Goof of the Month: Remote Non-starter

Welcome to Goof of the month, our monthly dip into the world of automotive cluelessness, fearing for the worst, with stories about the need for drivers and shoppers to understand their vehicle, how to maintain it, and how it works.

When the mercury drops in Canada, remote starter sales soar.

But not all remote starters are the same, and neither is the way they’re installed.

Keith McDonald is a service advisor at a luxury car dealership. He was in touch last week with a tale of a botched remote starter installation, and how it might wind up costing one unlucky customer (or one unlucky remote starter shop owner) an awful lot of money.

The customer arrived with a roughly one-year-old luxury crossover, reporting problems she figured were caused by the battery and/or a recent snap of extreme cold.

“Her instrument cluster had been randomly but frequently lighting up multiple warning lights and error messages – and some of the vehicle’s safety systems had been failing, or operating inconsistently,” McDonald recalls.

McDonald had his top technician, Sara Morris, take a look at the vehicle.

“When we see a lot of errors and warnings simultaneously, like we did here, it’s actually not uncommon for it to be a sign of a fairly simple problem,” she explains.

“When there’s a single warning or error, it’s usually something specific and related to one system. But this vehicle was experiencing multiple issues and failures simultaneously. Sometimes, this is the result of something easy to address, like a weak battery or a bad electrical ground.”

“Still, we don’t expect problems like this in a one-year-old vehicle,” McDonald adds.

Morris eventually went through numerous diagnostic steps to try and pinpoint the issue.

“Simply, systems were not communicating properly with other systems. In a modern vehicle, everything is talking to everything else – and if that’s not happening properly, we see this sort of situation,” she says. “This was a massive systems communications failure, which is why the warnings in the gauge cluster and on-screen computer were so dramatic.”

The problem lay within one of the vehicle’s wiring harnesses – which is basically a bundle of wires that connects various electrical components. “It’s the vehicle equivalent of your nervous system,” says Morris. “Imagine little wires that send signals back and forth, in a sense.”

Thing is, the wiring harness in question had been badly butchered by the recent installation of a remote starter, which the customer had installed to her vehicle at a local shop a few weeks earlier.

Though many factors are at play, the installation of a remote starter typically requires some level of modification to the vehicle’s factory wiring. As it tends to go, there’s a right and a wrong way to tackle this sort of work.

“In modern vehicles, there’s more of a chance that modification of the factory wiring can lead to problems like this, especially if the quality of the remote start unit, or its installation, is sub-par.”

Though McDonald (who worked as a remote starter installer some years ago) questioned the quality of the starter module, his main concern was how it was tied into the wiring in his customer’s vehicle.

“They butchered the hell out of the wiring,” he says. “It looked very amateur. And installers can use special pre-made modules and connectors that eliminate the need to cut and splice wires in this fashion. Here, they hacked things up and half-assed them back together. I almost wonder if they were missing the right wiring parts to do the job properly, and just went for it anyhow.”

Morris adds: “Maybe it was a short, a bad splice, or some other damage somewhere along the wiring.”

“We’ve got many customers running non-factory remote starters with no issue,” McDonald says. “It all comes down to the quality of the unit and the quality of the installation. In this case, I suspect the installer was rushing to meet strong demand in peak install season, cut corners, rushed the work, and otherwise made a great big mess.”

Michael Carriere is the owner and operator of Mikes Car Audio in Sudbury, Ontario – a highly-reviewed shop that installs over 500 remote starters per year. We asked him to comment on the story above.

“We’ve actually fixed quite a few remote starter install jobs like this one, that have come in from other shops, or even dealerships, with similar symptoms. Often, it’s just a single bad connection during the install that can cause a lot of issues.”

“The installer is just following an instructional diagram,” he says. “But it all comes down to the installer. The instructions alone aren’t enough: for a quality install, you want an installer that’s experienced and knowledgeable, specifically, on vehicle wiring. A technician who spends most of his time doing brakes and alignments isn’t necessarily the best person to be installing a remote starter. It all comes down to experience. Anyone can cut and connect wires, but an experienced installer will do it properly”.

Though it depends on the specific vehicle, some remote starter install jobs may specify the use of special plug-and-play wiring provisions that minimize the need to cut and splice factory wiring, further reducing risk of issue.

Carriere provides some advice for shoppers considering a remote starter installation.

“Ask your dealership who they’re comfortable sending you to for an install,” he says. “They’ll likely have a few reputable choices for you. It reflects badly on them, if they send you to a less-than-reputable shop. You’re also best to check owner reviews beforehand, to help see if the shop is reputable.”

At writing, Morris and McDonald hadn’t determined the exact cause of the issue. After showing the customer their concern, she asked that all further work be suspended until she dealt with the shop that installed her remote starter.

Both Morris and McDonald figure the harness will probably need to be replaced, at a cost of over $3,000. And that’s just for the part.

“The installation will be major as well,” Morris says. “We’ll have to remove a great deal of the vehicle’s interior if we have to replace the harness.

“Oh, I hope the shop comes good for it. This isn’t going to be an easy or cheap fix.”

Botched remote starter install causes thousands in damage. 2/7/2019 8:00:00 AM