Fixing things

This evening, I fixed a box fan that was at least 20 years old. Heck, it was so old… “how old was it?” …It was so old, it was sold by K-Mart… And made in Chicago, not China!

The problem was that the blades turned only very slowly when it was on High and not at all on Low. So the first thing to check was whether the blades spin freely. Not very.

It wasn’t a difficult job: take out 16 screws to remove the front and back grids, vacuum out a lot of dust (and apparently my daughter had already vacuumed out a lot), and take out the motor. When I took out the motor, I noticed a small opening, with a lip, just above the shaft. Hey, I thought, that looks like a place to add some oil. So I wend down to the basement workshop, grabbed the 3-in-1 oil (and another beer), and oiled that sucker. Yay, some improvement. I couldn’t pull the plastic fan blades off the front, but I saw there was another hole in the hub of the plastic. It was at an awkward angle for a set screw, so I figured it was maybe for oiling the front part of the shaft. I dribbled a bit more 3-in-1 in there, hey presto, it’s pretty free now. Then, spin it by hand a bit to distribute the oil and add a little more.
Plug it in, fire it up, and it works fine. Yay, triumph. Reassemble the 16 screws for the grids and put away the tools. Really the most annoying part was discovering that the nuts on the motor mount were 11/32, when I had originally grabbed a 3/8 and a 5/16 nut driver. Metric is good, people!

Which is all by way of introducing tonight’s topic: Fixing. Or more precisely, understanding a basic level of how the material objects in your life work, and what to do if they malfunction.

A couple weeks ago, I went to visit my sister in Fort Wayne. One task I tried there was to fix a dripping faucet in their upstairs bathroom, which was vintage 1940s post-war colored porcelain. Well, I began composing a blog post about that but it got very boring, even for this egocentric writer. The tl;dr on that is: Four or five trips to the hardware store, and it still dripped. But at least I fixed the drain. Plus I disturbed the sediment in their hot-water heater enough to cause a bad drip from the pressure relief valve, which happened right before we had to go back home.
However, it struck me just how separated from mundane physical reality a lot of people are. It was a fairly straightforward problem, but you’d think it was Albus Dumbledore swearing away under the sink, not chemprofdave.

Important update!
I neglected to link to Bonnie’s depiction of that weekend… She’s the pro writer of the family.

Much of what makes 20th century America (not necessarily 21st, mind you) is pretty simple stuff if you take a little time to learn about it. The mechanical components of your house, and most of your appliances, are more or less understandable. Engineering is not easy, but figuring out what engineers have done can be easy. Many years ago, Dad was grousing about how we’ve become a disposable society, where someone might trash a stove because one burner knob has failed. It’s easier now, with web stores, to get replacement parts. But how many people actually bother? A little time fixing that fan saved a $15-20 replacement, and the externalities of waste disposal. And the fixing time was no more than a trip to the store would have been.

Take a few minutes to trace your water supply from where it enters your house, to the hot water heater, and through the pipes to the various taps. Then look at your electrical box, again following the wires from where they enter your house to the fuse box or breaker panel, and off to the various switches and outlets. Do the same for your furnace and (if you have one) central air ducts. If anything looks corroded, or even significantly different from nearby areas, get help or try to figure it out.

If you want a money-saving tip, try this: Find your hot water heater. At the bottom, there will be a tap to which you can attach a garden hose. Run the hose over to your basement floor drain – it’s probably in the laundry area. At the top of the water heater, there will be two pipes connected. One will be warm (hot out), the other cold for intake. There will be a valve on the cold water pipe.

Close the cold water inlet valve, connect the hose from the bottom faucet to your floor drain, and open the tap. Let the whole hot water heater flush out and down the floor drain. Close the lower tap and open the top tap to refill it. Flush again to remove more sediment. If you live in an area with even moderately hard water, you probably are getting build-up in your tank that will cost you more energy to heat the water, decrease the amount of hot water you have available, and even cause early failure of the system. That was (part of) the problem at my sister’s, and it could save you a chunk of change.

Get to know the material things that surround you. Understanding your world is different than when we were in the horse-drawn plow era, but it’s not impossible. And it can give you great satisfaction to conquer that #&#%^ dripping faucet.