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suki
04-10-2014, 09:17 PM
Hi, all.

I searched through older threads and couldn't find any relevant info. If anyone knows of an existing thread, feel free to post the link.

For my current novel, I'm trying to fact check some info about the operations of a small, family owned service station in a fairly rural area.

My novel is contemporary and set in Michigan.

The main character's uncle owns a three pump gas station with an attached very small convenience store and a small auto service area. I envision it as having been there forever, and he does some minor auto and small engine repairs, but doesn't really compete with the larger outfits and car dealerships.

I'm trying to determine:

1. To what extent would a small place be able to do repairs beyond basic maintenance on cars produced in the last 10 years, since so much is now computerized?

2. Would they have one of those portable diagnostic computers/software systems, or would they stick to minor repairs and older vehicles/trucks/ATVs/lawnmowers/snowblowers etc.?

3. In terms of staffing, would it be outrageously off for the service area to employ 2-3 guys doing repairs? More? Less?

4. What about for the shop -- if I envision it being open 6am-10 pm M-R, 6-11pm F & S, and 7-6:30 Sunday, would it be outrageous for the shop to employ two 40-hour-a-week cashiers, and 3-4 part timers? I'm think two of those part timers might be even 12-16 hours a week...

Any personal experience would be appreciated -- especially if you (or a family member/close friend) worked in a smaller gas station/convenience store in recent years.

~suki

Mr Flibble
04-10-2014, 09:51 PM
Well I was in a small rural repair shop today (not in Michigan! But still)





I'm trying to determine:

1. To what extent would a small place be able to do repairs beyond basic maintenance on cars produced in the last 10 years, since so much is now computerized?



Quite a lot, I should think. Only certain parts of most cars are computerised, so they'd still be able to fix most things that are likely to go wrong suddenly in all but the most advanced cars -- shocks, exhausts, bodywork, servicing, brakes etc etc.

2. Would they have one of those portable diagnostic computers/software systems, or would they stick to minor repairs and older vehicles/trucks/ATVs/lawnmowers/snowblowers etc.?




They may or may not. But I've been to many a great garage that either doesn't have one, or can do most of its work without it. Big dealers might, but not smaller garages I think. They're great for enhancing performance, but I'm not sure they are used especially often in repair work? (This may be less true for really recent models, but a friend of mine is a mechanic and he says if the computerised bits go wrong, 9 times out of ten you just order a new part in and fit it, as it's both quicker and more likely to actually fix the problem. He said that a couple of years ago -- I suppose things may have changed since!) ETA: Also it looks as though (http://www.strathclydeautotune.co.uk/diagnostics.htm)there are different diagnostic thingies for different brands of car AND different levels for dealers etc! Basic ones look quite cheap though, so maybe they'd have one of those for one or two popular makes? Also I've just seen a way to basically jump the diagnostic on the car so you can find the fault without the diagnostic thingy It was noted that diagnostic tools come into their own on intermittent faults. :


This can make it easier for technicians to diagnose problems with the car, especially intermittent problems, which are notorious for disappearing as soon as you bring the car in for repairs.
BATauto.com: Technical Info Pages lists the fault codes stored in the ECU for various carmakers. Sometimes, the codes can be accessed without a diagnostic tool. For instance, on some cars, by jumping two of the pins in the diagnostic connecter and then turning the ignition key to run, the "check engine" light will flash a certain pattern to indicate the number of the fault code stored in the ECU.


So it's easier with a diagnostic, but probably not impossible.


As for your staffing levels -- a small shop will probably need one person in it for most of the time, two if you have a "rush hour" period, and for when you get deliveries/to allow the manager to do stuff like banking. I run a shop which is open 83 hours a week, and my hourly budget for that week is 127 hours

suki
04-10-2014, 11:22 PM
Mr. Flibble, thanks so much for your response. It's very helpful.

If anyone else has personal experience, feel free to add. :)

jcwriter
04-11-2014, 12:08 AM
Here's the profile of a service station/repair shop where I take my car. This is in a small town close to a larger city; not exactly rural, but this might give you a sense of an upper limit:

Four fuel pumps, three repair bays (which stay filled), no convenience store.
Owner (head mechanic) and his wife (bookkeeper), plus an assistant mechanic.
Hours 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Do everything short of engine/transmission overhaul.
No body work (that requires a paint booth).
They use an engine analyzer, plus common sense & experience.
Specialize in Mercedes and BMW (area dealers are too far away).
Also, has one pump that delivers gasoline without ethanol added (that stuff is murder on older engines).

Hope this helps.

cornflake
04-11-2014, 12:33 AM
I don't think there are shops left without computer systems? I know a mechanic with a very small shop (though it's in a big area it's a small, out-of-the-way, specialty (as in he specializes in specific cars, it's not a snazzy place by any means - quite the opposite. It's not even attached to a garage) place that mostly restores old cars of one or two makes. It's owned and run by a 70+-year-old man who's had the place forever and has two people working with him on the cars (no reception or office staff, he has the phone in his pocket). Even he has a computer diagnostic thing and a computer setup in the office.

It's not just the last 10 years, but 20 I think, that you've needed to run codes for stuff, and he orders parts through the computer system - it's a specific software package that looks stuff up and then he orders from the local place or whatever, I think. I dunno, he showed me how he looks up a part once.

He mostly likes cars from the '50s-'80s and yet still has the stuff because he sometimes works on newer stuff and because I just don't think you can really operate without it at this point? I don't know about other aspects, and the guy I know may be an outlier or whatever, I dunno anything about the mechanic business in any general sense, but it made me think of him.

Mr Flibble
04-11-2014, 12:38 AM
I don't think there are shops left without computer systems?

This could be one o' them cross Atlantic things. I just felt like sharing as I'd been in a little rural place today -- it was a tiny little workshop, no computers. He uses the PC in the house for ordering I think. His mum made me tea while I waited and we fed the ducks :) I've been to other places with no computers in evidence too. (ETA I went for a bike service - less computerisation - but he does cars too) but I suspect that it's becoming much less common.

But like I say the basic ones are pretty cheap so they might have some of those tucked away, even if they don't use them often.

cornflake
04-11-2014, 12:48 AM
This could be one o' them cross Atlantic things. I just felt like sharing as I'd been in a little rural place today -- it was a tiny little workshop, no computers. He uses the PC in the house for ordering I think. His mum made me tea while I waited and we fed the ducks :) I've been to other places with no computers in evidence too. (ETA I went for a bike service - less computerisation - but he does cars too) but I suspect that it's becoming much less common.

But like I say the basic ones are pretty cheap so they might have some of those tucked away, even if they don't use them often.

Like I say, he may be an outlier and there could be lots of places without but I dunno - even the car part/accessory shops have the thing that reads the codes and tells you what's wrong and stuff.

The shop I mentioned, it's not in evidence either. The computer itself is in the little office room but I don't actually know where the thing to check the codes and do that stuff is. I know he has it but the shop just looks like I presume it looked 40 years ago, heh. Oh, the tire balancy thing has the readout thing on it, but I don't think that's a computer system; it's a self-contained unit.

shakeysix
04-11-2014, 12:50 AM
There is one of those just down the street. Google DAB Oil, Macksville Kansas. It is the first picture on images. They do maintenance on the district's school buses. I drive Dodge Chrysler products so have mine serviced at a dealership about 28 miles from here--owned by a cousin-- but they have patched tires, changed the oil in my daughter's car and come to my rescue when I could not start my car. They do not have the tools to change the oil in a Saturn or a Kia. No computer system. They do have the giant farm tractors parked for repairs from time to time. Not sure what they do. Only 2 guys work there--the owners. They are both on at the same time but their schedule seems pretty relaxed. I can't see more than the two owners working there. Usually four or so farmer type people sitting at the tables having a soda and visiting. When I walk in they all know I am a teacher so ask me what is going on at the school. Another gas station down the street has a small grocery store and the car wash--no repairs though. The two stations trade customers. No grocery in town so the small gas station sells necessities like bread, milk, shampoo but there is a markup. --s6

Bolero
04-11-2014, 01:29 AM
We're UK rural. The garage we use for repairs - it is just repairs not a petrol station - is a one man operation. He does all sorts. Mostly cars, also lawn mowers and will do welding for you on other things like trailers.

Can't answer on the computer access stuff as our previous car didn't have a computer in it, and our current car is a van and doesn't have engine management computer either.

King Neptune
04-11-2014, 03:01 AM
There are cheap hand-held units that can read the codes. They cost less than $200, instead of the thousands that the big ones cost. The codes can be translated, and that can tell the mechanic exactly what to do.

Bing Z
04-11-2014, 03:01 AM
I used to go to a mechanic who operates a 3-bay garage about half hour drive away. He learned his trade while serving in the Air Force. I remember him moaning to me about how expensive software & computerized diagnosis equipment have become, so I think it's become a must. But other than these he doesn't use computers. He hand-writes his bills (cash=no tax ;)). He orders parts through phone (remembers all numbers). He hires two guys who do most of the work while he chain-smokes and chats with waiting customers.

Back then I drove an old Camry with perfect engine and transmission. Never had to worry about them. But every year something minor would pop up--exhaust broken, door handle fell off, tires, anything. So at least a few hundred bucks for him every year. And then when people with BMWs or Mercedes pulled in. That's good money cuz everything more expensive. He doesn't have to worry about business. But then this guy keeps his customers. He once moved from a town to another 10 miles away and, from chatting with other customers, it seems most of his customers had followed him.

NeuroGlide
04-11-2014, 03:09 AM
For my current novel, I'm trying to fact check some info about the operations of a small, family owned service station in a fairly rural area.

My novel is contemporary and set in Michigan.

Northeast Ohio here, so similar.


The main character's uncle owns a three pump gas station with an attached very small convenience store and a small auto service area. I envision it as having been there forever, and he does some minor auto and small engine repairs, but doesn't really compete with the larger outfits and car dealerships.

Stations like that used to be common around here in the '70s, but franchising caused them to die out. The stores were more profitable so they took over the service bay space. The few that still have vehicle service actually don't. It's a separate business owned by the same guy, usually set up on an adjoining lot, in a cheap cinder block and/or steel panel building. A two bay would be about 20' x 30' with 10' x 10' each for office and parts storage.


I'm trying to determine:

1. To what extent would a small place be able to do repairs beyond basic maintenance on cars produced in the last 10 years, since so much is now computerized?

An OBD2 tool is diagnostic, it tells you what's wrong. If you can figure it out for yourself, it's completely unnecessary. Cheap handheld units also run $80-$120 bucks at the Harbor Freight right behind me. Not hard to get.


2. Would they have one of those portable diagnostic computers/software systems, or would they stick to minor repairs and older vehicles/trucks/ATVs/lawnmowers/snowblowers etc.?

The OBD2 unit only gets the codes from the vehicle computer. To convert those to an actual list of errors, you need to connect to a OBD database. Unless they can buy one, they're using a internet lookup. This isn't some great hardship, as an internet connection is needed to processes credit card transactions, but rural it's usually satellite, so it might go down due to solar flares or thunderstorms disrupting the signal.


3. In terms of staffing, would it be outrageously off for the service area to employ 2-3 guys doing repairs? More? Less?

At least one guy per bay during peak hours, an assistant or two for fetching parts and/or tools, and someone doing service counter/ordering for parts they don't stock.


4. What about for the shop -- if I envision it being open 6 am-10 pm M-R, 6-11 pm F & S, and 7-6:30 Sunday, would it be outrageous for the shop to employ two 40-hour-a-week cashiers, and 3-4 part timers? I'm think two of those part timers might be even 12-16 hours a week...

You mean then shop in the station? For a repair shop, those would be damn long hours. Seven A to Six P would be long, but if they knew it was an emergency for the person, they might stay until they finish the job.

The store would be as long as they think they can make a profit. Since their rural, they'ld need some good traffic to justify those hours. It can also change seasonally, and I don't just mean weather related. Michigan has 5 seasons: Almost winter, Winter, Still winter, Road construction & the important one, High School Football.


Any personal experience would be appreciated -- especially if you (or a family member/close friend) worked in a smaller gas station/convenience store in recent years.

Two pumps on a central island for gasoline, a third pump for diesel (used by farm equipment and many pickup owned by farmers). There would also be a small pump for kerosene, used as heater fuel. There would likely be a dinner at the site, probably run by the same people (You diversify to survive). Shop owner might run a towing service on the side. Even if this is all in one sprawling building, legally they're all separate businesses (and they station owner owns the building and rents to the various businesses). If they pride themselves on quick service, they have a contract with a same day parts supplier.

As for my experience, I was a same day delivery driver for 7 years. I drove all over NE Ohio daily and, at times, traveled as far as Detroit, Pittsburgh, Weirton, and Columbus. I saw many features I described.

Tepelus
04-13-2014, 05:20 AM
I live in a rural small town in Michigan. :)

There is a family owned automotive shop/gas station here that's been operating for years. I don't know a whole lot of what they do repair-wise, I don't take my car there, but they probably do mostly basic stuff. I've seen cars of all ages at their shop, though. They are open from 8am to 6pm Monday through Friday. They are closed Saturday and Sunday. It's a full service gas station, meaning they will come out to fill your car for you (very rare these days). They're not a convenience store, so they don't sell pop or anything. I don't know how many people work in the shop at one time, probably at least a half dozen or maybe less are actually employed there, but I doubt they all work the same days every day. That's about all I can tell you.

suki
04-15-2014, 02:42 AM
Thank you for all the responses. I can see I have a few things I'll need to tweak in the story, and there are several bits and details I can add to increase authenticity. Even the variety of experiences and opinions helps, since it means I have room to play.

Thanks everyone!

~suki

jairey
04-15-2014, 05:37 PM
My daughter married into a family that has owned a BF Goodrich franchise in Illinois for three generations. The franchise only applies to tires, and they do auto repair. Her husband and his dad were the mechanics for many years, dad retired. They have difficulty finding an "extra" mechanic. Hours are 8-- 6 Mon - Fri. They get more work (good reputation) than her husband can handle. Experienced mechanics want to work at the big shops that can pay more money (and benefits). Younger ones have to be watched until they find out what the real world is like (as opposed to trade school training), and then they want to leave. He's had a problem with new (young) workers thinking that everyone goes by the times in the "books." that is, it takes X long to change oil. They think that means you can take that long. But the quoted time is not necessarily what you take, and their shop charges based on real time, so it's almost always less than what the books claim. They have many "regular" customers who have been coming for years.