The American Key Supply Guide to Reflashing
by Cary Stevens, March 24, 2016
Like so many other things in locksmithing, reflashing can be intimidating at first, but once you have somebody show you how to do it, it's really no big deal.
What is Reflashing?
THE PROBLEM: In the late 90's, some car manufacturers, especially Toyota/Lexus and Honda/Acura, created many vehicles that used first generation transponder technology. Apparently, the geniuses that designed those early systems did not think through what would happen if customers lost all of their keys. These days, if a customer loses all keys, a locksmith with the right equipment can simply plug a diagnostic tool into the OBD2 port of the vehicle and program new keys. In many vehicles from the late 90's and early 2000's, there isn't even a port to plug a diagnostic tool into!
That causes a special problem for locksmiths. Or it can be considered an opportunity, depending on how you look at it.
|1.||Most dealerships have to simply replace the ECU or immobilizer in order to add more keys. The cost for the customer if they take that route is anywhere from $700-$1500, depending on the vehicle and the dealership. Typically, a dealership's service department does not even know that reflashing is an option, unless they have been educated by their local, ambitious automotive locksmith.|
Locksmiths now have access to tools that can quickly "reflash", or overwrite data, onto the computer chip in the vehicle's existing computer (the ECU or immobilzer). With the right equipment, it can be much cheaper and faster to reflash the old ECU or immobilizer than it would be to order a new one. The hardest part of reflashing is often times just accessing and removing the old unit, but you will quickly get used to that task. Your first time will take you 10-20 minutes, but you'll quickly get that down to a 5-minute task. Except for a Sequoia. That's never quick. Argh!
When customers call around for pricing, they will get a high price, a 2-3 day wait, and will have to tow their car to the dealership. Locksmiths will typically quote between $450-$1000 depending on the area, can get the customer back on the road again with same-day service, and will drive to the customer's vehicle instead of requiring a tow. Pretend you're a customer and call other automotive locksmiths in your area to see what your market will bear. Please do not under-charge your customers for a service like this.
|3.||You can always just send us your customer's ECU or immobilizer and we will reflash it and overnight it back to you work a working key for $99. That's a good way to get started too, but most customers want to get a working key on the same day.|
When Should You Buy a Reflasher?
How many times so far have you had someone call for a job you couldn't do because it required a reflash? If it's more than once or twice, it's probably time. Yes, you can overnight the unit to us, we'll reflash it and overnight the unit back to you for $99, including shipping. Keep in mind, though, that involved giving your customer a 2-day turnaround, which many times may make you lose the job.
HERE'S THE MATH:
|What you charge for a reflash||$500.00 ($450.00 to $1000.00, depending on area)|
|Your cost for keys||$12.00 ($6.50 to $12.00, depending on car type)|
|Your profit per job||$488.00|
|Cost of the reflashing tool||$799.00||$1099.00||$1599.00||$1195.00|
|Number of jobs to pay for tool||1.6||2.3||3.3||2.4|
What is the Reflashing Process Like?
THE PHONE CALL: When your customer calls asking for an estimate, you should have a quick reference of some kind handy to look up their vehicle type and see what kind of system and keys it uses. Many locksmiths rely on the Advanced Diagnostics Vehicle Application Guide (free), or Michael Hyde's AutoSmart books, or even the back of our American Key Supply print catalog is a great, free resource with all of the information you need to give your quote quickly. These resources will definitely make a mention of it when a reflash is required. Don't get caught quoting $250 for a job that ends up costing the customer $500—that doesn't help to build confidence and professionalism with customers.
REMOVE THE UNIT: Look up the vehicle in your tool's user manual. They will all have a list of years, makes, and models along with the corresponding location where the ECU or Immobilizer unit can be found. Some of them also show images to help you. Most can be removed with a metric socket set and a screwdriver.
- Get yourself a good stubby screwdriver and a deep socket set. Having the right tools for the job can definitely save time, and save your hands.
- When the unit is attached to the frame of the car, such as those located behind the glove box, it is frequently much easier to remove the screws holding the bracket to the frame rather than the unit to the bracket.
- Sometimes they are attached to the steering column (Honda), sometimes next to the left of the steering column (BMW), sometimes under the hood (Lexus GS & IS), sometimes on the passenger side floor underneath carpet (Lexus SC), but usually it's behind the glove box.
OPEN THE BOX AND LOCATE THE CHIP: Your tool's user manual will have information in it about which chip you'll be reflashing—the ID Pro shows lots of pictures, which is particularly helpful. Most times, computer chips have their IDs printed on the circuit board close to the chip, but not on the chip itself. You're usually looking for a label called "IC900" or "IC2". Sometimes, after opening the box, you will need to remove a couple more screws to flip the board over to locate the chip.
PREPARE THE CHIP: In my opinion, the hardest part about reflashing is getting a good connection to the chip. Car makers routinely cover their boards and chips with a thick layer of clear varnish to protect electronics from static electricity. Unfortunately, that makes it extremely difficult to be consistently successful when attaching standard test clips used by many reflashers. With some of the newest tools on the market, such as the Penloader by LogiKey or ID Pro by KeyLogic, you can push down on the chip instead of squeezing around it, and they use sharpened, gold pins to pierce right through the varnish for an easy, solid connection. There may be times when the coating is so thick and tough that the clip by itself isn’t enough to get through. Here are a couple tips—use one or both:
- Old‐School: Use a sharp Xacto knife to scrape the coating directly from the legs of the chip. A pocket knife is good for this also, as long as it’s sharp.
- Electrical Cleaner: Similar to carburetor cleaner, this will strip right through gunk, whether it’s cleaning out a car lock or cleaning the crap on an electronics board. Be careful though—it is corrosive on paint. Spray it onto the chip and let it sit and do its magic for a few minutes. Try CRC 05018 Lectra‐Motive Electric Parts Cleaner from your local auto parts store (Napa, O’Reilly)
REFLASH THE CHIP: This step is different for each machine. View the videos below to get a good feeling for how each tool is different. Most times, there is more than one way to do it:
Virginize: This means bringing the ECU or immobilizer back to the state it was at when it first came out of the factory, before any keys had been programmed to it.
- THE GOOD: you can use standard, inexpensive transponder keys.
- THE BAD: you will have to program or register the keys to the vehicle, an extra step. With some vehicles (Sequoia, Prius, LS400), this involves a 30 minute reset process. Also, this method does not work on most 1998 Toyota/Lexus, so make sure you're prepared to use the next method.
Ready-to-Start: This means bringing the ECU or immobizer to a state where it already has keys programmed to it.
- THE GOOD: reflash the unit, reinstall into the vehicle, and you'll have a key that already starts the car—no need to go through a key registration process. Also, this works for most vehicles, including 1998 Toyota/Lexus.
- THE BAD: this requires that you use a more expensive pre-cloned key. These keys used to cost a lot, but now they're $12.00, so not a big deal anymore.
- NOTE: In theory, because the more expensive pre-cloned key is a working MASTER key, you can use it to on-board-program additional cheaper keys. Then you just keep that cloning key for yourself and use it again on your next reflash job.
Clone from the Box: With some vehicles, you can just READ from the chip instead of actually writing to it, a less destructive process. Advanced reflashers like the ID Pro and Red Penloader can analyze the data from the chip and determine what the customer's original key value was. You can then enter that value into some cloners and create a key that will start the car.
- THE GOOD: It's super safe because you haven't changed anything on the customer's ECU or immobilizer, you only read it. And as an added bonus, if the customer finds their original key, it will still work.
- THE BAD: It's unsafe because the customer's original key will still start the car. If it is possible for someone to find the key and steal the car, this is definitely not a recommended method. Also, this requires the use of a cloner and somewhat more expensive key blanks.
PROGRAM THE KEYS: Reinstall the ECU or immobilizer back into the vehicle where you found it. If you used method #2 or #3 above, you don't even need to program the keys—just cut your key, hand it to your customer, and collect your money. Don't have a high security key machine? We can cut them for you!
If you used method #1 to virginize the unit, you will need to follow the instructions in your user manual to get the keys programmed. For Toyota/Lexus, this is an on-board process of inserting the key(s) and pressing the pedal(s). For Honda/Acura, you will need to use a diagnostic tool like the MVP Pro to program the keys (make sure you have the correct pre-cloned red and black keys).
SUMMARY: This tool is the least expensive and yet the most powerful reflashing tool. The downside is that it requires the use of a PC. If you are not comfortable with computers, please consider another option. Customers that purchase this tool will typically need a 20 minute session with our technician to get software installed and a tutorial of how to use it. The user manual for this machine is extremely detailed and logically organized.
THINGS TO BUY: If you want to reflash Hondas, you will need both the ID Pro Black Programming Key (get 2, you'll be giving these to your customer) and the ID Pro Red Programming Key (get 1, you'll keep and reuse this). If you want to reflash Toyota/Lexus, you will need the Toyota/Lexus MASTER Programming Key (get 1 of each type: Toyota, Lexus Long, and Lexus Short).
SUMMARY: This tool is the simplest and fastest to use. Just grab it and go. There is no display though, so if you're an advanced locksmith interested in PIN reading, you're out of luck. Success/failure is indicated using sound via built-in speaker. The user manual for this tool isn't as easy to use as some others, but the tool is so easy to use, you will get used to it quickly.
THINGS TO BUY: If you want to reflash Hondas, you will need both the Penloader Black Programming Key (get 2, you'll be giving these to your customer) and the Penloader Red Programming Key (get 1, you'll keep and reuse this). If you want to reflash Toyota/Lexus, you will need the Toyota/Lexus MASTER Programming Key (get 1 of each type: Toyota, Lexus Long, and Lexus Short).
SUMMARY: This tool is simplest and fast to use. Just grab it and go. Includes an LED display, so unlike the Blue Penloader, this tool can visually display information for you such as key values, pin codes, and success/failure messages. The user manual for this tool isn't as easy to use as some others, but the tool is so easy to use, you will get used to it quickly.THINGS TO BUY: If you want to reflash Hondas, you will need both the Penloader Black Programming Key (get 2, you'll be giving these to your customer) and the Penloader Red Programming Key (get 1, you'll keep and reuse this). If you want to reflash Toyota/Lexus, you will need the Toyota/Lexus MASTER Programming Key (get 1 of each type: Toyota, Lexus Long, and Lexus Short).
SUMMARY: This tool is solid and tested. It's been around for a long time and works well, is relatively easy to use. The user manual for this tool is very well organized and easy to use. It uses a traditional Pomona clip for connecting to the chip, so it can be harder to get a good connection, but a GoKlip is available (see below). Does not include a resync tool, so for some models, you will have to jump the pins in the OBD2 port yourself.THINGS TO BUY: If you want to reflash Hondas, you will need both the EZ Flasher Honda Key Set (get a couple). If you want to reflash Toyota/Lexus, you will need the EZ Flasher Toyota/Lexus MASTER Programming Key (get 1 of each type: Toyota, Lexus Long, and Lexus Short). Remove Pomona clip headaches with the KeyLogic GoKlip for EZ Flasher.
Advanced EEPROM Work
EEPROM work is what we're doing when we read and/or write to one of these chips on the car's computer. Once you have access to the data on the chip, there are many more things you can do if you have the right tools. Here are some examples.
ISUZU RODEO & ISUZU AXIOM: If you have ever run into one of these that uses a transponder key, you probably couldn't do the job because it requires a PIN code, and with Isuzu out of business, that can be very tricky. Fortunately, tools like the ID Pro (with the included Pin Calculator software) and Red Penloader can analyze the "dump" (the data) on the chip and spit out the PIN that you'll need when programming the key with a diagnostic tool like an MVP Pro.
KEYLOGIC PIN CALCULATOR PRO: This extra software isn't free (the lighter free version comes with the ID Pro), but it can do some great things. Some of the most useful things are for locksmiths with cloners. With Toyota/Lexus, for example, once you have saved the customer's BIN file (the data from the chip) using a device like the ID Pro, it will tell you what value to write to the key. After you have that, the car will start. That saves you from having to perform the full 30-minute resync needed for a Toyota Sequoia, Toyota Prius, or Lexus LS400. Time is money.
BMW: Get phone calls from BMW customers that lost all of their keys? Dealerships have to order the key and wait a couple days for it to come in. It costs less than you'd think (a few hundred), but they usually have to tow the car, and most BMW customers are willing to pay a prime rate for same-day service. Using an EEPROM tool like the HRT EWS Editor by KeyLogic ($649), the process is pretty painless and covers vehicles 1995 (when BMW started using transponders) thru around 2004-2007 (different years for different models). Taking the unit out of the vehicle takes 5-10 minutes and it takes just a few minutes to read the data from the chip, write to the key, and write back to the chip. The user manual is very step-by-step, easy to understand. The hardest part really is just finding the cuts to the vehicle, but that has become much easier now with the latest Lishi Decoders: HU58 (4-track for older vehicles) and HU92 (2-track for newer).