Category: handiwork

How to replace the engine air filter in a 2006 Subaru Impreza

I neglected to follow the maintenance schedule for replacing my engine air filter and realized that it had been over two years since I last replaced the this part. The replacement process is simple and also relatively low-risk, meaning that it is unlikely for you to screw up, hurt yourself, or destroy your vehicle.

In the 2005-2007 Subaru Impreza series (non-WRX), the replacement process is quick and simple. The engine air filter is situated on the passenger side of the engine.

Access to the engine air filter is on the passenger side under a plastic vent cover.
Access to the engine air filter is on the passenger side under a plastic vent cover.

The housing includes two clamps that can be released without any tools:

Push the clip away from the edge of the cover to release.
Push the clip away from the edge of the cover to release.

The plastic vent hood can then be lifted up vertically to expose the engine air filter. The tubing should have a little bit of give and offer you plenty of room to move the cover aside. My old filter was disgusting and pitch black:

This is what a dirty engine air filter looks like. Don't let that happen to you.
This is what a dirty engine air filter looks like. Don’t let that happen to you.

Typically the airflow through the filter is not through the center of the filter but rather from the side. Most of the time only half of the filter becomes dirty simply due to the positioning of the airflow. My filter was black throughout, as I clearly had rotated it around to extend the life of the filter.

This is what a clean engine air filter looks like
This is what a clean engine air filter looks like

I ordered my air filter through eBay for $8.05. You can simply take out the filter and replace it with a new one. The dealer charges $40 plus another 0.25 hrs of labor @ $100/hr. The entire job took me about five minutes, which included the time it took the pictures for this entry. That is an insane amount of cost savings especially since I didn’t even have to take the car to the shop! I could have even splurged and used a high-end oil-based filter that will outlast the life of your car (rated to be used for 1 million miles!)

Have you replaced the engine air filter on your vehicle before? Is the cost and time savings worth your pay scale?

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How to find wall studs the right way

One common household task that many of us have dealt with is identifying a sturdy point in our walls to either hang a painting or frame a shelf. There are studs (2”x4”) behind the dry wall, but how do we find them?

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  • Hardware stores sell stud finders. You can pick up one of these battery powered devices for around $20.
  • Ascultation. Most interior walls are not insulated. This means that there is air space in between the dry walls. Use your ascultatory skills and identify where the hollow points are, and what the dense points are. You can even use your stethoscope!
  • Understand fundamental housebuilding codes. Typical walls in the U.S. are framed with 2”x4” posts at 16” apart on-center. Once you find one, you can measure out and find another one.
  • Use a magnet. You can tie a neodymium magnet to a piece of floss. Dangle it on the dry wall, and it will stick to head of the nail.

how to find wall studs


I typically use a magnet in combination with auscultation. Once you find the nail head, you can typically find the strong points behind the wall to mount your TV, shelves, or wall art.

Is this skill useful to you?

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The hassles of hiring out your chores

I’m a big supporter of DIY tasks that are minimal risk to yourself and saves you from unnecessarily spending after-tax dollars. Understand that I am a big supporter that money does buy happiness, but throwing money at a problem can sometimes be more hassle than its worth.

Case in point: one of the smoke alarms in my rental started chirping. I am the tenant. The fix is a simple replacement of a low 9V battery…except that the alarm happened to be in the foyer where the ceiling was 12 feet high. I did not have a ladder that high, and it’s unclear whether I should risk falling off a ladder and ending my career over a 9V battery.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t snap my fingers and have a handyman replace the battery at a moment’s notice. In reality, it took many steps to outsource this simple task:

  1. E-mail the landlord listing the items requiring repair.
  2. Wait for e-mail reply stating that it is okay for my to contact her handyman to schedule a repair.
  3. Call the handyman several times to schedule.
  4. Handyman no shows for the repair twice, and does not call back to reschedule.
  5. Handyman shows up 1 hour late, and tells you that the smoke alarm is actually defective.
  6. Handyman takes the defect smoke alarm, and never calls back to finish the repair.

While this process consumed approximately only one hour of my time, having the incomplete task of the smoke alarm looming over my shoulder likely distracted me from other tasks. Moreover, the repair still has not been finished!

Would you hire a handyman to replace a 9V battery on a smoke alarm on a 12-ft ceiling?

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The cons of outsourcing tasks.

Reliability. This is the key factor in determining how efficient you can pay someone to take care of errands for you. I don’t remember the last time I had a reliable handyman who showed up on time, actually knew what he was doing, and took care of the problem quickly. Most of the time, I actually lost productivity by outsourcing minor tasks! If you’ve had a great experience with handymen, comment below!

Theft. Obviously if you leave your belongings out for the taking, you are tempting your housekeeping staff to steal your belongings. I have never used a housekeeper, but I have heard horror stories of my colleagues being robbed by their cleaning staff. Think about it. Most housekeepers are compensated at a mid-low hourly rate. They may only earn $50 pretax for a 5-hour cleaning job in your house. If you leave out your $5,000 Omega watch lying on the counter, you are tempting your $10/hour cleaner to take it.

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Pros of outsourcing tasks.

Manual labor. You are a busy professional. Your livelihood depends on you being able to do a colonoscopy or throw a central line. It would be a shame to become disabled from throwing out your back while mowing the lawn. Yard maintenance, house painting, and furniture moving are all straightforward tasks that are physically taxing. It’s a no brainer to outsource these tasks if you are too tired at the end of the day to be mowing your lawn that needs a trimming every week.

Have someone deal with tasks that you have absolutely no interest in dealing with. This is human nature. I know people who choose to pay for a $150/month gym membership to exercise than to rake leaves in the back yard. I know plumbers who choose to pay another plumber to replace their toilet. I have had a financial advisor tell me that they hire financial advisors to manage their own money! To each his own.

Do you consider yourself to be handy?

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The Practical and Basic Ways to Inspect Your Tires

I’ve written before about low risk practical measures to maintain your vehicle such as changing the headlights and taillights. Today we will discuss two fundamental principles of wheel care: tire pressure and alignment.


Tire Pressure

As part of my routine car maintenance, I typically check my car’s tire pressure to make sure that they are properly inflated. Insufficient air in the tires will result in decreased fuel economy and uneven wear. Overinflated tires will also result in uneven wear on the central treads. Tire pressure maintenance is particularly important in cold weather, as air pressure decreases as the molecules slow down with decreased temperature.

The first step in management of tire pressure is to know what is a normal number for your car. Most cars will have a detailed chart on a sticker in the frame of the driver’s side the car:

recommended tire pressure in front door

Many vehicles will have different ratings for the front and the back tires depending on the expected load. The photo above shows that my 2006 Subaru Impreza has a recommended tire pressure of 33psi in the front tires and 20psi in the back. Note that the tire pressure in the spare tire is much higher (nearly double) that of the standard tire. Since the spare tires are typically smaller than the standard tires (less contact area), a higher pressure is required to hold up the weight of the car.

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Newer vehicles actually have pressure sensors built into the valve stems of the car and will notify the driver whenever the tire pressure is out of range. If your car doesn’t have sensors, then all you’d need is a tire pressure gauge from any department or hardware store. To check your tire’s pressure, simply unscrew the valve cap and place the gauge to the Shrader valve.

To refill your tires, either add air via a pump at the gas station or use a portable tire inflator/starter.

Wheel Alignment

Wheel alignment is a more subtle phenomenon that is critical in maintaining durability of your tires. Misaligned tires will wear unevenly. The key to measuring wheel alignment is to check the tread depth of your tires. The magic number is that you need to keep the tread depth to be thicker than 2/32”. To measure the tread depth, use a ruler gauge:

Check tire tread depth with card ruler

Or you can also use a penny to track the tread depth. Please the penny upside down in the groove of the tread and if you see Lincoln’s head, then your tread depth is <= 2/32”. Uneven tread wear will result in decreased traction on the pavement and decreased control during slippery road conditions.

check tread depth using lincolns head on a penny

Check every tread in your tire (outside to in), and see if the depth wear is even. I recently noted that my outer treads were worn asymmetrically with the inner treads. This results from positive camber, and means that I should look into my suspension or take my car to get the tires realigned. I take my tires to Walmart every 7500 miles to rotate (I get free balance and rotation since I purchased the tires from them), but clearly the mechanics never did note uneven tread wear on all of my tires. YMMV on discount service centers!

How often do you inspect your vehicle's tires?

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Do I need original Kohler parts for my Kohler toilet?

In our previous post on toilets, we discussed how to replace the Mansfield valve seal. In this article we discuss Kohler toilets. Future articles will further discuss the inner workings of the toilet and basic repairs.

Kohler brand toilets belong in the upper echelon [read: expensive] of toilets, along with Toto, Oxo, and some models of American Standard. Yes, these toilets are more expensive to purchase, but inevitably they will require maintenance nonetheless. Leaky water into the bowl, bad flush? It may be time to replace the fill valve or flapper.

Basic toilet maintenance and repair is one of the skills that can save you a lot of money. It’s not to be macho or cheap either—I’ve seen plumbers charge $50 to $160 an hour with a flat rate house call charge on top of that! I can’t think of too many low injury risk activities a doctor can do in her free time to earn/save $100 per hour post-tax.

Kohler toilets come with Kohler parts. Each model is referenced by a four-digit serial number either etched in the porcelain or ink stamped inside the tank:

Kohler toilet serial number

The number usually starts with either a ‘3’ or a ‘4’. You can then search on the Kohler website your model number and find the list of parts that fits your toilet. Many Kohler toilet tank lids already have a  label and diagram with the basic replacement parts.

For my toilet, Amazon sells the standard Kohler fill valve for $14.99. The flush valve is sold separately for $17.45, and the flapper is again separate for around $8.

In comparison, a Fluidmaster 400 flapper and fill valve kit is only $10.


Will another brand of parts fit my Kohler toilet?

Fortunately, yes. A commonly known aspect in plumbing is that Fluidmaster actually makes the parts for Kohler toilets. Sometimes they are rebranded and built to the specs for Kohler’s requests, but the innards are the same!

My Kohler toilet uses the Fluidmaster 400A fill valve despite having a Kohler cap:

kohler ingenia fill valve

kohler uses fluidmaster parts

Just realize that the argument for using an alternative brand will likely save you perhaps $15-30 in a single repair—you won’t be retiring early with an equipment swap, but I can think of two reasons to do this:

  1. Good luck finding a Kohler fill valve at your neighborhood chain hardware store!
  2. The more important reason is to learn how to deal with minor handiwork yourself. There are minimal tools required to repair your toilet, there is low risk of you hurting yourself in the process, and you can probably save $200 of post-tax income by doing this yourself. Sure, you might take 3 hours to do the repair your first time, but at least you learned. I replaced my fill valve in less than 10 minutes. The replacement of my Mansfield valve seal took 5 minutes.


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Comments or questions, please comment below on Smart Money MD!

My car’s check engine light on! What do I do?

Check engine light onSometimes the simplest explanation is the answer, but the solution becomes obvious only after the fact. My check engine light turned on last week, and I sort of panicked. My car was relatively new with a good maintenance schedule—why is it flipping error codes on me?

For most passenger vehicles built after 1996, on-board diagnostics (OBD2) is able to produce error codes that help you troubleshoot your vehicle. There is a serial port-like output often on the lower left side of the steering wheel where you can plug in the scanner. An OBD2 scanner can be purchased for less than $30 on for self-troubleshooting. If you go to your local AutoZone, O’Reillys, or your local dealer, they will have the device to scan your vehicle.

Common causes for check engine light include:

  • Gas cap loose – A loose gas cap on a modern vehicle will flip the check engine light. The gas tank belongs to a complex system that allows your car to remove and dispose of vapors in the tank. ACGO has a great overview of this system.
  • The oxygen sensor needs to be replaced. The sensor detects the amount of unburned oxygen in your exhaust. If it malfunctions, you can still drive your car, but the fuel economy will likely decrease.
  • Other items upstream of the oxygen sensor: spark plugs, air flow sensor, catalytic converter.
  • Evaporative vacuum hose leak.
  • Not so common: if you’re messing with your car alarm system or recently installed an aftermarket remote starter kit, you might want to check your wires.

In any case, most of these faulty devices will cost you hundreds (thousands if your dealer rips you off) to replace.

Fortunately for me, my fuel cap was loose:

Subaru gas cap
Tighten your gas cap or your check engine light will turn on!

The cap actually has printed instructions to tighten it!

If you have any questions or comments, sound out below! Any car problems to troubleshoot? Sound out below!

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Step by step instructions to replace the Mansfield toilet flush valve seal

Step by step instructions to replace the Mansfield toilet flush valve seal (lifestyle, handiwork)

This is the third installment of basic handiwork tips for the busy professional. Prior tutorials include:

This repair job involves replacement of a flush valve seal in a toilet tank. This seal forms a barrier between a toilet flapper and the porcelain tank. After many years of water corrosion, the seal often deteriorates and results in water loss into the bowl. Often with additional corrosion the seal forms a vacuum and flushing becomes more difficult.

The toilet that I will be repairing is a 1.5gpf Mansfield #160 toilet. The flush mechanism is a vertical flush valve without a plunger:

mansfield toilet #160

Here is a picture of the valve seal that has decayed. The seal fits like a washer and can be removed relatively easily from the plastic flush valve tower. It can be purchased at a local hardware store (Lowe’s) for about $2.

mansfield flush valve seal

Of note, Mansfield toilets must be fit using their own flush mechanisms since the tank often does not have a standard type fit.

  1. Turn off the water supply to the toilet (valve is usually next to the toilet connecting into the wall).
  2. Flush toilet to empty tank.
  3. For the Mansfield toilet, turn the flush valve tower counterclockwise to unscrew it from the tank.
  4. The flush valve seal can just be lifted from the tank and replaced with the new one.

That’s it! Comments or questions? Ask below!