While my DIY adventures will always be modest compared to the super handyman, I am notching up victories on a more regular basis nowadays.
The key hasn’t been expanding my capabilities or my toolkit. I haven’t picked up a trade or started correspondence coursework in engineering.
I’ve simply just started taking the time to investigate when something goes wrong.
Almost everything in our lives is a “black box” of sorts. Consumer products have become incredibly complex and compact. You can’t even diagnose a car nowadays unless you hook it up to a computer. When things stop working, it doesn’t seem like they need a repair – it’s more like a powerful magic spell, far beyond our comprehension, has been broken.
When a product fails, most folks will bang it a few times and then (assuming the banging doesn’t work) call a repairman or throw it away.
A rare few will feel a spark of curiosity, and fewer still will actually investigate what’s going on inside.
That first step, of feeding your curiosity and opening up the black box, is the key. While it may seem that hours of repair and exotic tools and parts await, that first step is often almost all of the battle.
I’m No Longer Afraid of Garage Doors
Last week my garage door opener stopped working. There were no warning signs – one day the magic button simply wouldn’t raise the door. I could hear the motor running, but nothing was moving.
Back when I was working for the Man, I would have just called a garage door repairman. Or maybe listed my house for sale. I certainly wouldn’t have explored the problem myself.
Now that I work for the best boss ever (haha – get it? it’s me!), I decided I had time to take a look. Unplugging it, unscrewing the cover, and exploring the magic within seemed like it was going to be a long, wild trip into the Unknown.
But about one minute later, I had the screws off. I prepared myself to gaze on a wonder of mechanics. And this is what I saw:
At first glance, it appeared that my garage door opener was powered by spiders, insects, and some sort of white powder.
On further inspection, I saw there was a gear that was supposed to be turned by the motor. The motor was moving, but the gear wasn’t turning. The gear, which was white (just like the powder!), seemed to be really worn down. A hypothesis began to take form…
A garage door opener isn’t so complicated after all. The plastic gear was supposed to look like a gear. Mine instead looked like a chewed dog toy:
I was able to find a new one online:
The internet told me that the gear had likely been ground to dust because my garage door needed re-balancing, so I wanted to fix that before replacing the part. Adjusting a garage door spring can maim or kill you, so that seemed a good candidate to outsource. The garage door guy who adjusted it was impressed with my work on the opener, though, and he told me I had saved myself a tidy sum over having him fix that too.
Before this repair, I knew very little about garage doors and openers. Not only did I get it working again at low cost, I also learned a lot about repair and maintenance. My opener appears to be 20+ years old, so I imagine I’ll be tapping that knowledge again soon.
A while back, our laundry dryer stopped giving off any heat. It was still tumbling clothes like a champ, but they stayed sopping wet.
Ours is an old model, so I wasn’t hopeful for a service call fix. I went ahead and mentally budgeted for a new dryer, but just for grins, I figured I’d unplug it, open it up, and take a look.
It didn’t take me long to find something that looked amiss:
I wasn’t 100% certain, but I had a sneaking suspicion that the problem just might relate to the rightmost wire (the internet confirmed that wire contained the heating element).
But to be sure, I checked with the missus (fun fact: the missus was a licensed electrician early in her career). She confirmed that electrical wires work far better when they aren’t melted through in the middle. Nailed it!
$20 at the hardware store later, I had a brand new power cord that was easy to replace. The dryer worked like a champ and hasn’t missed a beat since.
Failure Is An Option
I’ve had my fair share of DIY repair fails.
Many times I’ve opened items and realized I’m looking at a lost cause. A few times the act of my opening the item itself has been the coup de grace.
I’m actually heartened that “they don’t make them like they used to”. If a product were of great quality and long life, then I’m sure my mucking around inside of it would ruin something that was repairable in the hands of a pro. But if it’s basically a disposable product, what’s the harm?
Whenever I try a DIY repair, I always remember my own limitations, the time and cost required for my less-than-certain fix, and the price of a brand new replacement.
Several years ago my TV failed, and when I opened it up to see what was wrong, youtube revealed there was a part for less than $100 that I could replace to make it right. The videos made it look easy. All I needed to do was to remove the old part and use my soldering equipment (author’s note: I do not own soldering equipment) to attach the new one. With a low chance of success and new TV’s (at least the ones I was targeting) so cheap, I quickly gave up my attempt.
This week, in honor of this post, I decided to crack open my leaf blower. It was stuck in an “on” position – it was full blast as soon as you plugged it in, which was rather exciting. I figured there might be some simple mechanical fix with the dial, but I was wrong – the internet told me there was an electric switch that needed replacement. A new blower cost $30, so in the recyclotron went the old one. The whole process took less than 10 minutes.
I feel much better discarding something if I’ve made a modest effort to investigate. I’ve seen too many ridiculously easy fixes to throw something away without checking.
While DIY repairs seem like they’d require all sorts of tools and extensive expertise, I’ve found that many repairs can be done with my existing toolkit and knowledge. There’s also a world of experts available for free online, and I can always pick up additional tools if needed. The real key to my DIY success has been having a little curiosity and a little time to explore a problem. The first step of simply opening the box is the most important.