Sustain-ability: The Other Option

This is a personal story about how the modern world isn't set up for sustainability and how we managed to get around that fact recently (and I promise every word is true).

Our household has two cars, both paid for, and both a bit long in the tooth. Our older vehicle is a small SUV that we purchased new just a few months before the budding psychonaut was born. It's currently 15 years old, with not as many miles as you's expect. The other car is a hybrid and is currently 10 years old. We bought it used in 2011 and it's also in really great shape... or it was.

Last week, we were driving the hybrid when the car suddenly went "ping!" and all the dash lights came on. And I mean ALL the dash lights. The anti-lock break light, the check engine light, and several mysterious lights that were nothing but red and yellow exclamation marks (that can't be good). In addition, the little status panel started announcing that we should CHECK HYBRID SYSTEM and CHECK VSC SYSTEM. And the performance went from family sedan to large concrete block on wheels. Car was apparently very upset indeed.

Not our actual car (same make, model, and problem)
The little battery icon showed all depleted, so first we decided to swap out the regular 12v battery, since it'd been a few years. This fixed the problem temporarily, but then a day later again "ping!" So off it went to the dealership, where they gave us the worst possible news, the news that no hybrid car owner ever wants to hear.

Yeah, the big hybrid battery was near death and needed to be replaced. Parts and labor: $4265.29. And until they fixed it, they wouldn't know if anything else was wrong.

You recall that I keep a running log of all maintenance on our cars, which helps us make smart decisions about ongoing cost. But no amount of tracking can prepare your budget log for $4265 (and 29 cents). That's major decision territory.

"Transfer me to sales" I said.

But sales had further bad news. The blue book value of our car in perfect working order topped out at $4200 (yes, I confirmed this). Which means our car was worth 0 dollars. Now, this was until recently a not just serviceable, but actually quite nice older sedan. It had recent body work and paint and a new wind screen from when the roof tiles blew off onto it and still presentable leather upholstery. Everything single thing worked on it and it was a reliable, working, attractive (if somewhat boring) car. Which to the world was now worth zero dollars.

Probably not our actual salesman
The salesman had some suggestions. New cars had rebates, and 0% financing, and great maintenance plans, and were all shiny and new and not sad and broken with angry dash lights. Mildly used cars were available as well and were going to cost us about the same or a little more than what we paid the last time. But as tempting as a new(er) car was, I was cranky. I couldn't help but think that we were getting fucked over, not necessarily by the dealership, but by a system that says that new cars are $35,000 but really well-maintained 10 year old cars only worth $4000. That's a loss of $3100 in value a year (though if you really want to scare yourself away from a brand new car, check out depreciation graphs, they aren't linear). And when you consider that some people buy new cars every 5 years? Crazy.

We decided to hold off on any decision for a day or so while we thought about our options. So last Saturday was spent grumping around the house having discussions about ongoing maintenance costs and whether we wanted a new car now (we did, but we sure didn't want to pay for one). And whether we wanted another car of the same type, which spawned lots of research on reliability rankings that showed that our current unhappy car was one of the most reliable on the market. And whether a very used car was just trading the devil we knew for one we didn't. And whether one car would work for us right now (we did that for years, but current logistics makes it really difficult). Sigh. We felt caught in a trap. But after a few hours, we started thinking outside the box -- looking at other options.

Turns out we could get a refurbished hybrid battery from our locally owned (and highly regarded) car parts store for $1919.99. And Youtube was happy to show us how to replace the battery on our exact make and model. And since the big battery is in the trunk between the back seat and the actual trunk space, you don't need a lift. In fact, all you need is a manual torque wrench, an electrical meter, and some patience and care (it's a high voltage battery after all). The spouse, who is full of awesome, volunteered.

So we picked up the car and drove it sluggishly home (a hybrid with a dying battery will keep running for awhile, but not forever, and they've got no pickup whatsoever). And over the course of only about five hours work (two fewer than that quoted by the experts at the dealership), my husband swapped the two. I had to help lift it out of the car and carefully settle in the new one (damn those things are heavy), but otherwise it was all him.

And the car? It's fine. Great in fact and running better and with higher MPG than it has in years. Yes, we had to pay nearly $2000, but that's under half the quoted price. It was hard on my spouse's back, but he was OK afterward as well. My general feeling was relief, like we'd dodged the trap.

Now, we still have a 10 year old car. And it could be that the refurbished battery will die again in a few years (though it shouldn't). But I feel good about our decision. Because in the end, the value of the car on the market isn't important. It's the value of the car TO US. And by my calculations my car is worth about $19,000. That's what we paid for it and what it would cost us to replace it with one that was as as carefully maintained. And that's the only cost that matters.

This isn't about fixing your own car versus having it fixed (not everyone can do that obviously). It's about looking further than the simple and easy (and usually unsustainable) choices that society offers. It's about trying to find the other option.


  1. Bravo! THat's brilliant, and I'll try to remember this when it comes time to have my car serviced next. There's a lot I can probably learn to do myself, and probably should learn to do.

    I do wonder what happened to the old battery? Will the place that refurbished your new battery, take the old one and refurbish that one for the next person down the line? Or is it now a chunk of rare earth elements and poisons that's taking up room in your garage? What's the disposal price for that?

    1. When you buy a battery, there's a core deposit that's added to the cost. When you bring the old one in, they reimburse your core deposit. The core deposit on the big hybrid battery (NOT included in that $1900) was $975! So yes, the old battery got brought in and will be refurbished for a new person. Each battery is composed of a number of different cells and only some of them might be bad for the battery to fail. In fact, there are instructions for opening up the battery case and testing / swapping the cells and cleaning the contacts -- effectively doing your own refurb. But there's a risk of killing the battery through static discharge without the right protective equipment (and yes, of shocking yourself, since it's a high voltage battery). It's good to save money, but also good to know your limitations!

    2. Oh, I feel your pain. My husband and I both work in the automotive repair industry (he now teaches it to others) and we have a rather dim view of hybrids. Unfortunately, "green" has been co-opted. What used to mean something that was the least harmful to our ecology now is a marketing gimmick.

      The EPA awards carbon credits to each car manufacturer. The more hybrids and electric vehicles they sell, the more credits they get to make the real cars/profit centers that are also unfortunately not as good on the gas mileage front without facing additional fines/taxes/etc.

      If you read the annual reports for Tesla for example, you will notice that the largest part of their revenue comes from selling their carbon credits to other manufacturers. Since they only make electric cars, they've got lots of credits. Their cars are much too expensive for the average family to purchase and maintain (independent shops cannot get parts for Teslas, so the vehicle owner must always go to the dealer for service, with the minor exception of tires. Also - don't void your warranty). Tires are something you will need much more frequently with an electric car because electric is much more "torque-y" than the old faithful 4-stroke engine (20,000 miles on a set of tires is considered very good on Teslas).

      But back to the ubiquitous hybrid. Most hybrids aren't really true hybrids, but are instead a collection of patches and band-aids to a standard 4-stroke engine. Even Toyota will tell you their hybrids' gas mileage falls off a cliff around the 90K mark.

      I think it's flat out awesome that you and your husband were able to swap out that battery. People are shocked when they ask me what my dream car is - pretty much anything prior to 1971. If you have problems, most things can be temporarily patched up with some bailing wire - long enough to get you home or to the parts store. My car is 12 years old (the last year vehicles were not required to have tire pressure monitoring systems - another headache) and my husband's little truck is old enough to drink. We take meticulous care of them both and will likely keep them until they're dead.

    3. Tonja, I really appreciate your feedback on this (from someone behind the scenes who sees the sausage getting made). Let the buyer beware!

      Our very first car was completely mechanical and served us well (and with exceedingly good gas mileage) for many years. As it is, we'll be driving our two until the engines literally fall out on the highway. Because it's the only intelligent decision from a fiscal AND ecological perspective. A new car, however "green" uses a lot more resources than continuing to drive our old ones.


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