Manual Reading vs. Manual Labor – UnderhoodService

Manual Reading vs. Manual Labor

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Reading and ­interpreting a service manual is part of a typical day at the repair shop. And after all of that research, you’re still not done. You then have to transform all of those words on the page into a working repair. A great deal of the tech’s time is spent just researching many of today’s ­automotive systems and their ­related issues, even though labor guides don’t include manual reading or research time as part of the final labor costs (but they should!).

The grease and grime are still part of the job, but you can spend just as much time chasing some electrical gremlin or interpreting a scope reading as you do changing a water pump these days — if not more. Your day ­involves research time, figuring out the best course of action to take, plus the actual “physical” labor time you need to make the repairs. It still surprises me how often someone will call and ask, “How much?” to do a certain job on a certain car and ­expect an exact quote. They’re completely unaware of the hundreds and hundreds of possibilities that could detour the repair.

There is a big difference ­between reading a manual and having the ability to apply system knowledge and do the manual labor to achieve an expert repair. Today’s modern technicians need to be proficient at both retaining information and exceling at hand-on applications.

As a side note, I don’t do as well as I’d like with retention, but I do have enough info stuck back in that old noggin’ of mine to know where to find it the next time I need it.


Anyone can turn a couple of bolts and slap on a few parts, but what really distinguishes a technician is a special ability that can’t be found in the manual. It’s called mechanical aptitude — the ability to understand how systems work, how interconnected they can be, and interpreting and using that information to devise a repair strategy. And these days, that ­includes electronics too. This is what separates the true experienced professionals in the trade from average wrench turners.

I know what some of our customers might be thinking, “Well, there are some things my cousin Ernie can do and he’s never opened a repair manual.” True, but how far can he go before ­getting in over his head?

There are repair manuals that are strictly written for DIYers and they’re great for basic ­repairs that aren’t explained in the owner’s manual. Certainly, most DIYers would like to ­accomplish every conceivable problem on their own, but today’s sophisticated cars require a higher degree of understanding and equipment than most DIYers are willing to acquire.

You can tell when someone has glanced over the manual a few times but couldn’t put the information to good use. Most of the time, you’ll find it on the passenger seat with the pages marked. These DIYers also watch weekend automotive shows or YouTube videos about how to make a certain repair. It all looks easy on TV, but when it comes time to applying that information to the tips of their fingers, they ­realize it isn’t that easy.

One fella brought his truck in after replacing the front calipers at home. As he told me, “It sounded easy to do in the manual, you know? Remove a couple of bolts, install the new one and bleed the brakes. Super easy.” Even though he had read all the descriptive pages and detailed instructions in the manual, somehow it just didn’t work out. And, as usual, his repair manual was on the passenger seat.

I made the repairs and even circled the photo in his manual so he could see where he went wrong. (On some cars, there is a right and left caliper. If you put them on the wrong side, the bleeder screws will be on the bottom instead of on the top.)

I feel that everyone who owns a car should have some basic working knowledge of how it operates. Reading a manual is probably one of the best ways to do that, but that’s not to say they need to fix it. Maybe reading the manual will give them a better idea of what to expect at a professional shop. And once there, they can witness the ­mechanical aptitude that ­separates the pack.

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