The Chronicles of finding a good tuner

If you own and modify a car that runs on electronic fuel injection, chances are pretty good that at some point or another you’ve had to do some research on finding a good tuner to use to get your baby running in tip top shape.

First you have to weigh your local options vs. your distant options. If you live close to (or in) a major market area where there is a known good tuner(s), they are likely your best choice. I’m not saying there aren’t a lot of great small market tuners, but it’s harder to come by for obvious reasons.

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So how do you pick out a good tuner? Most of the time you find just as many good reviews as you do bad reviews when it comes to tuners. Why is that?

Very simple. People are assholes! I have tuned thousands of cars in my tenure as a tuner, and I can tell you the most frustrating people to deal with are the ones who go straight to their ninja fighting keyboards instead of calling us or coming in when they have an issue. So one thing to keep in mind when reading “reviews” is that very often the person writing the negative remarks might not have even given that tuner a second chance to fix a simple issue. Some people just want a reason to talk shit. So you have to keep that in mind. I am friends with a lot of tuners and I can assure you of one thing, we want you to leave happy. So you need to call us if you have an issue with something you don’t like. It’s our job, you paid us for that. We don’t want you just hopping on the internet and running your mouth over something we would have gladly fixed for free.

So what makes a good tune, really? 2 things.

#1. Long term reliability.

You obviously want a car that isn’t going to blow up in a week. So it is our JOB to make sure this doesn’t happen. And that may sometimes involve sad face emoticons for your HP goals. But sorry guys, it’s not our job to make you jump up and down and clap for joy over some dyno numbers that don’t really mean anything on the road, or at the track.

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What makes a tune unreliable?

Very simple... Detonation! Detonation is the number 1 engine killer there is. And it can be caused by a long list of things.

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Low grade fuel. Excessive oil consumption. Too much compression (for given fuel type). Too much timing. Not enough fuel. Combustion chamber design. Casting flash on pistons... The list goes on and on.

So what are some signs off detonation?

A. You can hear it. It sounds like marbles in your engine. So if you hear this, you need to take note of what RPM it’s happening at, and if you’ve already paid for your tune, make sure you give your tuner a call and opportunity to fix it before anything bad happens.

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B. You can see it. Puffs of brown (most commonly) or dark grey smoke during acceleration are often signs of detonation. Many people often think dark colored smoke means too much fuel. That is not always the case.

If it’s a steady flow of smoke, it’s likely just too much fuel, or rings showing signs of age. But if it’s random puffs of smoke, that usually means the engine is detonating. So as a simple rule of thumb, if there is smoke, have your tuner check it out.

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2. Driveability.

Believe it or not, tuning wide open throttle is the easiest part of a tune. What separates the men from the boys is drivability. Taming that big ass cam is the biggest challenge. Obviously you don’t want your car(or truck) shutting off on you in the middle of intersections. So idle quality is by far one of the most important parts of a good quality tune. Followed closely by low throttle/rpm cam surge, tip in throttle response, fuel economy, transmission shifting/converter lock up (for those automatic lovers out there), etc etc. We want it to drive like it came from the factory that way. So driveability takes the longest amount of time, and sometimes you have to come back for adjustments. That’s just part of the game.

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What can you do to make your tuners job easier, and as a result, a better running/driving car or truck?

1. Run good quality fuel!

Don’t go to the corner store or discount grocery gas stations and expect premium to be premium! Last week I had 3 people come in with full tanks of premium from a particular grocery store here in Houston. And it was so obvious on my end because the vehicles took no timing at all. They were detonating with considerably less timing than their setups would normally take w/ good quality fuel.

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Ignition timing = Horsepower! If you run cheap gas, we have to run lower timing, which means less horsepower. It’s sad I have to actually make this statement, but some people are newer to the performance industry than others and simply haven’t learned these things yet. So high grade/quality fuel = best performance and longevity. Run E85 if your car or truck is set up to run it! Forget what you read on the internet about it being inconsistent between stations. I’ve done a lot of E85 tuning, and once you get up over the 60-65% range on the alcohol content sensor, the benifits of running E85 are almost 100% there. I highly recommend running E85 on boosted applications. We have seen massive gains going from premium to E85... Like 80-150 whp in some cases. And since it’s becoming more readily available, it’s almost like having race gas at the pump.

2. Run good quality parts!

The stereotypes of buying low quality chinese made parts on eBay are there for a reason. For example, someone on eBay sells throttle bodies for LS1’s. Not only do they have massive vacuum leaks, but the clocking for the TPS (throttle position sensor) is off by as much as 50% on some of them! It’s comical how bad they are. So you think you are saving money buying cheaper parts on eBay. But you will likely end up kissing that money goodbye and dishing out the money for the known good parts you should have bought in the first place.

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Another thing some of us perfectionist tuners would really appreciate is that you stop buying “aftermarket” (aka stock modified in most cases) MAF (mass air flow) sensors, and cheap no-name injectors. Even injectors that are “major brand name” are sometimes low quality pieces of crap. Most tuners have a particular brand(s) they like dealing with, when it comes to injectors. So I recommend consulting with your tuner and buying what they recommend.

Above all else, educate yourselves. Avoid nut riders. And be a decent human being. If you do these 3 basic things, it should insure some long term happiness with your pride and joy.

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