You’re reading the news, and you discover that a recall has been announced for your vehicle. Meanwhile, your buddy took his car to the dealer, and found out there’s a TSB for the noise it’s making.

So what’s the difference? You make think they’re similar, but you’ll need to know what each one is if you discover that one of them applies to your car.

In simplest terms, a recall outlines a safety-related defect that your car could possibly have. These defects must be reported to Transport Canada and a recall issued directly to owners of affected vehicles. 

A Technical Service Bulletin, or TSB, is issued from the manufacturer to its dealerships, and is intended primarily for service technicians to help diagnose a complaint. For example, a truck comes in running poorly and with its “check engine” light on. By cross-referencing the vehicle’s VIN, the tech discovers that on this engine, this is often caused by a loose spark plug wire, and so he starts looking there first.

The recall is the more straightforward of the two, and if a recall is issued for your vehicle, you’ll get a notice in the mail. It’s important to be on file with the manufacturer, so if you buy a used vehicle, call the company or visit a dealership to change the records to your mailing address. Remember to do this if you move, too.

In a recall, the manufacturer has identified a component or manufacturing issue that could potentially cause a safety-related problem, which could range from minor to major. It could also be that a component contravenes the Canada Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (CMVSS), which could be as minor as a warning label that isn’t bilingual.

In many cases, the recall may never actually be a problem on your vehicle, but the manufacturer replaces all suspect parts to be sure. In most cases, you can continue to drive the vehicle, except in rare instances when the recall warns otherwise. If the recall applies to a large number of vehicles, you may have to wait while sufficient stock of replacement parts is built.

The recall will be specific to certain vehicles, and there’s a chance that someone with the same year, make and model as your car could receive a notice, while you do not. That’s usually because the defect applies only to a certain shipment of parts that arrived at the factory, or that a manufacturing problem was fixed on the assembly line. General information can be found at Transport Canada’s recall database. To find if your car is directly involved, contact a dealership or the manufacturer. 

You’ll need to have the vehicle information number, or VIN, handy so it can be cross-checked. Recalls are be done at any authorized dealership for that brand, and at no charge, no matter how old the vehicle is. However, it’s possible that other parts in the same area may need attention, but are not directly related to the recall repair and would not be covered under the “no charge” portion. As an example, if your car is recalled for its brake master cylinder, you’re not going to get a free set of brake pads thrown in if yours are due for maintenance replacement.

TSBs are a stickier subject, because they are primarily diagnostic tools for technicians. Whether you’ll pay for the repair depends on several factors. There is also no single database of TSBs available to consumers, especially in Canada, although there is a partial list at the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Basic information is free, while there is a charge for detailed information. You can also get recall notices at Alldata, which charges for the service.

Because the TSB is written for technicians, it may be difficult to decipher, since many of them describe computer codes downloaded from the vehicle. In most cases, these codes don’t pinpoint the exact problem, but narrow down the area. If your car runs rough, for example, the code may indicate a problem in the fuel system, but the technician then has to determine exactly where it is. A loose wire, a bad injector, or a plugged line might all be possibilities.

The TSB also isn’t a guarantee of what’s wrong with your vehicle. Instead, through tests and warranty records, the manufacturer has determined that if a vehicle exhibits a symptom, it’s most likely the issue outlined in the TSB.

Because a TSB is not a recall, the repair will probably be at your expense, unless your vehicle is still under warranty. This is where it can get tougher as you’re standing at the counter, trying to understand why something the manufacturer knows could be at fault is still your financial responsibility.

The answer here is that much depends on circumstances. If it’s something that can legitimately be recognized as wear-and-tear, and you have a lot of kilometres on your car, then it’s probably reasonable you should have to pay. The TSB is saving you money on diagnostic time.

If the problem appears to be more likely the result of substandard parts or a manufacturing defect – one that isn’t related directly to safety, and so isn’t triggering a recall – and you’re beyond the warranty period, you can try asking the dealer about the cost. You might not get full coverage, but you may be able to negotiate a percentage, or split the parts and labour with the automaker.

Of course, several factors will come into play, including how old the vehicle is, if you’ve been looking after it and doing maintenance, and how severe the problem is and what it affects. Your relationship with the dealership can also matter, since the dealer’s more likely to go to bat for a regular customer. 
If you took your car to an independent shop, and then heard about the TSB and tried to get reimbursement from a dealership for that other shop’s repair, expect to be out of luck. Because the TSB is issued by the automakers to its franchised dealers, you can only expect to negotiate on repairs done by a dealer.

It’s also important to remember that while a dealer must do a recall no matter what, a TSB isn’t a “work order.” If your car isn’t actually exhibiting the symptoms, and doesn’t have anything wrong with it, the dealer is not obliged to perform the TSB repair, even if you’re trying to get it done proactively under the manufacturer’s warranty period.

Many dealerships look for TSBs any time a car comes in for repair, but not all of them do. If the shop can’t find anything wrong with your car, ask if they’ve checked for a TSB. If one comes up, outlining the symptoms you’ve described, you now have an argument that something is up with your car. 

If you’re still within your warranty period, but the repair isn’t done at the time, be sure to get a copy of the TSB and have the service writer note this on the repair order. If the same symptoms reappear once the car’s out of warranty, within a reasonable time frame, ask for the repairs to be done under the warranty’s no-charge terms.

And any time a shop can’t find a problem that you’re describing, TSB or not, have them write up a work order describing your complaint, any testing done, and the fact that nothing could be found at the time. Whether it’s a recall, a TSB, or simply “no fault found,” a paper trail can be a valuable asset when it’s time to get your vehicle fixed.