Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Let's Try This Again: Repair Parts

 I had an epiphany this morning, and it seems to bear up under further scrutiny.  I was talking to the light of my life, the wife with whom I have shared the last twenty-odd years (very odd!), and offered this little test.

"I think I know how to determine whether something is designed to be repaired versus just used up and thrown away."

"Oh, yes?"  She raised the quizzical brow in that just-so way.  She does that a lot with me.  She's right to do so, because sometimes I'm full of baloney.  "And what is that?"

"Look at where it was bought."

The quizzical brow stayed firmly arched.  "Say on."

"What do you do when something breaks, that you bought from Wal-Mart?"

"Throw it away.  Oh!"  She smiled.

"And from Target?"

"Still throw it away, probably..."

"And from Sears?"

"Well, Sears has their own parts depart...ment...Hey, you're onto something."

And there it is.  The big box stores like Wal-Mart and Target don't sell parts.  They sell merchandise at the lowest possible price.  The lowest possible price often precludes such things as design that permits things being opened up, fixed, and put back together again.

Now let's be real: the parts department at Sears doesn't carry parts for such things as the el cheapo alarm clock that was marked down at the end of the aisle.  Those are just throwaway items.  They're not like they used to be.  My mom and dad had an alarm clock that wasn't new when I first took note of it back in 1973, and I think they finally got rid of it sometime around 1998.  I'm pretty sure that at some point along the way, the silly thing got repaired once or twice.  It got repaired because it was designed to be opened up, repaired and put back together.

Another example.  My mom had a vacuum cleaner that I used to ride on, because I was small enough to to not overload its casters.  She had it through three houses and an apartment, and didn't get rid of it until MY kids were too big to ride on it.  She told me outright that the thing had been repaired a couple of times.  It was repaired because it was a Kenmore machine, and she could still get parts for it from Sears.

My wife just brought home a Filter Queen brand vacuum cleaner.  She brought it home because two things happened: first, she seems to prefer canister vacs for hard floors.  I don't fully understand the rationale there but there it is.  The other thing is that the Eureka brand vacuum cleaner we had bought a mere year and a half ago bit the dust.

This Eureka vac was pretty flashy.  It had the bright colors that were popularized by Dyson, and the swirly "bagless" design that circulates the grunge and dust where you can see it.  It's a show like no other, all that crud whipping around in there, proof positive that your flashy plastic vacuum is working hard and it's so convenient!  No bags to change, tools right there with, headlight for peering under stuff, all that jazz.  I'd like to point out that these so-called bagless vacs don't have much capacity.  They say they're so convenient because you don't have to change out that nasty ol' bag...but they don't talk about how often you're cleaning out that nasty ol' dust cup.

When did I ever want to peer under the furniture?  What good is that headlight?  I poked the nose of the vacuum under there.  If there was something to suck up, the vac got it.  If there wasn't, the vac got it anyway.  Didn't care to see it.

Well, so we had this Eureka vacuum.  Telescoping duster doohickey that sucks itself clean when you put it back in its caddy, pretty cool.  "Pet Paw" attachment for cleaning upholstery.  Except the duster does a great job of picking up the cobwebs here and redepositing them there, just like every other duster I've ever used.  And the Pet Paw, powered by an air motor, bogs down and stops under any kind of reasonable pressure.  It doesn't maintain its operating speed unless you just wave it around at the furniture.

The vacuum's beater bar tended to bind up a lot.  It only kept working as long as it did because Son #2, determined to get the family's money's worth out of the thing, kept taking it apart, clearing and cleaning the bearings, and putting it back together again.  It turns out he's actually pretty good at that, and good thing too - that vacuum needed a lot of help.  The vacuum had been his choice, and he was mightily annoyed with it when it started running hot and sounding bad after only six months.  He got it running right, as I expected he would, but he wasn't thrilled.

It did it again.  And again.  And finally last week it finally bound up a bearing and melted the bearing mount.  "That's it," he said.  "I can't fix that.  It's not fixable."  Enter the Filter Queen.

The Filter Queen is an old design.  You can tell just looking at it that it's old.  And it's okay that it's old, because if I wanted to, I could replace every single part on it.

I checked that.  It appears to me, checking on the websites that represent companies that sell parts for these things, that you could buy every part needed to build a Filter Queen up from scratch.  Motor, blower, hoses, bearings, all of it.  It's all there.  It's like owning a Kirby vacuum, but a little cheaper.

It doesn't matter that it looks old, either.  Vacuums that work can look like H.R. Pufnstuf for all I care, so long as the dirt comes off the floor.  When that Eureka stopped working, it wouldn't make any difference to me whether the damned thing was made of solid gold, because it still wouldn't be a working vacuum cleaner, which was what I wanted at the time.

Repair parts are out there for the Eureka Pet Lover with the Power Paw or whatever it's called.  But when the bearing mount melts because the bearing got that hot, well, what do you do?  For the price of the new housing with its sound bearing mount which I cannot have because it's obsolete and no longer available, plus the price of the new bearing, I got a good used Filter Queen.

The Filter Queen is made of metal.  Before it gets hot enough for the bearing mount to melt, the motor will be shooting fire out through its exhaust ports.  I'll KNOW it's hot, by golly.  And I could build a brand new Filter Queen exactly like this one I have, because all its parts are still available.

It costs more because it's worth more.  It costs more because it's designed to be cheaper every day for the rest of its foreseeable life.  Like Mom's rugged old Kenmore, like a well-made car with all its bolts and screws and removable things that are designed to be replaced when they wear out, value is one of those things that you really can see.  If you can find fasteners that don't take fancy tools to open - plain ol' phillips screwdriver, for instance - you have a chance at keeping things going.

Wal-Mart doesn't have a parts department.  If you want repair parts for one of those cheap, flashy vacuums they sell, you have to go online and hunt them down.  Granted, I would have to do that with the Filter Queen. But I don't think Filter Queen has obsoleted a part in my lifetime.  I have some confidence of finding whatever I need for a good long time.

Like I was talking about with my Volvo.  If I need parts, Volvo made that car for a long time.  Parts are out there.  The Volvo "red block" engine is sturdy, tough, and got bolted into everything including boats and I think some forklifts.  I have a shot at finding parts virtually anywhere.  And the body was made with only minor changes throughout the 200-series production run, so parts are available there, too.

The old adage is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."  But it should go on: "But make it so you can fix it when it does break."

That reminds me.  I have to get the icemaker working again.  I wonder what that's going to take.  I'll bet I can find the parts at Sears.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Repair Parts and Modifications

Stuff breaks.  That's a fact of life.  Everything ever made by the hand of Man is, on any kind of significant timescale, temporary.

There are ancient cars out there, still moving around under their own power.  There are ancient refrigerators, ancient houses, ancient books that are still legible.  But they must all inevitably cease to be eventually.

The good news is that we can shove that universal deadline back.  When things are made in such a way that they can be repaired, you can keep things moving.

This can go to extremes.  You've probably heard the joke/philosophical gambit that goes, "Yeah, grandpa had a great axe for decades.  Replaced the handle only three times, and the head only once.  That was a great axe."  You see the complication here: an axe only has two parts: handle and head.  To replace a handle is to repair the axe, but it's more than half of the entire tool.  To replace the head is to replace the entire tool's business end.  Without that the handle is only a stick.

So if you replace anything on a car, your car is no longer completely original.  It may still be factory, however: if the parts are still produced by the original manufacturer, then you can safely say the whole thing is still stock.

I found a new stereo for my Subaru at a junkyard.  The stereo was marked with the Subaru name and was original equipment included in a Legacy of about the same age as my car.  I took it out of the junked Legacy and installed it in my car, where it fit perfectly, even using the original wiring harness connections.  But that stereo was never offered in my car.  So it's factory, but not stock.

How many parts do you replace before the car doesn't fit the bill of being what it was?  You can literally buy all the parts to build an entire 1964.5 Ford Mustang from scratch.  If you're really into the whole build-it-yourself idea, you could build the engine a part at a time, starting from a bare engine block.  You can also buy an entire frame to build a classic appearing pickup truck, a 1950s Ford F1 or a comparable Chevy.  You can make it as vintage or as modern under the skin as you want.

It isn't a Ford or a Chevy, of course.  The frame built by niche manufacturers, the body panels built by hobby suppliers keeping the vintage truck market in new steel have nothing to do with the mighty corporations in Michigan.

So I need new tail lights for my Volvo.  Volvo built the 240 for about 20 years, and they pretty much nailed down the design early on.  The tail lights for my car are specified to fit a range of model years from about 1983 to 1993.  I think the company that made these tail lights is in fact the original manufacturer, a supplier that provided parts for Volvo when the car was still in production.  So strictly speaking, these may be original equipment, even though they aren't strictly factory as they were produced after the car's production run ended.

This is a thing for a lot of people.  When parts aren't original, there are purists who suck all the fun out of having vintage equipment.  I saw a beautiful Farmall Cub at an antique tractor show, one of the most nicely appointed examples I had ever seen.  The guy had replaced every exposed fastener with the same size, but in stainless steel.  Really dressed the machine up.  There wasn't any chrome in evidence, not even on the exhaust pipe.  But all that stainless really gleamed and of course there wasn't a hint of rust to be seen.

That didn't stop the occasional sour-faced grump from pooh-poohing the guy's effort.  "Too bad he couldn't be bothered to keep it original."

"Too bad you couldn't say anything nice about it.  He's put a lot of work in keeping an old piece of hardware in good running condition.  Where's your tractor?"  The guy looked at me like I was both insane and incredibly rude, and stomped away.  I don't often talk back at people like that, but it just seemed like it needed to be said.

I need to build a three-point hitch for my Farmall.  It doesn't have any hitch gear at all right now, and International's answer to the Ford-specific "Ferguson System" three-point was their own proprietary "Fast Hitch."  But the incredibly logical and effective three-point, coupled with Ford's gigantic market presence, forced the other manufacturers to adopt the three point as standard equipment.  I could find Fast Hitch implements, but it would be a long, hard slog and frankly I don't want to do that.  I want to build something.  I'll paint it red so at least it doesn't look too weird.

I had a point that I was working toward when I started, and I think I lost it.  I'll try to pick it back up in the not-too-distant future.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

For Every Silly Pun I Shed...

I like words and wordplay.  Words are the mechanism by which we humans communicate most.  Some experts have suggested that less than half of communication takes place with words; balderdash, says I.  Were that the case, the video telephone would have come into prominence much more quickly than it has.  The capacity to develop such video devices has been readily available for decades; the market for it wasn't strong enough to justify the added expense because there wasn't enough demand.  Talking works well enough in the complete absence of visual cues and referents.

There are other means via which we get our points across.  Sign language, both formal and informal, does a lot.  Body language is often culturally influenced; hand waves in North America don't mean what they do in, for instance, Japan.  But I'm not going to go into that right now.

My favorite form of wordplay is the pun.  Many words have more than one meaning, and other words sound exactly like other words: homophones.  So you can say one thing, mean another, and the juxtaposition of the two meanings creates a stress.  But the fact that the confusion is deliberate lets the stress off.  This is almost the clinical definition of  a joke.  Building the anticipation generates the stress, telling the punch line concludes the stress and it's over.

You can ask yourself, "what the hell is he talking about?  Stress isn't fun."  Not generally, no...but if that were completely true, nobody would ever get on a roller coaster, would they?  They're supposed to be perfectly safe, right?  So what's all that screaming about? You're getting jerked around and flung upside down and ohmygod ohmygod we'reallgonnadie and when you don't die, the stress comes off because you knew all along you were perfectly safe, and that endorphin release manifests as smiling and laughter.  It's not as vigorous an experience as all that when you tell a pun, but some of the physical reactions, strangely enough, are about the same.

Actually, when I tell puns it manifests as groans and thrown spoons, but that's me.  Sometimes I do tell some stinkers.

But sometimes I don't.  And though some decry puns as the "lowest form of humor," I think that's a denunciation held in reserve by people who either don't get puns, or are envious that I was able to formulate mine first.  Shakespeare included puns throughout his written works.  So did George Carlin.  Right there we've spanned the humor spectrum from what is generally considered cultured and highbrow, to what is generally considered rough and, at best, middlebrow.  The fact is that Shakespeare wrote an awful lot of very bawdy, ribald stuff that hides its nature in what is now obsolete prose, and George Carlin, his Seven Dirty Words (very very bad language warning!) notwithstanding, was wicked smart.  They both tossed words around like juggling balls in a Cirque du Soleil act.  Just when you think you know where this one is going, you don't...or do you?  And there's smiles and laughter.

Happy Christmas to all.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Helpful Household Hints: Thanksgiving

Hey, another cooking one?  And you do notice you kinda missed the boat, right?

Yes and no.  I'm not nearly good enough a cook to speak on how to do a nice spread for Thanksgiving.  For that, I'd refer you to Sweetie.  And it's about more than just Thanksgiving.

So what's up?

A little of everything, really.  Not so much Helpful Household Hints as Holiday Hints.

Oh, holiday advice.  Okay, lay it on me.

It's a little late to point this one out, so I may do it again after January 1 2012.  But here it is: start your holiday shopping early.

How early?

Start shopping for Christmas in January.  Not the day-after sales, I mean just in general.  See a book that your dad would like?  Grab it.  Perfect pair of mittens for your five-year-old niece?  Toss them in the shopping cart.

So much of Christmas shopping is done right around the Christmas season, but there's a couple of good reasons not to do that.  The first is that Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of Jesus, a gift from God that was never intended to have a particular "season" per se.  The other is, when it comes time to remember what that great book was or where those adorable mittens were, you've thought a thousand other things, noticed and forgotten a hundred other gift ideas.  So remember your family and friends at all times, and if you see a little something here or there that will help you remind them how much you love them, get it right then.  Don't wait.

That's a lot of stuff to have hanging around.

So what?  Take a serious assessment of your home.  How much stuff do you have hanging around right now? Probably more than you'll ever need.  I have more clothes than I can wear in one week, I have more comic books than I can read in a month, back issues of car and truck magazines, a tractor I only drive once a week when the weather's nice and it's starting reliably.  What kind of stuff can you do without?

Hmm.  Well, when you put it like that...quite a lot.  Does this mean your tractor is for sale?

NO.  I'm just pointing out that if you're worried about how much stuff I'm going to suggest you store for Christmas, you could probably afford to reduce some of what you've got lying around to make room for it.

I built my bed.  It's a simple platform raised about 15" so the mattress is at a comfortable sitting height.  There is no box spring, not since I figured out the main purpose of the box spring is to provide an even support for the mattress.  The plywood top of my bed platform serves that purpose nicely.  And underneath my platform is a large amount of storage space.  Several plastic totes with lids, tied together so there's no difficult crawling under there to go fetch the last one, store Christmas gifts until the season comes.  One box for each member of the immediate family (not as useful as you might think when kids get bigger), and a few more boxes for outlying family.  Everything neatly stashed, out of the way.

This year we've decided not to give much in the way of gifts in the household this year.  We've all got everything we need.  So we'll stuff stockings and that will be most of our gift giving.

So far you're mostly talking about Christmas.
I know.  That's because it's the next holiday coming up.  And isn't that a shame?  If you're of a religious bent, the last thing you want to do is to compartmentalize the celebration of the gift to the world that Jesus is.  But here we are, doing it.  We do Christmas at Christmastime.  We do Valentine's Day in February.  We take the universal and make it an abbreviated event.

So my thing here is just an exhortation, urging you to wake up each morning thinking that it's Valentine's Day, and Christmas Day, and Thanksgiving Day and Independence Day and all the rest.  Each and every day is a holiday, a day to set at least a little time aside and remember all the people who have made this country great, all the sacrifices that have gone before to secure our freedoms and liberties, all the people in our lives who helped make us who and what we are.

That's all.