CarMD.com finds Maine “check engine” repair costs second-lowest in nation

Posted June 21, 2012, at 12:38 a.m.
Last modified June 21, 2012, at 9:07 a.m.
Bill Duncanson, lead technician at D&M Auto Repair on Congress Street in Portland, works on a car in the shop Tuesday.
Bill Duncanson, lead technician at D&M Auto Repair on Congress Street in Portland, works on a car in the shop Tuesday. Buy Photo

A new study finds Maine has the second-lowest car repair costs in the nation, when it comes to vehicle problems associated with the “check engine” light.

According to a study released Thursday by CarMD.com, the average cost for such car repairs in Maine was $289.56 per transaction in 2011. That was 13 percent below the national average of $333.93. And, according to the study, it was a 16 percent decrease in Maine from 2010, when the average cost was $344.68.

The CarMD.com database analyzed more than 160,000 repairs with “check engine” problems from repair shops around the country. Repairs flagged with the “check engine” light cover about 80 percent of the systems on all vehicles, according to the study.

The ranking doesn’t figure in many of the wear-and-tear maintenance costs that motorists in Maine face thanks to potholes, frost heaves and road salt — including replacing parts on the suspension system, brakes, tires, bodywork, belts, hoses and other pieces that wear out.

“Bad roads can do a number on your suspension, on your car’s alignment, things like bent wheel rims and tire damage,” said Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association. “There’s not much correlation between the types of issues with roads that create expensive car repairs and the things they looked at.”

She noted a 2010 Council of State Governments report that looked at average annual per-vehicle costs that poor road conditions exact; in Maine it was $250.

The only state less expensive than Maine was Indiana, at an average of $283.95. Wisconsin came in third, Iowa fourth and New Hampshire fifth.

The most expensive states for such repair work included Wyoming at $389.18; Utah, $378.54; California, $367.86; Montana, $364.29; and Arizona, $362.65.

The study breaks down costs into parts and labor. Mainers, according to the study, paid the lowest average price for parts, at $175.91. Labor averaged $113.65 per transaction in Maine.

“It seems the folks who repair cars in Maine are charging some pretty fair labor costs,” Fuentes noted. “You wonder if this is one area where we’re getting a deal.”

Kristen Brocoff, director of corporate communications for CarMD.com, said this is the second year the company has put out the report. But its data goes back 15 years, she said, and it has more than 2.5 million repairs in its database. In addition to maintaining the database, CarMD.com makes and sells diagnostic technology that vehicle owners can use to interpret various warnings that their vehicles’ electronics systems send up.

She noted the low cost for car parts, as compared to other states.

“Part of that is just simply that you have very competitive, fair repair shops there,” she said. “Part of it is they were less catastrophic repairs — there were more oxygen sensors and gas caps, simple fixes being done. If you ignore those little things, you get into the catalytic converters, mass air flow sensors.”

Bill Duncanson, the mechanic at D&M Auto Repair in Portland, said he thought the study’s findings might reflect the trend of people doing the bare minimum to keep their vehicles on the road — a product of the tough economic times.

“When you’ve got the majority of our population in the state barely making it by — they’ve got to pay the heating oil or the car repairs — the heating oil’s going to win every time,” said Duncanson. “We’re seeing more and more of it. People just don’t have the money to do repairs and maintenance.”

Duncanson said he’s been a mechanic for 25 years, and he’s seen a steady decline in the routine maintenance of vehicles. So a repair job that may have cost $225, but is ignored, suddenly balloons to a $900 job, he said.

Brocoff said that trend is a problem nationwide.

“We’re not seeing that necessarily predominantly in Maine. I’m seeing people be a little more proactive with smaller repairs, but overall across the country it is a problem,” said Brocoff.

She agreed with Duncanson that ignoring the smaller problems often can lead to bigger problems.

There’s other costs, as well, she noted. For example, the No. 1 reason nationwide for the check engine light to go on is a faulty oxygen sensor, she said. That problem can affect fuel economy by as much as a 40 percent decrease in miles per gallon. Over a year, that can add up to more than $1,000 extra spent on gas, she noted.

And after all’s said and done, she said, the motorist still has to replace that sensor, or it could snowball into something more catastrophic, like a bad catalytic converter.

According to the study, the most common “check engine” light repairs, parts and labor, in Maine in 2011 included:

1. Inspect for loose fuel cap, average cost of $1.93

2. Replace oxygen sensors, $222.91

3. Replace catalytic converters, $1,003.06

4. Replace mass air flow sensor, $427.67

5. Replace evaporative emissions purge solenoid, $157.44

6. Replace positive crankcase ventilation valve, tube and grommet, $90.52

7. Replace spark plug wires and plugs, $291.31

8. Replace evaporative emissions purge control valve, $151.36

9. Replace ignition coils, $202.92

10. Replace intake manifold gaskets, $301.92

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