Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Give me a BRAKE......

Ever come squealing to a halt at a traffic light? Ever hear a horrific grinding noise when you apply the brakes? Chances are you have, and it is un-nerving to say the least. Of all the systems your BMW (or other "lesser" brand car) has, I doubt any are more important than your braking system. I mean, you can 0-60 in 3 seconds in a supercharged M3, top 190Mph in an M5, swing through curves like nobody's business in a ZHP, but if you can't stop; what's the point?

As I recently did some inspections on my car I realized it was about time for new brakes (great, there goes $300 bucks!) and I figured now would be a good time to talk about brakes, my preferences, tips, tricks, and where to find good deals on parts (hint: it isn't the dealer).

BMW brakes are exceptional. It only took me one or two fast stops after I bought my 323 to realize the incredible stopping power of the E46. I then came to find out that the BMW brakes are lighter than most cars for better balance, and larger than most cars for better fade resistance and more stopping power. I also learned that OEM pads give the 1930's "dust bowl" nightmare a run for its money! These truths span the entire line of BMW models 3's, 5's, and 7's (the ///M cars get even beefier units). The braking system is designed essentially the same on the E34's, E36's, E39's and E46's I have repaired. So as a general rule, the steps to change brakes on an E34 is largely the same as an E46. The main difference being rotor size. The E46 323 like mine for instance, comes with 286mmX22mm front rotors while the 330 has 325mmX25mm rotors. These much larger brakes are why I switched my 323 over to 330 brakes. And yes, those 39mm's make a BIG difference in braking.

So where and what should you buy for brakes? Many people prefer OEM braking components (Brembo or Zimmerman rotors and Textar pads) because they work and a LOT of people think they have magical properties (don't even get me started on BMW coolant!). The reality is that the OEM spec stuff just plain works and you can't argue with a company like Brembo for brakes. But there are better options than textar or mintex for pads. This is where performance and driving style come in to play. If you like super aggressive driving, late, hard braking, and just plain having fun, a "bitier" pad like Hawk or EBC Red's might make your day. If you like low dust, but less aggressive stopping power (still excellent though) you might want to check out the ceramic offerings available by Hawk or Akebono. A friend has the Akebono's and they are great from a dust standpoint, but squeal in protest during a stop and this is something all ceramics I have experience with seem to have issues with. Another thought is that super aggressive pads also wear out your rotors faster (in addition to gobs of brake dust), so you'll want to keep that in mind. Overall the best mix in my opinion is the Hawk Street pads with Brembo rotors (or Zimmerman). Turner Motorsport has some excellent packages on their website featuring these products.

Real quick let me address the inevitable question about cross drilled/slotted rotors. The answer is yes, they look cool, but no, they don't help you stop any better in an E46. In fact, if you buy the wrong cross drilled rotors you can get rotor warpage, cracking, or total failure. Recently I put ebay cross drilled rotors on a Mini Cooper for a lady that really wanted them. Within 5,000 miles they were warped and she had to replace them with regular rotors. If you must go with cross drilled, EBC or Zimmerman are the only two manufacturers I would use. Again, Turner Motorsport has them for you. You just can't abuse your rotors enough, even on track day, to need cross drilled.

Lastly, here a few tips/tricks concerning brakes:

  1. You don't have to replace the brake sensors (saves you $20) if your brake light doesn't come on in your instrument cluster. You really shouldn't be waiting that long anyways. Even if it does come on, I personally just twist the wires together to make the light go off and zip tie them out of the way. Why? Because the sensors on most BMW's are on opposite corners (drivers front and passenger rear) and on my car, the back drivers side went all the way to the rotor and I never got the light to come on. They are pointless. Inspect your car regular and it won't sneak up on you. (dummy lights are for......well.......dummies!)
  2. Make sure to use steel wool on your caliper guide pins to get them nice and clean. I use a 0000 steel wool. This is important for proper brake function.
  3. Use a liberal amount of anti squeal on the BACK of the pads, please don't put it on the pad surface!
  4. Use a small dab of anti-seize compound on the hub BEFORE putting the new rotors back on, you will thank me for this when you go to change them again. Also put some on the rotor hub so getting your wheels off will be easier.
  5. Lastly, spend the $4 and buy new rotor retaining nuts. They are notorius for stripping out and it is a hassle you can avoid. If your old ones are giving you problems try using a torx bit to help give you some extra "bite" in the threads.

And there you have it. Brakes in a nutshell. Yes, there is a lot I missed and/or skipped. But you get the ideas. I leave you with Shad's list of links to places to buy brakes (I have used them all and they are all good):

Monday, June 22, 2009

Making a difference (a little non-car talk)

Can one man (or woman) make a difference? Have you ever wondered if that is really true? See when I think of people who made a difference I think of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Major Dick Winters (Easy Company Commander in WW2, featured in HBO's Band of Brothers), C.S. Lewis, and other men of relative "fame". But have you ever heard the story of Ray Blankenship? As I thought about things today that are far more important than BMW's, I thought of my relationship with Jesus, my family, my kids, and the people I help or have helped.

With all this blogging, twitter, and forum stuff I do, I have begun to think of myself as a crusader to the common man. To help those in need with car repairs for cheap prices and be as honest as I can be with them. To teach those who would learn to do their own repairs, to impart knowledge learned by my own sweat and blood. But I guess today I wondered, is this all my life is about? Have I become nothing more than a "car resource" when I have more knowledge to give, knowledge that really does make a difference. The knowledge of Jesus Christ, and what He has done for Shad Molck, and what He can do for you.

You're probably thinking, "oh brother, I came here for BMW advice and I get a wacko "Jesus Freak" out of nowhere". I assure you, I don't intend to Bible bash anyone. In fact, I am almost done with this entry, so just hang in there. I was an alcoholic, cocaine freak, 3 pack a day smoker, adulterer and liar. And through Christ I found the strength to quit all those things. In fact, I haven't had a drink of alcohol or a snort of anything in over 6 years. I'm faithful to my wife, and haven't smoked in over 6 years either. How do I know He is real, I know who I was, and I know who I am now. You don't get the old Shad to change with earthly power, it wasn't possible. So I don't need to argue if Jesus exists, if He is real, or if there is an eternity to earn. As sure as my BMW carves corners, the answer is YES, YES, YES! So what does that have to do with BMW's, me, this blog and Ray Blankenship (you didn't think I forgot about him did you?)? Well, here is the story of Ray Blankenship:

One summer morning as Ray Blankenship was preparing his breakfast, he gazed out the window, and saw a small girl being swept along in the rain-flooded drainage ditch beside his Andover, Ohio, home. Blankenship knew that farther downstream, the ditch disappeared with a roar underneath a road and then emptied into the main culvert. Ray dashed out the door and raced along the ditch, trying to get ahead of the foundering child. Then he hurled himself into the deep, churning water. Blankenship surfaced and was able to grab the child's arm. They tumbled end over end. Within about three feet of the yawning culvert, Ray's free hand felt something--possibly a rock-- protruding from one bank. He clung desperately, but the tremendous force of the water tried to tear him and the child away. "If I can just hang on until help comes," he thought. He did better than that. By the time fire-department rescuers arrived, Blankenship had pulled the girl to safety. Both were treated for shock. On April 12, 1989, Ray Blankenship was awarded the Coast Guard's Silver Lifesaving Medal. The award is fitting, for this selfless person was at even greater risk to himself than most people knew. Ray Blankenship can't swim.

You see, what Ray did is what Jesus asks us to do. Just jump in the river and trust that He will pull you through. I believe he asked me to write about this because if I do nothing else, I should tell anyone I know (or who knows me) that life will end one day. What happens next is up to you. Jesus did the hard part, now you must make a choice. My choice was hard, my choice was 7 years ago, and my choice is to share it with you now.

I can tell you how to troubleshoot an A/C system, replace an oil separator, or even replace your VANOS seals. But if I don't tell you about Jesus, then I haven't fulfilled my purpose. I haven't been a "difference maker". I want to make a difference. No matter what you are going through, no matter what you believe, Jesus is out there, calling to each of us in the way we need to be called. I hope you find Him, then you can have your name called as a "difference maker" in eternity.

My next entry will be cars again. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Short Blog about A/C (follow up to yesterday's article)

Just wanted to say, I spent some time helping someone (pro-bono work) troubleshoot their A/C system on a 97 Grand-AM. I know, I know, a Pontiac? Well, at least I don't have to drive it. The lady has been through all last summer in the AL with no A/C, and it is super hot already this summer. I just HAD to help her get it working. What is so bad, she had it "professionally" serviced last year in May. She spent over $100 getting it filled and checked for leaks. The shop said it was good to go with no leaks. Within 4 hours of working on it, she had no cold air once again. She got the run-around and they opted not to help her and she didn't have the money to fight it, nor to get it fixed. Here is a short run-down of my findings in the hopes it may help one of you.

When I looked at the compressor with the A/C on full blast I noticed the compressor didn't turn. The question was, why wasn't it turning. I figured it was too low on R-134a for the compressor to run (it had to be that or the voltage switch was bad) and decided to spend $8 on a can of R-134a. After digging around to find the low pressure cap, which on this car was way down low between the firewall and the worthless Pontiac 4 banger motor just close enough to the manifold so I had to burn my hands, I added the can. It went in very fast and almost instantly the compressor kicked in and the air from the vents was cold. It needed another can, but since I wasn't sure it wouldn't all leak out, I opted to save her the additional $8. After seeing the compressor would indeed turn, I decided to add some UV dye and see if I can isolate a leak. It is real common for them to leak around the pulley on the compressor so I hope it is that easy. All this took me a whopping 15 minutes. I did not have time to check for leaks with the light and special glasses, but I will next week and update this article.

Just wanted you all to realize no matter if it is a BMW or a Pontiac, troubleshooting an A/C system is NOT rocket science. I have never even popped the hood of a Pontiac in my life, yet the concept is the same on all cars so it made it very easy to pinpoint the issue. I am excited that this lady will have ice cold air for less than 15% of what the indy shop quoted her!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Keeping your cool this summer

Welcome to summer! In my part of the world the mercury has risen well above 90 and humidity to match. And lucky me, it stays this way till October! I swear, Alabama is the only place where you can get a sunburn, heatstroke, and dehydrated at a football game! And since I am what I call "hypo-thermatically sensitive", strong A/C is a MUST!

I have been pleasantly surprised with my BMW climate control system. It keeps things nice and cool in the hottest of temperatures. But last year about this time I was sitting at a red light and all of a sudden warm air starting pouring out of the vents. For me, this was worse than overheating. It was a giant unknown and I started having flash backs of my old Jetta. The air died and they said it would cost $1500 to fix it (so I traded it in). However, since I didn't have $1500 and I was not gonna sweat through an Alabama summer, I dove in to fix it. Here is my experience and some tips.

First thing I did was buy a quality pressure gauge. You need to know what your low side pressure is at a minimum to start with the diagnosis of the problem. On the E46 BMW the low side port is right next to your positive battery connector under the hood. I have found them to be in similar locations on the E36, E39, and E34.'s that I have worked on (note any pre 1993 vehicle like the E30 or E34 might still have R-12 in it which requires a conversion to R-134a style fittings). Now to read the pressure merely attach the pressure gauge with your A/C at full blast and see what you get. It is hard to say what "normal" is because pressures will rise and fall with the ambient temp. You could get a 25psi eading in 75 degree weather and the same car could read 35psi in 90 degree weather. But as a rule you should be bewteen 25 and 40psi and most gauges will have a blue, green and red section to help you see what is normal. On my car, I got really high pressures on the low side, close to 60psi. I did some research and it seemed my suction side of my compressor was not, uh......sucking. So I decided to replace the compressor. Normally I would have dug deeper, but my car had over 120k miles on it at this point so I knew it was time for a new one. I called BMW and they wanted over $900 for the compressor, stealership ripp off at its finest. I checked online and a new OEM one was still $450! I didn't have $450 so I sourced one from a used BMW with 90k miles on it for $150. SCORE! (note, if you want to find a used compressor try ask for Martin and tell him Shad told you to call).

If you decide to do your own A/C work just know that it is illegal to vent R-134a into the atmosphere. If you do it I doubt the EPA is going to come to your house with guns drawn, but since I don't know the legal liability of blogging this stuff, I will just say it is illegal and don't do it. Since you may not have an E46 like me I will save the detailed install process of the compressor, but just know I did it on a Thursday night, after work and it only took me 1 hour having never done it before. You also should install a new dryer to be "correct", however I didn't want to spend the extra $50 and since the compressor was used I figured, what the heck.

After the mechanical parts where replaced and connected I decided to proceed with a DIY re-fill of R-134a. Again, to be 100% correct in the repair you should pull a vacuum on your system for at least 30 minutes to make sure you have no leaks and get all the air out of the system. I don't have a vacuum pump so I bought an air vacuum pump from Harbor Freight ( for $13. It is basically a Venturi pump that uses forced air from your air compressor over a diaghram to create a vacuum. I let it run for about 20 minutes. (note: I have done many of these repairs without doing this and all were successful). Now I was ready to fill the system with R-134a. If you take only one point away from this article let it be this: ONLY PUT PURE R-134A into your A/C system! Do not buy the stuff with leak sealer in it, any synthetic stuff, or any stuff with seal conditioner or oil (you buy that seperate) in it. All that stuff can clog your system and cause a failure, yet millions of people buy that "recharge" crap they sell at AutoZone and ruin an otherwise properly working system. Don't do that! Then simply add the R-134a to the low pressure side attachement and add 2 cans to start. Then check pressure and if the vent temp is cold. If it is not quite where you want it, add another can or can and a half. Sometimes the can will empty really fast, sometimes it won't. If it seems the can isn't emptying into the system, you can put the base in some hot water to help move it along. On most BMW's I have worked on, you can actually set the can near the exhaust manifold and accomplish the same thing, but do NOT put it directly on the manifold or it will burst, just near it to get some of the heat from it. If you overfill the system you may not get any cold air at all, the systems are equipped with a high pressure valve that will kill the compressor if pressures get too high. It is best to fill the system in the hottest part of the day when the ambient temp is hottest. This allows the R-134a to expand as much as possible and will help you not to overfill. On mine I did the re-fill at night and I had perfect pressure and 39 degree air coming out of the vents. The next day it went hot again because the pressure had risen in the heat of the day. I had to evacuate a little R-134a out to make it start working again. After that, I have had no problems and still have ice cold air over a year later. Total cost to do my budget A/C redo was $300. That included all R-134a, oil, and the tool from Harbor Freight.

Much better than $1500 in my opinion!

Monday, June 15, 2009

It's time to "Summerize" your car.......

Every winter I see the oil change places and car shops with signs that say "winterize your car", and yet I almost never see "summerize your car". Maybe because some people would say "it is an all around good car" (get it, "summerize"?, ok, not funny.....but I digress). What baffles me is why these "expert" shops don't realize that summer is usually harder on our cars than winter.

Now our Canadian brethren or people from Buffalo, NY might be the exception, but for most of us Summer get's HOT. Here in Alabama it averages 92 degrees with 100% humidity from May till October. That kind of heat can wear down a car faster than you might think. And it can really wreak havoc on a BMW. Now I love my BMW, with 180k miles it still out drives most new cars. But why, oh why, did they see fit to put plastic in all the major components of the cooling system? This engineering mistake is even more mind blowing when you consider that most modern BMW's have an all aluminum motor. Effecient? Yes. Light weight? Sure. Prone to warp faster than a politician when overheated? You bet! How do you avoid this dastardly fate? Keep reading, I'll tell you....

Do you know how many times I see on the BMW forums that someone overheated their car and they had to replace the motor at a cost of $5-$14k dollars? More than I care to remember. This is an avoidable mistake. As your doctor always said, an ounce of prevention is worth $14,000 worth of saved money (or something like that).

The reality is that your A/C running full blast (I will cover how to maintain your A/C in my next post), sitting in beach traffic in 90 degree heat will "help" you uncover any weak point in your cooling system. And most people try and limp the car home or drive it to a safe place before turning off the car. With a BMW if you do that, I can assure you a $6000 or higher repair bill. Make sure that you and anyone who drives your car understands to turn the car off the moment they see the little red light. This is not optional!

But why not avoid the above scenario altogether? Here is how to get piece of mind for relatively low cost:

1. Check your coolant level weekly. Please do this when the car is cold to avoid third degree burns. The lilttle float should be sticking up past the top of your resevoir, if it isn't, add some antifreeze.

2. Replace your major cooling system parts. Change them BEFORE they break. If your car has 60k miles on it or more, this means YOU! Parts list includes:
  • water pump ($50, DO NOT buy the one with a plastic impeller, they break, ask me how I know)
  • thermostat ($60)
  • expansion tank ($55)
  • upper radiator hose ($23)
  • lower radiator hose ($30)
  • both drive belts ($50)

Overhauling the BMW cooling system is NOT hard to do yourself. There are about 100 DIY guides on the web showing what to do (see videos on the you tube bar to the right of this article).

3. Inspect your fan clutch (automatic), fan blades, and radiator. Make sure they are clean, not nicked or cut, and look like they are in decent shape. (Hint: your radiator collects a fair amount of crap between it and the A/C condensor, it wouldn't hurt to pull it out and clean it off with water, but do NOT scrub the fins of your radiator. They will bend and you will damage it).

4. Use Redline Water Wetter or similar product. These products have been tested and proven to lower temps as much as 10 degrees. This makes a big difference.

5. Keep your oil fresh. Most BMW purists change the oil every 7500 miles. In the summer you could do it every 6000 miles for added protection. A well lubricated motor creates less fritction, less friction means less heat. (also might want to consider a heavier weight oil for the summer on higher mileage cars over 100k).

Also, if your car has between 130k-150k miles on it, you should go ahead and replace the radiator. You can get them for less than $200 at Another good idea, if you have an automatic, is to replace the auto transmission thermostat ($60). It will almost always break when you remove the expansion tank and even if it doesn't break, if you re-use it and it fails it will kill an expensive transmission.

So think about it this way, for $268-528 ($528 includes radiator, and trans thermostat) you can avoid $6000-$14,000 in repair costs. I'd say that is a pretty good trade off. Not to mention you won't have to deal with being stranded with an overheated car, have to deal with a tow truck, or miss work.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Check Engine Light Came On, Now What?

Ever been driving along and all of a sudden your check engine light comes on? Do you know what to do? "That's a silly question, we take it to a mechanic stupid!" I know, I know, so do a LOT of people, and then you lose hundreds of dollars out of your wallet for "diagnostics". And the funny part is, if you have a CEL your car is already telling you what the problem is!

All post 96 year model cars are equipped with a universal "language" if you will called OBD2 (On Board Diagnostics). This "language" uses a set of universally understood numerical codes that are associated with your cars vital systems. A CEL on the dash simply means one or more of your car's systems has exceeded a threshhold set forth by the manufacturer and it is no longer functioning properly. For instance, a P0304 code means you have a misfire on cylinder #4. A P0128 code means your thermostat is running cooler than it should and so forth. You can find a link to all the codes here: (note: there are also manufacturer specific codes too, which I will deal with later, keep reading).

So now that you know that, what now? Surely you have to spend a ton of money to get a certified mechanic to read the codes on his million dollar computer right? WRONG! General OBD2 scanners can be purchased from $39 up to $109 depending on features and style (you can even obtain BMW specific code readers for $100-$150). Your local auto parts store (AutoZone, Advance, Oreilley) will even read the codes for you at no charge!

Here are a few reasons why having a list of the codes is so important (even if you aren't a mechanic or going to try and do the work yourself):

1. Knowledge is power. If your car is throwing a thermostat code, and the mechanic says you need a new muffler, you can politely tell him how he can cram the muffler up his.......
2. You can determine the severity of the problem. If you are like me, sometimes money isn't falling out of your pockets. And if the code is a non critcial code (like an 02 sesnor code) then you know that you can still drive your car without risking major damage until you can afford to have it repaired.
3. You can post the codes on online forums and get an idea of what needs to be done, costs associated, and helpful tips. A lot of car specific forums (like Bimmerfest) have people on them that know a TON about the problems and issues with a specific car. They will often give you free tips and tricks to help.

So you see, the CEL is nothing to fear. Sure, sometimes your CEL can be something serious. But more often than not it is simply something you have neglected to replace because hey, you have a life right?

The next time your CEL pops up, head over to your local auto parts retailer and have them pull the codes and do some online research. You might save yourself $100's of dollars or more!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Will the helpful blogger please stand up?

Why in the world should you read another blog? I mean, all the "really good blogs" are already established right? Yea, and most mechanics are honest.

My goal is simple, to empower the people of the world to own a vehicle and not have to pay thousands of dollars to high priced con-artists, er, I mean, "mechanics". Simply put, this blog WILL SAVE YOU MONEY (and might make you laugh along the way).

Not a week goes by that someone doesn't call me and ask for advice on a car repair, pricing for parts, or a "hey, do I really need this". And since I am HONEST, they know they will get a straight answer with no bias. I specialize in BMW's and believe me, they are the worst. One story I recently read said a woman paid $800 for an oil change! I didn't realize BMW's took 12 BARRELS of sweet crude.....

Regardless, we shall see how this goes and how the public responds.

I look forward to my next entry, thanks for reading!