14 Apr 2013

Reliance + ignorance = BAD

I know I haven’t made too many real posts to this blog lately (spam about that HFOSS class doesn’t count) but I want to talk about an issue that I have noticed quite a lot in American culture specifically. That issue is ignorance about the workings of devices critical to your well-being.

There are many types of devices which people tend to own without knowing anything about, but the two most common ones are probably computers and cars. Since I’ve been learning about cars a lot lately, I’ll talk about those.

Think about your car. Why do you have one? You probably use it as transportation to get to your place of employment, to take you to the grocery store to buy food, to take you to your classes, and for many other purposes. Now, if you’re like the vast majority of people I know, you probably don’t have the slightest clue about how it works. I want to just take a moment of your time to bluntly point out how incredibly stupid this is.

Think about this. You’re relying on this device every day. If it were to be destroyed (which is very easy to do), it costs enough that buying another one is probably not financially feasible for you. If it breaks, you can’t go to work. If you don’t go to work for several days in a row, you get fired. You can’t buy groceries, and thus can’t eat. You can’t go to classes, and thus will fail out of school. Clearly, you need your car.

So you call AAA and have them tow it to the nearest mechanic with instructions to “just fix it.” They call you the next day… it’s bad, and it’ll be $1,200 to fix. How do you know this? You don’t, because you don’t know shit about how your car works. You simply turn the key, move a lever from “P” to “D” and push the long slender pedal and it goes.

Let’s propose an alternative.

Let’s propose that in order to obtain your driver’s license, you need to explain the following:

  • Briefly describe all of the following major subsystems in a car: air intake, fuel intake, engine, transmission, power train, exhaust, steering (including power steering), braking, electrical (including how fuses and relays work). What happens when you push the long slender pedal?
  • How a transmission works, and why you need one (many people who don’t know how to drive stick can’t answer this!). How a clutch works on a very simple level (it’s a pressure plate that connects your engine and transmission, and it’s disconnected when you push the pedal in which enables you to change gears safely).
  • A list of the major fluids, frequency at which they should be changed, and symptoms that indicate a leak. (Oil and filter at 3,000-7,000 miles, ATF every 15,000, power steering, brake fluid, coolant, washer fluid, A/C freon.)
  • How a disc brake works – which three main parts are involved (rotor, pads, caliper), what a brake lockup means, and how ABS really works.
  • How to check your oil and know whether to change or refill it (never taught to me)
  • Symptoms associated with other common malfunctions: vacuum leaks, dirty spark plugs, difficult steering, squeaky accessory belt, etc.
  • What the check engine light (CEL) really means, and how to use an onboard diagnostics (OBDII) reader

With this basic knowledge, most people would at least know enough to not get terribly ripped off.

A couple of years ago, when I had just bought my car and did not have the above knowledge, I took it into a shop because the CEL was on. I got charged over $150 for the mechanic to spray carb cleaner into my EGR valve and slap it back on. Fucker probably didn’t even replace the gasket. I declined to have work done on my rear brakes (which are drum brakes) – he wanted $300 to bleed the lines out and replace the wheel cylinders. The wheel cylinders are $12 a piece, and yes, while replacing them does indeed require bleeding the system, if this takes you 3 hours you’re doing it wrong. It’s a 30 minute job for an experienced mechanic.

Over spring break this year a buddy and I decided to do a SeaFoam treatment, fix the reverse lights, change the spark plugs, and change out a failed wheel bearing. I suspected the switch on the transmission case that is pushed when the car is in reverse had gotten gummed up (common on old Saturns like mine) and the bulbs definitely weren’t at fault as I tested the sockets with a multimeter. I had already bought the new reverse switch from AutoZone, but realized that the purchase had been unnecessary: upon locating the switch I noticed it had been disconnected.

For the record, nonworking reverse lights are cause to fail inspections in New York and Connecticut. My car is registered in Ohio, where my parents live, because I haven’t graduated from college yet. Ohio’s “inspections” go as far as an emissions check which these days simply means an OBDII probe. I think you have to demonstrate working turn signals and honk your horn at your driver’s test. My reverse lights had been out for two years.

I don’t know if that particular mechanic is the one that disconnected the switch on the transmission case that is closed if the car is in reverse. I suspect it is, but lacking proof, I will spare that mechanic from being identified at this point in time. The mechanic in question is one that a close friend’s family has trusted for years on end.

Not all mechanics are like this. On Saturns the wheel bearings are pressed in, meaning you need a 12 ton press and a lift to remove and replace them. This being beyond the ability for me and my buddy to perform, we located a nearby mechanic1 who my buddy’s grandma has been going to for years. The owner confirmed for me that it was the wheel bearing, explained the cost of the repair and why, fixed it promptly, and handed me the old part back. When I drove it away from the shop, the steering alignment was way off. I drove it back and he aligned my car for free, despite the time investment of about 45 minutes. It was the best experience I’ve ever had with a mechanic and I promised him I would be recommending his shop to anyone and everyone in the area.

Knowing the issue beforehand, or even suggesting something in the ballpark and being wrong, is a great way to keep people who service your critical devices in check.

This kind of knowledge requires time investment, and I realize that needing to be more resourceful with money than time is a condition that comes with being young. Still, my weeks are filled to the brim this quarter, it’s midterm season, and yet I found time to change my front pads and rotors today with the help of a friend over in Batavia. The monetary advantage is significant: it cost me $108.50. That’s $20 for gas, $80 for parts, and $8.50 to buy him Chinese food. Compare that to $150 for marked-up parts and $200 in labor to have a mechanic do it.

But by doing it myself, I also hung out with a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time (and who was feeling down because he’s stuck in a wheelchair for 3 months, but that’s a different story). And I learned how brakes work. Have you ever stopped to think about how important brakes are? They’re the most important device in your car. It’s a hunk of metal, weighing between 1 and 3 tons, rolling down the road. The parts that make it go are important, obviously, but you’re not gonna die because your car can’t go. If your car can’t stop, then you’ve got a problem. So how does this important part of your car actually work? It turns out that a hydraulic system squeezes a ceramic pad against a metal disc (rotor), converting your kinetic energy into heat. Of course, if you didn’t know that you’re on par with probably 85% of America.

This needs to change. Reliance on black boxes leaves us vulnerable to being scammed, stranded and panicked. Learning how these devices work makes you feel smarter and more in control of your life. Something as simple as technical knowledge can turn a disaster into a manageable incident.

1 The gentleman who replaced my wheel bearing is Tony DiSiena, owner/operator of A&L Auto Service, 1562 Route 52, Fishkill, NY, 12524. If you live in that area, you should give him your business, because he deserves it.

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