When you take your car to the mechanic, do you ever feel like you need a translator to understand what’s wrong with your car?  Poor communication is a major cause of distrust, and often, frustration between mechanics and customers. Mechanics are trained to repair complex systems and speak in very technical terms, while the average customer usually needs to hear things in layman’s terms. This can sometimes make communication difficult.

If there is something going on with your car that needs explaining, don’t be afraid to ask for a simpler explanation. A good mechanic will always take the time to explain the problem as well as the different options available to address the issue. Make sure you fully understand exactly what work that your mechanic will be doing and the costs involved.

To help you become a more educated consumer, we’ve translated some of the trickiest terms and most common car issues that drivers should understand. This way, you’ll be able to minimize the stress of miscommunication when your car is need of repair.

FRIED COMPUTER – When your car battery needs a jump, you can fry the computer by hooking up the jumper cables backwards.  Most but not all cars have protective circuitry if you accidentally do this.  Replacing the computer could cost between $1,500 to $2,000 or more depending on whether other parts need replacing as well.

BROKEN TIMING BELT – Timing belts help regulate the valves and pistons in an engine.  The valves open into the path of the oncoming pistons to let the engine breath better, giving it more power and better fuel efficiency.  When the valves are open, the piston is down, and when the piston comes up, the valves are closed and out of the way.  If the timing belt breaks or jumps a notch, the piston smashes the valve.  Not only would you then have to replace the broken timing belt, but you would also need a valve job to correct the now weak engine to get it running right.  Changing the timing belt at the manufacturer’s recommended interval is crucial to prevent this $1,500 to $3,500 repair.

BLOWN HEAD GASKET/CRACKED HEAD/CRACKED BLOCK – When there is a crack in the head of the engine, the head gasket, or cylinder block, antifreeze from the cars cooling system leaks out of the car.  A gasket is used to provide a seal where two pieces of metal join.  The head gasket seals the head of the engine and the cylinder block.  The seal between these two parts is critical as this is where the internal combustion occurs creating both high pressure and lots of heat.  The gasket has to seal all of the cylinders as well as various passages between the two components that carry oil, water, and other mechanical parts.  When the gasket cracks, water can leak from the cooling system or compression in one or more cylinders can be lost. The cooling system is a closed system where coolant circulates from the engine’s cooling passages to the radiator, the heater core and back again, never leaving this loop.  If coolant is somehow getting out of this loop, that means there is a crack somewhere, either in the head gasket, head, or block, as a result of overheating.  Cracks typically cost between $1,000 to $4,000 to repair.

OVERHEATED ENGINE – Engines can overheat for numerous reasons, such as a leaky hose, a stuck thermostat, or a loose clamp.  If you can catch it early and take action, it might only cost $100 to fix.  If your engine overheats badly or frequently, you can do some serious damage, costing up to $10,000 to repair.  The most common results of frequent or severe overheating are a blown head gasket, a cracked head, or a cracked block.

SEIZED ENGINE  – A seized engine occurs when your lubricant (oil) failed due to not having enough oil, or low oil pressure.  This causes the engine parts to scrape each other and melt together.  There is no way to fix a seized engine and you will need to replace the entire the entire thing, which can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000, depending on if you get a used or remanufactured engine.

These are a just a few terms your mechanic might use to explain a problem to you. But do you ever have trouble telling the mechanic what you think is wrong with your car?  In addition to these common repair issues, here are some terms used that mechanics frequently use that you can add to your vocabulary to describe a problem with your vehicle:

  • Backfire: when your car produces a gunshot-like sound from the engine or tailpipe.  It is usually caused by a spark plug “sparking” when it isn’t its turn and the exhaust valve is open.  If your air/fuel mixture is too rich and you have unburned fuel in the exhaust system, cross firing from one spark plug wire to another can occur if they are touching each other.  When this happens while the exhaust valve is open, it will ignite the rich and unburned mixture in the exhaust manifold and tail pipes, resulting in a big bang.  Backfire can also be caused by a cracked distributor cap, or one that has carbon tracking inside, which causes cross firing between the terminals inside. This then sends spark to a spark plug that isn’t ready for it yet.
  • Surge: when the car produces a quick change, usually an increase, in the engine’s speed.  A wide variety of issues can prompt an engine surge.
  • Sluggish: how the care feels when it doesn’t accelerate smoothly or strongly enough.  This can be caused by air problems in the engine, with the fuel, with the ignition system, or with the exhaust system.
  • Shimmy: a side to side motion that can be felt either through the tires and the steering wheel.
  • Misfire: a hesitation because fuel in one or more of an engine’s cylinders fails to ignite properly.  When the engine is misfiring, it will shake enough that the driver can feel vibrations throughout the vehicle, especially in the steering wheel.  Misfires can lead to stalls while idling and can also make it difficult to start the car.
  • Hesitation: a brief loss of power upon acceleration.

Understanding what is really going on under the hood of your car is important, not just as a driver, but as a consumer. Use this quick translator to decipher any confusing explanations next time you visit your mechanic!