Mid-life crisis

Sept. 7, 2006
If you’re good at keeping old stuff running, how do you decide when to replace it? Editor in Chief Paul Studebaker gives his take on aging equipment in his latest column.

At 52, I thought I’d pretty much dodged the classic symptoms of midlife crisis. I can see clearly that I have fewer – probably much fewer – years to go than I’ve gone, but have not felt compelled to leave my wife, change careers or buy a red convertible, a faster motorcycle or a boat.

But I would like to get myself something new and that’s made me realize becoming a geezer has some special consequences for those of us who take maintenance seriously. All my stuff is now also well past middle age, but it’s still working and I can’t come up with a good reason to add or replace anything. It has me wondering if buying quality, taking care of it properly and repairing rather than replacing really is the most rewarding strategy.

It started a few weeks back when my car quit running. This was the second time it’s stranded me in 15 years and 210,000 miles. The first time (July 2001, 116,000 miles) the coil quit making a spark. This time, it was also the coil, and I missed an important appointment. When I explained what happened, the fellow questioned my judgment for relying on such a high-mileage car. I started to think he could be right – the beast is old and rusting, and maybe I should just replace it. Then I realized it’s the newest vehicle we own, it runs great and it gets more than 30 mpg. I’m about to go ahead and order the parts for its third cam belt change, and while I’m at it I’ll replace the weeping crankshaft seal on that end. Maybe I’ll buy a spare coil and toss it in the glove box.

I bought my riding mower used in 199[?] and even then, it was old enough to cause the guys at the counter to roll their eyes when I came in to order parts. The tires have been almost worn out since the day I got it, it blows a little oil smoke, and I’ve had my eye on a particular new model for years. But it’s been no problem to feed it the occasional belts, bearings and brake shoes, so that’s what it gets, and that’s what I’ve got. It has a single 30-in. blade and this weekend I noticed it isn’t cutting very evenly. For the umpteenth time, I imagined how the double blades on my dream machine would do a much better job. Then I remembered it’s time to sharpen the blade.

Our dishwasher was the apple of Consumer Reports’ eye when we bought it in 1992. The electronic display lost a few segments about the time the warranty ran out and I’ve had to re-solder relay connections in the circuit board on two separate occasions, but it’s always done the dishes, so when the racks started rusting I suggested to my wife we spend the $300 they charge for new ones. She said no, the rusty racks didn’t matter to her, so I started to look for an excuse to replace the whole machine. I thought I had one when it sprung a water leak, but that turned out to be a rust hole in the tub, and epoxy and a screw put it back in business, probably for at least another year.

The list goes on and on, but you get the picture. If your plant is anything like the one I used to work in, I’m sure there are plenty of examples of good, old machines and battered but working tools, and perhaps more than a few time-worn practices and procedures that you might be wise to consider discarding for something more appropriate to the 21st century.
 It’s true that with proper care, good equipment can be made to last a long time, and the more familiar you become with it, the easier it is to anticipate problems, diagnose failures and make repairs. But new equipment may be faster, safer and more efficient, and it’s fun, too. If you’re good at keeping old stuff running, how do you decide when to replace it?

Darned if I know, but at my age, it’s clear that if I don’t buy some new stuff pretty soon, I’ll never get my money out of it.

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