EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 28, 2013

Do-it-yourself repair has its risks

Under the Hood
Brad Bergholdt

---- — Really? Struts? Dangerous even in a shop! We should encourage this? Quick struts are a good choice, but still a major undertaking, not for any amateur. You show a lot of knowledge but have maybe come up short on wisdom. Do-it-yourself days are over; get used to it. Also, quoting prices from the Internet gives the impression that the dealer and repair shops are ripping people off. You know this is not true.

I should add that this reader is an ASE master technician and shop owner who certainly knows his stuff. He brings up several points about my recent column (“Strut renewal possible at home,” April 14) that are well worth addressing.

As a mechanic-turned-auto teacher, I’ve come to believe there’s both an art and a science to fixing automobiles. The art part involves ever-evolving hands-on experience in such things as how hard you can hit, twist or pry something without breaking it; learning the difference in sound between a connecting-rod rattle and a cracked flex plate; distinguishing a shudder from a shimmy; drilling out a broken stud without destroying the surrounding part; and knowing when a job is over your head or has a high chance of going sour.

The science part requires training in electronics, physics, vehicle components and systems, information gathering, and creating/implementing productive diagnostic strategies and repair validations. To a point, this second category can be gleaned from books or the Web, unlike the prerequisite skinned knuckles and burnt forearms of the first.

Renewing struts is not a job for an amateur. But there are many folks out there who fall between those who have trouble screwing on a gas cap and a professional technician. I spend a lot of time in Alaska. In the Great Land, you learn to take care of business because the nearest auto repair shop isn’t, um, nearby. Probably 8 of 10 neighbors there could pull off this job without breaking sweat or uttering more than a few choice words.

Thinking about tackling a strut replacement? Here are some things to consider: If you need to buy the tools to do this, or yours aren’t yet sufficiently greasy, this job isn’t for you. Will you safely support the vehicle on jack stands rather than just a floor jack, and wear eye protection when appropriate? Is there someone experienced you can call should things go awry?

Do you fully understand the physics and safety concerns involved in removing this nut versus that one? (For example, the large nut atop a strut should never be removed without a spring compressor in place.)

Do you understand the importance of cleaning, then tightening fasteners with a torque wrench to specifications? Do you have a Plan B if something breaks and you need to drive the car to work tomorrow morning?

Auto parts can certainly be purchased at prices less than those charged in a repair shop. A shop’s parts markup includes the time they eat to renew a defective part — ever do a Cadillac or Lexus V-8 starter twice, because the remanufactured part failed during the warranty period? It also includes choosing the most appropriate part — say, out of six choices of brake pad composition, and the Chinese manufactured brake rotors versus the far more expensive OEM version.

Is there a service bulletin or redesigned part available that better fixes this pattern failure issue? And electrical/electronic parts are typically not returnable. It’s nice when someone else becomes stuck with an expensive part that was vaguely catalogued or didn’t fix the problem.

Cars have changed a lot and require a much more skillful, professional approach to virtually all service needs. But I believe there are still many ways an owner or home mechanic can participate in servicing a vehicle, if homework is done and limitations are realized.

Brad Bergholdt is an automotive technology instructor at Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, Calif. Readers may send him email at under-the-hood@earthlink.net; he cannot make personal replies.