Saturday, September 17, 2016

Things Fall Apart

One of the basic premises of the ecofrugal life is that when things break, you should at least try to repair them instead of running out to replace them. And one of the basic frustrations of the ecofrugal life is how difficult it can be to actually repair anything nowadays.

Over the last few weeks, we've run across this problem repeatedly. Here are several examples of things that have recently fallen apart in our home and the troubles we've had repairing them—some fairly trivial and some, at least so far, insurmountable.

Broken Thing #1: Our patio door

Late in August, Brian came in from doing some work in the yard and said, "I have to show you something you're not going to like." My first thought was that perhaps our friendly neighborhood rat, which we thought had finally fallen to one of the neighborhood cats, had returned to do more mischief, but it turned out that the problem was a bit more dramatic. I went downstairs and saw that the outer pane of our sliding patio door had been transformed from a solid sheet of glass to a surprisingly beautiful array of cracked fragments, which was still emitting popping sounds as the glass continued to break along new fault lines. Apparently the string trimmer had hit a tiny rock while Brian was edging with it, and the rock had bounced into the glass, and this was the result. (Brian felt bad that he hadn't pulled the screen door across to protect the sliding door, but I pointed out that this would just have left the other, fixed pane unprotected, and the rock could just as easily have struck there.)

Well, obviously this was a problem that needed to be dealt with right away, and it didn't take much research to convince me that it wasn't a problem we could really hope to fix ourselves. You can't exactly just go down to Home Depot and buy a new pane of glass for one of these things; it has to be made to order. We could have gone down to Home Depot and bought a whole new door, but replacing that would still be a massive undertaking and would probably cost us at least $500. So the next day, I called up a couple of local glass companies to get quotes on a new pane.

The first company, a small local glass works, simply asked me for the dimensions of the door and then quoted me a price of $425 plus tax—about $455 total—and said it would take two to three weeks to have the panel made. The second company, a bigger chain called Glass Doctor, sent a guy down who measured not only the size of the pane but also the thickness of the door, something the first company hadn't asked about. He quoted me a price of $580 (including the $50-off coupon I'd printed from the company's website) to make and install a new panel, which would take 7 to 12 business days to complete and would be covered by a 10-year warranty. When I told him that was over $100 more than the other company's price, he said I should tell Glass Doctor that and they would definitely be willing to negotiate on the price—probably not to match the other company's bid, but at least to take it down a little.

Well, that turned out to be wrong. When I called up Glass Doctor and told them about the other quote, they said the $580 price was the absolute lowest price they could give us. But Brian and I decided to go with them anyway—partly because of the warranty, but mostly because their promised timeline was shorter and we wanted the door fixed as soon as possible.


After 12 business days had passed with no call, I called up Glass Doctor and they said, well, no, it wasn't ready yet, but that wasn't surprising, because it usually takes 10 to 15 days to make a new panel. This, you may notice, is longer than the timeline we were quoted originally, and about equal to the timeline we were given by the other company, which would have charged us $125 less. But since Glass Doctor already had our deposit, there wasn't much we could do but continue to wait.

When four more days had passed with no call, I called up again. This time they said, well, no, it wasn't ready, because it normally takes "about 15 business days" to complete—which, you may notice, is longer than the timeline they gave us on the first or the second call, and longer than the timeline we got from the cheaper company. But they also said it should be ready by Monday, and if it was, they'd set up an appointment right away to install it, possibly even that same day.

So, as of now, our patio door still has only one pane, and the gap between it and the screen is filled with pretty, wickedly sharp little fragments of glass. And for the past three weeks, we have had to use the side door to get to and from the back yard. Brian has taken to keeping his bike in the shed, since he can't get it in and out of the house, and I have had to take the laundry basket around the long way (up the stairs, out the side door, back down, through the gate, and around the back) every time I want to go hang out the wash. And all this time we are fuming over the fact that if we had gone with the other company, the job would be done by now, and we'd have paid $125 less for it.

There's no real ecofrugal lesson to be learned here, unfortunately. Glass Doctor had excellent ratings from the Better Business Bureau, so we had no way to know they were going to turn out to be a bunch of liars. All we can really do is make a point of never hiring them again, and warn others that they shouldn't trust this company's word about scheduling.

Broken Thing #2: Our shower diverter knob

About a week ago, as Brian was taking a shower, I heard an "Ack!" from the bathroom. I thought perhaps one of the cats had decided to interfere with his ablutions, but once again, the problem turned out to be a bit more dramatic. The diverter knob on the shower—the thing that switches the water flow from the tub faucet to the shower head—had simply fallen to pieces in his hand.

Brian thought at first that he might try to glue it, but after examining the pieces, he concluded that wasn't feasible. But fortunately, we figured this would be a fairly easy fix; all we had to do was go down to our local Home Depot, buy a new knob, and install it, right?

Hah again.

When we finally located the aisle with the type of part we wanted, it turned out that there is no uniform size for these things. Each brand—American Standard, Price Pfister, Gerber—has its own fittings, and they don't play nicely with anyone else's. And unfortunately, though Brian had brought the two pieces of the knob with him for comparison, he hadn't remembered to bring the little piece that fits in the middle that shows what brand it is. And when we tried to ask a salesperson if there was any way to find the right part without knowing the brand, he assured us that it was completely impossible and there was no point in even looking.

Well, we weren't entirely convinced, so headed to Lowe's instead, since that was where Brian remembered we'd bought the actual diverter (the piece that goes inside the knob) when the old one wore out. Unfortunately, we couldn't find a knob there that matched our old one, either. So we picked up one that said it was a "universal" size, figuring that should fit any diverter. And it did, sort of. I mean, Brian was able to put it on, and it would turn to redirect the flow—but it didn't fit as close to the wall as the hot and cold water knobs on either side of it. It stuck out further than the other knobs while leaving a good inch or so of the metal shaft exposed, which just looked stupid.

Fortunately, he was able to find the missing piece of the old knob, which informed us that it was a Price Pfister part. So, armed with that knowledge, we were able to go back to Lowe's, return the "universal" knob, and pick up a new one that we knew would fit. They had them in two styles: clear plastic like the one we had before, and solid metal—which, surprisingly, was exactly the same price as the plastic. So, since we knew the plastic ones weren't that durable, and the metal looked better anyway, there was clearly no reason not to go with metal. And, while we were at it, we decided to replace the hot and cold knobs with metal ones, too, rather than have a mismatched one in the middle.

Once we managed to get the right part, it turned out to be a fairly simple matter to replace all three knobs. And the new ones actually look quite a bit better than the old ones, which, in addition to being made of clear plastic—which shows every bit of dirt that's built up on the inside—were a bit too small to cover the full length of the plumbing shaft. As Brian put it, the old knobs were like "someone with ugly knees wearing shorts," while the new ones fit more like long trousers. Plus, they should hold up better than the plastic ones. So we ended up spending a bit more than we expected (about $31 for all three knobs), but we got a more satisfactory fix for our money. (Although Brian admits that at first, he found it a bit disconcerting to get into the shower and be confronted by these three unfamiliar-looking metal knobs that were never there before. He kept spending the first second or two thinking, "What am I supposed to do with these?")

The ecofrugal moral here: if you ever need to replace a plumbing part, bring all the pieces of it to the store with you, so you can find the proper replacement the first time.

Broken Thing #3: Our tablet

I'm not including a picture of this one because, quite frankly, there's nothing to see. The long and short of it is that a week or so ago, our little Nexus tablet computer took a tumble (unfortunately, it was not in its cute DIY case at the time), and when Brian retrieved it, he found it would no longer start. It was, as they say, bricked.

Now, given that we'd been using this thing for over two years already, and it was already a year old when we got it, you could hardly say it died prematurely. Indeed, most people would probably have long since dismissed it as obsolete and upgraded. But old as it was, it was still more than enough to meet our extremely basic needs. We could use it to download and read e-books from the electronic library; Brian could listen to Pandora on it while working in the basement; we could grab it to check a fact online to settle a dispute during a meal, or to look up something interesting we'd spotted while watching TV; and it was good enough for checking e-mail while away from home for a weekend, without adding too much weight to our baggage. So even though we'd clearly gotten our money's worth out of it, we were still sad to see it go.

When Brian told his dad about the unfortunate event, his response was to treat it as an opportunity: "Here's your chance to take one of these things apart." So Brian did that, but mostly to satisfy his own curiosity; he didn't expect to find anything he could fix, and he didn't. On the contrary, he found that the connector linking the touch screen to the main board of the tablet was severed, and the only way to fix it would be to replace the touch screen entirely. And given that a new screen would cost $50, and we'd only spent $75 for the thing two years ago, it wasn't really worth the cost—especially since we couldn't be 100 percent sure it would work.

So the upshot of all this is, we are currently without a tablet. The part that remains unresolved is what we should do about it.

Brian's viewpoint is that we shouldn't replace the tablet, at least not right away. He says we never used it for anything all that important anyway, so there's no real need to spend the money on a new one. But my argument is that, even if a new tablet isn't really a necessity for us, it's certainly useful, and it would only cost about $50 to buy a decent replacement. (This model, which gets pretty good reviews at ConsumerSearch, is a year or so out of date, but so was the Nexus when we bought it, and it was still perfectly adequate for our needs.)

Of course, we could also look on this as an opportunity to bite the bullet and finally get ourselves a smartphone instead. (No, we still don't have one.) We could use the same $3-a-month prepaid plan we currently have from T-Mobile, but tack on a $5 "data pass" on those occasions when we actually need to look something up while we're out and about. I could use it for downloading all those digital coupons that I currently don't have access to, and we'd be able to check e-mails while away from home (e.g., if we showed up for an event and no one else was there because we'd missed the message canceling it). We could even take it geocaching. But on the other hand, it might not work as well for the things we used to do on our tablet, like reading e-books.

So basically, it looks like we're going to be spending a bit of time living without a tablet to help us figure out whether we really want a new tablet, a smartphone, or neither. Because after all, the whole point of repairing things whenever you can is to avoid buying new things if you don't really need to.
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