Fix It Yourself: How to Fix Things Around The House

fix stuff around the houseby Karen I

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 (see article – Can I Use My FoodSaver® to Vacuum-Seal Mylar Bags?) 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 as 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 the upper right-hand hole looking from the 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.


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1 Response

  1. Brian says:

    Thank you! I’ve been hesitant to open up my godfather but you gave me something to look at.