Bottom Line
Maintenance Q&A
Preventing outrageous shop bills

By Paul Abelson
Senior technical editor


Q: My truck wouldn’t start. I had it towed to a local truck stop. They replaced my alternator and asked me if I wanted the batteries removed for charging or charged while still in the truck. I couldn’t see paying to take them out and put them back in, so I said leave them in the truck.

When I got the bill, there was a charge for $900 for bay time. What is that? I never heard of it before. Do I have to pay it?

A: Bay time is sometimes charged when a truck sits in a bay without anyone actually working on it. The claim is that the bay, occupied with your truck, cannot be used for anything else. It’s a questionable practice, but in this economy some shops are looking for revenue wherever they can grab it.

They should have told you they apply bay time charges. Batteries can be removed from the truck and charged on a shelf, either individually or ganged together. Or they can be left in the truck and charged. The truck has to be somewhere while this is done. Many shops bring chargers to the yard and charge the batteries there. Evidently, this truck stop chooses not to. Your bill included 15 hours at $60 per hour.

At least they asked you what you wanted … even if they didn’t bother to tell you what it would entail. At this point, the best you can do is to negotiate with management. You’ve already given them quite a bit of money between the towing charge, the rebuilt alternator, new belts and a new belt tensioner. Don’t be aggressive, but do negotiate.

In the future, take things in steps. If your truck won’t start, begin by looking at the belts. They may show surface glazing, edge wear or V-groove wear. Bad belts can prevent a perfectly good alternator from charging perfectly good batteries. If the belts are glazed, they may be rubbing on a stuck belt tensioner roller or hanging up on an out-of-line pulley. The result is that full power is not going to drive the alternator. If it doesn’t turn fast enough to put out full current, batteries won’t get their full charge.

If the belts look good, load-test your batteries. There may be dead (shorted) cells, in which case they should be replaced. Of course, this shop made far more money charging for bay time than they would have selling you new batteries. If the batteries check out and just need charging, find out why. You may very well need a new alternator, in which case you can decide between a new one, a locally rebuilt one or a factory remanufactured alternator.

That decision should be based on how long you plan to keep the truck and how much of a load you put on your electrical system. A battery-powered idle-reduction system, for example, will stress your batteries and alternator far more than an auxiliary power unit will.

With any service vendor, signing an open work order is like signing a blank check. Ask the vendor to describe what he or she will do, in as specific terms as possible. Ask questions and make sure you understand before signing. Tasks should be done in a logical order. You don’t want to buy a new starter if the batteries aren’t being charged, and you don’t want them to keep replacing parts until the problem is solved.

TMC is developing a Recommended Practice with procedures to follow when you encounter electrical problems on the road. It will lay out things to check in a logical manner. LL


Paul Abelson can be reached at