Troubleshooters.Com Presents

Troubleshooting Professional Magazine

Volume 8 Issue 2, Spring, 2004
Preventive Maintenance
Copyright (C) 2004 by Steve Litt. All rights reserved. Materials from guest authors copyrighted by them and licensed for perpetual use to Troubleshooting Professional Magazine. All rights reserved to the copyright holder, except for items specifically marked otherwise (certain free software source code, GNU/GPL, etc.). All material herein provided "As-Is". User assumes all risk and responsibility for any outcome.

Steve Litt is the author of Troubleshooting Techniques of the Successful Technologist and Rapid Learning: Secret Weapon of the Successful Technologist.

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Change your oil every 3000 miles! -- Common wisdom


Editor's Desk

By Steve Litt
If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

If you truly believe that all the time, please don't work on airplanes or in a nuclear facility.

I learned of preventive maintenance late in the game. After all, as a stereo repairman, why bother? If a stereo goes bad after a number of years, you replace it.

Having given courses in nuclear environments, I've come to understand how different things are in a safety critical situation. When safety is a major issue, you can't perform step 5 of the Universal Troubleshooting Process, Do the General Maintenance. Performing general maintenance, otherwise known as corrective maintenance, would mask the root cause, limiting your ability to prevent future occurrence.

And of course there's the fact that a blown stereo could cause postponement of a party, whereas a blown nuclear reactor could create a 20 year environmental nightmare.

What do you do if you can't afford even a single failure? Certainly good design is imperative, but as the old saying goes, "stuff happens". That's where preventive maintenance comes in. The two primary causes for "stuff" happening are:
  1. User error
  2. Normal wear and tear
Problems caused by user error can be minimized by good design, good training, and good communications. But how do you prevent problems caused by normal wear and tear? Simply replace or refurbish the component before it's significantly worn. Preventive maintenance.

This issue of Troubleshooting Professional Magazine is devoted to preventive maintenance -- its necessity, its costs, and extent to which it is done. So kick back, relax, and remember -- if you're a Troubleshooter, this is your magazine.
Steve Litt is the author of "Troubleshooting Techniques of the Successful Technologist".  Steve can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

Economic Justification of Preventive Maintenance

By Steve Litt
If it ain't broke, don't fix it!

As a stereo owner, that's pretty much my motto. Why replace the panel lights every couple years, when they might last for ten. If one burns out, big deal, I live with it til something else burns out, and then I repair the whole kitten kaboodle.

It's a little different with my car. If a fanbelt or hose breaks while driving, I have maybe a minute or so to shut it down, or else a gasket busting overheat will result. Imagine if the fanbelt broke on a crowded but fast 2 lane under construction interestate, with no shoulder. Such a thought is an excellent motivation to replace belts and hoses at regular intervals, whether or not they appear worn or defective.

Speaking of cars, we all know what happens if we don't change our oil every 3000 miles, our coolant every 24,000 miles, or our transmission fluid every 20,000 - 35,000 miles. Some preventive maintenance prevents wear on other parts, and is therefore essential. If you wait until your oil and tranny fluid are black, and your coolant is rusty, your car might become economically unfeasable to maintain after 60,000 miles. On the other hand, if you change these coolants at recommended intervals, perform other required maintenance, and drive in a sane manner, you could get 150,000 miles or more without an engine or tranny rebuild. If you have better things to do with your money than buying a new car every 5 years, maintenance is a must.

Most car malfunctions aren't fatal. Many airplane malfunctions are. If your car blows a head gasket it's costly and inconvenient. If your single engine airplane's engine dies and can't restart, unless you find a good place to land and use a lot of skill doing so, you're dead. Imagine the fun if your airplane's landing gear won't go down, or if you get a gasoline leak near the engine. You would likely be dead, and your family would be set back by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Which is nothing compared to the economic cost if a large passenger airplane loses its wing mid-flight. Lawsuits from such mishaps settle in the millions, and the loss of business cost more millions.

But what's one airplane in comparsion to a nuclear accident? My reading indicates combining the cost of the destroyed nuclear plant, the cost of defueling it, and the cost of lawsuits exceeded a billion dollars. I saw a figure at pinning the cost of Chernobyl at $350 million.

Naturally, plane crashes and nuclear mishaps cost much more than the company pays. The costs are born by the government and by individuals harmed. In addition, there's just no way to place a dollar figure on the true costs of injury and death.

Making the Justification

In justifying the cost of preventive maintenance you must balance the cost of preventive maintenance against the cost of damage likely to occur in its absense, factoring in the likelihood of such damage. For instance, if you use regular organic oil and go 40,000 miles between oil changes, it's almost a certainty your engine will blow up before 100,000 miles -- likely significantly before 100,000. You could change your oil every day, but that would cost you $6,000.00 per year -- clearly an excessive price to pay for allowing your engine to last an extra 100,000 miles, given that a rebuilt engine costs around $6000.00 installed, and will likely last much more than a year.

It turns out that by changing the oil at 3,000 mile intervals, the likelihood of your engine dying from engine wear becomes tiny, at least for the first 150,000 miles. At 12,000 miles per year, this level of preventive maintenance costs you $80.00 per year, or about $1100.00 during the 150,000 mile life of your car.

Contrast the preceding with a home stereo. The typical home stereo costs less than $300.00. Without preventive maintenance it will typically last at least 4 years, unless it's abused. Given that preventive maintenance would cost $50.00, it makes every sense to adopt a if it ain't broke, don't fix it attitude.

On the other end of the spectrum is an airplane. Given the huge losses created by a single failure, adequate funds must be allocated toward preventive maintenance to reduce the likelihood of wear induced failure way below factors like pilot error, unforseen disasterous weather, and terrorism. And naturally, those factors must also be reduced.

The Diagnostic Cost

There's a cost beyond the damages enumerated in this article: The diagnostic cost. Troubleshooting can be an expensive activity, especially if the symptom is intermittent. When you properly institute a program of preventive maintenance, you cut way down on problems that must be diagnosed.


When determining the degree of preventive maintenance to perform, you must weigh total cost of such preventive maintenance against the likely cost (economic and other) of problems which will arise without it, factoring in the likelihood of such problems. If the cost of such problems are minimal, such as in the case of a home stereo system, often the best policy is if it ain't broke, don't fix it!

If the likelihood is so tiny as to make the costs of expected problems minimal and acceptable, no further preventive maintenance is called for. For instance, reducing the oilchange interval from 3000 miles to 1000 miles wouldn't significantly increase engine life, and even if it did, by 150,000 miles, the average car is ready for the glue factory.

I'd like to tell you that preventive maintenance is a must when human life is involved, but do you keep records of when you check your car's brake fluid, when you check the brake pads? How often do you check your brake's hydrolic lines for signs of wear?

When the risks get into multiple lives, such as airplanes, nuclear facilities and chemical plants, preventive maintenance programs are created and executed.

The bottom line is this. For everything you own, especially if "you" is a business, you should have a preventive maintenance plan. It needn't be detailed or costly, but the fact that you're on top of things will save you money, and possibly lives.
Steve Litt is the creator of the Universal Troubleshooting Process.  Steve can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

Types of Preventive Maintenance

By Steve Litt
Replacing parts before they go bad, and replacing fluids after a specific lifetime are only two types of preventive maintenance.

One cost effective preventive maintenance technique is inspection. Consider the ball joints on your car. Replacing them before they could possibly go bad is costly, but you want to make sure they never break on you, or death could result. By inspecting them frequently, they can be replaced at the first sign of wear.
Steve Litt is the author of the Universal Troubleshooting Process courseware.   Steve can be reached atSteve Litt's email address.

Paperwork for Preventive Maintenance

By Steve Litt
Without the right kind of paperwork, preventive maintenance won't happen. Whether at work or play, our lives are too full to remember preventive maintenance without reminders. Companies often have policies on preventive maintenance, including schedules for each type of mainenance, for each machine.

Each day somebody must look at the records to find what maintenance needs to be done in the next few days, and order any necessary parts. All scheduled maintenance must be done on time.

In this computerized age, it would be simple to create a preventive maintenance database, complete with an application to create parts orders for upcoming maintenance, and maintenance instructions for today's jobs.

On a less professional level, in your personal life you might choose to keep records on each of your cars, recording every oil change, every transmission fluid change, every differential oil change, every belt and hose change, every new alternator, water pump, or shock absorber. Every battery change, and every time the battery becomes discharged. Every new set of tires, every tire rotation, every balancing, and every alignment.

Also included would be a list of suggested intervals for all of these things. Perhaps you could computerize these things, with one file per car. By looking at these files maybe once a month, you could keep on top of your car's maintenance.

This same technique could be used for maintaning your body. Quick -- when was your last tetenus shot? Thirty years ago the same doctor would care for you year in and year out, so he or she would take charge of your "preventive maintenance". Today, when every job change, rule change, and negociation brings a change of doctor, and the typical person goes to a general practitioner (primary physician) and one or more specialists, with insufficient communication between them all. It's your job to keep track of shots, tests, diagnoses, and everything else.

We all want to perform preventive maintenance, but success depends on keeping track.

Letters to the Editor

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