Basic Skills: Without Them, You're Broke(r)
The Market Ticker - Commentary on The Capital Markets
2017-03-09 06:00 by Karl Denninger
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Basic Skills: Without Them, You're Broke(r)
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This last week marks four separate instances of something that has broken here at the house which I could have "called someone" and would have likely cost me a ton of money during the last few months -- but in each case the cost of the repair was either nothing or just a few dollars.

The first was my oven, right around the holidays.  It stopped heating, which is a real bitch when you're in the middle of making food.  Usually that's the heating element, which is typically $25 or so to buy (and can be changed by anyone who can successfully use a screwdriver in under 30 minutes.)  The element in this case was in fact bad, but in addition there was a fuse in the back of the oven which had also "cooked."

It didn't fail from overcurrent (a short) it failed from a bad connection which heated it up enough for it to pretty-much catch the fuse holder on fire.  Cost of the repair?  $5 for a new fuse holder and $25 for a lower element.  The "snowflake" solution would have been to buy a new $1,000 range/oven combination.

Next up was my pool pump.  It had a small leak in the center section between the motor and pump body.  If you call the pool guys they'll come out and replace the pump.  If you don't fix the leak promptly, incidentally, you will be buying a new motor because the water will get in there and destroy it.  Well, a few years ago I put a VFD drive motor in, which (incidentally) has cut my power consumption for the pool by some 80% -- but that damn motor is expensive!  A complete pump assembly, with motor?  $1,000 -- plus the pool guy's labor to put it in, which is a couple hour job with wiring and pipe.

The actual problem is a $20 shaft seal.  A full kit of seals, including the O-rings you disturb to get to the shaft seal, costs about $30.  Time to repair?  An hour, since I didn't have to unwire anything and the last time I had the plumbing apart I intelligently put unions in so I could disconnect the pump and filter with reasonable ease.  The "snowflake" solution would have easily topped $1,000 with labor - probably $1,200 or so.

Next up was about a week ago.  The dishwasher stopped running mid-cycle with a "door open" fault shown on the display -- but the door was latched.  Most of the time this is bad news; the control board is usually dead, and they're not cheap.  Well, the unit is 10+ years old, so I expected the worst.  Opening up the control board area I found a bad connection that (again) overheated and had cooked one of the wires and the trace on the board it plugged into.  But it was salvageable: A short length of tinned (marine-grade) stranded wire, my soldering iron, some shrink wrap and hot glue to tack it all back in place and then disassembly of all the other connectors to tighten them up so I don't get a repeat because the next incident will definitely fry the controller board beyond repair and the dishwasher is back in business.  Cost?  $0, plus about an hour of my time.  Snowflake solution?  New dishwasher: $500+.

And then there was the most-recent.  I have my home automated and when I go to bed I push a button and it drops the temperature in the house by a few degrees, since I like a cool house to sleep.  Well, a few hours later I wake up and the AC is running.  Uh..... that's not good, considering that I don't feel particularly cold air coming out of the vents and in fact I'm warmer than I should be -- and no, I'm not drunk.  I wait a few minutes and it's still running.  Step outside and find the outside unit has the fan running but no compressor.  Crap.  Shut it off at the disconnect, go to bed, deal with it in the morning.

Next morning I opened it up, expecting very bad ($$$$$$$$) news.  See, if the fan is running on the outside unit then power is good and so is the ($10) contactor -- which means you're odds-on to have an open in the compressor motor itself (inside the sealed part) which totals the outside unit.

Nope.

One of the wires from the contactor to the run condenser had apparently succumbed to corrosion internally (untinned wire, thanks for nothing you jackasses!) and, once it got compromised it burned up.  In the process of trying to light itself on fire that wire burned the insulation on a few other wires, but fortunately the manufacturer was kind enough to leave sufficient length to cut off the damaged part and reterminate them.  I had to make up one jumper, but I happen to have some 14 fully tinned marine-grade wire to do that with, plus crimp-on disconnects and the proper crimping tool.  Total cost of the repair?  $0.  The "snowflake" solution could have been anywhere from an honest repairman charging a couple hundred bucks for the service call and a crazy markup on the replaced wiring to something really awful, $3-4,000, if you got a dishonest guy who claims the condenser is bad -- a ruse that utterly nobody who failed to check it out themselves would detect.

So let me see if I can count this up: That's under $100 worth of actual repairs and somewhere between $2,000 and $5,000 in avoided expense because I'm not a "snowflake."

Let's put this in perspective for you:

For the average family that's roughly 10% of their annual disposable income.

These sorts of "emergencies" aren't all that uncommon.  In fact they're routine.  Most households have at least one "good one" a year, whether it be the range, the microwave, a water heater, car, washing machine or similar.  Another "good one" for you to get screwed by is the rotary spring on your garage door; they break, and cost about $30-40. I've seen $500 repair bills to change one which is a pure rape job given that I can replace one in under an hour, but the garage door places get it from people who are afraid of doing it themselves because when the spring breaks your car is trapped inside the garage!  The newer 4-stroke weed whackers require a valve adjustment roughly annually -- a 15 minute task if you know how to do it and a $100 bill from the local small-engine guy if you don't.  A material percentage of the failures in appliances and similar are due to manufacturer decisions to save 15 cents when the item is made but most of the time they're fixable for very little money if you know how.  If not they can be very reliable budget-wreckers.

All of this expense comes because we got rid of shop class, the average 18 year old can't change his own oil and has no idea how to use a voltmeter or a soldering iron.  Instead of using one's head and looking into things we now just "call someone" and play around on Facebook and Snap.

Look, if you like buying a new range every 10 years or so (when you can easily get 20+ out of one), a new dishwasher five years earlier than you should need to or worse, a new AC unit at half of the lifetime it should be expected to last then go right ahead and be stupid.

They'll be happy to take your money.

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Precision37
Posts: 18
Incept: 2014-02-27

NH
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And the funny thing is, this generation that is so into all things digital, could find out how to fix most anything through youtube videos if they would just bother. They'll figure out how to fix their Play Station, but not their leaking faucet or toilet.
Zk118
Posts: 3
Incept: 2016-09-28

Los Angeles
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I totally agree on getting ones hands dirty and actually fix things with knowledge of basic skills. My dishwasher was not heating the water nor drying the dishes last month. Pulled it of the cabinet and started to troubleshoot. No continuity on the heating element. Easy fix, buy a new heating element for $20. Swapped it out and still no heat although the new element did have continuity now meaning the one I replaced was dead. Checked the limit switch and it was fine. Has to be something further upstream. Took the door apart to get to the control board. No loose or burned connections or wires anywhere. Every other function of the dishwasher worked except the heat so I ended up having to replace the control board which I found for $60. Works perfect since. I have no doubt a service call would have been several hundred dollars and a new unit double to triple that. $80 and a little bit of my time and it's good as new.
Supertruckertom
Posts: 1208
Incept: 2010-11-07

USA
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Last Summer, AC Blower.
Wanted to sell my wife a new system $4k.
I was running coast to coast so I was out for a week or more at a time.
Told her to get pictures of the plate on the blower motor and send them to me.
They wanted $500 just to fix the blower.
Fox Appliance found me an equivalent for $140.
She was willing to wait until the weekend.
Universal frame multi speed.
I wired a single pole triple throw switch into the system to allow me to choose the blower speed.
It was wired as a single speed.
Spliced into the existing harness.
Spending more time cleaning the dust off of the squirrel cage than I spent doing the wiring.

My wife replaced the clothes dryer bearing herself last month.
I just told her what tools to use.
It didn't heat up after she finished and I told her how to use my cheap RS multimeter. Sure enough only 120 V was going to the element.
It was a spade connection that pulled loose when she was replacing the bearing.
We have done our own roof repairs and plumbing.
Two years ago it was the water heater.
I call this generation the Push Button Generation.
That is the limit of their skill.
Push a TV remote. Push a cell phone dial. Push a Microwave control. When it stops working they have no clue how to troubleshoot.
Mr Tom, it stopped working.
Buy me a new button.

About 5 year ago I was cooking eggs and bacon on the stove.
I heard my stepdaughter put something in the microwave.
A couple of minutes later she opened it, poked around and exclaimed, Mr Tom, this microwave is too slow.

Well sweetie, I just can't help you there.
I don't have any way to fly it to the surface of the Sun.

Maybe try the stove next time.

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Preparing to go Hunting.
Comrader
Posts: 233
Incept: 2010-06-10

pa
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I rebuilt my kitchen last year, made all the cabinets did all the plumbing and electric, replaced everything except a 1952 Westinghouse stove. it looks brand new and never had a problem except a replaced burner. redoing two bathrooms right now. tore all the flooring and walls back to the studs and joist, keeping the cast iron clawfoot bathtub and the oak tanked toilet. that's what I have been doing in the evenings and weekends while my wife and kids look at facebook. if I new how I would post some pics. wait, I could get my wife to....nevermind!
Mlund73
Posts: 6
Incept: 2011-08-05

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I can't agree more, growing up my dad was a teacher and during the summer worked side jobs mostly in construction, he would take me with him and teach me. Now there is not a home improvement project or repair that I can't handle. My biggest fear for my kids is that I don't teach them enough so they feel like they can take on those same tasks when they get older.

To all dads out there - let your little ones watch and "help" it will give them the confidence to take on these tasks when they are older and your not there.
Handyone55
Posts: 107
Incept: 2010-07-06

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Bravo Mr. Denninger - I have been doing my own work for years and saved a boatload of money. My shallow well pump recently started short cycling and I replaced the waterlogged pressure tank. Cost about $350 for materials only and 6 hours of my labor. I have been preaching that people learn basic skills for years. Now, there are internet forums for just about every appliance and vehicle under the sun. I had trouble with the wipers on my Dodge locking together and stopping, a potentially dangerous thing at highway speeds. A check of the Dodge Caravan forum showed the problem could be cured by using a smaller wiper on the passenger side. Five bucks for one wiper blade at Walmart and problem solved! I hope to make money as a fix it guy if my job ever goes away.
Finzer_52
Posts: 60
Incept: 2010-06-27

Burlington, Vermont
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Congrats Karl! As one DIY'er to another we're a vanishing breed. For me, I started out building models as a kid then fixing anything that I had that broke, or at least took it apart to see what makes it tick. Years ago I came across an article that touched on the core of what you're getting at. The article posed the question, are you born with that innate curiosity to want to know how things work and gather a supporting skill base along your lifetime or can it be totally learned? There seem to be a very small number of service folks that seem to have "it". Sure someone can learn to read repair manuals, follow flow charts etc. but still not have "it". I started my career as a maintenance guy working on state of the art, hi-tech semiconductor process tooling. The designs were in-house and documents never seemed to keep up with EC's, so you had to be able to get the job done without the benefit of complete documentation. We had a saying I'll pass along to you, you're a very worthy recipient. "We've been doing so much for so long with so little, that we're now qualified to do anything with nothing!" I tried passing "it" along to my children (1 son, 1 daughter) and they've both picked up skills to a degree, but I wouldn't go as far as to say they have, "it". Now my grandson... It looks like he may have "it". I'm so looking forward to going as far as his desire to understand what makes things around us, tick! Being retired now I've got the time. Your posts are appreciated, stay well Karl.
Flappingeagle
Posts: 2551
Incept: 2011-04-14

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I do the same things for the same reason.

There's one additional benefit to the money savings, the satisfaction of fixing something and seeing it work. You've just taken a test and the universe said "PASS".

Flap

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Here are my predictions for everyone to see:
S&P 500 at 320, DOW at 2200, Gold $300/oz, and Corn $2/bu.
No sign that housing, equities, or farmland are in a bubble- Yellen 11/14/13
Trying to leave the Rat Race to the rats...
Blow_off_top
Posts: 42
Incept: 2010-11-10

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Great post Karl, I could have written the exact same thing. I have "owned" a house for 10 years (of course, no one really owns a house since the second you stop paying taxes you're booted out, but that's another topic), and the money I've saved is easily in the thousands. I have four young kids, and I'm seriously considering making a couple of them tradesmen - either electrician, plumber, whatever...I'll train them in their teens and put up the initial investment to get them going, instead of plowing $150k+ into some bull$hit college degree..

Don24mac
Posts: 118
Incept: 2007-11-26

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Yep. Ive been called a cheapskate. But it's all about saving money for me. Like you mentioned, shop class helped. So did just wanting to know how things worked. If you know how something works, you can fix it.

I remember a very expensive microwave that a relative was about to toss. This was back when they were the new thing (80s). It just stopped working, so I said I'd take it. Took the side cover off and looked at the fuse. Blown. Had to go to Radio Shack to find one with that rating, but got many years out of it after.

Re-plumbed our entire house after the copper pipe that was original to the house started leaking with pinholes. (slightly acidic well water). All to code. Would hate to see how much that would have cost if I had a plumber do it.

Got a free fairly new washing machine when it was thrown to the curb by a neighbor. He said it just stopped draining. That one had a sock stuck in the pump. Pulled out the sock and it worked for years.

etc. etc.

Im still using a Heathkit model AA-32 tube Amplifier I built back in 62 connected to some Smaller Advent speakers. I had to replace all the caps in the amp a decade or so ago and do some cone work to the speakers. But I use it every day because I havent found anything else that sounds as good without spending a ton of money. The tubes in that amp havent been made for decades. But I've been able to pick up some NOS (new old stock) tubes over the years so I have spares. That should last me until I no longer can hear or eat or breathe, whichever comes first.

I really cant imagine the money saved by fixing my own stuff, new cars included, over the years.

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"..it does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds.." --Samuel Adams
Jpg
Posts: 430
Incept: 2009-03-23

MI
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I heard recently from an engineering college professor who has seen engineering students who have never used a screwdriver.
Curbyourrisk
Posts: 4022
Incept: 2008-08-19

Farmingdale, NY
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Honestly, I google everything. Then watch youtube videos on how to repair them. Granted, I had a dad that was handy with everything and owned his own auto repair shop for 30 years. I worked there through high school and college, and in exchange I made him happy and promised never to become a mechanic and he paid for college. Looking back I wish I was a mechanic. I am not afraid to open things up and fix them. Also like to fix my own cars. I work on most of my friends cars in my driveway thanks to being left 3 FULL tool boxes of tools when my dad passed away. Also got to go through his garage and keep what I wanted, as he had already left the shop to a friend who was a mechanic.

It's not only KNOWING what to do, but having the desire to actually do it. This generation wants EVERYTHING DONE FOR THEM.... Our future is bleak..

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Time is up.

I hate to burst your bubble, but there is no Santa Claus, the tooth fairy does not exist and American justice does not involve the courts.
Triddle
Posts: 12
Incept: 2015-07-20

Oklahoma
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And this is why I think my multi-meter is the most valuable tool that I own. Had a similar run of bad luck late last year with some home appliances. Since I refuse to use service techs because of the outlandish/borderline criminal service fees, I busted out the multi-meter and solved all three of my home appliance issues for under 30 dollars in parts.
Punch_rockgroin
Posts: 2274
Incept: 2008-12-31

Pacific NW USA
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How about basic preventative maintenance?
How many people actually drain their hot water heater annually to clear sediment? Replace the sacrificial anode?
Both are moron-grade tasks, and both will extend the life of the heater, but I'd bet that most people never think of them.

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Put the boots to him. Medium style.
Aztrader
Posts: 7724
Incept: 2007-09-10

Scottsdale, AZ
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And don't forget the 5 year zero rate financing they are going to offer you for that new dishwasher or condenser if you pay them their insane rate to put it in. The whole system has become unglued and most people can't do anything mechanical or use common sense when making a simple decision.
It's so much easier to call someone rather then get their hands dirty. I have noticed so many new cars on the street and wonder how many are leases and how many have $500 a month payments.
The cost of everything has exploded in the past couple of years and you literally can't trust anyone if you need any kind of service. The zero rate environment has kept contractors, service people and anything to do with housing strong. I have a friend in the commercial roofing business and he can retire 5 times over due to the zero rate subsidy.
Schools need to go back and teach these kids the basics and stop with all the BS electives that they allow them to skirt through. Bring back auto shop, metal works, basic mechanics, etc and teach them a real skill. Maybe this is why so many manufacturers can't find skilled labor. The school systems simply don't teach it anymore.
Rufust445
Posts: 730
Incept: 2007-08-11

Emerald City
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Well, we are in a service economy...

I read recently that Speed Queen washers still last like my mother's
Maytag, which lasted 26 years. Good to know when my Kenmore washer goes.

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"The stock market isn't bullish, it's bull$hit." -- Alan King
Happytrails
Posts: 315
Incept: 2008-10-24

Northern California
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My husband is one of those awesome fix/build anything guys. He has saved us a fortune over the years. He does lament his inability to work on newer cars. I'll never forget when we started dating and my old beater car got a flat on a busy street in our college town. He relaxed on the side of the road while giving me instruction on how to change a tire. This was in the old days when men didn't normally let their girlfriends do that and he got lots of dirty looks. But, I knew how to change a tire after that and he also taught me how to tune up my car and change the oil. You're right, most young men aren't taught these skills. I'm happy both our son and son-in-law are handy.
Ckaminski
Posts: 4000
Incept: 2011-04-08

Mass-Hole!
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I love this dude.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lA0kiYqy....

All my life I've been guilty of trading money for time and "convenience" more often than I should. That's been coming to an end since coming here, step by step. I just lack proper tools and space, so I've started building a collection at a buddy's place (especially for car work).
Apathetic
Posts: 20
Incept: 2011-08-16

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Here's where I'll actually give social media a hat tip. I had a few little things come up this past year that I wasn't sure how to fix, but thought would easily be within my capacity if I had a basic tutorial. A quick perusal of You Tube videos later and I had saved all the labor cost for the repairs.
Elkad
Posts: 266
Incept: 2009-09-04

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Anyone have a reasonably priced VFD solution for ceiling fans?
The cheap clipping controllers are too noisy.
Enapa
Posts: 1543
Incept: 2008-01-25

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With access to basically all the entire knowledge of the world at your fingertips if you arent reading and learning all you can then you deserve to go broke replacing ****. There is no better feeling to me than fixing something on my own. My are of "expertise" is in mechanics and as such ive saved friends and family literally 10s of thousands of dollars over the years.

Emac
Posts: 17
Incept: 2012-10-01

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Good one. Rarely do I ever call anyone to repair stuff. DIY is one of the best things I have ever learned from my parents. As a young teen I thought everyone tiled their own floors, replaced water heaters, changed clutches on cars, put in sprinkler systems, etc. When I got older I tried my best to sneak out before Dad would throw out the classic quote "Just one more thing before you go". I have used the same line on my kids many times. My wife thinks its crazy to spend time fixing a $20 curling iron, but I am just addicted to keeping things running and learning how stuff works. I only pray I am passing the skill on to my kids. Thanks for reminding me how lucky I am to have great parents. I dont know how the snowflakes survive.
Mekantor
Posts: 137
Incept: 2009-01-12

Houston, TX
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Right on! Not to mention car repair.

Now I know what might still be wrong with my trimmer, valve adjustment! Already replaced the coil and plug.
Mj71
Posts: 133
Incept: 2009-03-14

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Just had a very similar experience with my refrigerator. The cooling fan for the compressor wasn't rotating. After research, the circuit on the control board failed and wasn't providing power to the fan itself. The recommended solution was to send the board to a 3rd party company who will fix the circuit and return the board at a fraction of the cost of a new board.

I was planning on going down this road until I spent 10 more minutes researching and found a YouTube video from an electrician showing how to just wire the fan to be constantly on. 30 minutes and some soldering, problem solved.

I tell this story to also emphasize the need to polish your research skills. While there are no guarantees that online sources will be available, having the ability to maximize their worthiness when they are is key.
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