A few small repairs
January 19, 2013
The trouble started at the stroke of midnight New Year’s Eve. That was the moment when, as the West Coast was welcoming in 2013 and fireworks were shooting off throughout our neighborhood, we were watching Glenn struggle to get the cork off a bottle of Sutter Home sparkling wine. We’ll forget for the moment that we didn’t have a proper bottle of champagne to ring in the New Year and focus instead on the fact that the cork, such that it was, was unyielding. The task was undoubtedly made more difficult by the fact that Glenn was trying to remove the cork with one hand while photographing the event with the other. It was only after he handed the camera to Ben and was able to use both hands that the cork finally gave way, but not with the “pop” we’d all been anticipating.
The cork broke, leaving the top in Glenn’s fingers and the bottom firmly entrenched in the neck of the bottle.
The solution was simple enough. We grabbed our favorite cork puller and teased the fractured stem from the bottle, a mere five minutes past midnight. On any other occasion we would have laughed it off and moved on. But New Year’s Eve is different. The way you conduct your midnight traditions sets the tone for the 365 days that follow, and if something bizarre happens say a celebratory bullet should fall from the sky on your head or, heaven forbid, a cork should break in the bottle of bubbly you’re already screwed before Ryan Seacrest has introduced the first hip-hop band at the post-ball drop party.
Our failed corkage was an omen. If the Mayans had been mistaken in their predictions of the world’s end in 2012, maybe they would finally be vindicated a few weeks late. If not the end of the world, it still seemed probable that 2013 would be the year of disasters on a smaller scale. We already knew of one: our malfunctioning dishwasher.
It isn’t talked about much in the owner’s manual, but when your 10-year-old Frigidaire suddenly starts depositing copious amounts of water on the kitchen floor and inside your sink cabinet, that’s usually not a good sign. We’d been having some backups in the drain that Roni speculated might be caused by grease buildup. Working as she does with the local sanitary district, where the message is drilled into the public that fats, oils and grease (also known as FOG) is bad for pipes, she knows about such things. We attempted to repair the problem first by scooping the glop out of the dishwasher drain and then, when that didn’t work, unfastening the washer from its wood cabinet to access the plastic drain hose. We could see that the hose was fairly dirty, having been in service for the better part of a decade. Glenn suggested disconnecting it and replacing it with a new one from Home Depot.
The one problem with this plan was that the washer is tethered to the wall by its connection to the water intake pipe, and you can’t disconnect the pipe without starting a raging flood unless you shut off water to the entire house, because the shutoff valve the pipe is attached to is so old and corroded that it no longer shuts off. So given this limitation, Glenn was only able to pull the washer a foot or so out of the cabinet before it wouldn’t budge another inch. The drain hose, attached inconveniently somewhere near the washer’s rear, was well protected from the prying eyes and tools of home handymen. We decided to leave well enough alone and contemplate our next move. At least the washer still worked.
Unfortunately, a working washer does not guarantee proper operation. We discovered a few days later that the leak was quite a bit worse than before, and now we hypothesized that Glenn might have accidentally disconnected a crtical hose when tugging at the washer to move it away from its cabinet. Might it be time to call in a professional? Perhaps, but we weren’t ready to do that quite yet, so we shut off the washer and resorted to the centuries-old method of washing dishes by hand, going so far as to purchase a lo-tech dish drainer to accomplish the task. Everything old is new again.
The reason we weren’t so eager to pop for the call to the service center for our washer was because we saw some other expenses looming on the horizon. Coming off an expensive Christmas that saw us spring for a new computer system for Ben, there was also the matter of smogging and registering both of our cars, helping Ben sign up for his second round of classes at Los Medanos College, and some costly dental work Glenn needed to have done. Those were just the things we knew about. That and the fact that Glenn’s car was acting up in a way that suggested it was time for a spark plug change.
There are car repairs that are beyond one’s control, and then there are some that in theory can still be managed easily by an armchair mechanic. Changing the spark plugs in a 2001 Toyota Corolla must fall somewhere in between. You can easily pay upwards of $300 for a spark plug change at the local Toyota dealership, or you can have it done for about $105 at the Sears auto center. With the proper tools, parts and patience, you can get the cost down to less than 50 bucks. The key word in that last sentence is “proper.” As Glenn discovered, the Internet is a wonderful place for obtaining a world of opinions about such things as auto maintenance, but it is woefully shy on definitive answers from experts.
But his hours of research were not totally unproductive. Browsing a few auto forums and watching a handful of instructive YouTube videos on how to do the job, Glenn learned how to select the proper plugs and how to go about installing them. All he needed was four Denso iridium-tipped spark plugs, a tube of conductive electrical grease, a package of anti-seize lubricant, a spark plug gapping device, a 3/8-inch ratchet set with a 5/8-inch plug socket, an extension bar, a 10mm wrench, a flat-tipped screwdriver, a pair of needle-nosed pliers and a wire coat hanger. Simple.
The most vital component was the spark plugs, which he ordered off the Internet from Amazon because the brand he needed isn’t sold locally at any of the auto parts stores he checked. Denso’s website assured him that the plugs he selected would fit his Corolla along with most of the other Corollas Toyota has manufactured in the past 20 years, but Amazon claimed the plugs didn’t fit. Whom to believe? Glenn stuck with the manufacturer and overrode Amazon’s stern warning.
Meanwhile, he had most of the tools he needed to open up the engine, thanks to Roni’s late father who many Christmases ago bestowed upon Glenn the gift of a socket wrench set. All he needed was the remaining incidentals that should be in stock at the local auto parts store. A quick visit to Auto Zone provided the conductive grease, anti-seize and gapper. When the plugs arrived in the mail on a Saturday morning, we were all set for a relaxing weekend in Dad’s Garage.
The big spark plug swap was to occur Sunday morning, Jan. 13. All the instructables Glenn had seen online indicated that a set of four plugs could be changed in as little as 45 minutes, given a little know-how and the proper conditions. Sure enough, popping off the engine cover and removing the ignition coil on the first plug was a piece of cake. The old plug was nestled at the bottom of a deep well in the engine head. All there was to do was to hook up the plug socket on the ratchet drive and twist that baby out. Except that the extender bar included with Glenn’s socket set was too short. Six inches was barely enough to fit the plug socket into the hole without having any room for the wrench itself.
So it was back to Auto Zone for a shiny new 10-inch extender bar. This one fit like a glove, and quickly Glenn had the socket down the hole and inserted over the old plug. He gave a quick turn on the ratchet and… nothing. The plug wouldn’t budge a millimeter. It was seized in the header as if it had been there forever… which it had been. Being iridium plugs built to last at least 120,000 miles, they had never been changed. Under the extreme conditions to which spark plugs are subjected in daily use, the threads can easily become seized over time, which is why everyone recommends that you install new plugs with anti-seize compound on the threads so that you don’t have the same problem the next time you go to remove them. A lot of good that would do now.
The only thing worse than not being able to remove a spark plug at all is to break it off in the process of trying to remove it, and not wanting to make a bad situation worse, Glenn decided to abandon his quest until he could figure out what to do next. He lifted up on the ratchet to pull the socket off the plug and was dismayed when the extender bar came out without the socket attached to it. There is a rubber washer inserted inside the socket that fits over the tip of the spark plug so that you can pull the plug out easily once you get it unscrewed. But now the washer was clinging to the plug for dear life and the socket wouldn’t budge. After a few frantic minutes Glenn finally solved the problem by hooking up his 6-inch extender to the 10-inch extender and using the shorter bar to attach to the socket; the snugger fit between the original socket set parts was enough to provide the leverage he needed to free the stuck tool.
But although he had freed the socket from the spark plug, the rubber washer remained behind, still clinging to the tip of the plug. More panic. This was where the coat hanger came in handy. Glenn fastened a hook out of the wire hanger and used it to finesse the washer off the plug and out of the socket well. After reattaching the ignition coil and engine cover and swearing under his breath that he would never venture into the engine of his car ever again, Glenn was back on the Internet researching ways to free up a stuck plug with penetrating oil. Might it be time to call in a professional? Perhaps, but we weren’t ready to do that quite yet. Stay tuned.
Catastrophes always seem to happen in threes, so it is perhaps only fitting that another one loomed on our horizon. It was the first weekend of the New Year and we had settled in to watch some of the NFL playoff games on our 55-inch Hitachi plasma TV. At one point Glenn remarked that it was mid-January of 2007 when we brought the set into our home and that it had served us so remarkably well for nearly six years, despite the fact that for the better part of 18 months it had been exhibiting signs of its imminent demise; occasionally we would turn it on and there would be sound but no picture. This problem usually cleared itself up if we unplugged the set for a bit and then turned it back on later. Not ideal, but certainly cheaper than sending it out for repair. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The surest way to jinx oneself is to make some stupid comment such as the one Glenn made about the TV lasting so long, because it was just a couple of days later that he got the dreaded email at work from Roni. She had settled in to watch a show when there was a loud snap, crackle and pop and the screen went dark. Doing the old trick of pulling the plug and letting the TV rest failed to resurrect it; all she got was a horribly distorted picture with horizontal lines running through it the entire length of the screen. We even tried talking to it sweetly, but it refused to acknowledge our pleas. The message was clear it was time to buy a new TV set.
…Or find a way to repair the old one.
There seemed to be consensus among Internet electronics buffs that plasma TVs exhibiting symptoms similar to those just described are suffering from failed “buffer” boards. Short of testing individual electrical components for proper voltages, playing with soldering irons and such, it is often easier to simply buy a new circuit board and replace everything that might have failed. After checking out a few local stores and determining that the replacement TV we would want might set us back $1,500, we figured that a couple hundred bucks for a do-it-yourself repair would be a good investment if it worked.
The question was, which board needed replacing? Glenn found the Hitachi service manual online and got a list of all the part numbers, of which there are at least a dozen circuit boards. Judging from the symptoms and the repairs that others had described, he decided to take a shot at fixing the “Y-sustain” board, a $96 part from Best Buy. It arrived the same weekend as the spark plugs, and given that we had never opened the back of our television and weren’t sure how much would be involved in fixing it, Glenn decided to tackle the TV job first, getting started bright and early the morning of Saturday, Jan. 12. The set weighs more than 100 pounds, so just getting it off the wall took the two of us. We placed it face down on the living room carpet and removed the 40 screws attaching the aluminum back to the chassis. Who did they think they were keeping out with so many screws? No wonder repairmen charge hundreds of dollars just to diagnose appliance problems.
The interior of the set was a maze of cables and circuit boards, and the service manual wasn’t much help in figuring out how to go about accessing the board we needed to replace. Glenn spent a couple of hours just staring at it, analyzing how it all must have gone together at the factory and hoping to reverse engineer the process. Just as he was getting ready to admit defeat and start systematically removing all the parts, he discovered the way to access the remote screws on the Y-sustain board and turned the process into a 5-minute task. He unclipped a couple of cable connectors and the old board was out. The new board went in easily. Victory seemed close at hand.
And then we plugged the set back in. Same problem.
The good news was that we hadn’t made the problem worse. The bad news was that nothing had improved. We’d obviously ordered the wrong part. A little more research turned up two more boards we probably should have tried first the upper and lower Y-buffer boards. Ooooo-kayyyy. Might it be time to call in a professional? Perhaps, but we weren’t ready to do that quite yet. Especially when for another $260 we could order both parts off the Internet and install them ourselves. It wasn’t like we couldn’t figure out where they went, since Glenn had had to remove them in the process of replacing the Y-sustain board. But was it worth doing?
Ordering the one part had been a good gamble that didn’t pay off. But sinking nearly $360 into all the parts, if it still didn’t work, was getting close to a down payment on a new TV. We had a long discussion about the merits of a second round of repairs, during which such words as “foolish,” “idiot” and “divorce” were mentioned. OK, so we’re exaggerating just a bit. “Foolish” never entered the conversation. In the end, we went ahead and ordered the parts along with a book of prayers used by amateur electricians.
The lower Y-buffer board is in our hands as we write this. However, the upper board is on “back order,” which might mean it will be here next week or next year. In the meantime, we are watching television on the 40-inch Samsung set in our bedroom while the 55-inch Hitachi sits like a paperweight on the living room floor, propped against the wall with a red blanket shrouding the top of the screen. No 49ers game this week. If there is a silver lining to this story so far, it’s that taking the TV off the wall finally allowed us to paint there. When we repainted the living room nearly three years ago, we lazily dabbed paint around the TV so it wouldn’t be immediately obvious that the wall it occupied wasn’t finished. The touch-up job isn’t great, but at least the wall is more beige now than it was while the set was still up.
There were no such do-it-yourself repairs available when it came to Glenn’s teeth, unfortunately. His dental checkup in December revealed an old crown that was starting to fail, so he went to have it replaced professionally Jan. 14. Coming on the heels of a weekend of failed home repair projects, it was a disappointing reminder of why doing things yourself when you are able is always the more affordable way to go. Thankfully we have good insurance.
A little insurance would have been nice to have Jan. 4 when we had to drive up to Rio Vista to take Ben to his friend Asher’s house in preparation for their visit to the SacAnime convention in Sacramento. In past years we have provided the carpool service to and/or from the convention site, so we are always excited when someone else is willing to do the driving. This year Asher’s dad agreed to drive his son and ours to the hotel, which meant that all we had to do was shuttle Ben as far as Rio Vista and then pick him up from there again Sunday afternoon.
We left before 9 a.m. on a Friday and all was well until we got to the toll plaza at the Antioch Bridge. Roni dutifully pulled into the “cash only” line behind three other vehicles and we sat there patiently waiting our turn for the toll collector. To the left of us were two other empty lanes, one marked “FasTrak only” and the other labeled “carpool only.”
“Aren’t we a carpool?” Roni asked. There were three of us in the car, which by even the strictest definition qualifies. “Then we should be able to go through the carpool lane,” we said, and Roni darted over to the far left and we cruised on through the toll plaza. It was only once we were on the other side that we got to thinking about what had just happened. When it comes to the bridges, “carpool” means a discounted fare, not a free pass, and since we hadn’t paid and there was no one standing there to take our money, this made us a little worried.
While Roni drove, Glenn pulled out the iPad and surfed over to the Caltrans website where we learned to our dismay that the carpool lane is available only to drivers with FasTrak transponders and that we had just passed through it illegally. They surely had taken a picture of our car and would be sending a hefty fine in the mail. We’d probably have to sell the car just to pay penance.
To our relief, we learned that the fine for violating the carpool lane is $25, plus another $5 for the original toll we should have paid. We’d like to believe than any drive up Highway 160 is worth $30, but that didn’t help ease our minds much. Sure enough, we received our bill in the mail Jan. 15, along with something we hadn’t expected an offer to waive the fine if we signed up for a FasTrak account. We had been talking about doing this anyhow, even before our carpool lane incident, so it seemed a no-brainer to sign up now. Roni completed the application online and we are law-abiding citizens once more.