Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Mending Man

Fixing things can be a fun way to save money.... up to a point.

A reader asks me about what I think about this "repair cafe" trend that is popping up - cafes where people get to together to repair things for each other.   As an expert shade-tree mechanic who likes to fix things, I have mixed feelings about this.   Not everything can be fixed, should be fixed, or is economical to be fixed.   And some things, even if repairable, are obsolete, and thus useless even if fixed.  Yes, you can fix your cassette deck - the question is why?

The problem with repairing things is that when you take apart any mechanical device, you inevitably alter how it works.   The rule of thumb I have when repairing things is to expect to break one thing for every two things you fix.   For example, in a car, if you want to change the spark plugs, there is a finite chance you may snap one off in the head.   This is particularly true on a car that hasn't had them changed for 100,000 miles (which is the change interval these days with electronic ignition and fuel injection - as opposed to 15,000 to 20,000 miles back in the "good old days").

So making one "repair" necessitates another "repair" and so forth.   This is why more and more manufacturers are suggesting fewer preventative maintenance procedures, even if the car dealers love to do them (as they make money).   The Waddington Effect occurs, and trying to "fix" something often results in more repairs, not less.

With modern machinery and products, the problem is even worse.   Plastic does degrade over time, become brittle, and crack.   If you try to take apart plastic things, you end up breaking a lot of stuff.  For example, my brother-in-law's 1996 F-250 has a gas tank selector switch that has fallen out of the dashboard.   I am familiar with this problem as I had the same exact problem with my 1995 F-150.   It is a simple matter to re-attach the switch with some epoxy, once you remove the dash board bezel.   Problem is, to remove the bezel, the clips made of 20-year-old brittle plastic snap off.

Now, you could go and order a new switch, a new bezel, and a new face plate, for about $500 from the Ford dealer, if they even have such parts in stock.   Used parts or parts from a junked car will be similarly brittle and cracked, so that is not an option.  And that is one reason why used car parts are just not a bargain, in many cases, as they will wear out very shortly, creating more labor for you.

The solution I took was to epoxy the switch back in place and then use double-sided tape to replace the bezel.   It worked fine for the five remaining years I owned the truck, and probably is still working fine today.   Spending $500 to repair a switch on a truck worth $4500 just is stupid.   But it illustrates how "fixing things" becomes a dead-end after a while, as the Weibull curve sets in.   Eventually just the cost of new tires exceeds the value of a vehicle.

So yes, it is possible to repair and "restore" things if you buy all new parts or have them made.   But now you are just rebuilding the item in question, with all new parts.   You are not so much repairing as replacing.  It is like the joke about George Washington's hatchet.  I own George Washington's hatchet - the one he cut down the cherry tree with!   I've replaced the handle three times and the head twice, but it is still George Washington's hatchet!

Sometimes, it is just cheaper to buy a new hatchet.

But people without mechanical or engineering backgrounds fail to appreciate these things, and assume that items can be "mended" again and again, by the nice man down the street at the mending shop, as an anglophile friend of mine likes to put it.

But there reaches a point, especially in this day and age, where the cost of parts and especially repair labor, far exceed the value of the item to be "mended".   As I noted when I repaired my bicycle, it was a toss-up whether I was throwing good money after bad in fixing it, or whether I should just look into getting a new bicycle.   And it never ends, either.  After replacing the front chain cluster, chain, and rear freewheel, I later on had to replace shift cables, brake cables, the rear wheel, tires, tubes, pedals, and so on and so forth.  Eventually, all you have left is the frame, and you are getting into George Washington Hatchet territory.

And others, again with little engineering background, look at repairing things as a political cause.   In Sweden they are trying to alter tax laws to favor repair over replacement.   It is an interesting idea, particularly in a country with such high taxes.  Due to the high VAT or Value Added Tax, buying something like a boat there is prohibitively expensive.   A friend of mine in South Florida made a nice living buying up old Sea Ray boats and re-powering them with diesel engines taken from navy surplus boats.  Another fellow would re-do the interiors.  An SAS airline captain ran the enterprise.  The finished boat would be put on a container ship and sent to Sweden, where it would command far more as a used boat than it would in America.   When you jack taxes up through the roof, you create unintended consequences.   So I am sure that in Sweden, repair is already more favorable than replace, when a new car has a huge VAT attached to it.

In a normal tax environment, however, replacement makes more sense once repairs start to escalate.  The cost of factory labor is less than repair labor.   A plumber would charge at least $75 to $150 an hour to come to your home to replace your dispose-all.   In the dispose-all factory, people might be making only $15 to $30 an hour, and since all of their tools and jigs are at hand, on the assembly line, they can put together these things in minutes - whereas a plumber would take an hour to re-assemble one, if you could even find parts to repair it.  Making things on an assembly line is far cheaper than trying to re-build them in the field, period.

Which brings up a good point - what is the increment of repair involved?   At what stage do you replace individual parts versus modules versus entire machines?   For example, in my boat, they sold a "repair kit" for the toilet for $88 at West Marine.   To make this repair, you had to remove and disassemble the toilet, which was an arduous task that might take an hour.   A replacement toilet was about $105, and took about ten minutes and require the removal of four bolts and one hose clamp.   The repair "kit" was just not a value-proposition, particularly if you are paying for the labor.

Which brings up an odd conundrum.  The man you pay to repair the toilet might suggest the repair kit, as it means more money for him in terms of labor.   He charges you for an hour of labor, which is what he is selling and where he makes his profits.   Installing the new toilet may take less time, but time is what he sells.   Similarly, a rebuilt engine (long block) involves more labor than merely installing a new one.   But since they sell labor, they tend to promote the rebuilt engine rather than a new one, as they make more money on the labor end of it.  Sometimes the best repair is not in the best interests of the mechanic.

And you could be really crass and argue that the mechanic would rather you come back again and again for more repairs rather than do things all at once for a smaller overall bill.   But sometimes owners are the worst at this.  My old Fiat was a classic case.  The previous owner got frustrated with "repair costs" as he would go and have one ball joint replaced.   The mechanic would point out (correctly) that likely the others would need to be replaced soon, and it would be cheaper overall, while the car is on the lift, to do all four.  The owner refused, and of course, six months later, came back to have the other one done, paying more than double what it would have cost otherwise.   Being super-cheap can sometimes backfire in a big way.

As a tinkerer, I like to try to fix things, and have some success at it.   However, in many cases, things that I "fix" end up breaking again in short order, as they are near the end of their design life.   And there reaches a point where you have to decide whether it is better to fix something or throw it away.   And this should be an economic proposition, not a political one or an emotional one.

You can't look at this in terms of landfills and "throwaway culture" or whatever other pop sayings are going around these days.   Not only is it a silly way to look at your broken toaster, odds are, repairing it may use just as much energy and landfill space as buying a new one.  By the time you add up the energy and environmental costs of buying new parts, the labor involved in repair (including transportation costs for the laborer) you may end up with a half-assed toaster whose "environmental cost" of repair is more than the new one.   And by the way, it will break again, shortly and you will end up just buying the new one anyway.

And yes, it is true that years ago, cars were easier to repair as they were simpler in nature.   But it is also true that they needed repairs far more often.   Every year, you had new points, plugs, and condensor put in the car, and maybe a new distributor cap and plug wires as well.   In three years, a new battery and exhaust system as well as tires and brakes.   A clutch might last five years, with careful use.

Today, many of these things can last 100,000 miles or more - sometimes the life of the car.  So cars are harder to work on, mostly because it is not expected you will need to work on them.   Even changing a light bulb in a car is hard to do these days, as even filament bulbs last longer and LEDs last the life of the car.  This is progress, not regression, despite what the "everything was better in the good old days" people will tell you.

The big problem with "fixing things" is that in order to be able to do it in a cost-effective manner, you have to be handy and do-it-yourself.   In Western countries, the cost of labor is so high that it is often cost-prohibitive to repair something and cheaper to buy new.   Why pay $300 for a service call on a washing machine when you can buy a new one for the same amount?

And not everyone is "handy".   There are people who can paint a painting because they have that talent.  There are people who can give a massage because they have the skill and talent.  There are folks that can create beautiful music because of the skills they learned and their native talents.   And there are people who can take apart and assemble things in minutes, because they just have the hands for it - the hands and the kind of brain that tells them intuitively how something is put together.

And some folks just don't have this talent.  They are "all thumbs" when it comes to mechanical things.  Others simply don't want to learn, and that is sad.   But if you are a klutz with a screwdriver, maybe "mending things" isn't your bag.   And the good news is, today things require a lot less mending.  This does mean throwing out broken technology, but that is the name of the game.

And note, this is not to say the other extreme is also valid - that you should trade in your leased car every three years to "avoid repairs costs" - that is just nonsense.   Rather, you should set a rational expectation of use - 100,000 miles or so - and move on from there, because that is, today, an age where a lot of problems do manifest themselves in cars, and while you can go further, it will require more and more repairs after that point.

A final note:  I am not sure what the business model of these repair cafes exactly is.  How do you "make money" from people helping people fix things?   Do you charge a fee?  Sell them coffee?  What?  And how does this add to the cost of "repairs" if you have to pay a fee to the cafe?  And what about liability when something explodes due to improper repair?   It is an interesting "fad" but like the barter vending machine (remember that?) I doubt it is more than a mere stunt.