Preparing Out of Necessity, by B.H.

Many articles regarding prepping and “how-to” leave me to wonder how people survive in this world. I’m not judging, as only GOD can; rather, I am perplexed at how they can afford it. You see, many of the skills being taught are just what I had to figure out in order to get by. I learned how to fix machinery myself because if I did not these things would no longer be of use to me. I learned how to buy second hand because I simply cannot afford new. I learned to garden in order in eat; the why in this case is evident. Gardening know-how is best left to those more skilled in that area. Repairing/purchasing mechanical items is what I would like to discuss. There are many things that I have learned in my life that were taught to me. However, today I will explain what I had to learn on my own and I believe you can learn as well. I learned by trying, failing, and reading. If I can help you do some of the same, maybe you can save money. At some point you may not be able to pay or find someone to repair what needs repairing. Wouldn’t it be best to have a basic knowledge of mechanical repairs? Whether you find yourself without the means to pay, in the middle of a blizzard, or at the end of the world as we know it, maybe you could save your life.

I started learning about machines like any young boy may; the chain came off my bicycle. Being one child out of eight, you would think there would be someone to show me how to repair the chain. Yet, with sibling rivalry, if I couldn’t put it back on then I was simply out of the fun. The real entry into the world of mechanics came with my first vehicle. The quality of said vehicle, when I look back on it, is more than questionable. In other words, it was very humble. On my way to work one day, little to my knowledge at the time, the water pump started leaking followed by losing all coolant in the engine. At the time I either didn’t know enough to shut it off, or simply didn’t look at the gauges to know it was overheating. As luck would have it, I still managed to make it to work; however, the engine developed “rod knock”. This is where the bearings between the connecting rod to the crankshaft fail and make a distinctive knock. This is never a good thing. Depending on many factors, an engine may be salvageable. In my case it was not. Now up to this point, like I expressed, I had tinkered with mechanical stuff but no more than most young boys. This mechanical failure was something else. My means to freedom just died.

The vehicle got towed home; I called a junk yard and found another engine. My dad and I went and picked it up. When we got home I remember him simply telling me, “Let me know if you can’t get a bolt loose.” This began my mechanic career. I taped every connector I unplugged, and I bagged and labeled every bolt that came out. I made an oily mess, but I managed to pull the old engine out with boards screwed into two trees and a come-along. I got the new engine in and hooked everything back up the best I could. When the moment of truth came, it wouldn’t run. I checked everything and tried over and over. I finally figured it out. I had two spark plug wires crossed. After switching them, it was alive again and my freedom was back. As time went on, I ended up replacing many, many parts on that truck. I didn’t know it then, but it was quite an education.

I honestly believe most people can repair more mechanical things than they give themselves credit for. Be it time, money, or just being afraid to mess something up, they don’t even try. I’m not saying diagnosing a failed transmission in your woodshed is something you should head right out and try. However, many times many repairs can be done in the driveway. The money you can save is unbelievable. I know in my case I cannot afford to take my vehicles in. I’ve messed up, luckily not on anything huge, but there is not much in the way of services that I pay people to do for me, be it house, car, lawnmower, or clothes dryer. So, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

First and foremost, build a toolset. No, you don’t have to take out a mortgage and call up the Snap-On man. A mechanics set from Sears will get you started. Craftsman tools have a lifetime warranty on anything you don’t plug in or attach to a hose. They used to be made in USA, but now I believe they import a lot. Check garage sales, craigslist, resale stores. The warranty still applies with no receipt required. Get basic sockets, pliers, screwdrivers. If you have an import vehicle, you’ll need metric, and even most everything on domestic stuff is now metric, so I recommend building that set first. When you buy sets, there are always jumps in the set like say 7-15mm, 17mm, and 18mm. This is because those fasteners are uncommon. In my case I’ve needed those uncommon sockets many times, so I fill in the blanks. Sometimes the SAE socket fits the bill, as in the case of 18mm-3/4”socket, which is one in the same. Having a hammer pry bar and the like should go without saying, for anyone who frequents this sight, but try and get a dead blow hammer. Removing parts from equipment sometimes requires persuasion, and if you use your claw carpenters hammer you’re going to break something. You will undoubtedly need more tools. Having the right tool for the job is tough. In my case the savings usually more than justifies purchasing the correct tools, after which your tool set grows and you become better equipped to perform the next job. There is a fine line though. I recently spent $400 on VW specific tools to basically do one repair. I may use one tool when the timing belt needs replacing again, maybe. Doing this repair myself saved me $2000 up front, not to mention if the repair wasn’t made it could blow the $6,000-8,000 engine. I actually tried to get a shop that would already have the tools to do it; however, in my case they were busy, and the job had to be done within a window of opportunity.

Repairs and or maintenance items you can do at home are many. Simple things, such as oil changes, can be done at home and you can save a lot of money. But then you have to get rid of the oil, and pouring it out back behind the neighbor’s shed is not okay. You can take it back to the parts store, and in most cases they will take it. My oil changes cost $94 at the dealership, due to the oil type and only the dealer selling it. I do it at home for $42, ordering the oil online.

More money can be saved by doing your own brake jobs. Usually brake jobs can be done with basic toolsets. With shops charging $400 plus to do one end of your car is ridiculous. That’s not even using OE quality parts. You know you need brakes when you can’t stop, there’s grinding when you brake, and/or you hear squealing when you brake and it goes away after you let off the pedal, et cetera. I recommend looking online for a procedure on replacement for your specific vehicle. There are enthusiast sites for just about every type of vehicle. Somebody has instructions on exactly how to do it. The Internet can be great. You can also get repair manuals that explain it for your specific car/truck. Once you’ve replaced the brakes, you will be able to do it on any number of vehicles with minimal guidance.

Here’s a basic rundown. The round thing inside your tire is your wheel. Inside that round thing is another round thing; that’s the rotor or drum. The thing that’s on one side of the rotor is the brake caliper; it squeezes the rotor with the pads. If nothing failed, they’re just worn out and it’s the pads and rotors. I always replace both. Some people have their rotors machined back to shiny, smooth and flat; I don’t. Brakes convert mechanical energy to heat energy. They do this by the pads squeezing on the rotors, causing friction to make you stop. This friction creates heat. The rotors dissipate that heat. They warp and wear. I’m of the belief that more mass absorbs more heat and stays flatter longer. You take that mass away and you take life away from the brakes. Brakes make you stop, and sometimes you have to stop fast. Brakes aren’t something I like to skimp on. Break free the lug nuts on the wheel that needs working on. Don’t unscrew them all of the way; just break them free. Now safely jack up your vehicle; check your owner’s manual on where to place the jack. Make sure once the vehicle is jacked up that you put blocks of wood or a jack stand to support it in case the jack slips. Now, remove the wheel. There are two bolts that hold the caliper on. After that you can slip the caliper off the rotor; you may have to pry it off. Now that the caliper is off, the pads and caliper bracket are visible. Two bolts hold this bracket on. Once you remove these, the rotor can be removed. Sometimes there is a little screw in the rotor, and it may need a tap with that dead blow hammer you bought.

Installation goes backwards. Install the new rotor. Make sure you cleaned the rust protection oil off the rotor first. After cleaning the caliper bracket, it can be installed. The new pads will go on the way you took the old ones off. Sometimes the new pads come with a metal stamping; these give the pads a nice smooth surface in which to slide. To get the caliper back over the new pads/rotors assembly, you will have to compress the piston in it. Put the old pad in it, and use a c-clamp to squeeze the piston back into the cup, after which it should slip right over. Replace and tighten all bolts. Install wheel, lower car, and torque lug nuts. Always tighten all bolts to manufacturer specs!

This is a much generalized pad/rotor replacement scenario. I highly recommend finding, printing, and keeping a copy of the procedure on your specific vehicle, because there are many different steps on different vehicles.

Further maintenance that can be done at home includes:

  • air filter replacement,
  • belt replacement,
  • cabin air filter,
  • battery replacement.

Find all procedures or buy a manual to keep on hand. Diagnosing failures can be easier than you may think as well. Think critical. If your car does nothing when you turn the key, are the overhead lights still on? If not, head straight to the battery. If the lights are all normal and windows all work at full speed, we are now usually headed to the starter or ignition switch/relay. If your engine is making a squealing noise, it could be the belt; you can check the associated bearings by carefully placing an automotive stethoscope near every pulley the belt runs on. If your vehicle clunks over bumps, park it in the grass and get under it (with vehicle off). Push it up and down looking at all the steering and suspension points. Feel the associated steering parts with someone turning the wheel back and forth. Damaged shocks, sway bar end links, and tie rods can all make clunking noises. You will usually feel or see the clunk when you bounce the vehicle. If you do need any steering components replaced, you will need an alignment afterwards to ensure correct handling/steering.

I recommend buying/finding repair manuals for your vehicle now; even older automotive repair textbooks can give lots of insight. If you start slow, with an easy repair maybe on a long weekend or such you will become more comfortable, before you know it those high labor-cheap part repairs and maintenance items, like a timing belt job, will be under your belt. Not only will this save you loads of money, but, if the time comes where you can’t pay somebody to repair your vehicle, what will you do? Keeping up on maintenance is expensive, but your vehicle will last longer with proper care.

Another area we can, and I do, save money and prepare is buying quality older bargains, not only vehicles but home equipment. I’m talking about lawnmowers, chipper/shredders, chain saws, et cetera. I am a firm believer in older power equipment. I cannot tell you how many times I have bought a snow blower or chipper that doesn’t run, only to clean the carb and never have another problem. Most owners of these things use it and park it. The better ones change the oil every now and again and use it and park it. The gas then sits for a year and turns to varnish, plugging the carburetor. They take it back out, and then it doesn’t run. This is where you come in. I recently picked up a $700 chipper/shredder for $50 because it didn’t run. I cleaned the carb, put a new belt on it, and I’ve been running it since. You want to either put a fuel stabilizer into the fuel before you park it for the year or empty the fuel and run it out of gas. Also don’t just go buying up every not running small engine that’s out there, because I can assure you I am not the only one with this knowledge. Quality is what we are looking for. In my case, this unit was a couple of years old. It was a known good brand. The paint was in good shape, and it didn’t look abused. Someone with more money than time parked it in the garage and forgot about it until needed. They were not going to be bothered with maintenance or repairs. This is what I look for.

You can apply your new-found knowledge regarding repairs and maintenance to how you buy in the future. As I said at the beginning, I’ve lived like this out of necessity. As you prepare for the unknown, hopefully you do not burden yourself with loads of debt. This means not driving a brand new $50K truck with a $6K lift and tires, plus every off road feature you can buy. Instead, be practical with every purchase. Don’t be afraid to buy older. This gives me the opportunity to see how specific vehicles/equipment performs over time. Certain vehicles seem to just last because they’re tough. There are a lot of them, and once people start getting rid of them the abundance drives the cost down. Two examples are the Jeep Cherokee (or Grand Cherokee) as well as the GM sedan (Grand Prix, LeSabre, Impala). What do these vehicles have in common? They last. They are two very different platforms with very different intended uses. If you wanted some off-road ability with hauling a few people, the Jeep is there. Unlike the off-roading Jeep Wrangler, the Cherokee is everywhere and inexpensive. Look them up and you can find them for sale with 300k miles. That tells me if I find one with 100k that’s been taken care of, I may have a good vehicle for a while. I also know it runs the same engine, transmission, and axles as the “known for off road” Wrangler. The story is similar with the GM lineup I mentioned, only without off-roading. They get good gas mileage, and they last. It just depends on your needs/preferences. I’m not endorsing any brand. People already have numerous opinions about their vehicles. I’ve seen Ford Taurus’ with loads of miles, Subaru’s that look like they just did the Baja 1000, and even a BMW with 940k miles. I worked on it, and it had maintenance records back to 1984. Your results may vary, as they say.

The point is what do you need? What foots the bill? If you are not worried about keeping up with the Jones’, then buying older makes sense. Somebody else was the guinea pig. Bargain shop, do your own repairs, and when it all goes down and you are traveling and you blow a water pump, you can get one off the Cherokee that somebody who doesn’t know how to repair abandoned in the junk yard.