Imagine driving your car and your electrical system stops working.
That's what a class action lawsuit warns could happen because of the type of material that covers the wiring of many cars.
Azle resident, Jackie Barnes said it happened to her, but she was fortunate. She was able to make it back home. She remembers well the day it happened, when she was headed to a friend's house.
"I pulled out of the neighborhood, and I thought, 'Wow, I can't see anything. My headlights aren't coming on,'" she recalls.
Barnes drove back home and discovered her windows weren't working either. Those were the first signs of big trouble.
The next morning her car wouldn't start or even turn over. A headlight was on even though the nob was in the off position. Her fuel gauge had stopped at the quarter-tank mark instead of returning to the empty position when parked.
Barnes knew it was bad, but she never suspected what mechanics found in the left wheel well. The wiring harness — the nervous system of sorts for the car that controls its every function — had become some critter's cuisine. The rodent had even dragged leaves and a rag into the car's wheel well and made a nest.
"So he's got a home and food in the wheel well," said Barnes laughing.
But the cost of the repair was no laughing matter. She was told replacing her wiring harness would cost $2,000. But her mechanic painstakingly soldered each wire back together and charged her $400.
Barnes is not alone. Message boards on the topic display complaints from owners of cars of various makes and models saying it happened to them too. They blame soy, which many car manufacturers use as a base for sheathing to protect electrical wires. It's biodegradable. It's cheaper.
And for munching mice, the sheathing tastes good too, according to Los Angeles lawyer, Michael Braun. He's filed a class action lawsuit against Honda.
"It might be a rat. It might be a mouse. It might be a rabbit, but ultimately it's the same," he said. "It's the soy wiring that attracts them."
He argues the expensive repair is not covered by warranty. But more importantly, the potential danger posed by an electrical system that is only partially disabled by rodents, and the unbeknownst to the driver.
"If you're lucky, you'll wake up one morning and your car won't start," Braun said. "If you're unlucky, it'll get disabled in the middle of a freeway, in the middle of traffic."
Jim Martin teaches automotive science at Tarrant County College. He's not convinced that soy-based sheathing is more attractive to rats, because he's seen rodents destroy wiring for decades — long before the creation of biodegradable insulation.
"It didn't appear to matter," he said. "As far as I can tell, they like to chew on everything."
Honda agrees. The company cited the lawsuit as the reason it couldn't go on camera to speak to NBC 5 Responds about the issue.
"Rodents' teeth grow throughout their lives, and they are compelled to chew on things... to keep the teeth filed down. They are known to chew on home wiring, car wiring or wires wherever they nest," officials said in a statement.
No matter the attraction, Barnes is taking no chances. She sprays her car with an organic rodent repellent every night and leaves a rodent-ridding beeper on the windshield.
"The reason I called [NBC5 Responds] was that people could be more cognizant of the fact that this could possibly happen to them," she said.
Until we know more about whether soy sheathing is more attractive to rodents, it's a good idea to protect those important wires and hoses under the hood. Consumer Reports has addressed this issue and offers the following advice:
- Install a metal mesh around the wire harness, rubber hoses and openings.
- Wrap the wire harness and hoses with a rodent-deterrent tape. You can find it online for about $30. It's electrical tape treated with capsaicin, the ultra spicy ingredient in peppers. Rats don't like it. The tape is manufactured by Honda.
Braun argued the fact that Honda manufactures the tape is an admission that they're aware of the problem. He thinks the company should do more to protect consumers.
Honda insists that rodents nesting in cars is an "age-old problem" and they're simply helping consumers with a solution.