Monday, 26 December, 2005

Home auto repair

If everything goes as expected, I should have the truck on the road sometime before the 15th of January.  Beyond the obvious things I'm learning by replacing the engine myself, I'm also learning a few things that aren't so obvious--mostly about the shops where I've had work done on the truck over the years.  For example, when I removed the starter I discovered that there was a bolt missing.  I know for certain that the starter had been removed at least once by the dealer's mechanic.  But I can understand a missing bolt.  People make mistakes.

What bothers me the most is the condition of some of the parts in the engine compartment.  Almost every rubber vacuum hose, for example, was so brittle that it broke when I pulled it off the fittings.  The rubber in both motor mounts (the brackets that attach the engine to the frame and dampen vibration) were broken, the rubber so brittle that I could flake pieces off with my fingernail.  Various wiring conduits were cracked or burned.  Of course, since I have everything taken apart, I'll be replacing or repairing all of these things.

A good mechanic who cares about the vehicle he's working on would notice these things and replace them.  But a mechanic who's working on somebody else's car is in a somewhat difficult position.  If he were to suggest replacing every part that looks worn, it's likely that many people would be less than happy--feeling that the mechanic is trying to "nickel and dime" them to death.  A brittle vacuum hose, for example, will continue to work for a long while.  At some point it'll break and the owner will bring the car in for service.  At that point, the mechanic will probably inspect all of the hoses and suggest replacing those that are worn.

The motor mounts are a different matter altogether.  One would think that the motor mounts would be inspected during the regularly scheduled service.  I've taken the truck to the shop for scheduled service every 15,000 miles, and at nobody ever suggested to me that I replace the motor mounts.  From their condition, I'd say that they've been broken for several years.

In retrospect, I'm not terribly surprised by what I've learned.  I haven't been able to find definitive numbers, but in general people don't keep their new cars for very long.  Many people sign 3-year leases and get a brand new car every three years.  Others buy a new car every five years or so.  In most cases, people don't keep a car long enough for the warranty (or extended warranty that they purchased at a highly inflated price) to expire.  They take their cars to the dealer, whose mechanics are instructed to fix the immediate problem and move on to the next car.  The dealer makes very little money on warranty repairs.  So by the time a car's extended warranty expires, there are many things that should be replaced.

If, like me, you keep your cars for many years, then you're in a difficult position.  Warranties probably don't recover preventive maintenance like replacing a brittle vacuum line before it breaks, and in any case it's unlikely that a dealer's mechanic would suggest doing such a thing anyway.  If you want to keep a car after the standard warranty expires, your best bet is to find an honest mechanic who will suggest such things, and then follow his advice.  Either that or do the work yourself.

When I first posted the note about my truck dying, I tried to evaluate the costs and benefits of buying a new truck, buying a used truck, or repairing mine.  At the time, I figured that a used truck would cost between $6,000 and $10,000.  The dealer wanted $5,600 just to replace the engine, and that didn't include replacing any other parts (like vacuum hoses, motor mounts, and any other wear items) that might need replacement.  Doing the work myself, I figure I'll be into it for about $6,000 by the time I'm done, but I'll have an essentially new drive train (I had the transmission rebuilt), all new hoses, and I'll know that everything is done right.  I also have the peace of mind knowing everything else about the vehicle.  All told, I'm financially much better off than I would be had I bought a new or used truck.

The only thing I'm out is my time.  If I were 100% billable, then it'd definitely be a loss.  But I haven't spent any billable hours working on the truck.  What I've done instead is use the time that I'd normally use for other hobbies:  ham radio, bicycling, playing games, reading, etc.  Plus, I've learned something new, which is always a good thing.