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Servicing MOOG Compression Loaded Ball Joints

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    • By Counterman
      When ball joints are on the counter, what’s the No. 1 upsell? Shop rags, latex gloves and floor cleaner, because it’s going to be a messy job!
      Seriously, though, it depends on the suspension. For light cars and trucks with strut-type suspension, most ball joints aren’t greaseable, and most of them only have one lower control arm on each side, resulting in only one lower ball joint on each side (multi-link suspensions are another story). Most of these are a cakewalk to replace, and you barely get your hands dirty. But, heavier trucks and older cars with upper-lower A-arm suspension and greaseable joints are a different story. That’s when it gets real.
      But before we start wiping up grease, let’s look at two of the stickier aspects of ball joints: inspection and installation. Ball joints have wear specifications, and the maximum allowable play as well as proper inspection procedures can vary considerably between different applications. When checking a ball joint for wear, technically speaking, not only should we confirm the recommended procedure and specifications, but we also are always supposed to check them using a dial indicator. In the real world, that rarely happens.
      Most technicians understand that a little bit of play in a ball joint is normal and acceptable. But at the same time, there’s a common misconception that any play in a ball joint means it’s wearing out. The root of the problem goes deeper than this article can cover, but let’s face it: Time is money, and taking the time to look up specs, set up a dial indicator (if you have one) and recording the readings just isn’t realistic, especially when a shop manager is breathing down your neck for a diagnosis.
      Another part of the problem is when you check a ball joint for wear, you always can feel even the slightest amount of play – so again, rather than performing the correct procedure, it’s easier to estimate the free play in your mind based on your familiarity with these types of measurements.
      You can’t always see the movement when it’s minimal, but the worse it gets, the easier it is to see. Experienced technicians are good at recognizing when the amount of play is still “acceptable,” or when a ball joint is – as we like to call them when the vehicle isn’t safe to drive – “wasted.” When a ball joint exhibits wear but still is acceptable and safe for use, that’s how we represent it to the customer, and we’ll just recommend checking them again at the next service. “Let’s keep an eye on those ball joints,” we might say.
      This all might sound like I’m criticizing technicians, but that’s far from the case. I’ve been a tech my whole life and it can be tough to wear our shoes. There’s a lot we need to know – we’re all human – and we do make mistakes. When it comes to parts, we rely on the knowledge of a counterperson more often than you realize. One of the strongest traits of a good technician is understanding that you don’t know everything, and not being afraid to ask questions or accept advice. In the case of ball joints, they usually don’t come with specifications, and there’s rarely any information with them aside from installing the grease fitting. And when they do come with information, does it always get read? You probably can guess the answer. This is the real world of automotive repair.
      As crazy as it sounds, when you’re deep into a suspension repair with parts and tools all over the place, it can seem like it takes an eternity to unbox a bunch of parts and remove them from their plastic bags, etc. – so again, it’s no surprise that details are missed should they happen to be included. It’s worth its weight in gold when we learn something we don’t know about any particular part, and we’re always eager to learn.
      If the line between misconception and mistake isn’t blurry enough, there’s an extra kicker with ball joints. Some vehicles utilize telescoping ball joints. What this means is that the ball-joint stud telescopes a small amount to compensate for manufacturing tolerances, primarily related to the ears of a steering knuckle.
      When you install one of these joints, it may appear as if the stud is too long or too short, potentially causing a technician to think it’s the incorrect joint. Also, since the stud is engineered to slide in and out of the housing, they can exhibit as much as .060” (sixty-thousandths of an inch) of free play. For comparison, .060” is about the thickness of a penny, and while this amount of play rarely would be represented as unsafe, it could easily be misdiagnosed as a worn joint.
      This may turn out to be more important in the case of a warranty concern. I’m sure it wouldn’t be the first time you had a part returned as defective and you were surprised by it. This is when your knowledge can save time and money for your company as well as for a technician, shop and the end customer. Information like this often doesn’t make it to a technician level, and it’s a great opportunity for you to educate and build rapport with your customers at the same time.
      Replacing Control Arms
      Where do control arms come into the picture? Independent suspension, be it front or rear, has been around for a long time. There are many different types, of which upper-lower A-arm, MacPherson strut and multi-link are the most common variations we deal with today. One thing they all have in common is some type of control arm.
      To put a simple spin on it, any control arm is nothing more than a link between the fixed frame of a vehicle and the steering knuckle – the component that in turn provides a mounting point for the brakes, wheel bearings and wheels. Control arms move freely up and down in response to suspension movement and not only offer mounting points for springs and sway bars, but they also are integral to suspension design, affecting the alignment angles and suspension travel.
      The control arm also carries another distinction: It offers a provision for mounting a ball joint to provide articulation between the arm and steering knuckle. Ball joints are either bolt-on or press-in, and in many cases on newer vehicles, the ball joint is an integral part of the control arm. If you have to replace the ball joint, you have to replace the entire arm.
      Control arms are either steel, cast-iron or aluminum, and the most important factor when replacing a press-in style of ball joint is making sure the hole in the control arm isn’t worn. Generally, if there’s no visible damage or corrosion to the control arm and the old ball joint requires considerable force to remove, as long as the new joint requires a similar force to install, the control arm will be OK.
      However, since we don’t have the technology (in our shops) to measure the roundness and integrity of the hole, many manufacturers recommend to only replace a press-in style ball joint one time. The next time, the whole arm should be replaced, and this is good advice to pass along to your customer.
      As with any type of suspension work, any torque-to-yield fasteners should be replaced, torque specifications always should be utilized, and in the case of control-arm replacement, fasteners should be torqued with the vehicle at ride height.
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    • By Counterman
      Quick struts, loaded struts, strut plus – there are many names on the market for a complete strut assembly, with different brands assigning their own catchy term to their version of the product. I don’t have a preference, although any time I hear the term “loaded,” I immediately think of a baked potato. I picture a piping-hot spud, covered in melted cheese, bacon bits, sour cream and chives, so maybe that’s my favorite one. Did I grow up in the fast-food generation or what?
      So, what’s in a name? Loaded – in baked-potato terms – meant you were getting it all, and in the case of struts, it means the same thing. In the June 2022 issue of Counterman, I dug into the difference between shocks and struts. If you read the article, you’ll remember that terminology was a big part of it, and it’s always been one of the more challenging facets of selling parts. The same thing can have multiple different names, depending on the manufacturer, or the technician working on the car.
      The term strut is a reference to the main component in a MacPherson-strut suspension design. The strut itself is the suspension spring and shock absorber assembled together as a unit, which also includes mounting bushings, spring insulators and turn bearings. Replacing a bad component in a strut assembly requires a special coil-spring compressor, so the unit can be safely disassembled.
      By definition, the individual parts only made a strut when they were all assembled, but over time, just the shock absorber itself came to be known as the strut. I speculate this was primarily to provide an accurate description of what we were looking for – to differentiate the fact we were working on a strut suspension as opposed to a “traditional” upper-lower A-arm design. So, you could argue that a “loaded” strut is a contradiction of terms, but it really doesn’t matter. Who cares what we call things, right! As long as we get our customers the right stuff!
      Emergence of the Assembled Strut
      Before the common availability of a complete strut assembly, replacing a bad component in a strut required a coil-spring compressor so the unit could be safely disassembled. It was far more labor-intensive, and you always had to use caution working with the coil spring. Typically, a bad shock absorber was the component that was being replaced. But, technicians often discovered that one of the other components such as a bushing or bearing would show considerable wear upon disassembly. Nobody wants to reassemble something with worn parts, but since many of the components weren’t considered “normal” service items, we’d often have to wait a day or two to
      get them.
      This, of course, made for an inefficient repair, but it’s not the ultimate reason that assembled struts became popular. When strut suspension systems first became popular, they were used on small, lightweight front-wheel-drive vehicles. As a result, the coil springs rarely wore out or broke, and the only component that went bad a lot was the shock absorber itself, so it was common to disassemble the strut just to replace the shock.
      As the strut-suspension design became more popular and the many advantages of it became clear, it quickly found its way onto full-size sedans and trucks. All of a sudden, the struts were no longer holding up meager economy cars, and we began to see broken coil springs, worn bearings and strut mounts and worn spring insulators, on top of worn shocks. Almost every time you disassembled a strut, you found that all the components needed to be replaced.
      Stocking all the different strut components for every make and model was unrealistic on one hand, but necessary on the other, and the idea of offering a completely assembled strut was a welcome revelation. Limited at first to a few of the most common models, the idea took off quickly, and now there’s an impressive list of coverage.
      The Assembled-Strut Advantage
      The advantages for a counter professional, a technician or a DIYer can be summed up the same way for all of us: It’s simply easier. Technicians prefer them, and almost always ask for them first. DIYers may not be familiar with them, so as a counter professional, you may have to explain the advantages.
      Safety might be No. 1. There’s no danger involved when you don’t have to compress and remove the coil spring, and it saves on the tool too, which a DIYer will either need to borrow or buy. Even though it’s possible that purchasing a single component such as a shock absorber or coil spring may be less expensive, the process of building or assembling the strut is where the biggest hurdle can arise.
      Overall, there aren’t too many different pieces involved, but there are almost always some types of spacers and washers. Placement is critical, and it’s easy to make mistakes or lose one of the small components without realizing it. You can end up with a strut that rattles excessively or, in the case of a front strut, binds up during turns. Purchasing an assembled strut eliminates the possibility of any of these problems.
      As a technician or service advisor, we can represent the advantage of time savings, which translates to less labor charged to the customer. In addition, the advantage of all-new components allows us to guarantee proper performance, no noise or rattles, and a longer-term repair. If you replace only one component in the interest of saving money, perhaps another one of the strut components goes bad a few months down the road. You’re no longer saving money at this point.
      I’d like to say no, but instead I’ll say no … with exceptions. Overall, assembled struts make sense. But it’s a good idea to consider what they’re going on. As with many components, there are economy versions and top-of-the-line versions. It’s an undeniable fact that the economy versions won’t last the same amount of time as the original OE strut on any vehicle. Of course, you won’t represent them as a poor-quality part to your customer, but you can represent your top-of-the-line as higher-quality, longer-lasting and better-performing, then let your customer make the decision.
      On older vehicles where cost and a safe level of operation are the primary concerns, economy struts may make the most sense. The flip side is vehicles that still have many years left on the road, and it’s always a good idea to recommend the highest quality in these situations.
      The fact of the matter is that struts affect the safety, handling and braking of a vehicle. It’s a difference that can be easily noticeable, and the more performance-oriented the vehicle, the easier it will be to notice the difference between high- and low-quality struts.
      I mentioned that technicians prefer assembled struts, and we know the advantages they offer. But, we also know that we can make more money on our labor installing them. It’s quick and easy for us, so we’ll end up ahead of the flat-rate time. Even though we get more time for rebuilding a strut, it usually takes us all the allotted time, so we lose our flat-rate advantage.
      This can be a sticky point for some technicians, but an assembled strut isn’t always the best choice. A perfect example would be a high-end European vehicle. These are cars that handle very well, and the owners expect this type of performance. I’ve seen cases where assembled struts are available, but the performance just isn’t up to par with the OE equipment.
      Regardless of make, when it’s a performance-oriented vehicle, it’s important to ask questions to determine your customers’ expectation. Though there are times when these cars can be just as old and beat-up as any other, and maybe the owner is just looking for an economical repair, if you suspect they’re looking for a high level of performance, recommend that they use OE parts, which in most cases means getting each piece individually from the dealer.
      As a counter professional, you don’t want to lose sales and refer someone away from buying what you offer. But, in a situation like this, it’s the trust and rapport that you build with the customer that’s important. The same customer with a high-end vehicle may have multiple other vehicles they’re responsible for maintaining – for example, their children’s cars – and if you always point them in the right direction, a lost sale one day can mean multiple sales the next.
      A Few More Details
      Struts always should be replaced in pairs. Do you have to? Technically, no, and I’m sure you’ve already had customers who only buy one. But it’s the same theory with brakes. Only replacing one side means you’ll have unequal performance side-to-side, and as we all know, if one side wears out, the other isn’t too far behind.
      An alignment always should be checked anytime the struts are replaced. Whenever the suspension, front or rear, is disassembled in any manner, the possibility of affecting the alignment exists, and in the case of struts, ride height could change slightly when going from worn coil springs to new ones.
      When the strut is a bolt-on design, it’s a good idea to advise your customer to pay attention to the bolts, especially if they’re camber bolts. Marking their location gives you a good reference for installing the new strut, keeping the alignment as close as possible. That makes the alignment easier, and is much better if the vehicle needs to be driven to an alignment shop.
      My favorite add-ons for strut work are caliper hangers, bungee cords, nylon wire ties and penetrating oil. During removal, you’ll often run across brake hoses and ABS harnesses that are secured to the strut via a small bracket. The bolts are usually small, and penetrating oil usually is the trick to keep them from breaking. After detaching any hoses or brackets, it’s a good idea to secure them out of the way. The struts are heavy and awkward, and this helps you avoid snagging them as you wrestle the strut out of the fender well.
      When the strut is disconnected from the steering knuckle, the suspension naturally will want to drop. In some cases, it doesn’t or doesn’t drop much, but you should be aware of the possibility, and securing it up with a caliper hanger or bungee cords will prevent it from pulling down on the brake hoses and ABS wiring.
      Finally, when you have the strut out, it’s a good time to look closely at CV boots. Many cars require separating the strut from the knuckle to remove a CV shaft, and if you’re in there already, it’s the perfect time to do it.
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