What’s a Tune-Up?


Old (left) and new spark plugs

One of the most frequently used – but least understood – terms used in our industry is “tune-up”.

A few decades ago, vehicles required frequent mechanical tuning to keep them operating optimally. Over time, “tune-up” became a common way of saying “make my car run better”.

In today’s electronically-controlled vehicles, however, a tune-up is very different. Many of the mechanical adjustments we made in older cars are now made by your vehicle’s onboard computer.

So when we talk about a tune-up at Lowell’s, we mean changing your vehicle’s spark plugs and, when appropriate, your fuel filter and engine air filter.

A spark plug converts an incoming electrical charge into a spark which ignites the mixture of air and fuel that  powers your car’s engine. The spark jumps between two electrodes at the end of the plug, creating the controlled explosion that drives an internal combustion engine.


Close-up view of old and new spark plugs

Spark plugs can wear out. Each spark burns off tiny bits of metal on the electrodes, and after hundreds of millions of sparks, the spark plug doesn’t fire as efficiently. Spark plugs can also become coated with residue (‘fouled’) if your fuel doesn’t burn cleanly.

Fouled or worn-out spark plugs can reduce your fuel mileage or cause your engine to run roughly. When the gap between the electrodes becomes too large, your ignition coils strain to generate sufficient current, and coil damage can result. (Note how the center electrode for the old plug on the left has tapered into a cone-like shape, requiring significantly more current to spark.)

The electrodes for Toyota plugs (made by Denso) are plated with different highly conductive metals: nickel, platinum, or iridium. The type of metal used determines how long the spark plug lasts: Nickel-plated spark plugs typically last for 30,000 miles; Platinum for 60,000; and Iridium for 120,000 miles.

When we do a tune-up at Lowell’s, we remove and inspect your old spark plugs to see whether there are any issues other than normal wear. We replace them with new spark plugs, adjusting the gap between electrodes when necessary. If needed, we’ll also replace the fuel filter and engine air filter.

Feel free to call the shop with any questions, and – if it is time for a tune-up or other service for your vehicle – to make an appointment for service.

Noises and your car

Finding and fixing vehicle noises are one of the most difficult tasks for our technicians.


ASE Master Technician Keith Shelburne listening for engine sounds. Yes, we sometimes use stethiscopes to find noises.

Sometimes, we can’t make the noise occur in the shop or on a test drive. Other times, we might hear a noise, but it isn’t the same one that our customer heard. Often, the customer who brings the vehicle into the shop to fix the noise isn’t the car’s primary driver, and hasn’t really heard the sound and can’t adequately describe it.

So we’ve put together this simple guide to help you describe the noises your car makes. Following the tips we share below will save you time and money, and help us diagnose the issue faster.

1) Describe the kind of noise.

Because your car makes so many sounds, describing the particular kind of noise it is making will usually help us locate the issue faster.

Would you call it a rattle or a squeal? A thump or a hiss? A clank, a ping, a buzz, a scrape, a click, or a pop? Or something else entirely?

Using specific terms like these to describe sounds will help us zero in on the noise and what might be causing it.

2) Notice when and how the noise occurs.

If you can tell us when the noise happens, that will also help us re-create it here in the shop. And if we can hear it in the shop, our chances of finding and fixing the problem go way up.

Here are a few examples of helpful details around noises:

  • It usually happens once, and then doesn’t happen again for a while.
  • It happens over and over.
  • It happens when starting the car; just after starting the car; when the car is cold; first thing in the morning.
  • It happens when the car has warmed up; when it is hot outside.
  • It happens when turning; turning left; turning right; turning sharply; going around curves.
  • It happens when going over bumps or potholes.
  • It happens when using the brakes.
  • It happens when sitting at the light.
  • It happens when cruising down the highway.
  • The noise gets faster or slower (or louder or softer) as the car moves faster or slower.
  • The noise is accompanied by a physical sensation – a vibration or bump that you can feel in the steering wheel or in your seat, for example.

In addition to helping us replicate the noise, these details can give us important clues about what parts of the car might be causing the noise.

3) Make the noise for us.

It sounds kind of funny, but it really helps if you can mimic the exact sound your car is making. It might seem embarrassing to make an “EE-er-EE-er” sound for us in the lobby, but we truly appreciate how much it helps us find the right sound faster. (Besides, people make sounds for us all the time. We’re used to it!)


The more that you can tell us about the noises your car makes – what kind of noise, when it occurs, and what it sounds like – the faster that our team here at Lowell’s will be able to help. And we’re here to help!

Lowell’s selected for Angie’s List 2013 Super Service Award

2013 Super Service Award

Lowell’s wins Angie’s List Super Service Award for Auto Repair in Lexington

We are extremely humbled by the awards that customers have chosen for us over the years.

We have won 7 Readers’ Choice Awards from Herald-Leader readers as Favorite Auto Repair Shop. We’ve also won 9 Ace Magazine Best in Lex Awards as Favorite Mechanic.

Now we are pleased to add a new award to that great list!

Lowell’s has earned the Angie’s List 2013 Super Service Award for the outstanding things our customers have said about our service on Angie’s List.

Not all online reviews are equal. Angie’s List collects reviews from real people on a variety of services, including reviews of auto repair service in Lexington.

According to Angie’s List, “winners of this award have met strict eligibility requirements, which include an ‘A’ rating in overall grade, recent grade, and review period grade; the company must be in good standing with Angie’s List, have a fully complete profile, pass a background check and abide by Angie’s List operational guidelines.”

“Only about 5 percent of the companies Lowell’s competes with in Lexington are able to earn our Super Service Award,” said Angie’s List Founder Angie Hicks. “It’s a mark of consistently great customer service.”

We are so honored to serve great customers and to have had those customers make this award happen for us. Thanks for all of the wonderful things you say and do for Lowell’s!

Mmmmm. Candy.

There are two non-car-related questions we get most often here at Lowell’s.

The first is, “How can you afford to sell Cokes for just a nickel?” (We’ll keep that a secret for now…)

The second is, “Where do you get these delicious candies (and how can I get some)?”

Since holiday entertaining season is here, we’ve decided to let you in on our secret – just in case you needed ideas for a nice surprise for your guests.

I love chocolate. And I love sharing chocolate with customers. So whenever the weather allows us to, we try to keep a generous supply of fine chocolate truffles on hand.


Dilettante (Chocolates)

Our favorite source of these chocolate treats is Dilettante, a wonderful chocolatier based near Seattle.

We usually order peppermint, toffee, raspberry, latte, mocha, and espresso truffles for the shop. As a dark chocolate lover, my favorite flavor is Ephemere, a delicious dark chocolate truffle.

In addition to the truffles we order for the shop, Dilettante offers a wide variety of gift boxes and bags, chocolate-covered fruits, and other delicious treats.

When the weather gets warmer, those chocolates don’t hold up so well to the heat (Think: puddles). That’s when we switch to caramels.

We have two great sources of fine flavored caramels, and we recommend both.


AvenueSweets (Caramels)

AvenueSweets is a confectioner based in Utah. We usually order chocolate, Dutch apple, sea salt, and Irish cream caramels, and can’t resist getting some of their almond nougat as well. My personal favorite flavor from AvenueSweets is their butter rum caramels.


Béquet (Caramels)

Béquet Confections is based in Montana and makes eleven incredible varieties of caramels. My favorites: cinnamon swirl and chipotle (which is both sweet and spicy).

In my experience, AvenueSweets often arrives with smoother textures and richer flavors than Béquet. Béquet tends to be more consistent and ‘shelf-stable’ than AvenueSweets, whose smoothness tends to break down if you keep them for longer than a couple of months.

If you think you might keep your caramels around for few months or more, consider Béquet. If you and your guests will go through them quickly, consider AvenueSweets. But, really, you can’t go wrong here. Both are delicious options for gourmet caramels.

Dilettante truffles used to be available in local grocery stores in the specialty chocolates areas. Lately, I’ve not seen them in local stores. I’ve not seen AvenueSweets or Béquet available in gift boxes in Lexington retailers. A few local shops sell Béquet a piece at a time.

If you really like these candies, I’d recommend going directly to their makers to get higher volumes. This time of year, they often have sales and/or discounted shipping available.

What’s a Valve Clearance Inspection?

Every 60,000 miles or so, we advise to you have us perform a “valve clearance inspection” (also known as a “valve adjustment”). You’ll often see us recommend a valve adjustment in the recommendations at the bottom of your Lowell’s invoice.

But what, exactly, is a valve clearance inspection, and why is it important? (We’re glad you asked!)

Related Posts: What’s a flush? and What’s a cabin air filter?

Your engine’s intake and exhaust valves let air in and out of your engine as it burns fuel. The right mixture of air and fuel can keep your engine running smoothly and ensure that you are getting the best fuel economy from your vehicle.

Wear and stress can cause your valves to slowly get out of adjustment, hurting your fuel mileage and causing your engine to run inefficiently.

Left unaddressed, improperly-adjusted valves can cause your engine run roughly, burn your valves, or even damage your pistons. This kind of damage can be very expensive to repair, because it forces us to disassemble your engine in order to get to the damaged components.

So how does a valve clearance inspection work?

At Lowell’s, we’ll remove your valve covers to measure the clearances of each valve (up to 32 depending on your type of engine).

If we find valves which aren’t within specification, we can often adjust the clearances while we have the valve covers off. Some newer vehicles, however, require much more extensive work to adjust valve clearances. (If that is the case with your vehicle, we’ll call you for approval before we proceed with the adjustment. Just ask us if you have any questions about which type of engine your vehicle has.)

After inspecting your valve clearances, we put your valve covers back on. Because valve cover gaskets are also a major source of engine oil leaks, we’ll also replace your valve cover gaskets during this service.

Lowell’s 2013 Black Friday Specials

If you’d rather not fight the crowds in search of a good deal on Black Friday, why not get great deals at Lowell’s this year instead?

BlackFridayNext Friday, November 29th, we’re offering the best prices all year on some of your most important services!

Here’s what we’re offering:

  • $100 off of a timing belt replacement!
  • Save 50% on a power steering flush! (A savings of $57.)
  • 50% off of a brake flush! (A savings of $75.)
  • FREE remote battery replacement with any other service!

That’s a potential savings of over $230 on the award-winning service you expect from Lowell’s!

Be sure to reserve your slot for this Friday by calling Lowell’s at 233-1173 or by making your appointment online today.  We can’t wait to see you!

UPDATE: Because so many customers are traveling this weekend, we’re extending our Black Friday deals to “Cyber Monday” – Monday, December 2nd – as well.

How we make recommendations

We look over your vehicle every time you come into Lowell’s to identify service items which might need your attention. We put our recommendations (if any) at the bottom of your invoice, and we prioritize and color-code them for you.


What do these mean?

But what do those color codes mean, exactly? What’s the difference between “Needed” and “Needed Soon”? What is “Due by Mileage”?

We have five classifications we use here at Lowell’s based on your future costs and your safety. Here are the guidelines we use when we prioritize your recommendations, from low to high severity:

  1. DUE BY MILEAGE – For these service items, we can’t  tell whether the service is needed through a visual inspection alone, but your vehicle’s mileage indicates that the service is due.In other words, the service may have been done elsewhere, but we can’t tell. This is why DUE BY MILEAGE often comes up with newer Lowell’s customers. If you’ve recently had the service done, then it probably isn’t necessary. (And be sure to let us know so that we stop bugging you about it.)
  2. NEEDED – These items are likely to create long-term damage to your vehicle if left untreated. They are not safety risks, and we haven’t seen any damage occuring on your vehicle yet.If you choose not to address this item today, monitor that part of the vehicle and consider scheduling this service or repair with your next regular visit with Lowell’s (i.e., the next time you change your oil).
  3. NEEDED SOON – These items are likely to create moderate vehicle damage (less than $750) in the next six months if left untreated. They are not safety risks, but they could be currently damaging your vehicle.If you don’t address this item today, consider scheduling an appointment with us in the next one to two months.
  4. URGENT – These items represent a near-term safety risk or are likely to create significant near-term vehicle damage (over $750) if left untreated. In other words, something could easily go wrong in the near future.If you don’t address this item today, schedule an appointment with us in the next three weeks to repair your vehicle.
  5. CRITICAL – These items are immediate safety risks or are currently creating significant vehicle damage. Vehicles with a CRITICAL classification shouldn’t be driven.If you don’t address this item today, please consider towing the vehicle from the shop.

Based on our experiences with vehicles like yours, we assess how severe the service item could become. Most of our recommendations fall into the DUE BY MILEAGE or NEEDED categories. We only rarely use the URGENT or CRITICAL classifications on a vehicle.

You and your car are unique. You may be able to drive with a problem we’ve identified for quite some time, or you may experience problems sooner than we predicted.

We hope that these categories help give you a general idea of the importance of each item as you review your recommendations. And, as always, you should feel free to contact us whenever you have questions about your invoice or your vehicle.

A Greener Oil Change

Motor oil is pretty nasty stuff — Just one gallon of used oil can contaminate over a million gallons of drinking water. But oil is also a critical part of keeping your car running.

For years, Lowell’s has recycled your used oil to ensure it didn’t end up harming the environment. But we never considered using recycled oil in our oil changes…

Until now.

NextGen3Traditionally, re-refined (recycled) oils weren’t good enough for use at Lowell’s. Valvoline — headquarted here in Lexington — has finally changed that.

Related Post: What does Lowell’s do with your old oil?

Lowell’s is pleased to introduce a new, high-quality oil change option featuring a recycled oil from Valvoline.

NextGen motor oil exceeds all major industry standards while using at least 50% recycled oil. Functionally, it is equivalent to our regular Valvoline oil.

But because it uses more recycled oil, NextGen can be made with less energy and pollution (and less international strife, too) than is the case when finding, drilling, extracting, and shipping crude oil from the ends of the earth.

While oil will never be truly environmentally friendly, our oil changes with NextGen have less environmental and geopolitical impact than standard oil changes.

The best part? NextGen oil changes will only cost about $5 more than a ‘normal’ oil change. For now.*

Lowell’s still offers traditional oil changes alongside our new, greener option.

Currently, NextGen is available in 5W-20 and 5W-30 grades — the most common motor oil grades we use for Toyota and Lexus here at the shop. Ironically, this lower-impact product is not (yet) available in the 0W-20 grade used for many newer (2010 or later) hybrid vehicles and Camrys. Just ask us whether NextGen is an option for your vehicle.

* Note: Because recycled oil is easier to get and refine than traditional oil, it actually costs less to produce. For the near term, however, NextGen will cost more than a traditional Valvoline oil change because of the lower volumes we use. As more Lowell’s customers choose NextGen, we anticipate that a ‘greener’ oil change could cost the same as a traditional one.

What do we do with your old oil?

What happens to your old motor oil after you leave the shop?

Most people don’t know. Most people don’t really think about it.

Because oil can easily damage the environment if it seeps into soil or ground water, Lowell’s has recycled your used motor oil for many years.

Motor oil is made up of about 85% oil and about 15% additives. Contrary to perception, the oil component of motor oil doesn’t typically break down. As the oil is used to lubricate your engine, however, the additives do break down as they absorb contaminants. Once those additives and contaminants are removed, the remaining oil can be re-refined and reused as new.


When we drain the used oil from your vehicle, we use rolling steel containers with an attached drain pan which helps us catch the oil. We also capture other vehicle fluids — from your transmission, power steering, brakes, and cooling system, for example — in much the same way. When the rolling oil containers fill up, we pump the oil out into much larger standing tanks.

Every two weeks, a recycling service comes to our shop and pumps the used oil into their trucks. We also store used oil filters, which they pick up every few months. After picking up the oil and filters, our recycling service transports the oil to their facility in Columbus, Ohio.

There, they re-refine the waste oil to remove fuel, water, additives, and other contaminants, and they distill the refined oil into new petroleum-containing consumer products. They also crush the oil filters, extract the old oil, and send out the filter body as scrap metal to other recyclers.

Related Post: A greener oil change See how Lowell’s offers high-quality oil changes using recycled oil.

Eighty-six percent of our waste oil is recycled directly back into new motor oil, like Valvoline’s NextGen oil. About 5% is used for asphalt paving and roofing materials. The rest is used for other petroleum-based products.

In the video above, Valvoline explains how old motor oil can be recycled into ‘as-good-as-new’ (in our case, we think of it as ‘better-than-new’) NextGen oil.

Call the shop if you’d like to learn more about our recycling process, or about how you might use recycled products for your vehicle.

Be our guest for Picnic with the Pops

PWPSunsetIf you’re like me, some of your earliest exposure to classical music was during Saturday morning cartoons.

I especially remember classic Looney Tunes episodes with Bugs Bunny: The Rabbit of Seville, for instance, or What’s Opera, Doc? (where Elmer Fudd sings “Kill the Wabbit” to Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries).

Just hearing a few notes from these classics brings back fun childhood memories. I’ll bet that it does for many of you as well.

Now, you can relive those memories with a few of your friends from Lowell’s.

PWPBugsTowerFor two nights under the stars each August, Picnic with the Pops features our own Lexington Philharmonic with a special guest artist at Keeneland’s Meadow at Keene Barn.

This year’s special guest? None other than Bugs Bunny in a critically-acclaimed show that combines classic “Looney Tunes” cartoons with live music from the Philharmonic.

Following its premiere three weeks ago at the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Times called Bugs Bunny at the Symphony “a program that delights all ages.”

This year’s Picnic featuring Bugs will be on Friday, August 16th and Saturday, August 17th. Find out all of the details about Picnic with the Pops here. It should be a great show.

And the best part?

Lowell’s is giving 4 lucky customers reserved seats for Lexington’s favorite summer event. Lowell’s will host you and your guest at our catered picnic table on the night of your choice.

Here’s how easy it is to enter: Just send an email to (pwp {at} lowells {dot} us) telling us you’d like join us. That’s it! We’ll draw for winners and contact all entrants on August 6th.

(Full disclosure: I serve on the Picnic with the Pops Commission. I am very biased. It will be a blast.)