The amazing similarities between auto repair and appliance repair
Today, we’re going to talk about my oven. This isn’t a metaphor; I don’t mean how my car feels when the engine is overheating, so you turn the heater valve on and shut off the A/C. I’m talking about the actual oven in our kitchen.
The older I get, the more a certain kind of parallax sets in where all events in my past, whether recent or ancient, all seem about equally distant in time. I can’t explain why, but it’s the reason why you say things like, “Oh, that water heater was just replaced” or “We had the roof redone just a few years back” when checking the receipts reveals that these repairs were, in fact, done when MC Hammer was still striding around onstage in baggy pants. I say this because I still think of our kitchen and its appliances as “new,” but the kitchen was renovated in 1995. We’re on our third dishwasher and refrigerator. Of the original appliances, only the venerable Amana oven still soldiers on.
Now, my wife is not a professional baker, but her baking stills are so good that friends and relatives sometimes ask her to bake for family functions, and this was one of those times. She was in the middle of a large bake involving muffins, cookies, and pecan pie bars—in regular, vegan, and gluten-free varieties. So, when I was in the garage crimping A/C hoses and got a text asking, “Can you come in for a minute when it’s convenient? I think something’s wrong with the oven”—yes, Maire Anne and I text in complete sentences—I immediately thought, “Uh, oh. Way not good.” I put the hose crimper down and came upstairs.
I’m not a professional mechanic, and I’m certainly not an appliance repair man, but I do try to nurse the appliances along when it makes sense to do so. I’ve learned over the years that big things that require wholesale disassembly (like bearings in the drum of a washing machine or dryer) are rarely worth doing, but small things like pumps and igniters usually are.
Maire Anne said the oven didn’t fully come up to temperature, stalling at about 120 degrees, and now it didn’t seem to even be lighting. I pulled the cover and heat spreader off to expose the main burner and igniter. I could see the igniter glow red, but it didn’t ignite anything. I tried it old school with a match. Nothing. So clearly no gas was flowing through to the main burner, and the 120-degree reading was coming from the igniter itself. I tested the burners on the top of the stove. They worked fine, so clearly the oven did have gas. I tried the top-mounted broiler, and after its igniter glowed red for a bit, its burner did the familiar VOOSH thing. Unfortunately, although everyone enjoys muffin tops the most, broiling the muffins and cookies wasn’t a recipe for success. The main burner needed to work in order for Maire Anne to meet her a deadline for that evening.
I did a quick online search and learned that the textbook symptom of a weak oven igniter is the igniter glowing but the main burner not lighting when the broiler and stovetop still work. Nearly any stove sold in the last 30 years has an automatic “Flame-Failure Device” or FFD (also called a “Flame Supervision Device” or FSD) where the stove’s internal gas valve won’t open if the igniter isn’t drawing enough current to get hot enough to ignite the gas. Fortunately, igniters are rarely specific to a single make and model, but they’re not as generic as, say, a flexible gas hose, so it’s a bit much to expect a big box store like Home Depot or Lowes to have what you need. It’s not, however, unreasonable to think that you can drive to a good appliance repair store and pick one up over the counter, though you may need to reuse the igniter’s existing bracket and connector.
I looked at the clock. It was 4 p.m. Fortunately there’s an appliance parts and repair store about two miles from us. I called and read the model number of the 26-year-old Amana stove and verified that they were open ’til 5. The guy said, “Yeah, I got it, but best to bring the old one down just to be sure.” I undid three Phillips screws and one electrical connector and pulled it out.
Maire Anne and I jumped in the car and dashed on down. The cigarette-smoke-soaked hole-in-the-wall appliance repair shop that sits behind the convenience store (across the line from Newton in Waltham, Massachusetts) is the kind of place I love, with a proprietor who seems gruff but turns out to be off-the-hook helpful, and stuff lying around everywhere. I handed him the old igniter; he took out the new part and verified it; and as we were chatting, he transferred the bracket from the old one and wire-nutted on the connector. “Yeah,” he said, “these old Amana stoves are great. Keep it running for as long as you can. New appliances are junk. They’re so bad that I advise people to buy used ones.” He motioned around the room full of things that he was repairing for resale. “But we can’t keep on doing this forever. At some point, these will be gone, and all there’ll be left is junk.”
Remind you of anything?
I immediately thought about all the parallels to auto repair. That is, one of the reasons you probably own vintage cars is that you’re attracted to their simplicity and the reliability and ease of diagnosis that comes with it. And when something does require repair, you do it yourself because you enjoy it, because it saves a boatload of money, because you can often return the thing to functionality faster than if you had to schedule a service appointment or buy a new one. And, in these wonderful internet-connected days, you’re unlikely to be the first person experiencing a problem, so googling the symptom generally reveals a high-probably diagnosis, and with it, the part to buy. And, as with auto repair when a car is down and you need it to be running, any thought of online best-price goes out the window in favor of “what do I need to lay my hands on the part to get this thing running today?”
I wrote about old appliances in my first book, Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic. There’s a chapter titled “Thoughts on Refrigerators, Reliability, and Why You Can’t Go Back.” In it, I describe the refrigerator that was in my in-law’s house for well over 50 years (“through 12 presidential administrations, four wars, and oscillations in hemlines and monetary policy”). It was a pre-frost-free fridge, which meant that, unless you shut it off periodically to defrost it—as you needed to do back in the day for all refrigerators—the freezer would ice up, so if you had anything in it, it would be encased in ice like a woolly mammoth. For decades, whenever I went over to my in-laws’ house, the fridge, which was eventually moved to the basement, was filled with Coca-Cola chilled to a temperature that could shatter the enamel on your teeth. At one point, the door latch broke, and my father-in-law, a handyman extraordinaire, simply screwed a latch that looked like it was from a steamer trunk to the side. It was a testament to things that were designed and built well, and to people who did what they needed to do.
Modern refrigerators haven’t changed the laws of physics—humid air still freezes on the coils—so they achieve the frost-free thing by using little heaters that periodically switch on and melt the frost. If the heaters or the related temperature sensors fail, the coils ice up, and the ice eventually seizes up the blend door that sends cold air from the freezer into the refrigerator, and the fridge gets warm. So, like with many systems on modern cars, something that’s designed for convenience creates complexity, which inexorably leads to more things that eventually break. We want reliability, but we become addicted to modern conveniences. There’s not really much of a market for vintage refrigerators—they’re too small and too power-hungry, defrosting freezers is a bit of a pain, and let’s face it, icemakers are pretty nice to have.
However, there is a market for vintage stoves. Unlike other hard-rectangular appliances like refrigerators, dishwashers, and washers and dryers, the wonderful form factor of vintage cast-iron stoves has made them prized accent pieces in kitchens large enough to support them (nearly all of which, of course, also have a modern stove). Our Amana certainly isn’t that, but it did my heart good to hear the appliance repair guy refer to it as quality goods.
Maire Anne and I thanked the proprietor, handed over the credit card, and signed off on the $72 charge (and when you need something like this right now, you simply pay for it, thank your lucky stars you were able to thread the needle and get it done, and don’t see what the fractional cost might have been had you found some aftermarket part on eBay or Amazon). We took our prized igniter, bracket, and connector home, and in about five minutes, I had it screwed back in and reconnected. I turned on the oven and could immediately tell that the new igniter was glowing brighter than the old one. About 10 seconds later, I heard the gas valve click open, and heard and saw that wonderful reassuring VOOSH. Maire Anne resumed baking and fulfilled her commitment. And I emerged with my reputation intact. Note that my wonderful wife in no way “tolerates” my automotive proclivities—that is, like any happy couple, we both recognize and support each other’s passions—but there are certainly times when she is the direct beneficiary of my handiness, and this was certainly one of them.
So, yeah, hack appliance repair man, yadda yadda. But the point in all of this is, and always has been, that I can’t fix health care, reconcile the Israelis and the Palestinians, or effect repair of other large glaring intractable national or global problems. But I can fix the oven. I can take what wasn’t working and make it work, and at least in this case, do it faster than getting a repair person to come over or buying a new one.
If you don’t know the wonderful feeling of accomplishment that comes from fixing a self-contained problem like this, I feel sorry for you. It’s just wonderful. Really, it’s the best.
Almost as good as the hugs from my wife. And the fresh muffins.
Rob Siegel’s new book, The Best Of The Hack MechanicTM: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem is available on Amazon. His other seven books are also available on Amazon, or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website, www.robsiegel.com.