Welcome to John's Blog World...

Welcome to my little sharing space--where I come to showcase some of my custom projects and to share "how-to" info with others out there. As a lifelong "maker", design enthusiast, and design professor, this blog explains some of the little projects I occasionally throw myself into, with the intent that I may help inspire others toward self-actualization and to show them how easy it really is to construct and realize their own ideas and dreams. As Brancusi said, "Create like a god, work like a slave."

Monday, January 14, 2013

My DIY "Value-of-the-day"

As most people know, I'm big into doing things for myself. I was into "DIY" way before it was a cute little social movement. In fact, I think I was just born with one of those stubborn I-know-I-can-do-it-myself-so-let-me-do-it-and-don't-stand-in-my-way personalities. I'll be the first to admit, though, that it's not always cost-effective to do everything yourself. Modern mass-manufacturing techniques are able to make things very cheaply and with a generally higher level of quality and even instant "replaceability" than can be replicated by most folks. If you spend a great deal of your spare time building up experience learning how to make things on your own, you can narrow that gap between the cost of mass-manufactured goods and the cost of doing something yourself...even if it takes a few years to build up the level of skill needed to get things done with a decently respectable level of quality. 
One area where the DIY cost-effectiveness gap quickly closes, though, is in the area of repair services. If you've ever "snaked" your own drain or replaced a leaky faucet, I'm sure you've seen huge savings over paying a plumber to do that same job for you (although I've heard that plumbers do have some enviably long snakes for those big, nasty drain issues), even if you may get a couple scraped or bruised knuckles in the process. Doing your own auto repair has some very similar cost benefits, as well. But, just like any DIY activity, it requires some practice and often some specialized tools. Which brings me to my latest personal DIY triumph: learning a new skill, acquiring new tools, and feeling a sense of serious accomplishment by performing a much needed car repair that I'd never attempted before...as I'll explain in today's blog entry.
About a week and a half ago, my car failed its emissions test. I actually had figured that it would, since a bad oxygen sensor had triggered the "check engine" light a couple months previously. For those readers who aren't too savvy with the car stuff, simply speaking, it is the oxygen sensor's job, in part, to help tell the car's computer how much fuel it needs to allow into the engine...and when the oxygen sensor goes bad, the engine can run "too rich"--with too much gas--to the point that the catalytic converter (the part of the exhaust system that helps catalyze--or "burn"--unburnt fuel) can't keep up to the extent that it basically wears itself out. I knew this at the time the sensor warnings showed up, but kept putting off the repair until, well, the damage was already done. When my vehicle registration came due and it was my turn to take the car in for emissions testing, I pretty much knew what was coming: a new catalytic converter. 
I'd never replaced a catalytic converter on my own before, and assumed that I'd have to do some cutting and welding to do the job right. Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the task, I got a quote from a local repair shop. They said they'd need $1290 to replace the catalytic converter, the oxygen sensors (turns out I have two of them...one before the catalytic converter, and one after it along the exhaust system), and all the relevant gaskets and clamps. This quote sounded a bit high to me...probably because the quoted amount was equivalent to the cost of an entire engine rebuild when I was a teenager. (Granted, things have gone up in cost over the years, but I still tend to gauge auto repairs costs on what they were twenty-plus years prior. Silly me.) After doing some research, I found out that, in actuality, my car doesn't necessarily require any cutting and welding; luckily, I've got a bolt-together exhaust system, so it's a much easier job to tackle. At least "easier" to the extent that I could actually attempt the repair myself without having to enlist the high-cost welding skills of somebody in a muffler shop. There was, however, the possibility that the job may not go as smoothly as anticipated and that I'd run into some hitches along the way. But I've worked through several auto-repair snags in the past and have generally come through unscathed...aside from a couple of low-grade scars on my big ol' ape hands. And I figured that I may even have to get a couple of new tools to complete the job--which is always an added bonus. (Nearly every automotive tool I possess actually originated from a car fix-it job that I'd performed sometime in the past...so I've got a rather large and useful collection nowadays.) 
Next I'd need to find a day where I'd have huge chunk of time (and courage) to get the job done. Well, the state emissions folks gave me a ten day window in which to complete the repairs without having to pay the emissions testing fee again (which was only $25, but 25 bucks is 25 bucks, dude!), so I knew I couldn't be too slow about getting the job done. But, as luck would have it, there was a huge cold front and snow storm that blew into town the day before I was to perform the repair--which meant that my garage would be frigid (a balmy 20 degrees F on the OK' thermometer) and I'd surely have melting snow and "funky" stuff dripping on me the whole time I worked under the car on the repair. But you do what you've gotta do to get these kind of things done. Or, at least I do. (Other people just pay for the convenience of sittin' on their duffs while a certified auto repairman gets himself all goopy doing the job for them instead...which seems both lazy and cruel to me. Call me crazy for feeling so responsible for my own messes or even for experiencing so much sympathy for another person who would otherwise willingly charge me good money to do that kind of work.) Since the weather had taken such a turn for the worse, I knew I'd need a propane heater for the shop. So I added that little item to the list. And I'd probably have an exhaust bolt (or five) that wouldn't come off without some serious torquing, so I'd definitely need to add an impact wrench to the list...along with a couple impact wrench-worthy extensions to reach deep into the engine. And while I was at it, I figured I might as well change the air filter, spark plugs, spark plug wires, and even the oil at the same time. (These latter items can generally help with the emissions, as well, at least to a small extent...especially considering they were overdue for service, too.) Adding all these additional items took a bit out of the savings I would have seen by doing the repair myself, but I knew I was definitely going to get a lot more bang for my buck out of the experience. Just so you can visualize the difference in the cost/value of the repair that I was attempting (factoring out the "convenience" factor of having somebody do the work for me), here's what the original quote would have gotten me (note that the catalytic converter and gasket shown are actually the old ones I took out rather than the new shiny ones I put in)...it includes the catalytic converter assembly, a gasket, two oxygen sensors, and two exhaust clamps:

Now, here's what I got by doing the job myself (at a cost of $1293.77...only about 4 dollars more than the original quote from the local auto mechanic), including all the new tools and emissions-improving parts that I'd be leveraging to ensure that I would pass additional emissions inspections for at least a couple more years to come...(shown below are the same catalytic converter assembly, gasket, oxygen sensors, and exhaust clamps, but also the shop heater and propane tank, an impact wrench with extensions, plug wires, plugs, a plug wrench, oil filter and oil--only one of the five quarts of oil used is actually shown here--along with a new air filter)

To prove that I actually pulled off this little repair (aside from the grime that's stuck in the skin on my digits), here's a scan of the original "failed" emissions test (note the cool "void" watermarks that showed up from the original document after I scanned it...didn't know that would happen but the novelty of it made me smile nonetheless):

...and here's the "passing" emissions results, performed exactly ten days later (and on one of the coldest days of the year--which is even more impressive since the car's computer tends to make the engine burn a bit richer on cold days):

To say the least, I feel a huge sense of accomplishment for this repair. I learned how to replace my own catalytic converter, I now know where the oxygen sensors are located (and how to replace them), and I have new plugs, wires, air filter, oil filter, and clean oil. What's even more useful in the long run is that I can do this repair again if necessary, and without the dread or fear of what it may entail. Plus I've got a new heater for my shop, a new impact wrench, and some other tool accessories to help out with other future auto repairs--which I'm sure will come in their own due time.
DIY rocks. And it can be cost-effective too. But only if you've got the intestinal fortitude to give it a shot. Word.