March 17, 2011
There comes a point in one’s life when you are driven by curiosity or necessity to pick up a wrench and pop open the hood of the car to try your hand at routine maintenance. In Glenn’s case, it was a bit of both.
Long overdue to bring his Toyota Corolla in for an oil change and rarely able to structure his day to allow enough time to schedule an appointment, Glenn got the notion that he could do the job himself. No, it wasn’t about saving money, as acquiring the tools and knowledge necessary to perform the most basic of all car maintenance routines would easily cost three or four times what it would be to drop off the car at the local lube shop. This was about taking the mystery out what makes the car go, and about pride of ownership. About knowing what products are being used on the car.
...Oh yeah, and eventually about maybe saving some money.
Glenn figured that if he could learn how to change the oil on his car then maybe Roni would let him change the oil on hers as well. Because there was no way in hell she was going to let him touch her car until he knew what he was doing.
He had toyed with the idea of playing mechanic for a few years, but this idea of swapping the oil and filter seemed the easiest place to learn. What could go wrong? When he found himself at Auto Zone on March 1 with a 5-quart jug of Pennzoil and a new premium Fram filter in his possession, he was committed to the project. (Total price: $22.)
But it takes more than oil and a filter to do a proper oil change. You also need a pan to catch the used oil ($8). And a funnel (free from a used 2-liter soda bottle), so as not to spill the new oil all over the engine compartment. And towels, lots of paper towels ($2). There was also something called an oil filter wrench, but that seemed sort of pointless since oil filters are only hand-tightened.
The urge to get the project rolling was growing, but more research was required. Glenn spent hours over the course of the next few days reading oil-change articles on the Internet and referencing diagrams on how and where to find the Corolla’s oil drain plug and filter location. He also studied the fine art of how to jack up the car and where to place wheel chocks for which he cheaply substituted a pair of clay bricks. It soon became apparent that the Corolla’s supplied tire-changing jack wouldn’t be adequate to lift the car’s chassis high enough for anyone of human size to work under it, so it was back to the store in search of a pneumatic jack. At Kmart, Glenn bought a 2-ton jack that came with a pair of jack stands ($40).
Now he was ready. Sort of. He meant to do the oil change on a Tuesday before work but got cold feet. Then came Wednesday but he got up too late. If the pros can change the oil in 30 minutes, it shouldn’t take an amateur more than an hour, right? Still, he wanted to allow at least two hours to be safe, especially since he needed the car for work that afternoon. By Thursday he was awake early and mentally prepared.
He lined up his collection of supplies in the driveway while he warmed up the engine according to the instructions he’d read online. With the engine at operating temperature, he jacked up the front end of the car an incredible 13 inches. Incredible because the front tires were still in contact with the driveway. Still, it was just enough clearance to work. And right away Glenn discovered why most sane people take their cars to a mechanic to perform routine maintenance: he couldn’t find the oil filter. Doh!
After frantically racing back to the computer for more research, he was able to locate the filter attached to the crankcase where it had been all along. And just to the right... the drain plug! The online guy had said to use a 14mm socket wrench to open it, and it fit beautifully. A couple of quick counterclockwise turns and a stream of warm, dark liquid began gushing into the drain pan. And onto the driveway. Oops. A few paper towels to mop up the spillage and an old newspaper to guard against new drips. So far, so good.
Glenn stepped away for a few minutes to let the car finish draining and to clean off his hands. Amazing what running the engine for a few minutes could do. Took that clumpy molasses-like oil on the dipstick and melted it down to a thin consistency that somehow looked much cleaner than he’d expected. It was dark, yes, but it still had a light reddish tint to it, nothing like it had seemed when it was cold.
With the flow down to a trickle, it was time to remove the old oil filter. That is when the value of the unpurchased oil filter wrench made itself apparent. Try as he might, Glenn couldn’t budge the thing. He searched around the kitchen and garage for a substitute wrench to no avail. At a time like this, a resourceful home mechnaic turns to his significant other and says, “Honey? Can I borrow your car to run to the store?” Unfortunately, Roni was at lunch with a client and her car was with her. Nothing to do but hoof it back to the auto parts store for an oil filter wrench ($6).
Some 45 minutes later, Glenn had walked back home with the wrench and was ready to take off the old filter. But there was still fluid dripping out the bottom of the car. Wow. Time to put the drain bolt back in and fill ’er up. Just for kicks he decided to check the oil dipstick and... uh oh. The dipstick still showed full. So if he hadn’t drained the oil then what had he drained? That reddish color could only mean one thing: transmission fluid.
Getting the transmission fluid out was a simple matter of undoing a bolt, but how to get it back in the car? By the time he had researched it enough to find the answer, Roni had returned and was able to drive Glenn back to Auto Zone so he could purchase four quarts of Castrol Dexron VI transmission fluid and a long-spout funnel to pour it through the transmission dipstick (total: $37). He quickly got the car topped off and closed up and was only half an hour late to work. First day of labor: 3 hours and plenty of free ribbing from coworkers.
On Friday, Glenn shrugged off the previous day’s miscues and blunders and set to work on the car once more with renewed determination. This time he found the proper drain bolt (it was the only other one visible on the undercarriage) and went through the messy process of letting the oil fill the plastic pan. When that was done, he hooked up the wrench to his ratchet set and made short work of removing the old filter, spilling most of its contents all over the newspaper and the drain pan. At least it was off. He primed the new filter with some fresh Pennzoil, used the cheapie pop bottle funnel to refill the engine, and had the whole process done in roughly 90 minutes.
Total time: 4 hours 30 minutes for a total oil change and a partial transmission fluid change. Total cost: around $109. Not having to take it to the mechanic and still having a car that works afterward: priceless.
Glenn’s new goal is to change the oil more frequently. He might even get to work on Roni’s car, so long as he promises not to touch the transmission drain plug. At this rate he’ll have to change the oil another 10 times before he pays for his equipment. For now, he is ready for the next stage of his home auto maintenance education: changing tires and performing auto body work. Stay tuned.
While it didn’t approach the Japan tsunami on the catastrophe scale, we had our own bout with disaster March 13 when our fruitless mulberry tree finally succumbed to the effects of decay and gravity.
The tree hadn’t been the same since July 2005, when we think it fell victim to a gopher attack and suddenly went into shock, losing all its leaves at the peak of summer. We hoped and prayed that it would recover, but as the years passed and its condition worsened, we came to the realization that eventually we would have to cut it down before nature ran its course. Somehow the tree bravely withstood the wind storms of recent winters, including one this past February, its trunk listing at greater and increasingly perilous angles from true perpendicular, yet it chose to collapse on an otherwise calm Sunday.
We returned from a shopping trip to discover the tree in a heap across the flagstone path. Our first thought was relief that it hadn’t hit either of the fences Glenn worked so hard to install five years ago; Roni had feared that could happen, especially since the tree was toppling to the southeast, its tallest trunk segment just long enough that it might be able to give the railing of the back fence a good whack. And it was because we were so certain of the direction it would fall that we scarcely gave it much consideration until we realized that it hadn’t fallen that direction at all. Somehow it managed to pivot on descent and toppled to the southwest right into Winter’s Garden. A large branch swept into the back of our 4-foot-tall Winter Season statue and sent her sprawling face-first to the ground.
This was not the first time one of our 260-pound statues had toppled. We had a similar experience with Spring in December 2009, which gave us hope that with a little heavy lifting and brushing off of dirt, she’d be good as before. But upon closer inspection we realized the situation was more dire than we’d thought. Winter was standing just near enough to the concrete retaining wall that the top of her head scraped it on the way down. The force of the impact cracked her neck and shoulder. Although her head remained attached, she clearly was a candidate for the ER.
We propped her upright in her spot in the garden, where she is currently waiting for whatever repairs we are able to make on her. At the very least we’ll have to apply some concrete patch or epoxy resin to her fractures. Then we’ll have to figure out if we can touch up her paint. For the budding handyman that Glenn has become of late, not even this job should be too large. We hope.
Glenn used his reciprocating saw to cut the branches of the fallen tree into logs on March 16, but he had to stop before removing the trunk because it is too thick around to cut with a 6-inch blade. It might be a job for a chainsaw. For the meantime, he propped the 6-foot trunk back upright in its hole, the straightest it has stood in six years, even if it does lack branches.
Thus ends the almost 14-year run of our Independence Tree, so named because we planted it on July 4, 1997, shortly after we bought our house. Replacing it won’t be easy. With luck we’ll find a fast-grower that is as beautiful as it is hardy.
Roni will celebrate her birthday next Wednesday, but she just picked up last year’s present. After more than a year of weighing her options for a new cell phone, Roni finally got the iPhone she had been considering all along. Her decision was hastened a bit by AT&T’s insistence that she upgrade her Blackberry Pearl to something compatible with the 3G network. We’d already had to do that with our other phone, but this time AT&T was good enough to offer a trade-in deal that enabled her to get the 16GB iPhone 4 for a bit less than its $199 contract price. That rebate was more than offset by the taxes and add-ons she picked out, such as the monthly data plan, carrying case, car charger and screen protector. Yeah, salesman upselling all the way.
So far she isn’t disappointed with the phone. She did manage to resist the salesman’s urging to buy the more expensive data plan, which hasn’t been a problem because she has been checking out most of the phone’s features while connected to our home wireless network. She especially likes the camera. We’re hoping to share some of its photos with you this month, once we figure out how to get them off the phone and into the computer. She is also trying to find out what happened to the ringtone she downloaded. It’s there somewhere, trapped in the phone where she hasn’t been able to see it.
And if we ever get out of the house and back on the road for a vacation, we’ve got GPS and mapping capabilities right at our fingertips. That and the “Angry Birds” game app. So much entertainment.
We’ve also got the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube apps, which we used extensively to check out the latest news and videos from Japan in the wake of their 8.9-magnitude earthquake and killer tsunami, and now nuclear power plant crisis. This seems to be the future world of news and information, and we’ve finally joined it.
Now it’s time to get ready for spring vacations, birthdays, anniversaries and doing income taxes. Somewhere in there we will also be looking into car insurance for Ben, who this month completed his driver education class and is now poised to get his learner’s permit. It seems like just yesterday we were bringing him home from the hospital in his car seat. Soon he’ll be shuttling us back and forth to doctor appointments.
See you next month.