Fixing your own car is a pastime that is as American as apple pie and baseball.
But it’s getting more difficult these days and can even be downright dangerous.
Cheap car parts, often from China, have flooded the U.S. market in the past 15 years and the quality is hit-or-miss, local mechanics say.
“Every other time I work on a car, I’m being stymied by Chinese parts,” said Marc Buchea, a mechanic at a private garage in Shoreline.
He worked on a Mercedes Benz recently and had to file the brake pads the owner bought at a national auto parts store. It wasn’t his first experience doing that.
The problem, he said, “is that when they stamp out the brake-pad backing, which is a piece of steel, their dies aren’t accurate. So a lot of times I’ll have to take those brake pads and I’ll have to actually file them, file the ends of them to make them work.”
Accuracy needs to be within a couple hundred thousandths of an inch so a discrepancy in the finished product is not visible to the naked eye and is only discovered at installation, he said.
Tom McAllister, owner of Brakes for Less in Lynnwood, said he’s had to file brake pads a couple of times, but he tries to buy higher quality to avoid the problem.
He agreed the quality of Chinese-made parts is not as good as car parts made in the United States, but they’re often all that’s available.
“It’s really hard to buy American anymore,” said McAllister, who has operated his shop for 30 years.
It’s not just brakes. Problems are being seen in all sorts of car parts.
Look at online review sites such as Yelp and www.consumeraffairs.com and you’ll find dozens of customers citing faulty car parts manufactured by Chinese companies that stranded people on highways and led to accidents and near-accidents.
Bucheau recalled a time that he went through eight alternators for one particular car at a national car parts chain before finding one that worked.
“And we kept calling stores and having them bench-test that alternator and it turned out that out of like seven or eight stores that we called, at five or six of them the alternator wouldn’t even work out of the box,” he said.
One thing consumers can do to help determine if a part is good, Buchea said, is ask for the defect rate, which is based on the rate of return. However, not all stores have that information.
McAllister and Steve Hottinger, who owns Pro Muffler and Brakes in Everett, buy parts from trusted vendors such as Renton-based Olympic Brake Supply or wholesale parts distributors WorldPac, which has a Lynnwood warehouse.
Many auto parts at those businesses are still made in China, but the quality is closely tracked.
At least one company thinks it’s a matter of educating the public on the benefits of using higher-end parts, according to a story at www.autonews.com.
Federal Mogul, a Michigan-based company that owns a number of parts suppliers, sends its technicians around the country to spread the word about its brands, such as Champion spark plugs, Moog steering parts and Fel-Pro gaskets.
“We used to train installers, but as the AutoZones and the O’Reillys took over, they began to train them; when we lost that connection, customers began converting to private-label, cheap products,” said Daniel Ninivaggi, CEO of the company’s aftermarket division, in the story.
As if it wasn’t difficult enough to tell the difference between good- and poor-quality car parts, a recent rise in counterfeit car parts available on sites like eBay is further complicating things.
Counterfeit parts often look like one that bears the trademark of a legitimate and trusted brand, but was produced by another party and is usually not made to the specifications of the original equipment manufacturer.
These parts “represent a grave threat to public safety,” according to the Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, which is part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission places the value of the counterfeit car-parts sector at $12 billion a year.
A seemingly endless string of prosecutions on counterfeit parts includes two Washington state cases from 2013, involving the online sale of counterfeit airbags from sources in China. It’s a product the center considers potentially extremely harmful.
“Some of the most dangerous counterfeit products involve the explosive elements of air bags that can literally explode in the victim’s face during an accident,” the center states on its website.
Buchea, the Shoreline mechanic, thinks there should be more U.S. government oversight on all imported car parts, especially those related to crucial areas of performance.
Tires, brake hoses and brake fluid are among 13 items of motor-vehicle equipment for which the federal government enforces minimum safety performance requirements. Certification of compliance is shown by the symbol DOT, for Department of Transportation, on the outside of the part’s box or container.
Brake pads are not on the list. Buchea said the only control the government currently exerts on brake pads is the amount of metal in them, because the state Department of Ecology has determined that the dusting from brake pads that contain a non-ferrous metal, such as brass or bronze, gets into storm water runoff and negatively affects fish.
“So now they’ve got certifications for the brake pads being eco-friendly but not for being DOT approved,” he said. “So that’s more important now, is the eco thing, than actually being government approved to stop your vehicle.”
Customers want cheaper parts because they don’t want to spend money on car repairs, Buchea said. Brakes are the most important item on a car, he said, “and everybody handles them like such a trivial thing — oh, it’s just brake pads, right? No big deal.
“Well, there’s a huge difference between a $20 brake pad and a $60 brake pad.”
He advises customers to go with original equipment manufacturer brake pads — usually made by the original supplier though often also in China — rather than the cheaper aftermarket, or generic, brake pads.
“That’s where you should not compromise, is on tires and brakes,” he said. “Because you’re talking about wet traction around here, we have so much rain around here. Stopping distance is key.”
McAllister of Brakes for Less and Hottinger of Pro Muffler and Brakes agreed.
“You don’t want cheap when it comes to stopping your car,” McAllister said.
Or as Hottinger puts it, “There’s no use going somewhere if you can’t stop.”