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Mechanic with catalytic converter  (Getty).jpg Getty Images
Catalytic converter replacement becoming more common among older cars.

Check Engine: Car Repair, Labor, Parts Costs Dip in 2020

The survey found the average cost in 2020 of tightening or replacing a fuel cap, one of the five most common “check-engine-light”-related pairs, was $25.

Car repair costs in 2020 were down 1.6% year-over-year at an average of $378.77, while labor costs slipped 2.8% and parts costs dropped about 1%, according to a survey by CarMD, a provider of automotive diagnostic data and business solutions.

Factors likely contributing to this decrease included the economy, competition among repair shops and an increase in do-it-yourself automotive repairs during the pandemic. CarMD says it anticipates an increase in parts costs given the material shortage resulting from shutdown-related supply chain issues.

These findings are included in the 2021 CarMD Vehicle Health Index, an annual overview of “check engine light”-related repairs, costs and trends.

CarMD broke down the five most common check engine light-related repairs in 2020 and the average cost of making that repair, including parts and labor:

  • Replace catalytic converter(s) with new, OE catalytic converter(s), $1,383
  • Replace oxygen sensor(s), $243
  • Replace ignition coil(s) and spark plug(s), $389
  • Replace mass air flow sensor, $336
  • Tighten or replace fuel cap, $25

Each of these issues, if ignored, will keep a vehicle in states with mandatory emissions tests from passing those tests and negatively impact fuel economy, CarMD says. The latter is important to keep in mind as the average price for a gallon of gas in the U.S. is up from $1.95 a gallon in April 2020 to $2.88 a gallon in April 2021, and inching toward as much as $4.00 a gallon in some areas, including California.

The year 2020 brought many financial challenges, leading people to hold on to older vehicles longer than ever before, as they seek to keep their cars and trucks running for as long as possible. These changes impacted the age of vehicles and types of repairs needed.

“We want vehicle owners to utilize the information provided by CarMD to become informed about the importance of being attentive to scheduled maintenance and addressing check-engine-light issues in a timely manner, which can positively impact fuel economy, extend vehicle life, reduce the likelihood of future repairs and make it easier to pass a smog test,” David Rich (pictured, below left), CarMD technical director, says in a news release.

david rich-CarMD.jpg“We don’t want people to panic when they hear that catalytic converters are the most common repair,” he says. “It’s important to remember that while catalytic converters are costly, they don’t typically fail unless maintenance and other repairs such as a faulty oxygen sensor or ignition coil are ignored, or a vehicle has high mileage.”

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the pandemic has seen a rapid rise in catalytic converter theft because they contain precious metals such as rhodium that can be sold to metal recyclers. In 2019, an average of 282 catalytic converters were stolen every month; in 2020 the average had risen to 1,203, CarMD says.

The uptick in catalytic converter replacements and need for these parts can be partially explained by the increase in average vehicle age to an all-time high of 11.9 years in 2020, Rich says. As people keep their cars and trucks longer, the automotive aftermarket will need to adjust related parts supply forecasts accordingly.

The CarMD Vehicle Health Index has been published annually since 2011 during Car Care Awareness Month.

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