Learn To Fix It – Tips for Keeping Things Running Now and After The Collapse

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.


  1. Good article for those of us who are afraid of working on small electrical appliances. Sent the article to others in family who do work on things. They do not part with money for a new one until they have tried fixing the original first.

    • I concur, a very good article. A problem I see today is planned obsolescence. It’s been going on for years but seems to be getting worse. Anyone remember the Ford Pinto? (Other than their tendency to explode into a ball of flame when rear ended which s a sure way to require survivors to have to get another car. I doubt that they would buy Ford again.) My complaint was the window cranks. They would break off, I replaced them three times and if I had to do that I’m sure countless others had to so also. After the third time I re-engineered them and they never broke again. I kind of think they were designed to fail and Ford made a ton of money selling replacement parts. I used to race motorcycles and I sat down with a buddy who worked in the parts department of the local dealership and we figured out that it would cost $35,000.00 to build my $2000.00 bike from parts. Like I said their is a ton of money to be made.

      A kid I grew up with has an appliance repair business and after I expressed my displeasure with one manufacturer he said everything is designed to last a maximum of 7 years. They want you to replace it. Now it seems like it’s even less than 7 years, my stepdaughter bought a refrigerator from Best Buy 6 months ago and it has stopped working, The repair man said “I guess you should have bought the insurance.” You can believe that she will never buy another item from Best Buy as they don’t stand behind the products they sell. She is clueless as to prepping and I’ve just about written her off as she live in Los Angeles and could never do without the city.

      Our personal experience most recently has been with the company who has the repairman with the loneliest job in the world. They are capitalizing on their prior reputation which is no longer deserved. They are currently advertising one of their appliances as designed, engineered and assembled in the U.S.
      What they are not saying is assembled from parts made elsewhere.

      All to frequently when you go to order a replacement part for something that shouldn’t have broken you find that parts are no longer available. Sometimes you can re- engineer it or replace it with a similar part. I had a table saw that had you could mount a router on. After several years I needed to take the router off for another project and could no longer find the screws that hold the baseplate on and they were a special screw. When I called for replacement screws I was told they would cost$5.00.
      These were simple little machine screws and I said $5.00 for 3 little screws and was told no, $5.00 for each screw and I needed three. I said that was outrageous . The lady on the other end of the line said “It’s a lot cheaper than buying a new router” I said
      “If a person has the skill to use a router he probably has the skill to use a drill and a tap”. I already had the tap. Re-drilled the holes and threaded them and the new screws cost 15 cents apiece at the local hardware store. Companies need to understand that they are selling ill will with these practices.

      My wife grew up with a saying from her grandmother. “Use it up, make it do or do without”.

  2. mom of three says:

    My husband, takes pictures with his camera phone when he is working on small project’s to refer back to. I’ve fixed our vacuum, coffee pots, hubby fixed our dryer, washer, VCR. It’s a shame how much stuff is tossed out because people don’t learn anymore about doing it yourself.

  3. patientmomma says:

    Thanks for using the food saver example; I need to do that to one of my older models!!

    • Older can be better. The food saver we have was from the early 1980s and is still going strong!

      • My previous washer lasted 15 years!!! The replacement has been getting a repairman at least twice a year from 2 years. I am at 7 years. The repairman told me to look for a good used one that can be repaired. The new ones are not worth bringing home!!!!!

  4. Even on the electronics, often the only skills you need are to be able to turn a screwdriver, and solder and desolder discrete components (the big things that you can see like diodes and capacitors.)

    Most of the time, either you know what is the problem, or the problem will be obvious. I’ll start with the “problem is obvious” part. Look at the parts, and look for the electronics that now look broken. Heat is almost always associated with the failure. Capacitors (the little cans) overheat and pop, transistors and diodes overheat and burn up, and are obviously busted. If they look burned and crusty, they are bad.

    You know what the problem is — now replace it. Google makes this MUCH easier than it was in the past. Look for a marking on the item — if you can find a model number or numeric designation, 9 times of out 10 just googling that will lead you straight to a replacement. Look at the photo on the website, and if it matches (or is close) then you are probably there. If you can’t find it, google the description (“electronics tube red green brown brown” takes you straight to a page that lets you know it is a resistor, and how to read the value.) Remove the crispy component, and install the new one when it comes in.

    The other case is when you know what the problem is. A good example is my surround sound decoder. The volume knob on the front worked sometimes, and often it didn’t. Even more maddeningly, it would often work for turning things up, and not for turning them down.

    A knob like that is either a potentiometer (the old volume knob) or a rotary encoder (more common now.) The good news is, you probably don’t have to know which one it is, because there is a number on the back of it. Google that number. If you can’t find one, then google your model number and something descriptive — in my case, “volume rotary encoder.” The part came right up, I replaced it for $25 (a VERY high price in these things, compared to most $2-8 components), and I had a $500 surround sound system working perfectly again.

    • something to add to your info about fixing electronics. Capacitors (electrolytic types) that are shaped like a minny soup can do not have to “pop” to fail. I’ve seen many failed caps that were simply bulged out of shape, maybe a rounded (convex) top that should be flat will be the only indicator the cap is bad. Caps are generally the first component to fail on a device that is several years old, so it’s a good place to start when looking for obvious failure points. Also, look for anything that is discolored, or partially blackened. In addition to water, heat is also a major cause of electronics failure. simply spraying compressed air (cans of it are readily available) to clean out vent holes and heat sinks (finned metal pieces) will help your devices, including computers last longer. If your device fails after being turned on for only a few seconds, or maybe a minute or so, heat is the probable cause. Blow out the dust and wipe gently with slightly damp cloth may cure the problem. Anything mechanical will most likely fail before an electronic component, so it’s good to start there if any are present.

  5. Anonamo Also says:

    Thanks for that example, my counter model has stopped vacume.. and I am pretty sure I know what happened… will hand the instructions to DH for repair.That’s his department.I have an idea how to do it if I have the need… but while he can I will allow him to get the pleasure. :>)

  6. Most things are made to throw away now a days. If you can find parts for them, they cost more than the item did new. Just recently my vacuum hose the is permanently attached the vacuum cracked. When I tried to get a new hose, I was told no. The vacuum is warrantied, but you have to send the entire vacuum back and pay shipping both ways. I said I will buy the hose, i don’t want to send it back for a minor issue and was told no, you can not buy parts. We do all repairs our self. They don’t even have local shops that are authorized to make repairs. I taped the hose up good and will use it as long as I can and see if I can find find one used at a yard sale to cannibalize parts from. Bet I will never buy another Shark vacuum again.

  7. Time to google?!I never use those spies,plenty of cleaner search engines out there for info.

    Off topic but wanted to say Happy Veterans Day to all the current and retired vets,may the world be more peaceful in the future!

  8. There are quite a few places to get part’s online now days. I have fixed many things in the past. Of course there have been those times where after getting the part needed, there was no way to get the part out or replaced because of the way it fit into place, or just cannot be fixed, I chalk those up as “price for education”.

    If you have replaced part’s that are designed to fail, such as aluminum connector’s on shafts, shear pins, etc, did you order an extra set? There may come a time when ordering and delivery will be out of the question.

  9. A can of pressurized air will clean the dust out of your electronics, just remember to take it outside first. Only go for the alcohol and q-tip if it is stuck on or you have contaminated your electronics with food or beverage.

  10. Love this article, I learned how to repair almost anything as a kid growing up on a resort my parents owned in northern Minnesota. My dad could fix and do almost anything having grown up during the depression.
    My dad always told us kids to learn at least one trade and you will always find work – dad was right. Because of his advice I have earned several technical and professional degrees which provided me the knowledge to work and repair almost anything and I have always been able to have secure employment.
    I do most all of our repairs when time is available which has saved us thousands of dollars over the years. If you can find parts, you have the time, the tools, and most importantly the skills/training, almost anything can be repaired. If you’re working around electricity always make sure equipment is de-energized and disconnected before touching it. Electricity is not forgiving, I still remember something given to each of us from one of our early electrical engineering professors, it was a handout with a simple graphic showing a guy getting zapped with text that said- “one blunder six feet under”.
    Bottom line, don’t ever stop learning, it will open many doors for you.