DIY home maintenance

Old toilet, discolored porcelain, and mineral stains




I was ready to wax our old toilet.

But before I explain that teaser, let me talk about a critical aspect of financial independence: DIY– doing it yourself.

When you’re working 60 hours a week (or deployed for a 168-hour workweek) then you probably don’t look forward to doing your own home maintenance. You’d rather spend time with your family, go out for entertainment, or just catch up on your sleep. You’re not the only person who feels this way, because there’s a whole industry of dogged entrepreneurs picking up pet poop for customers who are “too busy” to take care of it.

Sometimes it makes sense to hire out home maintenance. If you’re paid more at your job than you’d pay to hire out the cleaning, then hiring it out seems compelling. However, it’s easy to turn that into a false economy, especially when you want to hear a certain answer. If you’re getting paid $50/hour then hiring a $60/hour cleaning crew is a money-losing idea. But if you’re getting paid $60/hour, then what?

Do more math and make sure you’re comparing the same numbers. You’re paying the cleaning crew with after-tax dollars, so determine your after-tax wages. If you’re earning $60/hour then federal/state/local taxes could easily eat up 30%. At this point most of you are getting out the vacuum cleaner.

In defense of those who hate cleaning, you have other factors on your side. DIY needs your own tools and supplies, which can be expensive to buy & maintain. (Or you could buy them from Craigslist and garage sales.) Even if your net pay is just $42/hour, you may still value your liberty more highly than your boss values your work. The cleaning crew’s $60/hour could be worth paying from the entertainment budget.

However, the non-financial intangibles make all the difference. For example, housecleaning is an arduous exercise in flexibility, free weights, & aerobics. It might feel like a waste to pay for both a cleaning crew and a gym membership, especially if you could redirect hundreds of dollars a year from those bills to your retirement investments. Next, housecleaning is an excellent chance to do a facility home inspection. You’ll notice little warning signs (water leaks or bugs) before they grow into big problems. Most importantly of all, though, housecleaning is an outstanding opportunity to reflect on minimizing it. The less you own, the less you’ll clean. If you don’t get it dirty in the first place, then you won’t have to clean it. A little daily cleaning saves much more time and effort than “monthly cleaning marathon day”. I won’t get into the millions of cleaning books and websites, but we’ve learned a lot at Hale Nords from that timeless classic (available at your local library) “Speed Cleaning”.

Have you considered slave labor? No, not that kind, I’m talking about your kids. The earlier you can teach them to clean up after themselves and do chores, then the less you’ll suffer when they turn into teenagers. Servicemembers have hundreds of hours of experience at military cleaning and training– so make those skills pay off! Even a five-year-old can put away their clean laundry, clear the dinner table, and empty wastebaskets. Helping them their bedroom & bathroom counts as “quality family time”, as well as the chance to show your budding DIYers how to check for plumbing leaks or bugs. Cleaning their own toilets will inspire your kids to make less of a mess in the first place. Ultimately they’ll want to have their own place– and the sooner you teach them their own DIY skills then the sooner they’ll move out of your house.

DIY home maintenance is even more valuable in an emergency. If you’re already taking care of your own plumbing, then when a leak erupts at 10 PM on a Friday night you’ll know how to stop it on your own. You might even know how to fix it, eliminating hundreds of dollars of emergency-response fees and weekend service calls. You just can’t put a price on the self-confidence boost you earn by recovering from this engineering casualty.

So where do you get these skills? Start with the world’s biggest DIY training facility: the military. Even military clerks and security guards get a chance to see things being fixed. If someone else fixes your gear, then you certainly want to know how to keep it working more reliably and longer. A polite question makes people happy to show off their knowledge & skills. If you’re a supervisor then you have to ask these questions anyway!

Two other DIY resources are Family Handyman magazine and The Samurai Appliance Repair website.  I like the magazine’s tool ads repair-tech updates for $20/year, but FH’s website is free. Both are filled with procedures, checklists, videos, parts lists, and tool tips. The Samurai’s troubleshooting guides are also free, and for a small beer-fund offering he’ll answer your questions in live chat or on a discussion board. Home-improvement stores are online and in nearly every neighborhood, and parts are much more standardized & affordable. The industry still caters to contractors, but it makes a lot of money from DIYers– especially the women who have lost all fear of maintenance & repair projects.

Submarine sewage experience– the hard way

The Navy spent years of my life (and piles of your tax dollars) training me to be a nuclear engineer. How did I repay that investment? By spending an inordinate amount of time fixing sewage systems. When you’re 22 days into a 90-day submarine patrol, and thousands of miles from the nearest plumbing-supply store, then you have all sorts of time and creativity to keep your toilets flushing.

A thousand words later I’m back to the toilet. Nice segue, huh?

It was 22 years old. The bowl’s porcelain finish was eroded by years of harsh chemicals and abrasive cleaners, and it had a lot of friction impeding the “material flow”. We have a whole-house water conditioner, but minerals still built up on the porous surface to require even more chemicals & scrubbing. Its piping was slowly clogging with mineral deposits and its flush just wasn’t pushing the contents like it should. The public-bathroom toilet sees the most traffic– and it was beginning to make the wrong type of first impression. A coat of wax would have helped the bowl look cleaner & work better– but who wants to spend their valuable liberty on that chore?

Next-generation DIYer

We did our research with Family Handyman’s “top toilets” article and the step-by-step procedure. We shared the links with our daughter, who volunteered to tackle the project during her college break. This would be her second toilet replacement, earning her $10/hour while offering valuable civil-engineering experience.

So for our 25th wedding anniversary, I got my spouse a different type of shiny rock-hard glittering gift: a Kohler Wellworth elongated low-flush model, $208 at Home Depot before the 10% military discount. Pricey, but worth every penny for decades of quality!

When you wait this long to replace a toilet, there’s many engineering upgrades. It’s still a gravity flush, but the hydrodynamics are much better. The bowl is designed for a straight shot down the chute instead of a swirl, so its contents depart immediately with no clog left behind. The flushing handle moves a poppet valve instead of a traditional flapper, so you can flush exactly the amount of water you want with prompt feedback. The tank holds 1.6 gallons but the usual flush is under a gallon. The flow is so smooth that you don’t even hear the traditional “whoosh” noise. The bowl’s hard-glazed surface is slicker ‘n… well… anything likely to contact it. Over the last week it’s needed zero cleaning. I’m happy to devote several additional weeks of monitoring to determine the ideal cleaning interval.

Not only is it a top-quality toilet with minimal maintenance, but during the replacement I just hovered over my daughter’s shoulder offering helpful suggestions while she did the real work. Best quality family time ever.

New Kohler Wellworth toilet

If you weren’t raised in the DIY lifestyle, start now. Subscribe to the magazines & websites, enjoy the pretty pictures, and spend a few minutes a week learning the vocabulary. Follow your interests and start small. If you hire a contractor, ask questions and learn from them. I prefer plumbing & appliances to carpentry, but I’m willing to tackle just about any maintenance or repair task. You’ll easily save $25/hour on minor projects, and as your skills improve you’ll end up saving hundreds. Better yet, your DIY maintenance will nip problems in the bud to avoid thousands of dollars in repairs. You’ll never be at the mercy of contractors again, and you’ll be one of your street’s most popular neighbors. $25/hour is a nice boost to any retiree’s discretionary income, but the work-for-food baked goods are even better!

You don’t want to know how I learned some of my plumbing skills. However, for my daughter’s gross-out service-selection benefit, someday I’ll post my sea story about the dustpan in the submarine sewage holding tank.


Related articles:
Frugal living is not deprivation
How many years does it take to become financially independent?


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About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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2 Responses to DIY home maintenance

  1. Deserat says:

    Insert obligatory crack about your choice of a 25th wedding anniversary gift here. But then, I guess you both know each other really well by now….I did do some research – does this low flow toilet really work? The earlier ones took two flushes for solid material so it wasn’t so thrifty in water use after all.

    Love the pic of the young’un doing the dirty work ;-) In any case, thanks for the links on DIY – I certainly will be perusing those.

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Thanks, Deserat!

      And, since you asked: My photo doesn’t show it well, but instead of being a simple hemisphere the toilet bowl has a wide channel grooved into the bottom. It helps gather and align the contents, so to speak. The flush doesn’t spiral or swirl– instead the rush of water lines up along the groove and gives the contents a good shove toward the exit.

      Unlike a newer flapper valve that stays open for a preset length of time, or an older one that can shut right away but might not get the flow going before it shuts, this poppet valve (a “Class Five” valve) gives you immediate feedback and stays open as long as you have your hand on the flush handle. After a few flushes you can easily judge how much of the tank you’ll need to devote to the flush, so whether it’s one liter or the entire six liters it gets the job done right the first time.

      It’s a top-five-ranked toilet, but unlike a dual-flush model it’s much cheaper.

      We even have a water dam inside the tank to reduce the flush volume to about four liters, and still we’ve never needed a second flush.

      Our daughter’s living in a dorm room of eight girls around two quad rooms with one large bathroom. She says she wants to install one of those toilets for her birthday…

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