The Tao of repair: When the manual fails

September 9, 2014

You have the installation and/or technical schematic, all the common household tools, and a burning desire to spend as little money as possible to fix that broken heater, clothes drier, or other household appliance. What you do not have is experience dealing with what is likely a major project.


Don’t feel bad. There is a clear distinction between the DIY’er and a professional. You mull over that single faulty appliance and then put it out of your mind.


The professional fixes a vast array of appliances all day, every workday, building up experience. They usually have craft training and certification, an electrician’s license, or even a degree in electronics.


Each repair discipline, whether electronics, plumbing, or heating and AC, has specific skills. That is why the repairman feels no shame in charging you top dollar. They have skills you do not, that they worked very hard to cultivate, and they have to eat too.


Be that as it may, you probably do not want to spend $250 to replace a $3 part. Despite your lack of expertise, it is naturally your goal to do as much as you can yourself before resorting to outside help.


Consider the last time you bought a major appliance. Did you find the manual and pore through it, stuff it in a closet for when needed, or chuck it? With a used appliance, did you scour the Internet for the schematic before the appliance became obsolete, or did you leave your repair needs to chance?


In most manuals, there is a care guide, but many owners ignore it because it can seem unnecessarily tedious for a simple appliance. However, if you want to forestall that eventual breakdown of parts, you need to acclimate yourself with the instructions.


If you purchase an extended warranty or appliance guarantee, keep the records in a safe place and make copies to store digitally. You may have to bring something back that your store does not want returned.


Having a cheap Multimeter will help immensely if you need to troubleshoot a circuit. Put both leads—the red and black wires with pen-like pointy tips—on either end of a wire, set your meter’s dial to the omega symbol (Ω), and if you get a reading such as 0.1, you have what electricians call “continuity,” which usually means the circuit is good.


This is great for checking fuses, too. A fuse is the “weakest link” in a circuit. It provides a breaking point if the amplitude of electrons flowing through the wire suddenly ramps up to unsafe levels. The fuse will pop and no longer allow electricity to flow.


A lot of people stop there if they replace the fuse and their appliance suddenly comes back on. That is like your doctor identifying all the symptoms of an infection, and then telling you to combat it with sore throat lozenges rather than antibiotics.


You may notice an immediate, localized relief, but the symptoms will only get worse and you may experience other related ailments. That is why it is important to recognize when it is time to give up and call for help. It may cost you now, but the relief you feel later will probably be more lasting and consistent.


Go through your manual and carefully inspect each item in the parts diagram, if there is one. If you have to open your appliance, make sure every precaution is taken to eliminate your exposure to electricity, high heat or cold, or dangerous elements like natural gas.


Keep track of any fasteners you remove from your appliance and do not break them. If a part is not coming off easily, chances are you are attempting to remove it incorrectly. Look for a better way.


Go through both the “routine care and maintenance” and “troubleshooting” portions of the manual, in that order. If it advises you to clean filters or scrub parts, even if you have never done this in the life of the appliance, go ahead and do it now.


Then, as far as you can, go through the troubleshooting guide and check off all the sections that you think you can manage. If something looks complicated and it is making you nervous, it is probably something you need help with.


Finally, if nothing you have done seems to fix the problem but you still feel it is safe, go through your initial start-up instructions. You may find that either the error straightens itself out, or you may stumble upon your problem. At the very least, you will have covered all your bases and have a solid tale to tell your repair specialist.


The Tao of Do-It-Yourself is intended to de-mystify simple home and auto maintenance projects. It is not a substitute for professional repair services. If you cannot identify the problem you are trying to fix, refer to the proper specialist right away.


A.T. Miller is an electrician’s apprentice who builds and wires control panels for power systems. He is also a cartoonist, writer, and web/graphic designer. At home, he is an amateur repairman, plumber, electrician, carpenter, and auto mechanic. His most important job is that of husband and father.

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