Tips to help you pick a Tuner
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Right up front, I will tell you that I am not a Tuner. I have been through the EFI 101 class, and I have worked in the automotive aftermarket for over 5 years, and I have been modifying my own cars for the last 8. In this time, I have worked closely with 4 different tuners, so I have had a lot of experience not as a tuner, but as a customer. And I have worked with many more of my own customers that have had both good and bad experiences.
I will also tell you that at the end of this there will not be any list of approved or recommended tuners. The purpose of this article is not to point you to any tuner (and most definitely not me), but rather to give you some tips and information to make sure that you pick a good and experienced tuner. And hopefully with this information your car will run and perform the way you want it to with minimal trouble and expense.
The good news is that it has never been easier to get your car tuned properly, and make a lot of power than it is today because of all of the tools, software, and professional Tuners that are available. But because of all those choices, it is also more important than ever to make sure that you are picking the right person/shop for the job.
But before you even start talking to Tuners, you need to do a little homework first:
Have your car checked by a professional mechanic
I go to the track a few times a year, and every time I do, I give my car a thorough inspection. I also will often have a mechanic look my car over before I head out as well (some organizations like NASA actually require this). Why? Because I know that at the track I am going to be pushing every aspect of my car close to its limit, so if I have a weak link, chances are pretty good that I will find it. Not breaking down, and being able to drive home are top priorities for me, and getting a professional consult (though not a guarantee) is cheap insurance.
Taking your car to the dyno is no different.
Now, depending on the modifications you are doing to your car, this might not necessarily be possible. For instance if you are putting in a new engine that will require tuning to run correctly even at first start-up. But if that is the case, I would recommend you talk to the Tuner that you are going to use and see what they would charge to look everything over before the tuning starts. This can be a real life/budget saver to get a fresh set of eyes on everything that you have done before there is any chance of doing any damage.
The point here is that you really need to know that your car is running 100% perfectly before you put it on the dyno, and tune it.
Price out a new engine
Yep, you read that right. See how much it would cost to put a new engine in your car. You should know this just so you know what you will have to budget in case things go wrong. Now, hopefully it will never come to this, but cars do fail when getting tuned from time to time for all sorts of reasons. And putting in a new engine is not cheap by any stretch, so picking a tuner for their price isn’t necessarily the best criteria.
And if you think that the tuner will have to pay for any failure that your car has on the dyno, think again. It is pretty much standard in the industry to have you sign a waiver before your car gets tuned that basically says that the tuner is not liable for failures. Make sure you read and understand the waiver before your tune starts, and if you have any questions at all, get them answered before you hand over your keys.
Before you say this is not at all fair, read step one again. There are a lot of variables at play when you get your car tuned. The tuner may well have no idea if you have properly maintained your car, properly installed the parts that you are getting your car tuned for, that the parts you have installed will work together correctly (if they weren’t consulted on them especially), if you will tell them to push for more power even after they recommend stopping, etc… It seems like all this responsibility should be on the Tuners shoulders, but in reality it is squarely on yours too.
Do your homework
Not just on the Tuner though, but on the discipline of tuning too. Tuning isn’t simple. And the more you know about what the Tuner is doing, and how tuning works, the better you can pick a Tuner that is experience, and really knows what they are doing. There are some good books on the subject and if you search on the internet, or your local bookstore, you’re likely to find them. One Author that I would recommend is Jeff Hartman, but there are definitely others out there. See what you can find, and try to read at least one or two books before hand so you have a cursory knowledge of what you are asking your Tuner to do.
Also, taking a class like EFI-101 wouldn’t be a bad idea either. It may seem expensive, but compared to a new engine, well, you get the idea.
Above all, make sure that you know the basics, like how to read a dyno chart, what air fuel ratios are, what a correction factor is, etc. These are the most fundamental pieces of information that you will see, and you really need to know and understand what they are telling you about how your car is running.
Once you have read up on the subject, and made sure that your car is ready for a trip to the dyno, it is time to start considering your options for Tuners. Here are some tips and other things to consider when you start trying to make your decision on which Tuner to use.
Do they have a brick and mortar location?
In my opinion, it is important that your Tuner has a physical location for a couple of reasons. First, if they have a shop, you know that they are at least somewhat established and committed to tuning. This is also a pretty good indicator that they are making their living from doing this sort of thing, and that means something.
It also means that you know where to find them. Ideally, you should not be meeting your Tuner for the first time when you drop your car off. If they have a shop, you should stop by some time before you have your car tuned and see what they are working on. Keep in mind that they may not have time to talk to you for long if they are busy (they make their living tuning cars remember) but this would be a good opportunity to meet them, and see how they work, and what they are working on. It will also give you an opportunity to evaluate the cleanliness, and organization of their facility, which means something too.
Do they have a Dyno?
Dyno tuning versus street tuning is a much talked about, and posted about subject. This could be a subject all on its own. I know that I am going to ruffle some feathers saying this, but in my opinion, it is essential that your Tuner have, or at least have access to a dyno to tune your car. A chassis dynamometer is an expensive piece of machinery, and if they have one in their shop, or are at least paying for time to rent one at another shop, it goes a long way in showing how serious they are about doing their job right.
A dyno is by no means a sure fire way to make sure that your car is tuned correctly, but what it does do is allow your tuner to put your car in a controlled environment so that they can see exactly what effect the changes that they make have. Granted this is a simulated environment, but the feed back, repeatability, and safety that they dyno gives is that makes it an essential tool. Street tuning offers none of those, but it is a real world environment, so a quick drive around after tuning the car on a dyno isn’t a bad idea.
I will also say that in my experience, most of the people that are championing street tuning over dyno tuning don’t have, or have access to a dyno, and leave it at that.
Ask to see dyno charts of cars with similar setups
If the tuner that you pick has been at this a while, and as long as you aren’t breaking new ground with your car, the chances are pretty good that he has tuned more than one car with a similar set-up to yours. Ask to see those dyno charts so you can see what their results were. This will let know if your expectations are in line with reality (very important and pay close attention to the correction factor that they are using) and it will let you know if your Tuner is experienced tuning cars similar to yours.
There are certainly a lot of similarities from one car to the next, but there are a lot of differences too. If your Tuner has a lot of experience tuning Mitsubishi Evolutions for instance, but has not tuned any modified BMW’s yet, it might mean that you should look for another Tuner for your modified BMW.
Know what your expectations are and make sure that your Tuner understands them.
Before you hand your keys over to your Tuner, you should have a conversation about what you want out of the tune. This also means that you should have an pretty good idea about this going in. And making XXX hp is not what I am talking about. You should at least discuss what you are going to do with the car (driving on the street to work, at the track, auto-cross, rally-cross, etc.). This will give your Tuner an idea how important things like power band, and throttle response are, and give them a good idea what aspects of your engine’s operation they need to focus on.
You should also tell the Tuner how safe you want the tune to be and make sure that they hear and understand that. If safety and reliability is your overall priority, the Tuner needs to know that. But even more, you need to make sure that they tune your car with that in mind. If you want your car to have a safe tune, but the Tuner wants to continue to make more power, you may have to remind them that power is not your priority.
On the flip side, you need to know that if safety is your priority, you may not walk out with a dyno chart that has XXX horsepower on it. In my experience, bad things start to happen when you say things like “let’s try for 10 more horse power”, or “let’s try 1 more psi of boost”, etc. If you ask your Tuner to do that, know that you are walking further from a safe tune, and you are taking a greater risk with your engine.
And yes, you are taking that risk, not your Tuner. They are just doing what you ask them to do, so don’t be surprised if they are not willing to push the car harder. A good rule of thumb is if the Tuner is not willing to push any harder, it is a good time to stop.
Talk to some of your Tuners customers
If you can, see if you can talk to some of your Tuner’s customers, and find out what their experience was like. Basically, you just want to find out what their overall experience was like, and ideally, you want to talk to someone that has had the tune on their car for at least a few months, so you can get their long-term feedback. The easiest way to do this will most likely be to post a thread on a forum where local members post, etc… This can be one of the most valuable pieces of information you can get when choosing a Tuner, but you have to make sure that you ask specific questions and get specific answers.
If there is an underlying message to all of this, it is definitely the importance of communication and common sense.
In a perfect world, your Tuner should actually be asking you a lot of these questions because all of this information will make sure that he gets your car set-up just the way that you want, and will make sure that you have a good experience. But if you go in prepared, and get the communication going, odds are good that you will have a good experience, and more importantly, and good result.
And above all, use common sense. If you start asking some of these questions, and aren’t sure about, or get a bad feeling about some of the answers that you get, don’t be afraid to walk away, and find another option. If there is one mistake that I have seen happen over and over again, it is when people aren’t comfortable with a certain Tuner, but talk themselves into using them for one reason or another. More times than not this ends badly. Even if you have to drive a few hundred miles to another tuner, it may well be worth it in the long run. Remember, new engine’s are expensive, and it may be cheaper to drive a ways to work with the right Tuner than to second guess yourself.
The last thing that I will say is that my goal in writing this is to give anyone looking to get their car tuned for the first time a good ideal of the basic knowledge that they need, as well as a list of good questions to ask to make sure that they pick a good Tuner. However, depending on your car, there may be some very specific things that you need to make sure that your Tuner has, or can do. An obvious example would be to make sure that your Tuner has a 4 wheel dyno if you have an all-wheel drive car (not all dyno’s are for 4 wheel drive cars). Another would be to make sure that the Tuner has the necessary software, or at least access to it, so that they can tune your car.
Thank you for reading this, and I do hope that it helps you when it comes to finding your Tuner.