Unabomber's Manifesto - Tuner FAQ

Pick a FAQ:

How do I find the right tuner? Sadly, there is no tuner comparison and never will be. Tuning is more art than science so if you lined up 10 tuners with 10 equal cars, you’d get 10 different results. Tuner A would be the safest in terms of long term use. Tuner B would have the highest dyno figure. Tuner C would have the flattest curve. Tuner D would have the best under the curve response. Tuner E would have the quickest spool.

So how do I generally find the one right for me?

I live in an area where there are choices. This is where you need to do some research in several forums as there is no “tuner review forum”. Check the Vendor Review Forum for reviews of that tuner’s work. Search for that tuner’s name in the Power Proven Bragging forum for reviews of their work. Also search for the tuner’s name in your local forum as reviews of their work sometimes occur there. PM people who have been tuned by them for their thoughts.

Remember though...there is more to a tuner's skill than peak HP/TQ numbers on a dyno plot. Yes, Bob is happy making 250WHP on his TD04 2.0L WRX via Tuner Jimmy. But without careful interpretation of the dyno plot, you might not be happy with the peaky torque curve or the removal of all knock correction or the lean AFR or the 22PSI he's spinning his turbo at. This is where looking at the whole dyno plot and talking to end users comes in vs. finding the tuner with the best numbers on a dyno plot. Car magazines put Lamborghinis on the cover to sell magazines and live off of Ford Taurus reviews, tuners do the same thing as a typical Stage 2 tune doesn't have the enthusiasm as a GT35R tune.

I live in the boondocks and have one option or no options. If there is only one, you really have no options unless you want to do a “mail order tune” or organize with others and fly someone in. A mail order tune can vary between tuners, but there are basically two types. One is a better map than the base maps AKA one size fits all maps on the market. It’s basically a plug and play map based on your specifications. The other is where a tuner sends you a map for your mods and you run it to perform some logging to provide feedback to the tuner, then they modify and email you the final map. While mail order tunes are not 100% ideal, they are much better than running base maps are less expensive than a full custom tune, though they require more work on the part of the end user in terms of logging as feedback to the tuner. Some examples of mail order tuners are PDX Tuning, Perrin, and Clark Turner though I’m sure I’m forgetting some others.

Flying in a tuner in is much harder as you have NASIOC Vendor rules to contend with. What you'd have to do is contact a NASIOC Vendor tuner or a NASIOC Vendor that has a dyno and have them organize a tuning day. This can get very complicated as you have to account for profits for all parties and airfare/hotel/rental car. This is all usually handled by the Vendors on their end, but in the end it will be added to your tuning costs. As long as you have organized, sane people show up ready to tune it works out without excessive overhead though. It can be done though.

So if there is only one tuner in your area, you are pretty much a captive audience to them unless you are comfortable with comparing them against the popular mail order tuners or flying someone in. Though there is never 100% in tuning, a tuner with a dyno should always be able to give you better results based on your input than the mail order option. But in some cases, you may be better off with a mail order tune as you have to carefully compare the experience level as well.

Also remember that tuners are limited to what they can tune so if you really want Tuner A to do your tune, he may not be able to tune your EcuTek ECU as he does not have the expensive software to do so. Then you have to find another tune or switch engine management systems.

How much is gonna cost and how long will it take?

Both are questions for your tuner as there is no average. Tuner A may be relatively inexperienced and is looking to make a name for himself, so he may be $50/hour. Tuner B may be a "famous name" tuner, so he can command $200/hour. Tuner C and D may be inbetween in experience levels, but since one lives in Macon, GA he charges peanuts and the other guy lives in Boston, MA so he has to charge bank to survive.

Time is usually tied to cost as most tuners can give you a good time estimate and they are usually pretty accurate unless there are problems. Use the tips below to stop problems before they start. Generally speaking a normal tune will take no more than 2 hours, with most "stage 2" tunes taking one hour. A nitrous, meth injected, EWG car with a MoTeC engine management system...yeah, that's gonna take longer. But to their credit, most tuners are damn accurate on their times and they are also famous for "rounding down" their tuner time.

What should I do to prepare for the tune?

1. Talk to your tuner PRIOR TO getting a tune. Ask for their tuning check list and follow it to the letter. P&L Motorsports has a great check list available via this link under the title Caring for your Vehicle for those without an official checklist.

2. Ask for their brand/type/size injector advice if upgrading them and use them.

3. Ask for their brand/type/gap recommendation on plugs and use them.

4. If you want an intake, ask for their brand/type recommendation. Be prepared for your tuner to talk you out of it though as many will depending on your goals.

5. If you want an aftermarket boost control product such as a new boost control solenoid, external waste gate, manual boost controller, etc., talk to your tuner about this and use their recommendation.

6. Perform your scheduled maintenance prior to showing up to your tune and make sure all your fluids are fresh and functional. And by prior to, allow at least a few days for fluids to settle and get topped off as having an air pocket in your coolant will do wonders for throwing off your tune at $200/hour. Two items not on any maintenance schedule that won't hurt and may help are cleaning your IACV (if so equipped) and cleaning your MAF sensor.

7. Double check everything you have done within the last 3 months or so. Vacuum leaks from fittings/hoses/pipes/couplings that move air and gaskets are the big killers. One of the unknown leaking spots is the BPV or BOV gasket as it is frequently removed and not replaced, so if there’s any doubt, replace it. Another common leak spot is the stock turbo inlet, ensure you visually check it front and back, top and bottom using an inspection mirror for holes or tears.

8. Show up with 100% of your computer gadgets. Bring all the connectors, switches, CDs, your laptop, etc. Make sure that your engine management system is up to date with the latest firmware, updates, etc. unless your tuner specifically states so. Also bring a disk or thumbdrive to download dyno files or maps to.

9. Do not show up with crappy parts and/or crappy installed stuff. If your Cousin Jimmy did the wiring and you have live wires sparking against the pedals, that's not a good thing. Wiring should be neat and loomed or at least zip tied away from everything. Quality, correct parts should always be used...fuel safe lines, pressure lines...these aren't suggestions folks. Do you honestly expect Home Depot tubing of the incorrect diameter to work on your wastegate? Proper diameter and applicability is what you want to run even if it means delays as your tuner will be when your eBay intake collapses, you show up with three (not four) upgraded injectors, or your UTEC is a circuit board in a Tupperware container. And these are real life examples I've seen or heard of.

So what is my timeline for talking to my tuner? Here is the suggested timeline:

6 months prior to tune: Research and choose a tuner. At this point, you should call, email, or better yet visit your tuner and talk to them. Get their checklist and budget/buy NOW for your tune in 6 months. Find out their fees as well as the dyno fees and budget for them, plus an hour extra of each in case of problems.

3 months prior to tune: This is where you want to start purchasing any parts you want added for your tune. Things happen, prices go over budget, items go out of stock, etc. so plan for the worst and hope for the best. This is also the phase where another call with the tuner should occur to verify your purchases.

1 month prior to tune: This is where you want to start installing parts or the planning of your install. This is also where you want to have your tuner send you a “limp map” for your mods and discuss with them any final install or purchase issues. You should also discuss any last minute install items either at the tuning shop or on the shop premises. One that comes to mind that you might do on the dyno or in the parking lot just before the tune is the installation of an aftermarket boost control solenoid. For new turbos and motors, refer to the manufacturer recommended oil type and break-in period. For new clutches, refer to the manufacturer recommended break-in period.

Two weeks prior to tune: By now your parts should be installed and any issues related to the parts should have reared their head by now and this allows sufficient time for replacements, repairs, etc.

Tune day: Arrive early. Arrive with 100% of what your tuner has told you to bring. Come with your tune game plan to allow your tuner to use as a checklist. This game plan should have already been discussed with your tuner and could include CELs you want defeated, new redline set, top speed governor removed, or other tune variables. A list on paper generated a week prior may save you from getting a CEL 50 miles down the road….checklists are never bad.

Should I seek parts advice on NASIOC? Sure, that's fine but some advice is strictly tuner specific and his advice should be taken even if 35 NASIOC gurus suggest otherwise. Tuners can be very specific on spark plugs, boost control solutions (EWG brand/size, aftermarket BCS, EBCS, etc.), and injectors. Most tuners can tune anything, but do you really want to force your tuner into an unfamiliar product? Imagine this scenario: Your tuner recommends Deatschwerks injectors that flow 750 cc. You get a "deal" on PE injectors that flow 650 cc. Your tuner is unfamiliar with them and spends an additional 30 minutes tuning them only to find out that you didn't get ones big enough. Now you get to spend $150 extra in tuner's fees and dyno time along with the fact that the injectors limit you on power because they weren't big enough. This is a hypothetical situation, but similar circumstances could occur. Always default to your tuners advice, especially with these three components if they have a preference.

My car has problems, but my tuner can fix them right? Tuners tune. Yes, they can help troubleshoot simple issues like vacuum tube routing on a boost control solenoid, wastegate adjustment, settings on your boost controller, but don't expect your tuner to be Mr. Goodwrench. You should arrive on your tune date with a 100% operational vehicle unless you have discussed any issues that your tuner can take care of personally or via the shop where he is doing tuning. Mechanics generally charge $80/hour to fix, making a tuner diagnose at upwards of $200/hour is not good.

Editors Note

This post was created because I wasn't able to find a good tuner FAQ. I came up with the text based on LOTS of searching here. Upon reading this you should have an idea of how to choose a tuner and what to do prior to a tune. My thanks to Dan from www.fastwrx.com, Phil from www.elementtuning.com, Clark from www.clarkturner.com, and Jorge from www.pandlmotorsports.com for their input to this. Anything screwed up about this is my fault though.