Recalls come about from vehicular defects that result in loss of life or limb. In compliance with Federal regulations, the carmaker agrees to fix these issues free of charge, regardless of warranty status.
TSBs, on the other hand, are documentation of defects that come about as a result of consumer complaints, but do not threaten life or limb. While these service alerts are issued to dealers by the car companies, a TSB repair is usually only covered if your vehicle is still under a factory warranty. If your car is out of warranty, a dealer doesn't have to perform the fix for free.
Oftentimes, TSB's are confused with the urban legend of a "silent recall," where the carmaker repairs something without telling you, say, when you drop the car off for oil change. Trust me that this just doesn't happen in the real world -- there is no such thing as a "silent recall."
The savvy car owner will use TSB's to their advantage. We'll get to some practical applications shortly, but first let's address the whole issue of who pays for a repair that's part of a TSB. While the carmaker is under no obligation to do so, the bottom line is that sometimes they will, depending on the repair and the specific situation, of course. Carmakers and dealers both have made it a habit of making "goodwill adjustments," extending an olive branch to the consumer in these cases. But before you can plead your case, you need to know about the TSB, and understand what it means.
Carmakers have technical service representatives out in the field, all across the country, collecting service data. The carmakers use this data in order to identity patterns and trends, including what is called a "failure trend." When one of these frequently encountered problems is identified, a technical crew goes to work to find a cure. Once an effective repair is found, and if the problem is not considered significant enough to force a recall, the information gets written up into a TSB.
Putting a TSB to Good Use
This information is useful in vehicle repair because the carmaker has already done the research and found the cause of the problem and how to fix it. So if you own a vehicle with a recurring problem, a TSB search may help you identify the possible causes.
For instance, years ago, I owned a 1991 Chevy Lumina Eurosport that had a bad habit of eating rear brake pads. I had gone through two sets on the car in just 12,000 miles. When the third set of pads went south, I did a TSB search. I found out that the pins that the pads ride on were going bad from exposure to the elements because of bad pin seals. In addition, the caliper slides were also corroding, which stopped the calipers from sliding back and forth smoothly, such that they would seize in the applied position whenever the brakes were applied. The TSB fix told me to use the emergency brake to keep the calipers free and moving and routinely keep the pins and caliper slides lubricated. I followed the procedure outlined and the rear pads lasted 40,000 miles.
Researching the TSB history of a particular vehicle can also be useful when you're shopping for a used car, because it can alerts you to potential problems before making a purchase.
How to Find TSB Information
There are two main ways to get TSB information. The easiest and cheapest is to visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website here. TSB summaries can be easily accessed and can usually provide all the information you need.
The other option is to subscribe to a service from AllData, found here. This company will sell you specific recall and TSB information on your vehicle for an annual subscription of $26.95. Choosing this route, you get the entire TSB as soon as it becomes available, without any lag before it hits the NHTSA website.