Fix it now or wait until it breaks?

Most things in life get replaced at one of two points – when it breaks, or when it becomes obsolete.  Well, perhaps obsolete isn’t quite the right word.  I’ve owned seven or eight coffee makers in my life, but only two were replaced because they were broken.  Sometimes I stumble on one that has just the right aesthetic.

Waiting until  an item breaks works fine when items are either replaced quickly and cheaply (like a DVD player) or when not having one for a while is low impact (like a gas grill).  However, when the item is very expensive, time consuming to replace, and very necessary, the choice isn’t always quite so easy.

In the last week I’ve faced this with two items — a car and a refrigerator — and come to very different conclusions.

On a recent trip to Maine over the July 4th holiday, our car engine suddenly died while on the road.  There were no signs of an impending failure.  The engine just suddenly switched off while the car was on the road.  We pulled over and tried restarting the engine, and it roared back to life as though nothing was wrong.

The following morning, it repeated this behavior three times.  Each time, there was no warning — no dashboard lights or warning sounds.  It would just cut out suddenly and then be fine after I started it up again.

I took it to a Sears Auto Center that was open on July 4th, but they said that they weren’t equipped to do any diagnosis unless there was a dashboard light indicating an issue.  They recommended two auto repair shops, but both were closed for the holiday.

We minimized use of the car the rest of the trip (we were travelling with other family members and generally had enough space to squeeze everyone in to the other cars for the day trips), and then we took a gamble and decided to drive the car home.  As a precaution, we sent our two smaller kids with my sister-in-law and drove our niece home instead, on the theory that if we found ourselves stranded by the side of the road, it would better to do it with one 12-year-old than two kids under the age of six.

However, the car made the 170 mile trip without failing at all.  I continued driving it the following week, and there was no hint of its earlier troubles.  It was as though whatever was wrong with it only occurs in Maine.

So, now the conundrum.  Clearly something is wrong with the car.  And when your car is out of service, it is extremely inconvenient.  You have all the hassle of getting the car to the mechanic and back plus the challenge of not having a car that you need to get kids to school and get yourself to work.  So do you take the car into the mechanic while it is still functional and have some control over the timing, or do you wait for it to fail again, which could be at a much less convenient time?

In the end, I decided to wait until the car fails again before taking it to a mechanic.  My rationale is that if I try to have it fixed now, the mechanic might charge me hundreds of dollars to replace a likely cause like the alternator, but I have no way of knowing that this was in fact the source of the problem.  If I just drove it nearly two hundred miles without an issue, I might drive it for months without running into a reoccurrence, only to have it fail again later.  I would simply have no good way to evaluate if the problem was fixed.

So I’m waiting on this one.

I reached the opposite conclusion on our refrigerator.  Over the 8.5 years we’ve owned it, we have had it repaired three times.  Once the freezer failed, and the other times the refrigerator had trouble regulating its temperature, causing either the main compartment or the freezer to get too warm.  Each repair has cost a couple of hundred dollars plus the hassle of arranging to be home for the four hour repair window.

Once again, we are seeing the warning signs of a refrigerator repair in our future.  The freezer temperature is rising from 0 degrees up to as high as 10 degrees and then dropping back down.  The outside of the refrigerator is getting very hot, indicating that it is working hard to get the temperature under control.

The struggles seem to correlate with the hotter summer days we are experiencing, and I suspect that once we reach the end of the summer, it will be fine again.  It’s not broken right now, and there is a pretty good chance it might make it another year.

Deal with it now, or wait?  Having a broken refrigerator is a major hassle, since you need to either eat the food right away (especially the ice cream!), move it to family and friends’ homes in a hurry, or throw it away.  Then you have to arrange to be home to meet a repair man who might not be able to come for a few days, or else buy a new one and then be home for a delivery window.

After some discussion, we decided not to wait.  A failure like this always happens at the wrong time, and whereas I can take a taxi if my car breaks down, there are no easy work arounds for a broken refrigerator.  I’ve decide its not worth spending more money on fixing it (Consumer Reports recommends replacing a fridge if it is more than eight years old), so we can plan for the swap at a time we know will be easy for my wife to be there for the delivery.

So off to Sears we go.

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