For friends and colleagues I’ve always been the go-to guy for help with computers. I’ve written many training manuals and tip sheets, and after years of purely volunteer work I’m now paid a minimal annual stipend to help keep computers running and reduce user frustration at the high school. I can quickly grasp software interfaces and glitches, knowing how to find quick solutions via the internet for novel problems. Over the years I’ve installed memory, disk drives, interface cards, motherboards, and more. But in college my attempt to build a circuit to add lowercase letters to my Tandy Color Computer 2 mostly taught me I had no soldering ability.
Despite my mastery of computers, I never thought I’d become Mr. Fix-It when it came to home appliances and cars. Despite many years of piano lessons and decent typing ability, I’m not at all dextrous with tools. Maybe that’s because I’m left-handed and dextrous comes from dexter, Latin for right handed? And Latin’s left is sinistra, which became associated with evil and begat our word sinister. Yes, further bigotry against southpaws like me! But given my clumsiness with hand tools, I never expected to be much of a repairman or do-it-yourselfer.
For years I rented apartments and then a house, so the landlord was responsible for most repairs. I did diagnose and replace a faulty load selector switch in the old Maytag washer my parents had given me, happy to have avoided the cost of a service call. But I have always paid professionals do almost all of the maintenance and repairs to my automobiles. I did install a windshield wiper delay circuit in my first car, a bare-bones 1976 Toyota Corolla, but I paid professionals to upgrade it with air conditioning, a cassette deck stereo, and the like. Over the years I gave up changing the oil in my cars myself and began relying upon neighborhood lubrication shops. And I’ve always had car dealers deal with major maintenance and repairs. Given the high cost of skilled labor, I’m grateful that my 2001 Camry, unlike my four earlier vehicles, is so reliable that it seldom has to go into the shop.
But when I bought my home in 1994, it had its original 1981 appliances. I ordered a new rack for the dishwasher because the old one was rusting out: hardly a challenging fix! The refrigerator’s door seals were filthy and worn out, so I ordered new ones and at least I did have to use a screwdriver to swap those out. Over the years I paid professionals to install a new hot water heater and replace the furnace and air conditioner.
But in 2007 my Jenn-Air oven had passed the quarter century mark and stopped working. I thought about a new range, but I liked to cook steaks on the broiler, so I concentrated on Jenn-Airs which could use the existing under-floor vent. Wow – I quickly decided I needed to fix it instead!
I was used to checking the internet for help with computers, so why not have it help out with the oven? The diagnosis was a faulty thermostat. I ordered one for $126 from PartSelect.com and was somewhat amazed that I could take apart the oven and get it working again.
That experience didn’t prevent me from calling a repairman a year later when my own 12-year-old Maytag washer began behaving oddly, running its motor at the wrong speed and sometimes stopping in the middle of a cycle. The repairman said it was a bad timer and that model was no longer manufactured, so he couldn’t replace it. Remembering how much I’d saved previously on the oven, I wasn’t about to buy a new washer. So I paid the repairman for his time and as soon as he left I went on eBay and found the timer I needed for $88. When it arrived it was an easy install and I was back in business.
A month later the tile wall above my bathtub began to collapse. The seal was gone and the tile affixed to ordinary drywall rather than greenwall, so rot and mold had set in and undermined the wall all around the tub. The vinyl floor in my kitchen also looked bad and was peeling up, so I asked a couple of contractors for estimates. Their high prices led me to look for an alternate approach.
For the bathroom, I opted to hire The Quarry out of Dewey to install beautiful cultured marble panels to replace the tile walls. Cultured marble is a mixture of resin and marble dust. They had me pick out the style I preferred and were very friendly and did a great job, but they did not handle demolition. I’d have to remove the old tile walls myself.
I know my manual dexterity is poor, so I’m leery of power tools. But I bought a small reciprocating saw and went to work, peeling away the rim tiles and pulling out the rotten sections of the wall, then cutting out all of the rest. My only goof was dropping a section on the edge of the tub, chipping the porcelain. A patch kit from Wal-Mart solved that, and the odd bump on the tub is my “sinister reminder” of my own ineptitude! My kindly neighbor, who has since passed away, offered to haul the tile walls to the dump for me in his pickup.
Then The Quarry came out, installed greenboard and the marble, and had a plumber come out and install the new fixtures I’d picked up at Lowe’s. I’m delighted with the results. The bathroom looks much better and I just quickly wipe down the smooth walls after each shower and thus never have to clean the walls of mildew, soap scum, or dirt.
Next was the kitchen floor. I opted to do this entirely by myself. First the old vinyl floor covering had to be removed. The edges were peeling, but when I tried to peel it the rest of the way, it shredded, leaving patches of flooring and lots of glue adhering to the underlying concrete slab. I spent over eight hours slowly scraping away the gunk. I listened to a big chunk of the last Harry Potter book as I worked, cursing Harry and Hermione as they wandered about aimlessly after Ron deserted them. I knew what I’d be doing if I were them, and it wouldn’t be moping around about Ginger!
I finally got the gunk cleared away and began laying down self-stick Italia Stone vinyl tiles I’d purchased at Lowe’s. They went down fast until I reached the edges of my galley kitchen and had to start trimming them to fit. It was painstaking work to wrap them around the doorway into and throughout my small utility room. But the end product looked nice and saved me a fortune. Four years later the tiles still look nice, although there has been some shrinkage or shifting along one or two lines which someday I need to deal with.
Three weeks ago I came home from work one afternoon to a chilly house. At first I thought the batteries in my programmable Honeywell thermostat must have failed; that replacement of the old standard thermostat was an easy 2001 project. After I installed it my average annual usage of natural gas dropped 32% and my electricity usage dropped by 6% because if I’m at work the system resets to 85 degrees in the warm months and 60 degrees in the cool ones, bringing things back to normal before I return home. On summer nights it lets the temperature warm to 78 degrees, while winter nights chill down to 65 degrees with me snug under my electric blanket.
I save less in the summer, and thus save much more on natural gas, since being a teacher I’m at home during the day in the hottest months. But I do save on utilities, if not travel costs, when I go on long summer vacations. Former student Ben Stallings wrote a nice article on utility bill analysis, although I’ll confess that I just averaged my annual usage over multiple years for my quick calculations.
But late in January the house had not been warmed up for me by the time I arrived home. My thermostat seemed fine and would trigger the fan, but there wasn’t any heat. I went ahead and swapped the batteries, but that made no difference. So I opened up the furnace, which I’d had installed six years earlier, and was naturally out of warranty. I saw a red light blinking. Oh dear. I changed out the air filter in case that might help, but no go. I then noticed that the red light was blinking in a pattern of four flashes. I grew up with furnaces that had no alert lights at all, so it hadn’t occurred to me that the furnace might be telling me what was wrong.
I dug out the manual and discovered that the High Pressure Limit Switch was acting up. The internet told me what to check and I verified that there was no good reason for it to be unhappy. So I studied the wiring diagram for the furnace controls. Perhaps I could jumper that sensor out before nightfall? It was growing quite cold in the house, so I stopped and loaded up the fireplace with wood for the first time in over a year and started a big fire. I could sleep by the fireside if I had to, but for now I’d try to jury-rig the furnace.
I eventually found the correct wires to and from the switch, unplugged the furnace, pulled off the jumpers, and found that a sawtooth picture hanger fit them perfectly. I plugged each jumper onto my hanger and turned the furnace back on. I grinned when the second fan motor in my 80% efficient furnace kicked on for the first time that evening and whooped when the burners ignited. I felt like Scotty, rigging the engines for Captain Kirk.
I started shutting down the fireplace and then went back out into the garage and pulled the bad switch. It looked fine, but who can tell? I used the part number on it to locate a replacement which I ordered for $32 from New Jersey. The part arrived less than a week later, I swapped the new switch in and hooked it up, and the furnace is working just fine.
My repeated success at these little projects inspired me, despite my dexterity shortcomings, to contemplate a big project for me: ridding myself of the annoying FM transmitter I had to use to listen to my iPhone in the car. Back in 2001 when my car was new, a CD player and cassette deck were state of the art.
When I bought my first 40 GB hard drive iPod for $500 in 2004 (how times have changed), I started using a cassette adapter to connect it to the car’s stereo. But over the years the deck gearing had gotten too noisy and I’d struggled with several FM transmitters until I found a decent one, but even then on my trips I’d repeatedly run into interference from new radio stations and have to struggle to find a clear channel and resynchronize the transmitter and the car’s FM radio to it. Could the internet help me solve this long-standing problem? Yep! Click here to view that car improvement project.