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How Can a Technical Service Bulletin Help Me?

These little known bulletins can save you money on repairs.

(updated May 5th, 2009)

After charging over to the dealership with your sick car - perhaps more than once - only to be told that technicians were unable to duplicate the problem, you find yourself heartened by the discovery of's Maintenance Guide, which allows you to access technical service bulletins - or TSBs - regarding your vehicle. You enter the year, make and model of your car and the component in question, and anxiously await the search results.

Dealership service technicians used TSB information to remedy our Jeep Grand Cherokee's reluctance to start and tendency to stall. The stalling problem, unfortunately, resurfaced later in the year.

Dealership service technicians used TSB information to remedy our Jeep Grand Cherokee's reluctance to start and tendency to stall. The stalling problem, unfortunately, resurfaced later in the year.

But your irritation returns when you see that your search has yielded only titles, numbers and a barely intelligible description of the problem. How can you be certain that you've matched a TSB correctly to your vehicle's symptoms? And how will this confusing bit of information ever be good enough to convince your service advisor to make a repair?

"... Does anybody here have access to the actual write-ups on these TSBs? I would like to be able to go to the dealership with the TSB write-ups in hand so they can see exactly what the problem is and fix it. (no more of the 'we can't create it, so you must be imagining it' crap)." - frank12, CarSpace TSB Forum

Though an apparent nugget of good hope for consumers, a technical service bulletin is actually an advisory issued by a manufacturer for use by dealership service departments. "Most TSBs are released during the first year that a vehicle is offered or the year following a redesign," our road test editor, Neil Chirico (a former service advisor for Ford, Lincoln-Mercury and Volvo), observed - in order to address areas that might have been overlooked when designing the car.

These bulletins differ from recalls in that they are not considered safety or emissions issues and they usually apply only when your vehicle is in its warranty period (whereas a recall is "open" until the work has been performed). TSBs frequently (but not always) address a recurring problem and include illustrated instructions for repair, a list of the parts needed, the warranty status and the labor charge.

If a problem addressed in a TSB is particularly widespread, the manufacturer may decide to send out "Owner Notification" letters - in this case, the manufacturer has a good idea of which vehicles (by VIN) will experience the problem. For example, our staff received such a letter in regard to our long-term Honda Insight. The letter listed two potential problems: (1) difficulty starting the Insight in very cold weather (0° F) due to a faulty engine control module; and (2) AM radio static due to an improperly grounded rear wiper motor. We were instructed to make an appointment at a Honda dealership and to allow half a day for the free repairs. Owner notifications have mileage and time restrictions - these may extend beyond the warranty period.

Service bulletin content varies in severity - you'll find TSBs that cover hard-to-start engines and clunking transmissions alongside those that offer remedies for inoperable cigarette lighters and slight paint imperfections. And some TSBs merely outline updated service procedures and troubleshooting strategies, or offer hints for installing something as simple as a front license plate holder.

And, of course, the best thing about finding a TSB that seems to cover a persistent problem in your vehicle is that dealerships will make the repair for free, provided that

  • Your vehicle is under warranty;
  • Your service advisor and/or technicians are able to confirm that the problem exists.
The second mandate is not to be taken lightly, Chirico warned. Even if your vehicle is within the warranty period, "the dealership is not going to do anything about it, if [technicians] cannot verify the concern.... The manufacturer pays for the repair, not the dealership, and the dealership has to treat the manufacturer like a customer.... The service writer can't write up an invoice with just the TSB number and expect the manufacturer to pay for the procedure. The manufacturer wants to know that the car is legitimately broken."

Rather than going into the dealer with the TSB number in hand, it is more effective, according to Chirico, to come to the dealer with a complete description of your vehicle's particular problem - what are the exact symptoms, and when and where did/do they occur. He offered this example: Suppose you have a cold-running concern with your vehicle. Don't drive the vehicle into the dealer before work in the morning and expect technicians to be able to duplicate the problem - the vehicle will be warm. Instead, bring the vehicle into the dealer the evening before and let it sit overnight. In short, someone in the service department has to be able to duplicate the problem, and the TSB number and a brief description of the problem won't always do it. "You don't want to go in there sounding bull-headed - you won't get good service," Chirico said.

If the technicians and your service writer seem to be having trouble resolving a problem with your vehicle and you've already given them the most complete description possible, our road test editor continued, then you might say politely, "Someone suggested that this TSB might cover it," or, "Did anyone try this TSB?" A customer who makes an effort to sound intelligent (that is, provides a full description of the problem and demonstrates a history of regularly maintaining the vehicle) and to treat service writers (and technicians) with respect is more likely to find resolution for her vehicle's problems.

A further option, he said, is to arrange a meeting with the service manager and then, calmly discuss the matter (bring applicable service receipts). Usually, service managers will respond favorably to customers who ask, "Could you help me out?", rather than ranting. The service manager and writers always have a manufacturer's representative (a field technician) whom they can contact. You might want to suggest that they try this, if they haven't already.

Forging civil ties with a service department over several years may have its benefits when something goes wrong with your car after it is out of warranty. If you know that a particular problem is covered by a TSB and have a reputation of spending money with the dealership, the service writer might be willing to write off all or part of the repair cost.

"A word of advice on TSBs. I got on the dealer's good side early by having every single oil change, tune-up, etc., done by them for the first two years I owned the car. When I needed to have the top on my convertible replaced ('93 Mercury Capri) after 3 ½ years, I came with a stack of receipts from cash work they'd done, and the service manager okayed the free replacement. Very rare, but building a relationship cinched the deal, I think. Now they have a loyal customer for life, despite higher prices for certain services." - mjm37, CarSpace TSB Forum

" ... I have a '94 Honda Accord, which began to have a buzzing problem at a certain rpm. I checked the TSBs and found that the exact problem was listed, along with the corrections necessary. My dealer did the work for me for free. Oh, the car has 72,000 miles on it." - Ed209, CarSpace TSB Forum

If you want the complete TSB
Not everyone fits the model of the faithful customer and not every dealership service advisor is happy to discuss your concerns about your vehicle with you. Maybe, in spite of your best efforts, the service department claims they have been unable to find a problem. Perhaps, your vehicle has long since passed its warranty period, and you use an independent mechanic to save money. Or perhaps, you do all the work on your vehicle.In these situations, owners might find it helpful to see the full text of the technical service bulletins that cover particular vehicle problems. You see, the search engine associated with the Maintenance Guide provides only titles, numbers and summaries, but dealership service departments have access to each TSB in its entirety, as it is sent to them by the manufacturer(s).

It is possible to get the full text of a TSB but you have to pay for this information. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Web site has a search authorization form, on which you enter the information you gathered from the TSB summaries (as exactly as you can). A NHTSA employee makes copies from their microfiche collection of bulletins and mails them to you. The ALLDATA site offers a more attractive option for those who want continuing access to technical service bulletins - $26.95 buys you one year of access for a single vehicle to the ALLDATA DIY™ database, which in addition to the full text of model-specific TSBs, contains diagnosis and repair procedures with diagrams, maintenance schedules, etc. Additional vehicles will cost $16.95 each.

While people who take their cars to dealerships for service may be able to get by with the information available at the NHTSA, this often does not suffice for the large group of people who use independent shops. Independent mechanics may not have access to the full text of every TSB issued by a manufacturer unless they subscribe to sites like Alldata and Mitchell OnDemand5.Finding the TSB in our maintenance guide can help your mechanic diagnose the problem more quickly. If you have tried to have a problem repaired numerous times, one option would be to take a copy of the TSB to your mechanic and say, "Here's a service bulletin; please read it and explain to me where I should go from here." Finally, TSBs often include part numbers, which makes it easy for people to make their own repairs and thus, save money.

A little help from a manufacturer
If you happen to own a Hyundai, you have one further option when you need repair information - you can visit the service Web site run by the manufacturer. The site is accessible to the public and all information is free.

The Hyundai site focuses on shop manuals with troubleshooting guides and diagnostic procedures. You cannot search for specific TSBs, but you can search by the year, model and the area of concern (steering, suspension, etc.) - and yes, the Web site has shop manuals for every Hyundai ever sold in the U.S. We found the website to have clean, easy-to-read tables with a list of problems, probable causes and remedies. It does take a bit of work to find the information you're seeking, but we think owners will find this site useful.

Hyundai has targeted this Web site toward all of its owners, whether they visit the service department, use an independent mechanic or do the work themselves. "We [expanded] our definition of a Hyundai customer to include anyone who has an interest in driving or servicing a Hyundai product," Pete Egus, manager of service technology, Hyundai Motor America, said. "We wanted to assist [our customers] in diagnosing and repairing Hyundai products, whether they're doing it themselves or [taking it to the dealership]. We wanted to knock down some the obstacles and hurdles of being a smaller franchise."

Although the availability of this information would seem to increase the likelihood that owners might attempt to make their own repairs, Egus said that Hyundai hopes the Web site will strengthen owners' relations with service departments. "Whenever you educate the customer ... the intelligent owner will realize how sophisticated and complicated cars have become [and decide] that they need to go to a repair station."

Hyundai has tried to ensure that its service information will be as current as possible: "The nature of the NHTSA site is such that it takes longer to get the information," he said. "We do nightly uploads."

Perhaps this guide won't alleviate the ongoing irritation that comes with a stubbornly unreliable vehicle, but at least you might be able to find the full text of a TSB that will guide you and/or your service advisor to a solution for a persistent problem.

Related articles:
The Secret Warranty: Understanding After Warranty Assistance
Choosing the Extended Warranty That's Right for You
Think You've Been Stuck With a Lemon?

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