Repair Responsibly - Knowing When To Take It To The Mechanic

I happen to own a 1996 Honda Accord EX (pictured below, in case you have never seen this rare car). It is a wonderful little family sedan, and in about two weeks a far more engine savvy friend and I will be swapping in an H23A VTEC engine; straight from Japan to below my hood.

Just look at how beautiful she is! (Photo credit: Ethan Scully)

Now I’m no mechanic. I love cars, and I love driving them, but holding a wrench is a fairly new idea for me. I was raised in a middle class suburban family where the trusty local mechanic was the best option from oil changes to transmission rebuilds. I was only until about three years ago that—with reason more frugal than manly—I started changing my own oil.

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The rather extreme jump from oil changes to engine swaps happened over the span of this last year, and can be credited to one octane fueled, Integra collecting, and hoondog loving young man. He has talked me into making some of the best (or worst, depending on how responsible of an adult you are) automotive related decisions I’ve made.

One of these decisions has been to start doing most repairs on my own. I wish I could say I’m the guy who does it right, that I went out and bought a roll cab full of Snap-On tools and a Haynes guide. I did not. I opted for Youtube and plastic bag filled with incomplete Walmart tool sets.

My trusty tool bag. All of the useful tools are at the bottom. (Photo credit: Ethan Scully)

Most people reading Jalopnik articles are experienced automotive professionals or enthusiasts. You all know me well. I am that guy. The idiot newbie on the forums. So how’s that been working out for me? Let me give you two examples.

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Like the time when my radiator fan needed to be replaced

When I bought the Accord, it came from the backyard of a recently immigrated Slavic family. The entire family, headscarf clad grandmother included, joined me in the backyard to assist in the purchase. The car did not start until the father hit the underside of the fuel tank with a big stick. It was $600 and perfect save for one flaw: no A/C.

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This I took to the mechanic, after witnessing the scorching vehemence of forum users against doing it myself. The shop fixed the main issue—a hose needed replacing—and informed me that the radiator fan was not working and would be needed for the A/C system to work. I can do that. Four screws, right? “Right!” they said.

So at about an hour from sunset I prepare my tools in the driveway of my suburban home. A screwdriver and an Autozone radiator fan. The top bracket for the radiator fan came out pretty easily. The bottom screws, however, required me to remove the plastic fender under my front bumper. I did not have the right socket wrench size for this, so a quick trip to Walmart was needed. Piece of cake.

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We are now 30 minutes from sunset; bumper off, radiator fan free of its bindings. However, to my chagrin, it does not have clearance to exit its little nook behind the radiator. There’s this big hose blocking it. Using Sherlock like deduction skills I determine that it is for the engine coolant system. And, because it is at the top of the engine and radiator, and gravity acts upon fluid, that it would be empty of coolant. I was very wrong.

It is now dark. I’m working by the light of one of those rechargeable camping lamps. I am drenched in engine coolant, an unhealthy amount of which somehow made it to my face. And guess what folks? Mosquitos happen to love engine coolant, and it is summer here in Florida.

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And the fan is still not coming out. At this point I have had enough, and with an unearthly howl of rage I rip the fan free if the engine bay. From this point onward I don’t remember much, but somehow I got the new fan installed, the radiator hose re-attached, and the coolant refilled. After the blinding rage cooled I stumbled back inside and decided to learn more about engine coolant systems.

And the time when I needed new brake pads

Not long after this I wearied of the horrible screeching sound my brakes made when I tried to stop, and only using engine braking to slow down was starting to show itself in gas costs.

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My local mechanic quoted me at $270 for two sets of brakes, meaning $540 for all four (and I needed all four, believe me). I saw that on Amazon upgraded brake pads were a mere $30 for a set of two. I learned from my previous mistake, however, and looked up a guide this time. According to the guide it was simple. All I needed was a 14mm socket wrench and a C-clamp.

Now fully educated, I jack up my car using the horrible spare jack found in the trunk and remove the front left tire. Surprise! My wrench set only goes up to 13mm. Tire back on and a quick trip to Walmart. Tire back off.

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I undo the two 14mm bolts holding the caliper on to the brake pad bracket. the old pads came off easily, and the new ones slid right in. Now all I have to do is use the C-clamp to push the caliper piston back in so it can fit over the new pads. Surprise! My C-clamp is too small. Time to ask my roommate to borrow his car for a quick Walmart run.

Ok so that was annoying, but things are looking up. I know what I’m doing now. Time to do the left side. Everything is exactly the same, except the lower 14mm bolt. It is not the same. It is very very frozen. Frozen to the point that I am almost stripping the head of the bolt with my Walmart ratchet, destroying my knuckles on the pavement in the process. I need a real wrench. Guess what size wrench I don’t have? Time for a Walmart run.

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So now it’s late, and I have to make it to work tomorrow. The two front brakes are done, and I can do the back two tomorrow after work. It’ll only take like 20 minutes now that I know how to do it and have all the tools.

The next day I get the get to work and get the rear right wheel off. Surprise! These bolts are 12mm not 14mm. But this time I’m prepared. My ratchet set includes this one. But the surprise had another idea. The upper bolt was in a space too tight for my ratchet to fit, and I needed a 12mm wrench. By this point I am as sick of Walmart as the checkout woman is of me. It’s only a bonus when I smash my ring finger so bad the nail turns purple trying to get that bolt off.

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I eventually get the new pads on and it’s time to compress the caliper piston. But it won’t budge. I get to the point of bending the C-clamp trying to get it in. I even unscrew the bleeder valve to try and alleviate the pressure; still no dice.

The tutorial said nothing about this. It’s time to bring it to a professional. By then the mechanic was closed, but I’ll make an appointment for the next day and drive there with the loose caliper zip tied to the exhaust.

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I convinced my roommate to let me take his car to work the next day. Only then did it occur to me to search the internet to see if someone else had the same problem. As many of you probably know, you need to turn rear calipers to get them back in. I picked up a Borg cube looking device designed to turn brake pistons on my way home.

I assimilated my brakes (Photo credit: Northern Tool)
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After this things smoothed out. I got both rear brakes done without a hitch with the new brake tool. My car could stop again.

In conclusion

Now, before you break out the pitchforks, please note that I have learned. I’ve learned not only to prepare better before trying a repair or maintenance, but I’ve also learned about my car. I’ve learned how brakes, coolant, A/C, intake, exhaust, and sound systems work through my escapades. Soon I’m going to learn a whole lot more (fortunately with the help of someone more knowledgeable) when swapping the engine.

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I guess my point is that while I was totally under qualified to take on these challenges, taking my car to the mechanic would have deprived me of some useful (if not painful) learning experiences. Looking back on it a poor repair, although dangerous and stupid, helped me in the long run. Maybe it was better that I tried it myself.

What do you think? Should I have gone to a mechanic? And do you have any DIY disaster stories?

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While you think about it I’ll be on Amazon. It’s time to get a better wrench set.

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