A Good Five-Cent Gear
It’s turning colder. There was frost on the kennel the other day, didn’t quite make it to the ground. It’s time to turn on the heater in the SUV.
This, though, is an ordeal.
We have a 2004 Ford Explorer to haul kids, and groceries, and fencing and feed, and do the long-haul to Michigan with Christmas presents. In all respects but one, this is the best vehicle I’ve ever owned. That one respect is the “climate control” unit.
Four years ago it started clicking whenever the temperature setting was changed. It would eventually stop once the new setting was reached, but it would take quite a while to get there, clicking the whole way. It has taken progressively longer to change temperature; so far this autumn it’s gone for two weeks trying to reset itself to hot ... it’s still not there. In the afternoon it’s not a problem – yet. In the morning it’s a bother.
Shortly after the climate control unit started its clicking I had the Explorer in at the mechanics for some other thing and asked him if he could look at that too while he was at it. What’s it doing, he asked. I told him. He grew suddenly concerned, “Oh-h-h,” he moaned. Uh oh, I thought.
We went to the car, turned the key, changed the temperature setting ... click, click, click, click, click. “Oh-h-h,” he moaned again.
A few days later when I came back to collect my car he explained to me what was wrong, why he couldn’t do anything about it [he tried – it was unreachable], and what I’d need to do about it. I’d need to take it to a dealer if I wanted it fixed.
The situation is that the climate control unit in several models of Ford vehicle does not know what temperature they are set at when the car is started; it has to figure that out for itself. It figures that out by turning itself all the way cold, and then all the way hot, and then back to where it had been originally. It does this by means of gears inside the unit. The only way it doesn’t do this is if the temperature setting is already all the way cold or all the way hot.
The basic problem with this is that the gears used by Ford [or its climate control manufacturer] are made of nylon, and they wear out relatively quickly. The gears are cheap, about two cents apiece. But the specific problem is that these cheap and easily worn-out gears are located in a $950 repair location. That was the estimate I was given by the Ford dealer – who charged me $250 to tell me what my local mechanic told me for free, that I’d need new gears in this internal motor that controls the climate control temperature setting.
The reason it costs so much to replace two-cent gears is because the entire dashboard has to be taken out of the vehicle, several other things in the center console have to be disassembled to get at this motor, the motor has to be taken apart, the two-cent gears replaced, the motor put back together, the center console reassembled, and the dashboard put back in.
The itemized repair bill would look like:
Parts: $ 0.02
I did some scrounging on the interweb shortly after I got the Explorer back from the dealer – Auffenberg Ford in O’Fallon IL, notorious for bill-padding and other overcharging – and I learned that if you were ambitious you could, yourself, make this repair in your driveway without disassembling the entire interior. It required tools that many people have [or might borrow] such as magnetic socket drivers and dental mirrors, plus a sharp knife.
The knife is for cutting a hole in the center console exactly so far from the floorboard and exactly so far from the firewall, and exactly so big in dimension. This is the surgical incision, and all tools, hands and elbows need to fit into this space. Once this hole is made, you need to use the magnetic drivers to remove the bolts holding the motor together [magnetic so you don’t accidentally drop the bolts inside the console and never find them again], then lift back the top, use the mirror to find the nylon gears with chewed-off teeth that made all that clicking, remove them, replace them with new gears, put the top of the motor back in place, and bolt the thing down ... using the magnetic drivers so you don’t lose the bolts inside the console never to be seen again.
What you do with the hole you cut into the plastic center console housing is up to you. One online description of this process [complete with diagrams and photos] suggested finding some scrap pieces of plastic to epoxy to the inside of the hole, making a shelf for the piece of plastic you’d just cut out of the console to rest against as you epoxied it back in place.
Or you could leave it a hole.
The online mechanical solutions to this two-cent trifle masquerading as a $950 ordeal recommended going with metal gears as the replacement part[*]. Several even had links to online suppliers of such things. A metal gear might cost as much as $0.45.
...forty-five cents if you were buying one such gear. If you were going to buy 10,000 gears, the cost per gear was a nickel.
The websites with the metal gears also had the comparable nylon gears. A single nylon gear would cost $0.25; if you bought 10,000 at a time, they were tuppence per.
Ford [or its climate control temperature setting motor manufacturer] was buying 10,000 gears at a time when they were building the climate control motors for my 2004 Explorer, and all the other vehicles using that same part. Why they did not splurge and go with the five-cent gear, the big-boy gear, instead of the cheap Hasbro-quality nylon gear, is beyond me. But I’m sure it’s got to do with some accountant in the head bean-counting cubicle cutting expenses on a single part by 60% so the vice-president above him could get a $2,000,000 bonus.
The accountant needed to do some different math. A 60% cost reduction from a five-cent gear to a two-cent gear doesn’t look so good when you realize it’s only saving three cents at a time; it takes forever to accumulate that two million dollar bonus. With that three cents you can restate the cost increase to 150% for the part [the same three cents going in reverse], then justify charging twenty-five cents more per unit, thus converting three cents into two full bits, an 800% return on investment, when the manufacturer sold the motor to Ford.
Then Ford could justify charging $0.50 more per vehicle, doubling their own cost increase on the part, and converting the three cent difference between cheap nylon and solid metal gears into an almost 1700% return on manufacturing process cost. At this rate, the bonus is accumulated much quicker, and for a better reason.
And Ford customers wouldn’t have to risk freezing in the winter or broiling in the summer as their alternative to spending nearly a thousand dollars to replace an executive perk not worth the two cents it was built on.
* - In the interest of disclosure, however, most online repair recipes suggested buying a whole new “blend door actuator motor” for around $40; it saves a few steps, not to mention knuckles. But it doesn’t highlight as well the perversity of putting a two-cent, easy-to-fail component in such a pocket-picking repair location.