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Fix It First

by Miriam Axel-Lute on December 7, 2011


Our car died this weekend. Blessedly, it chose a few blocks from home to do it, leading only to a Saturday night wrong-side-of-the-street parking ticket rather than a highway-side-with-two-kids drama.

It was the hybrid mechanism itself that bit the dust, and the dealership said it would be $5,000 to replace it. Putting that much money into a 10 year old car that will also need a new expensive hybrid battery before too long just didn’t seem like a good idea.

We had already been looking into getting an old diesel to convert to run on veggie oil as a second car, so the first thing we thought of was to expand that search to two. Reluctantly, at least on my part. I hate shopping, especially for big ticket items.

We were sailing down that road before some friends piped up to suggest we not give up on our existing car yet, and point out that perhaps we didn’t have to go to the dealer to have a brand new voltage inverter put in.

Oh. Right.

You would think that given the number of DIYers I hang out with—and the fact that the whole diesel escapade is based on collaborating with some of them—that these things would occur to me sooner. Some talking to people and poking around the Internet reveals that getting the part from a salvage yard and paying a friend to install it will likely come in at about 20 percent of the cost, if not less.

A significant amount of the carbon footprint of a car (23 percent for gas, 31 percent for hybrid, according to the Institute for Environmental Lifecycle Assessment), comes from its manufacture—plus a bunch of other environmental effects in terms of resource extraction, water use in production, etc. So if you’re not making a big jump in fuel efficiency or emissions reductions, it can make environmental and economic sense to fix the car you’ve got. It does for us.

For most things other than cars and appliances and home heating systems, much more of their environmental impact comes from production and disposal rather than use, and so fixing becomes an even more important choice.

As we enter a time of not only peak oil, but also peak levels of various other raw materials (including rare earth metals, upon which many green technologies, cars, and smartphones depend, and nearly all of which are produced in Chinese mines), it will become even more important to return to an ethic of fixing things—from cars to electronics to furniture to clothing—instead of throwing them out. We need to move beyond “for that price you could almost get a new one.”

Fixing things is a skill though, and in many cases, it’s a dwindling one. Even if you are fairly handy, you will sometimes have to find or know the right experts. Witness what happened recently with a window in my house. It was a vinyl replacement window, here when we bought the house. Something untoward that will probably always remain shrouded in mystery happened to it such that several internal parts had cracked, bent, or jammed and it wouldn’t close. Winter was approaching (or threatening to at the time. It keeps faking us out), and I was getting anxious about the draft.

Our handy friends tried to take it apart—couldn’t figure it out. I called a professional handyman who seemed to know something about windows. He declared it unfixable. I had been avoiding the big windows companies because I knew they would try to push a new one on me, but I reluctantly accepted that I might have to replace it. I found a local glass/window contractor, who, when he came to measure the window for replacing, took the window all the way apart and declared it fixable, though he said it would take a while to track down parts and could cost about as much as a new window for the time involved.

I think it surprised him that we chose to fix it, but I told him I’d rather spend that money on his employees’ wages and a few parts than on the remote production of a new window sealed in vinyl, which is toxic both to make and dispose of.

That is the good economic news about fixing things—it makes jobs, locally. In fact, I’d suggest that young people who want to be in demand in the coming decades would do well to consider learning to fix something.

I’m sure I’m not the first to lament that “Repair” wasn’t part of the original “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” eco mantra of my youth. But it’s not too late to fix it.