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Unconventional Repairs - - Thinking outside the box


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Unconventional Repairs


There are times when all the diagnostic trees, diagrams, and graphs aren’t enough. Sometimes, you just can’t get from point A to point B without some sort of homemade intervention that will give you the answer. You need a little ingenuity, a little of that “Mac Gyver” magic to pull you through the next obstacle. It’s all part of that “natural mechanical ability” each one of us possesses; some use more of it than others of course. It’s safe to say, if you spend your day tinkering with mechanical or electrical devices like most mechanics do, you’ll soon find a way to circumvent a procedure with some sort of creative method or short cut that gets the job done faster.


Not all repairs require this touch or finesse, but there are those times when being unconventional just works better. If it wasn’t for me being a little unconventional way back when, and coming up with my own “Mac Gyver” quick-on-the-spot repair, I might have never impressed my wife. She was a customer at the time, and had a little problem with a power window. She didn’t have a lot to spend on the repair, and figured she could charm me into taking care of it. (I’ll admit it… I was a bit smitten from the get go.)


The retaining spring for one of the window motor’s brushes had snapped in half. All I had to do was find a replacement spring. I dug and dug around my tool box and desk drawers, but couldn’t find a spring the right size. Then I looked over and saw that she was patiently waiting for her car, while working on a crossword puzzle with a ball point pen. I struck up a conversation and talked her into letting me “borrow” her pen for a minute. As I unscrewed the pen and removed the spring, I gave her a wink and told her that this little spring was all I needed to fix her car. She looked a little confused, and had her doubts, but it worked perfectly, and… I got a date with that pretty little gal out of it. I’ll bet ya never thought that an unconventional repair would lead to a date and later marriage? Well, it did.


There are a lot of unconventional repairs that aren’t in any of the repair manuals. Things like heating or cooling a component to see if it is affected by temperature. If you’re following the diagnostic menu to the letter, it might tell you to check the impedance, or voltage input/output when the failure occurs. But, it might be just as easy to freeze that stubborn component and recheck it. I used this unconventional diagnostic method years ago to diagnose overheated ignition pick-up coils and modules. Definitely not in the repair procedures, but it did the trick.


There are all kinds of simple diagnostics tests that aren’t in any manual. Like spritzing water on plug wires to see if they’ll arc, or using a test light to ground out a spark plug. This isn’t duct tape and coat hanger repairs, not at all. I’m talking about coming up with ways to simplify, or side step some of the long drawn out procedures mechanics and technicians run across on a daily basis.


This “Mac Gyver” stuff isn’t anything new either. Odd repairs and diagnostic work like this have been going on since the beginning of time. Ask any old timer, they might tell you about putting a wooden clothes pin on the fuel line to keep the fuel from freezing up or vapor locking on a hot day. It works on the same principal as laying a wooden spoon across a pot to keep it from boiling over. (Never tried that? Try it, it works! I’ll bet your better half might know this trick.) These days however, when people talk about unconventional repairs or better ideas they don’t call them “unconventional” anymore, they’re called “life hacks”. Call it what you want… as long as it works.


If you look around I’m sure you’ll find a few life hacks just about everywhere. From the kitchen to the garage there’s always something that somebody has come up with to make life easier. Me, I’m more interested in something that makes my job in the shop easier. Like the few tricks mechanics have come up with to get stuck bolts out, or using plain water to free up rusted parts, or dousing a wire or harness with baby powder so it will slide easier through a narrow opening. The list is endless. I think it would be great if there was a website or book with all these life hacks that mechanics have come up with over the years. I know I’d keep a copy handy. Ya never know when you might need an unconventional method to solve a problem.


I haven’t found a book on the subject yet, but there a few of these life hacks that have made their way to You Tube. Like using starting fluid to reset a huge tire back on the rim. But, for the most part these tricks of the trade go unnoticed. Then again, there are a few of these unconventional repairs I’ve heard of that I find hard to believe. Some seem too farfetched or just plain idiotic to me. Let’s face it, not every Mac Gyver hack works all that well either.


My wife, you know the one with the ball point pen spring? She recently had a knee replaced. What an ordeal, lots and lots of tests, therapy sessions, and countless ice bags. Well after the months of physical therapy was over, she was still dealing with some tendonitis in one spot. Her doctor wanted to keep her on the regiment of continual therapy. But, her therapist had another idea. Her therapist was also a licensed dry needle therapist. Ok, call it what it is… acupuncture. After having her calf and quad muscles poked and prodded with a few dozen needles, the tendonitis problem vanished completely. It might be an ancient form of an unconventional repair… but it worked. Later, when she went back to her doctor for a checkup, he wasn’t exactly convinced the needle treatment had anything to do with her recovery.


Me, I’m just glad it eased her pain. Results are what matters, not so much how ya got there. That’s how a lot of these life hacks go. One person thinks its nuts, while another tries it, and it works great for them. To this day that stuffy old doctor isn’t buying the story. All I can say is, “Get over it Doc. Sometimes all we need to do is think outside the box and try something a little unconventional. It just might be the answer.”


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I had an employee years ago that was changing out an ignition switch. In his haste to get it done he twisted this little odd shaped piece that joined the actual mechanical part of the ignition switch to the electrical part. The part was not available unless you bought the whole ignition switch assembly. It was about the same size as a no# 2 round shank phillips screw driver. I did a little welding and a bit of filing on an old screwdriver shank and made an exact copy.


Needless to say I was a bit pissed, but the mechanic never stopped thanking me for saving his ass. I laugh about it now...but it wasn't funny at the time.

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I think that's what separates the "traditional mechanic", from a parts changer. I have known many speedy mechanics in my time that can beat the book on anything from a clutch to an engine swap, but when their backs against the wall with a problem, they fall flat on their face. Being able to think abstract is a talent, and something you cannot teach to someone.


I would love to sit down with a few veteran mechanics and trade MacGyver stories.

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  • Have you checked out Joe's Latest Blog?

      Most shop owners would agree that the independent auto repair industry has been too cheap for too long regarding its pricing and labor rates. However, can we keep raising our labor rates and prices until we achieve the profit we desire and need? Is it that simple?
      The first step in achieving your required gross and net profit is understanding your numbers and establishing the correct labor and part margins. The next step is to find your business's inefficiencies that impact high production levels.
      Here are a few things to consider. First, do you have the workflow processes in place that is conducive to high production? What about your shop layout? Do you have all the right tools and equipment? Do you have a continuous training program in place? Are technicians waiting to use a particular scanner or waiting to access information from the shop's workstation computer?
      And lastly, are all the estimates written correctly? Is the labor correct for each job? Are you allowing extra time for rust, older vehicles, labor jobs with no parts included, and the fact that many published labor times are wrong? Let's not forget that perhaps the most significant labor loss is not charging enough labor time for testing, electrical work, and other complicated repairs.  
      Once you have determined the correct labor rate and pricing, review your entire operation. Then, tighten up on all those labor leaks and inefficiencies. Improving production and paying close attention to the labor on each job will add much-needed dollars to your bottom line.
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