It was about 9:30 last Friday morning and I was just firing up the compressor for a round of framing on the master bedroom addition I’m building at a friend’s house. Well, trying to fire it up, anyway. When I plugged in the beefy machine and braced myself for some noisy chugging, I was greeted with silence instead.
“What The Feather!?”, I cursed as I checked the cords, switches and settings. I eventually found a flaw in its power cord and fixed it, and we were back in business. For about two minutes, at which point I realized the motor was running constantly and never shutting off. There was yet another problem with the machine, this time a broken pressure regulator. Air was hissing out just as fast as the cylinder could pump it in, so it would need to run constantly to maintain the 100PSI that I need for the nailguns.
It has been a bad winter for compressors. In Hawaii, Johnny Aloha and I blew an old Craftsman when he overworked it running an air chisel to chip away part of his asphalt driveway. So we had to borrow the next door neighbor’s crazy old barrel unit. While it did get us through the rest of the project, it too was leaky and inconvenient to use. When I got home and started working on this addition, we started with my friend’s venerable Bostitch compressor which has run reliably for the 5 years since he bought it off of Craigslist. On the first week of the job, it blew its cylinder gasket and lost pressure. So I brought over my heavy-duty trolley-mounted Dewalt compressor, thinking that would be the end of the issues.
So when even my 4-years-new Dewalt started acting up right at the beginning of this workday, I was naturally pretty peeved. With nowhere left to turn, we limped through the day with that machine, manually switching it on and off as needed to handle nailing sessions as we installed the sheathing on the newly framed walls. I became increasingly annoyed at the compressor as the day went on, finally cracking and uttering the following Antimustachian utterance:
“We need a working compressor right now. I don’t have time to fix this, so I’m going to check Craigslist and try to buy a new one tonight. Then I’ll just give this one away on freecycle – someone else can fix it, and my time is too valuable right now to be the one to do it.”
I checked Craigslist. There was a great Ridgid compressor for sale right in Longmont. Brand-new condition, reasonable price. I sent a text message, negotiated the price, and got a call from the owner.
“Uhh, hi. This is Trisha. You see, I’m selling the compressor on behalf of my husband, who no longer needs it for work. But the thing is that it’s at the Pawn shop. I pawned it last night to get a loan because we’re short on cash. You’ll have to meet me at the pawn shop to pick it up”.
At this point, I was shocked to learn something that everyone else apparently knew about pawn shops: when a seller brings in some merchandise, the pawn shop doesn’t buy it outright. Instead, they issue a “loan”, for about one third of the value of the item, and promptly tack on the state-regulated maximum 2% monthly interest fee, and about 20% of miscellaneous bullshit additional fees for “storage and handling”. The customer then needs to come repay this loan, or renew it monthly with additional fees, if they want to maintain ownership of the item. The total cost can be upwards of 200% in annualized interest per year. If the customer fails, the shop owns the merchandise, and they bring it out to the sales floor to sell to someone else (often done on a “rent-to-own” basis if they can find another sucker who is bad at math!).
Now WHY, you may ask, would anyone pawn an item for 30% of its value, when they could just sell it on Craigslist for 100%, while dealing with much nicer people? It is one of the mysteries of our society – those information gaps that keep poor people poor – just like the idea of “financing” a car or running a credit card balance. Pawn shops are designed to prey on poor and undereducated people by ripping them off. Great business model!
“Oh boy, here we go”, I thought. If this information had been correctly explained in the Craigslist ad, I never would have responded. But since I was already invested in the deal, I made the foolish desicion to play along. I made a date to meet Trisha at the EZ-Pawn up on the seedy part of North Main Street at 5PM. I showed up with the Scion xA and a wallet full of cash. “At least I might get a nice story for the Mustachians out of this”, I thought.
I met Trisha in the parking lot – she had just come from her job in Denver, apparently commuting in a black full-size V-8-engined Chevy pickup truck. We entered the store.
Inside, there was the usual display area of outdated electronics, Walmart bicycles, and some surprisingly good tools. A long lineup of unhappy-looking people shuffled along at the cash register. I perused the tools and answered some emails on my phone until Trisha got to the front of the line and explained her request to the cashier/manager.
“Okay Miss”, said the manager, “the compressor is in storage, so in order to see it, you’ll just need to pay the full balance of your loan plus all the fees”.
“But I don’t have the money for that”, said Trisha. “I used that money to buy gas on the day I pawned it. But this guy here has got the money – he’s willing to buy the whole thing! Just bring it out so he can see it”.
“I’m sorry, I can’t bring it out until I have the money”, the manager repeated.
“But I can’t give you the money until I see and test the compressor”, I explained. “Can’t you make an exception so we can get this sale done?”
“Nope. The compressor is MINE now, until the loan is repaid”, said the manager, getting a little surly.
“Well, my apologies to both of you”, I said, “after learning about a policy like that, I can’t do business with this shop even if you did change your mind, so I’ll be off now”. And I left.
A few minutes later, Trisha called my mobile phone again.
“I talked to my mom, and she says if I drive over to her place, she’ll loan me the money to get the compressor out of the pawn shop. If I do that, and then bring it over to your house, will you still buy it?”.
“I appreciate the offer, but if you don’t mind let’s just call the deal off for now. Best of luck to you and I’m sorry again!”.
Whew. I spent some more time that evening shopping online for brand-new compressors. Then another friend came over, we drank some beer, and he mentioned I could just borrow his compressor for as long as I needed it, taking the pressure off of the purchase completely. Why didn’t I think of that before?
The next day was Saturday. With the loaner machine procured, I decided I now had time to try to fix my own compressor. I did a little bit of research. It turned out that I could use an external regulator to work around the problem. That would cost only $48.23 from Amazon with free shipping. That’s a lot less expensive than buying a new compressor. But wait – digging deeper I found you can get a Dewalt regulator repair kit at amazon or ebay for only $23. That’s even better. And it looks really simple too.
That gave me an idea. I took the 3-minute walk down the street to the construction site, and wheeled my trusty Dewalt home. And within 5 minutes, I had already learned something truly valuable:
How to Fix a Dewalt Compressor Regulator*
I detached the regulator unit from the front panel using a star-shaped ‘Torx’ screwdriver bit.
From there, I was able to pull it out of the frame so I could get a wrench onto the nut that holds on the pressure-adjusting knob.
Inside, I saw a spring thing, a metal pin, and a rubber seal. But the spring wasn’t very springy. “Hmm, that’s a clue”, I thought.
I pulled the three pieces apart, sprayed some silicone lube onto them, and reassembled. Now the spring was springy. “That will probably work better”, I concluded.
I re-tightened the nut and fired up the compressor. The air leak was gone and the adjuster knob turned better-than new.
Not only did I save about $300 and a whole bunch of environmental waste, but I will now know how to fix air regulators for the 70 remaining years of my life! And the whole thing took less time than a single visit to the pawn shop.
Let this be a lesson to me. I must not start getting all high and mighty with that “my time is too valuable to spend fixing my own shit” nonsense. As explained in the article about the value of your time, these equations only favor the lazy in the case that you have near-infinite wages in your day job, or already-infinite knowledge of everything and thus you cannot benefit from the learning experience of fixing your own stuff. At least give it a try.
And oh yeah, the other lesson: pawn shops are ridiculous. Help me convert the rest of the world to Mustachianism, so we can have them all torn down.
* (I made a heading out of it, so we can be first in the search engines with this result – apparently nobody has ever written about this before!)
MMM – Have you used the Tool Library in Boulder (http://resourcetoollibrary.org/)? It opened recently and seems like a great resource.