Our Mister Fix-It

By Steve Elliott '88 | Illustration by Funnel Inc.

Mister Fix-ItAs the recession settles in, more people are tackling tasks they used to hire out and are doing what they can to make things last. We asked Carleton alumnus Steve Elliott ’88, handyman and writer of The Portable Dad: Fix-It Advice for When Dad’s Not Around, to teach the wannabe do-it-yourselfers among us a thing or two about how to take care of our stuff.

Experience has this reputation for being a great teacher. Make a mistake, the thinking goes, and you’re less likely to make it again. While that may be true, it also can be an expensive and dangerous way to learn—even simple things.

Take that first drive in a U-Haul truck, for example. You get in, start up, pull out of the parking lot, and head down the road. It’s all great until you need to change lanes and realize three important things in short order: 1. U-Hauls don’t have rearview mirrors. 2. You didn’t set the side mirrors before driving away. 3. You have a blind spot the size of Kansas beside you—right where you need to be.

On one hand, that is an experience. (And you’ll probably remember to set the side mirrors on the next truck you rent.) On the other hand, there are the repair costs for that minivan you clipped and sent skidding sideways into the 7-Eleven parking lot.

Not long after my oldest child went to college, I realized there was some basic mechanical know-how she hadn’t picked up in her first 18 years on the planet, so I wrote down everything she needed to know to take care of her car, computer, bike, apartment, and yard—and then got it published.

Turns out it’s not just twentysomethings who find the information valuable. At book signings and online, I’ve met people of many ages who buy the book to learn or relearn some useful and practical mechanical skills. Here are a few.


No matter how well you take care of your car, there are a couple of situations that can affect anyone—a dead battery and a flat tire. Here’s a quick review of how to deal with each.

Mister Fix-ItJump-start a dead battery: You’ll need two things: jumper cables and a friendly driver with a good battery. (If you’re not sure if you have jumper cables, now
is a good time to check.)

Line up the cars so the batteries are close together, but make sure the cars aren’t touching. Disconnect cell phones, iPods, radar detectors, and anything else that is plugged into either car, and turn off the headlights of both.

Get out your jumper cables and, with the good car shut off, connect them to the two cars. They’ll have clamps marked positive (+) and negative (-) at either end. Both batteries will be marked the same way. Here’s the connection order:

  • Start at the bad battery and connect the positive clamp to the positive battery terminal. (It’s often covered by a plastic shield.)
  • Next connect the other positive clamp to the positive terminal of the good battery.
  • Connect the negative clamp to the negative terminal of the good battery.
  • Finally, connect the remaining negative clamp to a bare metal part of the engine of the dead car. This grounds the circuit and is safer than connecting the clamp to the dead battery’s negative terminal.

Start the good car and let it run for a couple of minutes to charge the dead battery; then you should be able to start the dead car. Leave it running and disconnect the jumper cables in reverse order: ground, good negative, good positive, and bad positive.

Change a flat: While you’re checking for jumper cables, make sure you also have a jack, lug wrench, and spare tire stashed somewhere in your car. (If you have a newer BMW or other car with run-flat tires, stop looking so smug!) If you ever need to use that stuff, here’s the quick step-by-step.

Pull over and park as far from traffic on the flattest spot you can and set your parking brake. Get out the spare, jack, and lug wrench.

It’s easier to loosen the wheel’s lug nuts before jacking up the car, so do that first. They loosen counterclockwise and can be stubborn, so be prepared to put your back into it. Once they’re loose, jack up the car enough to get the flat wheel off and slip the spare on. Your owner’s manual will illustrate where to put the jack.

Thread the lug nuts on finger-tight first, then tighten them a little bit more with the wrench with the wheel still in the air. Next, lower the jack slowly until the bottom of the wheel touches the ground—that will hold the wheel still while you do the final tightening. Tighten each lug nut twice more, the last time with about as much pressure as you needed to loosen them. Do it in a star pattern, tightening nuts on opposite sides of the wheel until you’ve got them all twice. Now lower the jack all the way. If it’s a compact or mini spare, keep your speed under 50 miles an hour and get the regular tire replaced as soon as possible.


Besides painting them, there are two basic things you might want to do to walls: hang stuff on them and destroy all evidence of having hung stuff on them.

Mister Fix-ItHang heavy stuff: Whether you’re living in your dream house or your first apartment, you’ll want to have a stud finder. If you’re hanging anything heavy—a mirror, shelves, or a big piece of art—securing it to a 2 x 4 stud inside the wall is the only safe way to do it. If you’re in an apartment, it’s even more important. They make different kinds of wall anchors that hold heavy objects to drywall, but every single one of them will leave a bigger, harder-to-hide hole than you’ll make with a single drywall screw driven into a stud. When you move out, carefully remove the screw and use a tiny dab of Spackle to hide the hole.


As much as computers change and improve over time, there are still a couple of maintenance tasks you have to stay up on to keep your computer, data, and identity safe. You know them already, but here’s a quick reminder:

Is your anti-virus program up to date, and has it done a full system scan in the past two weeks? (If not, fix either or both of these issues on your lunch hour today.)

Have you backed up your data lately? You can do it online, onto a DVD, or some other way, but do it.

Do you take extra precautions when you’re using public computers—including your computer at work? Always assume that someone is monitoring or intercepting everything you do on any public computer.

Do you know the condition of your hard drive? As you add and delete files over time, every hard drive starts to get fragmented and your computer saves bits of new files in many little pockets of free space on the drive. Running a quick scan and defragmenting utility (on a PC) puts your files back together and speeds up your system.


Nothing gets your attention quicker than a misbehaving toilet, but many common toilet problems are easily fixed.

Unclog a toilet: Clogged toilets require plungers, and if you don’t have one, add it to a shopping list. The best ones have a bulb-shaped end. They seal against the bowl better and create more clog-clearing pressure.

Fix it if it doesn’t flush: If you press the flush handle and nothing happens, it may be a simple fix. Take the top off the tank and press the handle again. It’s essentially a seesaw, and you should see the opposite end rise up. That end lifts something—a flapper at the bottom of the tank or a central flushing assembly. Check both the lever and the chain connected to the flapper and reattach or replace whichever is broken.

Stop the toilet from running: Check the flapper at the bottom of the bowl to see if it’s blocked or broken, and check the float level. If the float is set too high, water will flow into the overflow outlet and your toilet will keep running. Bend the float arm to adjust it.


Keeping a basic lawn looking decent is pretty easy. You’ve got to cut it, you’ve got to water it, and once in a while it doesn’t hurt to feed it and get the weeds out.

Mister Fix-ItWater and feed the lawn: One of the most common yard problems is simply overwatering with automatic sprinklers. Grass gurus recommend a deep watering—30 minutes or so—early in the morning every third or fourth day. (It depends on your climate, of course.) Here’s the watering test: Walk across your lawn and if the grass in your footprints springs back up, it’s fine. If it stays down, it’s time to water. The right amount of water, a mulching mower, and a little weed-and-feed in the spring and fall is about all most lawns need.

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