Finding your rhythm of repair is part of DIY car ownership
In my first book, I wrote quite a bit about what I call “the rhythm of repair.” This is the process by which car owners fit automotive repair into our lives. Note that, if you don’t work on your own car, and it needs attention, you’re not off the hook; you still need to do something to enable the repair. After all, the car isn’t going to fix itself. At a minimum, that’s usually driving the car to a repair shop and getting a ride to work, then repeating the process to pick up the car. If you assume that it’s an hour each way, that’s two hours. I can get a lot fixed in two hours.
Much of the “rhythm” comes down to answering this question: Do you take the time to fully diagnose a problem, or do you instead make your best guess and order the parts you think you’re likely to need? You’d think it’s a slam-dunk to fully diagnose a problem before ordering parts, but when you do it that way, you wind up incapacitating the car twice—once to diagnose it, and a second time to fix it. If, instead, you jump to the likely solution, order the parts, and then install them, you only take the car out of service once. If you’re right, you feel like you drew an inside straight. If course, you’re wrong, you feel like an idiot.
Take brakes. If your daily driver’s stopping performance has degraded, the brakes clearly need attention, but in what form? Just fresh pads? Pads and rotors? Just in front, or on all four wheels? Calipers too? The parts for those three options might cost, respectively, $30, $150, $300, and $500. Of course, there is diagnosis you can perform to help you nail down what you need. If the brake pedal pulses when you hit it, the rotors need to be replaced, but lack of pulsation doesn’t ensure they’re good. If you hear a metallic squeal, the car almost certainly needs pads, and the rotors likely have been ruined by the metal-on-metal contact. If it pulls to one side, generally there’s either a bad caliper or a plugged flexible brake line.
At some point, visual inspection is required. If you’re lucky, the car has alloy wheels through which you can see the pads and rotors, but on most cars, to get a good look at the pads and the disc surfaces, you need to pull the wheels off. Now, jacking up a car, supporting it on jack stands, and pulling off the wheels is entry-level do-it-yourself work. But hear me out on the way this often unfolds.
The combination of my limited garage space and my ever-increasing age motivates me to raise and partially disassemble a car for a repair like brakes once, not twice. In theory, the fact that I have a mid-rise lift in my garage makes it even easier to raise a car, pull the wheels, inspect the brakes, order what it needs, and do the repair. However, the lift is usually occupied by whatever project car I happen to be focusing on. Project cars are great because you can let them sit for months and allow the work to unfold at its natural pace. If you find that the car needs something, you add the part to the list. When you accumulate enough parts to get free shipping, you submit an order. At least that’s what I do.
But daily drivers, as their name clearly states, are different. They need to be rolling again in short order. If I’m going to inspect the brakes on a DD, I need to pull the project car off the lift, put it outside (which, if it’s raining or snowing, I usually don’t want to do), move the DD onto the lift, pull off all four wheels, look at the rotors and pads, and then either procure what I need to fix it immediately while it’s still up on the lift, or put it back together and take it down so I or my wife can continue to use it until it’s repaired. So even though I have the lift, I often wind up doing quick repairs on the garage floor with a floor jack and jack stands.
However, when there’s already a car on the lift, there’s not really enough room in the garage to pull another car all the way in and be able to get a floor jack around all four sides and still close the garage door. Thus, a car I’m working on often winds up with its butt hanging out of the garage. That’s okay for a quick inspection and repair, but it’s problematic on more involved jobs when the temperature drops and winter weather moves in.
The next rhythm-of-repair issue has to do with procuring parts. Say that you’ve put the DD in the air and found that it needs rotors and pads. Where do you buy them? If the car isn’t too old, the nearest dealership probably has them in stock. This will, without a doubt, be the most expensive option for procuring the parts, but if you need them now, and if the dealership is open and has them, occasionally it is worth it to pay the premium if it lets you knock off the repair in one session.
Another option is a generic auto parts store like Autozone or Napa. They’ll probably be less expensive than the dealer, but the part almost certainly won’t be from the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM). I’m leery of generically-branded electrical items like alternators, or things with moving parts like water pumps, but for need-it-now consumables like brake pads, these stores can fulfill a niche in your rhythm-of-repair needs. Hey, any time you manage to successfully pull off a one-session diagnose-and-repair, it is a beautiful thing.
In contrast, ordering online gives you oodles of choices regarding vendor and price, but if you can’t leave the car disabled while you wait for the part, you either need to jack up and open up the car twice, or make an educated guess as to what it needs. And this is the heart of the rhythm of repair conundrum.
I encountered this recently with my wife’s 2013 Honda Fit. She reported to me that there was a light scraping sound coming from the right front. Normally I would’ve thought “metal-on-metal sound, probably needs pads and rotors,” and ordered them online, but I drove the car and found that the sound seemed to lessen somewhat when the brakes were applied, so I didn’t think the pads were the source. Plus, the car has brake pad wear sensors, and the warning light wasn’t on. It almost sounded like more of a wheel bearing issue. As much as I hated to, there seemed little choice but to jack it up, pull the wheels, and inspect things before ordering anything.
I slated Saturday morning to have a look. I pulled the car halfway in the garage, got its nose in the air, set it on stands, and then was interrupted by some unexpected visitors. When I returned to the car after lunch, I spun the right front wheel, and definitely heard a light scraping sound. I pulled the wheel off, inspected the brakes, and found that the brake pads were badly worn. Although they weren’t down to the metal yet, and hadn’t scored the rotors, they clearly required replacing; I was surprised that they hadn’t tripped the wear sensors. But more to the point, since they weren’t generating metal-on-metal contact, it wasn’t clear what was causing the scraping sound. I removed the caliper bracket to get the pads out. With it off, I spun the wheel, and the scraping sound was gone.
Although I didn’t fully understand what was going on, I wasn’t about to reinstall the already-removed worn-out pads, so I thought I’d get new ones, throw them in, and see what happened. Unfortunately, due to our unexpected guests, it was now late afternoon, the parts counter at the dealership had already closed, and wasn’t open on Sunday either.
As I said above, I regard generic parts stores like Autozone to be fine for normal-wear-and-tear parts like brake pads, so forty minutes and $37 later, I had new brake pads in hand. I installed them, spun the wheel, didn’t hear anything wrong, did the other side, buttoned up the car, and patted myself on the back. I then test-drove the car, and was quite surprised when, after a few stabs of the brake pedal, the noise returned.
It turned out that the cause wasn’t the pads, but a thin metal bracket on the caliper. One of the tabs on the bracket had somehow gotten bent, perhaps by a stray rock that had been kicked up, and was just grazing the outer edge of the rotor. I bent the bracket back, re-installed it and the pads, spun the wheel, and the noise was gone.
Since I’d jacked up the car twice and pulled a wheel off twice, it technically wasn’t the coveted single-repair session. Still, for $37, I’d taken my wife’s car, eliminated an annoying scraping noise, and replaced badly-worn brake pads that would’ve soon reached the metal-on-metal point, all without removing the car from service when she needed it the next morning. In the rhythm of repair world, I chalk that up as a big win.
Just to show the flip side of the rhythm of repair, I was preparing my recently-purchased 1987 BMW 535i for inspection. I had all of the lights working except for the reverse lamps. The bulbs tested out fine. I mentioned this to a friend who knows these cars better than I do, and he said that the reverse switch does go bad. It’s a $15 part that threads into the side of the transmission. Rather than jack up the car, crawl under it, unplug the wires from the switch, put a multimeter on the terminals to test the switch’s continuity, order the part, and then have to jack it up and crawl under it again to install the part when it arrived, I rolled the dice, bought the switch, and jacked up and crawled under the car only once to replace it. I smiled when I tested the just-removed old switch and found it to be bad, then smiled a second time when the reverse lamps came on.
May you find your own rhythm, and may it help you repair your car.
Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 30 years. His most recent book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack Mechanic™ Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is available on Amazon (as are his previous books). You can also order personally inscribed copies here.