The Word On The Street - December - 2015

Want or Need? It’s Time to Make Your List!

With the holidays just around the corner, it’d be nice to have all the tools you want. But it’s more cost effective and efficient to make sure you have the tools you need. Time is money, so spending your money wisely to save time is much more profitable. Buying the proper tools will save you time, and they’ll pay for themselves in the long run.

As a technician, I want the tools with all the bells and whistles to make my job easier and faster. But sometimes that just isn’t practical. At times, you may find yourself purchasing a tool that you’ll only use once or twice a year. That’s when you need to decide if it’s more of a want than a need; from there you’ll need to decide whether you should get one with all the bells and whistles.

Here are some ideas of what every shop should have in today’s market. These are definitely needs and not wants. For now, we’ll stick with tools rather than shop equipment; that could be an entire article all by itself.

Nearly all the vehicles that roll into your shop today have multiple computers, so you need a scan tool that can retrieve codes, and, more important, supply you with useful data (figure 1). Today it may be more practical to have a scan tool or software for a laptop that can also handle reflashing and adapt resets (figure 2); that depends on what you’re working on and how much of that work you’re sending to the dealer or outside sources.

Sending work to the dealer can be troublesome, especially when the dealer tries to sell your customer a transmission… after you just installed one. And even if the dealer isn’t trying to bypass you, there’s still the wait as they put your customers’ cars at the back of the line.

Outside sources are fine if you don’t have enough time to do the reflashes. And that can be substantial: On some vehicles, such as BMWs, reflashes may take as long as four hours! Having the necessary equipment allows you to pick and choose whether you want to handle this reflashing or send it out.

As you can see, the decision depends upon the types of vehicles your shop is working on and how much of that work you’re seeing.

Nearly all the vehicles you work on today are electronic, so a quality multimeter is necessary to check everything from the battery to solenoids (figure 3). The type of meter is important: It has to be able to do several jobs beyond simply checking the voltage at the battery.

The sensor signals you need to be able to check include variable frequency DC or AC, and solenoids that are pulse width modulated. So you’ll want a multimeter with features such as RPM, frequency, AC, and amperage, to name a few.

When it comes to measuring amperage with a meter, you have to cut into the wiring. To avoid that, a quality current clamp may be a great choice (figure 4). But remember, some current clamps may be a little confusing to read. Your meter may not display the signal in amps: it may display the current in volts. So a standalone current clamp may be a better choice.

An oscilloscope is often the best way to check a voltage signal. But many techs aren’t familiar or comfortable working with scopes (figure 5). A quality graphing meter can provide some of the advantages of a scope, but are often easier to set up and read than a scope (figure 6).

If you scan tool has a graphing mode with a snapshot or movie feature, it may help take the place of a graphing meter or scope.

Some manufacturers offer a multitool that has a scan tool, scope, and digital multimeter all built into one unit. Generally speaking, these aren’t a good choice. The cost is usually more than the individual tools would be, and buying them as one tool limits you: You can only use one tool at a time, so there’s no way to compare scan data to the actual circuit measurement with your meter.

And don’t even think about what’s going to happen if your multitool breaks: You’ll be out of business unless they provide you with a loaner or they get yours fixed!

The most common question asked is which scan tool to buy. If Santa’s listening, most of us would like to see a single scan tool that can diagnose all vehicles, foreign and domestic. That would be nice if it were possible. No one scan tool can do it all, but several of the aftermarket scan tools do quite well.

If you’re doing fleet work or seeing a lot of the same make of vehicle, you may want to purchase a factory tool. Those units often provide a lot more information than anything available through the aftermarket.

The important thing is not to have a scan tool that will only retrieve codes. Codes are valuable, but they’re only a small part of your diagnostic strategy. Make sure the scan tool you buy has capabilities that take you through a complete diagnosis.

Remember, Christmas is just around the corner, so start working on your list to send to Santa, to let him know what you want!