Aug 022008

This weekend my 2001 530 got a lot of attention. It was a very productive day — a vibration issue related to new rims purchased in late April was finally resolved, and I replaced both front ABS/speed sensors.

Before I dive into the details, a word about owning a BMW out of warranty. Unless you have enough money not to care about cost, you need to educate yourself about your vehicle. And be open to learning what you can tackle on your own (DIY — Do It Yourself), and what you can’t. Running to the dealership every time something goes wrong will land you in the poorhouse, and chances are you won’t be treated very well. Dealerships don’t want to deal with older cars, they want to focus on the people who will buy the new models.

Knowing what preventative maintenance is required to avoid problems in the first place is critical. That way when it’s something bigger that requires professional service, at least you know the particulars and can be an educated consumer. Unless you’re driving the car simply for the brand — in which case you’d probably be in a new car — embracing this fact can be fun. The car becomes a hobby, not simply a means of transportation. I’ve found a great deal of advice and support from Internet forums populated with folks who own the same cars, and run into the same issues. It’s a perfect example of the “wisdom of the crowd” dynamic, enabled by Internet access. You can find the links in my blog roll.

So first up was a vibration at highway speeds. In a prior post I described buying new rims and tires for the car. I was very psyched to give the car this refresh. The previous owner hadn’t bothered to clean or maintain the rims properly, and I needed to get my snows off the car for better handling:

Initially I was very pleased with the purchase. But I soon noticed that at highway speeds there was a significant vibration that hadn’t been there previously. I knew the tires had been mounted and balanced properly. I had the work done at a garage right in my neighborhood I’ve used before and that comes recommended by Tire Rack. Hollin Hall Automotive provided great customer service and continued to work with me at no additional cost while I worked through this problem. A big public thank you to them, and I highly recommend the shop to anyone in or near the Alexandria area:

I won’t go into all the arcane details. Monet was the company that made the rims, and I purchased through one of their resellers, The Wheel Connection. Monet was responsive via email, but it took some time for the problem to be identified. After eliminating other possibilities, it came down to the fact that the spacers sent with the rims were not fitting tightly enough, causing the vibration. Monet initially said it was the Wheel Connection’s responsibility, and they said it was Monet’s. I stayed patient, and persistent. Eventually Monet stepped up and sent me new spacers at no charge, as long as I returned the original set.

When they arrived I had my doubts, since they looked almost identical to the originals. But these snapped into the back of the rims beautifully, and have corrected the problem. Finally my car feels right at highway speed — solid and stable but with the driving feedback via the steering sport tuned BMWs are known for.

Finally Arrived!

Thank You UPS!

Inserted into back of rim

Inserted into back of rim

One issue down, and one new one to go. A couple of weeks ago an error code popped up on my display. My ABS system was out, along with something BMW calls Dynamic Stability Control (DSC). The two systems work together via sensors that monitor wheels speeds at all corners, applying breaking and reducing torque in a split section if wheel spin or loss of traction is detected. The car can be driven safely without these systems, in fact DSC can be turned off via a button on the dash. But clearly something was wrong, and I got busy with some forum research.

Thankfully there was a good chance it wasn’t a major malfunction. Turns out those sensors at each wheel eventually fail — they get jostled constantly and debris tends to build up inside the sensor housing. If any sensor stops communicating with the car’s on board computer, the lights kicks on. There is no way to know for sure which sensor without a special BMW diagnostic tool. But by reading the stories of others who have had this problem, and noticing that other things like speedometer and cruise were not affected, the likely culprit was the front right sensor. It’s the one that kept coming up in discussion threads. Dealership quoted me $138 for the part — I found it online for $60 plus shipping.

Where sensor bolted into wheel hub

Other end -- note line of debris cleaned out of box

Other end — note line of debris cleaned out of box

Sensor replaced

Sensor replaced

Compared with many of the guys on the boards, I don’t know how to do much at all. Gary will continue to do most of the work on my cars. I have no illusions of ever being a mechanic or tackling complicated car projects.But it’s a very satisfying feeling doing even small maintenance or repairs on a modern car, above and beyond the money saved. Part of the enjoyment comes from making sure my cars are in good condition. And it also connects me to a time when people were a little more self-reliant about these things, and our possessions weren’t quite as disposable as they seem to be today.

  9 Responses to “The Zen of DIY BMW Maintenance”

  1. Hi and great article. I live Socal and own a 528i 1997 e39. My tag on bimmerfest is dtvarnum. I also have a wordpress blog. The Varnum News and Post.

    I will be doing a wheel sensor replace soon.

  2. Chris,

    This is great work. Unfortunately, I’m not overly sable in the DIY department. I recently sold my X5 for precisely that reason. Out of warranty and no deep pockets to keep it running.

  3. Nice work Chris. I owned BMW cars for 9 years now. And gradually started to do a lot of maintenance and repair work on them be myself. BMW car are almost perfect car for DIYers since there are plenty of information online, and very good Bentley manuals plus some software :-). One of big showstoppers at least for was lack of special tools that are required for some jobs. Often it is possible to build some tools from Home Depot scrap, but sometimes there is just no substitute for good tool. That is the time when you start thinking whether it worth buying it or pay somebody else to do the job.

  4. I’m such a new owner that I have only 3 weeks on on a 2000 323i with 183000km=120000miles. But I have had a fast education in 21 days. Not pretty either. The previous owner had a good repair record (nearly nothing!) and gave me a good deal — but it is good he did bcse I spent 1265$ on brakes ten days ago and had to suffer the indignity of those &^%$#$%^ Christmas tree lights ABS ATC etc come back on. I love driving the car. It has a great feel. But great feelings dissipate, I know by experience, when maintenance problems arise and arise, and when $$$##@$$$$$ are involved. I don’t mind doing the research and I hear Chris when he says that it’s a hobby. Still, does a 9 year old car with high mileage generate never ending piddly sensor or module maintenance? Or is my new experience likely to be a blip?

  5. Ted, I can relate to the frustration. Jumping into the 3 Series forums on bimmerforum and bimmerfest might give you some valuable info from other owners. 120K is a lot — did the PO do a lot of preventative maintenance?

  6. The PO, against whom I harbour no ill feelings, had no issues per his repair record. The dealer saw him once or twice a year, once for a wheel bearing, and that’s about it other than for oil etc. Since he did the small stuff there, I’ve no reason to think he took the harder stuff elsewhere. He definitely did not replace the water pump for instance or take out anything that was working for more solid gear. 120k is Nothing in a Honda or Toyota, but then again their modules, almost always, always work. Mercedes reputation has gone south with the newer generation electronic cars. BMW 5 series are not well thought of by Consumer Reports. I thought the 3-series was better — “average” if, as I knew going in, way higher than the best Japanese.

  7. I have a 97 BMW 528i. Anyone know how to reset airbag light after replacing front seats?

  8. Great article very informative and detailed. I agree about the need to be able to do certain DIY tasks rather than running to a dealer as they will charge unbelivable amounts of money for the simplist things.
    Thanks for the article, very good.

  9. Hi Chris
    Iv’e just come across your site while searching for some answers on my E39 535i. I too have the ABS,DBC
    ASC lights coming on but they do so while firmly bringing the car to a halt. Brakes locked on . First time it happened , after 25 mins I decided to just give it a shot … and no lights no problem , I drove away . Three weeks later , its happened again.
    Everywhere I read on line about others having issues ( warning lights , modules, sensors etc,) I haven’t read about anyone whose car decides its time to put the brakes on.
    Iv’e jacked up the car to confirm its the brakes not the trans or any other mysterious gadget.
    The control module was rebuilt just before I bought the car only a few months ago .
    yours is a really informative site I hope someone can help shed some light on this problem
    Thanks Rob

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>