Why Do It Yourself? Digging into the Value of DIY

A few days ago, I spent more than two hours dismantling and reassembling the guts of a toilet tank. There were some issues with flushing, and I wanted to see if I could diagnose it myself (I did, actually; there was a small broken part that was simple to replace). A plumber could have done it in ten minutes and probably would have charged me $25 or $50 for the service (in our area, anyway; it would likely be more in other areas).

On another recent day, I spent about four hours building a small electronic spider that could walk under its own power. I was doing this mostly so I could learn how to use Arduino (an open source electronics platform) because I intend to use it to build some animated Christmas light displays for our family and perhaps some day sell them. I earned nothing from this except my own knowledge.

A few months ago, I disassembled part of our hot water heater to figure out why the pilot light wasn’t lighting. I was able to figure out which part needed replacing on my own, ordered the replacement, and installed it. It took about four hours, all told. I saved some small amount of money doing it myself, but I really doubt it was a very good hourly rate.

Whenever I describe activities like this to friends and family, many of them simply shake their head and ask why I would bother. Why dump so much time into things like this when I could just go to the store and buy a similar item or just call a repairperson and not “waste” a bunch of time doing it myself?

The reasons are many. Suffice it to say, I believe doing many of these things myself will end up saving a tremendous amount of money, time, and stress in the long run. There are some other reasons, too.

First, whenever I do a repair job myself, I know that if I’m ever called on to do it again it will be much easier the second time around. If our toilet ever stops flushing for a reason even remotely similar to the reason it stopped flushing the other day, I can fix it in fifteen or twenty minutes, not two hours. The time investment in calling a repairman, making sure the repairman has access to the bathroom, and interacting with that repairman will be about as much as simply doing it myself – and a lot cheaper.

Second, I learn other things in the process of taking on any task like this. I didn’t just learn about the specific pilot light problem or the specific washer issue when I did these things. I learned things about how our hot water heater works as a whole and what specific parts actually do, and I learned similar things about our toilet. I now know a lot about Arduino prototyping. These pieces of knowledge will be useful in future projects. I now feel more confident with any project related to the hot water heater, the toilet, or Arduino controllers.

Third, I learn some transferable skills as well. The more you use a wrench, the more adept you get at using it. The more you trace a water pipe or a gas line, the easier it becomes for you. The more you practice soldering, the easier it becomes. These aren’t just skills you can apply to one specific project. They apply to lots of different projects, making all of them easier. My adeptness with a wrench was really clear when I had to repair my son’s bike a few days ago; that adeptness came from other projects.

Fourth, I’m showing my children (and my friends and family) that they can do it themselves. If “Mister Five Thumbs on Each Hand” can do these things, surely they can, too. When my son walks into the bathroom and sees parts strewn all over the place, then comes back an hour later to see a functional toilet, he knows that such things can easily be done by anyone. These people are more likely to try it themselves.

At the same time, these skills are barter-able. I’ve started to have friends and family contact me about certain types of little repair tasks. In just the last month, I’ve been involved in replacing an electrical outlet for a friend and I’ve helped another friend fix some dire computer issues. Not only do these actions cement friendships, they also open the door to help I might need in the future.

Perhaps the biggest reason, though, is that when things go seriously wrong, I’m less prone to panic. If water starts flooding everywhere in a bathroom, I know immediately how to turn off the water, the electricity, and other things. I also know a large number of things to look for to quickly narrow down the problem, and there’s some likelihood I can fix it. There’s no panic. There’s little stress. There’s no emergency call to a repairman who’s happy to write a big “emergency” bill that I’d have to pay.

The big question people always ask me is, “What if I mess up?” There’s this impression that if you attempt a repair yourself and do it wrong, you’re going to make things worse than before.

The truth is that even if you do fail, it’s extremely rare that you’re going to make things worse. I’ve failed at sink repair before and discovered it the hard way when I turned the water back on. I just sighed, turned the water off quickly, and got a towel – no big deal. Most of the worst mistakes you can make can be alleviated by just watching videos and reading how-to’s describing the task you’re attempting before you start.

If you really feel like you’re in way over your head, call a repairman and watch what they do. Ask questions as they’re doing it. The vast majority of them are happy to talk about it because they get to play the role of “expert,” something everyone likes to do sometimes.

The end result of all of this? You save money. You save precious time in a real emergency and probably alleviate more significant damage. You help friends that need your help. You’re more confident and more skilled when it comes to tackling other tasks. These are all big wins.

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