Learn To Fix It Yourself

by Karen L

Being able to repair things is a useful skill to have – believe me, when you’ve knocked your iron off the ironing board repeatedly, it’s awful handy to know how to fix it. Tackling simple mechanical objects like an iron or (my recently fixed) Foodsaver vacuum machine can be intimidating, but with certain exceptions, you can do it.

First off, find out everything you can about your non-functioning device. Find the manual (you did keep the manual, yes? Got it at a garage sale? Time to Google!), check the manufacturer’s website, check sites that have manuals for sale if absolutely necessary. You might find that instructions for your device aren’t readily available. Fear not; much of what is inside an appliance is just air, and there is no magic dust, just mechanical and electrical/electronic parts.

The safety nag: never, never work on anything while it’s plugged in if the cover is off or there is the possibility of getting shocked. Electricity is your friend, but it also has a nasty sense of humor and loves to zap you. Keep water out of electrical devices when you clean as well. In a pinch, if you have to, a barely damp Q-tip, moistened with rubbing alcohol helps dig out crud and gunk.

Never force things to fit; having to press hard or use a screwdriver to move a latch to get something to fit isn’t forcing, trying to get things to go where they don’t fit or belong with the potential to break is. Take care if you are using any tools that have sharp edges; you can cut yourself with a screwdriver, so work away from yourself, not toward your body. You do not want to be driving your husband through a 25 MPH residential district at 40 MPH, panicked and looking for someplace to get his punctured hand fixed, like I did once.

A muffin tin or pie pan is useful for keeping parts from rolling off the table, and paper and pencil or pen is useful for making a note of where things go, like ‘long screw goes in upper right hand hole looking from front’.

The first step (and hardest, believe it or not) is to get the case off or open it up. Once you’ve done that, stop and look at the guts of the thing. Make a diagram of where things are in case you get interrupted, or take a picture. Doesn’t have to be technical – you can put ‘black pump gizmo’ on your diagram as long as you understand what it is.

You already know what isn’t working, so next, try to figure out just what you are looking at. In an iron, for example, you have something that holds water to make steam, something to heat the water, something that lets you set how hot the water is, and tubes to get the water from the filling inlet to the water tank and thence to the steaming ports, plus where the electricity comes in (the cord).

The reason for doing this is because you need to find what isn’t working, and if the iron isn’t heating you don’t need to focus on the fancy steam gizmo that lets you shoot a shot of steam, you need to find what heats the water and the path it takes.

Here’s a more detailed example. My Foodsaver II was acting funny while it was vacuuming a bag, and then completely stopped heating and sealing bags. This renders the device unusable, and since I had things I wanted to vac-pack, I needed to fix the thing a.s.a.p.

I took it into where I had decent light to work with, and it being unplugged already, began by taking off the bottom of the case. I set aside the screws, which were all the same length, and gently removed the bottom. Inside, I noticed that there is an electrical transformer on one side, some wiring, some tubing, and what looks like a pump.

I also noticed that there was a partial blockage of one of the clear tubes that goes from the inlet in the device where you put the open end of the bag to the pump itself. Solving at least part of the problem, then, was to see if I could get the blockage out because that’s an easy potential fix. I found the ends of the affected tube, removed it from its fittings, blew out the offending blockage and replaced it.

At this point, I decided to check and see if this resolved the problem, so I put the case back on, minus the screws, and carefully set it on the kitchen counter and plugged it in and tried to seal a spare, empty bag. The vacuuming part of the problem seemed to be fixed (at least it worked better with no intermittent stalls/chokes), but still no heating and sealing. Oh, well…back to the repair bench.

The cycle of the machine is to pull out air and then heat and seal the bag of stuff I’m vac-packing, and since the heating and sealing only happens after vacuuming occurs, vacuuming has to be finished before heating can start. Vacuuming seemed to work, but obviously wasn’t finishing. Since vacuuming occurs inside what looks like a little pump (there’s a black knob-like thing I could turn and see that a piston-like device moved in and out, so obviously a pump) the next step was to take a look inside the pump itself.

I removed the set screw from the arm going from the motor to the pump arm so that I could remove the arm, onto which the pump piston was attached, and two long skinny bolts with washers and nuts that held on the pump part onto the mechanism that makes it move. I carefully pulled out the pump piston and looked inside.

Aha! Gunk, plus some tiny bits of something white, like miniscule rice grain bits, were inside the pump. I carefully cleaned out any residue with a Q-tip dampened with rubbing alcohol, then got some fine point tweezers and carefully picked out the tiny white bits, then reassembled and replaced the pump in the machine.

I put the case on to test it again, and this time the machine worked, fully vacuuming and then heating and sealing. The only tools I used were a Phillips screwdriver, fine tipped tweezers and my brain.

Now you might think ‘so what, this is a vacuum packer and I need to fix something else’. Well, the basic process is pretty much the same, no matter what you work on:

Identify the problem
Open up the device
Identify the parts and try to figure out what they do and which ones might be the source
See if you can reconnect, blow out, use a Q-tip on, run a pipe cleaner through
Reassemble to test
Repeat until you’ve fixed the device or determined that you can’t fix it

What if you mess up the device and can’t reassemble it or it won’t work even as good as it did before you worked on it? Well, think of it this way: it wasn’t working properly before. You didn’t lose anything except some time, and gained some experience working on things. Not all devices lend themselves to being fixed by consumers/amateurs, and sometimes all you are doing is forestalling the inevitable: getting a new one.

Now, there are, as mentioned, exceptions to what can be worked on safely or reasonably. Most clocks and watches of the mechanical sort are beyond the average DIY’er, and things that require testing while plugged in may fall in that category because of the difficulty of getting the covers on and off repeatedly (and nothing should be tested with the covers off).

Some devices consist of a lot of electronics or things like lasers (DVD players come to mind as an example of things that the consumer can’t easily fix). However, many devices can be fixed by following this process, and you shouldn’t be afraid to try your hand.

Comments

  1. Chuck Findlay says:

    ME bad
    I don’t use manuals.

    I frequently work on things that are powered up. In fact I work on hot outlets and wiring in customers homes several times a week.

    I never make a diagram to anything I work on.

    But I do fix almost everything I set my mind to and have a high success rate.

    One piece of test equipment you didn’t mention that I feel is a must have is a multimeter. With one of these you can test all kinds of things. But there is a learning curve to getting comfortable with using one right. I like analog meters over digital ones. I have a few digital ones but I almost never use them.

    U-Tube has videos on how to use a multimeter that cover basic use, nothing advance, but a good start on what it can do. Get one and experiment with it, test the outlets in your home, test your auto battery, test (unplugged) power cords to see if they work. Test light bulbs so you know what the scale on the meter reads for a good one so you will then know what a bad one looks like. This is what I did all those years ago (got my first meter when I was 6 or 8-years old) and it really helped.

    • I don’t know if this is true, but was once told that televisions (back in the 80’s, anyway) could hold a deadly electrical charge for months after having been unplugged, and could electrocute an unwary repairman. Is this true? Is it true of flatscreens as well?

      • Chuck Findlay says:

        True for old TV’s, not true for modern TV’s.

        I was told years ago that it equaled (roughly) 1k volts per inch. A 25-inch TV would have 25,000 volts. The picture tube acted as a capacitor and could give you a large jolt of electricity even when the TV was turned off or unplugged.

        Every repairman knew how to use a screwdriver to discharge the tube. Making it safe to probe around inside it.

        Like I said elsewhere in this post, when you work on electronics, you are going to get zapped. It’s not the end of the world when it happens. You get zapped and keep working on the thing, no big deal.

      • One’s with tube components – yes. Newer electronic ones – not sure.

    • T.M.R.s Grandma says:

      You’ll never know if you can fix something if you don’t try. Last thing I did was replace my hot water heater a few weeks back. That was my first one, and I’m 62 yrs. old. took me a lot longer than a plumber would of taken but on the other hand, how much money did I save. You’d be surprised what you can fix if you just get into it.
      That darn chain saw on the other hand…

    • Yep, there’s a coil on the back of the old picture tube type sets…..discharge it! Use an old screwdriver, as tip may melt. Put tip of scroogie on chassis ground, manuever side of scroogie shaft onto coil wire. Bam! I recommend ANSI eye protection. I do unplug first…. mine are too old & have had them a long time, kinda attached to them…..

  2. Great article. The ability to fix some things yourself is a double gift — not only do you not have to earn themoney to pay the repairman or re-purchase the item….you also don’t have to earn the TAX that would have been required both on the income, and on the purchase! Like, almost a “buy one get one free” sort of advantage!

    And what are you going to do if SHTF and there ARENT any repairmen?

    If you start out with a simple book on auto repair, over a period of years you can save a huge amount of $$$ and gain valuable skills. I mentored my son in how to change a timing belt on an import (I’m a doctor but before that I was an electrical engineer)…and lo and hehold, he concluded that wasn’t a bad trade to learn and use as a career!

    A Christmas electronics multi-project board can teach you quite a bit about electronics if you’re willing to stop and THINK about each radio, buzzer, alarm system, whatever that you built. These go for pennies at garage sales when the kids discard them.

    Harbor freight sells a marvelously useful (and cheaptly made) mutlitester for $5. What a steal!

    I laugh at my friends who buy $1000 ham rigs….when I get mine for $80 (VHF) or $300 (HF) on Ebay….

    KNOWLEDGE is out there for the learning, and I have learned more in the past 12 months than I ever thought i would. You can too! Enjoy it while google still works!!

    • Chuck Findlay says:

      I laugh at my friends who buy $1000 ham rigs….when I get mine for $80 (VHF) or $300 (HF) on Ebay….

      There is a difference. A Yugo is a lot different then a Cadillac.

      I have several Icom’s and they are much better then a $35.00 Baofeng. The Baofeng may work for you, but might it be your friends want more?

  3. Chuck Findlay says:

    Some devices consist of a lot of electronics or things like lasers (DVD players come to mind as an example of things that the consumer can’t easily fix). However, many devices can be fixed by following this process, and you shouldn’t be afraid to try your hand.

    While this is true there is a way to attack a complicated device.

    You do it by section, figure out what it isn’t doing and work on that part of the device. I bought a used DVD player that would not read some DVD’s. What I did when I opened it up was to clean the lens on the laser with some Windex and a Q-Tip. It fixed it. I focused on the likely part first and it fixed it. There is another way to fix this problem but it’s a bit more complicated. At times the photocell part of the laser (for lack of a better term) goes blind and can’t see the laser as well. You can find a pot )a kind of volume control thing) and turn up the power to the laser and fix it. Kinda like a partially blind person using real bright lights in their home.

    If a device is broke and you can’t use it. It never hurts to take a look inside it. You can’t break it more if it’s not working and you just might be able to get it working.

    PS: Being able to fix all kinds of every day items may be a very good and marketable skill if we ever do get a real bad Mad Max world. Things are always going to break and need fixing, someone is going to have to fix them, why not you?

  4. “there is no magic dust” Made me laugh as I remembered some of the computers I cleaned over the years that were so packed with dust it came out in blocks and chunks.

    A camera can indeed be a help by taking pics at intervals as you take things apart. Makes it easy to remember what went where. The best stocking stuffer I ever received is a magnetic parts holder that straps on the wrist. One last tip, if you want to learn to fix stuff hit the thrift stores and pawn shops for old appliances and whatnot for cheap practice materials. Good places to find tools as well.

  5. Egg cartons come in handy for repairs of small items. Remove a screw and place it in the first egg hole and repeat that. Reassemble it in the reverse order so it all goes back together in the order it disassembled. Simple-from start to finish then from finish back to start and hopefully no screws or other parts left over.

  6. Mrs. K in MO says:

    Very good advice! Never be afraid to learn a skill. I am so blessed to have a hubby that is very handy and interested in knowing and learning how to fix things. He has saved us thousands over the years in auto and home repair. I happen to be pretty mechanically inclined myself (for a girl). I have friends who don’t even know how to check the oil in their cars much less how to change it, and neither do their husbands! Drives me nuts at how much money they waste on things they could do themselves.
    Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

  7. Ron Melchiore says:

    Well done Karen! As mentioned by Prepper Doc, a multimeter is invaluable to have in the tool kit. I prefer a digital Fluke or similar but anything that reliably reads ohm, volts and current is good. Learn how to use that tester, an it can tell a person a lot. Many times, a wire is disconnected somewhere and the ohmmeter will easily help troubleshoot the open wire.

    I also like the fact that manufacturers always have spare parts that they put in the equipment. Whenever I take apart a device or gizmo for example, there are always spare screws, gaskets, washers, pistons, wires, modules etc. left after I put it back together again. 🙂

    But seriously, note taking or a picture will prove invaluable on some projects.

  8. I’ve worked in the home appliance repair industry for 20 years. I can tell you the most intimidating thing about trying to repair something is fear of the unknown. Once you understand how anything works it becomes very simple. We always teach new repairmen to break things down to their simplest functions. For instance, a washing machine simply fills with water, agitates, and drains the water out. Same for a dishwasher. A dryer just blows hot air over your clothes while they tumble in a drum. No matter how many electronic controls and safeties that engineers try to add (just to justify their job or satisfy a lawyer) it never changes the basic operation of a machine. Start with the simple and work your way towards the more complex.

  9. Karen, thank you for this article. & to MD & all the pack here, I wish you a blessed & happy Thanksgiving & time w/ your loved ones! This site has been a blessing to me this year. & many of your articles & comments have been a valuable help.

  10. I’ve always had a ‘healthy curiosity’ as to how things work, and have never been one to shy away from trying to fix something on my own before calling the repairman.
    Once I decided to install a ceiling fan. My girlfriends were rather shocked that I would attempt something so big. Well, first of all it is really not that big (unless you install the fans before trying to mount it on the ceiling…well duh…it is just a motor right? The trick is the bracing. Once you got that done, the wiring is rather simple. I must. Admit however, that on my first attempt, I was a little off on the balance and it made a ‘wabble noise’ when turned on high. A good ole redneck friend of mine had the perfect fix (I should have known better, but I believe ingiving Everyone a chance). He took some freezer tape and taped a bolt on one of the fan blades to act as a balance. Seemed ok to me. Then we both stood back, turned to fan on high and watched it spin. It actually worked (about 1 minute) and then force blow the bolt across the room, with us both ducking and laughing at the same time. No pian, no gain I always say.
    On a more serious side, my best friend was moving a treadmill down her hall to store in another room and accidentally knocked her thermostat off the wall. She called me to ask if I knew of a good electriction. I came over and looked at the device. We drove to one of the big box stores, spoke with one of the employees who assured me it wasn’t all that hard to replace.
    I easily replaced the device with a new one, tested it with both heat & air modes and saved her at least a $100. I felt very good about my ability to handle this task. It really builds your confidence to do something like this.

    • The first time my DH saw me take something apart, he was stunned. But I came from a family of white collar workers that did everything themselves. It didn’t occur to me to not try and do it myself. In all these years only one thing got the best of me…my blender that my brother had spilled margaritas into the motor, gunk everywhere. I tried my best but eventually had to give in. Brother was never allowed to use anything in our house after that…just saying.

  11. A corollary to this is don’t buy products that are overly and unnecessarily high tech. If your high tech coffee maker suddenly quits working is it the computer chip or the many associated electronic components? Back when the coffee maker was low tech if it quit working it was either the on/off switch or the heating element both of which could in fact be repaired using low tech methods. Avoid high tech/complex unless it is absolutely necessary.

    • Chuck Findlay says:

      Don’t buy products that are overly and unnecessarily high tech.

      That’s getting hard to do these days as micro-electronics are used in most everything made. The only way around it is to buy older used items.

      I would guess that every coffee maker is now more complicated then it was in the 1980’s where you had only a switch, heating element and a fusible link to worry about.

  12. Thomas The Tinker says:

    My DW keeps… all … the Harbor Freight coupons in her purse. She! will stop in each time we plan an errand past this place and hand me one of the free-be coupons and she will take in another. Multi-meters… we have three now… quality is low, price is great ‘$O’, check them on a known load and dump them when they don’t perform. The other free-bes… I have a tub load of them and a stack of tarps nearly 18″ high.

    • Chuck Findlay says:

      Harbor Freight, quality is low, price is great ‘$O’, check them on a known load and dump them when they don’t perform.

      Or buy a good one that will last. Being that post-SHTF quality items will keep working and not need replaced when replacement may not be so easy, it makes sense to not buy things that are not going to last.

      I just can’t see buying a low quality meter that is used to fix other things. If you can’t trust it’s readings you could waste a lot of time as you can’t trust what it’s telling you. Or miss a problem area as the meter can give you bad readings.

      At hamfest you have to give HT multi-meters away as no one wants them. But a good analog meter (like a Simpson 260) always commands a good price. Why? Because it’s well made and last for decades and gives you honest readings.

      Digital meters do have a few advantages in that they are resistant to being over-ranged and being burnt up. Where as an analog meter is easier to burn up if you put 120 volts into it while it’s on the ohm settings. But buying a better meter with a breaker built into it (like a Simpson 260 7 or 8 series) stops this.

      Also the scale on an analog meter looks complicated to someone that first views it. But with a bit of playing with it, it’s easy to figure out. I was able to figure it out when I was 7 or 8-years old so anyone can do it. And there is a very good U-Tube video on how to do it.

      An easy to learn is to play with it on something like AA to 9-volt batteries. You know how many volts are in a 9-volt battery and then you watch the needle move and read it on the scale. And low voltage things like batteries are safe to play with as you can’t get zapped with them. One thing to understand is when playing with electricity is that at some point you will get zapped. It will not kill you, it will just make you jump a bit. I don’t worry about it as it’s part of working on things.

      It’s like using a pocket knife,it’s not if, but when you are going to cut yourself. Everyone cuts themselves with a knife at some point.

      PS: Everyone should learn how to use an analog multi-meter first before moving on to a digital one. The continuity / ohm settings is much easier to understand on an analog meter then it is on a digital one. We live in an analog world and analog things are easier to understand.

      Here is a good video that shows a comparison between analog and digital meters.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j1UVd3dBRq0

      mjlorton (the guy that put out this video) has several good videos on electronics as does Dave from EEV Blog, but the EEV Blog is more involved then mjlorton, mjlorton is better for someone just starting out, but both of them do a good job.

  13. This was an amazing article, well worth the read thank you. I could not agree more…with much of it.

    Personally when I run into something I dont have a manual or guide for, I take detailed notes, pictures when able, draw when not- and basically build the manual. Within reason and except for 1911s or Sigs, things generally make sense. 😉 (jab intended my 1911 carrying friends)

  14. Chuck Findlay says:

    One thing I noticed over the last 20-years is that many small electronic items are snapped together in a way that you have to break the small tabs that hold them to get the 2 half’s apart. They are not designed to be fixed, they are a throw-away item. But many times you can fix them.

    Remote controls are like this. Once you fix them you have to glue them to hold the case back together again.

    Most times when I do this I use a glue that will hold it, but at the same time allow it to be taken apart at some future point.

    Hot-melt glue and silicone rubber are the 2 glues I use for this. Hot-melt glue is one of my least favorite glues to use, but for this application it works. What you don’t want to do is use a strong glue that would require you to break the case half’s apart at some future time in a way that would do more damage then needed. Don’t use Super-glue, it’s not really made for plastic, it’s too hard for a good bond to something flexible and non-poris like plastic.

    • Love silicone – makes a good water seal for older ammo cans and 3-5gallon buckets as well

      • And air

        • Chuck Findlay says:

          Silicone has a of of unpleasant off-gassing (bad smell) while it’s drying, and may dry quite slow on the inside of a bucket. I wonder how this could affect a sealed bucket of food. Do you think it would penetrate into the food?

      • Stick a dab of some of the good GM brand of silicone on an exhaust manifold & it will still be there when the manifold turns to rust. Any brand of silicone will work just always had access to the GM stuff…. I love silicone for lots of fixes!!!!

  15. Chuck Findlay says:

    There is a free PDF book I downloaded a few years ago that applied to this topic.

    HOW TO DIAGNOSE AND FIX EVERYTHING ELECTRONIC

    A search will probably turn up a site to view and save it to your computer.

    • I searched for it, but only found e-books.

      Something I learned long ago, if/when your computer seems to slow down, vacuum the exhaust, lots of dust collects there. Other places too, but wait until you have to go to them. Such as a new battery will work better if the contacts are cleaned.

  16. Happy Thanksgiving all!

  17. I fix a lot of my possessions. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
    I have a Weston dehydrator (10 shelf). The CHEAP thermostat dial switch melted when I was dehydrating some cranberries last year. WESTON NO LONGER BACKS THIS! Calling them got me that info. I have a few of their items, won’t buy any more.
    The switch regulates temps. I found a temp limiter on line, but no go w/this modagger.
    Websearch has not helped me get one. Any one have any suggestions on ‘a creative engineering solution’? No I do not wish to buy another, smartypants!

  18. Where I live, there’s a company that sells all kinds of electronic components. The company is simply named Electronic Parts. Bet there’s one in your city–or the nearest city. Best to bring in the offending part to match up., Lots of good advice was available techs last time I was at our local shop.

    • Thx Leonard. I’ll see if I can find on web. It’s not exactly an ‘electronic’ part, but related. I’ve looked @ Grainger, Amazon & a host of other places…..no go yet. Would hate to trash the whole unit for 1 cheap little part.

  19. It occurs to me that in the past, when I could read the part number on a component I needed, I’d just open Google, and enter that number with no other info in the search bar. Lots of info always comes up, including parts for sale. Good luck!

  20. One line “there is no fairy dust” was pretty funny to me. Last night I was looking up how to build a zip gun. The zip gun I was expecting was the kind I had used in the past. Silent, really difficult to aim (the drawback), using pieces of linoleum or ceiling tile or really almost anything for ammo. Like a sling shot all you really need is a very strong rubber band. Instead I found a pipe that fires a .22. I don’t think there’s silence with this thing. Okay you can aim better. I’m working with a gunsmith so we’ll see what happens. The first crisis as I see it will be economics so my AR will be okay for that. Whatever the next is we’ll have rioting hordes in the streets, that’d why I want silent killers; my Girandoni (pellet rifle that’s light years beyond the Daisy), a zip gun or slingshot and finally a butcher knife. I know, many think pellets can’t do much. Aim for the neck the opponent will be choking on his or her blood, too hysterical to fight.

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