Last month I posted a piece here titled “Taking the Mystery Out of Car Repair” in which I attempted to show how pretty much anyone can fix quite a few of the things that go wrong with a car just by knowing one thing.
But how do you know when you’re in over your head? In other words, when is it advisable to bring in someone more knowledgeable about this stuff to lend you a hand?
The answer: All the time! If you can find a friend or neighbor willing to look over your shoulder and give you advice, by all means accept! As times get tougher, more and more of us are going to have to rely on each other, so the more people you know who you can draw on for help, the better.
The thing about car repair is that most any backyard mechanic who does his own repairs is likely to be willing to offer free advice to a novice. Accept that advice willingly, but don’t take advantage. If you need more than passing help with a specific project, offer to pay him or her $20 dollars or $50 dollars to jump in and lend a hand. Trust me, whatever you end up paying your friend will be cheaper than taking your car to a mechanic.
There will be times, however, when the project is so complicated that the only real choice you’ll have is to take it to a professional.
As I wrote previously, most repairs are just a matter of moving a couple of things out of the way so you can get to the broken part, detaching the broken part, and replacing it with a new one. But sometimes that gets complicated, one example being a problem that has happened to me twice, and is likely to happen to you: the dreaded leaking Heater Core.
The Heater Core is a small radiator located behind those air vents that blow the heat into the interior of your car to keep you from freezing in the winter. The device couldn’t be simpler; the water that is already being heated by your engine runs through this little radiator, and there are blowers behind that blowing the heat onto you and your precious kin.
The problem is that eventually these things tend to spring a tiny leak, and along with the hot air blowing on you, you’ll start to see a fine, smoky mist of green radiator coolant entering the interior of your car. This isn’t good. You want to put a stop to that ASAP, because even if you immediately turn the heaters off, that green mist sometimes just keeps on a-comin’.
The Heater Core itself isn’t expensive -I only had to pay $22.00 for a brand new replacement. The difficulty lies in getting at the old one.
It has been said that whenever auto manufacturers build a new car, they begin with the heater core, then build the rest of the car around it. That is a truism if I ever heard one. For a part that almost always goes bad eventually. they sure make these things extremely difficult to get to. You practically have to take the car apart to reach it.
This is not something you will want to do yourself, and it’s certainly not something you would ask a friend to do for you. That would just be mean. I have talked to professional mechanics who tell me they want to run the other way when they see a heater core job come into the shop.
Happily, I was shown a simple solution to the problem when it happened to an old Lincoln Continental I once owned. And you can do this for any car. Just open the hood and find where the heater hoses are. (This is where you could use the help of a knowledgeable friend to make sure you get the right hoses, or refer to your Haynes or Chilton manuals). One hose goes into the heater core (the heater core is behind the firewall, so you can’t see it or get to it from there), and a second hose comes out next to it. All you have to do for this quick fix is cut both hoses close to the firewall, then connect them together with a two dollar connector you can get at any auto parts store. This allows the water to bypass the heater core altogether, and just continue to circulate through the engine, which is the water’s main job anyway. Problem solved!
Except that gives you a whole new problem: no heat to warm you as you drive. Your family can, of course, bundle up with extra layers of clothing in the winter every time you go someplace, but it still leaves the problem of defrosting the windows. You might be able to drive, but you won’t be able to see.
For about $30 you can buy a small heater that plugs into the cigarette lighter, and that will slooowly defrost your windshield. It might even eventually warm up the interior of your car, but most likely before that ever happens you’ll already be at your destination. I speak from experience. This is a passable solution, but not the ideal one.
Let’s face it. If you want any kind of quality of life whatsoever while you’re on the road, eventually you’re going to have to pay someone to replace that heater core with a new one.
What makes this chore so dad-gummed complicated is that the thing is located far behind your air vents, somewhere behind the glove compartment, and in most cars that means removing the entire dashboard, all the panels, and the radio, and the steering wheel and the steering column just to get to it.
Making the job ten times harder, inside and behind those panels are scores of wires and connections galore, and guess what? None of it is labeled. So if you were to disconnect all these wires and gismos, you had better remember what goes where, or when you put your car back together your speedometer won’t work, your odometer won’t work, your radio won’t work -heck, there’s even a chance your brakes won’t work.
If you make a mistake, you won’t likely know about it until you’ve put it all back together and the dash back on. Which means you’ll have to take it all back off again and try to find what you missed. There are scores of things that can go wrong when an amateur tries this job. Trust me, you’ll want to hire a professional. Do not ask a friend. Not only will it ruin your friendship, chances are he’ll botch the job as much as you would yourself, and now you’ll have to pay to have the car towed into a shop and have it done right.
So the question is, how to find a good mechanic you can afford for these more complicated jobs? All mechanics have a resource where they look up the amount of hours a particular job on a particular make of car is expected to take. That’s how they know how much money to charge you. The time expected for a professional to replace the heater core in my car was five hours. That’s much longer than most ordinary repairs would take, but this is no ordinary job. The worst part of that news is that the standard industry rate for car repairs is now a hundred dollars an hour, sometimes more. So the first thing you want to do is NOT take your car into a national chain. Those rates are fixed. They can’t budge on price.
Look for an independent dealer, one who has been at his location so long that he already owns his shop free and clear. That means his overhead is lower, and he won’t need to take every cent you have just to stay in business.
My advice is to look for that grizzled old mechanic who’s been at this forever, the kind of guy to whom no problem is new or surprising. He has seen it all a hundred times over, and no job is too hard for him. He is not afraid of your silly little heater core.
You want to find a small place where the owner does most of the work and he doesn’t keep an army of employees; maybe just one or two assistants. Father and son enterprise? Even better.
When you go in there, tell him you’re looking for a good, independent mechanic to handle your cars needs, so at least he has the promise of your continued business. Get his price quote on the job you need done, then negotiate lower. Larger chains can’t give you any wiggle room on the price, but this guy can. He owns the place.
By all means, offer to provide the part yourself, which you’ll just go down and buy from the auto parts store. This tells him you’re willing to do the legwork, and it also means he won’t be tacking on 30% over what he paid for it at the same store you would have bought it from.
I recently got the heater core on my current car replaced by a local independent for $300. That was a pile of money for me to have to shell out, but it would have cost me $500 minimum anywhere else. And I also made a new friend. His shop is located on the route I normally take my bike ride, so I’ve stopped in a few times since just for some friendly banter, and came away with some freely given advice.
Whatever the future holds for this country economically, a big part of your preparations for the coming hard times should include fostering relationships with other individuals you can depend on, interact with, and support. It may come down one day to bartering food, or even making payments from your small supply of silver coins. You won’t be able to develop such fungible friendships with any corporations. It takes knowing people, and working together for the mutual benefit of all.