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Car Care & Repair Tips - August 22, 2003

What Your Mechanic Doesn't Want You to Know


Reader Question: My 1996 Nissan Altima had been stalling quite a bit, and I brought it to the dealership to have it looked at. It was mostly stalling when the fuel was low. They told me the idle was set too low. They adjusted the idle, and my car was fine. Then last week it stalled four times before it would start and stay running, and today it stalled once before it would start and stay running. I tried giving it gas when I could feel it begin to stall but that didn't do anything. And yes, the gas is low again. So, my questions to you are: could the idle drop on its own in that short of time? Should I bring it to someone else to look at it or back to the dealership? Could there be something else wrong with it?

Thank You, Alysia

Dear Alysia,

It sounds like the common theme in this complaint is that the problem occurs when the car is low on fuel...correct? I should have mentioned in my book...DON'T DRIVE LOW ON FUEL! All the sediment, dirt, debris and water...yes, there is some moisture in your fuel tank, sits at the bottom of the tank. When you let the fuel level get that low, the fuel pump (which is also in your fuel tank) sucks up this debris...and the car doesn't like it!

I recommend filling your tank when it gets down to about a quarter tank and see if the problem goes away. This practice is better for the fuel system in general anyway. If your problem is related to low fuel, you should see a change as soon as you fill the tank and the debris settles back to the bottom. The fuel tank is pressurized to keep the debris and sediment at the bottom…so you won't continue to suck it into your fuel pump if you keep an acceptable gas level.

There are actually two fuel filters on your car. There is one at the bottom of the tank on the end of the fuel pump. This filter is called the fuel pump screen or sock. The secondary, externally-mounted fuel filter is the one that catches the majority of the debris. This is the filter that you replace as part of your regularly scheduled maintenance. Because you have been running your car low on fuel, it might be a good idea to go ahead and replace the fuel filter.

No, I would not suspect the idle re-adjusted itself in a few weeks, although on the dealership's defense, the onboard computer system really controls the idle speed. The dealership probably just adjusted the "base idle." This idle setting is a threshold that doesn't allow the engine to go below the set RPM. When you turn on the A/C, the additional load on the engine will bring the idle speed down, and this base idle helps keep the engine from stalling due to the extra load. The dealership probably raised this base idle setting higher to help compensate for the stalling problem.

If you refuel when you should and the problem still continues, you might have the throttle body and idle speed control motor cleaned (the dealership will know what these term mean.) Both of these components can become dirty over time and can cause the type of intermittent stalling and erratic idle problems you have described. You might want to get the dealership's opinion on this repair before you just "tell them to do it." It sounds like the dealership did at least try to help you the first time, so I would give them another shot at it.

Sincerely,

Austin C Davis

Austin C Davis


Interested in an e-book about everything your mechanic doesn't want you to know? Sound advice from Austin Davis. Click Here!


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