Some years ago I read a column by a nationally syndicated writer which described how he learned, at the age of 40, to fix things. He said he met a neighbor who was working on his lawnmower, and he remarked to the neighbor that he didn’t know how to fix things. His neighbor’s reply was “That’s because you don’t take the time.” That struck a chord with me. My own version of that line is “If you look at things carefully, they will show you how they work.”
The world seems to be divided into two groups: those who are “handy” and can fix things and those who aren’t and can’t – and most people seem to automatically assign themselves to the second group, as though being handy is some kind of genetic trait, like perfect pitch or 20-20 vision. In fact, no one is born handy, knowing how things work; the ability to fix things is the result of experience, trial and error, patience, and study.
By taking the time to learn a bit about how things work in your home, you can avoid some costly repair services and impress your friends. Here are some common things that can go wrong and what can sometimes take care of the problem.
1. Toilets. Sooner or later you’re probably going to have your toilet start leaking water from the tank into the bowl or the tank won’t fill to the proper level, which can cause it not to flush properly (not enough water in the tank) or to waste water (too much water in the tank.) If the toilet runs constantly after a flush or periodically you hear water running when the toilet hasn’t been flushed, the problem is probably the seal that closes the tank. There are a lot of different toilet flow control mechanisms, but with most, there is a flap that is lifted by the handle and drops back into place when the water level drops low enough. After enough use, this flap will no longer seal completely, allowing a leak from tank to bowl. Sometimes just wiping it will solve the problem. If this doesn’t work, you may be able to replace the flap. In a worst case, you can replace the entire tank mechanism for a lot less than the cost of a plumber coming and doing it for you. Just look very carefully at the existing mechanism and compare it to your new one (it will usually not be exactly the same), and you will see how to take the old one out and install the new. No special tools (or even any tools )are needed.
If the water level isn’t right, there will be some way to adjust the mechanism to change it. There has to be a way for the water to be shut off when the tank has refilled. Old toilets had a float attached to a metal rod, and you controlled the water level by bending the rod. ‘Newer ones have various methods, including dials you can turn. Study and experiment.
2. Clogged sink or bathtub drains. Hair is usually the culprit in the bathroom. It the kitchen, it’s just the accumulation of grease and “gunk.” There are two inexpensive tools to own: a small pipe wrench and a 10 or 15 foot drain snake. The wrench is for taking the pipes under the sink apart. (When taking apart chromed parts, wrap an old rag around the coupling so the wrench won’t mar it.) Bathroom sinks often have a stopper mechanism, which you raise and lower to seal the sink outlet. Most of these seem designed to most effectively trap hair and clog the drain. You will need to disassemble this first, and this will often solve your problem. There are many types of these mechanisms, so you’ll have to study yours until you see how it comes apart.
If this isn’t sufficient, usually the case for a kitchen sink, the problem is in the drain itself. If you are lucky (you usually will be), the blockage will be within reach of your snake. Disassemble all the pieces of the gooseneck under the sink until you have access to the drain pipe that goes into the wall. The snake you feed into the drain, a little bit at a time. Mine has a handle that allows the snake to be rotated inside the pipe, scouring the walls of the pipe, and a corkscrew at the end. If the screw encounters a wad of hair, it will snag it, and you can pull the nasty thing out. (Kids love to go Ooh, Yuck! when you pull it out.) Run the snake several times into the pipe as far as it will go. You will probably have some sharp bends in the pipe that it will be hard to get the snake past. Just keep turning the handle and working it in and out until it makes it past.
Before you start this project, always remove everything from the space under the sink and put a large pan or bucket under the drain to catch the mess when you take the drain apart.
Bathtub blockages can sometimes be solved with chemicals, which are usually essentially sodium hydroxide, which will dissolve almost anything organic, including human skin and tissue. These products will also sometimes damage chrome finishes, so use a funnel ( get a cheap plastic one) to pour it in the drain. If several applications of this don’t work (the drain usually has to be flowing at least a little, so the chemical can reach the gunk), bring out the snake.
For bigger jobs, where you have access to a cleanout, a place where you can unscrew a cap and get access to the main drain, you can rent a power snake and pretend you’re the roto rooter man, for a couple of hundred bucks less.
3. Garbage disposals. In my experience, these usually last 5-8 years and have to be replaced. They’re easy to change. You have to first turn off the electricity to the disposal and disconnect the power wires; you’ll need to locate your circuit breaker box. If you’re not sure which breaker controls the disposal (a problem if it’s completely dead, and it may not be on the same circuit as the kitchen lights), there may be a breaker for the entire house. The disposal basically hangs from the bottom of the sink. If you get the same brand as you currently have, you can probably just slip the new one onto the flange that supports the old one. If they’re different, you’ll probably have to first install a piece on the bottom of the sink drain, then attach the disposal and reattach the power wires.
Something I just learned recently is that some disposals have a mechanism that shuts them down if you try to grind up too much at once. This prevents the motor from getting too hot and being destroyed. If your disposal just suddenly “dies,” look and feel around the sides of the body for a button, usually red and about the diameter of a dime. Press this button and your disposal may return to life.
4. Door locks and hinges. You can’t really repair either of these, but you can keep them working better with two things: a small can of machine oil and a tube of graphite powder. If you have a lock that you have trouble removing the key from, get a tube of graphite. Spraying a little into the key slot and working the key in and out usually helps. Several applications may be necessary. If a door lock becomes too much trouble, it isn’t hard to replace. Start by taking the old handle apart and removing it from the door. There are lots of different kinds, but if you study the part on the inside, away from the keyed side, you can probably figure out how to remove it. Measure the holes in your door and take the old mechanism to the hardware store, to be sure you get a new one that fits.
About the only thing you can do with hinges is oil them to eliminate squeaks. They almost never wear out, and installing door hinges is a quite advanced topic. Some door hinges are “loose pin,” and you can lift the pin a bit with a screw driver, to make it easier for the oil to get to the inside of the hinge. (If you take the pins completely out, you can remove the door temporarily. Knowing this is handy if you buy a new couch that’s bigger than you expected.)
5. Small electrical appliances. First, whenever you buy any appliance, file away all the papers that came with it because they will have warranty data and info about ordering spare parts. Whenever anything electric isn’t working, the first question should always be “Is it plugged it?” It is truly amazing how many things electric have been fixed by being plugged back in. If that’s not the problem, the device may have a fuse, or it may have tripped the circuit breaker. If another device works in the same plug, the problem is in your device. If it’s not a fuse, examine the power cord. It may have become disconnected, either at the device or the plug. Frayed cords are dangerous and should be replaced. If you can’t solve it with this, read any manual that came with it. Sometimes there’s a number you can call and actually talk to someone you can suggest additional tests and sell you replacement parts. Some devices can be shipped to a repair center and fixed for less than the cost of a replacement.