Bad Mechanics and Failed Smog Test: Dealing with Repairs in an RV While Living In It

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See that picture? That’s where the Smog station told us to park the RV until they were ready to test it. We didn’t quite fit into the space, did we?

This has been going on for more than a week, but I didn’t want to post about it until I had more information. Because saying “We have a 17 year-old RV that we bought through an auction, the dealer turned out to be shady and we had very little information about the vehicle’s history. It failed smog.” The general response would be: “Duh.”

But things are never that simple. I’ll back up a little bit.

Our registration on the RV was due for renewal June 2nd. Honestly, we were so busy that I didn’t really take the time to look at it, or I would have seen that it said smog would be required. Then early May, I went online to pay the fee and the message came up on the screen that registration could not be complete without a smog certificate.

Ryan was about to start final exams. I was working full-time. We were both spending all our free time getting ready to leave. There really wasn’t time to  pack up in the middle of the projects we were doing, drive to a smog station (with all the pets or make arrangements for them to be elsewhere), get the smog done and then drive back and resume the other work. So we tried to make arrangements for the weekend we were leaving, but everyone was closed for the holiday. Plan B was to drive to Redding and get it taken of here.

Tuesday morning, Ryan called a smog station and asked what we thought were all the right questions. Do you have room to work on a 35-foot motorhome? Do you take appointments? Will we need to remove ourselves and our dogs from the vehicle while you run the test? We received answers we could live with, and made an appointment for the following day (Wednesday). Unfortunately, what we didn’t realize was that our vehicle required an “enhanced” smog that can only be done at a STAR-certified station. This place did not have the equipment to do STAR testing.

We have only owned the motorhome for about a year. The last time it was smogged was by the dealership who sold it to us. Our only other vehicle was our Prius, which never had any issues. For years prior to moving back to California, we lived in Arizona in a very low-population area that didn’t even require smogging. So we were waaaaay out of practice with this smog thing.

However, the smog station should have known better. I mean, they do smog testing all day long. So when the mechanic told us that he couldn’t test the RV because the address on the registration was out of the area, and that if we went online and changed it, we believed him.

Sitting in the RV in the parking lot of the smog station, I went online and changed our “vehicle location” address for the RV. Ryan then brought the laptop to the mechanic to show him that we’d just changed the address. He responds, “Oh, it has to show up in the DMV system as being changed” and suggests another shop for us to go to. That’s an hour we’ll never get back, plus the time it took us to get ready to go from the RV park in the first place. So we decided to just drive over to the place the mechanic suggested, which was down the street.

At this juncture I should mention that while the place was called something else, the place we had an appointment with was affiliated with Napa Auto Parts. The place they sent us to was also affiliated with Napa. We arrived and were ushered to a parking spot (see picture above) immediately, probably because we were taking up most of their driveway. We were told that the four of us (the dogs and us) needed to be out of the vehicle and it would take 45 minutes from start to finish. They probably never even noticed that our turtle and cat were in the RV.

…2 hours later, we failed. After sitting in a bench in the heat and/or walking the dogs around to keep them occupied. They used about 10 gallons of gas to run the tests, too. Oh, and guess what? This location does not do repairs, only smogging. They referred us to another place, and gave us an appointment for Tuesday. This was also a Napa Auto Parts shop.

Keep in mind that Tuesday will be past our registration expiration date of June 2nd. But at least we paid the fee so it doesn’t look like we’re shirking. And I didn’t really believe that we would fail when we started off this whole fiasco. In the past year we’ve put nearly 5,000 miles on this engine since we bought it and haven’t had a single problem. It seemed like it was the one thing that we didn’t need to work on. Ryan had a different perspective. Given the experience we had with the dealership we bought the RV from, and unfortunately the inspection we paid for didn’t catch everything that was wrong before we bought it, and the dealer refused to acknowledge any responsibility for things they told us would be done and were not. So he was expecting it to fail smog.

We were told to get to the shop right when it opened at 7 and that they would need the RV all day for diagnostics and repairs. We had been planning on getting an oil change soon as well. A few days later, we called the shop and asked if they could add an oil change–actually do the oil change first, and then run the test again, and if it still failed then run the diagnostic.

Now we needed to figure out where we and the pets were going to stay. We weighed our options: Motel room? Pet boarding? Car rental? We finally settled on a fleabag motel right next door to the repair shop. And it was literally a fleabag; our dogs came back with fleas. Good thing they were already taking medicine, but we had to bathe them too. The only good things were that it had a fridge and microwave and air conditioning. I was able to get my work done although despite the very uncomfortable surroundings, but I didn’t have to miss a day of work.

The repair shop was also  horrible. We were the second people at the shop (we got there before 7). They didn’t even pull the RV into the service bay until 11:30 (which we found out after walking over and checking repeatedly, since the phone calls yielded nothing). By mid-afternoon they still hadn’t done the oil change, but they did finally call us to tell us that the diagnostic showed that the catalytic converter was bad. They didn’t have one, so they were going to call around and look for one.

Next call: the part was no longer manufactured, but they found a place that had one. It was $3000. And, they still hadn’t done the oil change. They promised they were doing the oil change next. We told them we would not be having the catalytic converter changed out by them at that price.

15 minutes before the shop closed, Ryan went over there because they still hadn’t called to say the vehicle was ready. Our vehicle was the last one there and they  STILL hadn’t done the oil change. We told them to give us our RV back, we were not waiting any longer.

Now what do we do? We have an RV that won’t pass smog and needs expensive repairs.

My first step was to double-check what the shop told us. The shop certainly wasn’t very forthcoming with information once we told them we wouldn’t be giving them our business (even though they got $200 out of us for the diagnostic). First, I called Fleetwood to see if they could help find the part. Fleetwood directed me to Chevrolet (the chassis maker) so I called a local dealership. They confirmed that the part was discontinued. They did not have any in stock and suggested some local emissions repair shops (none of whom were the place we went to). The first one I called was really nice. Apparently, the shop we had been to had called him about the part. He wasn’t the one who had the part, and was surprised to hear we had found one because he had informed the guy who called that it was a discontinued item. When I told him the price, he said that it was likely an original part sitting in someone’s inventory, as after-market cats for our engine were not available. He said that we might end up going through a referee to get smogged. He wasn’t sure of the whole process, but he did know that we had to prove that we couldn’t get a part, or that it was too expensive to fix, in order to qualify for a referee smog. He even offered to print out the information from the database he had access to, showing that an after-market part was not an alternative. All of this was offered for free without any expectation of getting our business. I thanked him profusely and told him I would definitely take him up on that if needed.

My next trip was to www.asktheref.org, which is a website hosted by the state of California that has lots of good information.

On that website I learned that there is a documentation process that needs to be followed. I figured the best way to make things work smoothly would be to follow the guidelines exactly, so I called the service they offer to assist with locating difficult-to-find parts.

The very nice lady on the phone explained the process. She took down my information and the RV’s information. Then she explained that the information is forwarded to a referee, who would call back in 3-5 business days. So now, I’m just waiting for that phone call.

My understanding is that we will be given a minimum of 3 places to find the part. It is our responsibility to call those places, and if the part is available, purchase the part and pay for shipping, if needed. Then we take the part to an appropriate repair facility and have the repairs done.

If the places on the list we are given do not have the part, then we are eligible to go through the referee and will make an appointment.

I have a lot of questions about this process. First of all, how do we prove that a part is not available somewhere? Second, how will it affect the performance and life of our engine if we can’t get this fixed? I read somewhere that failure of a catalytic converter is often a symptom of another problem, which will also need repair.

My other question is, are we required to spend this money regardless of how much it costs, or be forced to retire the vehicle? I read on the “ask the ref” website that if more than $650 in repairs are made on a vehicle and it still won’t pass smog and the vehicle owner cannot afford to pay more, then you may also qualify for a referee appointment. But who decides that we can’t afford more than $650?? $3000 is a lot, and that’s just for the part, and doesn’t include anything else that might be wrong that could be found by a more competent repair facility in the course of replacing the catalytic converter. I’m pretty sure that if it were up to the state, they’d decide that we have more than enough income to “afford” to pay for the repairs. But it isn’t really a good option given the age of the vehicle, and neither is turning the vehicle in to the state for a thousand bucks. I guess we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. I’m going to try to stay positive that the part will not be found, and we will get our referee appointment, and we will just have to live with the extra pollutants we put into the air when we drive it.

Lessons learned and things I’d do differently
  1. First, because I’m sure it has crossed people’s minds as it did ours, I want to say that I do NOT think it would have been better to have this happen while we were still in the bay area. It would have been more expensive! Motels, pet boarding, repair shops, EVERYTHING costs more near San Francisco. And it isn’t like we had a go-to mechanic around there. We used the Toyota dealership for any maintenance on our Prius, and they certainly weren’t equipped to handle our RV. We also didn’t know any other motorhome owners in the area (the people who lived in motorhomes in our park hadn’t moved theirs for years, so it’s doubtful they would know who to go to for repairs), so we also did not have any contacts who could help us.
  2. “Enhanced” smog testing is just one component of what our RV needed. Vehicles model year 1999 or older also require an enhanced emissions test, so it didn’t matter which county or city the vehicle was registered to. The guy who scheduled our first appointment should have known that and let us know when he took our vehicle information over the phone.
  3. What I would do differently would be to do more research before choosing the shops. My first choice was a smog and repair facility, and I believe it was a STAR location too. It had good reviews on yelp. Unfortunately, it appeared to have gone out of business, or at least changed ownership to a place that no longer suited our needs. We settled on the next place because we saw from the pictures that they would likely be able to fit our RV, and they had decent reviews. But after the poor experience we had with them, we should not have gone to the place they suggested for STAR testing. However, we were already unhooked from our spot, we had momentum, so we just kept going. Next time, that will not happen.
  4. All three of the facilities we went to (I believe) are associated with Napa auto parts. I’m not saying all Napa locations are bad, but this isn’t the first time that I’ve had a crappy experience with them. I will be avoiding them like the plague from now on.
  5. While we waiting 4.5 hours for the “repair” place to finally even look at our RV, we tried to find a different place to go. There were other places with good reviews but they didn’t quite fit the bill–too small, didn’t handle RVs, couldn’t repair and also smog a vehicle that age, etc. There were more on the list we hadn’t checked out, but Ryan got tired of calling places, so we gave up. We were trying to make things easier by (we thought) getting everything done that day and not having to go back out again. No such luck there. Since we were already late on submitting a smog certificate, the lesson from this experience is that we will take our time. Even if we have to wait until next month when we’re in a new place. Even if we have to drive to Oregon to pick up a part that’s $1500 instead of $3000. This time I’m going to be patient and make sure that whatever we have done next, we get it done right and not let impatience cause us to make errors in judgement.
  6. I’m usually very much into researching everything, but when we failed the smog I was caught off-balance. I let people who clearly had no integrity and also possibly didn’t know what they were talking about to tell me what was going on, and I took their word as the truth. That will not happen again. From here on out I will be double- and triple-checking anything I am told, as is usual and customary for me.

Hopefully someone who’s reading this can learn from our mistakes. We’ll do an update with results once we get some more information.

 

 

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