Tips for Purchasing Diagnostic Tools

Tips for Purchasing Diagnostic Tools

Here are a few considerations for selecting a diagnostic tool.

By Kevin Stack
Kevin Stack has more than decades of experience in business management, engine-building and manufacturing. His personal website is www.nobleventurefinancial.com.

Diagnostic tools — or more commonly referred to as scan tools — have been a mainstay in the technician’s toolbox for years now. Starting with the 1996 model year, all cars and light trucks built and sold in the United States are required to be equipped with OBD II connectors. Before that, connecting to and communicating with a vehicle’s computer was like the Wild West.

My first scan tool cost several thousand dollars new (now you can find them on eBay for less than $100), and it used big plug-in cartridges for different types of vehicles. The kit came with about a dozen or so connectors to hook up to all the various vehicles with electronic controls. Some were rather crude and literally had a pigtail of wires that you had to color-match to the car. The manual with it was akin to the Sears catalog in size and breadth. I was used to dealing with carburetors and occasionally points ignition, so this was a step up. The first time I plugged it into my stumbling 1988 Pontiac Fiero and it told me about the vacuum leak I had and where to find it, I was sold.

Since then, cars have gotten a lot smarter, as have the scan tools used to diagnose them. And because they are much more common, the prices have dropped dramatically too. I’ve picked up Bluetooth “dongles” for $12. They are nothing more than a tiny wireless plug-in that connects to the OBD II port and relays the info to your smartphone. Depending on the plug-in that you purchase and the app that you install on your phone, they can be simple code readers or they can be full-on, real-time gauges of your choice.

1. Intended Use

Whether you’re like me — a more or less “shade-tree” mechanic who works on your own stuff — or a professional technician who will be using the tool for a variety of vehicles on a daily basis, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Some scan tools are for specific purposes, that is, they are mainly for diagnosing engine issues.
  • As you increase in price, many will have an “add-on” for ABS brake codes.
  • Many scan tools have limited or even no capability when diagnosing diesel-powered vehicles.
  • Scan tools might have limited capabilities for hybrid vehicles as well. I have a Ford Fusion Energi for a long commute, and some of my scan tools will recognize the hybrid side of the drivetrain and some only show the gasoline engine codes and treat it as if the electric portion isn’t even there.

2. Upgrade Ability

The capabilities of cars, trucks and SUVs increase on an almost daily basis, and you don’t want to buy an expensive tool that’s outdated before it pays for itself. As many new cars are starting to use “over-the-air updates,” your diagnostic scan tools need to keep up. Of course, the ability to upgrade your unit will cost you more in the short run but may save you thousands in the long game.

  • Updates can be done by USB plug-in to your computer.
  • Some units use a memory card (SD or even microSD).
  • Some are Bluetooth-enabled for upgrades too.

3. You Get What You Pay For

As with most things, you get what you pay for. More expensive scan tools have features that make them easier to use and offer a more thorough diagnosis, often pointing the technician toward the root issue and not just a simple code definition.

  • Color screens – This can help quickly point out items of interest and importance.
  • Wireless capability – This can give you the opportunity to work on the vehicle and see what you’re looking for without having to make multiple trips to the driver’s seat to read the screen.
  • Price – Just because it costs more doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. Do your homework and choose wisely.

So, look at what’s important for you. Three key criteria for most buyers are compatibility, capability and price point. Make sure you’re buying what you need; that it works on the vehicles you intend to use it on; and it has the ability to help you diagnose issues quickly.
Lastly, shop around and find a quality brand with robust customer support that can help you if you have issues. Look for reviews from other users to see what real-life experience they’ve had and what they recommend. Learn from others’ mistakes.

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Scan Tool Tech

While systems can and will differ, here’s a look at common ADAS features, their general configurations and calibration requirements.

scan tool tech

Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) require the use of a scan tool for diagnostics, and the majority of the time, it’s required for post-repair calibration. ADAS, like any other system, requires a diagnostic routine, which begins with a base knowledge of the system. Knowing ADAS will help understand fault symptoms and scan tool data for the most efficient diagnosis.While systems can and will differ, here’s a look at common ADAS features, their general configurations and calibration requirements.Parking assist sensors, of which there can be more than one, are generally located in the front and rear bumpers. They are the inputs that affect active parking assist and parking collision warnings. Any time they are disturbed in any manner, a static calibration must be performed with a scan tool.Side object sensors, sometimes called collision avoidance sensors, are commonly located in the rear bumper. These sensors provide input for blind spot warnings, lane change alerts and rear cross traffic warnings. Static calibration with a scan tool is required when these are removed or replaced.Rear vision cameras will be located in the rear decklid, liftgate or tailgate, and act as either a backup camera alone, or part of a surround view system if the vehicle is so equipped. These cameras generally require a dynamic calibration, and no scan tool is required.A forward-looking camera is sometimes located behind the grille, and usually part of a surround view system. These too do not require a scan tool, but a dynamic calibration must be performed when they are removed or replaced.Different ADAS features may have dedicated control modules which can be located in various areas, often behind interior panels. As with most control modules, these require scan tool programming when replaced and, depending on the system, both static and dynamic calibrations may be required.The Haptic Seat Motor creates the vibration to provide a safety alert for blind spot, forward collision, lane departure, lane keep assist, parking collision and rear cross traffic warnings. These motors, sometimes called seat warning actuators, generally require no type of calibration.Cameras located in a sideview mirror are part of surround view systems. These require calibration when removed or replaced, but most of them dynamic, and no scan tool is required.The steering angle sensor located in the steering column is an input for lane keep assistance, and a static calibration is required with a scan tool any time it is removed or replaced, or any time a wheel alignment is performed.Last, but not least, is the front view, or forward-looking camera located in the windshield area. This camera is a vital part of adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, automatic high beam headlights, forward collision and lane departure warnings, and lane keeping assistance. A scan tool and static and dynamic calibration are required after removal and replacement, but also after windshield removal or replacement, or any service that affects the ride height of the vehicle. TS

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