code Reader, the one that showed no problems twenty four hours earlier.  I ran the self test.

33.  "Unable to verify opening of EGR valve."


The EGR system is fairly simple.  It consists of the actual valve, a vacuum motor to open and close it, a sensor so the computer knows how far open or closed it is, and a solenoid so the computer can control the valve.

You'll love this.  I had to take a picture:

For those who are unfamiliar, the thing with the gray hat is the EGR control solenoid.  Note the black and white plastic hoses.  Now, I can understand if you're not all familiar with the anti-smog equipment on a 1986 Ford, so here's a picture with it connected correctly:

The dainty hand providing contrast is attached to my lovely wife, Liz.  (She was so mad, she actually touched under the hood of my car!)

Note how it's plugged in correctly now.  Of course, the Code 33 no longer appears on my Code Reader, since the computer can now control the EGR valve.

I'm fucking livid.  Sometime between the time I dropped the car off and the time I picked it up, the EGR solenoid hoses were unplugged.  If I acted like I was supposed to, when Pep-Boys called back to tell me I failed smog, I would have said "Oh no!  Run the diagnostic and fix my poor car!"  They then would have sold me a new EGR valve or sensor (or both), plugged the solenoid back in, and my car would have magically passed the smog test.

Pep-Boys has a habit of scamming consumers with smog tests.

Looks like you fucked with the wrong nerd, Manny.

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