The Coffee Was Good, But Not $112 Good

It’s that time of year again. The snow has melted, the birds are chirping, the flora exits dormancy and resumes normal seasonal-specific metabolic and growth functions, and I need to take my car in for the annual New York State Emissions and Safety Inspection. Because Safety!  Because Environment!  Because John Law.  Because hefty fines for noncompliance.  Hefty fines so profitable that the cops send out a car in the wee o’dark hundred hours of the morning to look specifically for your car when you don’t get it done in time, and yeah, I’ve seen them cruising up the street doing just that.  So, Saturday morning after I dropped an analgesic for my hangover I was ready to begin.

Before I was ready to go to the dealership I wanted to replace a couple of air filters, cabin and engine. The dealership is always pushing an upsell of those cabin filters; in-person, and with multiple advertising signage (“You like clean air, and so does your car!”, etc., in every direction you might look). They charge about $80 for that filter; I get aftermarket compatible filters for about $6.50, delivered. Yeah, for that kind of markup the dealerships love to sell those OEM filters.

I turned on the ignition – but didn’t start the engine – so that I could flip the hidden switch which turns off the alarm. Then I changed the cabin filter: remove the glove compartment, remove the filter cover, swap filters & put it all back together – easy peasy.  OK, the filter was a little bent on the sides, but that’s what I get for buying aftermarket, and it wasn’t so badly deformed that it would significantly impact the effectiveness of the filter.  I guess it’s either that or shell out $80 for le filtre parfait, made from the latest space-age nanofiber composites and mil-spec rugged enough to meet all of your demanding climate control needs.  Not.  So, aftermarket it is, and aftermarket it will remain.

The engine air filter gave me more trouble. I popped the hood and unclipped the top half of the air filter unit, but all the wire and hose attachments made it virtually impossible to remove the filter. So I unplugged the wiring harness that was holding it in place.

That was a mistake.

I unplugged it without turning off the ignition. Unbeknownst to me, the onboard computer detected this and helpfully triggered the “Check Engine” light. In the meantime, blithely unaware of what I had just done, I struggled to seat the new filter properly and it took considerably more work and technique than I had anticipated. Just pop it in, right? Noooooo, it kept catching on a corner when I closed it up – I had to seat it in the top half and awkwardly close the unit as I held it in place. Well, I got that done, anyway.  Got my hands dirty futzing under the hood, too, so I went back inside and washed up.

Finally ready to go, I got in the car and noticed the “Check Engine” light on, realized what must have happened (“D’oh!”), and thought nothing of it.  Off to the dealership, and after a twenty minute wait my CSR came up to me and he seemed kind of panicked.

CSR: “We can’t do the inspection on the car, the check engine light is on!”

SH: “Yeah, that’s not a problem, it just needs to be reset. I changed the engine air filter with the ignition on.”

CSR: “But the check engine light is on, you can’t just unplug the battery, that doesn’t work anymore, this has to be fixed before you can run the test!”

He brought me back to his desk and we went back and forth like this a few times.

CSR: “We need to reset that light, and just plugging it in to the computer to do that is a $112 fee.”

SH: “Hold on, I’m unclear on this. Resetting the Check Engine light is just a matter of, um, let me see if I remember this offhand – turn on the ignition, press the odometer button, or something like that…”

CSR: “Right, turn on the ignition, then press the odometer button for ten seconds, release and turn off the ignition.  Yes, that’s for the maintenance light, but not Check Engine.”

SH: “OK, my mistake. So we need to plug it in to the computer, and that costs $100.”

CSR: “Right. That’s a $112 fee just for hooking it up to the computer. After that you need to drive the car 80 to 100 miles, and then we can run the emissions test. That’s a DMV requirement, not us. If you try to do it before then the computer knows and it won’t run the test.”

SH: “Alright, so hook it up to the computer and reset the Check Engine light and I’ll see you next week.”

One hundred and twelve dollars.  To “hook up the computer” and reset the onboard computer “Check Engine” flag.  Is that some kind of euphemistic bordello codespeak?  Is Steve Wozniac coming here to do this personally? Some combination of the two? No. They charge that because they can.

About ten minutes later the CSR asked to see me again to talk to the technician. I explained to him what I’d done, he nodded, and that was that. Sitting patiently in the waiting room I sipped my complementary $112 cup of coffee. Shortly thereafter the CSR came to me and brought me to the bulletproof-glass enclosed payment room complete with a vault big enough to hold a full-grown pig, if you liquefied it in blender first.  He signaled the clerk and he told me “I took care of you.” The clerk pushed the paperwork through the slot and as I took out my wallet he held up his hand and explained: No Charge.

I thanked him. I suspect he was worried I might look up how to reset the Check Engine on my car and find that I was right about that. I also suspect he will push for new tires (mine are allegedly worn) and to replace the (allegedly) cracked rear bushings (a costly all-day job to replace $20 parts) the next time I’m there. In the meantime my work commute will get the mileage requirement satisfied within a week, then it’s back for a second try.

UPDATE: Turned out to be not so bad.  I had a different CSR and he didn’t try to upsell me stuff.  He did mention the rear axle bushings were cracked (which I knew) but he said it wasn’t a big deal for now, and that my rear brakes were low but they could wait a while.  That was new – my previous CSR told me my tires were worn.  Anyway, in and out in less than an hour.

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