How to Realize Your DIY Dreams in Seven Simple Steps

Advice & Stories, Living & Spending
on June 2, 2014

DIY Home Repairs: How to Save

There’s nothing like a tight budget to kick Murphy’s law into gear—anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. But battling Murphy need not send you trotting to the bank for a loan to fix the furnace or replace the dryer.

I’m not a plumber or an electrician. I’ve never had training in fixing a clothes dryer, an air conditioner or a furnace. But with online access to the experts, I’ve done all of these things and more with an average savings of 75 percent of the cost of calling a repairman. And if you find you’re in over your head after your DIY dreams fail to come true? Well hey, you can always call in some professional help. But before you make that very expensive phone call, start with these seven simple steps to outsmarting Murphy when budget-busting things go wrong.

Step 1: Figure out what’s wrong. Here’s the DIY secret: You don’t have to understand how a machine works in order to fix it. You just need to know which part to replace.

This concept was vividly illustrated to me one Thanksgiving morning. I popped our mammoth turkey into the oven before the sun was up. Hours later, I opened the oven to find a very pale bird, lounging in the cool dark.

“It’s the igniter,” a curt repairman informed me over the phone. “It’ll be three days before I can get out there. A minimum service call costs fifty bucks and the minimum labor is $35. Plus the cost of the part, of course.”

That was before the age of youtube and online tutorials. Now I simply search Why won’t my oven light? or Why is my air conditioner fan working but not cooling?—or my recent triumph, Why don’t the colors line up on my 52” TV after a power surge?

You’ll find that generous, experienced people have posted online tutorials documenting step by step instructions and videos on how to fix just about everything under the sun.

Back to the bird that wouldn’t roast—we managed to broil the turkey to an edible stage by turning him every half hour. The next day, the man in the part store told me where the igniter was in my oven. Thirty minutes and a mere thirty dollars later, I was back to baking.

Step 2: Determine if you have access to the proper tools to make the repair. Tools pay for themselves many times over. Ask a clerk at the home store for help in choosing the right one if you’re not sure.

Step 3: If you’re working on an appliance, write down the model number. It’s usually found on the back or inside the door.

Step 4: Go online to a shopping site like Ebay or Amazon and enter the brand name, model number and the part’s name. If you get no hits, take out the model number and search by the name. For example, GE gas oven igniter. Sellers will usually list the model numbers compatible with parts.

One sweltering day, our air conditioner stopped working. An online search told me it was the capacitor. I learned that by removing a few screws on the outside unit, I could see if my capacitor, which is about the size and shape of a pop can, was bulging at the top. It was. I was in a hurry so I drove 15 miles to pick up a new one. (The cost was only slightly higher than the best online price.)

Step 5: Disconnect the electricity or turn off the water valve. It never pays to play chicken with an appliance that pulls enough power to x-ray and cook you in one easy step. The same thing goes for water and gasoline-powered tools and cars. If the tutorial or instructions that come with the part SAY to disconnect the battery, power or flow of water—take their word for it!

Step 6: Map or photograph the position and/or wiring of the old part before you remove it. Install the new one exactly the same way. You’ll find that most of the time, electrical connections inside appliances are made with connectors that plug together. It’s a rare occasion that you must twist wires together with a wire nut. I used a soldering iron for the first time to replace the convergence fuse on my TV. I just followed the youtube tutorial to locate and replace the fuse, and it now works perfectly.

All modern natural gas appliances, (furnaces, ovens and clothes dryers) have a safety device that prevents the flow of gas if the electrical circuit to the igniter is broken. When the part breaks or you unplug, the circuit is broken. (But it’s best to leave the dial set to ‘off’ while you work on it anyway.)

In the case of my air conditioner, I carefully plugged in each wire from the old capacitor to the new capacitor, screwed the mounting bracket in, and voila!

Step 7: Don’t celebrate just yet. Before reassembling the back covers or putting away the tools, test the repair to see if it’s fixed. This is mostly a precaution against leaving a wire disconnected or a drain pipe unattached. Enjoy the swelling pride of a job well done.

With the air conditioner’s capacitor installed, I turned down the thermostat and felt cool air immediately. I have only the vaguest idea what the capacitor does, but I don’t mind mentioning to my friends, “Yeah, my air conditioner went out. I had to replace the capacitor.” When you use a term like “capacitor,” nobody questions your expertise.

So with a little courage, you can turn Murphy’s disasters into minor inconveniences, saving hundreds or more in the process. And those bragging rights? Priceless.

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