A Kenmore Gas Dryer with No Heat – UNPLUG FIRST!


One of my buildings was outfitted with Gas Kitchen Ranges and Gas Clothes Dryers by Kenmore (Sears).  I don’t swear by Kenmore, but I have to say parts are easy to get, reasonably priced and are pretty universal across different appliances.

When one of these appliances don’t produce heat, I’ve learned to immediately sink my teeth into the set of safeties that are related to the starting of the flame.  Usually, it is an element called a glow coil.  This is a resistive element that glows bright orange (think of it as the appliance version of a cigarette lighter) in order to combust the natural gas in the unit.

This was, however, the first time that I’d had a problem like this in a clothes dryer.  I’ve had belt issues in a clothes dryer, but never a glow coil.  In order to inspect the unit, it has to be opened.  I cannot stress enough that you have to UNPLUG the unit before you undo a single screw: you’re dealing with 120-220v circuits with open contacts inside the unit.  It’s not worth getting your shit electrocuted.

Getting panels off of a dryer will depend on what style of washer/dryer you have.  Being in a large urban area, we are with limited space for washers/dryers and I have the very typical “stacked” washer and dryer where the dryer is above the washer and the access panel is located right above the washer and just below the dryer.

Once inside the panel, I discovered a couple of interesting things:

  1. The glow coil seemed intact and in good shape
  2. There was what appeared to be a flame-proving sensor that was broken

I removed the flame-proving sensor and it was indeed shot, but remember what I said above about unplugging the unit BEFORE opening it up, well I didn’t and I shorted out a circuit on part of the frame (thankfully, I didn’t fry myself).  Thinking nothing of it (besides unplugging the unit at that point), I went and bout the flame-proving sensor and figured I’d be in business in no time.

I came back, installed the sensor, plugged it in, AND…nothing.  Turns out, through my inability to unplug the appliance that I shorted out the hi-limit sensor as well.  No biggie, except that the hi-limit sensor is located in purgatory behind the dryer drum.  I had to remove the entire top of the dryer to get to it.  So 2 hours later and another $15 part, I was back in business.

So, the next time the appliance says “unplug before servicing”, just do it.  You may be called  a wus, but, you’ll be a smart wus.

When the Heat Goes Out – The Damn Flame Sensor


IT IS THAT time of year again…at least here in Chicago.  Each year, I get the phone call (at 5:30 PM)…”I noticed this morning at 6:00 AM that the thermostat said 58 degrees, and I know I had it set to 70.  I just got back from work, and it’s still 58 degrees.”  Tenants never seem to be able to call when the problem actually happens, but the world is a bell curve.  Even worse than that is when they turn the furnace OFF because it isn’t working and leave it off for a day or two before calling.  I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried.

The good news is that the problem can only really be a few things, and for the most part, it is a $20 part at the worst.  Natural gas furnaces are equipped with a lot of safeties to protect the equipment and YOU.  It is typically one of these devices that cause your furnace to fail.  Even better, MOST newer furnaces will flash a little red light at you to tell you what is wrong.  When running under normal circumstances, most furnace indicators will be a solid red light or a uniformly blinking light.  If the heat is out, the light is the first thing you should check.  When the furnace fails, it will return a series of short and long flashes which resemble a code telling you what is wrong (code definitions can typically be found on the inside of one of the furnace covers).

One of the most common codes I see is the one that tells me that the unit has been locked out due to too many failed starts (too many failed starts by the way is equal to 3 starts typically–I agree that doesn’t seem like a lot to me either, but that is what it is).  So, something is keeping the unit from starting properly.  If you turn the power switch “OFF” on the side of the unit for 10 seconds and then, back “ON”, you’ll get to see what is happening for yourself.  It usually goes something like this (on newer furnaces):

  1. The combustion exhaust fan starts up and runs for about 60-90 seconds.
  2. The glow coil will begin to glow bright orange (if this doesn’t happen, you’ve found  your problem…need a new glow coil).
  3. You will hear the gas valve open just at the peak of the glow of the coil.
  4. The furnace will flame up properly for a second or two and then go out.

This process, as the furnace indicated, will happen 3 times and then the unit will lock out for about 3 hours.  This is a very clear confirmation that the “flame sensor” is not proving that the flame has lit properly.  “But the flame looked fine!”  I know, and there’s nothing wrong with the flame.  Over time, the flame sensor can build up a layer of oxidation that will prevent it from properly sensing the flame.

This is what it looks like (credit goes to americanhvacparts.com):

flame sensor

Typical Flame Sensor

If this is the first time you’ve run into this problem, you can fix it with a screwdriver and steel wool.  You’ll do the following:

  1. You need to shut the unit OFF.
  2. Remove the flame sensor from the upper compartment of the furnace (where the flame normally is).
  3. Clean it gently with the steel wool.
  4. Put it back, and you’ll be up and running.

Like most things, however, you can only get away with this for so long.  After awhile…you know, when you find yourself cleaning the flame sensor every three weeks, it’s time to buy a new flame sensor.

You can typically get them at your local HVAC supply store (if they’ll sell to the general public – call first).  Good luck and stay warm.

When You Buy the Cheap Flat Screen TV


Alright, this goes for all electronics, not just flat-screen TV’s, but I should have learned by now that you GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR!  For my apartment buildings, I bought a few flat-screen TV’s from a store with a BIG YELLOW and BLACK sign, but I won’t use their name to protect the innocent.  I will, however, say that one of their in-house brands: DYNEX is less than stellar.  I was 4 days out of warranty when my DX-L26-10A 26″ Dynex Flatscreen started doing the funky chicken and the store management wasn’t interested in assisting at all.

To make matters worse, World Cup 2010 was going on at the time and I had (2) Brittish medical students staying in the unit when the TV started it’s mysterious dance:  It would show the picture just fine for about 90 seconds, then suddenly, it would kindly say “Please wait…” for about 15 seconds and repeat.  Well, watching a soccer match (especially when your from the country where the sport was invented) this way is BRUTAL, so I had to swap it out and dragged the panel home.  Americans, just imagine a Football Quarterback throwing a Hail Mary and right as the ball starts coming down, your TV goes black…

After I removed about 9-12 screws from the back and removed the back cover, I found that there were really just two boards back there.  I have to disclose at this point that I have a degree in electrical engineering, but this was still pretty straight forward:

  1. There was a main board that handled all of the digital input and output (aka where you hook up your cable box, dvd player, etc)
  2. The other board handled the output to LCD screen and created the picture

Most people don’t know this, but electronics are made of smoke.  When you let the smoke out, the electronics don’t work anymore, so I was on the lookout for burned out components on the boards, only to come up empty.  Based on the fact that ALL inputs and outputs were doing the same thing, I put my bet on Board #1 and quickly went to ShopJimmy.com to get the part I needed.

As it turns out, I guessed correctly and the board worked like a charm.  It was a $70 fix to a $300 lapse in judgment.

When a 2003 Ford Escape Fuel Pump Craps Out


I have a love-hate relationship with my 2003 Ford Escape.  The vehicle is capable of threshing out total rage and adoration depending on what it was that broke.  One of these days, I’ll tell you about the alternator, but this issue was a pleasure to deal with: the fuel pump.

Now, for the benefit of everyone, I have to explain how we finally landed on the Fuel Pump as the culprit.  There are a number of things that can affect the starting of your vehicle and you can eliminate things very quickly based on WHAT the car is and isn’t doing at startup:

  1. If your car’s interior lights are dim, dimming or fluctuating, you have an electrical / power issue.  Typically, this will be a battery or alternator problem.
  2. If your car won’t even turn over (just clicking) and you are getting solid interior lights, dash lights, etc, your problem is likely your starter.
  3. If your car is turning over, but not starting, you can eliminate most electrical issues and your probably focused on air flow sensing, compression and fuel line.  This is where my fun began.

We actually thought the culprit was the Mass Air-Flow Sensor which all fuel-injected cars have.  If your car is newer, you have one of these.  Their main goal is to make sure that the fuel air mixture in the cylinder is correct.

They’re usually easy to get to and clean, but they can go bad.  We weren’t able to rule this out as I was able to get the car to start by disconnecting the mass air flow sensor electrical harness and firing up the vehicle.  However, I was still having issues even after we replaced the Mass Air-FlowSensor.  The car would run fine, but if I made a quick stop into a store, about 20% of the time, I’d return to a car that wouldn’t start.  It was like Russian Roulette and driving me crazy as it would take 10-90 minutes to restart…like waiting for the cable guy to show up.

Finally, after replacing the Mass Air-Flow Sensor and the problem occurring quite fatally in a store parking lot (still wouldn’t restart 12 hours later), I knew it was something else.  The engine would turn, but it was sputtering, and not running, so I knew at this point that it had to be the fuel pump (I ruled out compression problems…if compression, I should have gotten a Dummy Light from the car’s computer).

On most vehicles, you have to drop the gas tank out of the car to get to the fuel pump (because it is located on top of the fuel tank), which means you have to empty the gas tank, drop the tank, replace the pump and reattach the gas tank.  On this one, the designers of the 2003 Ford Escape had it right: they created an access panel under the driver’s side back seat (the seats fold down).  We had the pump out and a new one in within 20 minutes (after all of the running around to get parts and tools).  A special thank you to Dan Ferrell at eHow.com for excellent instructions on doing this.

I have to send out a plug for Autozone here:  All things being equal, most auto parts stores are equal, but here is where I found a major difference:  We checked both PepBoys and Autozone for a particular tool to do this job (the Fuel Sender Wrench that Dan mentions in his article).  PepBoys had nothing, although they do rent tools like Autozone.  Autozone, meanwhile, had the specific tools we needed (by the way, the rental is free as long as you return the tools).

Anyway, if you are lucky enough to have a vehicle that has provided such easy access to your car’s fuel pump in a situation like this, you will save a boat-load doing it yourself.  Good luck and feel free to post questions if you have them.

When a Shit Pump Breaks (aka Ejector Pump)


Not all homes have ejector pumps, but it should be noted that they are the same as sump pumps with one major difference: they can break up solids (shit) and get them out to the sewer.  If you have a bathroom in a basement or a building with a garden apartment, chances of you having an ejector pump are pretty high.  To me, this is akin to having your bedroom below the men’s bathroom at Soldier Field: eventually, a pipe is going hit you with a shit storm.

When a bathroom is installed in a basement, the toilet, shower and even the sink are usually BELOW the sewer line out to the street (it never sounded like a good idea to be below sewer level, but hey, who the hell am I?).  In order to accommodate a bathroom below sewer level, you need to pump the waste water up to the sewer level.  Because toilets are included in waste sources that will feed into the waste reservoir, the ejector pump is necessary.

Likewise, there is a  LIMIT TO WHAT AN EJECTOR PUMP CAN GRIND UP.  You should NEVER place ANYTHING other than toilet paper and the aforementioned s#!t into the toilet.  So, when I got a call from tenants in my only apartment with an ejector pump telling me that there was water all over the floor AND later found a “feminine hygiene product” and a condom caught in the check valve, I nearly blew a gasket.

First of all, we were lucky that the contraband didn’t break the pump and cause an overflow.  What did happen was a bit crazy, but it’s the best that I can surmise:

  • The unspeakable items lodged in the check valve prohibiting flow of water and creating enormous line pressure.
  • The check valve (which normally prevents back flow into the pit) is held on by worm clamps.
  • The weakest point in the system was the worm clamp: the pump kept pumping and the water had no place to go, so the line blew open at the check valve while someone was in the shower.
  • The pump would have made several cycles and spewed about 5-8 gallons each time.

It took me 4 days to dry the apartment, clean the carpet and sanitize the affected areas.  My advice: when the lease says, shit and toilet paper only, make sure it’s shit and toilet paper only.  Cheers.

My Computer is Not Working


This call can come from a co-worker, family, one of my tenants, but my favorite is when it comes from my father:  I’ll get the call:

“RJ, the damn computer won’t connect to the internet”,

and immediately, he should be able to predict my response by now:

“Dad, step away from the computer.  I’ll be there this weekend.”

Inevitably, 9 times out of 10, computer issues are “user error”.  Now, to be fair, I’m not saying that the actual user of the computer is always at fault, that would bring it down to 8 times out of 10.  I’ll take the honors for the other 1 as I do screw up sometimes  (remember, I break things too).  Typically, though, it was specifically something that a user DID or DID NOT do that caused the problem.  Oh, and by the way, to round out my unofficial survey: 1 time out of 10, it is the fault of the computer manufacturer or Microsoft.

So if you are the one always calling the “computer guy” in your family, see if you can figure out which of these you are:

The Perpetually Unteachable – Every time that you get a visit from the friendly neighborhood “computer guy”, the first words out of your mouth are, “Computers aren’t my thing, I don’t know what I’m doing” and on top of that, he/she is there fixing the same thing that was fixed the past 10 times.

I’ll Figure This Out Myself and THEN I’ll call – Fairly self-explanatory.  The problem has multiplied 10-fold by the time the call has been made.

Why is My Computer So Slow? – This isn’t a far cry from the “Perpetually Unteachable” as I told you last time that you should get a backup hard-drive, do a Disk Cleanup at least once a month and Defragment the Hard Drive from time to time!  I even put the icons on your desktop.  Ah, that was my mistake!  I also told you to clean up the icons on your desktop.

I didn’t Load THIS Toolbar/Software! – Yes you did.  When you load new software that you actually know about, almost every manufacturer has piggyback marketing partners: other pieces of software that you think you needed to say “yes” to in order for the primary software to run.  Somewhere along the lines, you opted into it when you thought was about the primary software.  Rest assured, they can all be removed just as easily.

Alright, now it’s not fair to have so much fun with the above and not offer a constructive solution (by the way, realize that 2 times out of 10, the solution may not work as it came from me, the computer manufacturer or Microsoft)…hey, at least I can be self-deprecating:

So, for the Perpertually Unteachable, go to the Public Library, and while it may not be your favorite, check out “Windows for Dummies”.  It’s an easy read and will help.

For those that want to Figure it Out and THEN Call, you can do one of 2 things:

  1. Call and step away from the computer.
  2. Go to the Public Library and get some more advanced books on Windows.

Finally, for those of you that have slow computers on any Windows Operating System, you can do the following:

  1. Go to START -> Accessories -> System Tools -> Disk Cleanup and let that run about once every 1-2 months if you use your computer regularly.  You can go longer if you don’t use it that frequently.
  2. After this, you can go to START -> Accessories -> System Tools -> Disk Defragmenter.  Note that this should be done about every 3 months if you are using your computer regularly and more is not always better: Disk Defragmenter in Windows XP and earlier can actually screw things up if run too much.
  3. Finally, see the 16,000 icons in your START MENU TRAY (that’s the tray that comes up when you move your cursor to the bottom of the screen…look all of the way to the right).  These should be cleaned up as most of them you don’t use on a daily basis.  Call your “computer guy” to help get rid of those and your computer will gain some decent performance.

Now it’s time for me to step away from my computer.

When Strangers Break Things


Sometimes, the catalyst for an idea is truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Yesterday, upon returning to my car from an all day conference in downtown Chicago, I noticed something funny about the driver-side window: there was no glare.  As I approached, the broken glass on the ground explained everything.

Am I disturbed, pissed, slighted and wronged?  Sure, they had no right to break into my vehicle, but I knew better than to leave a GPS MOUNTED IN PLAIN SITE on my dashboard.  In fact, I go over this with EVERY tenant that comes into Chicago to stay in one of my buildings.  So, “Do as I say, not as I do” just bit me in the ass.  In a city, there are a million reasons why someone wants to steal electronics (usually money), so it’s my responsibility to not give them a reason to enter my vehicle.  Here, I failed miserably.

Here’s an additional thought about GPS devices in particular: be careful with your “Favorites”.  Once you get within 5-10 miles of your home, is it fair to say that you know where you are?  Good.  One thing I am thankful for is that I didn’t have my home address in the GPS, just my city and state with a very innocuous label (i.e. NOT “Home”).  Now nothing else was compromised in my vehicle (except my prescription sun glasses), but what if they decided to take my garage door opener in addition to my GPS?  Great, now they have unfettered access to my home AND know where I live.  So, it could have been worse.

Lazy.  Don’t be lazy and you won’t have this problem.  I was lazy.  The GPS was old and probably not worth $100.  The window is going to cost me $189.  Nice.