Thoughts on homesteading: doing it yourself

Laundry gets done around here on Mondays and Thursdays. Just before lunch on Thursday Maggie called me into the laundry room and showed me that water was leaking onto the floor from the washer. I did what I often do these days under such circumstances: I called Chris and asked him to take a look at it. With the help of the internet, he did just that. It didn’t take us long to find instructions on how to remove the washer cabinet (far from obvious) so he could take a look inside.

As I looked for that information, I found other pages that claimed that when our particular model leaked water, it was inevitably due to a failed water pump. That sounded ominous, but when Chris removed the pump it turned out to be a relatively simple-looking plastic mechanism (the motor that drives the pump is separate). We called around and found an appliance dealer that had the pump in stock. I gathered up a couple of other errands and drove into town; fifty dollars later I was on my way home with a new pump, and a few minutes after arriving Chris had installed it and Thursday laundry had resumed.

This story is barely worth relating, except for one small piece I left out, namely that when I saw water on the floor I had that old sinking feeling that I needed to call a repairman. It took a minute to shake that off and realize that we were in do-it-yourself mode these days, for a number of good reasons. One of those reasons I was reminded of as I left the appliance dealer and walked past a row of new washers—labeled $800, $900, $1000, and up. In days gone by I would have just resigned myself to one more operating expense, to working a little longer in order to earn the money to pay someone to do some work for me, or even longer still in order to replace the broken machine. Instead, I have the satisfaction of knowing that our perfectly serviceable washer will continue to do its job for us, all because we were willing to spend a little time figuring out what had gone wrong and what we could do to fix it.

Chris often gets calls like that one these days, not because he is a mechanical genius but because he is at that level of skill and experience where it is reasonable to give him the job of figuring out what has gone wrong with something we own. A couple of weeks ago it was our Odyssey minivan, the one vehicle we depend on around here. It suddenly started making a horrible engine noise, at which point I of course had that old sinking feeling that I needed to take it in for repairs. But instead I gave Chris the go-ahead, a bit nervously, to poke around and see if he could find the source of the problem.

After an hour, he came to report that the manifold had developed a crack. Since a manifold is basically a large, carefully shaped piece of cast iron that is bolted onto a part of the engine, I asked him if he thought he could replace it. He said he would try, and so we went online and ordered one ($120). It arrived a few days later, and after a couple of hours of working and improvising he had to admit defeat—removing a couple of the bolts were simply beyond the capacity of the tools and devices he had available. So I arranged to take the part in to town and have the Honda dealer install it ($65).

Which they did, but after a couple of hours driving it began to make the same noise again, gradually louder. Chris took a look and found that the bolts had come loose. He tightened them, but that only yielded another hour of driving before the loud noise returned. He did it a couple more times, each time with less effect. Finally I took it back to the dealer, who spent some time looking at it (at no charge) before deciding that the brass nuts that had come with the part were causing the problem; once they replaced them with standard nuts ($2.41) everything stayed tight. So our van, at ten years old and 230,000 miles, continues to do the job we need it to do for us.

Twice I’ve written that doing it yourself is an important part of simplifying one’s life, once in 2005 and again in 2007. But those were more conclusions reached than experiences lived. We’re living the experiences now, and though I’m glad that they more or less confirm the conclusions I’m also intrigued that they also point up how deeply (and subtly) we were entrenched in an urban mindset.

For example, since college I’ve been a foodie of the Roadfood sort, in diligent search of excellence in homestyle and regional cooking; eating a dinner at, say, Ridgewood Barbecue was a true pleasure and a highlight of the season. And I can still appreciate it for the excellent meal that it is—but when Chris and I ate there a month or so ago I found that my pleasure was tempered by thoughts of how expensive the meal was, and how it wasn’t all that much better than the food we eat at home regularly, and how I left the table stuffed rather than with the satisfaction that homegrown, home-prepared food brings.

Debbie and Maggie are responsible for the dramatic improvement in our eating, due in no small part to their willingness to substitute time and effort to prepare food for us that is far superior to what we used to spend cash money on. Maggie often delights us by taking an interest in perfecting a homemade version of something we used to enjoy in its store-bought incarnation. After long learning and experimentation, her made-from-scratch breads (including even things like hamburger buns) have spoiled us completely for eating even high-quality commercial versions; rarely do we crave a white flour fix, and if we ever give in to such a craving it always disappoints. Lately Maggie has determined to make the perfect diner-style lemon meringue pie, the meringue piled high with toasty brown peaks and no weeping; after a few tries she’s very close, and now I can’t imagine spending money on the slice a restaurant might serve me.

Whether it be washer repair or car repair or feeding a family, our efforts to do it ourselves have not only met a true superficial need, i.e. the need to conserve cash, but have led to a deeper involvement with the details of everyday life. The workings of our washer and our car, the effects of food on our bodies and the pleasures we derive from it, are no longer the mysteries they once were. As we are forced to develop a deeper knowledge of how our lives work, we end up with a much greater degree of control, an ability to choose more intelligently, and a satisfaction in knowing we have chosen well.

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts on homesteading: doing it yourself

  1. Rick,
    Six years ago when we moved to Texas I bought a new washer and dryer, one of those new fangled ones with all the buttons and whistles. I also bought the largest one they had, since we have a rather large family. About a year and a half ago it began to leak, but not consistently. Every now and then it would dump large amounts of water on the floor, other times a trickle, and some times nothing at all. Gene pulled it out of the utility room several times, flipped it over and did everything he could to find the problem. After a while we gave up and called a repairman. Thank the Lord he was honest and informative. It turns out that the washer, while it may have super capacity, cannot handle it on a regular basis. The repairman’s remedy was simple. Wash smaller loads, and get a drain pan to go under the washer to catch any leaks. Since we began washing smaller loads, and only the occasional huge one, we have had no problems. He also advised not buying appliances with those wonderful push buttons and computer chips… they cost a fortune to replace. He said stick to the old turn knobs, and you can’t go wrong. Cost, $65 for the visit and advice, and $18 for the drip pan at Home Depot. I never knew they had such a thing, won’t ever go without one again.

  2. I have a bit of a twist on the do-it-yourself philosophy when it comes to some appliances. While we do almost everything “yourself”, I have come to the conclusion that for our large family it is more economical to sometimes have the repairman do it.

    Lemme ‘splain… About five years ago we needed a washing machine & dryer. Thinking that because we had a large family and do lots of wash, and because I thought it would ease the burden on my wife and kids, I would get the top of the line models. I thought the “higher quality” machines would be able to handle the job better due to our above average work load, and they would last longer. So, after spending close to $2000, I was quick to discover the faultiness in my thinking. The machine, even though it had all the bells and whistles, washed clothes just like any other machine. It also broke down; once just before the warrantee expired, then several times after the warrantee expired. We performed all of the repairs ourselves once the warrantee expired – and we easily spent a few hundred dollars in parts.

    Now, for an average size family, these machines probably would have been adequate. But given that we had 12 people in our house at the time, we worked those machines pretty hard so it’s fairly understandable that they couldn’t keep up with us. Both the washer and dryer are now in the junk yard, which is why I changed my thinking for purchasing certain appliances. Which is: Buy the cheapest adequate appliance and purchase the longest service warrantee available. Our current washing machine cost in the neighborhood of $300, and the 5-year parts and labor warrantee cost around $90. Now, for the next 5 years, I won’t have to put a dime or second into the dang thing.

    Now watch – this machine will probably perform perfectly for 5 years and one day.

  3. Remembering the good food that was served to us when we visited you in Colorado and all the great restaurants that you recommended I would love it if you could get Debbie and Maggie to share some of their discoveries. I enjoy reading your blog and experiencing a bit of the path not taken especially since our family paths are now so very different.

    God Bless.

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