Tuesday, June 19, 2007

It Pays to do a Little Research

Growing up, I didn't have a parent who taught me anything about cars or how they work. Schools were no use either. You got on either a college or vocational education track, and you stay there. Since I was on the college track, little practical knowledge was imparted in my schooling. It wasn't until just a few short years ago that I started learning a little about how cars work and, more importantly, how to fix them.

My current vehicle is a 1995 Dodge RAM with a little over 100,000 miles on it. Sadly for me, mileage is not the only determining factor in mechanical wear and tear. Time in and of itself seems to cause its own problems, and I've had my share of them the past year. Last July, I had to have the transmission on my truck rebuilt. Let me rephrase...I let the transmission shop I happened to breakdown near tell me it had to be rebuilt. Upon further research, I discovered that using the wrong transmission fluid in a Mopar transmission is bad news, and mine had been changed a couple years prior. It's possible changing the fluid would have brought it back, but it's even more probable that verifying the right fluid went into it 2 years ago would have saved it for several thousand miles.

Nevertheless, it's too late to revisit that flight of ignorance. My truck's new trick was to quit blowing cold air. On my previous truck, the same thing happened, and I just said to hell with it and drove without cold air. Of course, now I have a 4 year old son, and going without air conditioning is a little more than an inconvenience to me. So, I dutifully set about to call around and see what sort of cost I might be confronting knowing full well it would be bad.

The answer? $1200 to install a new A/C compressor. Ouch!

At that point, I decided to do some research. Replacing the A/C compressor turned out to be not such a big deal except for government requirements to have a certified shop do the refrigerant draining even though my truck was already on R134a instead of the dreaded R12. When reviewing the process, though, I discovered it's very common for the A/C compressor clutch to go out before the compressor. Considering my time was short, I decided to let a shop evaluate it and find out which it was.

At the shop, the mechanic dutifully told me that the compressor would have to be replaced. Upon further discussion, he admitted that it was just a problem with the clutch but that nobody would sell a clutch by itself. If I could get the clutch, he could have it up and running for $75. That's right, less than 10% of the initial estimate.

So, off I went in search of a clutch, and you won't believe what I found out. Nobody will sell a clutch by itself. BUT...and this is a big but...salvage yards will sell old compressors for less than $100. I lined up one to buy at a local salvage yard, but upon picking it up, I discovered that it was 33% of the way to the same condition as my clutch. The shop was extremely helpful and located another compressor for me, but while we killed time, I asked what they were doing with the broken unit. They said they'd trash the clutch and keep the compressor core.

At that point, I decided to buy the broken part by itself. I didn't need the whole clutch, just the clutch plate. It was broken, but it was still working and might tell me if my A/C compressor seizing up might have caused the clutch problem. After forcing the salvage yard to take $5 for it, I went home to try my hand at the install. It should have required a special tool according to my book, but I improvised. Within 20 minutes, I had the new clutch plate installed, fired up the truck, and, believe it or not, it worked.

Hopefully it will last the summer. I'm planning to pick up one of the other compressors the salvage yard located to keep as a backup.

The lesson here is not to take a mechanic's estimate at face value. Even if he/she is honest, it might be overestimated because of the circumstances. Assuming my A/C compressor had been bad, the mechanic would have bought one from Dodge for $450-500. The price for an aftermarket part from AutoZone would have cost $280-350 depending on the brand, and any mechanic worth his salt will install a part that you bought. If you were really brave, you could grab a compressor from salvage for less than $100 and roll the dice. In my case, I spent $5 plus 3-4 hours of my time as opposed to $1200 and most likely the same 3-4 hours of my time messing with drop-off and pick-up of the vehicle.

I only wish I had done my due diligence on my transmission last year...


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