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Home Car Mechanics: Playing with Fire?

After a car under repair erupted into flames last week, causing a reported $200,000 in damage to two homes, officials warn that shade-tree mechanics must follow city codes. How do you feel about home car repairmen? Take our poll and let us know.

Shade tree mechanics, beware: You could be playing with fire.

A Napa man and his neighbors found this out the hard way last week when in the carport of his E Street house, causing a reported $200,000 in damage to the carport and the home next door.

Fire investigators have traced the cause of the fire to the Mustang, according to Battalion Chief Steve Stuart.

“They were jacking up the car when one of the wheels slipped off the jack, damaging the gas tank,” Stuart said.

“Fumes leaked from the tank and found an ignition source when the air compressor kicked on.”

Stuart said the cause of the fire was determined by such evidence as how the fire ignited immediately and how big and intense it was.

“No criminal action will be taken against the man. It was an accident,” he said.

Fire battalion chief Stuart warns of the dangers of working with flammable materials.

“The biggest problem is gas fumes. They are more dangerous than people think. Once they find an ignition source, they ignite.

"Gas fumes crawl along the ground and if they come in contact with any ignition source such a flame in the hot water heater, a spark from a motor or even flipping on a light switch, a fire will usually follow,” Stuart said.

For-profit repairs are illegal at home

Although maintaining your own vehicles at your home is not against the law, repairing cars at your residence for profit is against city code regulations, said Officer Greg Fortune.

“Car owners can do routine maintenance on their vehicles in their driveways and carports, such as changing the oil or a tire, putting in new spark plugs. They have to make sure no liquids run into the street and end up in the sewer system,” Fortune said.

But shade tree mechanics who are into rebuilding the engine or the entire car are violating code enforcement, Fortune said.

“We get about two to three complaints a month. However, if they do the work in the garage, we usually don’t get too many complaints from neighbors,” he said.

“Most of the complaints come from neighbors. We don’t have the funding to send code enforcement officers around the city looking for these violations,” Fortune said.

"Noise, traffic, dust, runoff ... and blight" 

Fortune compared the code on car repairs to disturbing the peace.

“People do not have the right to infringe on their neighbor’s right to enjoy their home,” he said. “With car repair violations, we get complaints about noise, traffic, dust, runoff of liquids into the street and blight.”

Napa resident Carol White knows first-hand the headaches of living next door to home-based auto mechanics.

“We just moved recently to north Napa from American Canyon. I had shade tree mechanics neighbors on both sides of me,” White said.

“One guy was restoring an old pickup. He wasn’t too bad except for having auto parts and other junk all over the driveway, which was right next to mine. But at least it wasn’t as obnoxious as my other next door neighbor.

“That guy fixed his car and other people’s cars morning, noon and night. I don’t think he had a full-time job.There was crap all over his driveway, garage and front lawn. People were coming and going all night and day,” she said.

“They were so loud. On weekends he would have as many as seven or eight guys over to work on as many as four or five cars parked in his driveway and garage.”

White’s problems didn’t stop there, she said.

“They’d get to drinking beer and get louder — and the profanities — I didn’t let my kids in our front yard. His friends would park their cars in front of our house. One time they blocked our driveway. It took them almost an hour to move the car, so I could drive my SUV out my own driveway.”

White said she never called police because she didn’t believe it was against any law or city code to work on vehicles at a residence.

Consequences can be costly

When a complaint is received, Fortune goes to the residence, talks to the people who live there and checks out the situation to verify a violation has occurred.

“It’s hard to prove a person is working on cars for profit,” he said, but there can be consequences for those who are found to be violating the city code.

If Fortune determines a code violation exists, he gives the offender a citation, which carries a $100 fine.

The person is given 10 days to comply. If they don’t comply in the 10 days or don’t get an extension of time, a second citation of $200 is issued, he said.

“If they still refuse to comply, a third citation is written, which carries a stiff penalty of $500 per day per violation.”

Criminal action is not taken against violators, Fortune said: If there is no compliance with the citations, an administrative hearing is held.

“Most people comply with the first citation. I have never had to take a complaint to a hearing or had to haul a car from a residence,” Fortune said.

“Many people don’t know they are breaking the city code by working on their cars in their driveways,” he said.

For all our latest fire coverage, please see our Fire Watch topic page at napa.patch.com/topics/Fire-Watch.

John Risinger May 03, 2012 at 02:30 PM
Oil changes on ones own car are not a problem, but any job that requires power tools should be banned. Paint and body work is very dangerous with the flammables and ignition sources all around. I'm a mechanic by trade and I'm always preaching against side jobs in ones garage. Because shop labor rates run $90 and up, the practice won't stop anytime soon. Car and home owner insurance companies should run adds that point out such activity is not protected by them.
Louisa Hufstader (Editor) May 03, 2012 at 02:50 PM
Great point, John. Thank you for adding your perspective as a mechanic by trade. Yes, labor is expensive, but there are good reasons to pay for it. I always value a good mechanic shop: Long ago in New England I used to take my little starter car to the Good News Garage, which was owned by a pair of local brothers who went on to become very famous with a radio show called "Car Talk."

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