Thursday, September 29, 2016

How to take something apart, perhaps even fix it, then put it back together again.

The switch (a Sinton E81372) that went bad. The inside was frozen so the pull-chain would not be pulled.
I want to tell you that I fixed a switch for the lighting suspended beneath my ceiling fan. I'm telling you this not so much because I'm proud of my accomplishment (though I am) and want to brag, but because I think most of us share a fear of cracking open even simple machines to see what might be wrong with them.

Yet the wonderful secret about simple machines is that they are built to be cracked open. They're built with interchangeable parts. These days it's rare that parts are as fine as single pieces. When I open a machine I see sealed components like the Sinton E81372 in the above picture. Search for that on Amazon and sure enough there it is, waiting for the contingency that your switch has worn out or that some insensate Philistine has been pulling your chain so hard that it broke.

I'm a lighting freak. It's very hard for me to live somewhere that can't be flooded with daylight on sunny days, and the architectural mandate that rooms should have windows on two orthogonal walls is more important than the Ten Commandments.

And a rule I made up—something from days in the theater—is that every space should have its work lights. Standard operating conditions call for each room to have spot lighting appropriate for its purposes. My room has a reading lamp with a 60-watt fluorescent bulb by the bed, but this is anachronistic lip service to an era when reading devices didn't come with their own illumination. My desk has a TaoTronics LED Desk Lamp, a lovely device that allows me to adjust the hue from a yellowish nostalgic of incandescent days all the way into an intense Sirius-like subtle hint of blue. The brightness has a ten-point sliding scale. I can specify my favorite hue and brightness, which will serve as the default each time I turn the light on. A built-in timer will turn the light off thirty minutes after I touch it. There's also a pleasant night light. The light is mounted at the end of an arm with four different axes of bending and turning. And the USB plug on the side is smart enough to charge my phone at that accelerated rate. This divine light, after 276 reviews on Amazon has a 4.9 star rating. One curmudgeonly troll gave it a three-star rating.

But when I sweep and clean, move things around, or search for a lost washer on the floor, up come the working lights. I am a fan of that opening scene in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in which the narrator lives underground steals thousands of kilowatt hours from Con Edison to make a huge array of lights shine. It's a metaphor for the invisibility of the black man in America, but I'm drawn to light like moths because my mother always kept a funereally dark house. Now that I'm taking care of that house as she becomes incapable of doing so, I have illuminated my private surroundings even as I've left her in the dark she seems to prefer (indeed there are mysteriously dark circumstances around how my light switch came to break in the first place). Now that I've fixed the light, two LED bulbs, each equivalent in produced lumens to a 100 watt incandescent bulb, flood my humble 160 ft² with light whenever I pull the string.

When I first took up residence in this room, there was a single sixty-watt incandescent bulb in one of the sockets, and the other socket was empty. I lived with that for a while, but a few weeks ago I ordered three LED bulbs. One of them went into the kitchen, which, in my way of thinking has only two lighting modes: the dim light so midnight snackers can find their way to the kitchen, and Las Vegas brilliant for cooking. The LED lighting in the new stove hood combined with the new overhead light leave the room a little lopsided, but much better than it was. The other two bulbs screwed into my fan.

I was still basking in this sense of lighting accomplishment when the pull chain froze, and it was probably the ensuing frustration that impelled me to Crash Cart mode of taking the thing apart myself. I resolved that if I were careful in taking the thing apart, I would at least be able to put it back together, and I might even be able to fix it. The housing that held the switch inside and two light sockets on the outside was mounted below the fan itself. A bracket connected to the fan above held the light housing in place, and two wires, connected to wires from the fan unit by twist-on wire connectors, fed the lighting its electricity. Though I was eager to play with the housing, I did not want to play with electricity, so I turned the wall switch off.

The first thing I learned about was twist-on wire connectors (also known as wire nuts, wire connectors, cone connectors, or thimble connectors) courtesy of Wikipedia. Before I learned the correct terms, I was just calling them "twisty caps," which sounds like candy. Wire nuts are the Hotel California of electric parts: you can screw them on anytime you like, but they ain't never coming off. So once I unscrewed the housing from the fan, it was hanging loosely by its wires, which I cut as close to the wire nut as I could since I knew that later I would have to strip the wire and make a new connection.

So I put the housing on my desk and took it apart. There was nothing in the housing preventing the chain from being pulled. Only the switch itself was frozen. Taking it out of the housing let me find its part number proudly emblazoned on its side. Like I said, I have never done this before, so I proceeded with caution, attention, and consultation of Wikipedia. I had no tools for electrical work, so the order I typed into Amazon included not only the Sinton E81372 but a pair of wire strippers and a big assortment of wire nuts. Though I put all that in the same shopping cart, the items came from diverse sources, and each made its separate way to my house. I lived without the overhead light for a week before all the parts arrived.

I should stress here that since I was going forward carefully, it was very important to store all the little parts so they didn't get lost. Altoid boxes come in handy for projects like this. The Altoid boxes went into a large plastic box with room also for the switch housing and the large globe, which I ran through the dishwasher so that it's now the cleanest light globe in the house.

With wire nuts, Altoid boxes, wire stripper, and ignorance tempered by determination, I set about installing the frozen switch's replacement.
Replacing the switch and putting the lid back on the housing was the easy part. The tricky part was reattaching the housing to the fan itself because the operation was effectively upside-down: I had to screw up into the fan, which meant dropping the screws several times before I got everything lined up and the screws started in their respective holes.
The fan awaiting the light housing. The black and white wires first had to be stripped and attached to their sister wires with wire nuts.
Once the housing was reattached I was able to test the lights and see that they worked. I was thrilled to have bright light again. Figuring out how to reattach the globe and its fixtures and to bring the pull chains for light and fan through the appropriate holes was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. The first attempt was too crooked, so I tried another, which still didn't seem as even as it should be, but there were no other possibilities. I guess that I'm asking too much to expect it to go back just as it was.
The finished project.
Again I stress that I'm proud that I managed to do this, but that isn't why I wrote this blog. Nor did I write this blog to instruct someone on how to replace a switch. I wrote this blog to tell you not to be afraid, but to go ahead mindfully because machines like this are designed to be taken apart and repaired by the replacement of their parts. Of course some things are sealed up and not meant to be taken apart—for some reason food processors and blenders come to mind, but also laptop computers with their thin layers so tightly sandwiched together. But a ceiling fan or a desktop computer or those hinges hanging on by the last threads of ancient wood screws—those and many other things are waiting for your attention. Here are ten useful points from what I learned:

  1. Don't be afraid. Be positive, enjoy your exploration, and take pride in your accomplishment.
  2. Google for information, definitions, and how-to information. Both Wikipedia and YouTube abound with instructional information on maintenance and repair.
  3. On the Web, most manufacturers publish owner's manuals, schematic diagrams, exploded parts diagrams, and all kinds of guidance for the dissection and resurrection of their machinery. Use it.
  4. Most machines are built to be taken apart and put together again.
  5. Machines comprise replaceable parts, which greatly simplifies the task before you.
  6. Go slowly and pay attention.
  7. Take notes if necessary, so you can reassemble after your repair (or if you abort the mission because you can't repair it).
  8. Store parts carefully because you're going to have to put them back together again.
  9. Take time out to order and receive replacement parts and tools.
  10. Order tools if necessary—the right tool can make the difference between success and failure.